Under The Bridge

By John W. Nowak

Chapter One : Pertaining to Gastroscopes

"So what exactly is a gastroscope anyway?"

It was breakfast time, and the latest issue of Technophile had arrived for Gadget Hackwrench, delivered as usual by special courier. Most of her attention was devoted to the glossy pages, still warm from the press. Her right hand, holding a spoon, was shoveling the contents of a bowl into her mouth. So engrossed was she that she had not yet noticed that the bowl had been emptied long before. Chip understood that to break through that wall, conversational gambits would either need to 1) appeal to her generous nature or 2) give her a chance to show off.

"A gastroscope," she said, "is a flexible fiber optic tube they run into someone so they can see his insides."

Chip waited expectantly for her to cap the statement with a question showing polite interest. "Why this talk of gastroscopes, Chip?" or something similar. Dale looked up from his food, over at Gadget, over at Chip, and shook his head without a word.

"I ask," Chip continued doggedly, "because the hospital reported one stolen last week." He paused, waiting in vain for a response. "One of the Human hospitals by the East River. The storage room door was locked but there was a recently cut mouse hole in the ceiling. Why would an animal steal a gastroscope sized for Humans?"

"I think someone's looking for someone inside of a cat," Dale said, his words slow. "They'll return it once they've found him."

"Dale," Chip asked, concerned, "Does it hurt to think like you? What do you think, Gadget?"

But Gadget had reached the centerfold. It was a cutaway diagram of an aerospike engine and she didn't hear him.

"Don't bother, Chip lad," Monterey Jack said sadly. Reasoning that if Gadget was still eating (sort of) she was probably hungry, he ladled more breakfast into her bowl. It was a porridge of cheese in cheese sauce. The sound Gadget's spoon made was changed slightly - from a clatter to a plop -- but there was no other indication of the fact she was now actually eating. He shook his head in mock sorrow and lay a gentle, but massive (for a mouse) paw on her head. She didn't notice. "She's left us an' won't be back for some time. Her father used to hide Technophile until after meals."

"Could I have more?" Dale asked, passing his bowl over to Monty. Monty spooned him another serving.

"Careful," Chip chided. "You'll get fatter," giving an unpleasant emphasis on the "ter."

"I'm not fat."

"Are too."

"Am not!"

"Are too!"

They continued in this vein. Zipper the fly closed his eyes and buzzed at Monty.

"Yes, Zipper," Monty said. "It appears we two are the only ones left..."

His voice trailed off as a cold, familiar shiver was running up his spine and out his mustache; instinctively, he darted a glance at the nearest body of water - which in this case, was the sink. There was nothing unusual.

Monty laughed to himself and made his first major mistake of the day.

There was not a periscope in the sink, he thought. That would be absurd.

===

Jürgen jerked the gastroscope down. "Close," he said grimly.

Jürgen was of average size (for a mouse), thin, and wore the same white sweater and black pants as his crew. The only thing that marked him as skipper of the Albacore was a white captain's hat, now worn backwards to keep the visor from pressing against the eyepiece. He straightened while adjusting his hat.

"I don't think he saw it," he told the Gray Mouse.

Jürgen did not know her real name. She was tall (for a female mouse), about his own height. Long gray hair, white fur, pink eyes. She was actually rather attractive, apart from her aura of evil and death. She wore what resembled a black wetsuit, with a matching waist length cloak fastened in the middle of her throat, draped over her left arm, around her back and on her right shoulder, leaving her right arm free. Her breathing mask was pushed up to the top of her head. Considering she was the designer and builder of Albacore, the scuba gear she constantly wore did nothing for morale. Jürgen never brought that up with her.

"If he did, he'll pass it off as a flashback from naval air duty during the war," she said. "How long can we stay here?"

Jürgen sighed. The Gray Mouse had never overreacted to bad news yet, but nobody particularly wanted to be the first to set her off. "Ma'am, our air supply is down to 5% of maximum. I suggest we leave the sewer and replenish soon. We can come back if you think it best."

The Gray Mouse's ears perked, annoyed. "We can surface any time."

"Ma'am," Jürgen said stiffly, "we do not want to breathe the air out there." Around the bridge, crewmen shook their heads firmly in agreement with their captain.

A few seconds passed. The Gray Mouse turned away reluctantly. "Very well. As you think best."

Jürgen nodded briskly and touched the visor of his hat. He turned towards the bow, where a young officer bat stiffened to an alert position. "Mr. Fenton, you may resume active pinging."

"Sir," saluted Fenton. He turned to the sonically transparent panel in the front of the bridge, next to the helmsman. "PING!" he yelled, and listened expectantly. "PING!"

"Retract the gastroscope. Blow tanks one and four. Let's not hit any alligators on the way out."

Albacore was mostly a large hot water heater, with a welded bow and pumpjet astern based on an old washing machine. Unusually for a submarine, Albacore had a fully enclosed bridge, which served as a control room - the confusion between the terms was something Jürgen blamed on Star Truck. Large saw blades ran from bow to the top of the forward part of the bridge, and along the sides and bottom of the bow. The blades would cut fishnet and gave the black vessel a strangely familiar appearance. Someone out in the water would have seen air bubbles emerge from the Albacore's bow and stern and the boat gently leave the bottom of the sewer, assuming they could see through the gross and slimy water.

"All ahead one third."

"Ahead one third aye."

"Very well."

The Gray Mouse watched the activity with mingled pride and sorrow. Every word of command and action was directed towards using the product of her own genius and labor; but at the same time she realized Jürgen could command and use her invention far better than she ever could. The crew would follow him; they would not follow her. Maybe it's because he projects a desire to live, she thought. Or something.

"Mr. Calvert, make certain our present location is marked on your map." Jürgen raised his voice slightly.

"Yes, sir," chimed Mr. Calvert, a young squirrel.

The order was probably meant to reassure her that the purpose of their mission had been carried out; but it was too obvious Mr. Calvert had things well under control, that Jürgen knew it, and the order was given for her benefit. The knowledge she was observing a partnership she was not and could never be part of washed over her, as the engines she designed rumbled with power and spun her turbine in her pumpjet and moved them gently forward.

"Mr. Jürgen, I will be in my meditation chamber."

Jürgen paused and nodded respectfully. The Gray Mouse turned on her heel, making her cape snap dramatically. She stepped onto a circular elevator, which began to sink. Light from the room below lit her, making her look sinister. Which, of course, was the point.

It's always a mix, isn't it? She thought. Never joy without sorrow. No, not true. One thing brings me unsullied pleasure. The thought of the goal she would soon reach played across her face. Mr. Calvert saw the Gray Mouse smile. He blanched and had nightmares for weeks.

Chapter Two : Breakfast and The Temple of Hate

Gadget finished the last page of an article titled "Affection for Machines is Healthy and Normal." Feeling reassured, she looked up, blinking with surprise when she noticed she was alone at the table. Monty was cooking a second course of breakfast. She felt a bit hungry, and was looking forward to more. Odd of the others to leave so early.

"The first course was delicious, Monty," she said, "I could eat two bowls. What are you cooking now?"

"Lunch, luv."

Gadget blinked. "Omigosh. Don't tell me I zoned out."

Monterey shook his head. "I won't."

"Did I miss anything?"

Monty looked at her solemnly. "You got engaged."

"Uhm, I'd remember that," she deadpanned, "I'm almost sure."

Monty flipped a cheese flapjack, grinning. "Chip thinks an animal stole a gastroscope."

Gadget blinked. "From a Human hospital?" Chip was most worried about crimes committed by animals on Humans, because he was afraid a Human investigation would stumble across the animal civilization which had grown along side of theirs.

Monty turned, concerned. "Yes. Does that ring a bell?"

"No, but it's weird. I mean, maybe a cat would use it to look down a mouse hole, or something, but..." she trailed off and looked thoughtful.

Monty shrugged. If she came up with an idea, she'd let them know.

===

The Gray Mouse's meditation chamber was done in a style Jürgen thought of as "Temple of Hate." Defaced life sized photographs and posters lined the walls - all with the same disfigured face. A name, written upside down over and over again in dripping red paint, shortened by one letter each time. The Gray Mouse stood before a life sized PVC figurine in a hydraulic press, watching as the plates moved together, grinding and crushing the effigy. Like a watermelon seed between two fingers, the head shot out across the room; reflexively, Jürgen put out his hands and caught it, stinging his paws.

"Darn," she said to herself. "Too fast."

Jürgen cleared his throat gently, tucking the plastic head under his arm. "My apologies for intruding."

"Jürgen, I've only got about a dozen of these left."

"Should we go back to Orlando soon?"

"No. Very soon I won't need any more." She smiled. Peace at last.

"Perhaps even sooner than you think."

The Gray Mouse turned her pink eyes towards Jürgen. "You have good news?"

"Mister Fenton heard a cruise ship approaching. Animal, not Human. We can intercept it within the hour."

Slowly, the Gray Mouse smiled. Inured by long experience, Jürgen merely shuddered. "The screams and terror of the innocent passengers will draw my friend irresistibly towards our fated rendezvous," she mused, gesturing towards the pile of broken plastic in the press. "Providence is with me," she said gently.

"And we won't have to risk assaulting their base," Jürgen pointed out. "We'd almost certainly lose some crew." The Gray Mouse blinked, turned to her File Cabinet of Doom, and searched for a folder. She withdrew a sheet of paper and handed it to Jürgen.

"Before this begins, I'd like you to read this."

Jürgen skimmed it; it seemed to be a psychological profile. "Bouts of depression, prone to withdraw into work, fear of affection... have you been seeing a psychiatrist?" he asked gently.

She snatched the paper from him. "It's the target," she said, miffed.

Jürgen slapped his forehead comically and chuckled at himself. He started to hand her the effigy head. He suddenly frowned, puzzled. "Say, this looks a bit like you."

"Don't be silly."

"No, really." He held the head up sideways. "Her snout is wider, but it's the profile - people don't know how their own profiles look, so you don't recognize it."

"I don't see any resemblance."

"See? You wear your scuba mask on top of your head, and -"

"There is no similarity between us. We are not connected in word, nor thought, nor deed. We are different in every possible measure of behavior. Unlike as a pea and a pigeon. This is one person. I am another. This the anvil. I the hammer. This the spoiled, privileged, effete, decadent, spongy pig iron, and I the case-hardened steel born of flame. This the pebble. I the mountain. This, the plague bacillus. I the antibiotic. This electron. I positron. Oh, perhaps a few superficial similarities could be identified - number of ears, number of eyes, species - but this is antithesis. I am thesis. No, I am NEMESIS! Fated to rid the earth and cosmos of a certain polluting presence - I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shout."

"Oh, you weren't shouting."

"I thought I was."

"No, no, you were just modulating your voice." Jürgen was looking more closely at the head with a frown, and nodding slowly. "You're absolutely right, of course. As my eyes adjust to the light I can see there's no resemblance."

"None whatsoever!"

"Look at that weak chin and the mindless eyes."

"Ha ha!"

"Ha ha!" Jürgen forced a laugh. His ears were still ringing from the word "nemesis."

"And those stupid goggles! And the hair - it looks like a cotton swab soaked in paint!"

"On you that style looks good," Jürgen unwisely pointed out, "but that shade of yellow -"

"I wonder what bottle it came out of!"

"Probably Testors!"

"Ha ha!"

The Gray Mouse was happier than he had ever seen her. Jürgen decided to ask what might be a delicate question. "Not that I'm not willing to lay down my life on the altar of your vengeance and all, but what did she do to you?"

The Gray Mouse blinked. "Actually, we've never met."

Jürgen's gaze panned the horribly disfigured representations that filled the room. "Oooohhhhh-kay," he said, with a wide, fixed grin. His ears perked. The Gray Mouse was picking up a weapon of her own devising and hoisting it to firing position over her shoulder: the .22 caliber Darned Nearly Recoilless Rifle. He glanced around uneasily for a target, noticed the head in his hands, put it on a stand and dove for cover.

The Gray Mouse aimed briefly, and pulled the trigger. The firing pin snapped down on the rimfire cartridge, setting it off. Newtonian laws were amply demonstrated. As the bullet went forward, the brass casing shot backwards, both cocking the firing pin and absorbing Darned Nearly all the Recoil. What was left flipped the Gray Mouse over; spinning her twice before slamming her into the steel deck. The casing, the bullet, and the fragments of PVC head ricocheted dramatically for several seconds; perhaps being low kept either of them from being hit. The room was full of dark, stinging smoke and the smell of cordite.

"Smokeless powder my tail," the Gray Mouse said, voice muffled by her cape.

"I can't hear you," said Jürgen. "I think I've been temporarily deafened by the report of a .22 rifle round fired in an enclosed space."

"It's no use trying to talk," the Gray Mouse explained. "We've been temporarily deafened by the report of a .22 rifle round fired in an enclosed space."

"What?"

"What?"

Chapter Three : Reach Out and Touch Someone

Gadget was more interested in mechanical engineering than computers, which was the only thing keeping her from setting up "rescueranger.org". Instead, a grateful mouse at the public library had given them Internet access. She was checking her email, dancing across the onscreen keyboard of a PalmPilot like Tom Hanks playing a piano in Big. She appreciated the chance to interact with others without their knowing she was a mouse, let alone a Rescue Ranger. As netiquette demanded, she used the "8" character in her emoticons to let other animals know she was actually a mouse.

At 1830 (-5) "GH@PUBLIB.ORG" Said:

>I mean, it's not that I don't like the end users, but they keep

>asking for these silly, weight wasting additions! Like brakes.

Users are always like that -- as though it weren't hard enough to reach top speed anyway! Since I work more with maritime vehicles, at least they don't whine about wanting brakes, but lifeboats are almost as hard! 8:-/

Thanks very much for your invitation, but I'm afraid I'll just be staying in your area long enough to wreak horrible, crunchy vengeance for wrongs committed against me in the past.

--WH@WoodsHoleResearch.com

Gadget chuckled. Ah, these academics. Somebody had probably misspelled WH's real name in a citation. "WH" was one of her favorite net correspondents, another mouse engineer. She replied:

Sorry to hear you're busy. Maybe some other time. Best of luck with the vengeance! 8:-)

--GH@PUBLIB.ORG

Gadget was not the first to misjudge someone over the Internet; nor would she be the last.

Chapter Four : A Triangle is Resolved, and A Trap Baited.

Near the bow of the Registered Mouse Ship Minuscule, two mice in the first spring of their youths stood; she sadly in a sun dress, he in an impeccably tailored afternoon suit. He was visibly nervous and attempting to conceal it; for today the beauteous Gidget would choose between him and the rough, yet sturdy, young Canadian mouse in steerage.

