Part 5 of ongoing series. This time Rescue Rangers find themselves up against a hideous villain planning an economically, ecologically and politically destructive act of terrorism…
* 1 *
"We all swim on a big white cruise ship! Big white cruise ship! Big white cruise ship!" Dale sang enthusiastically if one could call it singing. "She chases waves like a flock of fat white sheep! Flock of fat white sheep! Flock of fat white sheep..! Gadget, look! Look, quick! There! There! You've never seen a wave like that!"
"Nonsense! She saw even better than those! And, by the way, get back down here!" Chip reacted nervously. Of course, he cared not about Dale whom he considered one of those capable to wade through any sea but of Gadget in the first place. After that episode with Boeing Gadget has developed extraordinary responsiveness, and Chip thought it was a very good thing, but it was a liability sometimes. Like, for instance, right now, when the tip of Costa Brava's stem was almost fifteen full Human meters above the surface of Tyrrhenian Sea. No place for jokes, that's for sure, especially given Dale's recklessness and Gadget's inclination towards being carried away. If Chip himself stood on the very edge of the board, he would take the mouse's security in his own hands, but Dale managed to occupy the strategic and romantic eminence first, and Chip, with all due respects, didn't trust his friend as much as himself.
"Really, Dale, get down!" Gadget said after some thought. Actually, she didn't mind looking at waves; on the contrary, the wave generation at the ship's bow, especially in bulb's presence, was a true symphony of hydrodynamics. But today she had already allowed Dale to carry her luggage consisting of a single gripsack and indivisible by two, and then met Dale's proposal to have a stroll along the deck with enthusiasm. She had to balance that somehow, for there was no way to tell when Chip would start turning into Vader. Too bad he didn't have any overhead indicator…
"Absolutely, lad! The sea is not a toy!" Monterey joined his friends. His words made Chip, Dale and Gadget purse their lips simultaneously, but for different reasons. Chip remembered the summer episode with the toy ship and his suspicions and felt a fit of pangs of conscience. Dale remembered himself and Gadget standing on that toy ship's stem and felt both nostalgia and disappointment that he couldn't repeat it now, this time on the real ship. Gadget understood what Monterey's phrase could remind the chipmunks of and got scared of their thoughts, words and actions taking some wrong turn. Monterey didn't notice the effect caused by his words and went on. "I'm telling this as the one who spent years living in ship's hold! I saw some really scary things down there! Right, Zipper?"
He turned to the fly sitting on his shoulder, but Zipper didn't have time to express his agreement, for the Aussie narrowed his eyes and looked at something behind him. "Bite me penguin if it isn't… MATTY!" he shouted, his eyes bulging, and Zipper barely had time to grab his collar. Monterey rushed forward as if smelling some 3-year old Parmesan, waving his right hand over his head while using his left hand to hold a cocked hat he wore on this trip instead of his usual flight helm. The hat was a gift from Jolly Roger, the captain of Pi-Rats. When the two teams met again not very long ago Monterey Jack and Zipper surrendered to pleas and performed their 'Long Lost LaFitte with his pet parrot' routine encore, and Roger was so moved he couldn't allow Rangers to leave without unrewarded. Of course, Monterey preferred something more valuable and sparkling then this ancient battered piece of headwear, but it proved useful for small groups of other rodent tourists walking in the shadow of curved bulwark scattered away from the huge pirate running in their direction allowing the Rescue Ranger to quickly catch up with his target – a lemming wearing brown raincoat and dark green Tyrolese hat who was walking purposefully towards ship's stern.
"Matty! Matty! I'm so glad to meet you!" Monterey Jack exclaimed joyfully as he jumped right in front of lemming. The lemming gave a start, stopped abruptly and looked at him perplexedly.
"I ma sorry, are you talking to me?" he asked, showing with his voice, eyes and posture as a whole that he only now understood he was being addressed, that he had no idea why, and that he was in a hurry.
"Of course, Matty! Of course, I'm talking to you! It's me, Monty! Don't you recognize me?" Monterey Jack took his hat off, stretched his hands out and smiled broadly, expecting Matty to remember him exactly that way. It didn't help. Even for Zipper who saw everything in slow motion the lemming's face kept expression of irritated bewilderment, while for Monterey it seemed still as if some plastic mask. Monterey's face also froze for a moment, but then his bright joy rapidly transformed into a confusion of the highest degree.
"I'm sorry… I…" he stuttered, nervously jamming his hat with his paws. "My mistake… Yes, you are not… You aren't Matty, no, you are not…"
"Who's it, Monty? Some old friend of yours?" Chip asked as he, Dale and Gadget ran up to the meeting point.
The Aussie shook his head rapidly. "No, no. It's not him. I made a mistake. My friend is younger, broader in shoulders, has grey fur and he is, erm, a marsh rat! I'm very sorry, mister… Though, no, don't tell me your name, I must have kept you for too long already… Please!" Monterey jumped aside.
"No problem, it happens," lemming said with a polite smile and walked away a bit faster than before obviously wanting to compensate the time he lost.
"You mistook a lemming for a marsh rat?" Chip asked, making no efforts to hide his skepticism.
"Yeah, Monty, what happened to you?" Dale asked. "You've never made mistakes like that!"
"My pot is cooking if that's what you mean!" Monterey answered dryly. He put his hat on and motioned his friends to follow him. "Let's go there, I'll explain everything."
His intrigued friends obeyed and followed him to the designated point behind one of the Human chaise-longues placed along the deck. Light from powerful lamps along the ship's perimeter created contrasting deep shadows in secluded corners which devoured everybody entering them almost without a trace. Chip couldn't help but conclude that Monterey was trying to hide not from unwanted ears but from unwanted eyes in the first place. As if he was afraid that someone would lip-read their words…
"So, what's the big idea?" Dale was hopping impatiently. "Something serious? Or what?"
"Looks like it's serious." Monterey whispered loudly and looked around once again. "Very serious I'd say. Remember my story about my friend Mathias Shelm?"
"I remember." Gadget confirmed. "Although you told nothing about him, just promised to. You only mentioned his name and him being 'secret agent'. Wlachally, it can be considered a story, but as for me, I don't think it is. Sure, a story is a very broad notion, so-"
"Yes, luv, you're right!" Monterey nodded hastily. "Though he is not a secret agent but a secret lemming. That's important. His service uses species names."
Chip raised his eyebrow. "Really? And where does he serve?"
"I have no idea. That is, I don't know this organization's name. I was an out-of-staff member, so to say, and not trusted enough for such information. They can have no name at all, though. This way you have less chance to leave a trail or become an urban legend."
"You were an out-of-staff member of a nameless secret organization?!" Zipper exclaimed.
"And you kept mum?!" Dale grew offended.
"What secret organization shows species of its agents?" Chip asked ironically. "That's just stupid."
"No!" Monterey Jack rejected, insulted. "It's a quality mark! It implies that the agents act so discretely, fast and unstoppably that no one suspects they even exist, not to mention they are never seen for their species to be known. I know, it's hard to believe, but it's true! I'm a witness!"
"And you are still alive? As far as I can understand, you can't keep this level of secrecy without eliminating everyone who knows something."
Monterey nodded. "You're right. But I was on their side and kept my mouth shut."
"Until now." Zipper reminded him with reproach and apprehension at the same time.
Monterey grew gloomy. "Yeah, my fault, really. But I trust you like myself. And truth be told, I didn't expect to meet Matty ever again. We parted a long time ago, and he is much older than me, and you can't live long doing what he does… Still, he's so good I should have foreseen this-"
"Wait, stop, just a second!" Chip was almost bursting up with questions he accumulated. "So this was him after all? Or you made a mistake? Or you just made a show?"
"Made a show. I haven't lost my mind yet, and I worked with Matty for a longer time than I've known you, so I couldn't have confused him with anybody. But he didn't recognize me, so either it wasn't him which simply can't be true, or he made a show too, which means he is here on assignment which I almost ruined. That is, I hope I ruined nothing. Although if I had endangered his mission in any way, he wouldn't have been so calm and polite, and would have applied force. That's comforting."
Dale laughed. "Oh yeah! I just see him applying force to you! You are taller than him and three times as wide! You'd make him knuckle under in no time!"
Monterey didn't even smile. "Yeah, Matty looks like a weakling. It saved him many times. But it's an illusion. If he had wanted, he would have killed me with a single blow, just right there. And nothing would have saved me."
"Cool…" Dale exhaled.
"That's hardly the word." Chip said jealously through his teeth. "I'm afraid to ask what all those cool guys do…"
"Oh, many things! No games, only mega-serious and mega-important stuff…" Chip's facial expression told Monterey Jack he was being saying something wrong. "Well, I don't mean we play child games, but scales are different…"
"How different?" Zipper asked. He was even more curious than other Rangers, for he knew Monterey longer than them but never heard anything like this.
"Well…" The Aussie paused, obviously choosing the least secret episode. "Remember that Pope assassination attempt? The killer aimed at his heart and missed only thanks to Matty biting his leg at the most crucial moment. Consider the scale."
Chip nodded grudgingly. Dale uttered a long whistle. Gadget stopped plucking her lip. "That's why you asked for some Norwegian cheese…" she observed thoughtfully.
Monterey grew agitated. "Norwegian? Really? When? I don't remember…"
"But I do." Gadget often lost track of time and could confuse the order of events, but those two days, June 13th and 14th, she remembered by heart. "You asked me to bring you some Norwegian cheese from the A-Kha concert. This Mathias is Norwegian, isn't he?"
"He is." Monterey nodded, ashamed with his forgetfulness and long tongue. "Okay, I think I told enough already, so let's finish and go back to-"
"No, no, wait!" Gadget interrupted him. "I have a question. About dad. He… Was he involved?"
"He wasn't an agent." Monterey stated confidently.
"And an out-of-staff member?"
"No, I would have known."
"You sure?" Chip inquired. "You said everything is top secret in there."
"Well, it is, but Geegaw would have told me, I'm sure!" Monterey's voice wasn't so assured as his words, though.
"Did you us… asked him to help you? Covertly?" Dale asked, remembering the violin girl from the 15th film about Dirk Suave.
The Aussie dropped his eyes. Gadget gasped. "Golly… So maybe… That's why he… They got him and…"
"No way, luv! We did it just a couple of times, he knew nothing and… He disappeared a year before we met, right? No, it can't be connected! Too much time has passed!"
Dale also tried to comfort the mouse. "Right! We can't be certain it was Monty's fault! There can be a million of reasons!"
His phrase clearly wasn't the best possible choice of words, but it meant nothing for mighty blow shook the ship, accompanied by a deafening crash.
"What the…" Dale screamed, barely holding himself in vertical position. "What the big idea?!"
"It's a shoal!" experienced Monterey howled. "The ship's aground! Stand from under!"
"Don't panic!" Chip ordered adjusting his hat. "It's hard to sink ships of this class! And we are close to the shore!" He pointed at the lights on the mountainous island over the port bulwark. "Let's go to the mess and listen to the announcements!"
When Rescue Rangers entered the enormous hall through hidden holes, the atmosphere was already nervous. The majority of the passengers were up on their feet, with half of them besieging the stewards who were trying hard to radiate calmness and optimism, and another half conveying their words to those who remained at their tables. Panic emotions could be felt filling the air, but hadn't reached critical levels yet owing not as much to the stewards' admonitions as to the calmly working janitors sweeping up fragments of the tableware smashed on impact. They acted like small buoys, beacons of light in the thickening darkness signaling that nothing is lost yet…
And then the lights went out completely only to be substituted with a crimson tones of emergency illumination.
"Generators are flooded." Gadget commented. "And, most likely, engines too. The whole engine room, I'd even say. And so quickly. So much water in such a short time… The hole must be really big!"
Only a handful of passengers were capable of performing similar calculations in their heads, but even ordinary intuition sufficed to understand the situation was really serious. Only one step remained to the full-fledged panic. Those on the bridge must have realized this, too, and an intercom sounded from above:
"Ladies and gentlemen, first mate speaking. I strongly advise you to keep calm. The cause of electrical failure is being repaired. There are no reasons and no causes for panic. Believe nobody but the crew members for they are the only ones knowing the situation in its entirety. Thank you for your attention."
Indeed, address made the uproar quiet down a bit, with some of the passengers strolling about returning to their seats and some of those sitting gathering their things and leaving to their cabins.
"Maybe everything will be alright after all." Zipper expressed his hopes.
"One hundred percent!" Dale agreed with his optimism. "Gadget is psychic, remember? If she didn't have a dream about our cruise, than everything will be alright! Right, Gadget?"
The mouse shrugged reluctantly. "Well, I don't mind at all. It depends where exactly the hole is and what depth is here. If water is filling cargo hold uniformly along the hull, there's a chance that the ship will gradually lie down on the bottom, but not entirely, and there will be no problems with evacuation. But if the ship isn't flooded uniformly, then she'll capsize and lie on her side, which is very-very bad. We must watch carefully. If she starts to list-"
A stack of plates standing on the table in the corner without any apparent reasons fell down on the floor with its top directed towards the port side.
"-then we'll have very little time left." Gadget finished.
"Oh, boy…" Dale gulped nervously.
"Stand from under!" Monterey roared. "We're sinking!"
People could neither hear nor understand him, but they obviously thought the same thing.
"We're sinking… Sinking! Sinking!" voices sounded like an echo growing not quieter but louder from various corners of the mess, and the passengers feeling the floor moving under their feet rushed to the doors, pushing one another and turning the furniture over. The wild screams of stewards trying to control the crowd were only heating the situation up.
"Don't panic!" Chip called out to his friends. "We are the Rescue Rangers! Our task is to organize evacuation! Men will take care about men, but there's no one but us to care about animals! And we must do whatever we can! Gadget, how much time exactly do we have?"
"It's hard to tell. Too little data. But I'd say we have about twenty minutes-"
"No, luv, that's an understatement!" Monterey laughed nervously. "Modern ships can sink for hours!"
"That's pessimistic prediction. Too little data."
"Then let's suppose we have from half an hour to one hour." Chip decided. "But there's much to do, so a second lost is a second too much! Rescue Rangers, away!"
* 2 *
To everybody's great relief Monterey's prediction turned out much more accurate than Gadget's. Soon after hitting the reef Costa Brava lost speed and hove to, dragged by current and wind along the cost of the isle Chip spotted earlier. Underestimation of hull damage and faulty counterflooding measures that followed caused initial listing on ship's damaged port side to change into listing on the opposing side, forcing the crew to abandon evacuation and ask the passengers to move to the starboard. This abrupt change of plans caused another fit of panic, making Chip, who was watching it from the upper deck, really happy that his team had to deal not with three thousand but with just a little more than five hundred potential shipwreck victims. If only they weren't causing only half as many problems…
"You are in charge here? You are, yes? They sent us to you, didn't they? And what should we do now? And what will happen to us? Are you really in charge here? And why?"
"Yes. I'm in charge here." Chip turned to face a fat female snow vole wearing wide brimmed beach hat and large sun glasses not quite appropriate for this time of day, just in time to prevent her from grabbing him by his sleeve. "Everything will be alright. Situation is under control, evacuation will proceed according to schedule. Can you swim?"
"And why do you ask? Is it really important? Will those who can't swim survive? I can't swim, what should I do? I will die, yes?"
"No, ma'am, you won't, I am just curious. Please go there and get you individual rescue equipment." Chip pointed at a group of dozen rodents standing in queue in order to get their life jackets from Dale. The jackets consisted of two cork plates bounded by duct tape. The plates were being cut out of a life preserver by Monterey Jack and Zipper using a saw they 'accidentally' found in Gadget's bag.
"I must go there, yes? They'll give everything, won't they? Heard that, Franchie? We must go there! Look how quickly I found out everything! See, I know how to deal with people!" the vole said, addressing her meek husband standing not far away. Franchie nodded gently and minced after his better half, but, when he was sure she weren't looking, he looked back at Chip and raised his hat praising the chipmunk's top class performance. Chip smiled and shrugged as if saying it was the only way to do things. He could allow himself some complacency now. Just some twenty minutes ago conversations like these proceeded much harder...
The ship's crew members had a great advantage — their official status. In contrast, Rescue Rangers had to literally conquer the animal passengers' attention, for here, in Europe, their team wasn't as widely known as in North America. The friends had to resort to guile. Chip, Dale, Gadget and Monty took four decks each and ran through them gathering all animals they met under the pretext that "everyone else is on the top deck already waiting for you only, but if you don't want to go, you are welcome to stay here writing your last wills!" Having gathered everybody, Rangers synchronized their actions with Zipper playing the role of messenger, and then simultaneously came to the top deck and introduced each other's groups as "those evacuation teams we've told you about", merged them together and conducted general "recurring briefing for all those who just joined us up here". Some attentive and reasonable rodents would have surely suspected a catch if it weren't so hard to stay attentive and reasonable in the situation at hand. That's why in the first few minutes there were no spontaneous protests or agitation, and after that it was too late for them because each passenger got either a specific task or a reason to sit still and wait for command…
"Permission to speak, Herr Chip?"
"Speak, Kez." Chip turned to a lean rat coming from the bow's direction. The rat looked square because of XXL-sized life jacket worn over yellow waterproof coat. Due to lack of time and material life jackets had to be cut out and distributed with passengers' weight and body size in mind. As for Kaseteller whose name Chip shortened to the first syllable for convenience, he was a great swimmer just like any other ship rat respecting himself and his life. But he also was one of those whom Chip gave a specific task, and his jacked mainly served as a distinctive uniform of a voluntary assistant. Because of this, both front and back plates of his jacket sported large scratched out letters VA.
"The guard net is deployed, Herr Chip. Hooks installed and tested, Herr Chip. We are cleared for action, Herr Chip."
"Great job, Kez."
"My pleasure, Herr Chip! Should I report to Master Gadget?"
"Thank you, I'll do it myself. You'd better help with the jackets distribution."
"Yes, Herr Chip!" the rat acknowledged. Rescue Ranger nodded and began walking away, but Kez stopped him. "Permission to express opinion, Herr Chip?"
"Herr Chip, I'm a veteran seafarer, and this is the tenth ship I abandon. Never before, I repeat, never before had I seen such order, such equipment, and such organization. Usually there's chaos during shipwrecks, everybody is on his own, and every time my heart bled. I never imagined I'd see an operation orchestrated so well. It's a new word, a new milestone in our seafaring history, and I'm glad and proud to be its part. You and your friends are great rodents, Herr Chip!"
Chip smiled reservedly. "Thank you, Kez, but let's keep colorful words until we're all safe. For now get back to your task."
"Yes, Herr Chip!" Kaseteller turned at right angle and marched towards the jacket distribution post where working hands were badly needed judging by a hum of displeased voices. Chip glanced at the nearest isle one more time, scratched his chin thoughtfully and went to the group of volunteers building life rafts under Gadget's close supervision. Each raft could carry twenty five conventional average rodents and looked like a rolled up mattress when folded. Chip counted ten completed items and clicked his tongue with disapproval. When he came here previously, there were eight items, and so much time had passed since then…
"Don't worry, we're keeping the schedule." Gadget quickly reassured him. "We switched from building rafts fully one by one to building all of them simultaneously step-by-step. The remaining fifteen will be ready at once. Well, practically. That is, practically at once and not practically ready. Though practically too in a sense that they will be ready for practical use-"
Chip nodded. "I don't doubt it. The net is ready, too. The listing increases. I don't see any rescue ships coming from the isle, although they must have harbor judging by the lights. I don't understand it…"
"Maybe they are coming from the mainland?" The mouse proposed. "There are more of them there, so the chance is greater. And it makes it easier for us not to become spotted."
"I hope there will be someone to spot them." Chip pointed at the floor referring to the Humans. "Do you need any help?"
"Thanks for asking, but we're good at the moment."
"I'll go check on the jacket distribution then. By the way, have you seen that lemming?"
"No, I haven't. You think he was-"
Chip waved his paw. "If he's really as tough as Monty says he is, he'll take care of himself." He went in the direction he sent Kez, reprimanding himself for this harsh answer and for mentioning Shelm in the first place. Why did he spoke of him? As if there are no other problems at hand…
Indeed, problems were in abundance. It took more time to hand out life jackets than Chip thought, and the ship, as ill would have it, was listing ahead of schedule. And they still had to finish the rafts, take them to the side, tie them to the guard net and inflate, divide the passengers into twenty five groups with more o less equal total weight, assign roles, perform some basic exercise…
"I wish they inflated themselves." Dale said wiping sweat off his forehead, his tired hand shaking.
Gadget spread her arms in dismay. "It's impossible. If I had enough foam material, I'd come up with something, though it's really hard to work with without vacuum camera and a press. It took me so long to fill that hot-water bottle with it-"
Chip clapped his hands. "No distractions, guys! Monty, how are you doing?"
"The process is underway." Monterey panted, rhythmically pushing the handle of a make-shift pump made of fire extinguisher pressure relief device. There were lots of fire extinguishers onboard, so Rangers had no problems building twelve pumps to simultaneously inflate half of the evacuation fleet. After all, there was little of fire breaking on Costa Brava in the nearest future or even at all.
"Everything's set, Herr Chip!"
"It's OK!" a volunteer responsible for inflation of the fourth pair of rafts responded. Chip called out eight more names, received eight positive answers, and then looked at the makeshift angle level made of two medicine droppers from the aid station and glued to the deck edge with duct tape. The air bubble slowly but steadily moved towards the bending point. Soon it will be difficult to stand upright, and they still had to move rafts in positions…
"Should I relieve you, commander?"
Chip looked over his shoulder, bewildered, but it turned out the question was addressed to Dale. Raft inflation was a laborious and exhausting process, so all physically developed males participated in it. And now tired Dale nodded and stepped aside, and a stocky guinea pig replaced him, spit on his hands and started pumping vigorously.
"Look, Chip! Helicopters!" Gadget exclaimed, pointing at dots of light approaching from the mainland's direction.
"At last. I started to think they've all fallen asleep there." the chipmunk commented. He glanced at the isle on the port side again. He could still see no rescue ships hurrying towards the damaged cruise ship. Is it really that bad in this part of the world? …No, wait, there are flashlights on the shore, so the ambulances are here at the very least. But how many of them can such a small isle have in its disposal? Its whole population is probably less than Costa Brava's capacity…
"We're done!" Monterey shouted shutting his second raft's valve. One by one other groups also reported they were ready, and Chip ordered to check whether the rafts were securely attached to the guard net's outer side. This way in case of the ship's expected capsizing on the starboard they would be oriented horizontally and ready to swim away after her complete submerging. The Kaseteller's group did everything right, so the results came quickly and were absolutely positive.
"I'd prefer them sleeping," Dale observed sullenly referring to Chip's earlier phrase about helicopters, one of which flew around the ship and was now hovering above the rodents, fumbling about the dimly lit deck with the whitish ray of its searchlight.
"Don't panic!" Chip shouted at the worried passengers, raising his hand in the air. "They are looking for Humans! They won't notice us! We're too little for them!"
Indeed, although the ray swept over the rodents twice, the helicopter pilots showed no interest in them, and the helicopter slowly flew away towards the stern. Chip followed it with his eyes instinctively and noticed that the nearest isle was slowly but steadily moving in the opposite direction. He shook his head. No, it wasn't an optical illusion…
"We're turning, commander!" Kaseteller shouted, noticing the same things. "Hard aport!"
"I see it…"
"So what now?" the fat vole chipmunk knew too well already suddenly appeared near him. "The ship is sailing? It will reach the harbor? There won't be an evacuation? There's no need in it, yes?"
"I wish there weren't." Chip mumbled quietly, comparing the ship's turning speed with that of the air bubble in the level. It looked like the ship would capsize before she would dock. Not to mention that she would need a large deep harbor to do it…
"This is the first mate speaking! Abandon ship! I repeat, abandon ship! That's an order!"
"Better late than never, don't you think?" Dale observed sarcastically addressing no one in particular.
"There could be many reasons." Zipper squeaked. "Maybe they waited for the naval authorities' permission…"
"Rather, for the ship owner's one." experienced Monterey Jack observed cynically.
"But we don't need to wait for anybody's!" Chip proclaimed. "Onto the net!"
The rodents obeyed and climbed up the guard net. Due to their various sizes some cells above the rafts were occupied by one rodent, some by two and some even by three at a time. The 'aboveness' was very relative already, though, and very soon Costa Brava listed so heavily it became apparent that she would never reach the isle's harbor because she was as large as that harbor and also because the harbor was already by her starboard side. It seemed the ship understood that, too, and stop fighting, and the list became physically perceptible, and the screams of Human passengers crowded along the opposite side became so loud the rodents could clearly hear them. Then they heard loud splashes which meant that many people decided not to wait for the lifeboats to be deployed and jumped into the water on their own. For a moment everything was relatively quiet, but then the screams sounded again three times louder than before, this time accompanied not by splashed but by the tramp of the crowd of those who tried to save themselves in the ship's interior. Then there was a sound of seawater gushing over the board, and the shaking ship began to listing even faster, and then the rodents felt a shock which almost threw them off the net, and time stopped so abruptly as if someone pulled some Universal emergency brake.
"What's the big idea now?!" Dale screamed, and his authority as the Rescue Ranger's deputy head would have been hopelessly lost if the absolute majority of those around him didn't feel the same.
"Either there is another sunken ship below us, which isn't very probable, or it's so shallow we hit the bottom." Gadget answered.
"Hit the bottom? We won't sink now? Everything's alright now?" the fat vole and her husband were assigned to the raft number 20, the distance couldn't keep her voice from being heard.
"Of course it is!" Chip shouted back, although he had a bad feeling about it. There was a great distance between the rafts and the water surface, and he saw no safe ways to get there. There was no way to get to the other side of the ship facing the island, not to mention that it was closely observed by the helicopter pilots, whose line of sight right now was blocked by a spherical satellite communications antenna, and who were about to be joined by the crews of rescue ships rushing towards the shipwreck site. There was no point in sitting still either… "Zipper, go check how far down the water is."
Zipper returned in two minutes. "Not very far, a couple of Human heights at most."
Chip turned to Gadget. "Will fully loaded rafts survive the fall from this height? But please, don't use the word 'should'."
Gadget was about to use this very word and stuttered in confusion. "Well, erm, I think they will. As you know, their bottom has surplus width which will provide good shock absorption."
Chip nodded. "Thanks, that's what I wanted to hear."
Indeed, from above the rafts looked like hovercrafts with wide inflated skirts protruding far beyond hard-walled passenger capsules. Gadget insisted that this design increased buoyancy significantly and would allow the rafts to stay afloat even on the water sparse with the air coming out the submerged ship. Monterey's wary words about whirlpools appearing when large ships sink Gadget called baseless delusions, and his references to his personal experience — exaggerations evoked by fear and poor knowledge of physics. Chip supported Gadget, but was very glad they wouldn't have to find out who was right in practice. But there was something else he had to find out… "Will they survive sliding down the hull?"
"They should." Gadget answered confidently.
Chip clenched his teeth and screwed up his eyes. "I asked you not to-"
"You didn't. You asked the first time, but this time you didn't. By the way, what's so scary about this word?"
"Well, let's put it this way-"
"Don't!" Dale interrupted. "Less words, more action! You!" he pointed at the chipmunk-passenger of approximately his own size occupying the last cell in the fifth row off the raft number two. "We're switching places! Everyone else — down to the raft! I'll drive!"
"Isn't it dangerous?" a male squirrel sitting close to the raft asked warily, looking jealously at the 'lucky' chipmunk climbing away quickly and happily.
"Not in the slightest!" Dale answered, taking position on the raft's bow. "Did anybody here raft down mountain rivers? No? Did anybody here go sledging? Of course you did, everybody sledges! It will be the same, only with water instead of snow! The real aqua park! And free to boot! So, what are you waiting for? Night predatory birds?"
Chip covered his face with his paw. 'What a fool… Here goes panic…' Indeed, Dale's words moved all the passengers, and soon all rafts were crowded, and their tiedown lines stretched out dangerously, but both them and their fasteners passed the test with flying colors.
Dale wasn't embarrassed at all. "Now we are cooking! Those on the sides, grab the oars! See the road?" He pointed at the narrow flat protrusion formed by the walls between the cabins' balconies, which crossed all the ship's decks. "That's our way! Right side pushes, left side brakes! Helmsman, unhook us! Unhook us, I said! …Oh, there are two of you there? Then the left one unhooks! Ready? Steady! Go!"
The designated helmsman untied the rope with his shaking paw, and the raft started sliding down, accelerating rapidly. Those sitting along the starboard grabbed the plastic coffee sticks which served as oars and began to push off with them as if with barge poles. The life jackets restrained their movements, the raft was responding poorly, and Dale was forced to reassign two more oarsmen from the port side. It turned out a bit too much of a help, for the raft almost overshoot the protrusion. The emergency braking caused it to rotate clockwise, and by the time it disappeared from view it was sliding backwards.
"Zipper! Check up on them!" Chip was so scared he didn't care about maintaining leader's calm.
Zipper was worried, too, and he flew there and back again even faster than the previous time. "They are all alive and well. Scooped some water up, lost two oars. Dale says it was cool and he would like to repeat it."
Chip rolled his eyes. "Somehow I'm not surprised…" But still it was good and reassuring news, and he made a mouthpiece with his paws. "They did it! No casualties! Everything's all right!" he shouted to passengers.
The public reaction was mixed. At least some of the passengers clearly wished the first group to perish or at least get injured to have a reason not to follow their example. It made Chip sick, but he couldn't choose whom to rescue.
He pointed with his fingers at the protrusions below the guard net. "We have four slopes total. Rafts number one to six slide down the first one, seven to twelve – the second one, thirteen to eighteen – the third one, nineteen to twenty five — the fourth one. Only one raft slides down at a time! As soon as you are in the water, row away as far as you could so the that next raft wouldn't hit you! Raft three, go! Raft seven, get ready!"
In time with his curt commands the rafts slid down one by one, accompanied by terrified screams of lay rodents and excited cries of few but loud fans of extreme sports. Surprisingly enough, there were no accidents, and all the vessels reached their destination. In the end only raft number one remained on the net which carried Rescue Rangers among other rodents. Being the leaders, they ought to be among the last to leave the wrecked ship. As soon as Zipper reported that raft number twenty five landed down safely, everybody looked at Chip expectantly.
Chip looked at Gadget. "I need to check something." he said.
"We've discussed it, lad." Monterey Jack reminded.
"We did." Chip acknowledged. Indeed, they broke a couple of lances over searching for Shelm. Monterey was confident that Matty would take care of himself and that they didn't want to run into him in nasty moment. Chip kept saying they had to save every single passenger whether he or she wanted it or not. "There's nothing to discuss now. I must try to find him. He could be injured and needing our help."
"We've searched the whole ship!"
"We didn't search the bridge. I'll be quick. But if I don't be back in-"
"No 'if I don't be back's!" Gadget interrupted him angrily. "We're going with you!"
"It's not needed."
"It's not a cakewalk, lad!" Monterey supported the mouse. "Everything's topsy-turvy in there! And you are no fish or bird!"
"I'll take ropes." Chip pointed at the free lines hanging from the net. "I'll get wherever I need with them. And you stay here. Someone should drive the raft."
"Let me fly to the bridge!" Zipper offered. "If need be, I'll come back for help!"
"The help can be needed urgently." Chip objected.
"Then go together!" Gadget stated. "And stop wincing! I won't let you go there alone!"
Chip bit his lip. He felt Gadget wouldn't back down. "Okay, we'll go together. Zipper will inform you from periodically. If we are not back in half an hour, go without us. The safety of passengers is paramount."
Gadget and Monterey nodded their agreement. Chip motioned Zipper to follow him and started climbing the net towards the lines.
"How long will we sit here?" the chipmunk who exchanged places with Dale asked, clearly irritated and regretting his previous choice.
"Nobody stops you, the water is that way," Monterey indicated the direction with his head's movement. The chipmunk sulked but became silent, which was good enough.
Chip and Zipper had much more problems. Having got inside the ship through the nearest suite's balcony, they found a passage to the bow through the main port corridor blocked by a fire wall lowered for some reason, and the main starboard corridor half flooded. The water surface was thickly covered with numerous free magazines along with various stuff washed out of cabins and service rooms. Some pile of garbage closely resembled dead bodies, but Chip kept telling himself that too little time has passed for someone to die without help. His calculations were indirectly confirmed by calls for help in various languages that could be heard from the interior of ship's not flooded part. Unfortunately, the chipmunk couldn't respond to them and hoped the Human rescuers wouldn't forget anyone. After all, Humans have complete detailed lists of passengers' and crew members' names. The most important thing is the wish to help, and everything else will follow…
"It's harder than I thought." He gasped, getting from the handrails running along the corridor onto the banisters of the stairway to the bridge. "How long have we been here?"
Zipper looked at his watch. "Twenty eight minutes."
"Fly to the raft, tell them we're almost there."
"Okay. But don't go anywhere."
"If I'm not here, look for me up there." Chipmunk pointed upwards.
"Don't take unnecessary risks." Zipper gave him a friendly but firm advice and flew away.
Chip hemmed. Who does Zipper think Chip is? He isn't Dale who can rush headlong into the abyss. His risks are always calculated, justified and sanctified by some greater noble cause. And right now he's here not because of whim, but by the call of his heart, for you must save everybody in spite of their shortcomings, and this Shelm isn't worse than that fat quarrelsome vole. On the contrary, if Monty's telling the truth, he's much more useful for the world… Professional jealousy, you say? Well, no field of activity can exist without spirit of competitiveness. Competition is the source of progress, after all…
Chip's train of thought was interrupted with some sound. It was something between a scream, a moan, a knock, a step, an unknown something. Or maybe it even wasn't there at all. It didn't matter. Somehow Chip knew he must hurry, and he galloped along the banisters. It was good that Zipper wasn't there. If this Shelm didn't call for help, then he must have been ashamed of his weakness, and Chip would quickly calm him down by telling him everything would remain between the two of them…
The bridge met the Ranger with a grave silence. Semidarkness and inclination made the rows of low and turned off ship control consoles look like cold walls of labyrinth filled with mysteries and dangers. The starboard one third of the room was filled with water, and ripples on the surface of it made gleams of emergency lamp light dance on the walls, and the room seemed illuminated with a crimson north light. It didn't light up but hid the details though, and only a ray of searchlight from the helicopter routinely flying by sweeping along the windows allowed Chip to notice some movement by the edge of screen on the console in the center of the room.
"I am the Rescue Ranger Chip!" Chipmunk shouted as loud as he could. "We're conducting evacuation! Do you need help?"
"Anybody here?" Chip shouted again and, without waiting for response, jumped onto the nearest console to the door and threw his lasso on the long switch handle on the next console in row. Having crossed the gap by this makeshift rope bridge, he jumped on the display, sped up and jumped to where he saw a movement. Using embedded keyboards as ladders, he got to the console's edge and looked under it.
Nobody and nothing.
'I was just seeing things,' Chip concluded. He was about to climb back up, but then he heard a quiet but distinct squeak. He looked around the bridge carefully and deduced that the only possible source of that sound was one of the rotary chairs screwed to the floor. Aiming carefully, Chip jumped to the nearest of those, carefully crawled up to the edge and looked under the seat. He noticed tips of small rodent's legs, who, judging by their movement's direction, was climbing on the seat behind him, but as Chip attempted to get up and turn around, something heavy collided with the back of his head, so he rolled forward in the air and, his limbs spread out awkwardly, fell flat on his back into inhospitably cold water.
* 3 *
"Good morning, passengers. This is the pre-boarding announcement for Alitalia flight 0620 to San-Angeles. We are now inviting those passengers with small children, and any passengers requiring special assistance, to begin boarding at this time. Please have your boarding pass and identification ready. Regular boarding will begin in approximately ten minutes time. Thank you."
Monterey got up and stretched until his joints cracked. "That's our flight, at last. I can't remember when the last time I wanted to get home so much was."
Dale nodded his agreement. "Yeah, this vacation could have been much better! At least it wasn't me this time who was foolish enough to get hit in the head."
"If you keep it going, you'll be both foolish enough and hit in the head," Chip promised gloomily. He looked not threateningly but comically though because of his hat pulled down to his eyebrows so as not to touch a bump on the back of his head crisscrossed with plaster. Taking into account everything that happened, he had a really lucky escape. He was lucky to fell on his back, to wear the jacket that kept him afloat, and that the water kept him warm enough for Zipper to notice him. Under even slightly different circumstances Chip would have surely died, for even after all the treatment he got he regained consciousness only aboard the ferry transporting to the mainland the first group of rescued Humans and all but several rodents who decided to stay on the island. There were no lemmings among them… "Alright, let's go. Too bad we didn't find that Shelm. I hope he's alright. If it wasn't him who hit me, of course-"
Chip was so surprised he jumped as high as his own height, turning in midair to face a lemming wearing brown raincoat and dark green Tyrolese hat who seemed to materialize from thin air behind him.
"It wasn't him," the lemming repeated just in case, seeing what effect his sudden appearance made. "That is, not me." He extended his hand. "Let me introduce myself — Mathias Shelm."
"Erhm… Nice to meet you!" Chip shook his paw which turned out unexpectedly soft. "So it was you on Costa Brava. What are you doing here?"
"And how about introducing us?" Dale wedged himself between them. "Hi! I'm Dale! Forgive my friend, he isn't always like that, that's because he got hit in his head and almost drowned, but it will pass! Let me introduce you to everyone! This is Gadget! This is Zipper! And this is Monty, Monterey Jack! Though you should know Monty, he told us about you! Are you really a spy? No, don't tell, it's top secret info, right? Too bad we must catch a flight, I have so many questions! Or maybe you're flying with us? Yeah, let's fly together! You'll tell us everything, and we'll show you our city! Agreed?"
Shelm controlled his emotions better than Chip, and it was impossible to read his thoughts about Dale's mental capacity from his facial expression. There were no signs of irritation in his voice either. "Thanks for the offer, Mister Dale, but I must confess I know your names and know much about your team's activities. I also know you're returning home, and your flight is boarding now. That's why I'm here. I want to ask you to stay and help me finish a very complicated case."
Rescue Rangers exchanged glances in surprise. Then Monty spoke being the Shelm's old friend. "You ask us to help you with your next mission? I heard right, Matty? I got it right?"
"Yes, Rock, you got everything right. Of course, I'll tell you all the details only when we leave airport and come to the safe place. And, of course, only if you agree; in other case I'll turn around and leave, and you won't hear from me ever again. I'm done, your turn to speak."
"Rock?" Zipper asked glancing sideways at Monterey Jack.
"Rock, then," the strongmouse repeated. "If you use covert names, then it's really very serious. Rescue Rangers are coming with you, Eric!"
"Now when you said, it's too late to say 'no' indeed."
Shelm spoke very good-humoredly, but Monterey understood he said what he shouldn't have said again, froze and lost his speech for some time, allowing Chip to step forward again. "Of course, I understand the necessity to take some precautions, but could be so kind as to give at least the slightest hint what this case is about while we still have time to catch our plane?"
"You shouldn't speak so ornately when your face shows everything you think." Shelm answered calmly. "But your question is justified, so I'll answer it. The case is closely connected with the shipwreck which wasn't accidental but rather artificial. Do you wish to help me deal with those responsible?"
Chip was needled but vigilant. "It seems you know who's responsible already."
"I do, but I'll provide all details only if you agree and not here."
"Why are you so sure the shipwreck wasn't accidental?"
"First, this particular ship with this particular captain sailed this particular route fifty two times a year. Second, there was a reason I was aboard, and I saw something. Third, even if we carry on this quiz show, you won't get much from me, but your plane will leave, and then I suspect you'll agree to help me, but that will be different case because your help is more efficient when you work voluntarily and not because you had no other choice. So I ask you again: will you help me? Yes or no?"
Chip looked at his friends, waited for each one of them to nod and only then answered. "Yes."
"And I was afraid you'll start voting." Shelm commented with a smile. "Keep close."
Rescue Rangers obeyed. As they walked through the airport, Chip studied the signs and quickly deduced they were heading to the railway station which was part of the airport complex and connected the air gate of the capital of Italy with its central station. The train heading there left right in front of them, and Shelm who tried to keep the tight schedule was disappointed. "Here we go. Two extra questions — and we lose half an hour." He observed when the group hid beneath a bench at the far end of the platform.
"How about whiling away the time with some quiz show?" Chip offered, emphasizing the words the lemming had previously used with distinctly scornful inflection.
"Well, it's silly to go on losing time," Shelm agreed without any hesitation as if he predicted the question. "Do you know anything about Jeanne the Dark?"
Chip looked at his friends inquiringly. They shook their heads.
"I thought so," Shelm went on without waiting for Chip's phrase. "Basically, that's the reason why I came to you. If you don't know her, she probably doesn't know you either, and in this case secrecy is paramount. The less information there is about you, the longer you'll live. Sounds trite, I know, but that doesn't make it less true. Jeanne the Dark is a very powerful adversary. She is truly the new Madame Wong. I hope this name rings some bells?"
"Sure!" Dale exclaimed. "Even Dirk Suave fought against her!"
"But she was a Human!" Chip hurried to add more adequate comment.
"If you mean Madame Wong, then yes. If you mean Jeanne the Dark — no." Shelm said confidently, but instantly added. "At least, I will be very surprised if she turns out Human."
"So you don't know who she is?" Monterey raised his eyebrows.
"Nobody knows. At least, nobody I asked. And you know, I know how to ask."
Monterey nodded. Zipper shrugged involuntarily. Chip bit his lip in irritation. He saw much and considered himself capable of seeing through assumed toughness. But Shelm's one wasn't assumed. Or he played so well Chip couldn't detect falsity. That made him uncomfortable.
"So it was this Jeanne the Dark who sank Costa Brava?" Gadget asked. "But how? And why?"
Shelm smiled kindly. "Good questions, miss. The means: her agent infiltrated the bridge and tinkered with the navigation system making ship come much closer to the shore than she should have and hit the reef. Motive: to steal the main chip of the ship's automatic identification system to use in the upcoming large scale crime. Don't ask me what it is about — that's exactly what we need to find out."
"So her agent hit me?" Chip asked.
"By process of elimination I suppose it was him."
"You were there?"
"You want know if I witnessed him attacking you, and if I did, why I didn't helped you? I wasn't there. If it was him who attacked you, it happened before I found him."
"Where is he now? Can we interrogate him?"
"Only if you are a medium."
"You- killed him?" Dale asked with a faint voice.
"He decided to fight fiercely," Shelm explained.
"That was foolish of him." Monterey commented in a low voice.
"And what happened to the chip?" Gadget asked. "That is, not with ours, but with that main one, identification…"
"It stayed there, on the ship. But it probably won't stay there for long, so we need to be the first to get to it. I see you want to ask me why I didn't take it. Answer: I'm not skillful enough to take it out undamaged. Why I didn't wait for the enemy agent to take it out? Because I'm getting old, and he noticed me before that. That's why I need you. We'll take the chip out and use it as bait, then we'll follow a chain of agents and contractors till the very end, that is, till Jeanne the Dark. That's basically it."
For the fourth time during his speech Chip closed his mouth without uttering a word. Shelm answered all his questions exactly in order they arose. It was frightening. And disheartening.
'No, it can't be. He couldn't make it on the fly, intuitively, impromptu. No, there's something wrong. He rehearsed this conversation. Several times, on his own, impersonating us. There's no other explanation. There must be a reason for it-'
"Yeah, lad, Matty can do it!" Monterey said with a broad smile. "When we first met, I took him for a wizard or a crook, too. But he can really do it, I swear with my hat!"
Chip thought that if Monterey could read his thoughts than he had problems and must have pulled himself together. It took some time, and Gadget spoke first. "To work on the ship we'll need scuba gear, alpinist and electric equipment, and also transport. We have everything in our HQ, so if we hurry-"
"There's no time to travel back and forth." Shelm interrupted her commandingly. "We must proceed with operation tonight, for in daytime there's too many people there, and we can't wait for the salvage operation to end because we're not the only ones hunting for the device. Did I mention the schedule would be tight? If I didn't, I mention it now."
"But we have everything we have in our HQ! Equipment, plane-"
"What plane? Twin-engine, with your emblems everywhere? We can't use it."
"Because you are working undercover. This means no emblems, no uniforms and no war cries. You must not just drop you usual image, but assume the other one and wear it like your second skin. You must believe that you are those you are pretending you are, or you won't hold for even a minute during interrogation, and then you are finished."
Dale gulped. "They will… interrogate us?"
"If you gape about, they certainly will. No ifs, though. You'll definitely gape about, that's for sure."
"Easy, Matty." Monterey pleaded. "Be lenient. We aren't intelligence agents-"
"Will you ask Jeanne the Dark to be lenient, too? It won't help, mark my word. So either you listen to me, or you are dead."
"And what if we shrug it off and board the plane?" Chip asked with defiance, his arms crossed. "What will you do? Kill us all?"
"Don't provoke him, Chip!" Monterey exclaimed. "He doesn't like it! Matty, please-"
"Stop it, Rock, I'm not as bad as you think." Lemming answered coldly. "You want to leave? Have a nice flight." He turned around on his heels and looked along the rails where a train to Rome would appear.
"Lots of luck!" Chip wished through his teeth and headed towards the gallery to the airport terminal. Other Rescue Rangers slowly followed him.
"I'm sorry about that, Matty," Monterey Jack mumbled.
"Don't." Shelm answered without turning his head. "Besides, they fished out four dead bodies near Costa Brava already, and about fifty more people are considered missing. And they haven't started to search the ship yet."
"Okay, darn it, you won!" Chip roared turning around and walking back. "We're staying!"
"Don't know if I should accept your generous offer." Shelm observed thoughtfully, still looking down the railway. "What if you won't like something else and decide to leave in the most crucial moment?"
"We won't until the dead start coming back to life."
"This is an acceptable condition." Shelm said, changing neither his pose nor direction of sight.
The Rescue Rangers returned under the bench. There was a tense silence, which impatient Dale broke. "Mister Shelm, are you really working for a top secret nameless organization? Can you tell us anything not so secret about it? Please!"
Shelm looked at him sideways with his left eye. Monterey nervously gritted his teeth. Dale kept smiling and blinking.
"Well, why not." Shelm sleeked his whiskers. "I don't know all the details of my organization's creation. I know it was founded by the last Alain Pinkerton's Scotch terrier who outlived his master and decided to carry his noble deeds on. Until the early XX century everything was more or less infantile, but after that it was like hurricane. Progressivism, World War I, the Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, Cold War… Basically, that's it."
"Wow!" Dale gasped. "It was you? You did all of this?"
Shelm threw back his head and laughed so loudly that a couple of Human passengers passing by looked around in search of the strange sound's source. Monterey Jack followed his friend's example and laughed too, and then Zipper, Gadget and Chip set their emotions free. Dale felt lost and looked at them in bewilderment.
"Thank you, young munk, I haven't laughed like that for a long time." Shelm said when he calmed down. "I don't know how you survived till your age, but if you did, then someone must have needed it, and our chances are increasing… Oh, here's the train! If you have any other questions, you'd better ask them now while I'm gentle and we are still here."
"And what's then?" Zipper asked.
"Then the mission will begin, and I'll talk business only."
"All right." Chip decided to find something out. "Why didn't you like Monty to call you by your codename Eric, but you don't mind when you are called by your real name?"
The lemming nodded. "Good question. It proves you are attentive, but not too imaginative. Who said Mathias Shelm was my real name?"
Chip froze as if thunderstruck, and Dale didn't waste an opportunity for a biting joke which went unpunished owing to deafening tooting of the shunting locomotive slowly rolling into the station.
* 4 *
Compared to yesterday the water level on the bridge rose significantly. Costa Brava wasn't stable, she even moved a couple of times forcing Humans to interrupt the salvage operation. By the time Rescue Rangers arrived it had resumed already, but the bridge was obviously the last place the Humans were interested in, which wasn't strange given 'spicy' details of the ship's captain's and senior officers' behavior during the crash slowly becoming available to the public. That's why a submarine made of 5 liter plastic water bottle entered the bridge through a shattered window completely unnoticed.
"Device is up there, Zack." Shelm said having climbed out the roof hatch and pointing at the radio room door in the topmost and most distant corner of the bridge. Emergency lights had been turned off, but the light of the searchlights of towboats and rescue vessels tightly surrounding the cruise ship was quite enough. Adjacent rooms weren't illuminated very well, though, and Zipper, who, like all the Rangers, received his codename for the operation duration beginning with the same letter as his real name, took a searchlight with him.
"It would have been closer from the air," Gloria, nee Gadget, observed with displeasure. She liked to fly much more than to swim.
"And much less covert. Now look at this," Shelm pointed at floating garbage surrounding the boat which looked its natural part. "Camouflage in the open in its purest. Come on, why so slow?"
"I'm coming, Matty, I'm coming," Muzzy, also known as Monterey Jack, gasped out, climbing up carrying three sets of mountaineering gear and two NiCad batteries. "Jeez, I thought it would be easier. A cracked bell can never sound well…"
"You should eat less."
"I should, Matty, I should…" Monterey climbed over the edge of the hatch and exhaled loudly. "Oh… Here." He handed the lemming a hank of climbing rope with suction boots and head light tied to it. "Be my guest."
"I surely will." Shelm weighed the rope on his hand, looked around critically and shouted at chipmunks staying below. "Charlie, Dobbie, stay there for a while, we'll swim under that console, it would make it easier."
Chip and Dale turned the electric engine back on, and the submarine propelled by a screw inserted in the bottle's neck moved to the designated point, slightly hitting the floor turned the wall after the engine had been already stopped. Shelm was holding a grapnel rope at the ready, and threw it so that its hooks caught an edge of the embedded keyboard. Then he hung on the rope to check if it would hold him, and started to put his suction boots on. Monterey mirrored his actions, the only difference being his rope hit the target on the third attempt. Shelm shook his head disapprovingly.
Zipper returned. "Radio room's empty." He reported.
"Is the device in place?" Lemming quickly asked.
"Any signs of opening?"
"Not bad." Shelm waited until the entire team gathered on the boat's roof. "Muzzy, stay here with one of the chipmunks to guard the boat. Gloria, Zack and the other chipmunk go with me."
"I'll go with you!" Chip and Dale shouted synchronously, stepping forward and raising their right hands in the air. Shelm played rock-paper-scissors with himself. His right hand won.
"Charlie, you'll go." He announced. "You'll carry batteries."
"How about best three of five?" Dale offered. Shelm looked at him with almost a parental scorn, and Dale drooped. Chip made a mental note to ask the lemming to teach him this very useful trick.
Ropes and suction boots turned the ascent into an almost pleasant walk, and Chip had time to carefully examine each and every rotary table they were passing. Not that he really expected to find the guy who hit him in the head yesterday, especially as Shelm said he had dealt with him, but still, according to Shelm himself, there's entire crime syndicate out there, so-
'And what if there was no other rodent?'
Chip looked at lemming walking ahead of him. The size certainly matched, and, if Monty said the truth, he was strong enough, plus he definitely was onboard-
'No, no, it can't be! Monty says Shelm is a good guy, and he wouldn't lie to us-'
'But he hasn't seen him for many years, who knows what could have become of Shelm during the time. What if he joined the dark side? What if we're making all the dirty work for him just like-'
"Fell asleep, Charlie? Don't."
Chip started and saw he missed the moment when Shelm and Gadget turned towards the radio room. The distance between its door and the top of the console the rodents reached was almost twice as long as the gaps they had left behind and Gadget had to use her crossbow. It was a replica of the one they left in the USA but owing to the use of more modern materials it was both lighter and more powerful. Two accurate shots, and the rodents had a rope bridge with a single handrail. Zipper checked the suction cups to attach tightly and gave his friends green light. Soon the group reached the radio room's door, entered it along the wall with their suction shoes back on and headed towards the mounting rack containing the ship's AIS transponder.
"Indeed, safe and sound," Mathias confirmed Zipper's verdict finishing the inspection. "Let's open it."
Gadget took the tools backpack off and hung it over her head, putting its straps into the fastening hole in the rack's shelf, then took out her head light. Chip looked around thoughtfully.
"Where's the body?" he asked Shelm.
The special agent shrugged. "How could I know? He fell into the water. Maybe fish ate him."
"You fought on the doorpost?"
"Among other places. It was one heck of a fight."
Shelm's answers didn't satisfy Chip. "Strange. Why there's no trace of fighting here?"
Lemming smiled. "What did you expect to see? I didn't fight a bear, you know."
"And whom did you fight?"
"Some kind of mouse. I didn't ask him about his species."
"But you've followed him for a long time!"
"I did. But still I didn't ask him. I bet you don't know species of all your enemies, either."
"But we do!" Chip proudly put his hand on his hip. "Don't even doubt it!"
"What species Ruprecht Mauser was of?"
"Bubbles. That's his real name. Didn't you know it?"
Rescue Ranger's jaw dropped. Not only did Shelm know of the case of the Cola Cult, he knew the details even Rangers didn't know. Of course it could be explained and justified with how quickly Bubbles and his gang were defeated, but still it was an alarming signal.
"So what species was he of?" Shelm asked again.
"A mouse… Big… Very…"
"Like I said." Lemming summarized and turned away to watch Gadget and Zipper working. They have already almost finished unscrewing the transponder's case. Chip reviewed several possible answers, realized he didn't want to continue this conversation at all, and went to help his friends. Together they pushed the case cover down on the floor, or, more precisely, on the room's port wall, and Gadget turned to Shelm.
"That one. Square, with the hologram."
"Almost in the board's very center…" Gadget looked up, lost in thought. "Yeah, that's probably the only way… Zip- I mean, Zack, put two ropes crosswise so that they cross above the chip, that is, not above Charlie, but above the one on the board. Chip, that is, Charlie, and not the one on the board, put the backpack on one of the ropes, close to the center, and be ready to hand me the soldering drier. I'll set up everything…"
When her workplace was completed, Gadget climbed onto the rope, put the thermal drier handed by Chip over her shoulder, for it was like a Human grenade launcher for her, and connected it to the battery's clamps. Catching hold of the crossing ropes with her tail, she dangled down over the designated multi-pin planar microchip, turned the drier on and started moving its funnel in circles, blowing hot air on the chip's pins. After about three dozens of circles solder flowed from under the chip. Gadget turned the drier off and hung it on the rope next to her, then shot at the chip with a small suction gun she took off her belt and lifted it above the board to let it cool down. Then she crawled to the device's edge, holding the rope with one hand.
"Turn it up and wipe out." She told Chip who was waiting for her there. "Don't let the solder dry up, or we'll have to heat it up again. You have some rags?"
"I'll find some."
"Anything else while I'm still here?" Gadget asked Shelm.
"No, Gloria, thank you, everything's perfect. You have a gift. Pack it up, we must be leaving."
It didn't take long to pack the things up, and soon the group was going back the same way they came. Shelm told Zipper to fly to the sub and tell they were on their way and walked ahead, the chip fastened to his back. Gadget was second, her crossbow ready. Chip watched their backs. There were no unnatural sounds, no strange shadows violated the interplay of gleams on walls and ceiling, but by the time they reached the rope bridge Chip was absolutely sure they were being watched.
"Gloria, sunny, may I borrow your crossbow?" Shelm asked turning to Gadget and extending his hand. "I want to make the second handrail."
"I'll do it in a jiff!" Gadget raised the crossbow to her shoulder. "Just tell me where to aim."
"It's a long story. Give it to me. It'll be faster this way."
'He's clearly up to something…' Chip concluded. He took a couple of side steps so that Gadget wouldn't be on his line of fire and clutched his suction gun tightly. Not the deadliest of weapons, but if it hits the face, Shelm will be disoriented, and then-
Chip hasn't finished his thought when Shelm who had already taken the crossbow and come close to the console's edge turned around to face him and Gadget and fired. Not at them, though, but at the wall above them. The suction cup made a champing sound as it hit something soft. Mathias dropped the crossbow and yanked the rope, and something fell to his feet. It was a small lizard, just a bit larger than the Rescue Rangers, wearing baggy yellow overalls. It threshed its tail, waved its hands and shook his suction cup covered head, but Shelm quickly sat on its shoulders and performed a painful right hand hold, and the resistance seized instantly.
"Golly!" Gadget exclaimed.
"No, sunny, just a gecko." Shelm explained. "All right, I know eleven leaf-toers whose skills are valued highly among those dangerous to cross, and only three of them can have reasons to be here tonight: Foglia, Gridjore and Tarantolino. Who are you?"
"Gridjore…" the gecko twanged, for his eyes and nose were covered with the suction cup.
"Nice to meet you, Gridjore. Are Sporchizzio and Coda here too?"
Gridjore shook his head violently and pattered something unclear with strong accent, then wailed as Shelm bent one of his fingers at an unnatural even for gecko angle.
"Don't lie, you're like three heads of one body. I'll ask again: are they here?"
The gecko moaned, then nodded.
"Will you take us to them?"
Another patter. Shelm repeated the drill. Moan, then nod.
"Perfect. Lie still or it will hurt. Charlie, help me." Shelm threw a rope's end to Chip, and they tied gecko's hands tightly behind his back. Just as they finished, Zipper joined them, accompanied by Dale loping on four suction boots at once, which improved everything but his speed. "Oh, friends, you're right on time! Take the chip and lead our beautiful Gloria to the boat, while me and Charlie will go and chat with this ruffian's buddies."
'What's his plan?' Chip pondered, holding the rope tying the gecko's wrists as Shelm was ripping the suction cup off. 'Lead us into an ambush one by one? Set local mafia on us? He knows them quite well, judging by his manners. Maybe he is even its member. Or a leader. How else can you explain that he knows all local bandits by their names…'
Elementary. He is a special agent who spent years studying the European underworld and gathered large dossiers on every large gang. His manners are natural and vital for the operative who must pose for the criminal as he infiltrates the web of crimes. At first Blotson took Sureluck Jones for the criminal, too, but he turned out the detective in the end…
Nice explanation. But there was a problem. Shelm weren't just beating about the bush. He was actively insincere. Chip felt it with every strand of his fur. Which meant he could be anyone but Rescue Rangers' friend. And they had to treat him accordingly…
When gecko regained his sight, Shelm gave the arrow and the crossbow back to Gadget, solemnly handed the microchip over to Dale, took the second reign and ordered the prisoner to move on. Gridjore, swearing quietly but very colorfully, led the rodents to the stairway. He had his own, natural suction cups, so he regularly broke too far ahead forcing Shelm and Chip to pull him back.
"How did you come to the bridge?" Chip asked when they reached the already familiar corridor. It was flooded almost completely now, and the three had to walk almost upside down.
"Somehow. It happened. I heard the strange noise and came to look what's happening."
"From where? From there?" Chip waved his hand into the darkness. "No way! You couldn't have heard us even from here! Now spill it out or I'll crack you open! I always wanted to find out whether geckos can breathe underwater or not. Know what I mean?"
Dark-grey lizard turned ashen pale.
"I… No, please! We can't! I can't! I was… I was… I wanted…"
"To pocket something secretly from the rest of the team." Shelm finished and half-smiled. "You shouldn't have — Coda doesn't like it very much. Okay, ichthyosaurus, stop shaking. We won't tell anyone. But only if you take us by the shortest route, without any loops. Know what I mean?"
"I do, I'm no fool." The gecko nodded, calmed down a bit and marched forward with doubled energy. Shelm, clearly pleased with Chip's words and behavior, glanced at him with admiration, but Chip just curtly nodded in return. He couldn't get rid of thought that Shelm didn't guess the gecko's motives but prompted him with a plausible excuse…
Turning into the port corridor, the trio left the darkness impenetrable without searchlight and entered the realm of acid-green light radiated by numerous chemical light sticks on the floor. Apparently, Human rescuers marked the rooms they visited already this way, for there was no one here. No one but five small animals wearing the same overalls as Gridjore; namely the rat kingpin whose arrogance exceeded his size, a lean sinewy mouse-bodyguard, and three guinea pigs-minions doing all the dirty work. Right now the two of them were standing on plugging chisels rammed in the wall and were unscrewing the bolts holding together frame and stretcher of a colored Japanese print, while the third was keeping the safety mat rolled out beneath it on the floor from moving anywhere.
"Here we are!" Gridjore shouted to warn his buddies. All five turned in his direction and froze, assessing the situation.
The rat being the boss was the first to speak. "Hey, pronto, what's this outrage about? Who are you and who let you touch my caro amico?"
"Hello, Sporchizzio," Shelm greeted him without even the slightest sign of politeness. "This amico of yours accidentally saw something he shouldn't have, and my first thought was to feed fish his pieces but I thought you could become angry so I came here to ask you permission for this."
Gecko shrank and shriveled. Bodyguard-mouse named Coda tensed up. The rat smiled broadly. "You know who I am and still speak to me like that. You're either a scemo or really self-confident or both. What's your name, hero?"
"It doesn't matter, call me Luigi. Why all this fuss about art? I heard you deal with stones."
"The stones will wait, but this beauty is about to rot. Know what this is, Luigi? Hokusai."
Chip gasped with exasperation. "Hokusai's prints?! It's the world's cultural heritage! You can't steal them!"
All those present looked at him as if he was rabid and laughed in chorus. Shelm seemed to laugh the loudest of them all.
"Great joke, bambino, I never had such a great laugh!" Sporchizzio exclaimed. "You are either a God's fool or a sly thief wanting to steal these riches himself. And since I'm a sly thief myself, I don't like other sly thieves very much…"
"He isn't sly." Shelm said merrily. "Believe it or not, he really thinks the art must belong to the people!"
Another burst of laugh followed. Chip knew he mistook Shelm's intention and almost ruined some plan, so he endured his troubles stoically. Still he couldn't help but jerked the rope so fiercely that Gridjore's humiliating croaking turned into deep cough.
"Alright, Sporchie, enough of laughs." Shelm announced as he wiped his lips and cleared his throat. "Let's talk business. My dear Charlie blurts out all kind of things sometimes, but he catches the crux right. You didn't come here just for the love of art. Your specialty is diamonds, not drawings, you won't tell a difference between cubism and impressionism, but you came here for Japanese prints. No, you didn't come here on your own. It was an order. Who ordered these? Lupecio? Korvino?"
Sporchizzio smiled disdainfully, his posture showing he didn't want to comment this insulting rubbish.
"Aquiliano? Uzinotti? Barbonchetti?" Shelm kept on guessing. Now Sporchezzio and his gang looked at him with interest, slowly transforming into respect. Apparently, they seldom met someone capable of naming so many capos of Italian animal mafia by heart. Shelm named five more names in ascending order, but the rat kept shaking his head. Then lemming felt silent for a few long seconds demonstrating he was close to give it up, but then he clicked his fingers. "Well, if not them, than it must be Terafozza herself, there's no one else left! Am I right?" he asked with a broad smile.
Guinea pigs shook. Gridjore's jaw dropped. Coda's eyes narrowed.
Sporchizzio licked his dried lips. "You know Terafozza?" he asked almost gushingly.
"Saw her once."
"You're lying." Coda said quietly but fiercely, like hitting with lash.
"You'd like that, but I don't. I saw her like I'm seeing you now. It was long time ago, but the impression is still with me. One of her legs is still shorter than the rest, or maybe it grew out after molting?"
The rat gulped nervously and looked behind him for no particular reason. "I don't know, I didn't notice…"
"Then either they didn't let you behind the door or you kept staring at the floor. This is entirely pardonable, though. Not everyone can withstand her gaze."
"That's right…" Sporchizzio agreed hoarsely. "Well, you proved you must be taken seriously. You can let my amico go, you don't need hostage anymore."
Shelm looked genuinely surprised. "Who said he was hostage? He was just a reason to start a conversation. Untie him, Charlie."
Chip didn't like what was going on, but he untied the gecko who ran to his friends, rubbing his numb hands and shouting. "There's the whole team there! They emptied the radio room! Took something valuable!"
"Shut up." Sporchizzio ordered, and then asked curiously. "What valuable did you find there? Scratched the gold off the boards, didn't you?"
Shelm sniffed scornfully. "That's the previous century and barbarianism. No, we stole something much more valuable — the registered chip of the ship's automatic identification system. It allows you to pretend your ship is any other. Surely you know what it means."
"I do." The rat nodded, but it was clear she had only vague idea about it. "But I don't understand why are you telling me all this? Care to explain?"
Chip wanted to ask the same question, so he looked at his companion intently. Shelm had a ready tongue.
"I'll explain, of course, why the heck not. See, I want to offer Terafozza to be a mediator between me and those interested in my goods. Of course she'll need reliable proofs. You'll be them. Your words, I mean. You saw me and Charlie on this ship, and your scaly amico saw us in the radio room with the microchip. Terafozza will believe you and spread my advertisement over her immense web, the buyers will queue up, bargain, raise the price… Well, I'm sure you get it, you weren't born on Monday, after all."
A couple ritual phrases later the conversation ended. Shelm said hearty goodbyes as if parting with dear friends, motioned Chip to follow him and headed towards the bridge. Chipmunk followed, but kept walking slightly behind him, constantly looking back to check if somebody tailed them. When they reached the stairway to the bridge and Chip was sure they weren't followed, he overtook the lemming in three wide steps and looked into his face.
"Care to explain what this all means? Who's Terafozza? How did you meet her and how well do you know her?"
"Terafozza is the local Morbid Arty. She's a giant female tarantula, more than capable of eating rodents. She knows me but has no idea who I really am. Her participation guarantees the information will quickly reach the ears we need and will be treated seriously. Any other questions?"
"Why can't we go straight to those who hired the thief you killed? You must know who it is or you wouldn't have said he was connected to Jeanne the Dark."
"Because it's always better to set everything up so that the people in question came to you themselves. This way they'll have fewer reasons to suspect foul play. I thought it's obvious."
Chip kept pressing. "So tonight you just got lucky?"
Shelm smiled. "You could say that, although I spent much time working hard to take advantage of this situation. If I hadn't known all those whose names I mentioned, the result would have been very different."
"If you are as tough as you try hard to seem, why all these villains are still alive?"
"Can't you guess yourself?"
"I have a couple of versions. I want to hear yours."
"What yours are?"
"You won't like them."
"In other words, the version that it's easier for me to deal with those whose weak points I know didn't occur to you."
Chip pursed his lips. "I dismissed it as too good to be true."
"Nice approach." Shelm acknowledged. "But don't overuse it." He looked at the bridge doors ahead, stopped and bent his head to the side. "Anything else while we're alone?"
'Well, the far-seeing one, you asked for it.' Chip thought. 'Forsee this!'
"Don't call Gadget 'sunny'." He said aloud.
"Gloria." Mathias corrected softly.
"Don't call Gloria 'sunny'."
"Or it will be worse."
Chip started walking without an answer, but stopped after two steps.
"Don't call her like that." He repeated. "Just don't. That's it."
Shelm shrugged. "I'll try. Although, heavens know, she more than deserves it. By the way, why don't you call her like that?"
"None of your business." Chip uttered and turned around showing the conversation was over.
* 5 *
Green bulb flickered several times, then flared up with steady bright light. A disheveled mouse wearing good but crumpled suit, a kind of cross between Sparky and Harold Bucksup III, turned the handle, and the AIS registration chip raised up from the testing device's socket, making it possible to take it out.
"The chip is fully functional." The tester told two physically developed rats accompanying him. One of them took the chip with both hands, the other took a silky bag off his back and put down on the floor in front of Dale wearing long black robe making him look like a fantasy wizard. The chipmunk took a jeweler eyepiece out of his broad pocket, carefully put it on his right eye, took one of round one-carat diamonds out of the bag, and began examining it, holding it in extended hand and pretending he knew something about it.
"Nice stone," he finally said with a broad smile, put the diamond down on the floor and took the next out of the bag, this time examining it even longer. Everybody was silent, but the tension could be easily felt in the air. It was a very important, even crucial moment…
"Could have been better," Dale said fretfully and clicked his tongue a couple of times. The rats tensed up visibly, Monterey Jack standing behind the 'jeweler' tucked, too. The tester started wiping his glasses nervously. Shelm was ostensibly calm.
"All right, it will do," Dale made allowance and took out the third stone. The rat holding the chip clearly wanted to say something but decided against it. They didn't wrote the rules of making trades and weren't the ones to change them. Still, when Dale finished with the final, seventh stone, and said 'Okay!', everybody felt relieved.
"Pleasure doing business with you, seigniors," Shelm said smiling and touching a brim of his Tyrolese hat with his finger. "Rudy, take the stones. Dobby, don't forget to take the eyepiece off, or you'll wear it until sundown as you often do."
The joke drove the clouds away completely and the trios parted friends and in good moods. They went in opposite directions from the center of one of the rooms under the Coliseum arena where the exchange was taking place. As soon as Monterey who was walking last turned around the corner, Shelm took a radiomicrophone from under his hat, put it on his ear and knocked at it three times with his finger.
"Gloria, sunny, do you read me? What's the situation?"
"Zack is back. He couldn't plant himself, the bottom is sprayed with Raid. He says it's good he wore the gas mask, or he would have died there."
"I told you they would be ready for all kinds of bugs. So, Charlie Wan Kenobi, you're our only hope!"
"Acknowledged," Chip answered coldly. He was irritated by Shelm's completely untimed humor. On the other hand, he was relieved by Gadget's earlier words that she didn't pay attention to Shelm's compliments, and Shelm was much older than her after all, and besides he and Dale were the dearest rodents for her. As a result the chipmunk's mental state could be described as balanced. There were some problems with his physical balance, though, caused by a 3G-camera fastened to his head and powered by the battery in his backpack. Gadget used similar approach when working with the smoldering drier, but she didn't need to run, jump and clutch at smooth surfaces while trying to stay undetected…
"They are out, I see them," Gadget's voice sounded in his ear.
"I see them, too. I got them." Chip informed and moved forward carefully, holding his head vertically to allow Gadget see the buyers while keeping the camera close to the walls of the giant even by Human standards amphitheater. "How's picture?"
"Great. I'm going in then."
Chip climbed on the wall's edge and grabbed a pulley roller put on the rope drawn in advance between the third floor of Coliseum and a lamp post on the bus station which the buyers passed on the way here. Chip deduced they'd pass it again on their way back, and when he saw they did, he jumped and rolled down and arrived on the post before a black-red monster truck, disguised as a radio controlled toy with a sham antenna, drove off the sidewalk. Covered by the lamp post, Chip jumped down on the ground, waited until there were two pairs of pedestrians' legs between him and the truck, crossed the sidewalk and jumped on the rear bumper of the already moving bus.
"Keep them in sight." Shelm's voice sounded from the mike.
"Aye aye," Chip uttered. In order to meet Shelm's needs he would have to hang upside down and lower the camera under the bus. Or jump across a license plate gap and lean out from the other side. He did the latter.
"Thank you, much better." Shelm complimented. "Just don't shake your head, my stomach isn't as strong as it was."
Chip's first intention was to shake his head like there was no tomorrow, but he restrained himself. First, taking into account where he was standing, there could be no tomorrow for him indeed. Second, it would be an utter childishness, unacceptable in such important case.
And it was important, indeed. The Costa Brava's AIS chip sale announcement started to spread along the Terafozza's network on Monday morning, and by the noon they got three interested responses. Unfortunately, dialogue through mediators didn't allow Rescue Rangers to know buyers' names or countries of origin. The number of responses grew and their contents varied greatly, but Shelm rejected or dismissed all of them, and only on Wednesday he determined that the new message came from their target by generosity of the offer and urgency of tone. Rescue Rangers, already tired of idleness, spent preparing the meeting point, and today, on Friday, Chip was sitting on the bus' bumper watching closely the monster truck carrying the microchip away…
"You know the city better than me," he said addressing Shelm. "Any ideas where they may be heading?"
"Right now they are driving towards the river. Be vigilant at the Circus Maximus, you may need to switch transport."
"I'm vigilant." Chip answered. Basically, it wasn't that hard to keep vigilance. Monster truck drove calmly, his speed matching that of the car flow, and difference in sizes between it and other cars guaranteed its driver would abstain from any risky maneuvers. Chip pondered why Shelm thought he would need to switch transport, but then the bus slowed significantly and moved closer to the sidewalk, and Chip saw a bus stop sign ahead and knew it was time not to think but to jump.
"Not the pizza delivery man!" Shelm shouted, but Chip had already thrown his whip on the guard arc running along the side of the passing scooter, and in an instant he flew up in the air to land on the wildly bouncing mudflap.
"Where are you going?! Wrong way! Jump off, now!" Lemming shouted furiously. Chip had already realized his mistake, too, but it was much harder to correct it than to make it.
The scoter driver either was late to deliver the order or was just crazy and drove right through almost without using his brakes, which allowed him to leave the monster truck far behind. Its passengers couldn't notice Chip at such speed, but it was cold comfort for the distance was increasing rapidly, and even blinking traffic lights didn't make the scooter stop. Fortunately, it couldn't fly or swim, so it was literally forced to slow down by the jam before the bridge over Tiber. Chip used this opportunity to jump down on the sidewalk and hide under a nearby trashcan from where he could safely watch the road. Monster truck was nowhere to be seen, and chipmunk sweated with fear of it taking a turn somewhere but soon the small car in question appeared. Rescue Ranger wiped the sweat off, reported he was resuming the shadowing, let the target pass him by and jumped on the bumper of an economy car which was small enough to move freely in the tight traffic but not too powerful to leave the monster truck far behind.
"Please abstain from unauthorized activity from now on." Shelm said didactically.
Chip had no wish to argue. "Okay. By the way, when are you going to join me? I'll leave the hearing range soon."
"No need. Let them make a circle."
"Why will they make a circle?"
"You think they'll take you to their base by hand?"
Chip had some ideas about monster truck's battery capacity so he was skeptical about is driver running in circles through the city to drop off a hypothetical tail. But then the monster truck switched lanes with a clear intentions to turn towards another bridge and return to the left bank of Tiber it just left, and Chip changed his opinion. And his plan, too, for the economy car wasn't driving there. Fortunately, there was another one driving in exactly the direction he needed.
"Keep them in sight." Shelm demanded. Chip barely had time to land and grab the next bumper, and he almost fell to the ground. 'He's a real maniac.' he thought, gritting his teeth. 'Or he's playing for another team. And I don't know what's worse…'
Whoever Mathias Shelm was, his prediction came true, and on the very next crossroad monster truck turned left, to Coliseum. It neither sped up nor made any sharp maneuvers — nothing looking like an attempt to throw off the detected tail. Standard prophylactic driving in circles. Will they make a turn at Circus Maximus like the previous time, or will they head in another direction, to the Baths of Caracalla? There must be a reason why they offered to meet there at first. It was a very good place indeed. It was easy there to melt with the crowd, hide, change vehicle…
"Where are they, Charlie?" Shelm reminded about himself.
"By the sidewalk, under the truck, waiting for the green light."
"I don't see them."
"If I get down they'll see me."
"Get down without letting them to."
"No need. Green light. Here they are. Resuming pursuit." Chip pattered out his report and swore with his lips only. Patience is key. If Shelm was a petty tyrant, he could be slapped down by patience only, and if he was a double agent, it was again the only way… Alright, that will wait. First things first…
Contrary to Chip's calculations, the monster truck's battery showed no signs of running out. Chipmunk even suspected it carried a dynamo machine rotated by one of the engineer rat's bodyguards. Nothing else could explain how it reached the St. Peter's Square, then drove along the quay to the Stadio Olympico, and then drove deep into the Prati district. Mathias, knowing Rome like his four fingers, named every street they visited, and Chip's head started swelling with the names. Not to mention his legs were aching after numerous jumps from car to car. Still, this pursuit strategy chosen by Shelm was the only possible one despite its seeming absurdity under current conditions. It would be hard to spot the toy truck amidst the traffic from the air; another truck would have been spotted long ago, and a tracking device would have been found at the Coliseum by that electrician who went around the truck carrying some small box in his paws. But the criminals clearly weren't imaginative enough to spot a chipmunk with camera on his head…
"They turned into courtyard! I'm following!" Chip informed when monster truck drove off the street and headed towards a stone ark between two houses.
"What's the address?" Shelm asked. Chip threw back his head to catch a sign on a house wall on camera. "Got it. We're five blocks away; we'll come in from the parallel street. Don't lose them."
"Never!" the chipmunk promised. He got down on his for and rushed to the ark, moving slightly to the side in order not to get caught in the rear mirror. Carefully looking from around the corner where the truck disappeared, Chip saw the vehicle stopping by a shabby wall of a visually uninhabited four-storied building and its driver getting out-
"Darn, who's this?" Chip whispered watching a light brown rodent with large bulging pitch black eyes. Nobody else got out of the truck, and since he wasn't in Coliseum, then he was either picked up along the way or-
"-they exited, and he took their place…" the chipmunk whispered aloud.
"We've been tricked." Shelm stated dryly. "Go back to the street and walk right till the crossroad, we'll pick up you there."
"He may know something." Chip objected.
"He's a mercenary from the side and knows nothing useful. Leave while he hasn't seen you."
"We must follow him."
"There's no reason to. Leave!"
"Listen to Matty, lad, he knows his business," Monterey's voice was heard.
"I know mine, too!" Chip answered angrily and slightly louder than needed. The rodent tinkering with the truck perked up his small round years and looked at Chip's direction. The chipmunk took a step back. Usually it was enough to hide, but today he wore the camera on his head which he didn't took into account. The stranger saw it and ran to the house's half-opened door.
"He saw you. Now catch him." Shelm informed him coldly and cut off the connection, uttering a rude word quietly but distinctly which Chip naturally interpreted as describing him. That's why he rushed forward with a bull's rage and a strong intention to score off against lemming by proving he was either mistaken or outward lying about the substitution driver's unimportance.
There was a shabby spiral staircase beyond the door reaching straight to the roof. The criminal was running along the handrail in that direction. He was a story and a half ahead of Chip already.
"Hey! Stop!" Chip shouted for the record only. He jumped onto the handrail and ran after his target. The varnish covering the handrails had withered long ago, so running felt almost like climbing a tree trunk aside from need to jump over rifts in place of the wood planks which had rotten and fallen off already. The other planks were also weak, and the stranger's leaps didn't reinforce them. A few times seemingly reliable planks started moving under the chipmunk's legs forcing him to jump without thinking which led to two bruises and a loss of his radio microphone, which was nuisance compared with plummeting headfirst from a few Human stories' height.
And then the handrail ended and Chip jumped into a narrow corridor ending with a door to the roof and several dirty steps with fresh rodent footprints on them. Jumping over three steps in a row, Rescue Ranger reached the door holding on a single hinge, squeezed between it and a doorpost, got a powerful push in his back and would certainly spread-eagled over rough ruberoid. But his camera set against the roof and Chip rolled forward, sprang up on his legs and turned around to face the enemy.
"You are finished, greenfly!" the stranger shouted. His manner of consonant pronunciation indicated he came from Far East, and wide skin membranes clearly visible with his hands extended to the sides were a telltale signs of a flying squirrel. Chip had never fought those before, so he decided it would be more reasonable not to attack openly but to assume a defensive position and catch his opponent with sudden counterattacks. But he didn't take into account that the membranes didn't restrain the squirrel's movements but hid them instead, and let the first two punches aimed at his chest and belly through. Chip parried the third punch aimed at his face and tried to counterattack, but it turned out the membranes provided great defense, for even a careless wave of the squirrel's hand was enough to send Chip's fist wide off target. It took Chip very little time to realize all that and make the right conclusions, but it was enough for the flying squirrel to kick the chipmunk into his open groin. Chip screamed and bent sown in pain, hitting the squirrel's forehead hard with his camera. For a moment both opponents became unable to fight and made a couple of steps back, watching one another with outright hatred.
"Where are your friends?" Chip asked through his teeth clenched in pain.
"Not your business, greenfly!" the Asian answered proudly. The camera's lens broke and cut a bridge of his nose, and a thin blood trickle was dripping from it now. Chip pondered whether he should take the now useless device off, but concluded that since it helped him once it would be of use again, plus it provided at least some head cover. The battery backpack, on the other hand, wasn't needed at all…
The flying squirrel turned his head to the sides till pleasant cracks and started waving his hands while sidestepping in half-circle around the chipmunk. Chip didn't want to turn his back to the only exit from the roof, so he moved in the same direction trying to abstain from the squirrel's flickering paws and watch his shoulders instead the movement of which during the punch couldn't be confused with any distraction. But his opponent was prepared for this so he didn't hit. Instead he waited for Chip to blink and then jumped at him, his sharp-clawed paws aimed at his neck. Chip didn't hit but rather waved off instinctively with his fist hitting the squirrel's tooth, and the attack turned out not very effective, although the squirrel managed to push Chip down on the ground. The Rescue Ranger caught the opponent's weight on his bent legs and threw him over. The squirrel ran into camera with his head and landed not on his feet but on the base of his tail, and couldn't get up fast. When the Asian saw Chip was already back on his legs, he tried to trip him with his tail, but Chip managed to stay upright and, moreover, remembered about his whip. He tore it off his belt and swung it in the direction of squirrel's head. He didn't have time to aim carefully, and the whip hit the squirrel's face slightly below his left eye, leaving visible but shallow furrow in his fur and hurting not skin but pride for the most part.
"Alright, greenfly, you're finished!" the Asian screamed. Rolling over his back, he pushed himself off the roof with his fists to assume vertical position even before the roll was finished. Chip tried to hit again, this time another cheek, with backhand swing, but the squirrel raised his hands, and whip helplessly collided with his membrane becoming the squirrel's easy trophy. Chip was sure he would never win the fight without his whip, and he didn't let it go when the Asian jerked it, and kept holding it even when the Asian got him on his extended leg, turned him around, pushed down on his knees and twined the whip around his neck.
"You're finished, greenfly!" the flying squirrel whispered. He obviously held some grudge against greenflies. On the other hand, flying squirrels live on trees where greenflies can be found in abundance, so who knows…
'No! Fight! Brace yourself!' Chip's inner voice kept shouting at him, but brain oxygen deprivation could be felt already, and even though he managed to put two of his fingers under the whip, they didn't help much to ease the hold of this makeshift but effective strangling cord. Black circles danced in chipmunk's eyes, slowly but steadily growing in size, his breath changed into a constrained wheeze, there was deafening but otherworldly, lifeless noise in his ears. 'That's it.' Chip thought. 'I lost. I ruined the case. I didn't live up to my friends' expectations. I failed Gadget. Darn, I wouldn't even be able to apologize before her, and I will die unforgiven…'
This thought made him do his last hopeless jerk which ended, it seemed, with his falling directly into the nether world, but his flight ended too quickly, and the netherworld turned out strangely cool, dusty and rough. Only when Chip rolled over on his back he realized he could breathe and there was November sky above him and ruberoid below him and there were no signs of the flying squirrel strangling him. He rose on his elbow and looked around with out-of-focused gaze, and he saw something light brown running towards the flat parapet. Then someone grabbed him by his shoulders, and he fought zealously, but then familiar deep voice called him by his name and told him everything was alright, and he knew it was Monterey Jack. Chip rose on his seemingly leaden feet and tried to run and would have fallen face down on the roof if Monterey hadn't caught him, and Chip saw Dale running to intercept the flying squirrel, but the Asian was at the parapet already and Chip knew they would lose him. He dashed there on all his four for steadiness and as if in slow motion watched the flying squirrel spread his ankles and resembling a flat square kite and jump down and fly, and now not only Dale but even Zipper couldn't catch him. In the feat of impotent rage Chip tore the 3G-camera off his head and through it after the squirrel and, of course, missed. Still, when the squirrel was three floors above the ground, something thin and long incoming from below collided with his head, and he folded up like an aerostat pierced through, and fell vertically down on the ground, where Shelm was already meeting him, reloading his crossbow on the run.
"Saw that? What a shot! I wish I could do that!" Dale uttered having problems with his breath caused by amazement.
"I dunno if I could have hit him!" Gadget agreed. Only now Chip registered her presence, which was explainable given that all his attention was focused on the downed criminal who was very important for him. The squirrel's head collided with the ground, making Gadget gasp, and Chip thought it was the end. But then the squirrel moved, clearly trying to either stand up or roll over to his chest, and it was clear he wasn't done yet.
"Follow me! Quickly!" Chip shouted as he dashed to the door while untying the whip still hanging from his neck. The Rangers ran as fast as they could, but when they got there they saw the flying squirrel showed no life signs anymore.
"He… died?" Chip asked looking at glassy eyes on the Asian's head twisted at angle incompatible with life. "Darn, how would we-"
"He knew nothing." Shelm told him. "Thank you, Zack." He said to Zipper who flew up at him holding suction cup arrowhead. Shelm took it and attached it back to the arrow he used.
"But he was alive! I saw him moving!" Dale exclaimed with mournful confusion entirely shared by Chip.
"You saw him falling?" Chip asked Zipper.
The fly shrugged, perplexed. "No, I was flying around the building. When I got here, he was already dead."
"Forget about him, he was useless." Shelm said. He took the crossbow with both hands and handed it to Gadget ceremonially, like a knight's sword. "Great weapon, Gloria! Real pleasure to use."
"Thanks…" Gadget whispered, her eyes fixed on the corpse.
"Why are you so sure he was useless?" Chip asked grimly.
"I asked him a couple of questions. He didn't know the answers. And I know how to ask, you know."
"So he was alive after the fall, after all?" Chip looked at the squirrel's broken neck again. No, they don't live with injury like that, it was absolutely, totally impossible. "You- you finished him?!"
"I told you, he was useless." Shelm repeated calmly.
"But…" the chipmunk gushed with the emotions filling him. Not that this bandit was dear o him, after all, he almost killed him, but Chip desperately needed him alive. He couldn't tell the real reason for this of course, and had to keep playing. "But he was injured! He wasn't dangerous! We should have turned him in!"
"Where? To the zoo?"
"Why to the zoo? To the private veterinary clinic!"
"Controlled by the mafia?"
"Not controlled by the mafia!"
"They all are. No matter where we would have taken him, he would have found himself among other healing mobsters, and he would have told them everything in great detail, providing detailed descriptions of you and, most importantly, me. And all our cover, our entire operation would have failed. Are you ready to give up your life for some ordinary bandit who wouldn't even thank you? I am definitely not."
"And what about him?" Gadget said.
"Nothing, of course. He'll stay here posing as a victim of an accident caused by overestimating his abilities. And don't look at me like that." Shelm added meeting Chip's glance. "I ordered you to stop following him, you didn't listen, and here's the result. I just executed the sentence you passed. Alright, this conversation's over, we'll carry a debrief in the safe house. Oh, and don't forget to pick up the camera, batteries and radio microphone, we can't leave any traces here."
Shelm finished, turned around on his heels and went towards a green buggy parked under the bushes at the ark. Chip spat and looked at his friends. He liked Monterey's facial expression the least.