"Bertie," she said sadly, "this is both the happiest and saddest day of my life. For I must choose the One Love of my life - yet at the expense of hurting the man who came awfully close to being the love of my life. One of you must be hurt, at least if we want to be accepted in polite society."

"Right ho," Bertie nodded, his spirits ironically sinking. Darn polite society.

She turned her tear drenched face towards him. "For I do love David more than I love life itself. Our souls are as one. And yet, Bertie, you are obscenely rich -" and here she smiled - "and for that, I can learn to love you!"

Joy swelled the heart in his chest. "Embrace me, my darling!" cried Bertie.

===

"Range one zero three yards," said Jürgen as Bertie and Gidget fell into one another's arms.

"Solution one hundred, gyro angle zero, depth six inches," said Mr. Calvert. Despite Jürgen's dislike of yards and feet, he had to admit the American - built Torpedo Data Computer that used them was indisputably the cat's meow.

"Status on tube four?"

"Iceberg-inducing warhead armed and ready, Herr Kaleun!" The iceberg-inducing warhead would produce a smallish mass of ice, not hard enough to rip a steel hull. It would, however, be a good alibi.

Jürgen looked away from the eyepiece. "If you please, ma'am?" he asked politely.

The Gray Mouse nodded. "Proceed, Mr. Jürgen." Again, she felt annoyance flicker over her. These continuous attempts to patronize her on the bridge she had built were beginning to get under her skin and distract her from the beautiful act of crunchy revenge which should have her complete attention. Odd that the thought of Jürgen patronizing her would bother her so much.

Jürgen turned away, disappointed. He thought she would appreciate a chance to initiate her own plan with her own order. "Fire four." A sharp blast of pressurized air.

"Firing four, sir."

"Torpedo running, sir," said Mr. Fenton, ear pressed against his sonic transparent panel.

The dial in the upper left corner of the TDC showed a ship outline with an arrow pointing from bow to stern, and the Forward Gyro and Target Bearing dials were both at zero. Albacore was positioned in the path of the RMS Minuscule, her bow directly facing that of the cruise ship.

"Collision alarm," Jürgen said, lowering the periscope and stepping over to a chair, strapping himself in.

The Gray Mouse blinked. If she sat down, she'd be safe during the ram, but she wouldn't look terribly cool. Nor would I look cool bouncing around the bridge and screaming, she reasoned, and hastened to her chair, behind and higher than Jürgen's.

===

The lookout frantically banged a bell. "Iceberg off the starboard bow!" he cried, whiskers trembling.

It was a bright noontime June day and they were within sight of one of the most famous statues in the world, so everyone in the pilot house assumed he was kidding.

The iceberg bumped across the starboard bow of the Minuscule, shattered pieces cascading across the deck. Then the cruise ship hit the saw blade mounted on the back of Albacore. The submarine was under water, but shallow enough that the top of the saw blade would collide with Minuscule. The impact lifted Minuscule higher, as she rode up above Albacore's deck. The shock pushed Albacore down and towards Minuscule's port side. The saw blade sliced a horrible gash through the cruise ship's bilge, from the starboard bow slanting portways, running off the cruise ship in the rear quarter. The Atlantic poured into the engine room.

"Gosh," said Bertie.

Captain Badger, veteran of more years at sea than most of his crew had in toto, looked grimly at the plan view of his ship. Chief Engineer Rat pointed with his pen.

"The bottom's been split," the water rat said. "There's flooding here, here, and here. We've lost engine power. I rather wish I had stayed at the river," making a weak attempt at a joke.

"There's something wrong," the badger said, frowning.

"Yes, sir," the engineer said patiently. "The bottom has been split -"

"No," the captain tapped the diagram. "The iceberg hit on the starboard side, but we've got damage all the way across to the port side."

The engineer blinked. "Perhaps we broke the iceberg and ran over part of it." He shrugged. The details didn't interest him for the time being.

The captain nodded, satisfied. "Yes, we did run over something... can we save the ship?" he asked, knowing the answer.

The engineer confirmed his opinion. "No, sir. We can counterflood to keep from rolling over, but we're going down."

Mr. Mole, the chief steward, burst in. "Sir," he interrupted. "The passengers need to be told something. A few of the bats have already flown for the mainland."

"Let them go, Mr. Mole," Badger said sadly. The look of defeat on his strong shoulders was, to Mole and Rat, more terrifying than the water filling the ship. "Sound abandon ship. Women and children first. Alert International Res - I mean, the Rescue Rangers, just in case."

Chapter Five : The Bait is Taken

A branch of their headquarters tree had been carefully planed flat, to serve as a landing strip. Gadget was frantically tinkering with a group of backpack-sized packages, while Monterey tied each one to the outside of the Ranger Plane. "Just like depth charges during the war," Monterey said affectionately.

Gadget cracked a smile. "The payload is different, however."

"That's where I met your father, luv," Monterey said, suddenly serious. "I was in with th' Commonwealth an' 'e joined the Royal Navy to hunt U-boats -"

"I know," Gadget snapped. She stood, looking down at her work, a moment of sorrow flicking over her features. Then she turned and smiled at him happily. "At least you remember how they mounted depth charges on patrol aircraft," she said lightly, trying to compensate for her interruption.

Monty forced a chuckle. He wasn't buying it.

Chip raced out the hangar, with a clipboard. He was closely followed by Dale, who had his arms full of blueprints - how had he found blueprints to the Minuscule? Gadget was half convinced she didn't have any in her workshop.

Chip was rapping out information while he swung himself into the plane. "The ship is going down in the bay, south of Everready Park," he explained. "The water is cold, but not dangerous."

The Ranger Plane was half a bleach bottle with flapping wings and a balloon. Instead of wheels or a more conventional skid landing gear, it balanced on two suction darts. Now they were used as anchors to hold the Plane down against the lift of its own balloon.

Gadget looked up at the balloon. Helium under pressure migrated slowly through latex; thus, the Ranger Plane would gradually lose lift as it flew. The flapping wings would help compensate for that by flapping harder as the balloon died. Besides, they would get lighter as they dropped the packages Monty was tying to the outside of the fuselage. Would she be able to control trim and buoyancy as they started dropping their payload? How had her father done it in the Navy?

She felt a stab again. Still not letting go. Still using work to shut it out. It had been years since her father's death, and she was still changing the subject when one of his old friends mentioned him. She remembered the years she had spent alone in their house, building elaborate salesman traps, anything to focus her mind on something else.

Now she had found a more productive distraction, but she suddenly realized she wasn't any healthier.

Dale and Chip looked at one another, concerned. Given Gadget's track record when she was confident, her eyeing the aircraft with a pensive and worried expression did not bode well.

"So why are we taking the Ranger Plane instead of the Ranger Wing?" Dale asked. "It's faster."

"Yes," Chip explained while Gadget leapt in. "But the Plane can hover longer at a lower speed. The lifter blades on the Wing can't hold it up very long; it needs forward speed to generate lift."

The wings were flapping, and Gadget judged how tightly the suction darts were holding them down. Not very. She preferred a little more spare lift, but... she cast off. Belatedly, Zipper did his bugle call and they released a ragged cry of "Rescue Rangers Away!" but it lacked a certain snap; Gadget had blown the timing.

"Do you think we'll need all these rescue packages?" Monterey asked as the Plane lurched unsteadily into the air. "They're going down pretty slowly, an' they're bound t' have enough lifeboats."

"There's many perfectly legitimate reasons for an engineer to leave lifeboats off a cruise ship," Gadget said seriously. "I'd do it in some circumstances."

"Name one," Monty shot back. He would never say it out loud, but he always found it stupefying that an intelligent girl who lost her father in an air race accident would have such a cavalier attitude towards safety procedures.

"Well, they can clutter up the deck-" Monterey winced, and Gadget wondered if something in the seat was sticking him.

"It's most likely we'll just be there to observe," Chip explained. "Search for stragglers and drop them a floatation pack. We can't pull thousands of mice out of the water, after all."

"I hope I brought enough blueprints," Dale broke in.

"I asked you to find the Minuscule blueprints," Chip said slowly. "What do you mean by enough?"

"Well, these were the smallest blueprints I could find -"

"Gadget," Chip yelled to the front seat, "Dale just volunteered for ballast duty."

"Don't litter, Chip," Gadget said, her mind on something else.

They were flying over Everready Park by the time Dale got it.

Under them was a terrifying sight, lit by the afternoon sun. Minuscule was settling evenly, now so low in the water that the lifeboats had a short drop to the ocean. A cloud of bats, so dense it almost seemed possible to walk on it, was drifting onto Everready Park. Pushcart vendors took one look at the disaster survivors struggling ashore, and as though with a single mind, increased the prices of their wares.

"Cool," Gadget whispered. Monty shot her a look. "They're settling evenly," she hastened to explain. "Ships are most risky when they lose trim."

"Like in The Poseidon Adventure," Dale chirped. Chip gave him a dirty look.

"Yes, good example, although extreme and fictional," Gadget said to Chip's surprise. "They're probably pumping water aboard to keep from rolling over or going bow down."

"You mean they take water onto a sinking ship?" Chip was curious.

"Yes, it's called counterflooding."

"It's amazing how the stupidest ideas make sense when you understand them," Chip marveled.

"There's only women and children on those lifeboats," Monty said grimly, looking through binoculars. "That means the men are still all aboard."

===

"And thank you for choosing Canard White Star Lines," Mr. Mole said cheerfully as the loaded lifeboat dropped into the water and the passengers stared at him in shocked disbelief. "You will find complementary snacks under the seats!" Mole sighed. He had had no idea that there were so many women aboard the Minuscule, or that so many were so large and had such deep voices.

"All lifeboats away, sir," rapped out a steward. He handed Mr. Mole a tally sheet. Mole added the total on this sheet to the others he had seen, and frowned. All the passengers were away, and yet he had not seen a single man. Most singular. He could not have known it was a widespread habit for male passengers to bring along a dress and wig, just in case the cry of "women and children first!" was sounded.

He took the clipboard to the pilot house, where Captain Badger watched a slowly circling air vehicle. "The signal reads 'have you enough lifeboats for the passengers?'" he read. Badger frowned. "Signal back 'Certainly. What sort of reckless maniacs --'"

===

"'-- Do ya take us for?' Told you," Monterey couldn't help saying. Gadget frowned.

===

"All passengers are away, captain," Mr. Mole reported. "We were able to spread them thinly over the last few boats."

Mole was suddenly aware of a ring of hostile eyes around him.

Captain Badger broke the ominous silence.

"By any chance," Badger asked gently, "did you remember to save a few for the crew of this ship?"

"Oh, bother," gulped Mole.

===

"Their signal reads, 'Inflatable life rafts sufficient 50 mice. Will drop on deck. Ha ha.'" Captain Badger rumbled slightly.

"Reply 'Thank you,'" he forced himself to say.

===

Monterey smiled as he finished flashing the Aidis lamp. As a Commonwealth mouse who had served in the war, he felt he had the right to add his own postscript to Chip's message, reasoning that Chip was unduly restrained by the Special Relationship.

"Okay," said Gadget, as they hovered over the slowly vanishing deck of the dying liner. "When we drop these, we'll lose a lot of weight. We may climb slightly before I regain control. Don't be alarmed."

Three sets of knuckles tightened in abject terror. Zipper decided to fly under his own power for a while.

Monty gripped a lanyard. "Salvo ready. Tell me when I can drop, Gadget luv."

"Ready."

Monty pulled. The inflatable life rafts peeled away from the Ranger Plane unevenly, from the tail to nose. The tail of the Plane slewed upwards, and accelerated. This put aerodynamic forces on the wing, turning it to face the slipstream. Loose objects bounced forwards and out of the Plane, misfiled tools, Dale's blueprints, leftover parts from Gadget's periodic rehauls which she tossed into the back in case they later turned out to be important. In a short time, they were rocketing upwards, with the plane pitching so far forwards they couldn't see sky before them. The Minuscule was beginning to live up to her name, and more disturbingly (for Gadget), she was beginning to turn gently as the Ranger Plane began a vertical roll.

Dale made a grab for a paper bag and missed. "I lost my lunch," Dale cried in dismay.

"Don't brag about it, mate," pleaded Monterey, looking rather green himself.

"Okay, now do I reestablish trim forward and aft first, or should I try to swing the nose around?" Gadget had no idea if she was asking the question of herself or of her friends, who were screaming too uncontrollably to hear her in any case.

"Monty!" she snapped. "Into the back seat!"

To his credit, he started to move immediately after he shot her a "you have got to be kidding!" look. As he climbed over, the nose of the Ranger Plane began to swing up. Too quickly!

"Chip! Front seat!"

Chip and Dale had spent so much time fighting over who got to ride shotgun with Gadget they had come to a tacit agreement to let Monty occupy the coveted position. Chip could have forgone the honor now. He tried to ease his way over, when a sudden violent lurch slammed the Plane and rolled him lengthwise across the seat, head in Gadget's lap, staring up into her shocked eyes.

"We need to lighten the rear, Dale lad," Monty said in dismay. There was nothing left to throw overboard.

Dale pulled a snack out of his breast pocket and flung it over. "I tossed my cookies," he said to Monty.

Monty stared at Dale. P'raps you're not as dumb as you act.

===

After executing a vertical barrel roll backwards, the rescue aircraft had finally come to a stop, some one thousand feet above them. "Show off," Captain Badger muttered disapprovingly, although it was bad form to criticize the owners of the lifeboat you were using. "Scott and Virgil would never countenance such acrobatics."

Chapter Six : Sproing!

Monty frowned. "Crikey."

"I can see our tree from here," Dale said excitedly.

"I can see a submarine down there," Monty finished. "See? About three hundred feet off the Minuscule, seven o'clock from the bow."

Dale shifted his gaze. If he had not been told it was a submarine, he would never have recognized it as one; in fact, he had not even known it was possible to see a submerged submarine from the air. But now he knew it for what it was he saw it, unmistakably if indistinctly, a long, slender shadow of slightly darker water fluttering in the waves.

"If it is a submarine," Gadget said doubtfully, "why didn't it surface to offer assistance? They must know Minuscule is sinking -"

"Because they're the ones who sent her to the bottom," Monty stated as a proven fact, voice tight with anger.

"It's gotta be a friendly Navy sub," Gadget pointed out. "How else could it get so close to the shore?"

"Submarines are stalkers in the night, " Monty rumbled. "Sneakin' around is what submarines are for."

"If they attacked her, they'd be disengaging by now," Gadget argued. "It's not like there's other ships in a convoy for her to attack."

"What do you think, Chip?" Monty asked.

"Chip, you can see better with your head out of my lap," Gadget said gently.

"Submarine?" Chip asked, sitting bolt upright. "I think -"

He would later claim he was agreeing with Monterey, but that could have been because a new piece of evidence abruptly presented itself.

===

Jürgen was looking through the sky periscope, adjusting the vertical tilt of the image. "They seem to have recovered control. Speed nearly zero."

"Shall we burst their bubble?" the Gray Mouse suggested delicately.

Jürgen smiled. "Weapons Officer, rig vertical tubes one and two for firing. Detonate at 1100 feet, ascending." Jürgen had always dreamed of fighting back against aircraft, those fragile, buzzy things which had spelled the death of so many of his beloved submarines.

I've never done this before, he thought gleefully. Let's see if they work!

===

All that was visible was a splash from the water, from which emerged a small dot, weaving gently back and forth. A moment or two were needed to wonder why the small dot was moving so slowly and come to the conclusion that it wasn't - it was actually moving at a very high rate of speed, and the reason it appeared to be almost motionless was that it was heading directly at them. By the time Dale had figured this out, Gadget had already slammed full power to the wings. Like shifting from first to fifth gear in a car, this killed the engine. She was trying to restart it when Dale screamed out the obvious.

"Missillllllle............"

A C6-7 rocket engine will take a well designed model rocket to 1600 feet in less than eight seconds. Since it slows dramatically during flight, it takes about four to reach 1100 feet. The rocket from Albacore then exploded below the Ranger Plane, and a shower of projectiles rattled against the soft plastic of the bleach bottle and burst the balloon.

The Ranger Plane began to nose down.

"Gadget," Chip said seriously, "if someone's shooting at us, we have to go away from the passengers."

Gadget nodded grimly, and lowered her goggles into place. She pushed the stick forward. "I'll make for Trellis Island," she decided. "Remember, your seat can be used as a floatation device."

Chip turned to see if Monterey and Dale were okay. They were shaken, but didn't seem to be bleeding. Frowning, Chip looked down at the floor of the Plane. He didn't see any holes. But I heard us get hit...why didn't the pellets penetrate?

The Plane went gently into a dive.

Earlier, Chip had imagined that the worse thing that could happen to someone in an airplane was to climb rapidly, backwards, out of control, with the fuselage tipping forward and threatening to dump you into the receding ocean below. Now he knew that heading away from the ground is never as frightening as heading towards it.

She's trading height for speed, Monterey thought, holding on. Lift is proportional to the square of velocity; she's trying to go faster than usual to compensate for the lift of the lost balloon.

She's gone nuts and will kill us all, Dale thought, half believing it.

It should work, unless the wings fall off or something, Gadget consoled herself.

===

"She's going for Trellis Island," the Gray Mouse said slowly. "How ironic."

"They'll be easier to catch if we can get them to land in the water," Jürgen muttered. "But we..."

He stopped. The plummeting aircraft was at a bearing of 178 degrees.

"EINBLASSEN!" he screamed. Fortunately, the diving officer had seen Das Boot and released compressed air to empty the tanks. "All ahead flank!" Jürgen continued. "25 degrees port rudder! Aft planes up 15! Bow planes down 15!" He took a breath, "Collision alarm!"

A smile came over the Gray Mouse's face. She was the first on the bridge to figure it out.

===

Chip knew exactly how fast they were going. Too fast.

Certainly, the nearness of the water made it seem they were going faster than they really were, but that didn't change the fact they were going Too Fast. Gradually, his weight began to return. His eyes were fixed on the water, so this was the only evidence he had that Gadget was pulling them out of the dive. There was a ripping sound from the wing. This close to the water he could get no real estimate of their height. At Too Fast, the water was too blurred. He closed his watering eyes and clutched his fedora with both hands. The Plane vibrated violently. If his weight went down or vanished, it meant Gadget had lost their battle with gravity and they were about to die. If it remained constant, they wouldn't crash in the next few seconds. The results of this calculation seemed rather useless, but he thought it would be nice to know.

He felt his weight increase.

He snapped his eyes open. Gadget was pulling them into a sharp climb, and he couldn't imagine why she was maneuvering so violently with so much strain already on the wings.

Then he saw what she saw. Rising from the ocean before them, growing like some branchless tree, the long, slender cylinder of a submarine performing an emergency surface right before them.

Through Dale's mind flashed the opening scene of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the movie where Richard Basehart was not playing Admiral Nelson, and a montage from Hunt for Red October, mixed with a Kirk Douglas movie whose title he forgot.

The Ranger Plane was nosing up, and Chip thought they were going to make it until they hit the saw blade. The noise was short and sharp; there was a flash of brilliant metal between him and Gadget. Dale was unhurt. Half of Monty's mustache dropped away. Chips' gaze went back to Gadget, slowly receding from him as the left half of the airplane parted company with the right half.

"I'm sorry, Chip," he thought he heard her say. "I don't think I can keep her up any longer."

Then the Plane(s) began to tumble, and his weight went away.

Since Gadget had put them into a climb, this was not as serious as it would have been before. He reached below his seat to remove the emergency parachute. As he put it on, he realized with a shock that it was a 24" chute for Monty's greater weight. He looked backwards, but Monty had already bailed out - wearing Chip's 18" chute. Worried, Chip hoped the water landing would provide Monty with extra cushioning.

Chip was well clear of the plane, so he pulled the rip cord. He noticed that none of the other Rangers had done this yet, and wondered if he was making a mistake. The orange and white striped plastic chute with the ESTES logo opened quickly behind him. The shock of the sudden deceleration knocked him unconscious.

Chapter Seven : In The Hands of the Gray Mouse

Gadget was working on Chip's unconscious body, not allowing any of the crewmen on the deck of the mysterious submarine anywhere near them. In Monterey's view, this wasn't necessary - the crew of the submarine had, after all, fished Chip out of the water first, and they had gotten him breathing before rescuing the other Rangers. The Rangers were on the bow of the submarine. Several crewmice were between them and the bridge. The only way into the sub was through them, and from the bazookalike weapons they had, Monty wasn't about to try that route.

"You know," Dale said, staring at the famous statue, "I never knew she was walking forward before."

"You've never visited the island?" Monty asked, surprised.

Dale shrugged. "Typical native, I guess."

"Who do you think they are, Monty?" Gadget asked, looking darkly at the crew on deck.

"There's only one mouse I know who could ram a flying airplane with a submarine," Monty said in low tones. "Kapitenleutenant Jürgen."

Right on time, a figure strode around the bridge. He wore a white hat and walked past the men on deck. Monty turned to face him, eyes flashing. "At least Zipper's still free," he said in a low voice to Dale.

There was a thump behind Jürgen; a bat had swooped in and landed on the deck. He carried a small cage with an angry, buzzing fly. "Thank you, Mr. Fenton," Jürgen nodded.

"Scratch that," Dale couldn't resist saying. "So you know this guy, Monty?"

"Only by reputation," growled Monty. "There's many a brave mariner sleeping in the arms of Neptune because of him and his kind."

"They can keep company," Jürgen growled back, now close enough to hear, "with the brave and dutiful sub-mariners sent there by Naval aviation."

Monty and Jürgen were almost face to face now. Monty was by far the larger of the two; but Dale was acutely aware of the armed mice further down the ship (he didn't know enough to call it a 'boat') - and besides, they had Zipper hostage. Suddenly, and incomprehensibly, Jürgen and Monty broke into smiles and fell into one another's arms. It is a strange psychological quirk of old soldiers, but perhaps without it the world would be even less pleasant than it is.

"I can't tell you 'ow glad I am you survived the war," Monty smiled. "I read your book, you magnificent bas - "

"It's good to meet you at last," Jürgen said, clapping the larger mouse on the back, interrupting in the nick of time. "You planes were the only thing that really gave me nightmares."

"Nightmares? I hope they were worse than the ones U-238 gave us! We called you 'The Swimming Cat.'"

"No; really?" Jürgen smiled, boyishly pleased.

"The mouse performing CPR over there is Geegaw's daughter, Gadget."

Gadget looked up briefly. "Hi," she said before returning to her work.

"So tell me, Captain -"

"Jürgen, please."

"Jürgen," and a crafty smile crossed Monty's features. "'Ave you ever wondered who would win? Just you and me? Without submarines and airplanes?"

"Certainly not," said Jürgen, quickly moving to keep his armed men between himself and Monty. It had been worth a shot, Dale figured.

"What's the plan, Jürgen?" Monty asked, a little more coldly. "Piracy? I figure you're going to strip the Minuscule before salvage can get to her."

"Well, no," Jürgen admitted. "You see, I'm a hired hand."

Again, with impeccable timing, the Gray Mouse stepped out of the bridge and walked towards them. She had been waiting for Albacore to reach a speed which would make her cape flutter dramatically.

"I know you all by reputation," said the Gray Mouse. "But I've only met you, Mr. Chedderhead."

Monterey winced. "Monterey Jack, please."

"I don't blame you." An albino mouse girl...

"Nancy from Darwin?" Monty asked slowly. "No. You've an American accent, and she would've killed me by now. Besides, you're too young. If she had a daughter you'd be too old..."

"Monty," Gadget said disapprovingly. He shrugged.

Slowly, realization crept in. "But you've got two arms." The Gray Mouse froze, tilted her head back slightly.

With Jürgen, Monty's face had settled into grim determination; here, Dale was horrified to see genuine terror and a rending sorrow appear.

"Widget," Monty was able to gasp out. "It is you, isn't it? But your arm --"

"And over there, that must be Little Gadget?" the Gray Mouse interrupted.

"Widget, I'm sorry!" Monty burst out.

Gadget looked up from Chip, her face a blank mask.

"Widget," Monty continued, "She doesn't even know who you are."

"Next time you drown an unwanted kitten," Widget's voice cracked slightly, "you would be well advised to put some rocks in the blanket."

"Widget, it wasn't like that--" Monty tried to say.

She snapped around. "Take them below," she barked to a suddenly impassive and distant Jürgen.

===

Mr. Calvert was supervising the Hustling of the Prisoners. He did it fairly well, but long experience told Dale he was new at it.

"You seem a nice young man. So why did you join up with the forces of evil?" Dale asked.

Mr. Calvert shrugged. "I wanted to serve on subs, and with the Cold War over, just about the only mice building them any more are criminal masterminds."

"That bites," Dale commiserated.

"Oh, this one isn't bad," Mr. Calvert assured him. "At least she's smart enough to hire a first rate sub driver and let him drive his sub."

"Did he really write a book?" Dale asked.

"It's not my fault we lost," Monty said sadly.

"Nobody's blaming you, Monty," Gadget said, patting his arm.

"No," Mr. Calvert corrected. "That was the title of Captain Jürgen's second book. The first one was before the war. A Theoretical Discussion on How We Could Use Subs if the Last Treaty Let Us Have Any." He opened a heavy watertight hatch to the brig. "Here - I have to show this to you. It's a safety catch so you can open this door if it's locked."

"Uh... thanks," Dale said, wondering why they were showing this to prisoners.

"Unfortunately, you'll be locked in those cells over there," Mr. Calvert pointed. "so it really won't help you much."

===

"How's Chip doing?" Monty asked. Gadget was resting an ear against Chip's chest, listening to his heartbeat.

Chip was lying on the bench in the cell. It was an actual brig, not a locked storeroom. There was no guard. "I thought he should be up by now," she said in a worried voice. She continued in a lowered voice. "I can open the door to our cage, but with Chip unconscious, I don't think it would be a good idea." Then, in a louder voice, she asked the question Monty was dreading.

"She's lying, isn't she Monty?"

Monty paused. It was the pause more than anything else that made her realize the truth. "Gadget, luv, have you ever heard of a mouse having one baby in a litter?"

"What happened?" her voice was very soft.

===

"Thank you, doctor," said a handsome young flier mouse who vaguely resembled Clark Gable. He signed a paper while his friend stood by silently. He looked up and smiled. "Monty and I will take them home ourselves."

"Certainly, Mr. Hackwrench," the doctor said gently, "But are you sure you wouldn't like us to call you a cab?"

"I think you've done quite enough already," Geegaw Hackwrench snarled. He forced himself to grin. "Besides, it's a beautiful night."

Monty caught the doctor's eyes and a silent communication flashed between them. Don't push it. Monty and Geegaw both knew that the survival of even two of Sarah's babies was owing to the hospital. Knowing Geegaw, he would apologize later somehow, but for now the wound was too fresh. The doctor tried to turn invisible.

"Monty," Geegaw said, lifting one of the two pink bundles from the hospital cradles, "This is Gadget." Geegaw smiled down fondly. "Isn't she beautiful?"

From previous experience with newborn babies, Monty gritted his teeth, looked down, and prepared to lie. To his astonishment, it wasn't necessary. Her hair was unusually thick, a color even Monty thought of as "golden" instead of "yellow" or "blonde." Her eyes were still closed and her hands clenched, waving feebly. "Jus' like a little jewel," Monty said honestly. "She's got her mother's fur." Like her mother, Gadget was a single color all over instead of the two toned "pale belly" wild animal pattern of her father.

Monty jerked his head up to see Geegaw's reaction, afraid of reminding his friend of the death a few days before. To his relief, Geegaw smiled, maybe sadly, maybe tenderly.

Monty turned to pick up the second bundle. "This is Widget," Geegaw said, quite unnecessarily. There was a catch in his voice. "She's ... going to need a bit of luck."

Widget wiggled weakly in Monty's arms. Her hair was gray, her fur white as a lab mouse's; and Monty knew her eyes were pink. Her arm was curled and motionless; Monty had known she was missing a limb, but seeing it gone was vaguely unsettling. Still, he felt his heart go out to the little creature in his arms. Don't you go dyin' on yer father, luv, he thought sternly. 'E's 'ad too much to bear already. He smiled and touched her face; Widget turned to suck at his finger.

"Hey, she's got you for an old man," Monty joshed his friend gently. "There ain't a disreputable dockside bar nor an oil stained landing strip twixt 'ere and Afghanistan where she ain't royalty."

Geegaw laughed. As they passed through the front door, into the darkness, he looked at Widget a little longingly, as though he felt he should carry them both. No, more than that; as though he knew he would have less time with Widget, and he wanted all the time with her he could have.

"Wanna swap?" Monty asked lightly, holding Widget out.

Geegaw recovered and shook his head firmly. "It's not like you'll drop her, Monty." He turned away from him. "I know you can't hang around long - but will you stay for Sarah's funeral?"