"What do you think, Monty?"
"Muzzy." The Aussie corrected him.
"Don't care if it's Mayflower! Why you kept mum? He's your friend, influence him as a Ranger would! What side are you on, huh?"
"On good's side- Don't interrupt me! Let me finish!" Monterey's voice and gesture were so authoritative that Chip choke up a stinging remark he was about to make. "Yes, for Matty there are only ends and means. Ends don't live long. Means often live even less. But he's a good guy! And he's right now! Sorry, but that's true."
Chip pressed his fists to his pulsing temples. He didn't like what he heard, for it was logical and grounded. He should have been the voice of reason stopping emotional and steamed up Monterey. But it turned out the other way around. Looks like he played his role just too well. Could Shelm have predicted it and arranged it this way? He could. He said he knew their teams history well, which means he knew their weak spots, too, and now he played them out. He must be stopped. But he must be caught red-handed first. He killed the flying squirrel witness. He won this round. Alright, next time he, Chip, will be faster…
"You wait for someone else to come whom we'll have to eliminate? I thought you were against unnecessary victims." The lemming shouted at them over his shoulder.
"He's right, Chip." Dale said. "We got to go."
"Charlie." Chip corrected him. "Yes, we got to go. Zack, do me a favor, fly to the roof and drop my backpack here. Muzzy, Dobby, gather the camera pieces. Gloria, do you mind helping me to find microphone?"
* 6 *
"That's where it happened." Shelm said stopping the Chip's camera recording downloaded from the live webcasts service where it was broadcasted in the first place. Chip thought it was risky, but Shelm told him that his organization had been practicing it for a long time, that it saved time and efforts needed to build their own infrastructure, and that the broadcasts are available to those having direct links only. This way it wouldn't show in the general list of active channels, and even if some Human dug it up he would think he found just another pet video. Chip was skeptical about it, but Gadget said it was great and they would definitely make something like that, probably in the form of system allowing controlling the situation in their HQ remotely from almost any part of the world. And after watching the recording Chip was convinced that it was very graphic and effective way to learn your mistakes and improve. He just wished he weren't the one to do it…
"Could it be before that?" Monterey supposed. "There, before the bridge, when Charlie overtook them?"
The lemming shook his head. "No way. Only if they switched on the move, but they would have never done it given the value of their cargo and all those moving cars around. I told you to keep them in sight! I told you, didn't I?"
Chip nodded gloomily. "You did."
"Good to know that at least you acknowledge the objective reality. If only you were slightly more disciplined, and the result would have been completely different. But as of now…" Shelm made a meaningful smacking sound with his lips. "Well, well. You've got a reputation of reckless guys, but I think 'desperate' is more correct. At least, I know you for less than a week, but I start to feel despair already…"
Dale couldn't stand it. "Cut it, huh! Stop treating us like baby mice! We don't deserve this!"
"You came to us, not we to you." Zipper reminded.
Shelm nodded. "That's true. But I could have made a mistake, fallen a prey to advertisements, gossips, legends of your competence-"
Gadget grew offended. "What's wrong with our competence? We've been fighting Fat Cat, Capone, Professor Nimnul, Siamese Twins and other villains for so long I can't even remember every one of them!"
"Are they dead?"
"All those you mentioned. Fat Cat, Capone, Nimnul…"
"Golly, of course they aren't!"
"And you call this competence?"
"You see, Matty, we use different methods." Monterey Jack joined the conversation. "They aren't better or worse. Just different."
Shelm shook his head sadly. "Oh, Rock, Rock… You aren't the one I knew. You got out of hand completely."
The Aussie flustered visibly, but then Dale came to the rescue. "We save lives, not take them away! That's our credo!" he said proudly.
"You won't save many this way."
"We'll save enough! We saved five hundred on Costa Brava! And we saved thousands in Ice-Dome and on that Boeing!"
Shelm grew interested. "Boeing? The one with the engine almost fallen off? You patched it up?"
"Who else could that be?"
"For some reason I thought so. No, really. But why did you mention Ice-Dome?"
"Because! The Stanley Cup finals were there! And Gadget had a dream! She predicted the Boeing would fall right there! But we repaired it and it didn't! And the Rangers won!"
Shelm twitched his whiskers thoughtfully. "A dream, you say? Hm… If I heard this story from someone else, I'd think it was a smoke screen to cover your sources in the airline which told you about that plane's poor condition. But know, when I came to know you better, I see you're telling the truth. It must have been one heck of the mission. How long did you prepare for it?"
"Very long," Gadget said, shaking involuntarily.
"Well, I wouldn't say that." Monterey objected. "Ten hours, I think. We started as soon as we had breakfast. The lass had a dream on that very night, and the dream on Saturday the 13th is not a joke! So we got down to it."
"Nice." Shelm commented reservedly. "My congratulations. But you must agree you just got lucky. If it hadn't been for the dream, you wouldn't have prevented the catastrophe. The sources in the airlines are much more reliable. If you don't have any, I strongly advise you to get them as soon as you can."
"We'll do it." Chip said after a long period of keeping silent. "By the way, Mister Shelm, since we mentioned it, could you please settle a dispute between me and Gloria? She says we must have repaired the plane, and I say that we should have made a diversion for the flight to be cancelled. For instance we could throw a ping-pong ball sized stone into a working engine with the help of a small catapult. It would be reliable and took us much less efforts. What would have you done?"
Shelm smiled. "Good question, Charlie. I like such questions. Inquisitive mind is required to move forward. I think I know what answer you're expecting from me, so I warn you — you'll be disappointed. I would have chosen repair."
Gadget was already prepared for the worst, so she beamed up. Chip froze with half-open mouth.
"I see I guessed correctly." Shelm went on, still smiling. "And I see I need to give explanations. The point is, quick and obvious solutions aren't always optimal in the long run. Let's say you made a diversion, damaged the engine, and the flight was cancelled. What's then? Nothing special: the engine is quickly replaced and the plane is back in business soon. Who would examine the pylon or other engines? I doubt anyone would. As a result, the crash isn't prevented but rather postponed indefinitely. But if the plane reaches its destination on an ark and a prayer or whatever you used, then the very first general examination will discover the problem prompting investigation, tests… And then we've got the whole Boeing fleet improved and much more reliable than before. So in this case those extra efforts were more than needed. Did I answer your question?"
"Completely!" Gadget exclaimed. 'That explains it…' she thought. 'That's what the plan was. That's why I couldn't warn Spinelli…' Chip, on the other hand, just nodded silently. It was surreal. He expected Shelm to like his radical attitude, to trust him more and thus make Chip's task of exposing him easier. But Shelm seemed to read his thoughts and took Gadget's side. He probably shouldn't have said whose variant is which. He should have simply said that there are two opinions in their team and asked which one was better…
'But what if there's no reason for all this combinations? What if Shelm has no second or third false bottoms? What if this is just paranoia like after that concert…?'
'But how can you explain all this? He helped the gecko with his answer, killed the flying squirrel, provokes the conflicts between us… No, something's definitely going on here…'
"…Well, I think everybody learned from mistakes they made," Shelm finished his brief summary speech. "Stay here, don't go anywhere, I'll be back soon."
"Where are you going?" Chip asked standing up quickly.
"I'm off to find out our buyers' names. We failed to trace them directly, now we'll have to solve the puzzle piece by piece."
"Take us with you! We'll help you!"
"I can't. I go to the place you don't have access to."
"And where are you going exactly?"
"I told you, I'm to find out our buyers' names." Shelm repeated patiently showing they won't get a different answer from him.
"You can't do it from here?" Dale pointed at the computer over his shoulder.
"Some kind of information can be accessed only personally and locally. That's one of those."
"And it's stored in the Vatican Library!" Chip exclaimed.
"What makes you think so?" the lemming inquired.
"I see. And I presume your train of thought was like this: where there's information, there's also a library, and secret information means secret information, and since we're in Rome it must be the Vatican Library. Am I right?"
"More or less," Chip said evasively, thought his eyes showed Shelm hit the bull's eye.
"Well, Charlie," Shelm looked at the huge wall clock, "I have some spare time which I'll spend to give some badly needed explanations. Your line of thought, while logical, includes several assumptions each of which is eligible on its own but in combination with others takes you further and further away from the goal. In fact, you can be imagined as walking down the labyrinth of corridors forking in two — at least in two — and on each fork you choose between left and right and in the end reach something you consider the deduced truth. No, it could be the truth, of course, but it also can be not, and the earlier you took the wrong turn, the further away you'd be from the truth in the end. This time you made the wrong turn right at the start, and came to the Vatican Library, which is… I won't say how many miles away from the real place, it's secret, after all, but it is miles away. Nice margin of error for the operation, don't you think? I don't mean that you shouldn't use logical assumptions and calculations. I mean you must carry them out with strict linkage to the real-time operational data on each and every stage and forks of your reasoning. I hope my speech isn't too ornate?"
"No, I'm following," Chip forced himself to smile. He knew the lemming could be lying, for even if he was right about the Vatican Library Shelm wouldn't admit it. Still, Shelm was right on many accounts. After all, Chip could just pick a point on the large and very detailed map of Rome hanging on the opposite wall from the front door and say 'Here!' How did his team survive this long with such a planning level? What if he just got lucky every time? Well, luck is good too, no detective can live without it, but luck isn't reason, it works that way for imaginary comedy characters only, and not always. Luck provides a great support, but a bad foundation…
"Then you just have to draw right conclusions from my words." Shelm said. "Well, it's time for me to go. I'll be back soon. Make yourself at museum — don't touch anything and step on anything if you aren't sure. Muzzy knows I don't exaggerate."
"I know." Monterey acknowledged.
"We know, too. You said it already." Dale reminded.
"I've never left you alone in here before," Shelm explained softly, even sympathetically, and left. Ten seconds after the door shut behind him Chip motioned Zipper and the fly flew after the lemming. He returned almost immediately and totally confused.
"He vanished! He's nowhere to be seen!"
"How?!" Chip couldn't believe him and ran to find out. Indeed, there was no one on a narrow and steep ladder twisted like an Archimedean screw, which couldn't be used by Humans even if magnified proportionally, but was suitable for small rodents capable of moving on four legs jumping higher than their head. Mathias could pass the distance between the tank of abandoned water tower which served him home and the ground so quickly only in free fall which he would never survive despite all his talents. Chip carefully studied and knocked at the pipes surrounding the tiny area near the front door and found a small camouflaged door on one of them with no visible way to open it. Probably there was another stairway or even an elevator behind it, allowing descending quickly and secretly into sewers. A natural element of a secret agent's dwelling.
"Okay, I'll keep that in mind," Chip told himself and returned to the room and started searching it.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Monterey warned him. "Matty isn't the one to trifle with!"
"We survived Glo- Gadget's security system, we'll survive this one, too!" chipmunk answered confidently. He took a looking glass out of his pocket and carefully studied a top drawer of the cabinet closest to the door. Seeing nothing suspicious he carefully pulled the handle, saw it wasn't locked, slowly pulled the drawer out and saw a piece of paper lying on the tightly packed folders with letters written in bold hand:
'Dear Charlie! If you are reading this you went too far. Please, don't do anything stupid. Sincerely yours, Matty.'
Without breathing or blinking Chip closed the drawer, sidestepped back to the door and only then allowed himself to exhale and wipe the sweat covering his entire body off his forehead at the very least.
"Say nothing," he ordered Monterey Jack who was about to say something like 'I told you!'
"What was there?" Gadget asked.
"A note earnestly requesting to touch nothing. I wonder when he put it there? The drawer opens silently, he could have done it at night- DALE, DON'T!"
"What?" Dale wondered by took his paw off the trackball ball. "He touched that and nothing happened!"
"He knew what you could launch and what you couldn't. Go stare at the map, it's safer." With his friend driven off, Chip pushed the trackball Dale moved back into place, looked at the screen still displaying a freeze-frame with the monster truck driving from under the Human truck…
And realized something was wrong…
"Hey!" Dale grew offended. "You scared me off, and now do the same!"
"Now, I do other things," Chip muttered vacantly, his brain already working in turbo mode. He rewound the recording to the moment of monster-truck driving under the truck, then fast-forwarded it to the driving out moment, then opened the second window and put both freeze-frames simultaneously for comparison, made two steps back, shouted 'Ha!' and snapped his fingers triumphantly. "Come here everybody! See anything strange?"
The team gathered around him and began comparing the two frames. Zipper was the first to give the correct answer. "Wheels!"
"Yes! Wheels!" Dale repeated. "What about them?"
"Golly!" Gadget clapped her hands. "They are clean!"
"They definitely became cleaner," Monterey agreed. "They didn't just changed the driver but also washed the car or what?"
"I doubt it, Monty." Chip objected. "That's another vehicle. The Asian drove up there beforehand and waited for them there, then went on driving in circles while the buyers drove off along their route."
"And they could have driven anywhere." Monterey looked at the city map. "Yeah, we won't find them without Matty's connections-"
"No!" Chip hit his own palm with his fist aggressively. "We'll find them! I know where they went!"
"To the Vatican Library?" Dale asked stingingly.
"Don't provoke me! To the railway station!"
"Why the railway station?" Zipper asked.
"See for yourself. Did they charge their car in Coliseum?"
"No." Gadget said. "We watched."
"Bingo. This means they spent some charge to get to Coliseum, then made a circle, then they had to reach their destination. They clearly weren't locals, so they either came here by train or by plane. I don't think they'd have gone to the airport by monster-truck, it's a bit too far, but there are aeroexpress trains connecting the station and the airport. So, no matter whether they came by plane or by train, they need to go to the railway station. I think that flying squirrel was their local agent, their contact. He found two similar monster-trucks and left one at the station and drove the other under that truck. If we add distances between that abandoned house and the railway station, between the station and the Coliseum, from Coliseum to that crossroad along over the two bridges, from the crossroad to the station and from the station to the abandoned house, we'll get more or less the distance such cars are capable to travel on a single charge. I don't think they were going to abandon the truck at the station, rather that squirrel was to go after it and drive it to the hideout, too. Everything fits!"
"How many assumptions were there? I lost count!" Dale went on with his irony. Chip punched Dale's forehead with his fist. Dale got furious. "What for?! I just repeated Shelm's words! You didn't hit him!"
"He's next." Chip promised grimly.
"Don't do it." Monterey said quickly.
Chip pressed his paws to his temples and took three deep breaths.
"Alright, anyone who will mention, cite or refer to Shelm without a reason in the next two hours will be officially declared Fat Cat! Let's start with the station. We must find out what train they boarded."
"Why do you think they boarded the train already?" Gadget asked. "They may be waiting until night. Or even morning…"
"They may. But taking into account their cargo's value, I think they would try to leave as quickly as they could. Yes, I know, it's an assumption, but-"
"Fat Cat!" Dale exclaimed joyfully pointing at Chip with his finger.
"First time doesn't count."
"Actually, Matty told us not to leave anywhere." Monterey reminded.
"The station is not far away. We'll be quick. But if you want, you may stay here."
Monterey pondered for a moment and in the end decided it wasn't a good idea to stay alone in a room full of traps even if you special agent friend gets angry. "No, I'm with you."
"Great! Rescue Rangers, away!" Chip proclaimed even louder than usual. He felt irresistible urge to break as many Shelm's rules as possible while he still could. A therapy of sorts to maintain self-confidence and leader's self-sentiment which suffered some serious blows in the last few days…
It wasn't difficult to infiltrate the railway station's guard post. It was more difficult to make the Humans leave it, but artificial smoke in combination with fire alarm worked perfectly. It didn't give that much time, though, and the Rangers wouldn't be able to download all security camera recordings for the day without additional tricks. But Chip stuck to his theory of the buyer's fast arrival and departure, and decided that one hour before the meeting and one hour after it would be enough. This allowed the team to wrap things up even before the firemen arrived…
"…Anybody sees them?" Dale asked stopping the replay in his window and rubbing his tired eyes.
"I've got nothing." Monterey Jack answered looking at his part of the common screen. Shelm's monitor was large enough to display five video player windows at once with a separate time portion for each team member. Also exactly five aeroexpress trains arrived and left during the designated period of time which interested the Rangers the most. But having watched the entire recordings set for three times the team was beginning to think the buyers didn't use them after all…
"Anything, Zipper?" Chip asked the fly sitting on Dale's tuft.
"Nothing." Zipper answered sadly. Chip lost his heart. If phenomenally observant Zipper found nothing, then he must have really made an error somewhere…
"Wait, I think I found something." Gadget said thoughtfully, stopping her recording and looking at her window's lower right corner. "Guys, pause for a moment, I'll expand… Yes, there they are! See? Under the carriage, by the wheels!"
"There is something." Chip agreed. "But it's barely visible. Can't tell if it's them or someone else. Many rodents use Human trains."
"Then we'll make it more visible. Does he have MatLab here? No? Pity. What does he have? Pity again. Okay, Photoshop will do. How you export the frame here? Good. Now zoom in… Transform…"
"Wow!" Dale gasped in amazement. "I didn't know you knew Photoshop!"
"There's a little to know. With MatLab you have to know, and here all mathematics and signal processing goes almost by itself."
"Signal? What signal?"
"Usual. The image is a signal which can be viewed in spatial and frequency domains. We need the latter. That is, we need a high-pass filter. Here it is. Let's make radius small, the area isn't large… Good. As you can see, the picture is much crisper now. Let's apply an edge detection function… Now let's superimpose it with correct opacity and saturation, and we'll get-"
"Them!" Chip shouted. "It's them! See? It's the rat with the testing device on his back!"
"Looks like it." Zipper acknowledged. Monterey Jack and Dale agreed, too.
"Well," Chip rubbed his hands, "we know when they left. Let's try to find out when they arrived."
Motivated by the first success, the Rescue Rangers got down to business with doubled energy and sharpened attention, and since they had to study only a second half of the recordings now, the result came fast.
"They are good." Chip noted nodding at the frame with the three rodents who chose the most shadowed places and because of that were visible only at maximum zoom and after elaborate image processing. "If you don't know you must search here and at a particular time, you'll never notice them. Alright, we know when they came to Rome and when they left, and we also know how long it takes aeroexpress to reach the airport. Let's find out what planes arrived and departed today, and look if there is a city you can fly from to get on the first train and where you can leave soon after you came to the airport by the second one."
There was no need to process any signals in order to get this information. It was enough to open the airport's web site, fill in two query forms correctly, put two browser windows on screen and compare the results line by line. Chip was the fastest reader, so his heart missed a beat first, and then his foreboding was confirmed by Monterey. "Looks like there's only one such city today. Oslo."
"Looks that way." Chip nodded. 'Norway. Shelm's home country. Who could have guessed…' he thought to himself.
"Then we need to go to Oslo!" Dale exclaimed.
"Not quite. To Bergen."
Surprised Rescue Rangers jumped almost as high as the ceiling.
"How long have you been here?" Chip asked being the first to recover.
"Enough to evaluate your talents." Mathias answered eagerly. "Your teamwork and technical expertise are top-notch. Not ideal but close. Too bad you again followed a path of threaded assumptions. True, this time you hit as close to the target as it was possible without an access to the specialized data bases, but still I strongly recommend you to change your investigation strategy."
"You'd better tell us why Bergen." Chip demanded dryly.
"Because Romme Gudbrandsdalen — that's the name of that engineer testing the chip — comes from Bergen. That is, he lives in Bergen at the moment, he was born in Stavanger."
"Oh." Monterey said. "That explains much."
"That's interesting. You know Italian mobsters by heart but you didn't recognize a fellow countryman." Chip returned the conversation back on track.
"There's nothing strange." Shelm shrugged calmly. "I spent much more time outside my homeland than in it. I had much more work in Rome alone than in whole Norway. Fortunately, there are people in my organization who worked the other way around. They gave me all information I needed. Satisfied?"
"And what if I ain't?" Chip asked defiantly.
"Then good for you. Inquisitive mind is required to move forward. But if you don't mind, let's get down to business. The nearest flight to Oslo departs tomorrow at 12:50 PM. Until that time we should develop our plan and legend."
Dale smiled. "There's nothing to develop. We'll visit that Ganghamstyle, kick the Jeanne the Dark's address out of him and here we go!"
"That's the script for a Suave movie script, not for a serious matter. I don't think Gudbrandsdalen knows the Jeanne the Dark's location, and if we attack him everyone will be alerted and our search will be much more difficult. We must act discreetly."
"We got them the ID microchip discreetly already." Gadget objected. "If they needed it so urgently, they plan to use it soon. We must hurry. Discretion can be too slow."
"Discretion varies." Zipper observed wisely.
"Right." Chip nodded. He's got a very promising idea already. "Mathias, are there any reasons to believe Jeanne the Dark plans to blow up, to destroy something?"
"There are some."
"If so, we should try to offer her a really big bomb. And I even know which one exactly." Chip turned to the computer, entered a short search query, followed three links and pointed at the screen. "Here it is! Just what we need!"
"Interesting." Shelm acknowledged having read the text on the screen. "The bigger the lie the more eager they are to believe in it, yes? I like your train of thought, Charlie! Keep it up!"
"I'm trying." Chip thanked with a meek smile, feeling triumphant for being finally able to pierce Shelm's armor and become another step closer to his goal.
"Then we're developing this option." Shelm summarized. "Download all the materials you can find, we'll need all the information there is. We also need a slightly crazy underwater explorer-engineer, and no one can play this role better than Gloria."
"Absolutely!" Dale livened up. "And if she puts a diving suit on, she'll be irresistible! Will you put it on, Gadget?"
Gadget pondered a bit. "I don't think it's a good idea. The ballast boots will be too heavy ashore, and the pipes for air and communication will be impractical."
Shelm laughed. "Well, sunny, that's some deep sea suit you're describing. As far as I understand, Dobby meant an ordinary diving suit. Nice idea, by the way."
"I'll think about it…"
"Right, think about it. You all think about it very well, because in Norway I'll step away into the shadows and you'll be playing the major role."
"Great! At last!" Dale shook his fists warlike.
Chip met the news without enthusiasm. "What's the reason for it?"
"The reason is that Norway is my homeland and it's easier to meet someone knowing me under my real name there than anywhere else. Don't worry, I won't abandon you. Alright, gather materials, and I'll cook something up for us all to eat."
"Let me help you!" Monterey offered. "There's one recipe I just remembered — it will be terrific!"
"Let's go then." Shelm accepted an offer and they left to the kitchen. Zipper glanced at Chip inquiringly, but the chipmunk shook his head. He decided that if Shelm noticed Zipper spying on him he'd understand the Rangers didn't trust him and he'd become even more secretive. In addition, it was Monterey's idea to help, so Shelm's words about food weren't a cover for a secret meeting. And even if they were, Chip trusted Monterey completely…
"And I thought you forgot all our speech codes," Shelm said as soon as he and Monty were alone. "I'm glad you didn't. What do you want to discuss?"
"I need a new special kit." Monterey said in a low voice, constantly glancing at the door. "Mine was lost."
"I hope it didn't fall into wrong hands?"
"No, it sank along with my previous home."
"Good. Unfortunately, all our operatives of your size have long run out, but I'll do everything I can."
"Thank me when it's done. Hey, where're you going? You promised to cook something terrific, didn't you? A cap and an apron are both right there."
* 7 *
"On the tenth of March 1956 four B-47 Stratojet bombers took off from USAF McDill air base, Florida, heading to Ben-Gerir airbase in Morocco. Each of them carried two atomic bombs. Over the Mediterranean one of them vanished without a trace. Search found nothing. The cause and site of the crash are still unknown."
Chip paused to catch his breath. His shirt's starched collar was too tight, his attire consisting of a shirt and a coat with a strict tie was too warm, and Terafozza's unblinking eyes looked like a one big dynamically reshaping blot from Rorschach test. A giant female spider whose legs were wider than Chip's angle of view didn't move or reacted at the chipmunk's words in any way. Chip would pay much to know whether she took his words seriously or not, but there was no such option, so he moved a toothpick to an opposite corner of his mouth with his tongue and went on.
"I know where it is. I know where the plane is. I know where the bombs are. It's quite deep there, but with modern technologies and with appropriate finance they can be lifted. The sum is large, of course, and taking into account how much I want for the coordinates only selected few can afford it. But I'm sure you know those who can and who will be interested in this kind of goods."
Chip fell silent again. Shelm who was standing slightly behind him kept silent, too. Female black widows guarding the room and spread regularly over thick web acting as the throne room ceiling said nothing also. Terafozza was silent, too. Chip was sweating, his heart pounding loudly. He knew this would be a real test, but it looked like he overestimated his capabilities…
"I heard the story." Terafozza said slowly and creaking like an ungreased door. "They didn't carry bombs but their cores only. It's not a weapon. You can't detonate them."
Good question. Chip was prepared for it.
"That's an official version. Truth is, those are full-fledged atomic munitions."
"What makes you think so?"
"Actually it's a secret, but I'll tell you out of respect. While travelling Florida I met one rat guy. Very unpleasant person, but at the same time a grandson of a long-time dweller of that McDill airbase who already left this sinful world. I'd never believe that an old decent airport soldier can have such grandson, but that's another point. So, that old rat personally saw those bombers being loaded. And till his very death he kept telling they loaded real bombs on them. I don't know what USAF command thought when they issued that press-release, to keep secrecy or to avoid panic, but that doesn't matter."
"That rat brat could have lied to you."
"He could. As for other animals I spoke about it — I doubt it. Of course they could collude, but I don't think it's probable."
Terafozza leaned to her right and rubbed her left legs against one another. Her third right leg was visibly shorted than the rest, so she stood mainly on her left most of the time and they grew tired quickly. She has done this exercise three times already during the audience, but still Chip started every time she did, for these lazy moves were a sharp contrast with her total immobility she maintained most of the time.
"And I have to trust your word on that?" she asked.
"I'm unable to deliver those animals here."
"True. You know my price?"
"Of course. It's not the first our deal."
The movement of gleams on Terafozza's eyes told Chip she was looking at Shelm now.
"It's true." The lemming answered without waiting for the question. "He was the seller of that Costa Brava microchip. I was and I still am just an errand boy."
"Nice errand boys you've got there." The female spider concentrated on Chip again. "People like Marcello won't accept just any ministerial position, you know."
Chip tried to smile as insolently and self-confidently as he could.
"I'm used to work with the best only. That's why I invited him. That's why I came to you. And that's why I want to ask you to not send my notice to everyone, but direct it to Jeanne the Dark only."
If Chip didn't know the spiders had no eyelids he would have definitely thought that Terafozza blinked.
"That's quite a demand, young munk. You'll go far. Or you won't. Depends, among other things, on your answer to the question what happened to you previous clients' assistant?"
Bad question. But Chip was prepared for it, too.
"It was an accident. I didn't want to kill him. I just wanted to talk."
Terafozza leaned her whole cephalothoraxes forward. "So you admit his death was your handiwork? Do you know what we do to murderers?"
Chip desperately wanted to tear his collar off, for it seemed to stick into his neck so tightly it was bleeding, but he restrained himself. "I do. I also know what you do to liars. That's why I don't lie to you and won't lie to you ever."
"You believe in principle 'a fault confessed is head kept in its place'? You really shouldn't. It's rarely used in practice…" Terafozza moved her chelicerae making Chip to draw his head in involuntarily. "Though rarely doesn't mean never… But heads should roll from time to time… But measure is needed in using such radical means… And in abstaining from them, too… We like such ambitious upstarts… Yes, they are delicious… Though it would be cannibalism of sorts, for we were like that ourselves… That's why he's dangerous, yes… He'll break his neck before that, though… That will be quite a show, I'm sure… When will you be ready for the meeting?"
After such a roller coaster of emotions it took Chip some time to realize the spider was addressing him and not herself, and his answer was awkward. "Yes. I mean, soon. Very soon. Today we'll be in Bergen, at Euregaten 7… that is, not we, but me… that is, me and my team. We fly alone. Without Marcello. He'll stay here."
"Bergen, you say…" Terafozza did a leg exercise again. "You really want to meet Jeanne the Dark. Don't know if I should laugh or fell sorry about it. Haven't decided yet. Are you Marcello stays here? You'll have hard time without him."
"I don't think so." Chip answered imposingly and with a smile.
"But I know. Acknowledge it: you can't afford the price he demanded to travel to Norway."
"Well, as you can see, I was able to arrange his visit here. You think meeting Jeanne the Dark costs more?"
Terafozza uttered something resembling a sound of a meat torn off the bone. Probably it was spiteful laugh. "Of course it costs more. There was a time when I was considered the biggest brute in Europe. But when Jeanne the Dark appeared everything changed."
"She's larger than you?" Chip asked skeptically.
"Size isn't everything. You'll see it for yourself when you meet her. I'll arrange it. But I want to tell you right away: I didn't believe a single word of yours. All these supposedly real bombs the loss of which is covered by the government but which were seen by some old rat and some unnamed witnesses… It smells hoax a mile away. But I repeat, I'll arrange your meeting. Either you're telling the truth, and then I would be able to add participation in nuclear weapons trade to my record which is a rare achievement even among Humans, or you're lying, in which case your goal is to kill Jeanne the Dark, and then whoever wins there will be one less potential threat to me. Why did I tell you all this? I don't know. Probably it makes it more interesting. The audience is finished. Farewell."
And Terafozza disappeared. Chip dropped his toothpick in surprise and stood still looking at the empty space but then the rounded shape of the area previously occupied by the spider suggested there was a trapdoor.
"Come on, Charlie." Shelm said walking to the exit. "But don't forget your toothpick. Terafozza hates litterers."
"Her antics make it hard not to soil yourself right here," the chipmunk muttered but picked the toothpick up.
"Have you ever heard a story of a grizzly bear who deliberately allowed his prey to see himself before the attack? Same here."
"If you say so…"
When they came outside Chip could help but throw his head back to look at the top floors of the Borgia Tower they just left, with Terafozza's lair located right under its hipped roof.
"Still can't believe it, Charlie?" Shelm asked hinting at the chipmunk's reaction when he heard they would meet the most powerful Italian Mafioso not far from Vatican's geographical centre.
"Yes, that was unexpected. But it's logical. I improves both public image and security."
"And you wanted our archive to be located right under her nose." Shelm nodded over his shoulder at the Apostle Library building closing the rectangle square from the north.
"I'd still place it here." Chip said. "Right under her nose. She won't look here herself, and others won't dare."
"This works only in theory and movies." Shelm answered kindly, but after these his words Chip for some reason became absolutely sure his guess was right…
They reached the railroad connecting Vatican with the outside world when Mathias spoke again. "And you was good. Got out of a scrape when you said 'we' meant your team and not me and you. I don't know if Terafozza believed you, but it was a good try. Still, she thinks I am a local, so she rather believed than not."
"You'd better ask yourself why she agreed to help us and what can keep her from letting Jeanne the Dark know about her doubts." Chip said, displeased.
"Her explanation doesn't satisfy you? I understand. But she didn't lie. She didn't need to."
"And what does she need? Jeanne the Dark's corpse?"
"Yes. Or yours. Ideally both."
"That's the way of things, and there's no other. Though no, there is. It can be even worse."
"I'll tell you someday. The more options you have, the more likely you are to get confused and make a mistake. Right now everything is clear."
"I don't think so."
"What do you mean?"
"I'll tell you someday." Chip said caustically.
"As you wish." Shelm said with a smile, giving Chip a reason to suspect his opponent had everything calculated in advance and that he shouldn't have said what he did. But the word can't be unspoken. Still, it was more interesting this way…
* 8 *
Bergen met the team with rain which felt especially wet and cold after Rome's sunshine. Nevertheless, Chip didn't go to 'The Crown of the North' hostel located in a polished building at Euregaten 7 — the address known both to Terafozza and Shelm who was due to arrive later. Instead Chip made the team to cross the street, walk around the block and return to the street in question from behind the building number 8. There they hid their luggage behind the drain pipe going under the sidewalk and took cover in an electrical box facing 'The Crown'. Just to be on the safe side, as he told his friends.
"Let's send at least Zipper-lad there to tell Matty where we are," Monterey offered insistently.
"He'll find us by himself," Chip kept repeating, knowing that if he told the truth of his intentions to follow Mathias and see where he went after not finding the Rangers in the designated place, Monterey would feel insulted and leave to meet the lemming on his own. Chipmunk felt uneasy lying to his old comrade, but he sincerely blamed Shelm for thrusting a wedge between them and was absolutely sure Monterey would forgive him as soon as they expose the truth about Shelm.
"You mean we'll sit here till night?" Dale asked whimsically. "Let's find a cozier place then!"
"This will do." Chip answered. "But you're right, we shouldn't waste time. Take the notepad and binoculars, write down everybody entering and leaving building number 7. Monty, take my hat. Gadget, let's switch raincoats."
"You want to visit the city incognito?" Zipper guessed.
"Right. I'll study the surroundings, converse with the locals."
"It can be dangerous." Gadget observed.
"I know. That's why I'm taking your coat. It's the brightest one. If things go awry, I'll drop it and become much less visible. Don't leave anywhere. I'll be quick."
That said, he squeezed through a half-open door and was gone. A tedious waiting began, and each of the Rangers tried to brighten it up in his own way. Monterey Jack started telling a tale about him waiting through a rainy season under a palm tree at Galapagos. Gadget studied the insides of the box in search for opportunities for modifications which would greatly increase the current strength provided for the building without decreasing efficiency. Zipper helped Dale to keep an observation diary by counting crows who had some kind of encampment under the building's roof which meant the traffic was pretty heavy, and Dale was growing worried he'd run out of the notepad. Fortunately, Chip returned before that.
"So?" his friends asked in chorus.
"Everything's alright. I didn't even have to drop the coat."
"What did you find out?"
"I haven't located Jeanne the Dark. But I got some food for some thought. No, it's too early to say anything for sure. No, I know you aren't Blotsons, the Meteor situation wouldn't repeat itself. Trust me."
"Wow! You guess the questions like Shelm already!" Dale admired jealously, puzzling Chip. If he agreed to consider Dale's words a compliment, he would agree that Shelm was a model for him, but he didn't want to dismiss it as something trifling, either…
"It's him guessing questions like me," he said finally. "Okay, let's see what you've written here… Oh, so much letters… Alright, I'll look through it later. No, there can be something important. Let's make it this way." Chip tore out the pages covered with writing and handed them over to Dale. "Read aloud, I'll be listening and continuing observation at the same time. But read distinctly, with pauses and fully."
"Who do you think I am?" Dale grew offended. "My reading's as good as it gets! You'll see them all as if with your own eyes!"
And Dale began reading short descriptions of the noticed visitors of building number 7, choosing intonation to match their personalities. He groaned and mumbled describing an old female mouse with a crutch, spoke quickly and loudly describing a young nimble rat boy, cawed after each pair of words describing a crow. There were many of those, and soon everybody but Dale were fed up with this cawing. That's why the news of Shelm approaching was met with great relief.
"Let's sit quietly!" Chip ordered watching the lemming through his binoculars. Mathias walked slowly, with pride and not without arrogance, but more importantly he walked in a straight line and with a constant speed, so it was a pleasure to follow him. 'Who is he showing off for?' Chip thought to himself. 'For me, maybe…?' Shelm never looked in Chip's direction, but the chipmunk felt he knew exactly where the Rangers were. Maybe they made a mistake by hiding in this box? Yes, it's very convenient, but for this same reason it draws immediate attention. Chip noticed it from the street corner on the way here, and Shelm could have seen it from like three blocks away. Darn, he's local, he could have known about the box in advance! He chose the address, after all…
"Gadget, have you by any chance seen anything strange in here?" Chip asked trying to keep his voice steady.
"Where? In the box? Nothing, a plainly standard design. If I had my amperemeter, cable stripper and at least two alligator clips-"
"Don't. That is, not now, please. Plus it's raining…" Chip pattered nervously. Meanwhile Shelm entered the building and chipmunk thought whether they should use this opportunity to change their position. On the other hand, the weather wasn't the finest, and it was unlikely Shelm had planted a bomb here. Not his style, he doesn't like noise. Not to mention that if he really wanted to get rid of the Rangers he would have done it long ago, for he had plenty of opportunities. No, he still needed them. He must learn what for. And then we'll see who beats who…
"How about getting out?" Monterey asked almost unobtrusively.
"Too early." Chip answered. "If someone else was waiting for Shelm to arrive, it's the right time for them to show themselves, and we'll see them immediately!"
His answer worked. For a couple of minutes. Then Monterey again tried to remind of himself, but then Shelm went out of the building number 7, first giving Chip the pretext to ask his friends to keep order, move to the opposite corner from the vision slit, maintain total silence and immobility, and then forcing him to do the same for it soon became apparent that Shelm was walking towards the box.
"Don't even breathe…" Chip whispered when the lemming crossed the roadway of Euregaten. The rain prevented them from hearing Shelm's footsteps, but not his voice.
"Go to 'The Crown'. I'll have a short walk and join you there. There's no need to send Zack after me."
"No, you guess the questions like him!" Dale couldn't refrain from a stinging commentary as he watched Chip's facial expression who was about to send Zipper to follow Shelm.
"So how about ending this hide-and-seek? Matty found us after all." Monterey offered, tired by waiting and tightness.
"Yes, we can go now." Chip agreed involuntarily. It was probably the first time he was really sorry he wasn't working alone. If he was, he would stay here and check if Shelm's words addressing the box weren't just a bluff to create an illusion of insight and omniscience. Dreams, dreams…
'The Crown of the North' hostel was located in the south-west corner of the building's semi-basement. By Human standards this semi-basement was narrow and had a low ceiling, but from the rodents' perspective there was enough room for a three-storied complex with a two-level penthouse and more. This entire splendor was hidden from Humans by a thin plywood partition papered to look like a relief brick wall, and energy-conserving illumination increased the electricity bills received by the building's occupants by a statistically insignificant value. Due to objective reasons only two most luxurious and expensive of four penthouse suits had real windows overlooking the pavement, and Chip was glad their legend dictated them occupying one of those, for he had his own plan involving those windows.
"Is everyone here?" Shelm asked entering the room and glancing at half-unpacked luggage critically. "Any casualties? Saw anything important while waiting for me?"
"Everything's okay, Mickey!" Monterey answered calling Shelm by his codename for Bergen.
"We made recordings." Chip handed paper sheets and notepad to lemming. "Interested?"
"Yes, I'll take them and read. Anything else?"
"None that I know of."
"Good. One more time: outside the suit you don't me and I don't know you. We'll discuss the scenario after dinner. Don't go to the city until morning, keep each other in sight, call one another by your codenames only even if you think nobody can hear you."
"You've said that already." Chip reminded.
"How did you call each other in that box?"
Rescue Rangers exchanged glances and dropped their eyes synchronously.
"Say nothing more." The lemming said, took the notes from Chip and left without saying goodbye.
"He could have been politer." Dale muttered in irritation.
"He's always like that when the affair is coming to a head." Monterey Jack explained. "Don't pay attention."
"We'll try." Chip answered ironically. The Aussie's words troubled him, though. What affair is coming to a head for Shelm when by all signs everything is just beginning? Of course it could have been a poor choice of words on Monty's side, but still Chip decided not to ask again, not to mention that it wasn't that important and didn't influence his resolution to execute his own plan. It was especially beautiful, for it was based on accurate, letter by letter execution of Shelm's instructions, although twisted under, hopefully, very unexpected angle. But you won't know it till you do it…
Dinner in the hostel's restaurant went on smoothly. No guest paid unnaturally much attention to the Rescue Rangers apart from sneaky and amorous glances directed at Gadget and jealously spiteful ones aimed at Chip. There was no sign of Shelm. He either dined somewhere else, or changed his appearance radically. In any case, he came to Rescue Rangers' suite right on time and in his usual attire.
"Not bad," he said waving a pile of notepad pages. "Eclectic in places, but informative. A month's training and you'll learn to do it properly. Unfortunately, we don't have a month, just a little more than a day at most, that's why-"
"Before what?" Chip interrupted.
"Forgot already? Before the opposition contacts you."
"Just making sure." Chip raised his paw. "Go on, please."
"Thank you." Shelm was generous enough to nod politely, then took sheets of paper of rodent A4 size distributed among five files out of his pocket. "Here's your legends as promised. Learn them by heart. Break up into pairs and question each other like your enemies would. Make your opponent believe he's dealing not with you but with those you pretend to be. Gestures, mimics, manners of speech — everything must be tailored up like a good suit and feel like your second skin. Work until you reach that level. Then exchange partners. Then do it again. Then I'll test you. The last to test you will be Jeanne the Dark herself. And if you underwork somewhere, she'll be the last tester in your lives. You must be fully ready by dawn. The clock's ticking."
No one volunteered to remind Shelm he had said this already.
"But how can we break into pairs? There's five of us." Zipper observed.
"You are a well coordinated team. Come up with something." Shelm said without turning his head and closed the door behind him.
"I'm with Gadget!" Dale exclaimed.
"No, me!" Chip objected.
Gadget stamped her foot angrily. "Stop it now! Or you'll pair up with one another!"
"No!" Dale grew scared. "Alright, Chip goes with you! No, I go with you, and Chip goes with Monty!"
"Monty will go with Zipper." Chip decided. "And I will go with Gadget… Darn you, you go with Gadget. I'll train on my own. But I'm the next!"
"No, me!" Dale objected absent-mindedly.
"Come on!" Gadget took Dale by his paw and dragged him to her room on the second level. On the stairs she looked back and smiled at Chip thanking him for this display of wisdom. Chip shrugged as if saying 'if not me, then who?' Then he waited for his friends to leave to different rooms of the suite, quietly exited the suite and went through the basement to the opposite end of the building where a small appliances shop was located he had previously seen from the electric box. At that very moment his plan became a reality…
In an hour Shelm came to check on the Rangers and saw Chip sitting in the hall accompanied by a digital voice recorder and a pair of in-ear headphones.
"Autotraining?" he asked.
"Imaginary friend," Chip answered in the same tone, offering him one headphone. Shelm came closer and heard curt phrases in a pitched, almost squeaky voice: 'Why do you need me? Why me? Why did you kill my agent…?'
The old secret agent smiled. "Talking to Jeanne the Dark? You shouldn't. She won't be the one interrogating. You should make the voice lower and coarser."
"You said she'll be the last to test us." Chip objected.
"I used the word 'she' in a broad sense. Of course she'll be there, but invisibly. Maybe even remotely, over the phone or the network. She'll judge you, but her executioners will interrogate. She has many of those."
"I'm no fool myself."
"I hope so. Though I doubt they'll capture you personally." Shelm returned the headphone and went to the stairs to the second level.
"Why?" Chip asked.
Shelm stopped. "Because you're the leader, which means you're better prepared than your partners. They need the weakest link."
"How will they know who's the weakest link?"
"They'll ask the hostel owners and personnel. I think they've done that already. But you prepare nonetheless." He started walking again.
"I can stand the drops trick," Chip said addressing Shelm's back. "I'll withstand everything else, too."
"The drops trick?" Shelm asked curiously.
"Yeah. The red and the blue ones. Both are harmless, but we make the victim think one is poisonous. He chooses, for instance, the blue one, and we put the red one in his mouth, and his partners spill out everything they know. Muzzy showed us. Your school."
"No. It's Muzzy's amateurish performance. In my school both drops are poisonous."