"I'm 'ere as long as you need me, cobber," Monty said casually. "'Ave you decided 'bout ..."

"Their two brothers," Geegaw finished for him. He shook his head. "I don't know, Monty. They were never really alive..."

A Human car passed by the two mice walking on the sidewalk. Monty sighed to himself. So much to do, and he hadn't the experience to help his friend. He was running through a list of his own relations, wondering if there were any he'd entrust with Geegaw's children, and felt oddly disturbed that so many of the dinkum cobbers of his life were also men he wouldn't trust to change one of Widget's diapers. Monty watched as the car went behind them. The headlights of the car washed over an alley and Monty froze when he saw two eyes flash in the darkness.

"I suppose we should -"

"Not now," Monty said in soft, dead, tones.

Geegaw looked over. "Cat?" he asked, in a low voice.

"At six o'clock, thirty feet, in an alley."

They started to move a little faster. There was every chance it was a lazy, full house cat, or that they were already too far to make a tempting target. Cats tended to hunt in a small area. What was the word? Pelagic. Like submarines.

Widget whimpered, perhaps sensing Monty's fear. Monty took another look behind them.

And saw it gliding softly towards them, like a hole cut into the night.

"RUN!"

They hunkered down, arms wrapped around their precious passengers, sprinting. Monty's eyes scanned desperately, looking for a hole or storm grate - but he realized his friend knew the area better. And Geegaw made a terrible mistake. Perhaps he was thinking only of getting to home and safety, but he went out over the bridge connecting this island with his airport.

The cat was soon on the bridge, padding towards them, a little louder now that it knew it had been spotted. Geegaw came to a sudden stop, staring at his friend and panting. Monty looked up at the cables stretching into the night, and looked at him, questioningly.

"We can't out climb a cat," Geegaw said firmly. "We can out swim it."

"You're right," Monty muttered. "May the Virgin Minnie be with us now."

"If I don't make it, take care of Widget."

"Like she was mine, buddy."

The cat was close enough for the last sprint that would take them both down. They jumped.

It was a long drop, the water horribly cold. Even though it was early summer, water takes the heat out of a mouse much faster than it will out of a human. Geegaw had his hand over Gadget's nose and mouth, and kicked desperately back to the surface. He breached, holding his screaming daughter far above his head. Then he rolled over onto his back like an otter, holding the crying Gadget on his chest while he kicked for shore.

She's all right, he thought hysterically, stumbling up the beach. She's going to be all right. Both he and Gadget were shaking uncontrollably with the cold. "Monty!" he yelled. "MONTY!"

He saw Monty in the distance. Monty was walking towards him like a zombie, staggering on the slick rocks. His hands were by his side, seaweed clenched in his fingers. He was shaking, worse than Geegaw, but he didn't feel the cold.

===

"Then my father didn't abandon her?" Gadget was visibly elated.

"Of course not!" Monty was genuinely shocked. "He'd just lost his wife, and two sons -- Geegaw loved Widget."

Gadget gave him a wordless, one armed hug.

"Would you believe he never blamed me?" He started crying.

"Why didn't you ever tell me?" Gadget asked.

"I just kept tellin' myself I'd tell you some day, that I was holdin' off to spare your feelin's. 'Bad enough she lost 'er father, why tell 'er she almost 'ad a sister?'" He shook his head. "Bottom line; Widget was a mate's little girl and I shouldn't 'ave swum to shore without 'er."

Gadget shook her head. "Monty, we know you did your -"

The door swung open and Widget entered, applauding slowly and sarcastically.

"Very nice," she said. "Almost plausible."

Gadget and Dale shot a glance at one another No guards, but listening devices. Had she also overheard them plotting to escape?

"Except no evidence was found you had been chased by cats," Widget finished.

Monterey sighed. "What sort of evidence would it leave? A signed card, 'Hi, I'm a cat, and I just chased two mice carrying babies off this bridge?' Just because they couldn't prove there were cats doesn't mean there weren't any. That's why they didn't take Gadget away from --"

"I know what your story was," Widget snorted. "But the truth is that since he had Little Miss Pick of the Litter here, Daddy Dearest didn't want to be bothered with some one armed distorted freak."

"Our father wouldn't do that," Gadget flared up. She rattled the bars of the cage. "You never knew him, so I --"

"Your Electra complex is showing, dear," Widget interrupted sweetly.

"Widget," Monty snapped. "'Ow did you find out who your father was? You found missing mouse reports, the posters Geegaw put up. Right? 'E kicked up an awful fuss for a kid who, 'ccordin' to you, 'e didn't want. Otherwise you'd never know who you are. Right?"

"He had to present a good story. I never said he was dumb."

"You can really imagine someone doing that?" Dale asked, visibly shaken.

Widget looked at him, and spoke patiently. "That's how people treat cripples. You couldn't understand."

"Where did you grow up?" Monterey asked slowly, a horrible image of Widget's childhood forming in his mind. Somewhere she'd grow to expect that sort of treatment.

"I grew up in this city," Widget snorted. "I suppose my adoptive mother pulled me out of the river. She used me as a prop while panhandling. She finally overdosed when I was fourteen or so, but by then I was spending most of my time in the landfill, building things, so I didn't need her."

"Granted, you've met a lot of people who would, but Geegaw couldn't have abandoned you," Dale said flatly.

Widget lifted an eyebrow. "You never met him."

"I know the daughter he raised," Dale pointed out. "If Geegaw Hackwrench were capable of drowning his daughter, Gadget would either hate him or be a monster herself. As it is, there's nothing wrong with her a few months of therapy couldn't clear up-"

"Thanks, Dale," Gadget whispered.

"-And even that's because she loves him so much she can't say goodbye to him. He deserved that from her. Therefore, he loved you."

"Love's a word people use when they want something," Widget snorted. "I've learned that, at least."

"Say," Gadget interrupted, suddenly fascinated. "Did you build that arm?"

Widget moved her left arm slightly. "Nobody gave it to me."

"How do you get enough torque to move the fingers so smoothly and quickly?" Monterey sighed and closed his eyes.

"Oh." Widget moved her left hand closer to her sister, who looked at it with absorbed interest. "The motor cocks springs in my forearm. Then I release the springs to move the fingers."

"You only articulated two fingers and the thumb, didn't you?" Gadget asked. "Your third finger just echoes the motion of the second."

"Exactly. You might also notice that I have three different gear ratios on the elbow. There's a cam to keep the motion from being too regular."

"Golly! That is absolutely first class work," Gadget said, impressed.

"Widget," Monterey interrupted, making his second major mistake of the day. "Gadget didn't even know you existed until today. She didn't have anything to do with it, even if --"

Widget looked up sharply, as Monterey reminded her. "She benefited from it," she said. "Oh, and don't bother trying to offer yourself as a sacrifice. I hate it when people do that. Well, sis, this has been fun, but I've got work to do."

"Widget, luv," Monty said slowly. "This won't make you feel better."

Widget froze for a moment, uncertainly, and then stalked out with a determined stride.

===

"I was listening at the microphones," Jürgen said tentatively.

The Gray Mouse hesitated. "And?"

"I think they're right."

She stopped and gave him a hostile look. Now that he knew she was a cripple, she had to make certain he didn't decide she was a weakling as well.

"That arm is first rate work," Jürgen went on to explain. "All this time I thought you just had a touch of bursitis."

"Oh." She lifted her hand, turned it at the wrist. "Thank you. I'm right handed, so I guess it isn't as obtrusive."

"Seriously, you should contact a hospital. I think you could teach them a lot."

"I think I will," she said, liking the idea. "I mean, I'll need a new vocation once I wreak my vengeance."

"Do you mind if I call you 'Widget?'"

Widget looked at him solemnly. "It's just a name. My foster mother used another one, and she's really the one who taught me about people."

"What did she call you?"

"'Li'l Freako.'"

"Ah." Jürgen hesitated. "I think ... I'd prefer to use 'Widget'."

Chapter Eight : Chip's Inferno

Chip came to in a waiting room. The only other occupant was Dale, wearing a sheet. Chip looked down in surprise and saw he was wearing a sheet a well.

"Dale?" Chip asked.

"Hi, Chip." There was a certain lack of animation in Dale's voice. Chip felt horror.

"Monterey, Gadget, Zipper. Didn't they... make it?" he asked, frightened.

"None of us did." Dale shrugged tiredly. "Zipper's relatives are laying eggs on us even as we speak."

"Then this is ... Heaven?" Chip looked around, appalled. He had expected it to look less like the waiting room in a bus station.

"You Wish," intoned a deep and commanding voice from all around them.

Visions of his life before he found the bomber jacket passed through his head. Chip gulped. "I didn't think we'd go to aitch ee double hockey sticks for pestering Donald --"

"Not Quite," intoned the voice. "We All Have Sins To Make Retribution For. This Is The Place Where One Earns Redemption, That One May Rest Eternally, Confident That One's Sins Are Forgiven."

"Well, uh... I feel pretty good about myself," Chip said nervously.

"Me too!" yelped Dale. "I think I've made retribution already!"

"Yep, my soul's at peace --"

"Nice Try." A door opened. "This Way."

They walked a bridge over a vast cauldron of bubbling cheese, a fondue stretching to the horizons. In the distance, a figure breached out of the fondue to gain a moment's relief from the agony -- and to scream...

"Monty," Chip gasped.

The end of the bridge behind them detached and dropped into the sizzling cheese. Without a word, they turned and ran, hoping the far end of the bridge was still secure. Faster they raced, not daring to look behind them, hearts pounding and lungs bursting. There was a door dimly visible in the distance. They redoubled their efforts, made a desperate leap -- and made it.

"Is this where we're spending eternity?" asked Dale.

"One Of You Will Make Retribution Here."

Chip and Dale looked at one another, eyes brimming with tears.

"I guess this is it, old buddy," said Chip.

"Since this may be the last time we see each other, I won't mention how you led us to our deaths and all," Dale said, voice cracking.

"Uh, thanks, buddy."

The room had a water cooler and an office cubicle. In the cubicle was a chipmunk sized chair and Pentium computer. Chip lifted the thick desk calendar, with a badly drawn but scathingly insightful cartoon. The first page said "Monday: 20th Century." The second said "Monday: 21st Century." The last panel of each cartoon was crossed out, the punch lines unreadable. He flicked to "Monday: 25th Century" before he got the point.

Chip felt a force pulling him away, drifting back from Dale and the cubicle. Dale's clothes changed to black jacket, tie, and a white shirt: a dressing style which had been out of favor in the computer industry since the early 1980s but which still had horrific power for one who preferred Hawaiian shirts.

"Dale," intoned The Voice. "For The Sins You Have Committed In Life, Of Sloth And Gluttony, You Are Sentenced To Find All The Bugs In This GUI Operating System, And Thus Find Redemption."

"There must be a mistake," Dale quavered. "I don't know anything about computers."

"You'd Best Start Studying Then."

"No," gasped Dale. Then, a howl: "NOOOOOooooo!"

A steel door slammed between them.

Chip tried to keep from quaking with fear as another room formed around them. Wood, arched ceilings, stained glass - a church. His sheet transformed into an elegant tuxedo. A sense of bliss came over him, and he turned, wondering what the catch was. With Monterey a piece of stale bread in a celestial party dish and Dale forced to work Quality Assurance, what would his own fate be?

Gadget solidified, in a white wedding dress with a long train, bouquet clutched in her hands, tears trickling down her delicate and beautiful features. Chip felt his heart go out to her. He knew somehow, they would be together forever, that this was their eternal union. He had to say something to express his love.

"Hominahominahomina..."

That wasn't it.

"Gadget Hackwrench," intoned The Voice. "For The Sins You Have Committed In Life..."

Gadget flashed Chip a single, hate-filled glance before bursting into tears.

Chapter Nine : Goldberg's Revenge

Chip awoke screaming.

He found himself tied up, sitting on a shelf, a long distance above a tile floor. A cord led from his bonds upwards, between two metal plates set at right angles to one another. It was obviously some sort of fiendish deathtrap.

He sighed in relief. "Only a dream..." he murmured, ecstatic.

There was a Gray Mouse on the floor, some distance away. She looked at him, and blinked her pink eyes. "That must have been some dream," she said.

Dale was tied a short distance from him. He was sitting on the trap bar of a mousetrap. "Chip's all right!" he exclaimed.

"That's what Zipper told ya," Monty yelled in a voice muffled by the coffee grinder he was standing in.

"How could Zipper tell?" Chip asked groggily. He now saw Zipper above him on a window sill, taped firmly to a coil of wire.

"It's a Fly thing," Monty explained. "Best not to think on it."

"Who's Pink Eyes?" Chip asked.

"Gadget's twin sister," Dale explained briefly. "Widget, Chip. Chip, Widget."

Waboom.

That was the sound effect of Chip's mind coming to grips with the fact Gadget not only had a sister, but Gadget's sister wanted to kill them all. Apart from his hat leaping off his head, performing a back flip, and landing once more, Chip was able to maintain composure admirably.

"I hate friends' family reunions. You don't know anyone, and -"

Dale shrugged non-commitally. "I've been to worse; I've been to better."

Chip looked around. Where was Gadget?

"Let me explain what's going on here," Widget began. "We're in the Grand Hall of the old immigration center on Trellis Island. Your little princess is locked in a cage in the next room. Now I'm going to get technical, so please try to stay with me.

"First, El Tubbo next to you gets launched by the mousetrap. His weight pulls you up between those two metal plates. You close an electrical circuit and lose all interest in subsequent events. Resistance is useless." A smile flickered over her face. Chip shuddered. "Nevertheless, I will continue the scenario, to satisfy your intellectual curiosity and that of your briefly mourning comrades.

"The electrical circuit powers a bug zapper." Here she pointed at Zipper. "As he turns into a charcoal briquette and crumbles, the weight tied to him drops, and throws the switch on the coffee grinder." She pointed to Monterey. "It's set to 'Extra Fine.' Or do you prefer percolators?"

"Who are you calling 'El Tubbo?'" Dale suddenly barked.

Widget covered her eyes for a moment. "Maybe I should let you live. But I'm not that cruel. As the electrical current makes an ash out of Fearless Leader, the nylon string holding you two together will melt. Butterball drops onto this electrically heated skillet --" she flicked a slice of bacon onto the electric range and smiled as it crisped "-- try not to stick to the pan!"

Chip tried to remain impassive. Gadget is locked in a cage. She can pick the lock with her tail and --

Widget frowned. "I'm surprised Gadget's taking this long. We can't start the party without her."

Chip spoke slowly. "What ... what do you mean?"

"Oh, I forgot to mention. You see, Gadget will be breaking free, and when she opens the door into here, she'll trigger the mousetrap." Widget paused. "You see, with her mechanical genius (almost equal to mine) she'll instantly realize what she's thrown into action. She might be able to stop it before all of you die. Or not.

"I think anything I could do to her afterwards would be anticlimactic, don't you?"

"Actually, I had a question for you," Chip asked.

"It's traditional. Go ahead."

"The Ranger Plane was shot down by a weapon that burst the balloon without hurting us."

"Special anti-balloon shrapnel," Widget confirmed.

"Why not use something that would kill us all?"

Widget sighed happily. She was so glad someone had asked. "Because revenge is a dish best served with living ingredients."

"How long did it take you to write that line?" Chip asked, puzzled.

"Anyway," Widget said, ignoring Chip with an annoyed expression, "Jürgen and I are off to celebrate. See you in the funny papers."

"Obituary," Jürgen corrected.

"Like I said."

Chip fixed Jürgen with a scowl. "How can you devote your talents, courage and skill to implementing the will of an evil maniac?"

"It's not the first time," Jürgen and Monty said simultaneously, and looked at one another strangely.

"Besides," Widget explained. "I'm not evil. I'm a Byronic hero."

"Chip," Dale asked, "What's 'Byronic'?"

"It means a hero who acts like a villain," Chip explained.

Dale blinked.

===

Gadget was on all fours, the tip of her tail probing gently within the lock mechanism. She shifted her hips slightly, closed her eyes in concentration, and lightly licked her lips.

===

"Should we be watching this?" asked Mr. Fenton, staring at the monitor in the bridge of Albacore. The various displays aboard the submarine were originally Human sized- Heads Up Displays, designed to fit in glasses or goggles. They were just about rodent sized.

"We're supposed to in case they need assistance," Mr. Calvert explained, eyes glued to the monitor. But Mr. Fenton wasn't leaving anyway. They had been at sea for a long time.

"Watching what?" asked the helmsman, looking up from his post.

===

Gadget froze. This was a ticklish bit. She pushed her weight backwards, held her breath, and felt the next catch give. She released her breath in an explosive sigh.

===

"Hey, you're recording this, right?" asked the diving officer. "You are recording this?"

"Sure," agreed Mr. Calvert. "But the tape's logged."

"No problem," said one of the planesmen. "I've got some Bakhshi Mighty Mouse we can tape over to make a dupe."

"Stop shoving," snapped Mr. Fenton.

===

Gadget strained, exertion clearly visible on her face. A soft trembling overcame her. A sharp click sounded as the last catch was thrown. Gadget froze for a moment, and collapsed, a satisfied smile on her face.

===

Cheers and applause sounded in the bridge of the Albacore. Mr. Calvert turned, infuriated. "Isn't anyone but me at their post?" he yelled. The bridge crew scattered to their positions.

===

Gadget stood, on wobbly legs. She pushed the cage door open. It had been a little Yale lock, not the usual diary lock; much more difficult to open. She forced herself to think. I'm off to a little party, Widget had said. We'll be having a grand old time.

Gadget pulled herself out of the cage, trying to remain focused on her task. But minutiae kept crowding in. The immigration center at Trellis Island. Half the animals in America have ancestors who came through here. Over 20 million came through...

"The Grand Hall!" she snapped her fingers, and scurried off.

===

She moved as quietly as a ninja mouse, listening intently for movement -- but she couldn't hear anything through the heavy doors. She opened it the smallest crack she could manage. The setting sun flashed into her eyes.

And she felt a tripwire give.

Computerlike, her eyes scanned the room. Sizzling bacon on hot plate. Coffee grinder. On/off switch. Bug zapper. Metal plates, probably electrically charged. Pulley. Counterweight system. Mousetrap. Mousetrap set to go off when...

Dale was catapulted into the air. Gadget screamed.

And she started running across the floor. Far from cover. Unmindful of every mouse instinct. Break string on coffee grinder switch. Move hot plate. That would save Monty and Dale. Oh, Chip, Zipper, I'm sorry...

Dale's weight jerked Chip into the air.

And nothing else happened.

Chip and Dale stared at one another, puzzled. The pulleys above them squeaked, but they both moved up and down, oscillating...

"Hey, Chip," Dale finally said. "I don't weigh any more than you do."

"I guess not," Gadget said, helping Monty out of the coffee grinder. "Monty, could you push the hot plate from under Dale?"

"Gladly, luv," Monty smiled.

Gadget climbed the wall, holding a knife between her teeth -- and jumped onto Dale's shoulders.

"GADGET!" Chip screamed, seeing the plates rush nearer.

Gadget cut the string below her grip, dropping Dale to the floor. "Sorry," she laughed. "Should have warned you." She held on to the string, letting Chip's weight pull her upwards and slowing his descent. She released as she was about to hit the pulley, and heard Chip land with a soft plop. But her attention was on freeing Zipper from the bug zapper on the window sill.

The others climbed up to the sill. They came together with wide smiles. Chip was the first to talk, hissing through his teeth, trying to conceal his speech from observers. "She's still here."

Monterey perked and Gadget slowly nodded. "Yes, I'd do the same. I mean, if I had a psychotic need for retribution, which I don't think I do-" She surveyed the area. "She'd pick somewhere with a good view. Maybe over where I came in --"

"But I really wanted to watch Gadget's reaction, and the best place to do that is back here by the windows."

"Yes, that's right," Dale said thoughtfully. "You'd be back here right behind us--"

Chapter Ten : "Aren't You Dead Yet?!"

He spun to find himself staring down the maw of a .22 Darned Nearly Recoilless Rifle. Widget had been standing on the outside ledge. Jürgen stood next to her, holding a case of .22 rimfire cartridges.

"Would you believe me if I told you this thing will stop a cat?" Widget asked mildly.

"Oh, I don't doubt that for an instant," Dale assured her, creeping backwards.

"It might even penetrate your skull. Everyone back off."

"We're wasting time, Widget," Gadget snapped, walking forward sternly. "You want me. You've got me."

"That's ridiculous," Monty snorted. "Gadget's not to blame because she was a cuter baby than you were. I'm the one who dropped you. I owe you. She doesn't."

With two of his friends making themselves targets for the rodent equivalent of a 150mm cannon shell, Chip had to do something. "Wait!" Chip screamed, probably to his friends. "Widget, you know we'll be atop of you before you can reload!"

"I know," Widget smiled, pink eyes glittering. Chip felt his heart drop.

"Hey, Widget," Gadget suddenly asked. "How do you damp the recoil of that thing?"

"Oh. Action/Reaction. The casing goes out the back."

Gadget hesitated, and pretended to make her First Big Mistake of the day.

"Golly! How well does it work?"

"Watch carefully," Widget hissed. "I'll show you."

Gadget dropped an instant before the perfectly timed dramatic moment.

The explosion was incredibly loud, at least for mouse ears. Gadget heard a sharp crack as the bullet whipped past her head. The shockwave of its passage actually pushed her down. She had no idea how long it would take to reload, so she turned the dive into a tackle, catching Widget on the midriff, just before the recoil flipped them both out the window.

Gadget felt a sharp shock in her ankles, and a hiss of pain behind her. The Recoilless corkscrewed away. Widget slipped through her grasp: Gadget grabbed frantically, gripped her wrists. The two sisters stared at one another, Gadget head down; Widget face up. Gadget couldn't see the courtyard past Widget; the sun was low, and it was hidden in shadow, but she knew it was Too Far down.

"Monterey!" Jürgen's voice. "Don't move!" A threat?

"Zipper!" Chip's voice. "String! Paper clip! Go!"

Gadget turned her head to see what was going on.

Jürgen had her by the ankles. The weight of Gadget and Widget had pulled him halfway off the ledge. Monty was laying across him, his weight holding the smaller mouse secure and keeping him from slipping further. Gadget felt herself smile. It wasn't a threat.

A terrified Dale was leaning out the window, too far to be safe; his arms were too short to reach her. Chip appeared, forcing a look of good cheer. "I find that most problems can be solved with string and paper clips," he winked.

"Jürgen," Widget panted. She caught her breath. "Let go of us!"

Gadget turned back, horrified, to see her sister's hate filled face.

Jürgen gritted his teeth. "Widget! Find a toehold. Please."

Widget's left arm bent at the elbow, and her foot found a bit of crumbling concrete. A lock of her sister's golden hair fell into her face.

Widget drew closer. Gadget could feel her breath on her nose.

"Jürgen," Widget gasped. "Please drop us."

Jürgen's voice from behind Gadget. "Widget, I can't."

Widget's eyes focused on her sister's. "I ..." Widget started. "I don't want anything from you!"

Widget bit Gadget on the wrist.

Gadget yelped and her hands flew open.

Widget let go. She fell backwards and flipped once on the way down, vanishing into shadow. Gadget and Jürgen screamed.

===

Jürgen held Gadget tightly while Chip came down on Zipper's string and grabbed her, shifting their weight to the line secured by a paper clip bent into a hook. Dale, Monterey and Jürgen quickly hoisted them to safety. Chip was still holding on to her when Jürgen took Gadget by the hand, and started tying up her wrist with a handkerchief.

"Gadget," he gasped. "It wasn't your fault. Just remember that. She could have lived, even up till the last second, but..."

"Why didn't you drop me after she fell?" Gadget asked. The others looked at Jürgen a little more warily, as though suddenly remembering he had just sunk a cruise ship.

Jürgen shrugged. "Her father loved you," he said. He pulled the knot on the improvised bandage tight. Then he started to cry.

Monterey shook his head sadly. "Aw, mate..."

He sat down, and Gadget found herself moving to touch him. "People aren't simple," he said. "You didn't see her cutting dolphins out of tuna nets, talking whales out of beaching themselves."

"Yeah, Chip snapped. "We just saw the side that hungered for Gadget's death."

"Someone's death, anyway," Monty said softly.

"This isn't over yet," hissed a voice from out the window.

They turned as one, with expressions running the gamut between joy, astonishment, and absolute disbelief. Widget had inflated her wetsuit into a round ball, probably using a helium tank concealed under her cape. She was held in a spread eagle position by the swollen wetsuit, her wrists and ankles barely protruding from the surface of the ball.

"My sister," she cried, slowly gaining altitude, "will die before these eyes and she'll know - SHE'LL KNOW - that it is I, Widget Hackwrench, who encompasses her doom!"

"Auf Wiedersehen," Jürgen said, politely shaking Monty's hand before launching himself into the air to grab Widget by her tail. They drifted out towards the sea, while Widget laughed maniacally.

There was a moment of silence.

"Monty," Dale asked, "what exactly does it mean to 'encompass Gadget's doom?'"

===

They were about one hundred fifty feet over the water. Widget let a small amount of helium out of her balloon suit through a rubber valve, to reduce their rate of climb. It made a noticeable sound.

She heard laughter, quickly suppressed, from below her.

"Jürgen," she snapped. "It's not funny. I'm just releasing some gas-"

Jürgen's choked guffaw was louder this time.

"Helium gas!" she snapped.

"I'm sorry," he wheezed.

"It's not funny," she muttered.

"No, ma'am. Albacore is beneath us. I believe Mr. Fenton is flying up with a line."

"It's a perfectly normal sound."

"Yes, ma'am."

Jürgen gripped the line, which was attached to a winch on the Albacore. It was short work to reel them in. Four burly stokers held Widget down as she opened the valve, releasing the pressurized helium in one long, shattering blast that ripped through the twilight.

She looked suspiciously from one crewman to the other. They all stood with studied and serious expressions.

She couldn't stand it anymore. She fell over backwards, howling with laughter.

Chapter Eleven : As The Table Turns

"'Rescued Rangers'," Chip grumbled, reading a headline in the morning paper. "'Crew of fishing boat repaid a favor to the Rescue Rangers yesterday -'"

The picture showed the five of them standing knee deep in sardines, Dale, Monty and Zipper grinning at the camera, Gadget staring off into the distance, and Chip looking thoroughly, thoroughly annoyed.

Dale dropped his fork and put on a face of mock horror. "I didn't see you volunteering to swim back from Trellis Island," Dale grumbled.

"Dale, don't you feel even slightly embarrassed?"

"No, Chip. I feel dry. I feel those fishermen were proud to do us a good turn." Zipper buzzed agreement.

"Did any of ya see Gadget this mornin'?" Monterey asked, bringing another plate of fried cheese to the table.

Chip and Dale looked at one another and blinked. Apparently, they hadn't.

"Morning, guys," Gadget said, entering the room sleepily. She was in her usual lavender overalls.

"You look tired, luv," Monty said slowly. "Been workin' on somethin'?"

"Hit a little snag. Give me a hand, Monty?"

"Have some coffee first, luv."

"Now, Monty." She smiled. "Please?"

Monty looked uncomfortably at the chipmunks and the fly, who were trying not to look worried.

Gadget started climbing the domino stairs to the hangar. Monty looked at the door to her workshop. Not in your workshop? he wondered.

"What can I help ya with, luv?" Monty asked. "Not a technical problem, surely." She hadn't said one word about her sister last night. He expected she wanted to have it out with him. He was dreading that.

The light in the hangar was dim, but Monty could easily see the latest addition. It was longer than he was tall. A folded 12-inch parachute. Ducted propeller with vertical and horizontal vanes, connected somehow to two compasses. Tucked into it was something streamlined, glittering with brass, so big he didn't recognize it at first.

"Gadget," he said quietly. "That's a .50 caliber machine gun round."

"14.5 mm Soviet, actually," she corrected. "It's almost twice the muzzle energy-"

"And the rest, let me guess. It's a magnetic homing torpedo, isn't it?"

"Air dropped," Gadget chuckled. "Guided in two axes, stabilized in roll. I need advice on how to use it."

Monty shook his head slowly. "Gadget, don't."

"You've done it before." Her voice was hard.

"Leave Widget to drown?" he asked sarcastically.

"Sunk submarines."

Monty was feeling faint. He put his hand out to steady himself - almost on the torpedo. He jerked his hand away. "Gadget, luv, you let your left brain take over. I can't believe you've thought this through. You can't -murder - your own sister."

"It doesn't matter who she is, Monty," her voice came softly. He turned and saw her, lit from behind. "She's threatening my friends. My ... family. I lost my family before. I'm not going to lose it again." She shook her head. "Not even if I have to kill her. Will you help me?"

"I promised your father I'd take care of her." His voice was determined.

"Well, Monty, help me take care of her." Her voice was mocking.

"Gadget..."

"Please."

"Gadget," he snapped. "You sound just like her."

Gadget was breathing fast and hard. "I. Do. Not."