"I'm not surprised…" Chip muttered talking rather to himself than to Shelm. He returned to the armchair and put the headphones on, but as soon as Shelm turned around the staircase corner he stood up and casually, but trying to walk silently, moved after him. On the second floor he carefully peeked around the corner, made sure Shelm didn't enter the rooms where the pairs were training and confined himself to overhearing through the doors, and returned to his seat in the hall. Shelm came down the stairs, nodded at him and left. Chip exhaled and relaxed his tensed muscles. Everything was going as planned…
After a three minute break Chip switched the voice recorder to start the new file and started recording his answers to Jeanne the Dark's questions in his normal voice. Two hours later, with a large and coherent audio library of questions and answers at his disposal, Chip put the voice recorder under his arm like a surfing board, went to the second level and without ceremony knocked at the Gadget's room door.
"Dale! Go out! My turn!"
"Not true!" Dale shouted back.
"True! Look at the clock!"
"What for? I saw it already!"
"Don't be a fool!"
"Okay, okay, don't yell, you're not in the woods." Dale opened the door and looked at the voice recorder curiously. "A cheat sheet? It's against the rules!"
"Don't block the doors, cheat sheet!" Chip moved forward forcing his friend to step aside. "Hi, Gadget! How did Dale fare? Any hopes?"
"There are some." Gadget nodded. "And they are big, and they become bigger and bigger. What's that?"
"A voice recorder. It will be of help during training."
"So it is a cheat sheet!" Dale said from the corridor. "I knew it!"
"Watch-the-doors-thank-you-for-flying-with-our-airline!" Chip uttered in one breath and shut the door before his friend's nose. "Sometimes he's just unbearable!"
"Stop it." the mouse waved off. "Sometimes he just doesn't consider it necessary to hide his emotions. It's a minus, of course, but on the other hand you always know what he's up to, that there's no false bottom, you can relax… Shall we begin?"
Chip was quite insulted by her words, he even became ashamed of his past and future deeds, but everything has gone too far already, and he was sure it was for greater good.
"Yes, let's do it. I'll play the recorded questions and record you answers. Agreed?"
"Agreed, but why so complex?"
"We'll be consistent in our statements this way. Ready? I'm turning it on…"
Despite considering it excessive Gadget performed the task responsibly, and it took Chip just half an hour to form and organize a set of her satisfactory answers. It took the mouse another fifteen minutes to record questions prepared by Chip with her voice, which Chip then arranged in such a way that an illusion of a real dialog was created when the playlist was played in order.
"What now?" Gadget asked when Chip finished. "We'll listen to it till we're blue in the face?"
"No, we won't." Chip plugged the headphones into the voice recorder, then put the speakers on the tables moved to the doorpost from both sides. Having one that he lifted the battery compartment lid and took his compacted jacket and had off it. "What's the darkest thing you can wear? Preferably black?"
"Diving suit." Gadget answered after some thought. "What for? You want to dress up for better image immersion?"
"No, to go outside." Chip nodded in the direction of a tightly curtained off window.
"Remember I went scouting? I learned where that engineer, Gudbrandsdalen, lived."
"And you decided to visit him late at night? But that's against the legend!"
"It's better. We can come close to Jeanne the Dark herself! Or learn her plans at least!"
"Well, that's the point, but… Alright, I'll call the others…"
"No!" Chip jumped to intercept Gadget moving towards the door. "We'll go on our own!"
"Because Shelm must know nothing!"
"Shelm?" Gadget blinked. "But…"
"Okay, I'm not enthusiastic about him either. But Dale, Monty and Zipper…"
"We can't get them involved. Because of Shelm. You said Dale couldn't hide his emotions, and he's like an open book for Shelm. Zipper is too attached to Monty. And Monty… Well, I'm afraid I can't trust him…"
"WHAT?!" Gadget was beyond herself. "What are you saying? He's our friend! We went through fire and water together!"
"Quieter, please!" Chip put his paws together in a praying manner, then pressed his ear to the door and listened. No one was coming. The walls were soundproof like in all good hostels. "I know he's friend, and I know it's wrong. But he trusts Shelm too much. No, he had his reasons, I know, but… You know, he can be very wrong about old acquaintances of his."
Gadget was about to object but quickly bit her lip. "Yes, he can…"
"That's what I'm talking about!" The chipmunk nodded hastily. "That's why we must do everything secretly."
"Alright, and what's these for?" Gadget pointed at the recorder and the headphones.
"To make in illusion we are here in case Shelm comes to check if we are goldbricking. This way he'll hear our voices in stereo." Chip pointed at the headphones with two fingers. "The charge will last for a couple of hours. That's enough."
"You think we'll make it this fast?"
"We will. It's not that far away."
"Alright. Wait here." Gadget went behind the screen to change. Chip carefully folded his business suit he wore all this time and put it on the table, than put on his favorite jacket with a blissful smile, zipped it up to the end and folded the white fur of the collar inside. It didn't make him ninja, but he was less visible this way, plus he could cover the lower half of his face if need be, which, combined with the hat pulled down on his eyes, will surely have a right psychological effect on the engineer…
"I'm ready," Gadget announced walking from behind the screen, and Chip barely restrained from a potentially wrongly interpreted whistle. Skintight clothing suited the mouse undeniably well.
"I think you shouldn't go." he said finally. "Gudbrandsdalen will lose his speech upon seeing you and become useless."
"Too late, I've changed already. By the way, why do you came to me with your plan? I hope you don't need me just to cover your absence?"
"No. I need you as a trap expert. And the one who makes me capable of anything."
"Traps? You should have mentioned it from the start! It's good I asked, I left all my tools in my jumpsuit, it's hard to fit them into this one."
Having gathered the tools and set the voice recorder to play in a loop, the two Rescue Rangers left the hostel through the window, or rather, taking into account their relative sizes, through the window tunnel. The rain subsided, but didn't stop, so the walk wasn't pleasant. Fortunately, they didn't need to walk far. To reach the funicular, at least.
"We need to go there?" Gadget asked pointing at the brightly illuminated TV tower rising above the city. It was a part of tourist complex on the top of the hill connected with the city by the aforementioned funicular. Chip nodded. There was no time for a more detailed answer. The red cable car was moving away already, and Rescue Rangers had to run in order to catch the last haul up if they read the bright info board correctly.
"How will we go down?" Gadget asked.
"I'm sure you'll come up with something." Chip said with a warm smile.
"Yes, maybe. After all, it's easier to go down than go up." Gadget nodded and glanced at the cables barely visible against the night sky. Chip shrugged involuntarily and prepared to object reasonably. But they arrived to the top before Gadget came up with anything worth saying aloud.
From the area in front of the already closed restaurant the TV tower looked like a Christmas tree twined with garlands of perimeter lights and decorated with microwave-link antennas. Chip and Gadget had to wander a bit to find sufficiently dark and dry wall segment to use their climbing suction boots. They had to cross an open and flat roof close to the parapet, knee-deep in rain water pouring towards the drains, and Chip grew really jealous towards his partner wearing diving suit. Fortunately for him, the tower was shaped like a column with flat disks of mounting areas threaded on it, the lowest of which was wide enough to provide a good cover from the weather.
"Where next?" Gadget asked.
"Up." Chip indicated the direction with his finger.
"How far up?"
"If only I knew-"
"You said you learned everything!"
"I learned he lives on the tower. For a city like Bergen it's quite a specific address."
"Well, yes, but…" Gadget threw her head back and turned around sprinkling Chip with drops from her wet hair. "It's tall! You know how many nooks there is? And we got only a couple of hours…"
"One hour and thirty nine minutes to be precise. Tell me where his lair can be?"
"You tell me, you are the detective."
"But not the hermit obsessed with technology."
Gadget looked at her friend over her shoulder.
"You've never called me like that before."
Chip cast his eyes down. "I'm sorry if that insulted you."
"No, it didn't, it's true, but… Golly, you really thought it through! You even let Dale to be the first to train with me to go fetch the voice recorder. Is everything that serious? I mean, you really consider Shelm our enemy?"
"I haven't decided yet."
"And when will you decide? After meeting this Goofy… Goodbye…"
"Yeah. Can't imagine how you remembered his name…"
"There's nothing to remember, he's not some Eyjafjallajokull, agreed?"
""Gadget laughed. "Verily! Okay, you wanted to know where I would live if I were this Hydro… Gooodbro… you got it. I think I'd live on the second level. On the third at most."
"Not on the top?"
"No, it's impractical and even dangerous. Oh, and it's hard to build a Faraday cage there."
Chip frowned, remembering. "The thing we built for the analyzer?"
"Yes, it's needed for protection from electromagnetic fields. It's dangerous to live here without it."
"Well, now we know what to look for." Chip smiled. "Rescue Rangers, upwards!"
"You broke the rule."
"Heck with the rules. It's my operation. That is, our, the Rangers' one. Need help?"
"Yes, please." Gadget put her foot in Chip's cupped paws, and the chipmunk tenderly but confidently helped her to climb up the ledge on TV tower's 'trunk', then jumped there himself. The Rescue Rangers put their suction shoes again and went first vertically upwards, then horizontally upside down to the edge of the mounting area. They had to climb it under the rain they had almost forgotten already, but when they got under the next level's umbrella they almost instantly noticed a cluster of metallic cubes at the base of the nearest microwave-link antenna facing in the distance. For some reason one of the cubes was separated from the outside world on all his five sides by a metallic wire mesh.
"Looks like we found him." Chip commented.
"Probably." Gadget nodded. "Now we have to find the entrance!"
It turned out not that easy to do. There were no doors in the mesh, and there was no sense cutting through it for the cube was monolithic and probably under voltage. The fact that the only unobservable part of the cube was its bottom suggested the entrance was located there. Armed with this guess, Rescue Rangers spent the next twenty minutes knocking on the mounting area's surface and finally found several hollows first, and then a hatch leading to a twisting and dark corridor whose walls was the area's webbing.
"He carved himself quite a home here." Gadget observed roving around with her flashlight's beam.
"Let's find out the size of his home." Chip muttered. His flashlight was directed mainly at the floor. He could see no suspicious prominences, unevennesses, hollows or irregularities in the floor metallic plates' pattern, but it meant nothing. "Have you taken night visor just in case you'll need it?"
"No, I didn't bring it along. I didn't have time to repair it. That is, it works, but only from the wall outlet or the generator. In short, it stopped being portable for a while. But I think I know what we can use instead. Wait here, I'll be quick!"
"We've got less than an hour." Chip reminded her.
"I'll come back in time!" Gadget promised and ran towards the mounting area's edge facing the restaurant. Chip had second thoughts about letting her go alone, but then decided it would be a right thing to do to stay here and not let Gudbrandsdalen to vanish somehow. Of course he would need a very good reason to come outside on a rainy night like this, but if Shelm was right about Jeanne the Dark's notoriety, her minions must be ready to jump up and run to her at her first whistle. On the other hand, the electrician could have played his part completely already, and turned from the irreplaceable assistant into an unneeded witness knowing too much…
"Here I am!" Gadget announced entering a spot of light from the perimeter light and allowing Chip to see her and her loot. "Am I late?"
"No, we are good. What's that?" the chipmunk ran his finger along a plastic tube Gadget was holding, from cylindrical bell to its junction with a cylinder on the mouse's back. "Fire extinguisher? Or flamethrower?"
"Neither. It's a compressed air, used to clean things that don't like liquids, for instance, electrical equipment. That is, it's not exactly air, it's just called that way, there are other gases in there which are easier to compress into a liquid state, usually it's fluorocarbons. They aren't dangerous to inhale. of course if you aren't trying to breathe them only, but it's still safer for you to walk behind."
"You go behind, and I'll carry the cylinder." Chip made a counteroffer. Gadget pondered, then nodded and took the cylinder off, and Chip realized a thick white cable on her belt wasn't part of its harness. "What's that for?"
"Well, that's for detection," Gadget pointed at the cylinder, then put her paw on the cable. "And this is for getting through. You'll understand when you see it."
'Hope we won't need that,' Chip thought putting the cylinder on and testing a valve which happened to be near the back of his head and was tight enough to prevent accidental release.
Contrary to his hopes, the third aerosol stream he released along the corridor revealed a thin red laser beam of an alarm system which crossed the passage diagonally, and Gadget started working her magic. Taking the cable off her belt, she took out an optic fiber thread out of it as if an arrow from a quiver, lowered her goggles on her eyes, asked Chip to create a stable aerosol cloud, held her breath, and simultaneously thrust the thread both into the ray's origin and sink. As a result of full interior reflection effect the ray was trapped inside the flexible thread which Gadget carefully bent to make a passage wide enough for her and Chip, then glued the ends of the thread to a wall with duct tape to have no problems on their way back. After the third similar procedure Chip started worrying if they had enough fibers, but there were only five laser traps. In the corridor, that is. And only Gudbrandsdalen knew how many there were behind the hatch into the cube…
"So?" Gadget whispered when the detector stream directed at the hatch and ceiling around it revealed nothing, allowing Chip to press his ear to it. "Can you hear anything?"
"Nothing particular. Monotonous noise, most probably produced by CPU coolers. No snoring, no sound of typing. Do you have something to cover your hair with?"
"My hands. Why?"
"There can be cameras. I can hide my face, but you… Darn, why didn't I think about this in the hotel?"
"Well, I can stay here."
"Yes, you'll have to. I'll get back for fibers and duct tape if I need them. Or I'll shout. If I shout 'Gadget', you'll come to my help. If I shout 'Gloria', you'll run back to the hotel. Understood?"
"No! I won't leave you!"
"Please, Gadget, we can't waste time arguing. I'm going in." Chip raised his collar up to his nose, pulled his hat as low as his head shape allowed, and broke the lock which turned out elementary.
"So easy?" surprised Gadget said when the hatch opened with a click.
"Either it's some kind of trap, or he relied too much on his lasers." Chip suggested carefully lowering the hatch lid down and releasing a gas stream into the room. "No beams. Take the cylinder and give to me when I'm through."
Getting rid of his heavy load, Chip limbered up his shoulders and jumped into the cube with ease. It was dark inside with only rapidly blinking lights of network sockets providing some illumination. Network cables, like streams into a river, gathered into a wide and thick hose running into the wall facing the microwave antenna. There were no living beings in this technical kingdom. Chip sat down on the hatch's edge, took the cylinder from Gadget's raised hands, sprinkled around himself to make sure there were no lasers, put the cylinder on his back and started conducting a search of the electrician mouse's dwelling.
It was clear Gudbrandsdalen lived here. Piles of cable cuts and jacks in the corners, multimeter, cable tester, soldering station, several smartphones-terminals… Gudbrandsdalen clearly didn't care about Human attention. And he was probably right. If chipmunk and mouse barely found his home, Humans never will…
"How are you?" Gadget shouted from below.
"Doing good." Chip answered. He didn't like everything. He liked absence of Gudbrandsdalen the least.
"Should I come up?"
"No need yet."
Chip lighted up all the corners one by one looking for surveillance cameras. He didn't find any, but it didn't mean there were none. The smartphones were put close to the walls, so their rear cameras didn't matter, and Chip saw no frontal ones on them. But they had microphones, too. Were they recording or transmitting? They should record given that Faraday cage. Although Gudbrandsdalen could link them to the outer antenna, who knows… Chip returned to the hatch, bent down for Gadget to see him, rotated his finger above his head hinting at microphones and held his nose with his fingers. "I don't see him," he said in a nasal voice.
The mouse nodded silently. Chip showed her thumb up, told her to stay back in signs language and resumed searching the room, but not before looking at his watch. Twenty four minutes left. Sure, Chip estimated the voice recorder's running time very approximately and doubted it would turn off as soon as the countdown stopped, but still he didn't want to fall out of schedule too much.
There were no data carriers capable to provide clues on Gudbrandsdalen's or Jeanne the Dark's plans or whereabouts. All phones asked for PIN-codes. The engineer either had no paper bin or hid it somewhere in advance along with its contents. The walls were uniformly blind. Plugging cables into free sockets didn't open any secret compartments. Multimeter and cable tester consisted of nothing but their usual parts…
"Shouldn't we be going, Chip?" Gadget shouted, She didn't forget to hold her nose, but forgot to avoid using names.
"I'm coming," chipmunk answered briefly. He decided there was no reason to reprimand his friend. First, word spoken is past recalling. Second, maybe it was even good that she called him by his real name and not his codename. The smokescreen can become even thicker this way.
Having eliminated all traces of him being there, Chip jumped down into the corridor, shut the hatch, and the Rangers moved in the opposite direction removing their optic fibers along the way. Back outside they threw the cylinder and cables into the farthest dumpster from the TV tower, and began arranging their return to "The Crown of the North". The funiculars weren't running, they had less than ten minutes, and rodents went to the same utility room where Gadget found the fiber optic cable. This time the Rangers took two pieces of an armored cable cut off a large hunk with the help of electric hydraulic cutter found nearby. They took these cuts to the funicular station, shaped them as horseshoes, put them on the rail, put a handle of a plunger found in a bathroom onto them, fastened it with a wire running under cables from both sides, sat on the resulting cross between a monorail car and a bobsled, and drove down.
All in all, it turned out not bad. Faster than by funicular, that's for sure. Of course the armored cable wasn't as rigid as steel, and after a couple of turns it diverged, forcing the Rangers to lean synchronously from sides to sides, and the further they went, the further they had to lean. Cable went on diverging, but rails ended before it became 'a really serious problem' as Gadget put it. The couple got to the hotel with no problems, got inside through the window and changed into their ordinary clothing. Then Chip turned off the voice recorder blinking with recharge notification already, and they finished the remaining questions by themselves so that the ending of the exercise looked and, more importantly, sounded more naturally.
"Well, not bad." Gadget said putting a lock of her still wet hair off her face and stretching up. "What's next?"
"Next we should have a good sleep." Chip answered not just for her but for Shelm possibly standing behind the doors, too. They had discussed all technical details and considerations about Gudbrandsdalen's absence on their way here. They agreed that he was probably in Jeanne the Dark's lair and he wouldn't escape justice, so at the moment it was wise to get back on track designated by Shelm, but without blind thrust and losing vigilance. Unfortunately, Chip couldn't fully convince Gadget that the old lemming was two-faced, but at least she agreed to play along with him which was more than enough at the moment. "Okay, I'll go check upon others. Good night!"
"Good night!" Gadget wished back. Chip hid his jacket and hat into the voice recorder, reeled the headphones up and went into the corridor where he almost immediately collided with Shelm carrying a thick paper bag under his shoulder.
"Mickey?" Chip pretended to be surprised. "What are you doing here? I thought you were long asleep. You were about to get up at dawn if I understood you correctly. What's this?"
"I don't sleep much." The lemming answered. "How many sessions have you done?"
"Two. With voice recorder and Gloria. What's in the package?"
"Do another session with Dobby. He needs a good thrashing."
"Muzzy is better for that," Chip motioned at the far end of the corridor.
"I have a separate program for Muzzy so don't argue."
"Really?" Chip raised his eyebrows. "So this package is meant for him? Care to explain what's inside and what's this program about?"
"Only after you explain where you have been in such a crucial moment."
Chip grew cold and almost dropped the voice recorder. "What- what are you talking about? I've been with Gloria!"
"That's entirely possible. But not in her room. Or not only there. It can't be that dirty there." Shelm pointed at Chip's not so clean feet. "I don't insist on anything, but I think that for the sake of our common cause you should tell me where you went and on what purpose."
"And I thought you would guess yourself…" the Rescue Ranger joked gloomily.
"So you've been to Gudbrandsdalen's. What for? You could ask me, I'd tell you he hasn't been seen here for a very long time already."
Even a powerful blow to his belly wouldn't be so painful for Chip, but he braced himself for a counterattack. "Not my style. I need to learn everything on my own. That's first. And second, why didn't you tell that before?"
"Did you ask me to?" Shelm inquired mockingly. "Oh, yes, not your style. I hope you left no traces there?"
"I know my business."
"If you did you wouldn't do amateurish things. Did anyone see you?"
"Did alarm go off?"
"Did the floor camera catch you?"
"Floor camera? The floor is solid there, what camera are you talking about?"
"Not everywhere. There are cables everywhere, some of them run into the floor. Or you didn't notice?"
Chip almost dropped his voice recorder again and leant on the wall to steady himself. "No, I… Darn, I don't know-"
"I see. If I were you, I'd consider flying away from here by the first flight in any direction."
"Then come up with a way to explain your visit there to Jeanne the Dark."
"My face was fully covered!"
"I have no doubts. But I don't think you painted the stripes on your back over and enlarged your tail."
"Then either you leave or think hard. Better post factum then never." Having said this pompous punchline Shelm squeezed between the voice recorder and the wall and went to the Monty's room. Dispirited Chip took a few steps towards the stairs, then remembered about his questions left unanswered, and turned around quickly but the lemming didn't wait or knock and disappeared behind the door already. Still Chip didn't remain alone in the corridor for too long, joined by Zipper thrown out not very politely.
"They have secrets from you, too." Chip asked sympathetically.
"You don't say." The fly nodded sadly. "What's that?"
"Voice recorder for exercises."
"Great!" Zipper flew up to Chip and hovered in front of his face. "Let's train some!"
"No, sorry, I've promised Dale already." Chip was ashamed of lying to Zipper, but he was even more ashamed to admit he was ordered to train with Dale. "You can train with Gadget if she's not asleep already."
"Okay, I'll ask her. Is everything alright with you?"
"Yes, Zipper, I'm fine. Just tired. Don't pay attention."
"You all colluded or what…" Zipper muttered obediently turning around towards the Gadget's door. Chip pretended he didn't hear, although he felt like spending whole winter eating unripe lemons. The situation was slowly but steadily going to heck… 'It's okay,' Chip said to himself. 'There were worse crises in our history. We'll get over it!'
* 9 *
"What is your name?"
Easy question. They asked it already.
"Why are you looking exactly for us?"
They asked this question, too. And what did he answer? Truth. Only truth. Nothing but truth. But what was that…?
"Why. Are. You. Looking. Exactly. For. Us," a very large rodent repeated his question. At least Dale thought he was very large judging by his voice timbre and the fact that 'executioners' Shelm scared him through entire morning couldn't be small…
'DON'T THINK ABOUT SHELM! FORGET ABOUT HIM! HE DOESN'T EXIST! YOU DON'T KNOW THAT NAME…!'
"What did you say?" the executioner inquired curiously.
"I can't hear you! Speak louder!"
"Nothing!" Dale shouted. He had to try hard to outvoice a screeching of piezoelectric siren mounted, it seemed, right above his head with its mouth directed vertically downwards. And, most probably, that was exactly the case, for otherwise acoustic blow would hit not only him but also the executioner and at least two goons guarding the exit doubling as the entrance whom Dale could smell. He couldn't taste them for obvious reasons; he couldn't touch them because of a duct tape reinforced rope he was tightly tied to a wobbly chair. The visual information channel was fully clogged up with a stroboscopic light's flashes Dale couldn't hide from for his head was held in a place by a rigid corset and he had specula inserted in his eyes.
"Don't lie to me!"
"I don't! I told you everything! I need Jeanne the Dark!"
"Let me talk to her! I'll explain her everything!"
"Don't yell," the executioner asked. His voice was low, but Dale heard it. They turned siren off. Not for too long, unfortunately. He had been through this already. Everything like in Dirk Suave movies: they make the prisoner believe he convinced them and the torture was over, let him relax, then hit him hard. Shelm did that three times to him, and Dale got caught the first time. And the second time, too, to tell the truth… "Who got caught the second what?"
"What?" Dale asked, although he understood the question perfectly. Hypnosis was working. He was starting to say his thoughts out loud without knowing it. Curtly and inappropriately at the moment, like a nightmare victim talking in his or her sleep, but it was only a beginning. There was a reason why a rotating hypnotic spiral mounted between him and the light looked like a set of separate rings rotating independently and overlapping here and there. He should have no unneeded thoughts about his friends, no deviations from his legend…
"Why do you need Jeanne the Dark?"
"I told you."
"I forgot. Tell me again."
"She's the only worthy buyer for our stuff."
"What is this stuff? Where can I see it?"
"Nuclear bombs. They are at the bottom of the sea."
"I'll tell it Jeanne the Dark only."
"Consider talking to her already."
"As you wish."
Dale thought he'd hear a sigh of grief, but the siren wailed instead. Stroboscopic light seemed to go crazy, too, and start blinking with tripled frequency, though it was just an illusion caused by the disoriented brain's futile attempts to match light and sound. It was exhausting, confusing, interfering with a conscious thought process, prevented from keeping your thoughts to yourself and sticking to your legend, making you vulnerable…
"What?" Dale didn't hear it and asked with sincere curiosity, and only then, owing to this pause, was able to realize his executioner was talking about Shelm whose name he discerned cursorily in the physical truth serum's victim's flaccid and thoughtless mumbling. He must brace himself, concentrate, come up with something… "Oh, that's a foul Australian word. Very rude one. You deserve it fully."
"Australian, you say?" the executioner asked never minding the insult, and Dale jerked as if hit with a lash. Really, why did he say 'Australian'? There are plenty of countries out there, and he just had to name Monterey's homeland… "Been to Monterey?"
"Yeah. I was there. I've been to many places."
"Oh, come on! You hear everything!" Dale couldn't turn his head, but he could swear there was a microphone by his head hanging from above or sticking out from behind. "I've been to Australia! Been! Been! Been! Satisfied? It's a crime? If not, then let's talk business!"
"Between me and Jeanne the Dark! Nuclear bombers!"
"There are several of them?"
"Two! Two bombs, I mean! Bomber is one."
"Now you start confusing things…"
"I wonder how you'd fare under this darned siren!"
"Don't yell, the siren is off long ago."
Dale twisted his ears in bewilderment. Indeed, the sound he was hearing was coming not from the outside but from the inside. Phantom signals of overloaded receptors. You can go crazy because of it easily… No, he can't. He must hold up. For the case. For his friends. For Gadget…
"What gadget are you talking about?"
"Gadget? The one to cork my ears with. They're still ringing. Have you got one?"
"Where are the bombs?"
"Go to heck."
The siren. The real one this time, not an illusion. And flashes, and rotating circles…
"What's your name?"
"Acorn…" Dale barely swallowed thick saliva produced by his mouth in tons it seemed. "Acornshop."
"What's your brother's name?"
"I don't… I have no brother."
"You said you had one."
"No… I didn't… No… No brothers or sisters…"
"How can it be?"
"I don't know. I'm a foundling… An orphan…"
"Alter-ego of Xorn, one of Grant Morrison's X-Men," the chipmunk answered instantly, surprised by the question, until he realized his executioner was still trying to guess the Shelm's name he heard indistinctly…
'Don't think about Shelm! Think about your legend only! That's the only way to fight through truth serum, hypnosis, torture! Proved by Dirk Suave…!'
"You watch Suave?"
"Are you a fan?"
"What's your name?"
"What? Siren, can't hear you…"
"Siren's off. What's your name?"
"Have you been to Australia?"
"Have you been to Italy?"
"Yes, I'm right from there."
"You killed Wasabi?"
"Horseradish? No, I didn't, I swear!"
"The flying squirrel."
"Oh, that guy… No, it wasn't me!"
"Who killed him?"
"She- Shellshock. He was shell-shocked, and Zack… No, he couldn't have, no… Muzzy! Muzzy killed him, yes!"
"Why did you kill him?"
"He tried to kill… Charlie…" it was harder and harder for Dale to speak. He felt he was falling asleep, although his eyelids were wide open and held in place. He knew that if he fell asleep, he would tell them everything, just everything, and everything would be over. For every one of them…
"What we'll be over? Who are they?"
"Not they… You… You'll be finished…"
"Are you threatening us?"
"I… I warn you… If you kill me… I'll be avenged… And you won't have your bomb…"
"Not a single one."
"Where are they?"
"No telling… Jeanne the Dark only…"
"What's her name?"
"Jeanne the Dark's."
"Turn the light off."
"Can't hear you. The siren…"
"The siren is off! Answer me! What's Jeanne the Dark's name?"
"Won? Gong? Louder!"
"Jeanne the Dark is Madame Wong."
"How could I know? You work for her."
"And who are you working for? For Shellshock?"
"Shellshock. Who's Shellshock?"
"Do you need bomb?"
"Shellshock! Shellshock! Who is he?!" The executioner pressed on. He felt he was close. And Dale felt he was close to the edge, to break-up, to failure… 'I must think about the bomb,' he kept telling himself. 'About the bomb. No, not the bomb. There're two of them. About two bombs. Two darned bombs…'
"Forget about the bombs! Who's Shellshock?"
"Buy a bomb…"
The siren at full power. And another one. Or this just a stereo effect? Or he hears double? He's seen double for a long time now, but hears double for the first time…
"Shellshock! Shellshock!" the executioner shouted.
"Buy two… It's cheaper this way…"
"What's your name?!"
"Dobby… I'm Dobby… Acornwood… Acornshop… Acornshop Dobby…"
"Is this your real name?"
"Bombs… Atomic bombs… With discount…"
"Who are you?"
"Where am I?"
"My name's Morten, what's yours?"
"Buy bombs… I've got two… I won't charge much… Charge much for two bombs…" Dale started laughing. Loudly, hysterically, coughing spasmodically. "Two bombs… Charged much… Got it? You got it, did you? Bombs… charged much… Charged much. darn you…"
The siren stopped wailing, the light went off. Dale sat on the chair making bubbles with a corner of his mouth, his inflamed eyes with dot-narrowed pupils still watching the spiral rotating on his retinas. He saw nothing and heard nothing, but he knew he wasn't alone her. The goons at the doors were standing there and they wouldn't leave until ordered to, but Morten…
Morten was gone. Dale felt it. Morten left. Left to get further instructions. Further instructions from Jeanne the Dark. For verdict. For sentence. This is it, as they say. Torture seemed to go on forever, but as soon as it ended, all events compressed into a thirty-seconds long video clip. Here he is being tested by Shelm riding roughshod over him, and he passes the examination with great difficulty. Then he goes out on the street to breathe some air. Then this crow catches him and takes him to the roof. A large rat hands him a black cap to cover his eyes needed to take him to Jeanne the Dark. The flight into unknown. The light, the siren, questions… Did he pass the exam or not? Did he say too much of anything he shouldn't have? Did he keep in line with his legend…?
'I did! I did! I told them nothing! Told nothing! Nothing! Nothing…!'
"…Generally speaking, he held through," Morten reported to a tall and slender female mouse keeping her eyes on the Rescue Ranger barely visible in the semidarkness. She was here the entire time watching the interrogation from an adjacent room through a one way mirror. "He definitely knows more than he told us, but if we keep it up we'll risk turning him into a brainless vegetable. But if you wish…"
"No," Jeanne the Dark said barely moving her lips. "I heard everything I wanted. Set up a meeting. With a red carpet."
"Red carpet?" Morten was genuinely surprised.
"Red carpet." Jeanne the Dark repeated. "Not everyone will bring himself to put up nuclear bombs for sale. He deserves it. They all deserve it."
"As you wish, ma'am," the executioner bowed with servility and edged himself through a door which was too narrow for him. Jeanne the Dark stayed there watching her henchrats doing everything they did to Dale before the interrogation, but in reverse order and with an opposite sign so to say. They took the specula off, put a dense black cloth cap on his head, untied him from the chair and dragged him out of the room holding him under his arms.
Back outside Morten's assistants handed the chipmunk over to the black crow, and after a long flight along a tangled non-linear route the Rescue Ranger felt a hard asphalt below his feet, and fell down on it like a ninepin without any scruples. They didn't took his cap off, and Dale was very grateful for that, for his tortured nervous system got enough blows already from wind, noise and smell of the seaport city.
He lay there until he was sure the passing cars no longer make him roll into a ball and press his ears to his head with his paws. Then Dale pulled the cap off, gradually half-opened his eyes, allowed them to get accustomed to the daylight, looked around and saw he was at Euregaten 8, almost exactly under the well-known electric box.
'I'm home… They let me go… I told nothing…'
The Rescue Ranger leant on the wall, slowly got up on his feet, shook his legs, took a few steps along the wall, waited for dizziness to pass, took a couple steps more, made sure his body didn't react too strong, then put his hand off the wall. The first few steps were difficult, but then it became easier, and Dale approached the edge of sidewalk almost at his normal walking speed. The efforts needed to get down on the carriage way brought his state back into a stone age, but, fortunately, not for long. Dale had problems climbing on the opposite sidewalk, though, because of vestibular apparatus malfunction. His jump ended with him hitting his left side against a corner of the sidewalk stone, screaming and falling down on his back, and he laid there until somebody grabbed him by his shoulders and put him up on his feet.
"LAD! YOU'RE BACK! OVER HERE, GUYS! HE'S HERE!"
"Monty… I told them… nothing…" Dale whispered feeling sick after such an abrupt posture change.
"What did they do to you?! If I get to them, I'll tear their arms and legs and tails and wings out!"
Monterey kept threatening Jeanne the Dark and her minions with all possible and impossible punishments all the way back to their suit, where Gadget was waiting for them and for Chip and Zipper who heard Monty's shouts and helped dragging Dale. Gadget was so happy she ran towards them with happily worried scream, so the first coherent phrase was said by Shelm coming in a few seconds later. "I told you they'd bring him back."
"I told… them… nothing…" Dale muttered. Despite his state, triumphant notes could be heard in his voice.
"Actually you said we should move to another building," Chip reminded him caustically.
"One doesn't contradict the other. Did they set up a meeting, Dobby?"
Dale shook his head. "I told them… nothing…"
"That's true: if you had told them something they wouldn't have let you go and would have come here already fully armed. Did they set up a meeting?"
"I dunno… I told them nothing…"
"Can't you see? He's too weak!" Gadget said angrily over her shoulder. "All questions later!"
"Yes, sunny, you're right. He must be put on the sofa. Let me help you." Shelm quickly approached the sofa and helped the Rangers to put Dale on it. "Charlie, Gloria, bring water, wet towels and a haunch."
"And fresh clothing! He must change!" Zipper added.
"Right, Zack, you and Muzzy do it."
"And take his shirt to the bathroom." Gadget began unbuttoning Dale's shirt.
"Wait," Shelm stopped her with an authoritative gesture, then dipped his fingers into a breast pocket of the chipmunk's shirt soaked with his sweat and saliva and fetched a piece of paper folded in four.
"What's that?" Monterey Jack asked.
"Let's find out… 'We'll meet you. Await further instructions.' An eagle has landed."
"What?" Chip asked gloomily.
"Contact established." Monty translated.
"I told… them… nothing…" Dale whispered and fainted out.
* 10 *
"Did they torture you here?" Gadget asked glancing over a long squat warehouse on the edge of the rectangular cape protruding into the sea and occupied by the harbor complex. The note they got from the hotel manager three hours ago read 'Midnight, Dokkeskjaerskaien, Warehouse 101'. Shelm and Zipper went first, separately and by circuitous routes. The rest left in group, timing their trip to arrive right on the designated time. Jeanne the Dark should value punctuality just like any other mastermind of such level and reputation…
"I dunno, I saw nothing," Dale shrugged his shoulders and shivered. After a brief pause in daytime it became raining again, adding gloom and cold to an already sinister picture. Endless ranks of containers, ominous brick and concrete buildings resembling ramparts and walls of medieval castles, rows of uncoupled 'decapitated' trailers casting long hand-like shadows in a white cold light of streetlamps… "What a nice place she chose! Doctor So-So is nervously shaking in the corner!"
"No So-So's, we're under legends," Chip pulled him up. "Muzzy, what's on the radio?"
"Chaotic stirrings," Monterey Jack answered which meant Shelm and Zipper were still moving towards their positions. Chip didn't like the Aussie alone having direct communication with the lemming and the fly, but of them with bandages on cold ears would be too much. On the other hand, this way the chipmunk was saved from context mentor lectures.
"Looks like we've come," Monterey commented aloud no as much for his companions as for Shelm and Zipper. Indeed, when they passed another container they saw a large rat sitting on a tin can by the enormous overhead gates right under giant painted digits reading '101'. The rat was wearing a tarpaulin with a hood covering his eyes, but it was obvious he wasn't looking at the newcomers very kindly.
"Where to?" he asked coarsely when the team approached and entered the hearing range.
"Charles Spencer Lodgepole to Jeanne the Dark," Chip introduced himself grandly, lifting up his chin and looking top-down at his taller interlocutor. "I have a reservation."
"Yes, this name was mentioned. Who are the rest?"
"Dobby Acornshop," Dale stepped forward. "I was here the day before yesterday."
"Can't help you, it wasn't my shift. Next?"
"Mazzon 'Crocodile' Hogan," Monterey said his name loudly.
"Looking like 'Hippo' to me. What's up with your head?"
"Colded my ears. It's wet here."
"It is," the gatekeeper smiled and looked at Gadget. "And what is your name?"
"I'm Jacqueline Mousteau, traveler of the seven seas, solver of the Three Oceans' Mystery!" the mouse answered in a ringing manner and smiled radiantly. It looked like this name rang some bells for the gatekeeper, and Chip was afraid they exposed themselves, but the rat apparently didn't know where the sound was coming from, and grinned friendly.
"My pleasure, froken! Welcome!" He jumped off his can, stepped up to the warehouse gates and opened a small door cut out in their lower section. "Here!"
"Thank you very much," Chip bowed courtly. Everything seemed slightly unnatural. It was too easy. No convoy, no search. It looked like Dale was persuasive indeed. Although who knows what's inside…
"Well, let's go inside then!" Monterey said for his radio audience, then added in a couple of seconds. "There's no reason to stand still!"
'Both are in positions,' Chip deciphered. Shelm provided a combat cover, and Zipper a reserve communication channel in case of problems with radio. Chip both wanted and didn't want to see whether Shelm was as good as he was painted, for if Shelm needed to act, then their plan suffered a hole, leak and everything else…
The warehouse was crowded with rats. Sparse, but still imposing rows of them started from the both edges of the gates, ran along the walls to the nearest containers, made a turn there and crossed the building, going up the stacked cardboard boxes rising like stairs leading to the yellow edges of the rectangular elevator platform sunk in the ceiling. 'She's there,' Chip thought. His guest was implicitly confirmed by a small group of five rats standing in a semi-circle on the very edge of the depression in the floor which allowed the elevator platform to stop flush with the floor when lowered.
"Welcome!" the head of the meeting committee greeted the guests. He was standing in the centre of the semicircle and stood out of his subordinates not as much as because of his clothing as the radio he was holding in his right hand; the radio was much larger and primitive than Gadget's ones. The sound of his voice made Dale shudder.
"It's him!" he whispered into Chip's ear. "It's Morten!"
"It's me," Morten nodded reservedly. "I know it was hard for you, Herr Acornshop, but you had to know what business you were in, and we couldn't let you see Jeanne the Dark without painstaking check. So don't hold grudge."
"We don't," Chip confirmed resolutely. "We are serious rodents, we understand everything. Except one: which one of you is Jeanne the Dark?"
Morten laughed demonstrating he liked the chipmunk's obnoxiousness. "Straight to business, yes? Well, your impatience is natural. Jeanne the Dark is here, I assure you, in this very building, she is seeing you and hearing you. As soon as she decides it's time for you to meet, you'll meet face to face."
"And if it doesn't suit us?" Monterey asked.
"You are free to go," the rat shrugged indifferently. "But I must warn you: there will be no second meeting." Morten looked at Chip meaningfully. "Jeanne the Dark evaluated your enthusiasm and burglar skills, but all other attempts to fish for her invitation will be stopped swiftly and cruelly. So, what's your decision? Will we talk?"
Before answering Chip glanced at his friends for form's sake. "We will."
The rat crossed his hands on his chest. "In this case, we're all listening very carefully."
Chip cleared this throat. "In this case, I'll begin. As far as I know, you have some understanding of what's going on here."
"You're right using the word 'some'. Supposedly there are two atomic bombs capable of being used as intended. And only you know where they are and how they can be raised. Let's start from the very beginning. Where are they?"
"In the eastern part of the Alboran Sea."
"The eastern part of the Alboran Sea is quite large."
"I'll tell exact coordinates to Jeanne the Dark only."
Morten filled his cheeks with air and exhaled loudly. "We've discussed it already."
"I remember that. The problem is, you can be leading us up the garden. Who knows, maybe you're only pretending to work for Jeanne the Dark, but actually want to resell her our information. Or even take the bombs for yourselves."
"Why you accepted our invitation then?" the rat asked in surprise.
"There was no other." Chip explained calmly. "But it doesn't mean we don't consider all possible variants. That's why until I meet Jeanne the Dark I'll answer many questions, but not every one of them. Yes, this deal is very important for me. But I'm sure it's even more important for Jeanne the Dark. So you won't get exact information about the bombs whereabouts without her. What do you want to know aside from that?"
Morten chewed his lip thoughtfully, cast a quick glance at the elevator platform over his shoulder, and nodded after a brief pause. "Alright, let's try it this way for a time being. Means of raising?"
"Deepwater load-lifting bathyscaphe of our original design."
"Won't it be easier to use a whale?"
"No, it demands some very precise work. The bombs aren't just scattered around the sea floor, they're inside the plane."
"Bombs are too heavy for them. Believe me, I looked through many variants. Bathyscaphe is the only way."
"Hardcore way!" Dale couldn't help but add. Chip pretended he liked his friend joking at such an intense moment.
Morten smiled, too. "I see you don't look for easy ways? On the other hand, who am I asking… Alright, well, and what about…"
The rat cut himself short and looked at something behind the Rangers. The team looked there, too, and noticed a rat wearing a wet coat and apparently having come in from the street lowers his raised hand and exits the door which they used on their way here. Chip's heart sank. Had they found Zipper and Shelm? No, it was doubtful, they would have signaled Monterey and he would signal them in turn. 'Strange. Why wave with their hands if they have radios? No, something's going on here…' Chip thought turning to Morten who looked unruffled as if nothing happened.
The Jeanne the Dark's emissary waited for all of them too look at him, then went on. "To tell the truth, there's just one thing I don't understand."
"What's that?" Chip asked.
"There are a couple of purely technical moments… What's wrong?" Morten asked looking at Monterey Jack plucking at his bandage.
"I've got, erhm, shooting pain in my ear!" the Aussie answered with a strained smile. "Don't you worry!"
"Oh, gosh," Morten was the embodiment of sympathy. "What a bad luck. Everything was right, and then the pain came. And at such a wrong time. I was just going to introduce you to Jeanne the Dark!"
With a low hum the elevator platform started moving down slowly. At that very moment the rats surrounding the negotiators closed their ranks and tightened their circle, and Chip knew for sure their cover was blown. That rat from the street definitely signaled Morten in some way, and he said the code phrase, and Jeanne the Dark who heard everything ordered to switch a radio jammer on, cutting the four Rescue Rangers from their friends beyond the warehouse walls. The platform's passengers were invisible from the floor, and while it was descending Chip had time to sift through numerous moments where he and his team could have made a mistake and exposed themselves. Could it because of his visit to Gudbrandsdalen's? But he explained it, and Morten looked satisfied with his answer… But then the platform reached the depression, and the chipmunk realized his thoughts were useless. No matter what legend or cover they used, they were doomed to be uncovered from the very beginning…
"You…?" staggered Monterey asked forgetting about deafening noise in his ears. "So it was… you…?"
"It's me, Monty, it's me."
Indeed, although Jeanne the Dark was wearing a long black coat, and the right half of her face was covered by a matt mask, she was impossible not to be recognized. It was her. Desiree D'Allure. Aside from her, there was a wheeled cart standing on the platform holding a cubic water tank filled with muddy sea water, and the Rangers saw its dweller only when he swam up close to the thick front wall.