"Gadget," he hesitated. "This is Uncle Monty talkin'. I love you like a daughter. But there's this dark side to you, luv. Deathtraps for salesmen, remember? You hardly ever let it out. Maybe Widget has a compassionate side. That she hardly ever lets out."

"So?"

"So Geegaw Hackwrench's daughter is standin' in front o' me, askin' me t' help kill Geegaw Hackwrench's other daughter. I won't 'ave a part in this, young lady. You're tired, you're overworked, you're stressed. An' maybe the technical challenge of buildin' - that - has bloinded you. Otherwise you'd never even consider this."

The only sound Monty heard for a while was Gadget's hissing breath. Like a cat. Then, to his immense relief, she said, "Maybe you're right, Monty. I'll go to bed, and think it all over."

An explosion of chipmunk chatter came from downstairs. Monty and Gadget glanced at one another dubiously.

"That don't sound like an argument," Monty observed.

"I think you're right, Monty."

Monty and Gadget jumped into the slide that took them down quickly to the main level. The chipmunks were staring at the second page of the paper, talking simultaneously and so quickly either would have been incomprehensible.

Ignoring them, Gadget slipped between them and looked at the paper. Soon she was speaking so quickly she was incomprehensible.

By now deeply disturbed, Monty turned the paper around so he could read it.

"'Submersible Research Vessel Albacore ... docks in City?'" he read with astonishment. "'Commander and owner to offer testimony in sinking of the Minuscule?!'"

"It says they were in the bay when the Minuscule hit an iceberg and sank," Chip went on. "They took the pictures in the paper."

"But they sank the Minuscule!" Monty yelled.

"We can't prove that!" Chip yelled back. "We can't even testify to it! Did any of them admit to it?"

It hit Monty like a blow. "Well, no."

"So we just assumed they sank the ship. All they did was try to kill us."

"Oh, well," Monty shrugged sarcastically.

"The local courts don't like to get involved in family disputes," Dale said thoughtfully.

As Monty stared at the paper, it suddenly tilted towards him. He jumped back as it came crashing over.

Monty flashed an angry gaze at them. "Who flipped the table?" he asked.

Chip and Dale looked at one another suspiciously. "Sorry," Gadget apologized. "Reflex."

"If we sank th' Albacore in dock," Monty observed slowly, "there's not much chance of anyone gettin' hurt."

"I was just thinking that," Gadget said, disappointed.

"Too risky," Chip said, missing the point entirely. "Besides, we need proof they sunk Minuscule."

"If I know sailors," Monty stated, "they'll be lookin' for a place to blow off steam..."

"And only too willing," Chip agreed with a wicked grin, "to tell all to a pretty face..."

Gadget and Dale glanced sideways at one another.

Chapter Twelve : The Spying Game

The two guards at Fat Cat's Casino had pretty much seen and done it all, but nothing had prepared them for this vision of loveliness. She moved with a delicate step, and as she flowed past them she favored them with a smile which held the promise of pleasures unnamed. Mesmerized, Herbie the rat and Prickles the porcupine held the doors open for her and were rewarded with a wink that made them blush scarlet.

"Dale got in," Gadget said briefly, staring through a night vision scope concealed in a remote headquarters cleverly disguised as a garbage can. She turned on the tape recorder attached to Dale's concealed microphone.

"Good," Chip said abstractly. "In case he screws up, let's prepare a hot extraction."

"Roger," said Monterey gleefully, patting the outside of a small vehicle. "The Exterminator is go."

===

The Casino was busier than usual. About nine from Albacore were there, mostly enlisted men with a few officers. A boisterous ragtime tune was playing on the piano. Widget was at a corner table, staring at the wall and looking bored.

Jürgen put down two mugs of frosty dark root beer. Widget looked up, distracted, and smiled.

"Thanks," she said. She smiled slightly, and casually reached out with her left hand. She had been practicing with cups of coffee on Albacore, but the root beer mug was not only bigger, it was filled to overflowing and the head was sliding down the side. Jürgen watched, fascinated, as she lifted the root beer and, holding it steady, sipped at the edge. Jürgen had never noticed before how complex a simple action like that was, how the shoulder and elbow moved together, how the wrist rotated fractionally to keep the payload steady while her elbow moved it to her lips. When she returned the root beer to the table, touching the original ring it had made, Jürgen noticed something slightly unnatural in the action - perhaps the mug wasn't quite even with her lips, and her arm replayed the original motion in perfect reverse. Still, they smiled; it was a remarkable show of proficiency and a stunning victory against the forces of bad luck which made the fight necessary in the first place.

"Bitte," Jürgen replied. "You seem preoccupied."

Widget shrugged. "I don't know. I think coming here was a mistake for me. I've never really been into this sort of thing," she said, looking around.

"Gambling?" Jürgen asked. He tasted the root beer. Not a patch on the stuff at home of course, but pretty good.

"Well, that's part of it," Widget agreed, trying to sort it out in her mind. "Pleasure, I guess. It's not something I've ever liked much."

"Surely that's a contradiction," Jürgen pointed out. "What you really mean is that you don't like the things people expect you to like. Do you find this place disappointing?"

Widget looked over. "Yes, that's the word. How did you know?"

Jürgen chuckled. "There's this place in Hamburg, 'Grosse Katze.' When I was a little boy outside and looking at the closed doors, it always seemed to me to be a place of wonders. When I was old enough I put on my cadet's uniform, slicked back my fur, and entered the Magical Palace of Solomon." He smiled. "Loud noise, cigarette smoke, drunks, and too much lipstick. I should have gone hiking."

Widget was looking at him, head resting at an angle on the arm she had built, a smile on her face. "Very perceptive."

"One thing you learn when you get my age. You tend to over-value simple goals. If I just get the Ritterkreutz or this job or lose some weight -" Widget laughed "-then everything will be fine and I'll be happy forever. But it doesn't work that way. You can't plan your own salvation."

"You didn't come over here to cheer me up."

Jürgen smiled. "Why not? Isn't that worth walking across a room for?"

Widget smiled back at him. "It is to me. Thanks for the root beer."

"You're from around here, aren't you?"

"Yes," she said, her voice guarded.

"Could I impose on you to be a native guide?"

For a moment, Widget was distracted by Mr. Calvert, or more properly, Mr. Calvert's dancing partner, a chipmunk with long red hair who was poured into a matching dress. There seemed to be a dispute as to who was leading, with the smashing female chipmunk preferring to stay close to Widget and Jürgen's table, while Mr. Calvert was trying to steer them back toward the dancing floor.

"C'mon, Dale," Chip muttered, drumming his fingers. "get him bragging about sinking ships..."

"Submarine?" Dale asked brightly. "Didja ever sink any ships?"

Chip slapped his hand over his eyes. Gadget flinched, and Monty shook his head sadly.

Tramp, Widget thought, annoyed. But the hussy did remind her... "I don't think we should stay in town very long. We only came here to sell those pictures of Minuscule sinking to a newspaper. "

"And to supply," Jürgen pointed out. "Where else can you get bagels and cheesecake this good? Besides, how can you dock in a town like this and not give the crew leave?"

"There's that," Widget agreed.

"Hey," Gadget said, alarmed. "That's Widget's voice."

"He's using the directional mike," Chip guessed.

"Well, we're a research vessel," Mr. Calvert said uncertainly. "But we're armed against pirates, and we did sink a few down in the Caribbean." (see Widget Hackwrench Sinks Some Pirates in the Caribbean) He was wondering why his beautiful chipmunk lass was now dancing back and forth in a straight line, hopping on one foot, the other held stiffly out parallel with the floor. Perhaps she was loopy, which might or might not be good news for his leave. Actually, since Dale had insisted on a sleeveless dress, his directional mike was strapped to his lower leg, the top at his ankle, pointed at Gadget's sister.

"I'm afraid someone might realize that cut in the bottom of Minuscule was made by us," Jürgen said in a low voice.

There was cheering in the garbage can.

"They'll realize it anyway when they salvage the vessel," Widget agreed. "They'll know pretty soon it was a metal saw blade and not an iceberg."

"Still, it will be a few days before they realize that, and if we leave before tomorrow evening, it'll look suspicious," Jürgen pointed out. "Don't you have any good memories of this city?" he asked her with a smile.

Widget looked off into the distance. "Well, there's an aircraft carrier docked on the west side. When I was young, I found a way into the engine room -"

Gadget hissed. "She used my secret entrance into my engine room?" her palms were on the control panel in front of her, and she was pushing herself into a sitting position.

"Blimey," Monty muttered, straining to hear.

" - And I was so in awe of it all, this gigantic steel cathedral," Widget went on in hushed tones, "all these parts, everything fitting together. I knew I had to keep coming back, to understand it all. It's pretty silly, really," she chuckled.

"No," Jürgen shook his head. "I think we all have our private temples."

"I'd like to show it to you," Widget said softly. She put her hand on the table, and accidentally covered his hand with hers.

"Aw, c'mon, ya big lug," Monty said out loud. "Tell 'er ya love 'er."

Chip turned from looking at Gadget and started at Monty in horror. "I meant 'im," Monty explained quickly. "I, uh, mean-"

Gadget was oblivious.

Dale thought it best to leave. Jürgen's taped confession was what he was after and he had to sneak away before something happened. But he wanted to leave his dancing partner something to remember him by, so when Mr. Calvert dipped him, he closed his eyes and puckered up.

Dale's wig dropped softly to the floor. Dale waited for the kiss that didn't come. Conversation and noise slowly died. Then he noticed his head felt colder. He opened his eyes. He didn't want to, but he opened his eyes.

"Aw, man, again?" asked a bouncer rat. "Look, buddy, the place you want is down the street-"

"A spy!" Mr. Calvert cried out, and dropped Dale.

"It's a Rescue Ranger! Call the boss!" cried a waitress.

"I'm not a spy," Dale tried to explain. "Dressing like this, uh, makes me feel comfortable."

Widget snatched her hand away and stood, leaning on the table. Her root beer crashed to the floor. "GET HIM!"

Dale was promptly rendered immobile under a pile of submariners, and tied with ripped tablecloth. Efficiently, he was tossed onto shoulders and rushed towards the door. Until Prickles stepped in, barring the way.

"Durch die Fenster! Mach schnell!" Jürgen yelled before he thought it through.

"What he say?"

"Don't you speak German?"

"Out the window! Hurry!" Widget translated.

Unfortunately, there were no windows. Fat Cat's elevator opened, and the corpulent feline slid gracefully into the casino. "What's this about wanting to leave?" he purred.

Widget stepped around the table, and stared up into the cat's face. "We're taking him as a hostage."

"I think not. The Rescue Rodents and I have much ... hisssstory between us. This isn't your casino."

"We caught him," she said stubbornly.

"You're lucky you're a customer, mouse," said Fat Cat. He delicately lifted Dale from off the shoulders of the Albacore crewmen, and placed him on his feet in front of Prickles. Dale hopped quickly into the elevator, goaded by occasional encouragement from Prickles. Dale's yelps were cut off by the closing elevator door.

With one leap, Widget was clutching the ends of Fat Cat's mustache. With her boots on his collar bone, she scowled at the much larger animal. "Listen kibble-breath," she snarled, "it wouldn't be the first time I've seen the inside of a cat. I kinda get...stuck in the throat."

"My apologies for playing the race card," Fat Cat said immediately. He leaned to whisper at a henchman. "Do mice get rabies?" he asked.

"I think what you have there is a living definition of the word," the henchman immediately replied.

Chapter Thirteen : Tanks for the Memories

"Let's go," Chip snapped out. He darted over to The Exterminator.

"Monty," Gadget said, pulling a micro cassette out of the tape recorder. "You better take this with you on the Ranger Wing."

"Gotcha luv," Monty replied, taking it under one arm. "Ol' Monterey won't be around to help, so you just be careful."

She smiled up at him as he rubbed her hair roughly. "I will, Monty. Thanks."

Zipper cleared his throat.

"Rescue Rangers Away!"

===

It had started life in the 1960s as a British toy made of die cast steel. Resembling a salt shaker, The Exterminator sported a rotating hemispherical turret with an extended eyestalk, mounted on a base with sharply sloped sides. A second appendage, a suction cup on a rod, was even with a nozzle like projection on the front. No wheels were visible: these were concealed in the wide, flaring steel skirt. It trundled out from behind a garbage can and crossed the street, making for Fat Cat's casino.

Herbie the rat frowned. The Boss had said to keep anyone from entering, and that clearly included Daleks. "Can't enter -" he began to say.

The suction dart fired, sticking to Herbie's chest. Herbie stumbled backwards, but didn't go over. He snarled. He wasn't amused, and he didn't notice the thin wire leading from the back of the suction dart to The Exterminator.

He noticed the results. As every strand of fur stood away from his body, an unearthly bluish glow illuminated the entry to Fat Cat's. Being well grounded, Herbie sparked in a most satisfying manner and drifted into a dreamless sleep. Inside The Exterminator, Chip threw a winch on, retracting the dart and cocking the action. Electronic photo flash capacitors whined, recharging from an alkaline battery.

Chip looked through the window all around The Exterminator, under the turret. He nudged Herbie away and crashed the party.

===

The doors splintered and caved in, and The Exterminator rolled into the dead silence. Though she was still balanced on his lapels, Widget and Fat Cat watched as the unstoppable juggernaut moved slowly in, turret flicking from side to side. One of Fat Cat's rats tossed a chair at it. The furniture bounced harmlessly away, and the rat was soon covered with a deluge of rubber cement from the nozzle on front. He fell over and rolled, gathering other henchmen into a single pile, like some snowball rolling downhill or a black hole gathering matter.

Fat Cat and Widget's eyes met.

"Truce?" suggested Fat Cat.

"Okay by me," agreed Widget.

"GET IT!" Fat Cat cried out, dumping Widget to the floor.

"TAKE COVER!" yelled Jürgen, who had a better grasp of the situation.

===

The events which transpired within the next few minutes would go down in history as the Battle of Casino. If half the rodents who claimed to have been eyewitnesses had indeed been present, then a simple calculation shows there would have been no room in Fat Cat's for the fight to take place. Like a Monitor ironclad unleashed against a wooden fleet, The Exterminator moved slowly about, invulnerable to thrown furniture, spreading fear, panic, and a thick layer of glue. A quick spray of WD40 under the skirting dissolved the rubber cement and prevented The Exterminator from becoming a spider trapped in its own web. The sucker dart / taser made quick work of any opponents large enough to pull free of the sticky mass. The solid armor was invincible, even against the impact of a one-pound hammer dropped from the ceiling. Soon, Fat Cat's minions were immobilized by the cement, or shocked into unconsciousness. The Exterminator commanded a field of fire covering most of the room, and the only opponents left were behind tables at the walls. It ruled the dance floor.

By an odd coincidence, Fat Cat, Mr. Calvert, Jürgen, and Widget had taken cover behind the same overturned table. Jürgen watched the melee and gave commentary, while Widget calmly groomed her ears and Fat Cat's blood pressure skyrocketed.

"Okay," Jürgen said. "That lizard has just been knocked out by the dart. I think I saw his skeleton for a moment while the current was flowing. The hedgehog has grabbed a table leg. I think he'll make it because the dart isn't ready to be fired... wait, the panzer is going in reverse and to the side and... " Jürgen's impassive narration was blocked by a loud crash, "Yes, the hedgehog has tripped over the wire and has landed on a roulette table, breaking it..."

Behind another table, two crewmen had found a mop. One put the mop on his head, batted his eyes, and blew kisses at Mr. Calvert. The other pointed and laughed. Mr. Calvert realized he would never live this down.

"So what are you hiding for?" Fat Cat hissed.

"I'm not hiding," Mr. Calvert said, stunned into a defense. "I am in a position of defilade."

It was becoming clear that Fat Cat's few remaining minions longed to be in defilade as well.

"You said truce, not alliance," Widget said mildly. "It's not my casino."

Fat Cat ground his teeth.

"Shutting off the elevator was a good move," Jürgen remarked. "It's restricted to this level, at least. They'll have to leave the vehicle behind to go up the stairs to rescue their friend, but then again, there won't be anyone on your side left to exploit the advantage, except for the porcupine upstairs."

"You need reinforcements," Widget said with a smile.

"What. Do. You. Want?" Fat Cat hissed, slowly.

"One of the Rangers," Widget said immediately.

"We can offer a swap and then kill 'em both," Fat Cat suggested.

"I don't want to lie to them," Widget shook her head.

"Oh, you're Byronic?" asked Fat Cat, mildly disappointed. "Well, destroying one of the Rangers is a step in the right direction, and the one I caught is the most expendable to them... so yes, I agree. What's your plan?"

"Lever it over with table legs?" Widget suggested to Jürgen.

Jürgen frowned. "Tricky and risky... but I think it'll work."

"Begging your pardon, ma'am," Mr. Calvert coughed. "I took the liberty of sending Mr. Fenton for three Recoilless teams when you jumped on the cat."

Jürgen and Widget smiled at him. "Well done, Mr. Calvert." Mr. Calvert realized he probably would live down the incident earlier in the evening. Six mice from Albacore trotted in through the front door: three carried .22 Darned Nearly Recoilless Rifles; three carried backpacks of .22 rimfire. They split up to find cover.

"It's steel. Too much risk of ricochet," Widget decided. "We need to get it outside."

A small, pathetic drip of glue dribbled out of the nozzle.

"Golly, Chip," came Gadget's voice from The Exterminator. "We're out of glue!"

Widget perked up. "My sister's in there," she cried out.

Uh-oh, thought Fat Cat. Scratch one alliance.

"You're right, Gadget," yelled Chip. "We had best beat an ignominious retreat!"

Widget's ears flattened, and she threw a fist into the air. In a deep, throaty voice she cried out:

"FIRE!!"

To Fat Cat, the triple reports of three rifle rounds and the screaming vwipp they made as they ricocheted about his casino shattering everything that wasn't already broken were merely dull, anticlimactic echoes to the fire and feral rapacity of the figure who unleashed them. He was almost unaware of the damage to his walls as he stared at the berserk and furious form of the Gray Mouse.

"Could this be ... love?" he murmured aloud.

One of the shots missed The Exterminator entirely. The other two careened off the die cast steel. Most of their energy canceled out, but there was enough left that the impact lifted the vehicle and spun it around, ironically pointing at the trashed front door.

The Exterminator wobbled for a moment, as Chip recovered from the incredible noise. Neither bullet was able to penetrate, but paint had been stripped away and two deep dents added to the casing. Chip put the pedal to the metal and drove to the exit. Definitely, he had outworn his welcome.

The Recoilless teams were reloading as fast as they could, but The Exterminator was already out the door. Determined, Widget leapt from cover and went after it. Jürgen muttered a curse and went after her.

The Exterminator was halfway across the street by the time he got out. She was standing on the curb, watching it with a determined expression. A Recoilless team was at Jürgen's heels. The shooter dropped to one knee.

"Give it here," Widget ordered, holding her hand down without looking. She took the weapon onto her shoulder, went to one knee, and aimed for a long time. These won't penetrate the armor, she thought. Maybe...

She fired. The round bounced off The Exterminator's turret and went off into the night. The Exterminator flipped over, base towards them.

She let herself smile and handed the weapon back. "Hit it high to knock it over," she said. "You need a long lever arm to generate torque."

The hamster nodded, impressed, holding it steady as the Gray Mouse darted off and his loader went to work.

"What's torque?" he asked.

"The blonde guy in The Monkees," his loader explained.

"I'll never understand engineering," he sighed.

Chip pulled the ejection lanyard.

A B6-2 rocket engine will lift a chipmunk 300 feet into the air. However, as Chip realized as ejection seat started to fire, it needs to be in an upright position. Chip's ejection seat skidded across the street, striking sparks, as Chip went ouchieouchieouchie. Then it hit the sloped part of the far curb, which sent him up into the night sky.

Chip's ejection seat reached apogee. A parachute popped out -- only to be snagged by a hook let out the back of the swooping Ranger Wing. The two loaded Recoilless teams fired at the plane, one hitting the left wing. "Load bird shot," Widget called out before running around to the other side of The Exterminator.

"She's not in the chair," Jürgen said. In horror, he looked at the toppled toy. Widget was peering through the top.

"I don't see her. Perhaps her body has been rendered charred and unrecognizable," she said hopefully.

Jürgen walked around behind her. Leaning past her, he pressed the Play button on a memo recorder.

"Golly, Chip," came Gadget's voice. "We're out of glue!"

Widget looked slowly up at Jürgen.

"We caught one," Jürgen said, counting on his fingers. "One in the panzer. One, at least, to fly the plane."

"--Leaving two to rescue their friend," Widget finished. They looked back at the casino.

"We've been Rommelled," Widget concluded.

Chapter Fourteen : Meeting Engagement

Monty pulled Chip into the Ranger Wing as they sped away from Fat Cat's on autopilot.

"We're going in the wrong direction," Chip pointed out. "Gadget and Dale will be on the roof."

"It's no good, mate," Monterey corrected him. "Left vertical blade's been hit. We can't hover or land vertically until it's fixed."

"Then we need to land in water," Chip said, aghast. "No, we don't have time. I'll crawl out on the wing while you hold it steady."

===

Dale stared up at the porcupine, who was looking down at him and grinning.

"I think it's only fair to give you a chance to surrender," Dale cautioned him.

A popular office doodad of some years ago was a set of five or so steel balls, each on a trapeze, set into a frame. When one ball at the end was swung, it would strike the other balls and, in a demonstration of conservation of momentum, would sent the far ball swinging on its trapeze.

One of these steel balls swung down from Gadget's Ceiling Crawling Suctionmobile and struck Prickles firmly on the back of his head. In a demonstration of conservation of momentum, his unconscious body slid a considerable distance.

"Good to see you," Dale said, tail thumping. Zipper buzzed a greeting. Gadget removed the straps holding her in a face - down driving position, and dropped gently to the floor. She took out an X-Acto knife and cut through the table cloths tied around Dale.

"Good to see you," she agreed. "You okay?"

"No problem. Say, how are you going to get back up there?" he asked, looking up at the Suctionmobile. It ran on four wheels, each with six suction cups along the rims. The ceilings at Fat Cat's were, understandably, high, and by clinging to them it was possible to move anywhere unnoticed.

Gadget looked up, uncertainly. "Oh, shoot."

===

"Mr. Calvert. Break the men into three squads, each with a Recoilless team. One to hold this floor, one on the roof, one in ambush outside if they go out the windows." Widget was already halfway to the elevator. "I'll stay with Widget."

"What widget, sir?"

"It's her name."

"Oh. Do you want a bodyguard, sir?" Mr. Calvert was clearly worried.

"You can't spare the manpower... get more reinforcements, use them to search the building."

"Sir."

Jürgen barely caught up with Widget. "You should wait downstairs," he complained.

"She'll slip through your fingers," Widget shook her head. "She's halfway out the building already. She doesn't intend to go downstairs. That pepper pot was a distraction. She's going up. My sister thinks with wings, she does," she murmured.

"That's why I'm sending a group to hold the roof," Jürgen explained. "But if she's that far ahead of us, she's already gone."

Pink eyes regarded him steadily. "Then there's no harm in my going ahead, is there?"

Jürgen leaned against the walls of the elevator and sighed in frustration.

===

Zipper undid the last strap on the cylindrical device fastened to the now inaccessible Suctionmobile. It dropped into Gadget's waiting arms. "Thanks, Zipper," she said. "Please scout around a little." The plucky fly saluted and was off. "Dale, we have to get to the roof. The Ranger Wing will meet us."

"Right," Dale agreed. "What's that, Gadget?"

It was a large-capacity disposable cigarette lighter which she held horizontally, the top facing away from her. A sliding handle was attached to the thumb gear. "It's a little short ranged, but it should be good enough," she evaded cheerfully.

Zipper came back at high speed, and started buzzing frantically.

"Widget's coming?" Dale echoed, shocked. "Gadget, let's go!"

"How many with her?" Gadget asked instead.

===

Widget paused before turning the corner. She sniffed. "Do you smell victory?" she asked Jürgen curiously.

"Flammenwerfer!" Jürgen snapped.

"No," Gadget corrected. "Flame thrower. Jürgen, get out of the way."

"Gadget," Dale said, horrified, "What are you doing?!"

"Finishing this! Jürgen, get out of the way!"

"I absolutely will not!" he snapped, trying to hold Widget behind him. "Widget, verschwindet!"

"Jürgen, I'm warning you-"

Dale heard a scream from Widget that seemed to stab into his ribs. For a moment, he thought Gadget had actually fired. Instead, Widget had jumped, kicked off the wall, and was -

-- flashing in like a leaping cat -

Sparks flew but Gadget was shifting her aim while trying to start the flame thrower. The fluid didn't light.

Widget threw her cloak over her sister's head. Her left arm was drawn back, fist touching her right shoulder. A spring released, the arm snapped like the arm of a mousetrap, connecting against Gadget's cheekbone. As her stainless steel fist moved left, Widget lifted her leg and turned right, catching Gadget's knee and throwing her to the ground.

Ironically, the padding of Widget's cape probably kept Gadget's skull from cracking. When she hit the ground, she instinctively rolled towards Widget. Widget was on one foot, the other drawn back to kick. Widget went over.

They rolled to their feet and faced one another, separated by the width of the hall.

Gadget screamed and jumped, slamming her slightly bigger sister against the wall. They clenched, going for one another's eyes with their right hands. Widget's left arm slowly coiled around her sister's waist, squeezing her, slowly tighter and tighter.

If Gadget had been thinking more clearly, she would have thought about leverage and power: the less speed, the more force. Widget's arm could have cracked ribs or even her back if it tightened. As it was, the only machine she could think of was the X-Acto knife in its sheath.

Her left hand brought it up, and forced it against Widget's waist, aiming below the ribs and up.

The tip snapped off.

Widget laughed. "I get all my fabric from DuPont."

Widget's left arm was driving into Gadget's back, lifting her off the ground. Gadget kicked against the wall, sending them both crashing down - onto her.

"Hold it!" Dale yelled, flame thrower pointed at them.

Widget flashed him a look. "Go ahead!" she hissed. "Do us! Go ahead!"

Gadget was starting to have trouble breathing. Widget held her left wrist, trying to twist the knife out. Gadget's right hand gripped Widget's ear firmly, and drove her head into the floor.

Dale turned the flame thrower on Jürgen, who flinched back. "Let go NOW, Widget!"

"I'll break her back," Widget hissed.

Dale grabbed the flame thrower's slide with a trembling hand. Jürgen, eyes terror-stricken, stumbled backwards against the wall.

"Okay, okay," Widget surrendered. She let Gadget go, stepped backwards away from her. They stood a moment, gasping for breath. Then Widget's glance went to Jürgen, and Gadget's knife flashed. Widget threw herself out of the way, but the knife slit an ear.

"Gadget!" Dale yelped.

Widget pressed a hand to her ear. "Princess," she hissed.

"Slot machine," Gadget hissed back. A drop of blood gathered at the top of the knife and splattered on the floor.

Jürgen ducked away from Dale, grabbed Widget by the upper arms. "Not here," he snapped. "Not now! You're too - important - to die for this!"

Widget stared at him, gasping for breath.

"They have a flame thrower!" he reminded her.

"You guys move back," Dale quavered. "Gadget, let's go!"

The blood on Widget's face showed in stark relief against her white fur. Trying to look languid, she reached down to pick up her cape, turned her back, and walked so quickly Jürgen had trouble keeping up.

"They'll bring others," Dale pointed out.

Gadget had taken the flame thrower back. She was limping on her right leg, and her cheek was starting to swell up. "I almost had her, Dale," she said. "I almost had her. I'm sorry!"

"For what?" he asked, flabbergasted.

"If she kills you," Gadget said simply. "She doesn't care if you get in the crossfire. When Jürgen blocked me, I should have -"

"-Been more like her?" Dale asked.

Gadget didn't answer. Instead, she opened a door leading to an office.

===

Chip was still struggling on the wing. The rubber band which spun the vertical blade had been split by a .22 bullet, and he was trying to rig a temporary replacement out of the shock absorber on his parachute. The problem was that the Wing's horizontal speed was making the blade windmill - it was spinning overhead as he tried to fit the replacement. And to work at all, the belt needed to have considerable tension. And most distracting of all, they were being shot at.

The hole the last .22 bullet had made in the wing was under Chip's belly, and he tried very hard not to imagine what a hole in him that size would look like.

The Ranger Wing lurched. A pattern of holes appeared in the stabilizer.

"They're using bird shot, Monty," Chip yelled out.

"I know. I'll open range a mite."

They were circling Fat Cat's. Each time a shot came a little too close, Monty slipped sideways to increase the radius of their orbit. Chip gritted his teeth and pulled, slipping the new belt into place. He scrambled back into the fuselage.

"It's not going to work, Monty."

"Looks good to me," Monty objected, glancing at the propeller.

"No. The plan won't work."