"FIN!" The Rangers shouted in chorus recognizing another of their enemies.
"CAPTAIN Fin!" the anchovy stressed. In addition to the peaked cap the Rangers remembered from the previous encounter he was wearing a black polar pea coat. He shouldn't have been heard, at least not that distinctly and loudly, but apparently the cart was equipped with a system amplifying sounds from the tank. "Didn't expect to see me, huh?"
"Wlachally, no," Gadget admitted honestly. "If I remember right, you flew away into the desert…"
"What a marvelous phrase!" Fin admired her words mockingly. "Flew away into the desert! Sounds like I just got an urge to fly there and did just that, is that what you mean? But it was the other way around! You sent me there! You! Me! There! To a certain death!"
"You wanted to flood the city!" Chip reminded him.
"Right! It's your own fault!" Dale added.
"I'm glad you profess a principle of proportionality of crime and punishment," Desiree purred predatorily. "In this case my conscience will be clear. Not that it worried me too much, of course, but it will be a pleasant little thing."
"We didn't try to kill you, Dez," Monterey Jack reminded.
Desiree smiled unpleasantly. "Really, how could I forget. You simply sent me instead of the goods to my client. He was… unhappy."
"So this mask isn't just-" Dale stopped short and gulped.
"Everybody look away!" Desiree ordered sharply. "Those who'll disobey will die a painful death! Morten, watch carefully!"
"Yes, ma'am!" Morten put his arms behind his back and glanced over his subordinates with an icy glare. "You heard the order! Do it!"
The rats surrounding the Rangers turned around. Chip knew they could never have another moment for attack like this one, but Morten and his four assistants were still standing with their backs turned to Desiree and would certainly either stop any attack or hold long enough for everyone else to react to the noise. As a result, it would be a grand suicidal despair gesture which would change nothing, which meant it was useless, which meant it was unneeded, which meant it was harmful. No, it wasn't the time to die heroically. They still have chances. They have reserves, cover…
And then Desiree took her mask off, and Chip's express train of thought derailed. Desiree was his enemy, but he couldn't deny she had suffered a true barbarity. The right half of her face was one single branching scar, and even unaffected parts of the skin by her nose and lips looked dead and frozen because of damaged vessels and nerves. Even the pearl substituting the eye seemed to have been purposely selected so as not to hide but accentuate its absence, making everyone who saw it shivering with cold.
"Satisfied?" Desiree inquired.
"We…" it was hard for Monterey to speak. "We busted him. That beaver. We, uhm, got even with him…"
"For me?" Desiree raised her only movable brow. "You mean you were avenging me? And you really expect me to believe it? Looks like you take me for a fool. You had no idea about what happened to me until now, your faces show it. Not to mention that my mutilation isn't your only debt to me."
"What do you mean?" Dale asked. "What's the big idea?"
"You don't understand?" Desiree tilted her head to the healthy side. "Or you don't remember? Alright, I'll remind you." She started counting off on her thin fingers sporting black manicure. "Muscles who never got out of that cleansing vehicle. Erol thrown into a Doberman's cage. Know what that dog did to him? You can't even imagine. Next one is Captain Fin who's present here at the moment. Yes, he didn't die, but the time he spent in that desert damaged his temperature regulation irreversibly, so he feels himself on the North Pole even in the constantly heated up water. His crew members, on the other hand, weren't as lucky…"
"No one survived!" the anchovy shouted from the tank. "No one! No one left!"
"How about you?" Chip asked.
"I got lucky! There was enough water for me! A little puddle on the boat's floor! I spent a week there! A week! And then… And then they found me! They helped me! The world is not without kind hearts!"
"In other words, you killed your entire crew to be able to luxuriate in a salutary coolness, right?"
"Shut up!" Fin yelled and pressed himself to the glass so tightly he seemed to spread over the entire wall. "Shut your foul mouth! You weren't there! You didn't see what I saw! You know nothing! Nothing! But don't worry! Soon you'll know it! You all will know how a fish thrown on the shore feels!"
"No matter what you plan and no matter what you'll do to us, you won't get away with it!" Chip said confidently.
"Who knows, who knows," Desire put her mask back on and allowed her minions to turn around again. "Hope is the last to die, as they say in cases like this, am I right? Though if I were you, I wouldn't set my hopes on the fly and the best man."
"The best man?" Chip asked, not knowing what it meant. But Monterey Jack understood everything and lunged forward with a clear intent to either kill Desiree or sell his life as expensively as he could. Unfortunately, Morten and two his assistants happened to be on his way, and they were efficient and massive enough to delay the Aussie's charge, giving Desiree time to fetch a powder-case out of her pocket and blow on it, covering Monterey's face with a thick cloud of powder. Monterey Jack started coughing and couldn't see anything, and was no longer able to put up a good fight.
"Tie them up and take them to the pier!" Desiree ordered. "Don't spare the rope! And keep your eyes on them all the time!"
"All the time!" Fin repeated. "They're more dangerous than they seem!"
In some other situation the Rescue Rangers would probably consider this assessment flattering, but the current one was conductive only to emotions with a panic shades.
Zipper watched everything through the window and felt the same despite not being inside and surrounded. He also felt himself helpless and lonely. When the communication was jammed, he tried to find Shelm, but he wasn't at the designated place. Could he have been caught, too? Zipper didn't want to believe it. Most probably, he reasoned, the seasoned operative knew it was an ambush at the first sign of communication problems, and went over to his backup plan. Yes, that was exactly the case. If only Zipper knew what that backup plan was…
The fly was too energetic to just let the grass grow under his feet, so he decided to fly to Shelm's position once more and check whether lemming was back, and if he wasn't, whether he left any message for him. First time Zipper was in a hurry and just cast his glance over the container on top of which Mathias was about to set up his observation post, so he could have easily missed something important. Now, when it was clear his friends wouldn't be killed immediately, he could examine everything much more carefully.
Zipper flew over the warehouse flying straight to his destination, but halfway through he made a sharp turn and approached the place in question from the side, hiding behind the nearby containers. He landed on the side wall of the one on the same level as his target, slowly approached the edge, and carefully peeked around the corner to study the target container and a segment of the warehouse's roof with a blinking floodlight periodically flooding the container's roof with a sterile white light. During his previous visit here the floodlight didn't blink, he would have noticed it and remembered. So it was turned on later. And, most probably, not by Humans.
'They found Shelm!' Zipper realized. 'They got his bearings!' As soon as the jamming began, Zipper took his useless transmitter off and hid it in some dark corner, but Shelm, apparently, didn't have time to do the same…
'Or maybe he did! That's why they turned the floodlight on! If they had caught him, they wouldn't have been looking for him now!' With this thought Zipper flew up into the air and flew several circles around the container, each time coming lower and closer to it. There was nothing like an ambush on the container or around it. So if somebody's watching, they do it from afar, which means they expect a rodent, not an insect, which can't be seen from a distance…
That is, if you don't use a floodlight with a beam directed almost horizontally and making even the tiniest objects cast long and perfectly visible shadows. And you can't hide from it behind the juts on the container roof, for every depression was filled with rain water.
Zipper realized all that when his legs almost touched the roof and the floodlight switched on again. Rescue Ranger's reflexes allowed him to change his trajectory and dash to the salutary darkness, but then all the floodlights on this side of the warehouse switched on at once, creating a real wall of light, and rapidly increasing buzzing sounded from above, and the fly felt it was being dragged into that direction as if by tractor beam. Zipper turned his head to look in that direction and saw a crow diving on him and holding a white tube with his legs which was directed at the fly and connected by a flexible pipe with a white plastic satchel on the bird's back.
'Bug vacuum!' Zipper realized and worked his wings as fast as he could. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to beat the crow's speed and the vacuum's power, and in a few seconds Zipper found himself in the tube, then in the pipe, and finally in the bug vacuum frame where his legs miraculously caught on a junction between storage and bell mouth, preventing him from falling on a metallic net under high voltage which would act like an electric chair. With just the same dire consequences.
With his prey caught, the crow switched the bug vacuum off allowing Zipper to catch his breath and hold at the junction with all his limbs. Judging by sounds and vibration, the crow landed on the container, which meant he would probably look into the vacuum to make sure his target was dead, so Zipper crouched back into the tube. It was dangerous to play dead, for even if the crow didn't peck him into his head just to be sure, the bird would definitely take him to Jeanne the Dark, and Zipper knew he would be of more use to his friends while free than as a prisoner. This meant he had to find a way to get away from the crow, or, even better, neutralize him to keep the skies clear. Or disable the bug vacuum at least to make things at least a bit easier…
'And what about doing both?'
This was looking like a plan. Zipper even stopped to think more clearly, but then remembered where he was and started moving his limbs even harder. It would be faster to fly, but Zipper didn't want the crow to hear his buzzing and realize ahead of time that something went wrong. On the other hand, the flexible pipe twisted and turn while the crow was landing and taking the vacuum off his back, and Zipper moved very slowly. Well, better slowly but steadily, then fast but…
"What the heck!" the crow cawed in surprise as he opened the storage container's bottom and found it empty. "He was sucked in, I was sure of it… Hey, hello, where are you? Got stuck there, huh?"
The crow shook the bug vacuum and the pipe energetically, and Zipper who had almost reached the intake tube was forced to set his limbs into adjacent folds of the pipe so as not to fall back into the serrated hose's depth. Then the pipe turned horizontally, and an inquiring round eye appeared right in front of the tube, and Zipper pushed himself forward and flew towards it with his fist in front of him, and hit the bird right into his pupil.
"OUCH!" the crow yelled in pain, dropping the hose and pressing both wings to his injured eye. With his enemy temporarily disabled, Zipper flew to the cargo container's doors and found a security seal. He didn't care about careful and invisible unsealing, so he just uncoiled an annealed wire and broke it out of the seal's case using it like a lever. He landed on the door and straightened the wire, untwisted part of it and bent the ends of separate wires into two small hooks. Then he bent the opposite end under approximately forty five degrees, took the resulting tool with all his limbs and flew up to the edge of the roof.
The crow has already recovered from the blow, put the bug vacuum on his back, bent over the long edge of the container and motioned the tube held in his wings from side to side. It wasn't the best possible strategy for searching for a fly in a seaport at night, but it was way better then returning to Jeanne the Dark without the prey, for Jeanne the Dark clearly didn't profess the principle 'a fault confessed is half redressed'.
"Darned fly! Stop hiding! Show yourself!" the crow shouted into the darkness, then turned around abruptly, rubbed his injured eye with his wing and, screwing the healthy one weak-sightedly, went towards Zipper. The Rescue Ranger descended a little and flew around the container to approach the bird from the rear. As soon as the bird bent over the edge, Zipper flew up to the bug vacuum, opened the bottom lid and put one of the wire hooks on the electric net. He couldn't put the second one at once for the crow turned around to find out what was happening behind him, and Zipper had to spin a little to close the circuit. When it was done, he closed the lid back as tight as the wire allowed, bent the wire so that her free end trailed along the container, and flew into the crow's line of sight deliberately.
"Gotcha!" the bird cheered up directing the tube at the Ranger. The crow was curious of course what the fly was doing with the vacuum, but his wish to take a revenge on his offender and gain Jeanne the Dark's favor overshadowed everything else, so the crow groped for the switch with his wing and turned the bug vacuum on…
"I hope it works!" Zipper thought. While he was acting according to a plan, it seemed totally logical, but now, when nothing could be corrected, he began to have doubts. What if the vacuum didn't switch on? What if the voltage wasn't enough? What if it didn't work as planned…?
The fly vacuum buzzed, the air started moving, and Zipper dashed to the side evading the air vortex which didn't follow him this time. The crow froze with his wing behind his back, his beak half-opened and his feathers standing upright on their ends. The voltage from the net, which reached the container's wet roof through the wire, didn't kill him, but it was strong enough to paralyze him. If it went on long enough, though, it would have much more tragic consequences, but Zipper, whom Gadget had explained sometime ago on occasion why birds can sit on power lines without electrocution, took the wire with his hands and lifted it off the rook breaking the circuit. The unconscious crow fell down and spread on the roof, allowing Zipper to get to the bug vacuum's switch and discharge the situation completely.
"Flawless victory!" Zipper congratulated himself with a phrase he learned from Dale, and flew to check on his friends. Under these circumstances it was quite possible he'd find Shelm there, too, either as another captive or as a cavalry from beyond the hills. There were other variants, too, but Zipper didn't want to consider them.
Shelm wasn't among the captives. There were still the four Rescue Rangers only walking in step with the rats surrounding them towards the Human motorboat moored at the far end of the moorage. The most of the motorboat's cabin was covered with a special planking separating it into a crew compartment and a spacious deck for the boat's owner. By rodent standards it was speedy luxurious yacht. Desiree obviously wasn't one of those who deny themselves at least something. She was walking accompanied by Morten and two personal bodyguard rats right behind the convoy and slightly ahead of the both self-warming and self-propelled water tank cart driven by Fin himself.
Because of either narrow field of vision or poorly designed controls the anchovy periodically drove onto one of the rats forcing them to stop and pull their tails from under the wheels. In the end Desiree got fed up with this constant fuss behind her back, and she stopped to order her bodyguards take their tails in their hands and walk faster, and at that moment a long nail went into a wooden railing a millimeter away from her cheek, which would surely have pierced her head right through if she had continued moving. Desiree froze with her mouth half-opened, and the closest bodyguard jumped up to her and pushed her to the ground, and the second nail hit him right into his chest. But even before he felt into the water like a rag doll he was replaced by half a dozen rats from the convoy who literally buried Desiree under a heap of their bodies, making her invincible for future shots. That's why the third nail hit the water tank right in front of Fin's face who swam up to the wall to see what was going on, but the glass wall turned out too strong, and the nail made only a small surface crack on it.
"It's Matty! Matty!" Monterey rejoiced who considered his old friend dead after Desiree's words about the fly and the best man.
"Lights! Lights on the pier!" Morten, buried along with Desiree under his subordinates' bodies, shouted into his radio. Then, snaking out of the pile, he ran up to the head convoy rat. "You said he's dead!" he hissed angrily taking his henchrat by his coat front.
"Well, Gunter said he dealt with him," the convoy rat answered, clearly bewildered. "Although his voice sounded dull and hoarse, maybe it wasn't him…"
"Or he was held by his throat!" Morten pushed his subordinate away and raised the radio to his head again. "Swartwingen! Swartwingen, do you copy? Swartwingen! Darn, this one doesn't answer, too! Looks like the fly got away, too…"
The captured Rangers didn't hide their joyful glances and shouts. Their reaction told Zipper who was too far away to hear everything distinctly that Morten was talking about him and Shelm, and the news were good, so they'd put up a fight… And then a pier next to the moorage from where the nails came was illuminated by several floodlights, the beams of which caught a lone black figure running bowed along the container in the third row from the pier's edge facing the sea. And almost immediately at least dozen of rats dashed there from the warehouse, splitting into two equal groups to outflank their enemy.
"Come on, Matty! Show them!" Monterey Jack shouted.
"Matty's the champion! Matty's the champion!" Dale shouted stamping his feet in time with his words.
"Trash the brats!" Gadget joined in.
In contrast with his friends, Chip refrained from loud emotions and concentrated on watching Shelm getting away from the chase and watching for the signs of a staged-contractual character of the action. The signs were few and far between, mainly because most of the action was happening out of sight of those standing on the moorage. Shelm's agility which allowed him to jump from one container to another one, from the second container into the hook of the third one, from the hook onto the box shed, from the shed to the ground, and from the ground to the fourth container's lock and so on and on and almost without any pause could make the course champion green with envy. Say what you like, but mass migrations provide great training for overcoming obstacles. It was hard to assess lemming's close combat capabilities though. For instance, here one of the rats broke from the rest of the group and ran behind the box simultaneously with Shelm, but only Shelm came back into view. And how would you interpret that? That Shelm was a winner of a fierce fight? Or that his 'opponent' just stayed there to catch his breath while the others continue to fool around…
"It's Gunnar!" the radio in Morten's hand yelled. "He knocked Olly out! With a single blow! A single one!"
"Don't expose yourselves!" the Jeanne the Dark's head of security yelled back. "Surround him, attack from all sides at once! I must teach you the simplest things or what? What use are you for me of then?!"
The hint worked, and the rats began to move forward in a much more coordinated way. It slowed them down considerably, too, and they managed to more or less surround Shelm when he was close to the pier's edge. And while the agent still had an imperfect but open way for retreat, Zipper thought the situation was dangerous enough for him to intervene actively. Putting arms at side, he dashed towards the bandit connecting the half-ring with the pier's edge, for his removal would almost double the width of the safe corridor, but then the lemming who was twisting and turning to all his sides like some whirligig disappeared in a cloud of thick grey smoke. The rats who no longer saw their target jumped into the cloud all at once but caught nothing but an air, one another and something like a loose black pajamas from which Shelm literally leaped out and now was wearing only a long dry diving suit. The next lemming's leap ended in the sea.
"Start the motorboat!" Morten ordered. "Swartwingen! Swartwingen! Swartwingen, darn you! Where's this feathery idiot when he's needed the most…? Convoy! Take our guests to the boat! The prone ones, I speak to you, too! To the boat, in a turtle formation, fast!"
The rats guarding the boat ran to cast the mooring lines. The convoy surrounded the Rangers tightly once again and led them onboard via the gangway. Desiree, slightly rumpled after lying under a pile of her bodyguards and torpidly hysterical after an unsuccessful but so close attempt on her life, followed them under even tighter and numerous security. Fin, being the last to drive along the gangway, almost fell into the water below it a couple of times because of looking not forward but where Shelm should have been according to his estimations. The rats on the pier tried to locate him with the help of shoulder flashlights, but his location became known only when the motorboat cast off, ran around the moorage and turned on its headlight.
"There he is! There! Swimming towards the twenty fifth!" the motorboat captain shouted, examining the illuminated patches of the sea through his looking glass. "Full ahead! Full speed ahead! We'll get him!"
The motorboat's hinged engines roared, and the vessel darted forward. Rescue Rangers herded to the windscreen became openly depressed. The distance was decreasing so fast that Shelm had no chances to reach the next pier before being caught. Zipper, who followed the lemming and was flying in circles his head, saw this too, and immediately said it aloud.
"Don't buzz! We'll make it!" Shelm answered between strokes. Zipper looked at the approaching boat again, hemmed skeptically and went on flying, looking back from time to time. And if he had looked down, he would have noticed a large predator coming, in whose maw, as if into a black hole, Shelm fell. In a moment pitch darkness swallowed Zipper, too, who had no time to see what it was. The motorboat passengers, in contrast, saw everything in detail.
"MATTY! ZIP! NO!" Monterey Jack yelled as if it could change anything.
"Golly…" Gadget whispered pressing her tied fists to a windscreen.
"It can't be! I don't believe it! It's impossible! It's just a dream! Illusion!" Dale went into a deep rejection. Never before had Chip wanted for his not very reasonable friend to turn out right. But what they saw couldn't be a hoax, and for the sake of their own psychic health they had to admit the obvious: Zipper and Shelm were eaten by…
"It was an orca, right?" Morten asked.
"Exactly!" Fin confirmed proudly. "The killer whale in all his glory! Saw that jump! Such grace, such speed, such inevitability! You won't find those on the land!"
"Yes, you're probably right," Desiree flattered her companion, then turned to completely demoralized Rangers. "I told you not to set your hopes on them. If you hadn't, you wouldn't be sitting here sad, but take it philosophically. Unneeded worries shorten your life, you know. Although you won't die from emotional overload, that I can guarantee you. Morten, tell them to return to base. By a long route. An important stop has to be made."
"Yes, ma'am," the rat said with servility, than shouted at the boat captain: "We're going back! Long route! Full ahead!"
"Aye-aye, sir!" the captain acknowledged. Morten called Gunnar one more time on his radio and ordered him to clean up and find a nail thrower. Then the boat made a wide turn and headed towards the harbor exit. Bergen was separated from the open sea with a whole labyrinth of various-sized isles and straits, but the captain knew his act, and soon there were only waves around far and near.
"Where are we going?" Chip asked casually.
"You'll see soon," Desiree answered impassively without even looking at him.
Captain fin, on the other hand, was much more emotional and talkative. "You'll see, oh you will see! And you will feel it, too! Fell it deeply, I can even say! You'll feel on your own scales how a fish thrown on the shore feels!"
"You repeat yourself," Chip observed sarcastically.
"Right! You repertoire is poor! And you have sight problems! We've got no scales!" Dale didn't miss an opportunity to tease his enemy. His last phrase only angered Fin, though.
"You're right! You have no scales! And soon you'll regret it!"
"You want to drown us?" Gadget guessed.
"You'll have to take us very far away; it's hard to find so much water at once!" Dale stated self-confidently.
"Lad, you see, we're in the open sea," Monterey reminded him. Corners of Dale's mouth lowered instantly, making his face look like a mask of tragedy. Fin laughed so hard it became storming in the tank. Desire couldn't help but laugh scoffingly, too, and all the other rats followed suit. Rescue Rangers understandably were the only ones who weren't laughing.
"Alright," Desiree said when she stopped laughing, and the polyphonic laughter ended instantly. "We are far enough from the shore. Morten, order to decrease speed and ready the gangway."
Although the boat captain heard his words, he waited obediently for Morten's order. and only then issued the appropriate commands to his immediate subordinates. The boat's speed dropped significantly, and two sailors extended the gangway, but not off the board like in the harbor, but right in the middle of the stern, between the engines.
"You want us to be dragged into the screw and cut into pieces?" Chip asked trying to maintain a steady and calm voice.
"No way," Gadget said. "In order to be dragged into the screw, we must fall into the water before them, or they will push us away."
"In other words, don't even hope," Fin commented sinisterly, watching with his madly shining eyes as the Rangers were being taken to the stern. But as soon as the rats began to herd them into a passage between the engines, the anchovy yelled hysterically. "What?! No! Untie them! You forgot to untie them!"
"Untie?" the captain wondered. "Them? Why?"
"Because!" Fin shouted almost running Desiree over. "We made a deal! A d-e-a-l!"
"We made a deal, yes," Desiree confirmed turning to the boat captain. "But even if we hadn't, isn't our dear friend worthy of indulging his modest wishes, his little foibles? Untie the chipmunks. In turn, of course. And if they even try to make a wrong move, break the mouse girl's neck."
"Untie her, too!" the anchovy insisted.
"Fin, dear," Desire cooed unexpectedly softly, slowly moving her little nail along the glass in front of the fish's cheek. "You're not the only one having little foibles. Let it be a trade."
"And where's the trade here? I see none!"
"Of course there is! How about those two the sea swallowed without chewing? It's more than you hoped for, than you could imagine."
Her bewitching voice obviously affected Fin, who licked his lips with some lustful implication. "Actually, babe, I've got a vivid imagination…"
"Wait, wait, fishy boy, no familiarities," Desiree shook her finger at him. "We haven't drunk brotherhood yet."
"And it's a lamentable neglect."
"Maybe, for longer I think about it… So how about a little step to meet my wishes?"
"Only if you will be indebted to me."
"I doubt you'll like it. Those I'm indebted to usually have ill fates. I have no idea why. And those indebted to me, too."
"Why should I care?"
"No, no, it's a matter of principle. So let's consider it a goodwill gesture which, I assure you, wouldn't go unnoticed."
Fin thoughtfully pursed his lips. Chip used the pause in these macabre negotiations to analyze the situation once again. There were too many enemies, and they stood too tightly around them. Even if they untie him and Dale, they wouldn't run too far away, plus Gadget would be killed instantly. Not an option. No go. No ways out…
"Deal," Fin nodded.
"I never doubted your reason, Captain," Desire was smiling charmingly while saying that, but when she turned to the Rangers, her face was radiating grave cold. "Untie the Black Nose and shove it him on the plank!"
Before Chip knew it four rats separated him from his friends, pushed onto the gangway and untied his ropes. Chipmunk quickly began rubbing and limbering up his numb wrists preparing himself for a swimming race. He didn't doubt Gadget's words about the screws, but better safe than sorry…
"Alright, let's start," Desiree announced nimbly climbing up the left engine and looking down on the captives and the minions. Chip could easily jump up and kill or at least injure her, but Morten, stomping loudly, stepped up to Gadget, and Chip abandoned this plan. Yes, it was silly, for they were about to die anyway. Yes, Gadget would probably approve this exchange, and Shelm would definitely go this way. But Chip wasn't Shelm. And he couldn't do it. 'There's still a chance,' he kept telling himself. 'Nothing is decided yet, nothing is finished. Something will surely happen. It always happened, it will happen this time, too. It must happen…'
"But…" Chip barely had time to open his mouth when two rats jumped up to him, grabbed him by his shoulders and threw into the sea headfirst.
"Golly…" Gadget whispered. "Golly, golly…"
"It can't be…" Dale repeated dully.
"That's for Muscles," Desiree stated, judging from her glance direction, addressing the Space. "Next!"
Rats dealt even faster with Dale.
"That's for Erol!" Desiree informed when she heard the splash. "Now the mouse girl. Leave the ropes on."
"No!" the tied Monterey couldn't climb the engine, so he dropped to his knees right where he stood, looking at his former bride with sincere plea. "Dez, please, I beg you! She's like daughter to me! Spare her!"
"Don't grovel, Monty!" Gadget shouted selflessly. "She's not worth it!"
"But you are worth it, luv!" the Aussie answered her and looked up again. "Dez! Please! Have mercy! Do whatever you want with me, but spare her! Just her! For everything that was between us! For good' sake!"
"Like daughter?" Desiree repeated. "Well, it was obvious, but thanks for confirming it. Now I'll enjoy it even more. Throw her to the sea!"
"NO!" Monterey yelled. He tried to get up but four rats subdued him. making him unable to do anything but watch the two sailors taking Gadget by her shoulders and legs, carrying her to the edge of the gangway and throwing her down. "NO-O-O!"
"This is for me," Desiree said touching her mask. "Eye for an eye, Monty. You can't even imagine how long I've waited to say these words."
"You…" Monterey Jack managed to say, barely holding his tears and his lower lip from shaking treacherously. "You are a monster… I'll never forgive you this. I'll kill you. Destroy you. I swear! I swear in front of everyone here!"
Desiree smiled. "Sing, birdie, sing. Alright, the show's over. Morten, tell them to remove the gangway and go full speed ahead. It's time to go to the base."
"Why don't we throw him, too?" Morten asked helping her to get down from the engine.
"I haven't finished with him yet. He's not dangerous, he's just a fat dump bumpkin without his friends. But watch him still, who knows what stupid thing he can make. Are you satisfied, my fishy boy?"
"Completely," Fin answered rubbing his fins. "But that doesn't mean I want nothing more."
"Of course. But do me a favor, wait for our returning to the base."
"I'll wait if it's worth it."
"It is, trust me. You won't regret it…"
'Bastards… Scums…' Monterey Jack thought watching the cooing couple moving to the bow. He could do a couple of 'stupid things', and the motorboat passengers would regret being here, but in the end he would be overwhelmed and either killed or really neutralized, this time once and for all. And he couldn't allow it, no matter how hot his fury and thirst for revenge burned inside him. Not now, when he remained the only one. Matty, Zipper, Chip, Dale and Gadget wouldn't forgive him for that. He had to be patient and pretend he was defeated and broken, in order to pull his aces from his sleeves at the right moment and deliver a crushing blow to Desiree's and Fin's plans no matter what they were. And then and only then, not before, he would be able to think about heroic death…
* 11 *
The water was even colder than Chip expected. Thrown forcefully from the gangway, he didn't have time to tuck properly and had to spend some time getting rid of water filling his nose, mouth, eyes and ears, and then swam after the motorboat. First they should gather into a group. That would make the situation calmer and a little bit warmer…
Dale hit the water right before his nose, and Chip had to make a stop to regain sight. Dale snorted and coughed the water out and started yelling his head off. "CHIP! CHIP! WHERE ARE YOU, CHIP! ARE YOU ALIVE?!"
"I'm here, here! Don't yell into my ears!" Chip tried to calm him down. If Dale were standing on the ground, he would jump in surprise, but since he was in the water, he waved his hands creating another wave of splashes, and Chip had to rub his eyes one more time. "Darn, Dale, calm down! Don't make waves!"
"Oh? Oh, okay… How are you?"
"Cold and wet! Swim after the boat! We must get together! I'm right behind you!"
"Oh? Oh, okay!" Dale looked around him, turned around and swam the crawl, and Chip had to start all over again. That's why he didn't see Gadget being thrown into the water, but Dale's yells told him everything was very bad, so he stopped feeling cold because of stress and swam forward, striking and rubbing his eyes in turn. After another hand swap he saw Dale was nowhere to be seen, suspected the worst and swam towards the motorboat's lights contrasting sharply with surrounding darkness and visible even through barely open eyelids, and was hit by something raising from the depth right below him.
"ARGH!" Chip shouted remembering the fate of Zipper and Shelm.
"ARGH!" the surfaced creature shouted with Dale's voice.
"Chip?" Dale coughed. "Me!"
"Almost… Barely…" Dale breathed hard, he was shaking violently. "Just a couple of inches… I couldn't… Oh boy…"
"What? What?!" Chip grabbed his friends by his cheeks and around to see his face. "Whatcha talking about?!"
"This…" Dale shoved his right fist under the friend's nose holding goggles. Chip froze despite being frozen already. Dale went on, sobbing and breathing harshly. "She was tied… Couldn't swim… She… She's there… That's all I could do… All that remains…"
"Give it to me! Give it!" Chip began tearing the goggles out. Dale didn't resist, but it was still hard to free the holding strap from his tightly clenched and convulsively twisted fingers. Having done that, Chip put them on, pulled the strap as tight as he could, took a very deep breath, and dived.
It was even darker underwater than on the surface, and it was unclear how one can find not only a little mouse but even a blue whale here. Chip started moving into the depth, looking around in search of anything that could lead him to Gadget. A string of air bubbles would be perfect, but it was nowhere to be seen. It was very strange. And very scary…
'How deep am I?' Chip thought. It was an important question, but chipmunk dismissed it almost immediately. It was untimely. He'll surface as soon as he finds Gadget. Not before that…
'You can drown…'
'Correction. She can drown. And I must save her!'
'If there is still someone to save here…'
'Nonsense. Of course there is. She couldn't dissolve without a trace.'
'One can cease to exist without dissolving…'
'Go to the woods an gather some acorns! And don't digress! Search!'
A few strokes more. Even less air in buccal pouches. The surrounding world becomes even darker. You involuntarily begin to doubt whether you are diving deeper and deeper or flying higher and higher. Here the stars started to shine, there's some nebula appeared in sight. Or are those signs of freezing and oxygen deprivation? Most probably, there mustn't be any stars or nebulas here. You should just blink at they will go away… Yeah, that's better, the starts almost vanished. The nebula stayed, though. If it's the nebula, that is, and not-
Chip tripled his efforts. The cold numbed senses, impeded the muscles' motor functions, and if the chipmunk didn't know where he was, he'd think he's swimming in a jelly tank. But he overpowered both himself and the element, and swam within an arm's length from Gadget's fluttering hair resembling a golden cloud. Coiling a thick lock around his fist, Chip started swimming back, working with his free hand for three 'other guys' at once: for himself, for the occupied hand and for Gadget dragging along like a dead weight…
'NO! SHE'S ALIVE! ALIVE!'
'Reach the surface first…'
Sensible suggestion, especially since everything around looks similar, and there are no air or strength reserves to correct the wrong direction choice. On the other hand, it's easy to chose the direction — he should see where Gadget's legs point and swim the other way. But apart from direction there's also a distance…
'Nothing to worry about! It will take me as many strokes to surface as it took me to dive!' Chip kept telling himself, realizing at the same time that these calculations were very far-fetched for he wasn't that cold back then, worked with all his limbs and didn't carry additional weight. Still he honestly counted his strokes, first forcing himself to believe he remembered how many of them he did on his way down here, then persuading himself he just made a mistake once or twice, and when it stopped working, he started telling himself he had to swim just a little bit more. He was already close to let the sea into his lungs and become its part forever, but then his almost immovable hand touched something solid, and the water around him seethed, and something grabbed him by his wrist and jerked him out of the water.
"OHBOYCHIPOHBOYYOU'REALIVEOHBOYYOUFOUNDHER!" Dale didn't hope to see his friends ever again and was hysterical about proving wrong. Chip couldn't make his words out, but it didn't matter. It was more important to catch his breath and make sure Gadget was alive. Check her pulse, breath, pupil reaction…
"Hold her!" he ordered Dale, for his strained right hand didn't work well. "Hold her up! Hold her head up, I said! Alright, that's better…"
"How's she? How?" Dale didn't say but rather chattered with his teeth.
"I wish I knew…" Chip said through his teeth clenched with tension and cold. He moved his fingers frantically along Gadget's neck, but it was as productive as reading Braille script wearing boxing glove. "I mean, she's surely alive, just unconscious! She'll be okay!"
"That's good," Dale said, his gaze fixed on the inventor's serene face. "That's very good. Can you help me holding her? I can't feel my hands, I can drop her, and I don't want to, I can't drop her."
"Sure, Dale," Chip moved his left hand under the mouse's head, then wanted to take her under her arm, but his fingers didn't bend, so he just put his paw onto her elbow. "Better?"
"Maybe," Dale nodded vacantly. "I feel nothing anyway. If I didn't see her, I wouldn't even know she's right here, in my arms. It's good we are together. It's easier this way. Less scary. Like in fairy tales: 'and they died together on the same day'…"
"Stop it!" Chip yelled trying to compensate his voice's uncertainty with its loudness. "No one will die! We survived even greater perils! We drowned, burnt, fell down — and we're still alive! Forgot?"
"No, I remember. She's beautiful, isn't she?"
"She is, Dale, very."
"Think she can hear us? I have so much to tell her while there's still time…" Dale's head dropped down on his chest, he closed his eyes and sobbed.
"Hey! Hey!" Chip shouted at him when Dale showed no intention to raise his head back or open his eyes again. "Don't sleep! Don't sleep! Better look around and tell me where the coast is!"
"No matter. It's too. Far away. We were travelling. By motorboat. For almost an hour."
"It means nothing! It's not the reason to give up! We can't give up! We can't!" Chip insisted, trying to convince not Dale but rather himself in the first place. He had little success, for his friend was mostly right. Night. Open sea. Near-polar cold. Nobody around. The bottom, ha-ha, line was: there were only two ways – drowning and freezing. Agonizing slow death, preceded by even slower and more agonizing fading away of hope giving place for despair. No, when Captain Fin demanded to untie them, it wasn't a psycho's whim but a calculation, cold like the North Sea. He probably felt exactly like this in the desert, adjusted for aridity and temperature. And now he recreated it for his offenders, painstakingly and pedantically. Rescue Rangers didn't tie him up, and he didn't tie them up, too. He let them swim around, freeze a bit, look for the way out, get frightened of predators, and in the end surrender, submerge and go down slowly feeling the air coming out. Slowly and steadily, like his, Fin's, little saving pond was shrinking…
'He's crazy or what? What shark can live in these waters?' Chip thought, but still he forced himself to open eyes and follow Dale's stare. Indeed, there was a sharp black fin approaching them. An orca. It was approaching fast and along a straight line. which meant they were the target.
"Thanks. For everything. Chip. I'm sorry. If something. Was wrong." Dale said dully, barely moving his lips.
"You too. I'm too." Chip answered in the same manner. It's stupid to keep rejecting the obvious with an orca swimming your way. Apparently, they'll share Shelm's and Zipper's fate. The orca will dive under them, open its maw, and swallow them all at once.
"Farewell." Dale said.
"Farewell." Chip repeated. The orca seemed to feel its prey wouldn't fight, so it began to surface with clear intention to swallow them as it moved. First a black sloping back appeared above the water, then white 'eye' spots became visible, then the mouth opened, allowing the rodents to see tarnished sharp teeth, a horseshoe-shaped tongue and Shelm standing on the edge of the lower lip holding a boat-hook…
"Hi, guys! Long time no see! Don't sleep – you'll freeze! Grab it, quick!" the lemming shouted at the Rangers and slapped the boat-hook against the water, and the splashes told chipmunks they weren't seeing a mirage or some product of near-death mind games.
"Dale, help me!" Chip called for his torpid friend, and they together with Zipper who came flying from behind Shelm hooked unconscious Gadget onto a boat-hook by her armpit and helped Shelm as best as they could to get her up onto the orca's lip.
"Katya, please, open your mouth a bit wider," Shelm shouted seeing the chipmunks were unable to climb that high. The orca lowered her lip so that it's edge went underwater, waited for the rodents barely moving their limbs swim onto this 'apparel', and half-closed her mouth again taking them off the see they got already fed up with.
"Throw wet clothes overboard! The towels and warm things are there! Zack, show them the way! And hand this back!" Shelm handed the boat-hook to Zipper, took Gadget in his arms, squeezed between orca's teeth put the mouse down on the tongue on her side and started untying the ropes on her hands. "Faster! Faster! You'll catch a cold!"
The chipmunks, shivering with cold they started feeling again, rushed in a designated direction and found their luggage they left in 'The Crown of the North' strapped up to the interior sides of the killer whale's lateral teeth. Tearing wet business suits off, they crumpled them and threw into the sea, rubbed their bodies with bath towels lemming considerately prepared for them, and put the thickest sweaters and coats on.
"Better?" Shelm asked upon finishing with the ropes which he threw overboard. "Good. Katya, go to Magda's, torpedo-fast! Guys, come here!"
The last phrase wasn't really needed for both chipmunks and Zipper were already right next to him. "What's with Gadget?! How's she?! Is she alive?!"
"If you bring her around, she will be! You know what to do?"
"Of course!" Chip answered. "We are the Rescue Rangers, after all!"
"Then go for it, I won't intervene," Shelm got up from his knees and went off to the 'luggage compartment'. Only now the Rescue Rangers noticed the orcas jaws were closed, but there was light as if in the middle of the day owing to a LED garland hanging off the orca's upper teeth like a dental brackets.
"Oh, wow…" Dale muttered. "He has, I dunno, a real Bat-cave in here!"
"Don't digress!" Chip reproved him. "Zipper, get us more towels! Dale, help me! We've got little time!"
They turned Gadget on her stomach, then Chip sat down on his knee, and Dale put Gadget oh his extending leg so that her head and body would slope down, and Chip's knee would press her under her ribs, and then they made the water pour from her lungs by pressing their paws on the mouse's back. Then Chip turned Gadget on her back, rolled the towels brought by Zipper into tight rolls and put them under her shoulder-blades, and was about to press his lips to her half-open mouth when Dale put his paw on his mouth.
"What are you up to, huh?"
"Are you crazy? Artificial respiration!"
"Ah…" Dale's fur stood on its ends. "Oh boy, sorry, I thought… Go on, stop just sitting there!"
"That's better," Chip said angrily, but then he saw Dale unzipping Gadget's diving suit and slapped his paws. "Watch your hands!"
"Are you a dolt?" Dale asked with irritation. "We need to do a cardiac massage!"
"Oh, really…" Chip became red with confusion. "Go on, don't waste time!"
Shelm who was watching the procedure rolled his eyes as if asking the orca's palate what was he punished for, but, except for this small episode, the chipmunks acted in concert and professionally. Soon Gadget started coughing and twitching, and Shelm immediately brought a thick blanket and a vacuum flask with something warm and, as he put it, generally strengthening, and poured a thick fluid into three drinking bowls. Chip made improvidently large gulp and felt like eating a mix of cayenne pepper with distilled caffeine.
"What's… this?" he asked hoarsely.
"Wormwood, milfoil, camphor, white ash-tree juice and almost fifty other ingredients, approximately one-third of which are top secret," Shelm answered eagerly. "Another cup?"
"Thanks, enough for me."
"And you are right, for overdose is hazardous. Gloria, sunny, how do you feel?"
"I'm okay…" Gadget whispered. "No problem… Just cold…"
"Don't worry, Magda will warm you up. She's a real sorceress, she revives much harder patients. We'll be there soon, you'll see for yourselves."
"Can I ask you a question?" Chip asked.
"Depends on the question."
"Yeah!" Dale interrupted, whose unrestrained tongue became even more loosened by the brew. "Why didn't the orca eat you?"
"They are friends," Zipper prompted.
Dale waved him off. "I know it already, thanks. How did you befriend her so fast?"
"They were friends long before that," Chip explained. "It was part of the plan. Am I right?"
"You are, Charlie," Shelm nodded. "Katya was my backup plan for that not very probable case that the harbor operation would fail."
"And why did it fail? Did anything go wrong?" Chip didn't even try to cover his sarcasm.
The lemming shrugged. "I missed. My fault. I'm very sorry. I didn't want to. It happened."
Chip, already prepared for a harsh confrontation, was thrown off by this penny-plain and by all signs sincere answer, and when he gathered his thoughts up for the next critical question, they were deafened by a low tubular rumble coming from all directions at once as if they were in a looped pipe organ's tube.
"Katya signals we're close," Shelm explained. "Wrap Gadget tighter, it's cool outside."
Chip put off all the questions swarming in his head for a time being and went on preparing Gadget for transportation. Soon they heard the orca's body chafing against the ground, then she opened her mouth, and the Rescue Rangers, already accustomed to the warmth of the confined space, shivered with cold. The chipmunks wrapped Gadget so tight that only the crown of her head stuck out, took her under her back and legs and followed Shelm onto a shore of an island large enough to stretch both ways till the horizon. Chip's selfless swimming race reminded of itself with stinging panging in his right arm which worsened because of not very comfortable grip. Fortunately, they didn't have to walk far.
"What lemmings am I seeing!" an old field mouse living in a hole almost at the very edge of a sand strip marking the tide zone greeted Shelm very unfriendly. "Whom did you bring along this time? Who became the next victim of your heartless games?"
"We are the brave Rescue Rangers!" Dale said proudly.
"If you got mixed up with this character, you are indeed very brave. Can't say the same about your wisdom, though."
"Isn't she a marvel?" Shelm asked the chipmunks with a smile, but didn't wait for the answer and turned to face the field mouse again. "Magda, goldie, you know me, and you know I'm always ready to have a heart-to-heart talk with you, but we've got an almost drowned mouse girl desperately needing your unmatchable talents. Take care of her, and we'll discuss me and my behavior later over a cup of your own matchless juniper brew. Deal?"
"What an impudent and shameless brazen!" Magda said angrily through her teeth, but sincere plea she saw in the chipmunks' eyes softened her anger. "Well, since you've come here already, I won't send you away. Come in. boys, carry the girl in. I'll see what I can do with your woe."
"If you excuse me, I'll go unpack things," Shelm informed everybody, although he wasn't invited anyway. Magda ignored his words pointedly, and the Rescue Rangers had more important issued on their minds. Still, they didn't got a very warm reception either, for as soon as they put Gadget down on a suede sponge trimmed with patterned cloth occupying the largest section of the sleeping impasse, the old mouse pushed them out into the main corridor unceremoniously and shut the thick curtain before issuing a short and categorical order to wait there.
"Zipper, go ask Shelm unobtrusively if he needs any help," Chip said nodding at the exit. The fly nodded understandingly and flew away to carry out the assignment. The chipmunks sat down on the floor right in front of the curtain, leant back on a rounded wall and began waiting for the news.
"Well, that was some scrape," Dale said. "I'm an optimist, you know, but even I was sure it's a finish. And then it turned out this way…"
"We barely made it," Chip agreed. "We did everything according to plan and logic, and still barely missed the death."
"In that sea I regretted so much I hadn't started fighting when they untied me!"
"I think I know what you mean. I felt that way too. But in the end it's good we hadn't started fighting."
"Yeah. Everything you don't do is for the best!"
"Except artificial respiration," Chip couldn't help but observe sarcastically.
"And a cardiac massage!" Dale countered.
"But you started it first!"
"And you gladly followed!"
"Not true! I just- just…"
"Just what? Went crazy?"
"Just got worked up, that's all!"
"Have you tried to take medicine? Ask Magda to brew something for you nerves."
"You should take medicine! And it's correct to say 'from you nerves'!"
"'For'…! Gosh, what are we arguing about?"
"Uhm…" Dale shrugged. "I dunno. Does it matter? We always argue."
"Isn't it time to stop?"
"No idea. Any other suggestions?"
"Well, since today we were like born for the second time…"
"And it's not the first time we are…"
"Don't interrupt me!" Chip was determined to take his inspiration to the logical conclusion. "Until now we competed who hurts whose pride more. From now on let's compete who praises whom more pleasantly."
"Let's!" Dale agreed eagerly. Then he thought a bit and asked: "How's that?"
"I'll show you. Alright, I start: Dale, if you hadn't restrained yourself on the boat and started fighting, they would have killed us all! Thank you!"
"You're welcome!" Dale smiled broadly.
"It's your turn now," Chip reminded him.
"Uhm…" Dale rubbed his nose thoughtfully. "Chip, if you hadn't restrained yourself on the waterfront and started fighting, they would have killed us all! Thank you!"
"Not bad for the first time. Let's continue. Dale, if you hadn't caught Gadget's goggles, I wouldn't have saved her, and she would have drowned. Thank you!"
"Chip, if you hadn't saved Gadget that would be horrible! Thank you!"
"Dale, if you hadn't helped me to administer first aid to Gadget, we would have lost her! Thank you!"
"Chip, if you hadn't taught me long and tediously how to administer first aid, I wouldn't have been able to help you to save Gadget! Thank you!"
"Dale, thank you that I didn't lose Gadget!" Chip extended his paw, and Dale shook it eagerly, tightly and with great pleasure.
"And I thank you, Chip, that Gadget's still alive and I still have her!"
"I swear my feelings for her wouldn't make you my enemy!" Chip stated solemnly.
"I swear, too!" Dale said enthusiastically, and the chipmunks sealed their woe with embrace.
"I'm glad you're alive and well," Chip said.
"And that Gadget's with us!"
"Yeah, that's the most important!"
"Whatever happens, whoever she chooses, she'll be a part of our lives, and we'll remain a team!"
"One hundred percent!"
"But it doesn't mean-"
"Don't even hope!" Dale laughed, and Chip felt an enormous boulder falling off his mind, which was there and constantly reminded of itself since that day in June when he almost drove himself crazy with paranoid suspicions about Dale and Gadget. To shelve this episode completely it remained only to confess everything aloud, and Chip decided to make hay while sun shone and looked for appropriated words, but then loud rhythmic clapping came from behind. The Rescue Ranger turned around quickly and saw Shelm grinning widely.
"And you're worth of each other," the lemming observed lowering his hands, "You compensate each other's weak points and intensify the strong ones. A perfect Tai Chi illustration!"
"What?" Dale asked.
"How did you get in?" Chip asked. He didn't understand how Shelm got inside the burrow since he and Dale sat in the main corridor and didn't go anywhere.
"Through the back door. It was closer to carry things there."
"Why then we didn't use it when we carried Gadget?"
"And you go visiting through the front door or a window or a flue?"
"It depends on the emergency."
"Then we were right not to use it. There are thick boards coated with earth and covered with grass for camouflage. Magda wouldn't have heard us knocking at it."
"Then we would have opened it ourselves and called for Magda from the inside."
"It can't be opened from the outside…"
Chip's eyes widened. "And how you opened it then?"
"I didn't finish," Shelm went on calmly. "It can't be opened from the outside — that's what Magda thinks. But I know a couple of secrets, so I can open it. But I don't want for anyone except me and Magda know where it is and how to open it. So I didn't show it to you."
"And where's Zipper?" Dale asked glancing around. "He's no with you? Where's he, by the way?"
"He stayed with Katya to pack the things better."
"For some reason I think you wanted to hide your knowledge of how to open the back door not only from us but from Magda, too, didn't you?" Chip inquired.
"No comments, if you excuse me," Shelm smiled broadly and turned around to walk back inside the burrow, but Chipped stopped him.
"Can I ask you a question? Why didn't you tell us Jeanne the Dark was Desiree d'Alluree?"
Shelm looked at the Rangers over his shoulder. "First, I didn't allow the question. Second, why do you think I knew it?"
"Because it explains everything," Chip got up and approached the lemming. "You were about to be Monty's best man on his and Desiree's wedding, you knew about his relations and, I'm absolutely sure, you knew about that episode with the chair for the Canadian beaver, and you used us as a bait. So I repeat my question: why didn't you tell us anything?"
"Well, Charlie, you are indeed a smart lad. I'll explain everything. But not here." Shelm pointed at the curtain covering the entrance to the Magda's room. "Let's go to the storeroom."
Without waiting for the chipmunks to agree, lemming resolutely strolled down the corridor. Chip and Dale rushed after him and soon came to a spacious room with sacks lying along its walls containing, judging by the smell, dried berries and meadow plants.
"So?" Dale asked impatiently. "What's up?"
"Don't bustle, Dobby. Although that's a part of the answer to your question, Charlie. I kept you in the dark to control you better."
Of course, Chip didn't like the answer, but he had to admit Shelm's straightforwardness. "Well, at least you answered honestly, without some stupid things like 'it was for your own sake'".
"There's no need for that. It would only hurt the case now."
"You should have told us all the truth!" Dale said.
Shelm shrugged. "Maybe. But I chose this way, and it led us to success."
Chip choked. "Success?! The bandits captured and almost drowned us, and took Monty to their lair, and we can't find it now since we lost the speedboat! You call it success? What is failure for you then?!"
Shelm didn't even blink. "Don't fly into passion, Charlie, your interpretation is wrong. In fact the results look like this. The bandits consider us all dead, so they don't expect an attack. Muzzy has infiltrated their lair, and he is more than capable of taking care of himself and give those bandits heck. The lair is located in the point with coordinates 62 degrees 36 minutes 33 seconds north and 5 degrees 17 minutes 22 seconds east. At least, at this point the GPS signal vanished, and since its charge should be enough for two more days, the boat swam into a grotto or something like that. You call it a failure? What is success to you then?"
The chipmunks' jaws dropped.
"Don't expect… Infiltrated… Coordinates…" Dale repeated.
"But how?" Chip asked. "They have GPS-tracker on their boat?"
"They do now. Katya put it on their bottom while they were moored."
Chip hemmed. "You prepared for the failure so thoroughly I've becoming less and less convinced it was an accident."
"You should prepare for the failure before it happens."
"If you are so prudent, why you exposed yourself on Monty's wedding?"
Shelm pursed his lips and sighed. "I was stupid. Me and Muzzy finished one hard operation at the time. We were tired, exhausted, got killed five times or so, sp we thought it was enough for us and resigned. That is, I resigned being a staff operative, while Muzzy just said he wanted to live peacefully an quietly, steady down, settle down, make a family, now that he met a suitable girl, Desiree. He offered me to be his best man on their wedding, and I agreed. Of course he introduced us, and mentioned my past. I didn't keep it secret either. Of course, I omitted some details, but told her my bio more or less. Desiree was a great listener, and I saw nothing bad in it. I resigned, there was no reason to be really secretive, especially from your partner's future wife. And look how it ended… After that incident Muzzy let himself go, followed his nose. And I knocked about the world a little, then asked my former colleagues to let me back. There's nothing else I can do, after all. They were very glad I returned. That's basically it."
"Wow…" Dale said.
"If it's true, I've got no questions," Chip concluded.
The lemming looked at him sideways. "Charlie, you don't trust because you have reasons, or just out of principle?"
"Well, I'm sorry, but after you told us you were lying to us all along… By the way, why you and Katya didn't show up at least five minutes earlier? You've been following us from the harbor! You must have known they threw us overboard!"
"I waited for the boat to go far enough. To make sure they weren't about to return."
"So you just lounged about while we were freezing to death?" Dale got outraged.
"But you didn't," Shelm observed.
"Now I know why Magda isn't very happy to see you," Chip commented. He didn't shun the principle 'end justifies the means' altogether, but he would never follow it if his friends' health and life were at stake, especially Gadget's.
"I'm not a silver coin to be liked by everyone," Shelm countered calmly. "Still, if you and Dobby wish to kick my butt, I'm at your service."
Chip froze. That was a challenge. Explicit, barefaced, blunt and, worse of all, stated as a big condescending favor. Of course he could ignore it, turn it into a joke. But that would be a complete surrender, a final and irrevocable acknowledgement that Shelm had the right to do whatever he liked with their fates and lives. And he was challenged in Dale's presence. No, he couldn't go back.
"So?" Chip asked his friend. "Will we kick?"
"We will!" Dale agreed, and the chipmunks knocked each other's fists for good luck and threw their warm coats off. Shelm, who had changed into a turtleneck sweater, didn't undress and didn't even move, and just stood there, observing his opponents' preparations remotely. He was much smaller than Monterey Jack whom the chipmunks defeated when they met first, but Chip had no illusions. He knew Shelm was a hundred times more dangerous. On the other hand, he and Dale also learned a couple of tricks since then…
"Super Bowl!" Chip shouted, and the chipmunks started moving to the opposing sides outflanking the lemming. The Super Bowl code meant a synchronous swift attack with Dale aiming at the enemy's legs, and Chip — at torso, which caused the enemy, no matter how large rodent he or she was, to become overwhelmed and go down on the ground. Of course it would naïve to think they would defeat Shelm with one swoop, but it was the best variant for a contact recon.
On their seventh steps the chipmunks attacked. The distance wasn't long, but Shelm still reacted and rolled forward right under the Chip, who both overshoot his target and found himself standing with his back to Shelm who pushed him strongly, forcing Chip to stumble over Dale and fall down prone.
"Ouch," Dale said massaging his paw injured in the collision. Chip pushed himself up on his legs and turned to Shelm, but lemming had no intentions to 'finish' the Rangers and stood slightly away from them waiting for their further actions. Of course the friends could play a staring game with him, but the long pause could be considered a demonstration of weakness and desire to exit combat before getting another portion of blows, and Chip couldn't afford that.
"Bait," he breathed out into Dale's ear while helping him up. This scenario closely resembled Super Bowl, but this time Dale was to attack, and Chip would wait for Shelm's reaction and react to it in turn. In real combat even with other team members present this tactic was too risky and was used very seldom, since even two or three blows could be fatal or inflict serious injuries. But this time, with not lives but pride on stake, Chip decided it was suitable.
Dale didn't object, too, and they began synchronously outflanking Shelm again. It was up to Dale on which step to attack, and he chose the eighth, but as soon as they took five steps each Shelm delivered a preemptive blow targeting Chip. Bridging the gap between them in one leap, Shelm marked a strike to the neck with his fingertips, and when Chip covered with his hands instinctively, lemming grabbed him by his wrist, turned him around and hurled at Dale coming to Chip's help. The impact wasn't powerful, but it was still unpleasant, and both chipmunks found themselves on the floor again, this time sitting.
"I don't like how it turns out," Dale complained.
"You don't say," Chip acknowledged. There was no sense to carry on like this, wasting efforts on moving while the opponent had no need to hurry and was just standing there. "Alright, to heck with all conventions, let's see how good he is at fistfight!"
The chipmunks stood right next to one another, shoulder to shoulder, assumed boxing stances, and started carefully moving towards Shelm. The lemming started walking backwards, and they spent some time walking in circles about the storeroom. But when it was clear the chipmunks were able to hold formation and walk in step, Shelm allowed them to close up and made a couple of false swings. The chipmunks reacted by putting up blocks, which didn't protect them from kicks in the knees, though. Chip tried to do the same, but Shelm jumped aside and poked Chip's temple with his finger. Chip swung his fist aiming at lemming's jaw, but Shelm leant back, graded Chip's paw with his left hand and twisted it a little marking a painful hold with a probable fracture in combat. Seeing that he wasn't being looked at, Dale tried to hit Shelm's groin with his foot, but first the lemming caught his foot with his knee, then put Chip between him and Dale, simultaneously reflecting Chip's left punch with his right elbow. Dale tried to kick Shelm from behind Chip, but Shelm took another sidestep, twisting the Rescue Rangers' leader's arm even more. Chip clenched his teeth with pain and attempted to hit Shelm again, but this time lemming didn't just reflected but caught his arm, then crossed his arms forcing Chip to do the same, then took a step forward and unbent his elbows abruptly, pushing Chip onto Dale who just raised his leg for another kick. As a result, the chipmunks lost their balance, jibbed, hit the wall and slipped down along it to the floor.
"Ouch," Dale exclaimed. His back and head suffered for themselves and for that chipmunk for whom he acted like a safety bag.
"Alright, he asked for it!" Dale shouted intimidatingly raising and helping his friend up. The chipmunks once again knocked each other's fists to bolster their morale they rushed for a final and decisive assault, pouring a rain of blows at Shelm. Although it would be more correct to say in Shelm's direction, since not a single one affected Shelm the way they were intended to. Sometimes it seemed the Rescue Rangers faced some lemming-octopus, and the lack of their success couldn't be explained by them complying with the limitations of fighting an ally, for the chipmunks gradually became embittered and forgot about any self-limitations. In contrast, Shelm kept just marking his strikes, holds and pokes at the pain spots. But there were so many of these marks, that they stopped irritating and started to frighten, prompting the chipmunks to finish it as soon as possible, and the rush is a bad ally in the fight…
"Hey, are we unloading or… WHAT?" Zipper's angry speech addressing Shelm stopped short as soon as he flew into the storeroom and saw what was happening there. "What's going on?! Have I missed something?!"
"It's okay!" Chip shouted without looking back since he was in the middle of another series of attempts to massage Shelm's face. Mathias blocked the first punch and evaded the second, simultaneously stepping behind Chip to cover from Dale for a countless time. Until now this tactic made his life much easier, but this time Chip sat down quickly, and Dale jumped over him aiming his extended hands at the lemming's neck. He even succeeded to dip his claws into Shelm's sweater, but Shelm freed himself with quick upward strike, then grabbed Dale by his shoulders, hit the bridge of Dale's nose with his forehead, and pushed back so that he would slam into Chip. But Chip was prepared for it, so he let his friend pass him and marked a punch to solar plexus, and when Shelm lowered his left hand to block it, he punched aiming at his temple with his left, and when Shelm intercepted it with his right hand, he swung with his left hand aiming at lemming's eyes. Shelm leant back, but not far enough, and Chip's little finger's claw scratched his nose. Unfortunately, this success turned out pyrrhic victory, for the chipmunk opened up too much, and the combination of knee-cap into his solar plexus, uppercut and two finishing hooks reached the target and sent him into knockdown.
"Ouch…" Dale moaned finishing slipping down along the wall to the floor.
"Wow…" Zipper commented.
"Does anyone wish to continue?" Shelm asked looking at each chipmunk in turn.
"I pass," Chip muttered, sitting up and holding his buzzing head.
"Plus one," Dale said from his corner.
"In that case, let me help you," Shelm extended his hand and helped first Chip and then Dale to get up. "What can I say: you are good, I underestimated you. Of course, you aren't the best I fought with, the best would have defeated me, but you definitely belong to the top five. Congratulations!"
"Drop it," Chip waved his words off. "You weren't fighting even at half-strength. In real combat you'd kill us twenty times or so."
"That's true," Shelm acknowledged without false modesty. "But I didn't plan to have my nose injured, so you have what to be proud of. And don't think I'm just trying to pick up your snivels for you. No way. I'm just stating a fact. Yes, Zack, I'm sorry I made you waiting, go to Katya, I'll join you soon, right after getting some ointment from Magda for my nose. It really hurts, you know. And you should take a rest now, it will be a hard day."
Shelm saluted chipmunks with two fingers and left. Zipper looked at Chip quizzically. Chip nodded that everything was alright, and the fly left to the shore.
"It's good he's on our side," Dale said moving his raised finger in front of his eyes.
"Yeah, that's reassuring," Chip noted. He couldn't say he started liking Shelm, but he definitely began o treat him more favorably. His tale about his past didn't contradict the known facts, and his phrase about picking snivels up was exactly what Chip wanted to hear at that moment in order not to lose the remains of his self-assurance and self-respect. Which, having even the slightest intuition, wasn't hard to calculate and use against him… Darn, why's everything so difficult…? "Alright, let's see if we ruined something here, or Magda will be angry."
To the fighters' credit, the storeroom was dealt almost no damage, and the friends had little to do, so when Shelm visited the storeroom on his way from Magda to the back door and told them they can see Gadget, Chip and Dale ran so fast the lemming barely had time to jump aside.
"No fanaticism! She's still too weak!" Magda warned them strictly. The chipmunks nodded eagerly. The field mouse sighed disapprovingly, but moved the curtain aside, letting them into a small but cozy circular room where Gadget was lying covered with a thick blanket carefully tucked up on all sides. Her cheeks, previously deathly pale, were flushing lively and healthily, and there were joyous sparkles dancing in her eyes. Seeing her friends she bent forward extending her arms, and Chip and Dale literally fell into her embrace.
"Golly, guys! Golly, you're alive! How are you? Are you okay?"
"What can happen to us?" Chip laughed.
"Sure! We're the heroes!" Dale leant back slightly and bent his hands to play with his muscles. "We snap our fingers at dangers!"
"You are always full of jokes," Gadget reprimanded him kindly. "Imagine how I worried? How afraid I was to lose you?"
"And how afraid we were to lose you!" Chip said. The mouse answered by pressing her friends even tighter to her, and they buried their noses into her thick and damp hair still smelling faintly with sea salt, which in this warm and joyful moment served as a silent remainder of their recent meeting face-to-face with death…
"And where's Monty?" The mouse asked. "Did they take him along?"
"They did," Chip confirmed. "Shelm says that it's even better this way, that he had either predicted or planned that. I hope it's true. Otherwise it's not very good."
"Don't think bad of Monty," Gadget said with reproach. "He'll take care of himself."
"I don't think bad of him. Rather, I think very good of Desiree and her gang. Plus there are really many of them."
"No matter how many of them there are, we'll deal with them!" Dale stated confidently and slightly louder than needed, for the curtain moved aside and Magda entered.
"I told you, no fanaticism! Go to your rooms, she needs rest!"
"Where are our rooms?" Chip asked.
"Come, I'll show you. Come on, come on, it's night outside, and you must wake up early in the morning."
"Why do you think so?" Dale asked.
"Mathias' assistants never sleep much."
"You know him as Mathias, too?" Chip inquired remembering Shelm's words about his real name.
"He introduced himself that way. And his assistants always called him that way."
"And how many assistants did he have?"
"Aside from you, I saw near dozen in total. Alone, in groups — it was different each time. But one thing never changed. I never saw any of them twice."
The Rangers shivered involuntarily.
"But that doesn't mean they all perished," Gadget observed.
"No, it doesn't," Magda agreed. "But that's the first thing you thought about. And that means something."
Is it any wonder that, despite mutual sincere wishes, the Rescue Rangers didn't sleep very well that night?
* 12 *
"Seasick?" Desiree asked sympathetically.
"Don't you even hope," Monterey Jack answered through set teeth. "I spent more time at sea then you have lived. I was even born on the ship in the middle of the ocean!"
"And you'll die in the middle of the ocean, too!" Fin promised. He had said something like that so many times already that Monty stopped paying attention to it. He was worried by the complete absence of sea dwellers reporting directly to Fin onboard, though. There were only rats led by Desiree. But Fin couldn't be the only fish involved! There couldn't be a captain without crew! Where was it? On the base? Making something so important and grandiose no member of it could leave even for a few hours? This case smelled really fishy…
"Don't lose heart, Monty! Eye of the tiger! Eye of the tiger!" Desire cheered him up mockingly. "It's too early to lose heart, you don't know everything yet!"
"Go to heck," the Aussie muttered. He was depressed indeed, but he wasn't broken, although he tried hard to look like he was. When it ended, he would chew the earth in anguish. But right now he needed to brace himself and accomplish the mission his fate presented him with…
"Stop looking at the floor, you'll miss the most interesting part!" Desiree went on, openly reveling her vengeance and triumph. Monterey didn't like to obey her commands, but it was necessary to look around, so he stood up with strained groans and turned to the windscreen.
There was a black island dead ahead. Its west side was sloping and flat, but it rose to the center, reaching its apex close to the east shore which ended with a flat slope as if sliced with knife. The motorboat was turning towards it, and Monterey understood they were about not to land on the shore but to swim into a grotto. Or even a whole subterranean complex…
"You made your base in a submarine pen?" he asked.
"You are unusually smart," Desiree answered.
"Don't think I'm stupid! I was blind because I trusted you!"
"Really? In that case, I'd have to take additional precautions," Desiree said thoughtfully. If Monterey's hands weren't tied, he would certainly slap his forehead. His own tongue made his task harder! His friends wouldn't have liked it, and Matty would have…
"May Ebola eat my guts…" he whispered, looking with his bulging eyes at the sight behind the gates camouflaged as the bluff. They were raised exactly high enough for the motorboat to pass and led into a long and high dock which could contain at least five Alexandro Sosa's caves. It was a vivid comparison of capabilities of a single private entrepreneur and totalitarian state machine. And if you place 'Esmeraldina' by the ship occupying the dock it would be clear that the individual, no matter how rich he was, had no chances… "Is this a battleship or what?"
"No, it's just a light cruiser," Desiree answered.
"Just?!" Fin felt offended. "It's a whole K-class light cruiser! A bane of the trade tubs, Kriegsmarine workhorse! It's a great honor and responsibility to be in command of her!"
"Sure, sure, Captain, forgive the land mouse her ignorance," Desiree apologized meekly.
The anchovy nodded condescendingly. "Apologies accepted."
"What am I seeing, Dez?" Monterey couldn't help but comment. "You are tiptoeing before him! Don't know about you, lad, but I would be careful…"
"Shut up, you land rat!" Fin broke him off. "You fooled the girl away, so don't whine now!"
"Right, Monty! It's bad to be jealous!" Desiree reprimanded the Aussie, running her fingers mincingly along the water tank wall. But Monty felt his words alerted her. He definitely got close to something… Alright, it will wait, there are more important issues at hand.
"Okay, Dez, you showed me the cruiser," the motorboat came close to the giant ship, and Monterey had to throw his head back to glance at her. The ceiling lamps were off, probably having broken down after all the years, but small lamps hanging everywhere on the superstructure and small helmet lights moving here and there showed the work onboard was in full motion. "Care to explain what's he for? What are you planning to steal this time?"
Fin answered instead of Desiree. That is, he first broke into mocking laugh, then answered. "What is she planning to steal? It's so funny! You understood nothing! It's my operation! My plan! From the very beginning! And no one will steal anything! Theft is petty! On the other hand, you can call it theft, for if there is something, and then it's gone, you can call it stolen! Agreed?"
"Well, yeah," the Rescue Ranger said warily.
"Then you may think I want to steal the North Pole!"
Monterey Jack coughed. "What…? Hey Dez, I think he overheated in that can of his…"
"AS YOU WERE!" Fin, enraged with this neglect of his persona, quickly swam up and waved his tail, splashing quite hot water over Monterey. Apparently, he had serious problems with thermoregulation indeed. "I'm in charge here! Captain Fin! You must address me and ask me! Only me and nobody else!"
Monterey allowed himself to doubt the fish's words observing the motorboat mooring process supervised by the rat captain who reported to Morten who in turn reported to Desiree directly, but he said nothing. It's always easier to get information from hysterics, you just need to feed them questions like dry wood into the fire.
"Okay, Captain, I surrender, don't splash. And how do you want to steal the North Pole? You can't load it onto the cruiser."
"That's better!" the anchovy appraised change of the Ranger's tone. "The sea water is the best cure! It clears the brains immediately! You said you can't load it onto the cruiser? Not the Pole itself, you're right. But the Pole is not just a spot on the map! It's also an ice cap!"
"You want to load the ice cap on the cruiser?"
"No, I'll make it disappear! Thaw without a trace!"
"Really? You built, how you call it, a ruby laser?"
"Laser? Ha! Laser is petty! No! I filled this cruiser with explosives, and I'll ram it into the largest rig on the largest gas field stretching out for hundreds, no, thousands of kilometers! To the very Pole! The rig will blow up, the fire will reach the gas deposits and spread to the Pole, the sea will boil, the ice cap will thaw, the water will rise and flood everything! All continents, all mainlands, all isles! The ocean will lap where the cities are standing now! Fish, whales, shellfish, algae will live there! And everyone of them will praise me, Captain Fin! The hero, who made the Humans pay for all the sufferings of the sea people, and who restored the sea's past glory and greatness! All that left the sea will go back into it! It can't be otherwise!"
Monterey Jack needed some time to digest what he had heard, and Fin began to lose his temper. "So? Say something! Or you ate your tongue? Or you are scared? Or you don't believe me? You really should!"
"No, why, I believe you," the Aussie murmured casting a glance at Desiree who listened to the anchovy's speech with poorly covered appraisal. "I just don't understand, how it happened that the same land rats you want to destroy are helping you to drown the world? Something's wrong here…"
"You think too highly of your kind!" Fin said arrogantly. "You can't even imagine how many of your congeners can sell their mother for a small bribe, and here we're talking about some piece of land they never saw and owe nothing to! We, the fish, are different!"
"Uh-uh. Tell me you don't eat each other."
"We eat! So what? That's not the point! If there's even the smallest pollution, the smallest leak of oil or some other poison, the whole sea suffers! All sea without exception! So 'progress' and 'ecology' aren't just words for us! And you don't care! You're hungry — go to the sea to get food! You have some garbage — throw it into the sea! The sea is large, it will endure, nothing would happen to it… So I will end this! And the land dwellers helping me are signs of the highest justice and the highest irony of fate! And you can't run from the fate! And our enemies won't run from it! No one will be spared!"
"Ma'am, the mooring is finished, the gangway is deployed," disciplined Morten reported to Desiree. Neither he nor other rats onboard were impressed with Fin's enthusiastic speech, although they must have heard it. The conclusions were self-evident.
"Don't get angry at me, Captain, but you are cynically deceived! Desiree is keeping you in the dark, like she kept me previously, to reach her goals which greatly differ from yours! I advise you to dissolve your contract, treaty or whatever you signed with her before it is too late!"
Fin laughed even louder than before. "You think you are very smart? You hope to drive a wedge between us? Don't even try, you poor land creature, you won't do it! Think for yourself, whom will I trust more: one of those who ruined my plans and almost killed me, or the one who is working hard to help me restore the universal justice? She did everything: found the ship, found the workers, found the perfect target… And you tell me she did it to betray me in the end? Do you really believe it? If you do, I'm very disappointed with you. That's it; I don't want to see you anymore! Did you hear me? Make it so that I never set my eyes on this fool again!"
"Of course, my Captain, your wish is my command," Desiree purred. "Leave it to me, and I swear he'll never trouble you again."
Fin nodded. "I have no doubts about it. He's all yours, my dear."
"Thank you, my Captain, you're such a darling. The night was very eventful, you need to have a rest. Go to your room, and I will send somebody to change your water."
The anchovy nodded eagerly. "Yes, yes, send them as soon as you can! The combat officer can't allow himself to pay a visit to a pretty girl in stale water, I hope you understand."
"I'll be waiting for you," Desiree promised with a honey-sweet voice.
"I won't keep you waiting," Fin promised back and drove to the gangway.
As soon as he disappeared from view, Desiree's facial expression changed significantly. "Put him under reinforced convoy!" she ordered Morten curtly. "And search him more thoroughly than before!"
"Yes, ma'am," Morten answered, then snapped his fingers, and a dense rhombus consisting of eight rats formed around Monterey Jack, with four of the rats slapping him all over his body and felt every single fold of his clothing. Only then the procession led by Desiree went down on the narrow wooden moorage running along the whole length of the dock where the electronics specialist already familiar to Monterey Jack was waiting for them.
"Madam! Madam!" Gudbrandsdalen dashed to them skippingly, but when he saw the Rescue Ranger, he stopped abruptly. "I know him, Madam! He sold me the AIS chip! He was there!"
"I know," Desiree interrupted him authoritatively. "Tell me if the cell is ready."
"Oh! It is, it's fully ready! Display, webcam — everything's set up and connected! That's for him, yes?"
"Not your business."
"Yes-yes, I'm sorry, excuse me! Concerning the forced detonation device…"
"Later!" Desiree barked at him.
The electronics specialist stepped back and grew pale. "But Madam…" he looked at Monterey Jack and understood everything. "Oh, forgive me, forgive me, please… I didn't want to… I… I'll come to you later…"
"I'll meet you tomorrow at ten o'clock!"
"Yes-yes, good, of course, thank you!" Gudbrandsdalen said perplexedly walking backwards, then he turned around and ran away into the side corridor.
"You shouldn't treat him like that," Monterey commented. "Egg-heads must be treated gently."
"I hate spineless creatures, even those who are very useful," Desiree answered. "And why should I care how to treat him when his work is paid generously?"
The Rescue Ranger left her question unanswered and looked again at the cruiser towering over them. 'Do they really plan to ship out on this thing?' he wondered silently. 'You'll need lots of rodents to run it! The scope is astonishing…'
"Does she really run?" he asked aloud. "Even after so many years?"
"You want to know whether we powered the engines on? We did. It's German quality, after all, and she was mothballed really well."
"And Humans know nothing about her?"
"Do you see any of them here?"
"And how did you arrange it?"
"They arranged it themselves. Wikipedia reads that this cruiser was bombed and scrapped, but obviously it was done on paper only. In fact the Germans wanted to restore her in secret. Then something went wrong, she was mothballed, then either everyone who knew about her perished or all the documents were lost. So she stood here, unneeded, waiting for us. And here we are. We'll put her to the worthy use."
"We'll see," Monterey Jack muttered.
"Of course we will. You sold us AIS chip yourself, n'est-ce pas? Now they'll think we're a cruise ship. And when they know something's wrong, it will be already too late. And all thanks to you!"
The gloomy Rescue Ranger said nothing.
The procession reached the elevator connecting the moorage with the dock's upper level. The doors of a metal cage moved aside with such a loud creaking that Monterey Jack grew afraid for all of them, but German quality proved it was topnotch and delivered the rodents to their destination. During ascension Monterey Jack had time to examine the cruiser and note that she was indeed heavily damaged, and some superstructures remained in half-ruined half-removed state. Still, in such a sporadic illumination the cruiser looked Human on the outside. But who knew what was inside her…
"Go on!" the convoy rat pushed the lost in thought Ranger rudely. Monterey Jack barely kept standing and slowly walked in a designated direction, namely to the doors of the control room where the chiefs of restoration process sat long time ago. A mixed horde of mercenary rodents demanded closer attention and tighter control, and Desiree turned the control room into a lock-up for the least obedient. Monterey Jack obviously was one of them. Moreover, he was honored with a personal cell made of a drawer of a fireproof filing cabinet turned upside down. Dusty and scratched on the outside, it was made shining inside, and powerful white LEDs glued to the ceiling created an atmosphere of hospital sterility. A rectangular piece of a front wall was cut out with gad wielder and turned into a heavy door on bulky hinges, and a mirror was fit into a side wall, apparently covering the web-camera mentioned by Gudbrandsdalen. There was also a smartphone's sensor screen on the interior wall to the right from the door, but it showed nothing. Right in the center of the armored cell a crude iron table with slots for ropes was wielded to the floor. The setting clearly showed baseness and engineering approach to a truly favorite business.
"You respect me," Monterey Jack observed.
"No," Desiree objected. "I just don't want to repeat my previous mistake. Get him on the chair."
"In that case why am I still alive?" the Aussie asked who had to jump up in order to see Desiree behind the wall formed by the rats.
"Good question," Desiree went into a deep thought, and the Ranger got covered with a cold sweat. "Maybe I'm too sentimental. And I cherish selflessness. You pleaded so tearfully to spare your adopted daughter that my heart ached, and it takes a lot to make it ache, trust me. So I give you a day. That's the most I can do for you. For everything that was between us. You said it back then, didn't you?"
"Yes, I… I said that…" Monterey relieved that episode in his thoughts once again, and his voice cracked, and his shoulders went down, and the rats effortlessly tied him to a cold and rough seat. "Gosh, I wish you drowned me back then with the rest of us."
"Yes," Desiree nodded. "That would have been easier and simpler. For you. Do you feel cozy? Aren't the ropes too tight?"
"Go to heck…"
"And I will, Monty. See you," she waved at the screen. "on air. No, I won't come back here, just in case. I'll send you a welcome message from the ship, when we will be setting sail. Right before the curtain falls, as they say. Au revoir!"
She waited for the rats led by her loyal Morten arrange into a single column and turned to the door.
"Wait, Dez!" Monterey Jack shouted. "May I ask you a question?"
"Are you really helping this lunatic carp to thaw the North Pole?"
The Frenchmouse laughed. "Thaw the Pole? Monty, you're disappointing me! I thought you're smarter than this crazy anchovy!"
Monterey wasn't flustered. "So there is a false bottom. Just as I thought. So what's the real plan?"
"You think I'll tell you?"
"I think you will. Otherwise what's this performance for? You wanted to jeer at me to your heart's content, make me reach the deep end of powerlessness, to go through all the facets of despair. I'm the Rescue Ranger, there's no worse torture for me than knowing I couldn't prevent the triumph of evil. But for my feelings being the fullest and brightest I must know what exactly I failed to prevent. So what is it?"
Desiree turned to Morten. "Is he tied securely?"
"Absolutely. I checked it myself."
"Good," Desiree smiled bewitchingly with the healthy half of her face, but still stopped far enough from the chair for Monterey not being able to reach her with his hand. "You know, Monty, I'm impressed. That lesson obviously was useful to you."
"I tell you: I was blind because I trusted you. And yes, I'm a fast-learner. So, what's the story?"
"Alright, I'll explain if you insist," Desiree arched her back and squeezed her paws between her knees, and bent down so that their eyes were leveled. She had no idea with what gazes her minions were staring at her splendid buttocks. Or maybe, she knew it perfectly. "Of course there will be no ice thawing and world ocean's level rising. But it will be a really big fire."
"So a rig it is…"
"It's not just a rig. It's Platform A on the Troll gas field. The largest platform on the largest gas field in the North Sea. Do you know what will happen to the natural gas prices? To the gas companies stocks? The world ocean rising is a child's play!"
"You gamble on a stock exchange?"
"I don't. My client, a full-grown Wall-street wolf, does, and he cut many teeth on it. He created an entire cartel of those who invested large sums into the shale gas industry. Expensive technology, high cost price, hard to compete, low export potential to Europe. If there is competition, that is. And if there is none, or all the competitors have big problems…"
Monterey hemmed. "Corporate sabotage. You're growing."
"But what's the cruiser for? Isn't it easier to plant bombs at the base of the platform, or on the underwater pipeline? Especially since you have Fin. He's underwater specialist, it's his element."
"Good question," Desiree approvingly patted her failed husband's knee. "Yes, that would be both technically simpler and more secretly. But we don't need secrecy. It's not enough to create a diversion which can be considered a mere accident. It must be an obvious terrorist attack."
"To not only weaken the European gas suppliers, but also discredit other suppliers. Or, rather, the other supplier. Russia. No matter how large tanker fleet you have, you can't compete with a vast gas pipelines network. So we must force the European Union to stop using them."
Monterey Jack frowned. "I thought they already put sanctions on Russia because of Ukrainian situation."
"They did, but so what? They keep buying natural gas from them like before. We must provide a clear explanation that it's the wrong thing to do. But you were right to mention Ukraine. Right now they are actively searching for alternate gas sources, making deals with many countries, including Norway. Russians don't like it. And if the largest Norwegian gas deposit will suffer a large scale terrorist attack, who do you think will be the first to blame?"
"Exactly! See, it's actually very simple."
"But why do you deceive Fin then?"
"Because the fanatics like him work best when the plan matches their idée fixe."
"But they become outraged when it turns out not being the case."
"In Fin's case it doesn't matter. The dead don't become outraged."
Monterey pursed his lips. "I see… So he will-"
"Yes, Monty. It will be a suicide run. Not his first, you know. This time, however, there will be no one to stop him."
"We'll see about that."
"We will, have no doubts about that." Desiree stood erect and pointed at the screen again. "I'll provide you with live broadcast. Well, I spent too much time talking to you; it's time for me to go. A nightly feast with our kamikaze VIP awaits me…"
"Feast?" confused Monterey asked. "You'll be feeding them or what? Why at night and face to face?"
"First, because those about to die deserve special treatment. Second, his crewmembers shouldn't know his Captain has a weakness for seafood."
"They don't know it? He is anchovy, after all!"
"Anchovies, for your information, eat plankton. Almost all his crew members know it, understand it and do it themselves, so it's not a problem. But there was no plankton in the desert, and Fin had to eat what was available to him. Or rather, who was available to him."
Monterey Jack whistled. "I see… He killed and ate his crew!"
"Well, most of them died on their own, but basically you're right."
"I see… Wait!" Monterey tossed about, forcing the rats to get ready for attack and Desiree to look back. "Listen, a thought occurred to me… Are you sure the North Pole won't thaw? You know, when that rig in the Gulf of Mexico went up… Your work, by the way?"
Desiree shook her head. "No. It was an accident."
"Good. Well, not quite, but still… I mean, Gulfstream almost vanished after that. Well, they wrote it did. So I think that maybe, Dez, you shouldn't really do that, huh? Think of victims, of ecology. What if your native France is flooded? What will you do then?"
"Don't be an idiot," Desiree said sharply. "There will be no global catastrophe. After all, the rig has systems for emergency sealing of the well, so the fire won't reach the field. On the other hand," she added after some thought, tilting her head to the side, "even if the Pan European flooding happens, the Swiss Alps will stay overwater, that's three hundred per cent sure. Bonne nuit!"
"Dez, wait! Wait!" Monterey Jack tried to stop her again, but this time Desiree ignored his calling and left the cell hip swaying gracefully. Morten and the convoy followed her, shutting the door behind them, and then Monterey Jack was alone except for those watching him through the camera behind the mirror, of course. The light obviously wasn't intended to be switched off, there was no chance of freeing himself without raising the alarm, and Monterey Jack, however hard and shameful it was to do, had to acknowledge he saw no way out of this predicament. Of course he could just sell his life as expensively as he could, taking along some five or ten rat guards, hardly more. He could free himself, smash the camera and the lights, let them try to deal with him in darkness… Well, they'd bring searchlights and that would be it. Yes, he and Matty predicted this situation and prepared for it, chose the appropriate equipment. But all those preparations made sense only when the others were alive, when anyone else was alive in addition to him. In that case he would become a real Trojan horse. But since there would be no reinforcements…
But what if they are still alive? What if he's too quick to bury his friends? How many times had they escaped sure death and saved the day?
"Turn the lights off, tyrants!" Monterey shouted at the mirror. No reaction. And no switching off the lights. Darn them. Or maybe there's no one there? Maybe it's bluff? No, probably not. Desiree wouldn't bluff while playing for stakes this high. There must be someone sitting there, someone ought to be. And right now, at the very start of their shift, they were most vigilant and zealous. So he should wait. And actively exhaust them little by little.
"Hey, how about feeding the prisoner? The Geneva Convention forbids starving prisoners!"
* 13 *
"Charlie, how are you up there?"
"Bearable! But this thing could be more responsive!"
"You said the most important is reliability!"
"That's not a rebuttal, I'm just keeping up the conversation!"
"Why …othing is kee… you there?! There… eight stra…"
"You got me wrong! The contact is breaking, I'll call you on a circle!"
"…mmunic… …ailin… cir…" Gadget's voice disappeared in white noise completely. 'Strange,' Chip thought, 'she was sure the transmitters were powerful enough and receivers were sensitive even more than enough. Maybe it's some local anomaly? Or Desiree installs some jammers here? She could…'
Chip moved his body to the right, making the glider to careen and enter the turn. The vessel reacted slowly because of extra weight and non-classical design needed to look like a seagull from distance and carry a GoPro camera in its 'beak'. It was impossible to establish Internet broadcast, like in Rome, because there was no Internet in this middle of nowhere, but Shelm said the recording would suffice. Only a trifle remained — to make it with high enough quality, and if the picture definition was guaranteed by the manufacturer, the contents depended solely on Chip's skill and self-control. And Desiree not having SA defense systems, but Chip tried hard not to think about in order not to jinx himself.
For the sake of completeness Chip made an 8-loop over the central part of the island near which, according to Shelm, the GPS-tracker signal vanished, and concentrated on a rocky area covering almost all Eastern half of this tiny land strip. Gadget assured him that the camera would record everything exactly like Chip would see it, and the chipmunk diligently lowered his speed in all substantial viewpoints. He could see nothing but snow and rocks, though, but he didn't want to go lower fearing not being spotted but rather not being able to catch an upstream and get back to altitude allowing him to reach the point where the orca named Katya was to pick him up. He took off with the help of a tug provided by that very Katya, but after that he had to rely on his own only, and he wasn't absolutely sure in his abilities. He had piloted the paper planes, but this glider camouflaged to look like a seagull was too rare and fretful a 'bird'.
"Charlie, do you hear me?" Gadget's unexpectedly clear voice made Chip flinch.
"Hear you, Gloria, loud and clear!"
"I can't hear you, but judging from the noise disturbance I can tell you're alive and answered me something. I adjusted the radio a bit so it reaches you now. So now you know we're alright here. Found anything? Though why am I asking, I won't hear your answer. In any case, we're all waiting for you here!"
"Glad to hear that," the chipmunk said. He would prefer to hear 'I'm waiting for you', but had to be content with what he had. Not to mention that one-sided radio communication wasn't the best way to exchange warm words.
Having made several circles over the top of the rock and assured that its eastern sheer slope just made for establishing a hidden entrance to a secret underground base there was caught on his camera at least three times, and then set the return course. On its surface this tiny island looked like any one of dozens other islands scattered over the North Sea. No traces of Desiree's and her gang's presence, no objects of interest. Good camouflage? That would be good. It would be much worse if they had already finished here and left. Or even had started to execute their masterplan already. Chip would prefer to attack right now, without waiting for the night, but Shelm was adamant: no dynamic actions until sundown! Well, of course it's easier to sneak into the guarded facility in darkness, no objections, but what if they were late? Or maybe it was late already? Although, no, that's improbable. If Desiree was about to do something so large-scale that she needed the AIS chip and would very much like to have the nuclear bombs, all media would have reported it if it had happened already. There were no extraordinary events reported yet. It was a good sign. Not to mention she could be also waiting for the nightfall. The reprogrammed AIS chip could deceive electronics, but it wouldn't hide the ship from people with binoculars. But if it's happening at night when the ships are hard to recognize… yes, that's logical. He would do exactly the same. But there was one problem: all these deductions were worth something only if Desiree and Fin thought in the similar way. And if they didn't? It's scary to imagine what could happen…
"Gloria, do you read me?"
"I read you, Charlie, loud and clear!"
"I'm going back. I'm flying directly eastward from the isle. Speed's approximately forty miles per hour, headwind. ETA to LZ: twenty minutes. Meet me there."
"No problem, we will! Hold on there!"
"Holding on here," Chip answered and checked all lashings, clock and compass just in case. What makes her say this phrase in the most delicate moments? All right, previously she was rational and non-superstitious technician and inventor, and didn't believe in all these hexes. But why didn't she change her habits after that Boeing, for instance…? Alright, stop panicking, everything's under control. The speed is known, the bearing is known, the reference point — the isle he left behind him — is available. Enemies aren't attacking, the radio communications were reestablished. What else do you need for a comfortable and safe flight from point A to point B? Relax and keep on flying!
After twenty five minutes of flying Chip couldn't relax anymore. The Desiree's island was barely visible, threatening to disappear from sight any minute and leave Chip with no reference points, and there were no signs of Katya's presence in the area. Why was that? He hadn't reached the LZ yet? He had long overflown it? He went too far off his course? The wind was still contrary, but it didn't mean it couldn't blow him off to the side. And a barely visible deviation after a half an hour flight turned into like ten or even more nautical miles between you and your destination…
"Gloria, it's Charlie! Has Katya left?"
"Yes, long time ago! You don't see her?"
"If I did, I wouldn't ask. Can you communicate with her?"
"I should be able to. Mickey swam with her, he's got radio. Mickey, do you read me?"
"Reading you, sunny," Shelm's voice was heard on air. "Got lost, Charlie?"
"Just having some difficulties establishing my location in reference to you and Katya," Chip said evasively.
"I see. What's your altitude?"
"Approximately fifteen hundred."
"This means it's not you."
"You think so?" Chip turned his hand back and forth but saw nothing but waves. "Yes, probably that's not me."
"Do you see a sunlight spot?"
Chip looked around him again. "No."
"We'll try a flare gun then."
Chip knew what the lemming was talking about, but still shivered. This phrase was said in casually manner, but from Shelm's mouth it still sounded sinister. Probably because Shelm uttered even the most sinister phrases casually and nonchalantly. You couldn't say Shelm tried to make an effect with his words, but still his words made an effect…
"Do you see a flare?"
Chipmunk looked around him hectically. "No! I don't!"
"That's good, for I haven't shot yet. I'm shooting now. See anything?"
"I do," Chip said not even trying to hide his irritation. Who on earth could say silly jokes in such a delicate moment? It didn't look like Shelm. Dale must have infected him. Alright, to heck with him. He must make a turn while a signal flare's trail hadn't dissolve. Fortunately he didn't have to fly too far, a couple of miles at most. A great accuracy for an amateur-rodent equipped with only a clock and a compass.
"Seeing you, preparing the landing strip," Shelm reported. Chip also had noticed a black fin and a broad black back amidst the waves already. The back oriented along his course and slowly moved forward giving the chipmunk time to gradually decrease his speed and altitude. When Chip came close enough, Katya put her tail out of the water increasing the length of the strip and providing a truly soft landing.
"Thanks, that helped a lot!" Chip shouted into the orca's spiracle.
"You're welcome," the orca answered with a Slavic accent. It didn't surprise Chip. Shelm had told them already that Katya was born in a family of participants of a secret Soviet program aimed at training orcas to spot saboteurs and submarines of the potential adversary. When the USSR disintegrated, the program was closed, and its former pupils had to survive on their own. Katya was adult enough but not fully self-reliant at the time, but she was lucky to meet Shelm, and since that time she became his eyes and ears in North Atlantic. Little by little they became real friends and could be considered an inseparable couple like Monterey Jack and Zipper. Adjusted for their relative size, of course.
"Sorry. Charlie, couldn't help myself," Shelm apologized for his joke as he dismantled the glider's artificial beak to get to the camera. "Let's consider it a test for ability to think clearly in critical situation. And your situation was critical, don't even try to object. I know what it means to be in the air with no reference points when everything around you looks the same and you are exhausted. It's even worse in the desert, but let's not talk about it, not to mention that the case in question will remain classified for twenty more years. Found anything?"
"Nothing. An ordinary little island. There's no place for a submarine base there. Or this island itself is a submarine pen, but then it should have at least some signs of it."
"If it's a Human submarine pen. But we aren't dealing with Humans here."
"Fin was a captain of the Human submarine. And you can't install powerful weapons on a rodent-sized sub, and they need powerful weapons, or they wouldn't be interested in our nuclear bombs. No, they must have a Human ship at their disposal."
"But you saw no signs of it there."
"I bulged my eyes out."
"Stop it, Charlie, why so nervous? I don't intend to humble you. Need any help with the glider?"
"Yes, please," Chip agreed, deciding to seize the moment. After yesterday's fight Shelm behaved very differently. It seemed Chip really established himself as a top-league representative by injuring his nose. And you don't dismiss this level of relationship easily.
Having holstered the glider to Katya's fin over the vertically installed flare gun Shelm used previously, the rodents gave the orca green light to return to base, then pulled the camera out and watched the recording on its side screen. Even using four eyes they saw nothing artificial or unnatural, which wasn't strange given the screen resolution.
In contrast to Chip, Katya needed neither a clock nor a compass to orientate herself in the open sea, and she delivered her passengers to a tiny island on the very edge of the satellite belt of Vigra island so fast as if she moved on rails.
"At last!" Gadget shouted running to meet them out of the tent. "Any news? Saw Monty, that is, Muzzy?"
"No, sunny, nothing yet," Shelm said jumping down on Katya's side fin and taking the camera lowered by Chip. "We'll need to see it on the big screen, in HD as they say today. Where are Dobby and Zack?"
The mouse looked around. "Wmidunno, they were here. Strange. Looks like I got so carried away experimenting with power-consumption balance of the transmitter I didn't notice them leaving."
"Where could they leave? The entire island can be seen from here!" Chip jumped off the orca and started walking around the tent, when suddenly the land in front of him flew up as if from explosion, and the chipmunk stepped back and then found himself staring down a combat nail gun's barrel.
"Stop! Who's there? Forbidden zone!" Dale shouted looking at his friend with his right eye through a sniper scope.
"Don't move! Or we'll shoot!" Zipper added performing a whole series of karate moves on the fly.
"You… You… I… Are you nuts?!" Chip tapped his temple with his finger. "This thing kills!"
"And I know about it! Don't chicken out, it's unloaded," Dale got out of the pit previously covered with a lid made of tightly knitted grass, took the weapon off his shoulder and showed the cocking handles were in the utmost forward position. "Well, this thing caused me some real hand ache! You'll sweat before you cock it up! You are sure you took those shots from this?"
"Not from this particular one, but from exactly the same," Shelm confirmed examining the post made by Dale and Zipper with evaluating gaze. "Not bud, but very conditional and movie-like. Not suitable for a real days-long watch. Don't worry, some training and you'll get it. Who did you shoot at?"
"Some of those flying around…"
"I hope you don't mean aircrafts," Chip joked. He was talking about the Alesund international airport located on the Vigra island. When they arrived here and saw the planes taking off and landing, Gadget proposed to tell the Humans the coordinates of the Desiree's possible base, for they would surely react to the report of terrorist activity in such a strategic area. But, after weighing all pros and cons, the group decided that even if the authorities miraculously reacted truly fast and the special teams attack the Desiree's base she would escape, but not before killing Monterey if he was still alive. They'll inform the Humans later, after dealing with all main objectives on their own…
"Ho-ho-ho, you're so smart!" Dale mocked him back. "Of course I don't/ I mean seagulls."
"And where are the bodies?" Shelm inquired.
"What bodies? I just scared them away."
"Come on, we're all your friends, you can honestly admit that you missed," Chip said 'condescendingly' sensing the opportunity for revenge.
"Not true! I hit what I aimed at!"
"And what did you aim at?"
"At the sky!"
"Worthy target indeed…"
"Did you spend entire clip?" Shelm asked, interrupting them.
"No, just two nails."
"Perfect. You said it's hard to cock up? Charlie, give it a try."
"And I will," Chip said proudly. He took the nail gun whose relative size matched that of the Human RPG and action principle resembled that of a repeating crossbow. Resting the weapon's barrel against the ground, Chip put his foot into a special cramp, spat on his paws, grabbed the cocking handles protruding from both sides and pulled them up. Quiet clinging indicated the nail from the clip descended on the stock, but it was only half the work. The string hook needed to be hooked on the latch being a part of the trigger which went inside the stock during shooting and released the string. Chip spent some time feeling for it, sweated and started to worry, but in the end he heard the long-awaited click indicating he could relax his hand without fear of shooting his foot off.
"Sixteen seconds," Shelm announced. "Too long. In real situation it would mean that you took just one shot, and then you either got busted or the target left the effective zone. Both mean failure."
"It's better to score one hit than miss three times," Chip countered.
Shelm had a ready tongue, too. "It's better to score three hits than one."
"Time-out! Break!" Dale made a letter T with his paws. "Stop saying obvious things, they make my head ache! A hit is better than non-hit due to presence of hit; it's good to score a hit, and it's even better to score a good hit… Ew, it makes me shiver!"
"Better tell us what happened to that nail gun of yours," Gadget spoke up. "Aren't you afraid that enemies will find it, study and start making their own?"
"They won't", the lemming assured her. "I hid it very well."
"They can still find it," Chip objected. "If not now, then later."
"I don't think it's still there. My colleagues-cleaners should have cleaned up by this time."
"Cleaners?" Dale brightened. "Like Leon in 'Nikita'?"
"It happens this way sometimes, too, I won't deny it," Shelm acknowledged. "When you do what my organization does, you should be ready for everything."
"By the way, I've long wanted to ask you," Chip seized the opportunity finally presenting itself. "Why do you, a member of a large and powerful organization, work on a mission of such importance alone? Where are reinforcements?"
"I have you. Isn't it enough?" Shelm asked with a smile.
Chip became even more irritated by this explicit attempt to fawn upon his pride. "Is it? Where are your SWAT? Where are other operatives? Where's at least some reinforcement? Or you plan to send us to slaughter like all those previous assistants of yours?"
"Charlie, you are wrong."
"In what way exactly?"
"First, not all of them died, Muzzy can confirm it. Second, all of them were volunteers who knew what waited for them and were ready to go to the end. I think you are familiar with this kind of motivation, aren't you?"
"And your colleagues have a different one?"
"Depends on who you call 'my colleagues'. Yes, we have a large stuff, but most of them are analysts, information gatherers. Bureaucrats, after all, but in the good, initial sense of the word. And combat agents are few and far between. We already have difficulties covering all places where our involvement is needed, but if we start to go on every assignment in a crowd, our effectiveness will drop significantly. More people doesn't necessary mean the assignment will be completed faster, It's not lawn mowing where you can break the area into equal squares. You find this approach strange? Well, you have a right to do so. But our results prove it's highly effective. And trust me, we had enough time to try other approaches and take quite a few bumps. Did I answer your question?"
"Then let's get to business. The night approaches, and we still have much work to do."
* 14 *
Having failed to get food or darkness or any kind of answer from his jailers, Monterey Jack took pity on his vocal chords and fell into anxious sleep. Awakening brought neither relief nor changes. He was alone, the light was on, the screen was black. And there was silence.
"What time is it?" the half-asleep Aussie shouted hoarsely.
"Two twenty past noon!" an answer came from a ventilation-vision slit on the door.
"Oh! Good morning! And I thought everybody's deaf and numb here! Will they feed me, do you know?"
"We ate already, but there were no instructions about you!"
"The real one! So mind your tongue!"
"What? Do you know who I am? I'm Jeanne the Dark's groom!"
"I know. So what?"
'Indeed, so what?' Monty thought. He didn't expect such a reaction. He expected something like 'Nonsense!' or 'And I'm Crocodile Dundee!', and he knew how to develop conversation from that to infuriate the guard and force him to enter the camera, and it becomes classic from there. But there was another failure… Alright, he'll make another try.
"So what about food? I'm hungry since yesterday!"
"What's the reason to feed you? You won't live long! And Jeanne the Dark said you should lose weight since gluttony is a sin!"
"She said that?" Monterey asked suspiciously.
"You think I made it up? Your relationships are a dark forest to me!"
"Ah! Thanks for reminding! Can you do something about the light?"
"What for? It shines, bothers no one, and asks no food…"
"Joker, aren't you? You're so brave because my arms and legs are tied! I would teach you manners so good you'd remember me your entire life!"
"Don't even try that! I won't open the door. I don't even have the key!"
"And that's right! I wouldn't trust such a ninny with a key, too!"
"Sing, birdie, sing, sing your voice out!"
"Then get ready! I'll sing now!" Monterey cleared his throat and sang badly out of tune and voicing each phrase louder than the previous one. Tight ropes didn't allow him to swing from side to side, but it was good enough this way. "Gaudeamus igitur! Juvenes dum sumus! Post jucundam! Juventudem! Post molestam! Senectudem! Nos habebit humus!"
"What the heck is that?!" the guard yelled. "Stop this witchery! Or I'll show you!"
"Ubi sunt! Qui ante nos! In mundo fuere! And what will you do, you poor thing? You don't have the key! Vadite as superos! Transeas ad inferos!"
"But I have a slice of cheese! A Brie! I'll unwrap it, put it to the slit, and you'll break your hands and legs trying to free yourself! Jeanne the Dark said so, and she knows you inside out!"
"BRIE?!" Monterey's eyes bulged and his stomach rumbled. "Brie… Brie…" For a second he thought it was a great solution, for he would rather free himself than injured. But after some thought he decided it wasn't worth it, for he wouldn't crush through the box wall anyway, so it wasn't a right time to pull his ace from his sleeve. "No, no Brie, no! I won't sing! I won't!"
"Much better!" the guard said smugly. "And you were so arrogant at first! 'Get ready! I'm singing!' Ha! What did you sing? Some Turkish psychedelics?"
"You are a Turkish psycho yourself!" Monterey Jack became sincerely indignant. "It's the student song! I sang it in Oxford when I came for the diploma! That is, to the graduation ceremony, for the cheese platter! They bring special cheese from nearby farms for that occasion! It's so tasty you can eat your hands off!"
"Then you may stay alive for some time more," the guard apparently thought the prisoner tried to summon evil spirits, but now he calmed down. "But mind yourself! Any wrong word, and you'll smell cheese!"
"Okay, okay, I got it!" Monterey Jack groveled hoping he wasn't overdoing it. But the guard took his words at their face value, and from that point on they exchanged with phrases about time only.
At six o'clock sharp the door opened with a creak and a procession consisting of two guard rats and Morten entered the cell. Morten smiled at Monterey but said nothing, came up to the display, pressed a custom installed button, and Desiree's face appeared on the screen. It occupied almost entire screen, but it was possible to surmise she was standing somewhere on the cruiser by the rodent-sized model of Hues OH-6 helicopter.
"Hi, Monty? Did you sleep well? I didn't wake up you, did I? Well, you don't have to answer, I won't hear you anyway. How do you like it?" she waved at the webcam operator, and he turned the camera around him. It became clear that the helicopter pad is located on the roof of the ship's bow superstructure, three stories over a circular base of a missing gun turret filled with water and turned into something between a pool and a fish pond filled with no less than hundred sea dwellers, mostly anchovies and squids, who formed a regular square and looked at the bridge glazing expectantly. "Impressive, huh? The Captain's speech will impress you even more, trust me!"
As soon as she finished, Fin's voice poured from loudspeakers installed on the corners of the bridge roof. His somewhat too anguished speech full of propaganda and motivational clichés couldn't be called a masterpiece of public speaking art. Still, it contained a number of very good finds, in particular a parallel between himself surviving in the desert against all odds, and this cruiser, bombed and drowned, but not destroyed, raised up and prepared for a new glorious battle which would be the last for both of them. In contrast to the submarine crew who reacted to their Captain's words about suicide run into the dam very nervously, the public in the pool met this phrase with noticeable cheering.
"Where did you find so many self-murderers?" Monterey Jack asked Morten.
"Why self-murderers?" surprised rat asked. "They will just get the ship to the destination, direct it at the target and abandon it. Only Fin will stay aboard. He says he must do it, he hates his life etcetera and etcetera. What a fool."
"Fanatics are like that… Hey, where are they going? To the sewers or what?"
"Almost," Morten nodded as he and Monterey watched Fin's subordinates breaking into columns and diving into tunnels running in various directions from the pool. "There's a vast pipe network built inside allowing them to quickly move between their posts."
"Wow," the Rescue Ranger whistled. "How long have you been working on her? A year? Two?"
"Almost exactly six months. We worked very hard. The hardest part was the engines. Coal furnaces were installed on her initially, but they couldn't be used. Squids can't work with shovels in the heat. So we had to find heavy oil engines. Oh, that was the operation of its own. But if you have connections and money, nothing's impossible," Morten concluded proudly.
"Woah…" Monterey muttered. 'He's so open with me, stinker. He knows exactly I won't live long. Nothing strange. He was sent here exactly to ensure it…'
"So what do you think?" Desiree asked as she appeared on the screen again. "Impressed? You are impressed, I know. Well, time to set sail. But don't switch channel, the most interesting part is yet to come. Have you ever watched the catastrophe live? Even if you have, don't worry. Here the moderation is worse than unrestraint!" Desiree walked up to the helicopter and patted her paw against an egg-shaped cabin. "Like my helicopter? Nice, huh? We'll install camera on it and will record the panorama from the sky. It will be a true seascape just made for being framed and put on the wall. And know what, that's a great idea! A trophy room is the best portfolio! Imagine – a framed shot of the burning rig, and next to it — you head! A real still-life!"
"She should wear another mask," Monterey Jack told Morten. "The one, you know, white, with red spirals on cheeks and a moving square jaw. Why limit yourself to half measures?"
"You are a funny guy!" Morten laughed.
"Well, I'm no match for-" the ending of Monterey's phrase was deafened by a thunderous explosive shaking the entire complex. "Darn! What's that?!"
"The gates opened," Morten answered briefly.
"Don't worry, Monty, it's just a blow-out charge to unlock the gates," Desiree explained. "They've been standing here for so long without moving, it's easier to demolish them then open. Now the road to the sea is opened! Wish us fair seas and the following winds!"
"Eat an anchor," Monterey Jack wished gloomily. Morten frowned and wanted to say something, but then the cruiser made a long hooting, the control room' glazing jingled, and the cell lights went out.
"What the- ?!" one of the guards yelled. Monterey was taken aback, too, but he quickly realized there won't be a better moment to break free. Unfortunately, Morten realized that, too, so he fetched an old-fashioned bottle with a spray bulb and launched a large spray in the direction of the chair.
"Ugh! What's that?" one of the guard rats asked, holding his nose.
"Some perfume," his partner suggested, sniffing. "Not a bad one, by the way, tasty, stimulating…"
'To say the least!' Monterey thought. He couldn't see Morten, didn't hold his breath, and inhaled a critical dose of the Desiree's perfumes. Apparently, she stopped using them after becoming Jeanne the Dark, but she saved one vial. Or maybe she obtained it when she found out she was dealing with the Rescue Rangers, for after Dales interrogation, who, no matter how hard he tried, told her too much, she had another day in her disposal… 'And I have seconds in mine!' the Aussie whipped himself up as he was losing self control already, and he started feverishly biting his coat's right lapel.
"Max, Yup, check on him!" Morten ordered. The two rats carefully moved forward, but stopped after taking just a couple of steps and snuff again.
"You smell it, Yup?"
"I do. Something cheesy, no?"
"Something like that, yeah. See anything?"
"No, nothing. But he must be here…"
"Stop talking! Go on!" Morten shouted at them.
"Yeah, boss, we're moving… Hey, what's tha-"
BANG! BANG! BANG!
"Max? Max, is it you? What's-"
BANG! BANG! BANG!
"Max! Yup!" Morten called. Getting no response, he launched the remaining perfume where Monterey should have been sitting and threw the bottle in that direction, too. He heard a glass clinging against the steel of the chair. Empty chair.
'So that's how you play it, yes?' Morten thought. He could see a slight glow with a corner of his eye. No more than one tenth of the dock's weak illumination squeezed through shutters on the control room's windows, but it was enough to make any attempt to leave the box unnoticed futile. It meant he couldn't run for help, but it also meant it was enough to keep the door in sight to prevent Monterey Jack from escaping. Morten had all the time in the world, so this position favored him.
In contrast, Monterey Jack was doomed to act. The cruiser was leaving. The Rescue Ranger had to get onboard at any cost, and it was hard to do when the ship would be in the open sea. Of course he could catch some loon flying by, but it's not that easy. It's not a taxi, you can't summon it with a wave and whistle…
And he couldn't stand still. He had to move. He couldn't walk straight to the door — Morten would see him and attack. He must have found his bearings already and prepared for a fight, so he wouldn't go down as easy as Max and Yup whom Monterey had caught off-guard. He could move only along the wall, as silently as he only could, hoping to catch his opponent off-guard and deliver the first blow, than he would have some chance. Morten knew about it. And he knew that Monterey knew it. A real rugby with a bowling ball in a dark wood…
Yes, scent was a problem. Desiree's perfume and the moldy skin of Pont-l'Eveque cheese cut into thin slices, wrapped into foil, and sown into his collar by Matty as a remedy for overcoming cheese attacks congested the smelling channel, so Monterey couldn't smell Morten. Morten, on the other hand, could smell Monterey, or rather, that very moldy skin in his collar. To eliminate that he needed to either fold the foil back, or pull it out of his collar, or drop his coat off. But it was impossible to do that both noiselessly and swiftly. That is, he could drop his coat either swiftly and loudly or slowly and noiselessly, but swiftness is useless if it betrays your location, and slowness which renders you helpless for a long time is useless, too. No use. No go. It remains to keep smelling…
And then Monterey's stomach tortured by many long hours of hunger and irritated by the bitten and spat out moldy skin rumbled loudly and drawlingly, and the Aussie fell to his knees, and when Morten's claws whizzed and teeth clanged over his head, Monterey punched the darkness where his enemy's solar plexus had to be located. He hit Morten's liver, tangentially, almost lost his eye but escaped with deep cut from the rat's response, stood up rapidly, hitting Morten's jaw with his head, punched aiming at Morten's head but hit his shoulder, deflecting the fist flying into his own face, which rubbed his cheek and touched his moustache. Morten couldn't allow himself to waste such a chance, and so on its way back his paw grabbed the tip of Monterey's moustache and jerked to make the Aussie lean forward and collide with Morten's rapidly raising knee.
But Monterey remained standing still, Morten's knee hit the void, he lost his balance and, falling back, threw his left arm forward instinctively trying to get a hold of anything. This 'anything' turned out a lapel of Monterey Jack's coat, and the Aussie grabbed the rat's hand slightly below elbow and jerked Morten to himself, simultaneously throwing his fist forward which hit the rat's right cheekbone square. Morten was thrown back and hit the wall, injured back of his head and covered his injured cheekbone, but Monterey scored another hit with his left hand into the rat's nose. Morten let the Aussie's coat go and waved his bristling fingers attempting to hit at least one of the Ranger's eyes, but his aim was too high, so he just tousled Monterey's hair and scratched his forehead. Monterey Jack responded with another left punch to head, then hit the same spot with his right hand. Then, having fully established his target's location, he did a whole series of hooks which ended only after Morten stopped even trying to block or counterattack, then Monterey hit the rat three more times just in case and let him go down on the floor as a senseless sack. Then he leant on the handily located chair's back, wiped his face off and caught his breath.
"Well, that was…" he said on his first more or less confident exhale as he carefully touched his knuckles. "That guy was like a wild dingo… Smashed to the blood, darn… Where do such hard ones come from, huh…? Alright, I should move while no one else came… Oh, wait, I almost forgot…"
Still holding by the chair, he sat down carefully, unfastened the rope and took two large gloves out of it which he quickly put on after rolling his sleeves up. In the darkness it was hard to tell how well they were fitted, but ideally they should fit so closely they looked like his own skin and fur, and a flexible internal structure allowed his arms to be rather easily pulled out if his wrist was stuck in a hole or become tied. Of course, their effectiveness greatly depended on the quality of making and fitting, so only the gloves made by true master according to timely measures could be trusted. This pair, sown by Shelm's personal tailor, was obviously one of those.
Carefully stepping over the bodies of defeated rats, Monterey Jack approached the cell door, listened carefully, stepped over the threshold, and screwed up his eyes to cover them from a bright white light hitting him right into the face.
"Hands up! Don't move!" a loud whisper from somewhere behind the light source ordered. "Who are you? Where're Morten and others?"
"Name's Mazzon 'Crocodile' Hogan," Monterey Jack answered playing along with his legend. "All the rats got tired and lay down to rest a bit. They sent me to get something tasty. Where's the kitchen? I'm the new one here, I don't know all the directions yet."
"Thank heavens," the unseen stranger said with his normal voice, which seemed familiar to the Ranger. "Agent Shelm sent you, yes? Of course he sent you, who could doubt it. Make-up, training…"
"Goodbyeslalom, is that you?" Monterey asked, having recognized the stranger by his manner of speech.
"Romme Gudbrandsdalen at your service," the electronics specialist named himself. Judging by his voice, he got used to his second name being distorted in various ways. He illuminated his face with his searchlight.
"So I should thank you for this dark room?" Monterey asked.
"Who else? I laid every single wire here, I know what to turn off, what to plug out… Alright, we don't have much time. The guards are watching looped recording, but the pasting isn't very smooth, so sooner or later they'll notice it. By this time you must be on the ship. Use the ceiling galleries, this way you'll evade patrols."
"And you're smart!" Monterey Jack praised him.
The engineer waved his words off impatiently. "Don't interrupt me, or I'll forget something. Concerning the ID chip — it's programmed to mock the signal of 'Serenade of Seas'. It's the cruise liner serving the fjords. Right now she's leaving Alesund heading to Gejranger-Fjord. The cruiser will tail her, then turn towards he gas field. It's approximately one hundred and twenty five miles away, the cruiser will reach it in about two hours…"
"One hundred twenty five miles in two hours on this ship?!" Monterey asked in surprise, pointing at the windows with his finger over his shoulder. "They installed jets on her or what?"
"Auxiliary hydrojets. So what? There are no shells, no food, only fuel and explosives. The detonation should happen on impact during collision, but in case something goes wrong a manual detonator is installed."
"Better tell me how to disable all this stuff."
"Not easy. I'm a specialist or what?"
"But you're Matty's insider!" Monterey Jack observed. "Didn't he ask you to damage everything you can?"
"And what do you think I am doing right now?"
"And before that?"
"And before that I worked under strict supervision!" Gudbrandsdalen said with anguish. "You think everyone but me were morons? If they had suspected anything I would have been long dead! That's what I told Agent Shelm: I'll do my work well! He said it wasn't important, he cared only about me providing escape for the captured agent. I thought he was talking about himself, but turns out he was talking about you. You are the captured agent, aren't you? So I provided escape for you! From here on you're on your own!"
"Okay, lad, don't boil up! How can I get to that gallery?"
"The simplest way is through the ventilation. The grate is there, above the shelf."
"Thanks! Got any rope?"
"Will cable coil do?"
"Give it to me!"
"Where are you going?"
"To the storage, of course! You think I carry those with me? They're heavy!"
"Okay, go, what can I say!"
Gudbrandsdalen ran away. Monterey Jack climbed on the control console, bent rugged steel shutters a little and peeked outside. The cruiser was moving backwards towards the regular rectangle leading into the night in place of the blown-up gates. The ship was moving slowly, as if feeling for the way with some invisible cane, and at this speed she would leave the dock in fifteen minutes or so. A solid time reserve, but only if start walking right now. And he still needed to wait for Gudbrandsdalen to return. Where the heck is he…?
"Here! Take it!" the heavily breathing engineer dropped a coil of orange network cable ending with an 8-pin jack to the floor. "I needed to cut and clench it, but it can be used as a climbing rope this way!"
"You're a really smart guy!" Monterey Jack repeated approvingly, getting down on the floor and putting the coil on his shoulder. "You know how to get out of here?"
"No problems with that," the engineer said. "As soon as the cruiser leaves, they'll start to break up the base. The motorboat will get us all to the shore."
"After everything happened here?" Monterey nodded at the cell's opened door. "I doubt it will be that easy."
"Really?" Gudbrandsdalen obviously didn't think of that. "Darn, you're right. If they learn about the lights going out and the looped recording, I'll be the prime suspect! Darn, what should I do?! May I go with you?!"
"To the cruiser?" Monterey knit his brow. "Why not? You'll help me to defuse the bomb!"
"But it's impossible!"
"But you'll try! Or sit here and wait for Morten to wake up! And he'll be very, very angry…"
"Alright! Alright! I'll defuse it! Well, I'll try…"
"Okay! Cheer up! You've got the light, you go first!"
"Let me bring my equipment first…"
"Ah, darn… Just be quick, okay? And take only the most necessary! And the lightest! So that you could run and jump with it!"
Gudbrandsdalen nodded and ran away again, and Monterey returned to his observation post. The cruiser had covered a quarter of distance already and she covered another quarter when the engineer returned with a plump plastic bag on his back.
"One could grow old waiting for you!" Monterey shouted at him. "Lead the way!"
Despite looking absolutely non-heroically, Gudbrandsdalen moved swiftly and without any fuss — the experience of living on the TV tower showed. Monterey Jack didn't know these details of the engineer's biography, so he thought it was the result of Shelm's training.
"How long have you been in the organization?" he couldn't help asking.
"Well, in the bureau or whatever it's called?"
"I'm not in the bureau. I'm on the leash. Voluntarily forced assistant."
Monterey nodded. "Ah. Matty caught you red-handed doing something nasty?"
"Yeah," the engineer acknowledged, but without going into detail. "I've been his sleeper agent since then."
"And he sent you here?"
"Well, you could say that. He came to me sometime in May, told me that according to his information Jeanne the Dark needed a master of electronics, and since I was the best in the area, her messengers would come to me. Well, I was to accept their offer and keep him in touch. And they really came in a couple of days. Well, I did everything as he instructed me. At first they gave me work to do at home, but a month ago they told me to move. By that time I knew they want a device to deceive the ships' AIS system, so I told them I needed a real chip, because it's easier to reprogram the real chip then recreate it correctly from scratch. They said they'd work on it. I sent a message to Shelm, and he said I should wait for the advertisement of such a chip put for sale containing some special keywords, and I should respond to it in a special way so he would know it's from Jeanne the Dark. That's basically it."
"I see," Monterey mumbled. Gudbrandsdalen's story contradicted the Shelm's one in many aspects, but in contrast to the lemming, Romme had no reasons to confuse the issue. 'Matty, you're a dirty rotten crook! You covered everything with a fog thicker than that on Newfoundland…'
"Does he, I mean Agent Shelm, participate in this?" Gudbrandsdalen asked, holding with his hands and legs planted apart by the walls of the ventilation shaft joining at right angle. "Will he join us?"
"Of course he participates," Monterey answered. He didn't want to tell the engineer about Matty's death in order not to demoralize him, not to mention that he kept hoping that both the lemming and his Rangers friends were alive. But it would be unwise to instill to much hopes into the lad, too. "But I don't think he'll join us, he told me to conduct the operation. So we're everybody's only hope! Move on!"
Even without urging on Gudbrandsdalen was doing his best. Besides, it was easier to travel through ventilation than it seemed. After many years of exposure to the salty sea air the bricks cracked and softened, and the rodents needed to use the cable's jack only once. When they reached the cross-beams acting as the railing for bridge cranes, the cruiser's three quarters were still in the dock. But now she was far below, and the rodents had no parachutes with them.
"Now what?" Gudbrandsdalen asked.
"I don't know. You said I should go here. What did you expect?"
"I expected to evade the patrols," Romme pointed at the group of three rats walking along the upper observation gallery.
"Well, we evaded the patrols, that's true. How can we get to the ship?"
"I thought she was high enough for us to jump on her, I dunno, mast."
"No, the mast is too far away," Monterey observed with regret, assessing a distance between the mast tip and the last beam. But on the way back his eyes caught a yellowish gleam on the surface of water filling the base of the missing bow turret, and the plan formed practically by itself.
"See that pool?" he asked Gudbrandsdalen. "We'll go there."
"But it's too high…"
"But there's water! Move on!"
Alternating running with sneaking and sidestepping, the two mice reached the middle of the last crossbeam, tied the cable to it and descended along it, with Monterey Jack being the heaviest descending the first. The docks ceiling was practically unilluminated, so they weren't afraid to be spotted. The pool, on the other hand, could be seen very clearly. As well as two symmetrical streams of water which began gushing out of both sides of the ship right by the pool which began to shallow quickly.
"Right on time!" Monterey Jack swore.
"Should I climb back?" Gudbrandsdalen asked hopefully.
"No, we've come too far already, too late to retreat, there's only one way — forward! Get ready, it's almost directly below us! When I jump, wait three seconds and jump yourself! Okay, I'm going!" The Aussie took a deep breath, unclenched his fists and dropped down. He hit the water close to the fall, slightly hitting his knee against the bottom. The flow quickly pressed both him and Romme who fell much closer to the center to the drain grate, where they sat till the water subsided completely.
"We're right on time!" Monterey said, getting up and wringing out his coat.
"We barely made it," the engineer said, shaking.
"But we did, didn't we? So everything will be alright! And now tell me everything about this ship…"
* 15 *
"What's that?!" Dale exclaimed pointing at the smoke cloud covering the sheer rock dead ahead. "Looks like an explosion!"
"Explosion it is," Shelm confirmed. "We were right, they have the gates there."
"And have something large inside," Chip added. He was proud he was the first to notice the absence of breaker waves at the foot of the sheer rock which indicated there was at least a grotto. Not before Shelm asked the Rangers whether they saw something strange about that rock, but Chip was absolutely sure Shelm just feigned insight while bombing squares. In any case, he had no facts disproving this claim. "Gadget! Dive!"
"Diving!" the mouse confirmed pressing an appropriate pedal.
"And hard to starboard," Zipper added. "So they won't crush us."
"But they can pass us by!" Dale took alarm.
"I won't let them," Gadget assured him. "Whatever it is, we'll stick to it with one mooring magnet at least. If we don't turn our stern to them, that is, for we have a propeller there. Or if it isn't something extraordinary fast."
"It can be a plane for all we know," Zipper suggested.
"Fin is submariner, not a pilot," Chip objected.
"The plane doesn't need AIS chip," Shelm added.
"You stole my argument!" Dale said fretfully. Gadget patted his shoulder sympathetically. Chip hemmed skeptically. Shelm was silent, peering into the darkness beyond the front window. When it went underwater completely, the lemming went to a rigid boroscope hanging vertically from the ceiling in the centre of the circular cockpit feeling like a photo-laboratory due to red illumination. Grabbing the handles attached to the lower part of the boroscope, Shelm jerked them up over his head, pushing the objective out of the roof and raising the eyepiece to his eye level.
"See anything?" Chip asked.
"Something's definitely out there."
"I'm all seriousness. Gloria, sunny, approach the isle from the side, I can't see anything with him on the background."
Gadget turned the rudder, forcing a spherical submarine resembling a naval mine because of mooring magnets protruding at all sides to make a U-turn and approach the isle from the north. Nothing happened for some time, and Chip who took Shelm's place at the boroscope began suspecting their enemies deceived them and used the sub which either left the base underwater or from the opposite side of the island using the explosion as a decoy. But then something rectangular and stocky, like an ocean barge, moved out of the rock, and when two superfiring gun turrets appeared, it was time to act.
"The target's dead ahead! Full ahead!" Chip ordered.
"Tell me when they are ten feet away," Gadget asked.
"Of course. How will I determine it?"
"It depends on what exactly you are seeing."
"A large Human ship."
"A large or a Human? All Human ships are large for us."
"This one is large for Humans, too."
"Really?! Let me look!" Dale jumped up to the boroscope, pushed Chip aside with his cheek and looked into the eyepiece. "Wowie zowie! That's a battleship! From 'Battleship'!"
"Quiet, Dale, I'm calculating…" Gadget thoughtfully counted something on her fingers; she even let the rudder go for a moment. "Alright, given these objective's diameter and focus distance, we'll have this entry aperture, and adjusting for parallax… In short, signal me when the welding seam on the ship's hull will cover a quarter of the eyepiece!"
"I'll have to turn the lights on for that," Chip reminded her.
"Turn it on, what's the problem? You think they'll see us? Although they will, they can't see red light through a blue glass underwater, but white light on the objective overwater… Then turn it on when we'll come close enough!"
"It will be too late…"
"Really? Hmm, maybe you're right… In short, turn it on when you think you need it!"
"Gloria, sunny, just don't digress," Shelm advised kindly. "If you see something large and dark in the window, don't wait for a signal, stop immediately."
"Sure thing!" the mouse answered with a smile.
"Sure thing," Mathias nodded. "Don't think badly of me. I'm just nervous." To confirm his words, he pulled his whiskers and fiddled with a short club hanging from his belt. 'He's showing off,' Chip concluded categorically. "He knows how to hide his emotions, that's for sure. His true emotions, that is…" The chipmunk's eyes got fixed on the club for a moment. It attracted his attention as soon as Shelm took it out of a secret equipment hiding place in the floor of Magda's storeroom, uttering 'I knew I'd need this stash someday!' The stash contained lots of things for all life's situations, and they'd obviously stayed there for many years, so Shelm couldn't have hit him with this club on Costa Brava's bridge. But who said he had only one of those…
"Chip, light," Zipper prompted.
"I remember, thanks," the chipmunk looked into the eyepiece again. "Too early…" Chip waited for the ship's hull to fill entire sector of view, then counted to twenty five and pressed a button by the eyepiece, and saw a grey wall of steel sheets welded together instead of utter blackness.
"Chip, isn't it time?" Dale asked nervously.
"No, we're too far yet."
"Then why can we see it already?" Dale pointed at the black mass dead ahead rapidly increasing in size.
"That's because the visible light we see passes through three elements with different optical characteristics: water, glass and air," Gadget explained. "And the light Chip sees passes through two elements only: glass and air… One second… and then through air again… Golly! Hold on!" the mouse threw the speed lever into the opposite position while turning the rudder to the right. Dale and Shelm had no time to react and fell upon the starboard wall. Chip almost tore the boroscope handle out, but remained standing. Zipper who was sitting on the back of the helmsmouse chair got off cheaply.
"I'm sorry!" Gadget shouted without turning her head. "I forgot about light passing back from glass to air! This makes the things in boroscope look a bit further away than they really are! But nothing wrong happened! We'll surface and dock in a jiff! Oh, I almost forgot. How are you?"
"We'll live," Shelm answered for everybody.
"Oh, that's great! Then we're going up! Chip, switch the snorkel to the extraction mode!"
"Glad to hear that," the chipmunk said not hiding his relief as he reconnected a black corrugated nose running along the boroscope into another slot. Not that he didn't trust Gadget and the sub she built, but at sea it's always better to be in distress as close to the surface as possible.
Gadget pressed another pedal, and a pump previously pumping out air from ballast tanks to make room for water started pumping it in, forcing the water out and making the sub go up. When they reached the surface, they found out they were only five feet away from the cruiser still moving backwards, and Gadget turned the submarine to move towards the giant's stern on parallel course. Gradually the Rescue Rangers' sub began to close in with the ship, and finally one of her electromagnetic horns touched it. Gadget powered them on, and the two vessels became tightly attached.
"Here we are!" Gadget announced switching the main engine off.
"Great job, sunny!" Chip praised his friend.
"Yes, sunny, you shine like a star!" Dale joined in.
The mouse blushed. "Golly, I have nothing to do with it. Thank the Bernoulli law saying that in the channel's narrow parts the water flows faster and presses on walls weaker than in the wide ones. It was the same here, only it wasn't water but the channel walls that moved, that is, our ships. Didn't you know that?"
"Knowing and using are different things," Shelm commented. He already opened a hatch in the ceiling. "Zack, your turn. Scout around. Charlie, Dobby, get the suction shoes and nail gun."
"You hear, Dobby? Don't sleep!" Chip said just for the sake of maintaining informal hierarchy. Shelms come and go, as they say, but Rescue Rangers will always remain an organized team.
Climbing up the ship's side made the rodents literally feel how large was the ship they were dealing with, even though the cruiser's stern half was almost twice lower than her bow. The group encountered an illuminator with darkness beyond it, and Gadget offered to cut the glass. Dale liked the idea, but Chip objected that it was better to start from the deck, not to mention they knew nothing about ship's interior, crew size and composition, and they could get in trouble by moving blindly about. The dispute was ended by Zipper who reported the deck was empty.
"And I was afraid you'll start voting," Shelm commented ironically when the rodents continued on.
"You said that when we first met," Chip reminded him. "You are so afraid of discussions?"
"Not afraid. They are nuisance."
"They hinder actions."
"It's always better to discuss variants than rush headfirst," Gadget objected.
"Sure," Shelm nodded. "You should never rush headfirst. The leader should weigh all the options and make a decision. And when it's made, he should execute it."
"And others should keep mum?" Dale asked with irritation. "We're not the army!"
"And that's regrettable."
"I don't consider my friends to be brainless robots jumping with me from the roof just because I ordered them to do as I do." Chip said proudly. "Although I don't think you understand it…" he then added rather arrogantly.
"Yes, Charlie, we, lemmings, see things differently," Shelm picked up the baton. "And this particular lemming lived so long he wouldn't say it's a good thing. And he got here, as you can see."
"Looks like we are all here, too," Zipper observed.
"Not to mention we got here on the submarine I built," Gadget added gloomily.
"I don't deny that, sunny. Although it weren't for your sub, I'd use Katya, so…"
"But you still used us and not her," Chip pointed at himself and his friends.
"Yes, I assigned a separate task to Katya."
"Correction: you were able to assign a separate task to her because you have us."
"Have I ever said you were useless?"
"You didn't, at least explicitly and aloud. But who knows what you lemmings think…"
"Don't be a fool. I need you. And the further we go, the more I need you."
"You should auto… arma… articulate it at least sometimes!" Dale smiled as if unlocking a difficult achievement. "Your tongue won't fall off!"
"You should make compliments only after the operation's finished," the lemming answered. "If you make them in the process, they are rather harmful, for they either distract or instill excessive self-assuredness. Both can lead to personnel losses. First-hand experience. Zack, is the deck still empty? Then we should move on."
The deck of half-repaired cruiser lacked many small things useful for covert moving and providing a contrast between a long-used ship and a freshly launched one. Still, empty paint buckets and some tubes piled into a pyramid by the bulwark provided a good cover from accidental gazes from the upper levels of the superstructure. The rodents hid their suction shoes in the rightmost pipe, then used the middle one as a tunnel leading them to the base of the aft main gun turret. The left of the three 15 cm gun barrels was missing, and the empty place looked like a missing tooth's cavity, but the other two guns combined with the full complement of guns in the superfiring turret hinted that the cruiser was capable of causing lots of trouble in skillful hands despite her old age.
"It's good they have no nuclear bombs!" Dale noted with relief. "Or they would load it and shoot!"
"It would be the last stupid thing they did in their lives," Gadget grinned.
Chip smiled, too. "Right. But I don't think they would do it. It would need a dozen Humans, and much more rodents… Agreed, Mickey?"
"Agreed, Charlie. If Desiree wanted to shoot, she would have hired Sharp-eyed Ogle, an artillery specialist. He knows how to use Human guns, too."
"And not a kamikaze for a suicide run," Zipper finished the thought.
"And not a kamikaze for a suicide run," Shelm repeated. "Alright, youngsters, have you found a way for us to sink this old tub?"
Chip, Dale and Gadget opened their mouths to offer more or less sensible and mutually exclusive suggestions, but at that moment Zipper perked up strangely, waved his hand in front of his face like a taster waving wine vapors closer to his nose, then hiccupped and fell into arms of Dale who barely had time to react. Shelm immediately pressed his finger to his lips, sniffed about and moved his head telling the Rangers to step into a thick darkness under the bulwark. The friends obeyed, for they were already feeling a strange smell of neither marine nor technical nature. The smell was gradually becoming stronger, then careful steps could be heard, and then two silhouettes of radically different constitution appeared, and Shelm pointed his nail gun at them, while Chip illuminated them with his searchlight's ray.
"Oh! Don't hit us! We surrender!" a thin disheveled fellow, found remotely familiar by Dale and Gadget, screamed and raised his hands.
"Who's there?" his much larger and paunchier partner asked as he raised his hands. He was recognized by the Rescue Rangers instantly.
"Guys?!" the strongmouse covered his eyes with his paw. "Matty?! Is it you?! Are you alive?!"
"Alive and kicking," Shelm said.
"All okay!" Gadget confirmed. "And what happened to you?"
"Yeah!" Dale joined up with the question. "What happened? Where are your moustaches?"
"Moustaches?" Monterey ran his finger along his cleanly shaved upper lip. "Morten tore them off. Well, not exactly tore them off, they were false…"
"False, what. That is, I wore real all this time, but I shaved them off in Bergen, in the hotel, and put the false on."
"For this," Monterey Jack unglued a body-colored plaster off his upper lip with a miniature even by rodent standards lockpick on its interior side. "In case I'll be searched, handcuffed and left unobserved for a moment or two. I didn't need it. Yes, Charlie, you may lower your searchlight already. Thanks."
"But what will you do now without moustaches?" Gadget asked sorrowfully.
"Don't worry, luv, they'll grow back. They grow back very quickly. In a month they'll be all back. But to heck those moustaches! Lemme embrace you all!"
"First explain who's with you," Chip said examining the Aussie's partner with curiosity.
"And why are you smelling so that Zipper blacked out?" Dale added showing Monterey Jack the unconscious fly.
"Zipper? Blacked out?! Oh, that must be because of Pont-l'Eveque," Monterey pointed at the hole in his collar. "It makes me invincible of cheese attacks and Desiree's perfumes. Another piece of Bergen equipment. Turned out useful. But something must be done about it, since it smells and betrays our location, not to mention it affected the kid here. Have anything sharp to cut it out?"
"You have the plaster," Gadget reminded him. "Put it over the hole, and there will be no problems!"
Monterey Jack followed her advice a bit warily, but no unpredicted side effects like rapid thermal chemical reaction between the plaster, the foil and the moldy skin happened.
"No problems indeed! Great idea, luv! Looks like I found the use for it after all… Oh, I almost forgot! Meet Romme, master-electrician, he saved me. He was a secret, too, but not mine, Matty's. And it also worked out quite nicely!"
"Romme?!" astonished Chip asked. "Gudbrandsdalen?! So you work for… So all that performance with chip selling and identification…"
"Yes," Shelm nodded, "it was a cover-up to deceive you and those who would interrogate you."
"That's perfectly clear. But I don't understand why you knew nothing about Desiree's plans or where her lair was?"
"We couldn't communicate directly," Shelm explained calmly. "Only via advertisements about chip for sale, and even then it was just a single code phrase for mutual identification, not full-fledged information exchange. So I knew nothing about this island, this ship, or Jeanne the Dark's real plans. By the way, is she onboard?"
"Yes," Monterey answered instead of Gudbrandsdalen. "She's doing a live report into my cell."
"She doesn't know you escaped?"
"Who knows. She shouldn't."
"So we have time to find out what she's up to. Robby, tell us."
The code name made the engineer assume a dignified air, but Monterey spoke first again. "Actually, we've spoken about it a little already. They want to ram into a rig on a large gas field…"
"Platform A on Troll gas field," Gudbrandsdalen prompted.
"Yes. The AIS chip is reprogrammed to signal like a cruise liner…"
"'Serenade of the Seas', she's leaving Alesund for Gejranger-Fjord."
"Yeah, right, thanks. They installed hydrojets on the cruiser, so it will take them two hours to get there…"
"We can't waste any time!" Chip exclaimed.
"We can't, we can't," Monterey Jack agreed. "But that's not the most interesting part. Romme, please, tell us about your and Matty's plan with the AIS-chip."
Gudbrandsdalen eagerly repeated everything he told Monty in the ventilation. Shelm remained untouched by his words, but Chip became gloomy as a storm cloud.
"So there were no Desiree's agent on 'Costa Brava'!" he turned to the lemming with his whole body and clenched his fists. "You caused the shipwreck! You hit me in the head with the same club as the one hanging from your belt right now!"
"I didn't cause shipwreck, it was an accident I simply used for my purposes. I hit you in the head, yes, for I couldn't allow you to see me. Not to mention that it made my story more persuasive, and you — more motivated."
"Motivated?! Are you crazy?! I could die there! Drown!"
"No way. You were the vest, you fell on your back, your nose and mouth stayed above the water, you were safe. If you had fallen face down, I'd have pulled you out. Like I said, you were perfectly safe."
"That's what you're telling us now!" Gadget joined the conversation being even more infuriated than Chip. "But you said other things before that! How do we know you aren't lying now?!"
"Yeah! Prove it!" Dale stepped forward with such a facial expression as if he was about to hit Shelm with Zipper.
"My proof is simple: if I wanted you dead, you would have been long dead. I could kill you in your sleep, in that fight, I could simply allow you to drown in the sea. I repeat, I need you. I need you very much. Alive and battleworthy. We must save the rig, forgot?"
Chip crossed his hands on his chest. "Let's assume we save the rig, then what?"
"Nothing in particular. Those who survived will congratulate each other and part as friends."
"Very optimistic," Dale said caustically.
"As optimistic as it gets. Nobody says somebody will surely die. Although the longer we stay here doing nothing, the less our chances become, that's right. So I suggest we return to the question how we would send this old tub to the bottom. Robby, tell us about the ship."
"Like I told Muzzy already, there are only explosive and fuel onboard-"
"So we can't shoot the gun at the bridge?" Dale grew said.
"No, I'm sorry. We had an idea to crawl through the turret," the engineer pointed at the missing gun, "get into the engine room and try to disable the engines, since nobody guards them. But it's difficult to do, although since it's six of us already…"
"Seven," Dale corrected him, for after the source of smell was plugged, Zipper began to regain his senses slowly and even moved his wings already.
"Oh, sure, I'm sorry. So, we can… but no, let me tell you how everything's set up here… "
* 16 *
The cruiser made a staid turn and began moving to the south-west, his main engines and auxiliary hydrojets working at full power. A 174-meter ship was illuminated by her stern and side lights only to prevent premature collisions and looked like a ghost overall. And this definition was almost correct, since the only really inhabited room on her was the bridge, weld shut and filled with water almost to the ceiling, where those fish and squids who responded to Captain's Fin call and Jeanne the Dark's generous promises kept watch at sealed control consoles. A broad pipe filled with water ran from the bridge into the bow end of the ship, into the space between the stem and 140th rib. From this rib onward every third section of the pipe was made of glass allowing to visually check the state of TNT and dinitrogen tetroxide stored there. At least, that's what the labels on the stacked crates and cylinders read in addition to multicolored rhombs warning you were dealing with explosive, toxic and oxidizing substances.
"A killing solitaire they gathered here, huh, Rock?" Shelm smiled and patted his bent finger against a dully sounding cylinder. "Organic explosives plus hypergolic rocket fuel oxidizer."
"Really?" Monterey Jack hemmed. "It would be enough not to just destroy that rig but send it into space!"
"If this ship explodes under it, I won't be surprised if that is the case."
"But we will prevent it, right?"
"Don't distract me!" Gudbrandsdalen lost his temper. "My hands are already shaking, and with you talking about explosions…"
"Alright, we'll stop," Shelm promised. "Muzzy, call me if something happens, I'll climb to the second tier."
"Maybe there's some interesting marking, or even a logistics label. It will be a food for our analysts' thought, help them make a couple of connections maybe. Maybe another piece of a puzzle will get fit into place. In this business you never know…"
"Agent Shelm, please!"
"Alright, alright, don't get nervous, it's harmful for you."
Shelm chose a pallet stack standing under a blind segment of the pipe. Each pallet held sixteen cylinders separated with wooden buffer planks and tied with wide straps. Shelm started climbing towards a white label on the corner board of the furthest, third from the floor pallet. Monterey's words about the Wall-street wolf and shale gas investors narrowed an area of search for possible channels of explosives' bulk supply significantly, but the exact facts are always better than even the smallest number of equally possible variants. And since the explosion was expected to wipe all evidences, it was possible that Jeanne the Dark and her minions didn't aim to cover all the tracks…
Monterey's yell caught Shelm in a very disadvantaged position, on the second pallet's tightening strap, so the lemming had to improvise. Rolling over the strap, Mathias grab it with his arms and legs, pulled its edges together as close as possible and turned a couple of times around his longitudinal axis, creating some kind of cocoon. Of course this twist of the strap, especially with well visible bulge in the middle, looked not very natural, but the chances that one of those anchovies cruising back and forth along the pipe and aimed at looking for smoke and gas leaks wouldn't pay attention to this anomaly were relatively high. It was more important that he didn't notice bulky Monterey and inexperienced in survival-oriented hide-and-seek Romme, and the rest will follow…
"Looks like he left!" Monterey Jack signaled. Shelm untwisted himself back and jumped on the second from the floor pallet.
"Don't shout so loud, or they'll hear you. But thanks."
"You're always welcome!"
Having waited for a short dizzy spell to subside, Shelm resumed climbing. Squeezing between two cylinders, he jumped up and ran his claws into a buffer plank, pulled himself up, ran claws of all his limbs into it and climbed to its upper cut as if by the tree trunk. From there he jumped to the upper plank of the pallet barrier and used it to get to the label. Having remembered the contents of 'Sender' and 'Receiver' fields, Shelm returned to Monterey Jack and Gudbrandsdalen in the same way. The engineer had finished just pulling out an electric detonator connected to the bridge console with a cable from one of the three TNT briquettes inserted between the cylinders of the most distant pallet from the stem.
"First's done," the engineer commented wiping sweat off his forehead.
Shelm nodded. "Two more to go. Any new ideas about the timer?"
"Aside from those proposed by Gloria, none."
"Why don't you like them?" Monterey asked with jealousy. Shelm nodded at Gudbrandsdalen pulling out the second detonator. The Aussie obediently approached him and changed to whisper. "So? Why?"
"Because of very high probability of contingency."
"And how high is it?"
"Drop it! You're overrating!"
"Rather underrating. Not all possible problems are included into this estimate."
"Offer something better!"
"That's not a valid argument."
"You said any action is better that doing nothing!"
"It doesn't mean you should do the first thing occurring to you. Do you like her ideas yourself? Honestly."
"Well, I don't really like any bombs…"
"I remember. Bu still?"
"I'd prefer something manufactured, some firmware. But where can we get it?"
"And what do you think our friend is pulling out there?"
"And how will you use it?"
"There's always a problem. What you know how to use, I'm talking about Gloria's idea, is dangerous. But there's no idea how to use something reliable…"
"Second's done!" Gudbrandsdalen announced.
"Great job! Just a bit more!" Mathias congratulated him.
"You've never cheered me up like that," Monterey Jack observed.
"You had to pull detonators out of TNT?"
"No, but once I had to drive an antihedgehog tank…"
"Ah, yes, I remember that episode."
"'Episode' is an understatement!" Monterey's memories were so unpleasant he screwed his eyes.
Fortunately for him, Zipper came with message from the 'deck trio' and made him digress from not the most pleasant page of his biography. "The helicopter's disabled!"
"Glad to hear that," Shelm said. The helicopter was the only thing they could disable without setting the alarm off prematurely. Fin and his crew would notice the communications with the base loss very quickly, and the damage of the AIS antennae even quicker. Not that Rescue Rangers were that much afraid to be detected — after all, Desiree and the webcam operator who doubled as the helicopter pilot were the only other rodents onboard. But for their plan to work the most reliable way Desiree had to be on the bridge, so they couldn't let her suspect something was wrong. "Can tampering be detected visually?"
"No, everything's under the hood."
"Great. What about the timer?"
"We're still thinking."
"Third's… done," Gudbrandsdalen exhaled with an effort and massaged his paws shaking with strain and nervousness.
"Even faster than the first two!" Shelm praised him, feeling relief, too. No, with the detonators pulled out, and the cruiser couldn't be blown up with a single pressing of a button on the bridge, they could act much more freely. "Looks like you got used to it. That should an example for you and your friends, Zack. Think faster, the ship's is sailing."
"Doing our best," Zipper assured all those present and flew away. To get to the catapult for launching the hydroplanes of the ship's staff aviation wing where Chip, Dale and Gadget were waiting, Zipper had to make a big detour through the pocket for the missing main gun in the aft turret, for all the passages into the main superstructure were sealed tight to prevent the water flowing out from the bridge. Still, this set up had its advantages…
"What's now, Agent Shelm?" Gudbrandsdalen asked having rested a bit.
"We'll wait for the decision from above."
"I'd like to take a walk, warm up a bit…"
"Don't!" Monterey pointed upwards. "Forgot or what? We're under the pipe!"
"I remember, I'm just thinking aloud…"
"Let's keep it that way," the Aussie ordered and turned to Mathias. "How do you think, what're they doing up there?"
"I should ask you about that, you know them longer than me."
"I'm talking about Desiree and Fin."
"She's still Desiree for you?"
"The sea is not enough to extinguish the fire burning right here," Monterey knocked his chest with his fist.
Shelm grimaced with displease. "Stop it."
"Falling into pompousness. Every time my assistants did it, they immediately did some very stupid things."
Insulted Monterey snuffled loudly. "Who do you think I am?"
"They all say that. And in a couple of minutes — bang! — and you're running to the bridge to hold your old flame by her arm in a chivalrous manner."
"I'd rather hold her neck."
"That would be even stupider. We are about to deal with her remotely."
"You don't doubt my gal's abilities anymore?"
"I never doubted them. That's why I don't rush to realize the ideas she had formulated. She's capable of much more… Hi, Zack! Something happened?"
"Gloria asks for a tester."
"I can't help you."
"I can," Gudbrandsdalen responded, opening his plastic bag as he walked up to them and fetching a cable tester made of screen for electronic-mechanical wristwatch. "Here, you may have it. Can you carry it?"
"Do you need anything from these?" Zipper asked him instead of answer.
"Not right now, actually…"
"I'll take it all, then, so I won't have to fly back and forth. And yes, I can carry it. I can carry Charlie when I have to," Zipper said, took the bag from the astonished engineer's paws and dashed away.
"Is it true?" Shelm asked Monterey Jack. "About Charlie?"
"True as it gets!"
"What do you feed him with?"
"Usually he finds various things himself…"
"Don't continue," Gudbrandsdalen asked constrainedly. Monterey Jack fell silent. Shelm threw his head back and watched anchovies travelling along the pipe back and forth for some time. Nothing in their behavior indicated they knew something or were looking for something in particular. Everything was going well, if you forget about the cruiser steadily approaching her target…
"What's you magic bag useful for?" he asked Romme.
"For many things in skillful hands!" the engineer answered not without boasting.
"Looks like they are building something extraordinary."
Monterey shivered. "That scares me."
"Didn't a sealed hose as a temporary reservoir to accumulate critical volume of dinitrogen tetroxide scare you? My feet are still getting cold when I think of it."
"Let's put it this way — I don't trust electric devices she touched."
"But you're using radios, searchlights…"
"For three reasons," Monterey Jack started counting his fingers off. "They are smell. The current is weak there. There's nothing to explode."
"If you say so-"
"TEST! TEST! TEST! DO YOU COPY? TEST! TEST! TEST! COPY!" Shelm heard suddenly over his very ear. The radios worked very poorly in the steel labyrinth, and lemming who got used to loud noise didn't recognized Gadget's voice at first for the signal was loud and clear. "TEST! TEST! TEST! COPY!"
"Copying. I'm copying, Gloria."
"TEST…! Guys! It worked! Hear?! It worked! Zipper, stop, don't go further, that's enough! Put the retransmitter down and go back!"
"Retransmitter?" Shelm asked.
"Retransmitter?!" Gudbrandsdalen asked in surprise.
"Robby, stop yelling. Although if it's for what I think it's for…"
"Then I may yell, yes?"
"You shouldn't yell in any case."
"Well, that depends. Cases can vary…"
"Don't be a chicken!" Monterey reasoned the engineer. "Zack will come shortly and tell us everything. You'll be impressed, I guarantee you!"
Indeed, very soon Zipper came into a 'gunpowder room' dragging along a strange construct, which upon closer examination turned out a headlight with its led block missing but with radio transmitter attached to its back side.
"And what's that?" the three rodents asked in chorus.
"A radio-attachment for the detonator. Makes it radio-controlled. The contacts go here and here. When the radio receives a signal, the circuit is closed and detonator explodes."
"So that's what that retransmitter's for!" Monterey Jack realized. "Great idea!"
"Not bad," Shelm agreed. "The radio is switched off at the moment, I hope?"
"Great. Muzzy, help Robby insert one of the detonators back. But let me cut the cable first, just in case."
As soon as the detonator with its bridge cable cut was inserted into a TNT briquette, Zipper landed by the cut point and attached the radiohead to the appropriate wires, then waved in the stern's direction. "Let's go now. They're waiting for us. But be careful, a couple more fish came."
"Maybe they sensed something," Shelm observed. "I'll go first, then Robby, Muzzy will tail us."
"Right," Monterey Jack nodded. He shot a glance at the bridge hidden beyond the sheets of armor and ceilings, sighed heavily, then followed after Gudbrandsdalen fiddling with his shirt's collar. The number of fish in the pipe increased indeed, but they were moving with the same speed and the same pattern as before, so the rodents successfully evaded detection and reached the aft turret where the 'deck trio' had already tired of waiting.
"Is anything alright?" Chip asked first.
"By your prayers," Shelm responded. "How are you?"
"Same here. So here's the plan: the rodents go to the sub, sail a safe distance away and wait for Zipper there. Radios aren't used."
"But the bomb isn't on yet," Zipper informed.
"It's still safer that way. Here, take the radio. Is the retransmitter in place?"
"We passed it on our way here, it's still there."
"Great. Then we'll meet on the sub. Give us ten minutes."
"I'll see you away, I don't mind to."
"That's the variant, too," Chip didn't object, and the team went to he point where they got onto the cruiser. Turned out, it was good Zipper went along, for there were six rodents who needed to go down, and there were only four pairs of suction boots, and the transition to the sub took almost half an hour. There was enough time, of course, but the situation was still very nervous.
"Well, this is it," Chip told Zipper from the hatch. "Good luck. Find us by the boroscope lights. We'll be waiting for you."
"I'll be back," the fly promised and flew upwards, while Chip shut the hatch and told Gadget to disengage. The mouse cut off the mooring magnets from power, turned the engine on and slowly moved the sub along the cruiser to her aft in order to part from the huge ship as soon as possible and not be afraid of the Bernoulli effect anymore. Before getting down to the bomb business, Zipper flew to the bridge to make sure the Desiree's helicopter was there. He had no intention to infiltrate the bridge for it could be risky. Having checked the helicopter remained in place, the fly flew into the 'gunpowder room' to turn the detonator on. He was switching its radio receiver on when a little bustle started on the bridge.
"What's going on? Hey, what's going on?" Desiree shouted when she saw a greatly agitated squid-radio operator waving to Fin with his tentacles. Fin spoke with his subordinate, swam around him feverishly for some time, plucking at him and asking something insistently, then the anchovy swam up to the grate footway above the water where Desiree's armchair and her pilot's chair stood.
"That's the base, ma'am!" the fish said. "The airbreather escaped!"
"Who escaped?" Desiree didn't understand at first. "Speak plainly, without those riddles of yours!"
"The Ranger! The Ranger escaped!"
Desiree grew pale. "What?! When?!"
"They don't know. They found it out just now."
"Darn!" Desiree shot a nervous glance at the roof exit. "He can be here somewhere… Go check the helicopter!"
"Yes, ma'am!" the pilot nodded with servility and ran away. "If he doesn't come back in five minutes, I'll jump into the water and we'll see how he'll get me down there…" Desiree thought. Of course it would be a suicide, but she preferred dying to another failure. And what could be better then dying and taking her greatest and most hated enemy along with her…?
"Helicopter is undamaged, ma'am," the returned pilot reported.
"Thank you," Desiree took a deep breath and calmed down a bit. After all, who said Monterey had infiltrated the ship? He could have escaped long after they set sail…
"Any new orders?" Fin asked who had been swimming at her feet for all this time.
"No, Captain. Get back to your work," Desiree took another deep breath and leant on the handrail. 'It's okay,' she told herself. 'You'll do it!' If you think about, there were no reasons to be nervous at all. A half of the distance was behind them. All enemies except one are dead, and the only remaining one wasn't very bright to put it mildly. All systems working properly, the cruiser is moving at full speed, and the AIS-chip is making it indistinguishable from 'Serenade of Seas' whose lights can be seen far away on the port side. That's why when the Norwegian Coast Guard would understand that something wrong was going on, the rig would be already in sight, and neither 57-mm guns of Nordkapp-class patrol ships nor 40-mm guns of Barentshav-class patrol vessels would be able to do anything to the WWII cruiser's thick old-fashioned armor. Everything is fine. Everything will be fine. The wolf and his partners gave her a very generous prepayment, and their second payment on completion will be equally generous. Only riches and glory are lying before her. Warm countries, gentle seas…
"Captain!" Desiree called wanting to ask about the explosives' status, but at that very moment Zipper who had already got back to the aft turret switched his radio on and said 'BOOM!', and the stem part of the cruiser from 140th rib onward ceased to exist. The water flowed on all sided from the wrenched bridge, and the North Sea water flowed to meet it and fill the opened cavities, and the cruiser dived in and started going underwater. The side and stern lights survived the explosion and kept shining until the water reached the engines, and then the ship, engulfed by darkness completely, rose almost vertically and went underwater almost as quickly as Zipper found his friends by the white light of the boroscope illumination.
"Well, this is it," Chip said when the waves converged over the cruiser's stern.
"It is now, yes," Gadget nodded. "Too bad we had to do that to the cruiser. She was obviously a good ship."
"And then – BANG! — and she was no more!" Dale joked being unable to sit because of emotional overload. "Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! I can't believe it! We did it!"
"We did," Monterey Jack agreed, his emotions mixed now when everything was behind them.
"Yes, my friends," Shelm announced solemnly. "We did it. You did great. I am proud of you. Congratulations. And huge thanks."
"Rescue Rangers, hooray!" the five team members shouted in chorus.
"Hooray!" Gudbrandsdalen added.
"Can we call each other by our real name now?" Chip asked the lemming.
"Actually, the operation officially ends after debriefing only, but since you aren't stuff members, you may."
"Yes, Chip! Hooray! You're Chip again!" Dale jumped up to his friend and embraced him so tight Chip's eyes bulged. "Gadget! Hooray! You are Gadget again! Let me-"
"What?!" Chip grabbed his friend by his solar, making him fall on his soft spot. "Don't even think about it! You'll injure her!"
"I'll be gentle!"
"Promise! Let me go!"
"Drop it! Let me go!"
"Guys, enough!" Gadget laughed. She knew Chip would hold Dale no matter what he said, so she approached the chipmunks herself, brought Dale up to his feet and embraced both him and Chip. Then Monterey Jack embraced the three of them, and then Zipper embraced everybody he could. Gudbrandsdalen considered himself not close enough to join in, and Shelm considered all these sloppy sentimentalities sickening.
"How do you think, there are many survivors?" Romme asked when the embrace was unclenched, and Gadget got back behind the rudder, and the rest distributed around the sub cabin more or less evenly.
"I doubt there were many," Shelm said.
"Maybe we should…" Gadget began.
"What if Dez and Fin…" Monterey continued.
"No," Shelm was flat. "Katya will take care of them."
"So that's what you ordered her," Chip realized.
"There's no one better than her for the job."
"That's bad," Dale sighed. "That is, that's good, of course, but I dunno. Something's missing. Maybe we should try to fish Desiree out? We can mail her to that wolf, we know the address. She'll be not Jeanne the Dark but Jeanne the Blind!"
"Dale, are you feeling well?" Chip tapped his temple with his finger, pointing at Monterey with his eyes.
The Aussie wasn't offended, though. "Don't, Chip. Memories are memories, but she deserved it. The Desiree I loved ceased to exist a long time ago, and this one… this one I don't care about. Although I imagined it differently."
"And how?" Zipper became curious.
"Something like this. We land on the cruiser's stern, fight our way to the bridge through hordes of enemies, seconds away from collision with the rig turn the ship so she misses, switch on the bomb timer, seize the helicopter, take off, the explosion, the ship is sinking, and suddenly Desiree jumps out of the bridge, grabs the helicopter's sled and shouts 'Monty! Give me your hand! For everything that was between us!' I extend my hand, tell her to hold on, and she grabs my arm and shouts: 'We'll die together!' And she pulls with all her might…"
The Aussie paused significantly. Dale shook with anticipation. "Oh, dear! Oh, that's so cool! You should write scripts for Suave movies! And then what? Then what?!"
"And then she falls into the sea, because you wear your special glove, yes?" Chip realized.
"Yes, exactly. That's the punchline!" Monterey laughed, but abruptly stopped. "I'm sorry, I got carried away…"
"Don't be sorry," Gadget responded. "She wanted to kill us. Why must we pretend we are mourning her?"
"Right," the Aussie sighed in relief.
"And if she doesn't pull?" Romme asked.
"If she doesn't pull your hand? Then what?"
"Then? Then, then…" Monterey tried to yank his moustache, remembered there were none yet, and scratched his chin instead. "Then we take her aboard and mail to Wall-street like Dale suggested!"
"That's just horrible," Shelm shook his head in disdain. "Now I understand why your enemies like Fat Cat and Nimnul are still alive. You just don't finish the job."
"Come on!" Chip objected. "We always finish our jobs. After all, for most of our enemies defeat is worse than death. But we did put Fat Cat into a can machine once!"
"We did," Dale confirmed. "Pushed him down with our legs. And then what? He got out of the can, shook himself and carried on! Maybe they don't lie that cats have nine lives. What can we do about it?"
Shelm shrugged. "Put him into a can machine eight more times, what else?"
All those present knew the lemming well enough to realize he wasn't joking, but they couldn't help but laugh. First, his plan was funny in its own way. Second, the nervous tension of the previous days needed to be discharged.
Not only their emotions needed discharge, though. Captain Fin, just moments ago furrowing the seas as the warship captain, now found himself in those very seas without his ship, his crew, his target — in short, without everything keeping him afloat so to say! And it happened when he was just two steps, no one step away of his triumph! It's easy to get crazy after this…
"Captain Fin?" a gentle voice sounded from behind him, if you could call something between steamship's hooting and D major accord of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor gentle. Fin, who was watching the cruiser going down in a cloud of air bubbles with his glassy bulging eyes, slowly, as if a rusty weathercock, turned around and almost hit his nose against an enormous, especially compared to him, orca.
"Captain Fin?" she repeated. "You are in charge here? This is your ship?"
"Yes," Fin confirmed briefly.
"Pleased to meet you," the orca smiled showing her massive teeth. "You are the one I need. I spoke with some of your crew members, and they told me you were about to blow up a rig, boil up the sea and thaw the polar ice. Is it true or they slandered you?"
A mad fire started dancing in the anchovy's previously lifeless eyes.
"It's true!" he confirmed eagerly. "It's all true! All to the last word! I wanted! I wanted to take vengeance on them for everything! On those air breathers! For everything! Everything! For every fish they killed, ale and destroyed!"
"I see," the orca nodded. "But how about thousands and thousands of fish dying when the sea would boil up?"
"Well," Fin pursed his lip and rolled his eyes, "there would be victims, of course, but what can I do, the revenge has its price! But after that we could inhabit new previously inaccessible depths! Well, not we, but the other fish and sea dwellers, for I would have died and wouldn't see it happening, but I'm willing to sacrifice myself for this cause!"
"Well," the orca's smile became wider although it seemed impossible, "I'll help you to finish your job."
"Really?!" Fin asked joyfully. "You'll blow up the rig for me?!"
"No. I'll help you to sacrifice yourself. Just stay right here and don't do any fast movements, and then it won't hurt. At least I think so. Although, even if you feel the pain, it will go away very quickly, agreed?"
When Fin was talking profusely about self-sacrifice and his willingness to commit a suicidal heroic deed, he didn't lie. There was a reason why the main console of the cruiser's bridge with the rudder and the button for forced bomb detonation was turned into a water tank with manually installed high plexiglass walls, where Fin would swim in order to stay on the bridge even after the water would discharge from the rest of the bridge during the crew evacuation process. But knowing that your death will bring victory to your kind and death to your enemies is one thing, and dying a meaningless death in the teeth of the predator like some small petty fish is another… That's why Fin smiled convulsively at the orca, turned around abruptly and dashed away working with all his fins. The orca moved her broad tail and followed him without saying a word…
* 17 *
The season hadn't started yet, and the vast territory of the ski resort belonged almost entirely to Rescue Rangers, and the snow was exactly the kind producing the best snowballs, so the battle was unavoidable. The teams formed very quickly, too: Chip and Dale vs. Gadget and Zipper. Monterey Jack said he was too old for that, and it obvious that Shelm didn't like child games, so the two elder rodents went to a tree on the verge of the slope providing a marvelous view of the resort village down below located on a shore of one of the omnipresent fjords. The friends didn't come here via a cruise ship or a ferry but via a bus, for after 'Costa Brava', Desiree's motorboat and Fin's cruiser they felt they needed to have a short rest from the sea travels.
"Don't sleep!" Gadget shouted a moment before a snowball landed on Chip's head. Chip shook himself, adjusted his cap and set to taking revenge. He badly wanted to know what Monterey and Shelm were talking about but he couldn't betray Dale and leave him alone against Gadget sculpting and throwing snowballs by the science and Zipper correcting the flight of the projectiles in flight. Sure, Dale could at least partially compensate his opponents' strong sides with quantity of snowballs produced and thrown at all directions at once, but he was doomed without a careful strategic supervision. Not to mention that Chip was sure Monty would tell them everything…
"It's good out here," Monterey Jack said in deep voice, breathing a full breast of impossibly fresh both mountainous and maritime air.
"It's the best place in the world," Shelm responded. "Too bad I seldom get here. Usually it's either hot, or wet, or banal smog for me…"
"There's no reason to ask what happened to Desiree and Fin, yes?"
"The orcas are called killer whales for a reason."
"Right, right… Listen, it really wasn't you who sunk 'Costa Brava'?"
"Such suspicions are even flattering."
"You said there are no coincidences in this business yourself."
"That's true. But you're looking in a wrong direction."
Monterey glanced at him sideways. "What do you mean?"
"Shipwreck was an accident and coincidence. My presence on board wasn't."
"Ah…" Monterey stammered. "So you were following us?"
"Almost entire time you were in Europe."
"Oh, that's not that long."
"I mean both times."
"But.. that is…" Monterey Jack was dumbfounded. "In Baskerville-Hall, too?"
"Yes. I had to see you in action before involving into my operation."
"And what do you think?"
"If I came to you, what do you think?"
"And in more detail?"
"Me personally would have done many things differently."
"That's more details, yes."
"You think I remember everything? Although one thing I do remember. The Irish rats known to you as Hennessy and Burn. You can't imagine how easily you got off from them."
"We got off from them?" Monterey laughed. "They should thank us they walked away on their own!"
"Oh, they thanked you, don't doubt it! Could you imagine who it was and how long a trace of nasty deeds they had? You'd run out of imagination! And they indebted so much to my organization… You obviously found the worst possible candidates for letting go."
"Sorry, I had no idea. You should try looking for them on Cuba-"
"Look for whom? What Cuba? Are you joking? I dealt with them before they reached Manchester."
"By the way, you could have helped us out there."
"Are you joking? That would spoil the experiment."
"What use would your experiment have if we had been burned in that shack?"
"If you had been burned in that shack, that would have meant I was mistaken about you, and you weren't up to my mission, so I would have to look for someone else."
Monterey clenched his fists involuntarily, but calmed down quickly. "I expected something like that. Well, you're faithful to yourself."
"There's no other way."
"And how many potential candidates did you have?"
"You were the only serious contenders."
"Yeah, you can't find better bait for Desiree than me, but still? How many variants did you have?"
Shelm looked his old partner up and down and smiled condescendingly. "I'm sorry, Rock, but that's a secret."
"Oh, sure, I don't know why I was asking."
"Remember Geegaw Hackwrench?"
"Your pilot friend? I do."
"Did you use him after we parted?"
"Sorry, Rock, but that's a secret."
"You killed him?"
Shelm raised his brows. "He was killed?"
"Maybe. That is, I don't know. Actually, he disappeared, but it happened so long ago I think he'll never return."
"You don't know whether he is dead or not, but suspect I killed him. Thanks for your trust."
"Sorry, but you deserve it."
"Well, at least you're honest."
"I hope the honesty will be mutual."
"I didn't kill him."
"Okay, I believe you. But maybe you know what happened to him? I know, secrets and whatever, but I ask not for myself but for Gadget, his daughter!"
"Oh, I see," Shelm turned to look at Gadget. "You'd never tell."
"She took after her mother. So?"
"If he really disappeared, it wasn't during one of my assignments. That's all I can be sure of."
"And other agents? Your analysts? Or whoever there is?"
"Not at all for now. On the other hand, soon you may-"
"ARGH!" they heard a loud scream from behind. Shelm and Monterey Jack turned around and saw that Gadget got too carried away with search for new show deposits for her ammunition, stepped on uncharted snow and fell down in the cavity under it chin-high. Chip and Dale ran to her help from opposite sides, almost collided with their foreheads, almost fought instinctively, but then, learning from their near-death experience, took the mouse by one of her hands each and quickly pulled out of the hole. Gadget awarded each of them a cheek kiss, and when she went far enough, Zipper who wasted no time sealed her kisses with two snowballs, and the fight continued with the renewed vigor.
"It bodes ill," Shelm observed.
"What do you mean?" Monterey asked.
"One girl. Two boys. It bodes ill."
"Stop it. You can say I watched them growing up. They are better than this. Besides, they are of different kinds."
"I don't remember that fact to ever stop you."
"Well, as they say, any port in the storm…"
"In your case it was 'any echidna'".
"Oh, I'm so embarrassed I'll go and drown myself right away. Magda isn't the lemming, too."
"And I wasn't-"
"And don't. And let's drop it… By the way, have you ever sent Geegaw to Hawaii?"
"Actually, that's a secret. Why?"
"Well, you see, we met a mouse there. She looked exactly like Gadget, but was so wicked it was nasty. So I thought…"
"You said Gadget took after her mother, no?"
"Yes, I-" Monterey grabbed his absent moustache with his fist. "Crocodile-behemoths! I've never thought about that! But then- No, let's drop it into the swamp, you know! As my daddy says, not every anthill is worth disturbing."
"He is wise. Send him my regards. Besides, you never told me anything about him."
"And I won't tell much now, or we'll get stuck here till spring, and we've already spent an extra week away from home."
"Back to work so soon? No, I can only praise it, but you can't live long without vacation in our business, too."
Monterey hemmed. "It's hard to believe, but this was our vacation. We've just finished chiseling one superthingy for the local hospital. Well, by saying 'we' I mean Gadget and boys. Or Gadget with the boys' help, hat would be more correct. Although I carried some weights, so I was involved, too. 'Monterey Jack, the builder of the Universal Analyzer' — that sounds proud! Just don't ask me how it works, or I'll consider myself stupid and become depressed. So, well, we got out here. Now it's time to go back, for Fat Cat traditionally prepared something sinister for Christmas, and we ought to stop that, and do it beforehand, for we've got a plane for Java a week before Christmas, there will be some extraordinary solar eclipse, and Gadget hasn't finished her self-guiding telescope yet. Hands full, in short."
Shelm smiled. "Yes, Rock, you can really talk until spring without any truth serum!"
"Well, Eric, I consider you a friend."
"I very much hope so. Because a distant planning horizon is needed for success in even the most unfavorable situations. I caught Gudbrandsdalen red handed long ago, and only now that stake played out. Just like that secret stash at Magda's. Like Katya in harbor, Like… In short, if you carry it on, you'll be able to carry the fallen flag proudly."
The Aussie grew worried. "Hey, Matty, hey! Stop it right there. You decided to die, old demon? You're sick? Come to our hospital, right away! The doctors have golden paws there, and with that analyzer-"
"Stop freaking out, Rock," the lemming cut him short. "I'm not sick. I'm old."
"Oh, yeah, right! You kicked the living daylights out of lads!"
"And got hit in the nose."
"You almost crossed the harbor!"
"I was swimming on my edge. If it hadn't been for Katya, I would have drowned."
"You made three nail gun shots with reloading in six seconds!"
"No reloading. I had three nail gins."
"Unfortunately, yes. But only between us."
"I'll take it to my grave."
"It's a bad word, don't use it."
"Wow! Why so superstitious?"
"I'm always superstitious when it concerns those close to me."
"Well, thanks, I'm flattered."
"No flattery at all. I realized long ago I couldn't keep it up, so I swore: as soon as I finish with Jeanne the Dark, I'll handle the world into the right hands."
Monterey Jack waited for some ritual phrase like 'And now this moment has come!', 'And now my place is yours!' or something like that, but Shelm was silent, watching the four playing Rangers with a slight tilt of his head.
"And?" Monterey reminded of his presence.
"You're not ready for promotion."
"How's that?!" If the Aussie didn't know Shelm so well he would think he was mocking him. "You mean we're completely useless? After everything you saw?! After everything we went through?!"
"Don't yell, you'll cause an avalanche. And don't distort my words. I didn't say you were completely useless. I said you weren't ready for promotion. That's different."
"Well, Matty, I don't even know," Monterey shook his head disapprovingly. If all our experience, all our long-service isn't enough for you…
"Nobody gets promoted for simply serving for long."
"I don't know about everywhere, but in our organization nobody."
"Because each rank is a milestone in personal development. In understanding what's good and what's bad, what you can do and what you can't. In ability to not only execute but also give the orders. In sense of responsibility. In ability to make conclusions both of defeats and of victories. In ability to hit the blow. In capability to think fast, but with no rush. In development of-"
"Sorry to interrupt you, but it sounds like a lecture for a recruits from the street."
"Sorry, got carried away. Besides, you almost guessed right. It's from the preface to my 'Secret Rodent Handbook'."
"They order you to write such things?"
"It was my own project. From the love for art. Not the most thrilling read, but it saved a dozen or so lives, so it was worth it. And they promoted me, can't deny it."
"Congratulations. And who are you now?"
"We have a complex system. But for your understanding, if translated into the Human one, I can be substituted by a colonel at least."
"And Chip can't be a colonel?"
"You don't even ask about yourself?"
"No reason. He's better than me. And if he isn't fit…"
"Right now he can be a captain at most. But he has great potential for self-development, so if the situation and the environment are right… nothing's impossible."
"What do you mean?"
"He must grow up, and in order to grow up he must find himself in situations which demand growth. Not favor growth, but demand it. When you either grow and go on or you are discarded and go nowhere. Yes, it's cruel, but there's no other way."
"Actually, we've been so many times already…"
"Sorry, Rock, but no. I don't see it, and if I don't see it, it's not there."
Monterey slapped his sides in confusion. "No, sorry, I don't get it. What must he survive? Beirut?"
"Beirut? '85?" Shelm thought for a moment. "That would do it. Been there?"
"Happened to. A little later, though."
"Later is a different case. Well, what example would you grasp…? Let's take that Boeing of yours. Great job repairing it, no questions. But if it crashed somewhere in the city, and you conducted rescue operation, searched the survivors in fire and smoke among piles of bodies, organized evacuation, returned hopeless to life and lost those who almost made it… I'd like to look at Chip after that. And I'm sure I will someday."
"Curse that tongue of yours!" The Aussie superstitiously spat three times over his shoulder.
Shelm hemmed. "I wish these rituals really meant something…"
"They help me."
"Good for you. But don't rely on them in really serious matters."
"Well, since we aren't grown up enough for serious matters…"
"Don't be so acidic."
"Okay, I won't. But in the end, do you retire?"
"Too early. I'm still needed."
"The new mission, that is?"
"First a short technical vacation. I'll travel about Europe, renew my stashes, remind of myself under various personalities, relax within reason. Then I'll take upon what they will offer me. Or find the mission myself. There's never a problem with that, even if you aren't really looking. In this war we're on the defense, and the other side just keeps coming…"
"Indeed. Sometimes I really want to say 'Turn the sun off! The light attracts them!'"
"You're reading my thoughts."
"Not yet. I'm repeating your words. Don't you remember?"
"These? No, I don't," there was so much sorrow in Mathias' eyes and voice that Monterey abandoned the idea of joke about sclerosis and switched the topic.
"Do you know where our HQ is? Of course you know, silly me. Come sometimes, when you have time and opportunity. We'll be glad to see you!"
"Why not true?!"
"Because everyone who invited me regretted about it aloud or silently as soon as their wish came true. So if I knock at your door- WATCH IT!" Shelm threw his paw forward, and the snowball flying into his shoulder broke into three parts falling helplessly to his and Monty's legs. The two seasoned rodents turned in the direction it came from and saw Gadget looking at them with her eyes round like plates and covering her mouth with her mitten.
"You shouldn't joke like this, luv," Monterey Jack told her. "Aim more careful!"
"I…" the mouse said as she came closer. "I'm sorry, I wanted it to either overshoot you or undershoot you, but it flew strangely and… Uncle Matty, are you angry at me? Want to join us?"
"Actually, no," lemming said unconfidently, clearly not expecting such an address. "No, I'm not angry. And I don't really want-"
"Come on, Mister Shelm!" Chip said running up to Gadget.
"Or are you afraid of losing?" Dale provoked who ran right beside him.
"Don't even try that. That won't work with me."
"But Mister Shelm, let them even the score," Zipper petitioned for the chipmunks.
"I don't think they should really count on that."
"You think they've got no chances?" Monterey Jack asked.
"Of course not. I'll smash them."
"And if I join them?"
"Join all five, what's the point in niggling."
The Aussie turned to the other Rangers. "Don't know about you, guys, but I think he's challenging us!"
"And we accept the challenge!" Chip announced.
"Well, great then," Shelm cracked his knuckles and neck demonstratively. "Who'll build the fortress, you or me?"
"We don't need it!" Dale said proudly.
"I think you meant it won't help you."
"We'll see about that!"
"Let's build it!" Gadget evidently liked the idea. "What's the point in exchanging words? We must check everything with practice!"
"Great words, sunny!" It was evident Shelm couldn't wait for the fight to begin. "Why are you standing? The snow won't gather itself!"
None of the Rescue Rangers could argue with that.
All characters of "Chip'n'Dale Rescue Rangers" cartoon series are property of the Walt Disney Corporation and are used without permission for the sole purpose of personal entertainment. All other characters and events depicted in the story are a product of author's imagination.
Characters Doctor Blotson and Professor Morbid Arty were created by Dr. Indy and Chris Silva.