"We'll wait for Gadget and Dale to reach the roof. Then we'll let them fire, and swoop in and get 'em while the bad guys reload. Why, back in Southeast Asia -"

"If Gadget and Dale go on the roof, they'll be caught anyway!" Chip's head was throbbing. "And those guys down there will probably shoot us down, and then we're no good to Gadget! The best we can do is force them to waste their ammunition on us. They know Gadget will try to leave from the roof."

Monty nodded grimly. "I think you're right. Of course, that's why we prepared the alternate escape plan."

Chip nodded. "Do you think it'll work?"

"Gadget was very confident," Monty said sadly.

Chip shook his head, despair engulfing his soul.

Chapter Fifteen : Felines

Gadget crawled out of an upper level window onto the alternate escape route.

The Hot Wheel track stretching five stories down was painted black on the bottom, to blend into the sky when viewed from below. It hadn't been easy to assemble unnoticed by the guards, but Gadget had pulled it off. She lay prone on the race car chassis sitting on top of the track, held by a single cord. Dale lay on top of her, too worried to enjoy the situation in the slightest.

"Ready?" she asked.

"No," he said honestly.

A flick of a knife and they started down. Slowly at first, then they picked up speed. Dale felt himself growing lighter. It wasn't a pleasant feeling. After any time as a Ranger, one quickly learned that being lighter meant one was approaching the ground with increasing rapidity. Speed was not a friend when approaching the ground, because it was hard to steer around that particular obstacle.

"It's fifty feet down," Dale gulped.

"Don't be afraid," Gadget assured him. "It's not quite a record for Hot Wheel track riding."

"What's the record?"

"Fifty two feet, set by Naughty Knauty at the Inn By The Falls. When he was trying to jump Wappingers Creek."

Dale nodded. He was familiar with the exploits of the darehamster and he knew the hotel; next to where Wappingers Creek went over a three foot concrete embankment. Then doubt set in. He had to raise his voice because the rattling of the track was getting louder.

"Wasn't that where he set a record for the most broken bones?"

"He set both at the same -"

At this point, Dale couldn't hear her any more, which was just as well.

He wasn't sure if he wanted to watch the sidewalk rush towards them, but he felt he would have very little time left to watch anything. There was a sharp jerk as they leveled out. They were at ground level and alive. Elation. Until he noticed how fast they were moving. The laws of physics limited their maximum speed to no more than 30 miles per hour, but this is fast when you're both close to the ground and a chipmunk. He blinked as he saw what was coming up next. He was probably missing something, but he couldn't imagine why Gadget put in a loop. He started chanting his mantra against fear: idawannadie idawannadie idawannadie omommymommymommy...

After the loop, Dale was beginning to regret not staying behind at Fat Cat's. Even after a few banked turns to slow down, they were still moving with terrifying speed. He consoled himself with the fact the worst was behind them.

"Brace yourself," she shouted. "Here's where I ran out of track."

The concrete of the sidewalk was smoother than the asphalt of the road, but less so than the plastic they were leaving behind. As a rule, Hot Wheel cars do not have good suspension. He gritted his teeth. The vibration just made them hurt worse, but it would be better than biting his tongue accidentally.

"I lay the track to keep us on this stretch of sidewalk," Gadget shouted. "Pretty clever, huh?"

"Isn't this the way to Cat Alley?" Dale asked.

"Oh, shoot."

Gadget dragged her toes on the ground to stop the car. Since she didn't wear shoes, she couldn't press hard. She and Dale got up slowly, looking around carefully. No cats in obvious sight, but it was dark - and it was their territory. Broken terrain, lots of things to hide behind, perfect for a pouncing pelagic predator.

Gadget spun about, flame thrower ready. "Something's moving."

"I don't see anything," Dale said dubiously.

"I'm telling you, something's moving and it ain't us!"

"Gadget, does the sidewalk seem, uh, furry to you?" Dale asked worriedly.

The kitten Dale was standing on flopped over and regarded the new guests with bright yellow eyes. Its head was about the size of Dale's whole body. It mewed softly.

Dale and Gadget looked at one another, in horror. Where there's kittens, there's...

Finally, Gadget saw her, past Dale. At first, Gadget thought it was an optical illusion caused by fear; then she realized the cat was so black her fur drank what little light there was; to see the cat, you had to look where light wasn't. Gadget slowly let her gaze move upwards. It was a big beast, ten to fifteen pounds, not the fat weight of a cosseted house cat but the lean muscles of a cat who was fending for herself. Fifteen pounds of hunting cat is big. The cat was sitting on her haunches, and had one paw raised menacingly. As Gadget's eyes rested on the cat's head, the cat opened her mouth; fine, sharp teeth the same white as Widget's fur flashed in the night.

"Dale," Gadget whispered, "Move slowly behind me and don't look around."

Of course, he looked around.

Dale broke into a sprint. The claws flashed down. Instead of ripping Dale's flesh, the cat snared his shirt and lifted him off the ground. Arms pinned, Dale and the cat stared at one another. He felt her hot breath on him.

"Nice kitty?" Dale asked hopefully.

Gadget slid the handle on the flame thrower smoothly, holding the weapon steady. A mighty yellow flame, eighteen inches long, roared out of the cigarette lighter. The sudden light illuminated several very startled cats, heretofore invisible. The tip of the flame brushed against the fur of a cat on a garbage can, who made the same yell Goofy makes when falling from a height and leapt away, giving the flames no chance to catch. Gadget didn't blink; she kept her eyes, narrow and hard, on the cat holding Dale.

It got her attention.

Gadget snarled. "Get away from him, you... you..." She lowered the flame thrower to cover the kittens.

The cat laughed lightly, twisting her gape-jawed Teeth of Doom into a happy, innocent smile. She put Dale down, and for good measure, patted him on the head while chuckling nervously.

The cats gave them a wide berth as they walked through Cat Alley. A few smiled at them.

"Ain't we gonna eat 'em, Ma?" asked a kitten.

"No, Mughi," his mother explained. "Hot food isn't good for you." Cats are good at saving face.

"Uh, Gadget?" Dale asked. "You were just bluffing about the kittens. Like me with Jürgen. Right?"

The Blonde Mouse smiled. Dale blanched and had nightmares for weeks.

===

Monty, Chip, and Zipper weren't able to find Gadget and Dale until they spotted Gadget's flame thrower shot. After they were picked up, Monty insisted on leaving the flame thrower behind. Gadget had not mentioned she was taking it along. This soon developed into an argument, which Gadget thought she was winning until Dale drew Monty's attention to the lump on her face. After this, Monty refused to be drawn; he was too distracted and said nothing harsher than "'Ush, Gadget luv." Gadget felt cheated of a victory when the argument fizzled.

Monty insisted on taking Gadget straight to her bed when they landed. Gadget would have put up an argument, but when she tried to stand up out of her seat she found to her surprise that sharp agony flashed through her back and leg. She dropped into her seat, not sure if she was frightened more by the pain or the sheer surprise of it. She didn't resist when Monty lifted her into his arms and carried her, or even when he tucked her in.

"Chip's gone for a doctor, Gadget luv," Monty told her. "Then 'e'll drop Dale's tape off at the newspaper. Uncle Monty's going to fix you something for dinner."

"Thanks, Monty," she hesitated. "Monty," she said sincerely, "I'm sorry I yelled at you."

Monty shrugged. "Gadget, when you get scared or you're in a fight, you do and say things you normally wouldn't. B'lieve me, I know what it's like. There was this time on Zanzibar--"

Amazingly, he cut himself off.

"I don't think I need a doctor," she complained.

"Gadget, your sister didn't tap ya in th' jaw. She 'it you in the 'ead with a motorized, stainless steel blackjack. Jes' 'cause she uses it like a hand don't change that. You ain't your Uncle Monty. You got somethin' fragile in your skull."

She laughed, and gave him a big hug. "I love you so much, Monty," she said. He held her lightly, afraid to hurt her. She buried her face in his chest and started crying.

"Aw, Gadget, luv," he said gently. "What's this about?"

"I don't know," she said, and immediately contradicted herself. "I was just thinking what it would be like if I didn't have you."

"Or didn't know your dad?"

"Or didn't know my dad."

"Who you cryin' for, Gadget?"

He tousled her hair and she grinned, suppressing a flinch when his powerful hands came too close to a bump on the back of her head. He smiled at her and walked out. She changed into her nightgown, washed her face, and went back to bed.

===

"You know the way to Gadget's room, don't you, Doctor?" Chip asked. The audio tape was still in the back seat of the Ranger Wing. "I've got to deliver this tape."

"Sure," Dr. Skinner agreed. She bounced out of the Wing, trying not to look as nauseous as she felt. She and Monty exchanged nods as she walked around the huge mouse and went into the tree.

"You'll be comin' right back after you drop that off?" Monty asked, pretending it was a question.

Chip looked up from his preflight check. "I don't think so," he said with a firm, negative shake of his head. "I have work to do."

Monty nodded, uncomfortably. He still wasn't entirely ready to admit that maybe Gadget was old enough to form connections different from and perhaps stronger than the ones he had with her. "Well, mate," he said slowly, "I think maybe you should put that off a bit. I think Gadget needs a little help tonight."

Chip's face fell blank, confused. "Yes," he said. "I know."

===

Dr. Skinner tapped her patient lightly on her lower back.

"Ouch," Gadget said.

"Did that hurt?" Skinner asked with a smile. Skinner was a white lab rat, who had attended a Human medical school. With the help of the Rescue Rangers, she had narrowly escaped being part of a lesson.

"Just a little. Kind of sharp. How am I?"

"I think you're a healthy young woman who's been well and truly worked over. But you can stay here if you promise to stay in bed for three days."

"I promise."

"I have spies. First time you leave this room, it's the hospital for you. Understand?"

Gadget grinned. "Curses."

"Ice packs for the swelling, and I'll leave some Tylenol 3 if the pain keeps you from sleeping. I've got to get going - there's been some sort of riot at Fat Cat's Casino." She grinned. "Ever pull rubber cement out of fur?"

"I'll bet it hurts." Gadget looked innocent and solemn.

The doctor grinned. "If you do it right." She shouldered her black bag and left.

A moment later, Dale knocked and came in, carrying a bowl. She smelled vegetable broth. She heaved a sigh of relief.

"Hi, Gadget," Dale said. "Thought you'd like something without cheese."

"Yes, thanks," she said, as he set up a tray. She started eating. At first, she was being polite; after a few bites, she felt ravenous. Dale sat on her bed.

"Thanks for rescuing me," Dale said.

"It's my job," she winked. "Glad to help. Thanks for stopping the fight."

"I'm glad I'm not Widget."

"I wish I were," Gadget snapped, spooning up broth angrily. "I don't know what it looked like from the outside, but Widget was taking me apart. If you hadn't stopped it, I'd be a chunky sandwich spread. As it is, I wonder how I kept going."

"Adrenaline's funny that way." Dale paused. "Why are you so angry?"

Gadget stopped eating. "Dale, she tried to kill us all."

"So have other people," he made a casual gesture. "I never saw you take a flame thrower to Professor Nimnul."

She shrugged, and started eating again.

"Of course, Nimnul's never threatened your father."

Gadget looked up. "My father's dead, Dale."

"Exactly," he nodded, pleased. "He's just memories now. Yours, other people's."

"Widget doesn't threaten my memories of my father," Gadget muttered.

"Agreed," Dale nodded easily. "That brings us back to the start. Why are you so angry?"

Gadget shrugged again.

"Gadget, you threatened kittens. That's not like you. Where did it come from?"

"I don't know," she said tiredly. "It just came out."

"You suppose you could send it back?" Dale asked lightly.

She glared at him. "Good thing it did or you'd be dead," she snarled.

"Possibly," Dale agreed. "Isn't that a picture of Widget?" he asked, pointing. "I never noticed it before."

"Where -" Gadget asked, shocked. He was pointing at a mirror. She gritted her teeth. "Get out."

"Gadget, sometimes we hate what we see in ourselves -"

"Get out!"

Dale walked over to the door obediently. He turned back and nodded, expression innocent. "It's a terrifying likeness," he chirped.

Chapter Sixteen : Hope

After the Battle of Casino, Jürgen and Widget agreed that the risk of hanging around was too great. The mere fact the Rangers had a spy following them suggested they had found proof Albacore had sunk Minuscule.

Albacore was running at a depth of two hundred feet, below a thermal layer just in case they were being hunted. They had left dock at three in the morning, and were now almost one hundred miles from shore. Widget was working on a stuck "tendon" in her left arm. Her ear was bothering her; it was bandaged but it still ached gently.

Jürgen knocked at Widget's cabin door.

"Enter," she said abstractly.

Jürgen stepped in, and his eyes showed surprise. Widget suddenly realized it was her - instead of her usual wetsuit, she was wearing an undershirt and the covering was off her left arm, showing the stainless steel workings. She felt mortification setting in: he was seeing her as the freak she was for the first time.

Jürgen had never seen her out of the black wetsuit before: what he had thought were broad shoulders or even shoulder pads was actually a support harness for the arm she had built herself. She was a bit slimmer and lighter than he had imagined, but her right arm was surprisingly well muscled; possibly from using it most of the time.

"Something jammed in my arm," she explained, weakly.

"Oh," he said, recovering. "May I?"

She felt her left arm lift of its own accord. She tried to flex her thumb, so he could see the part sticking. He watched intently and she suddenly remembered he had been a torpedo mechanic; he was familiar with delicate, complex mechanisms.

"From this angle it looks like it's rubbing against this support member," he said, taking a pen from his pocket and pointing to a tiny push rod. "Maybe some WD40 would help, or you could try to bend it back this way," demonstrating, as though the pen were a lever.

"That makes sense," she agreed slowly. He hadn't shown disgust, amusement, or pity; just a casual, low-keyed technical suggestion, as though she had a locker that squeaked. He knew what she was and it didn't change the way he treated her.

When she was younger and didn't understand that love was a sentimental lie, she might have thanked him. Like she had thanked others, the ones that taught her about life when they were done with her. "What can I do for you?"

"We're approaching the last waypoint you set. We need to know if you want to turn back to the mainland, or head out to sea."

"What's your opinion?"

"I would consider it a personal favor if you would give permission to head out to sea."

"Oh." She thought. "Well, okay, but please don't consider it a favor. It's only practical. My sister and her friends are on their guard. It might be months before they relax enough for us to strike again."

"There is that."

"And," she said, warming to her subject, "I guess that in one sense, even that would be hurting her - I mean, waiting for the sword to drop, never knowing when the piper will be paid."

"You could think of it that way," he agreed.

"Jürgen," she said curiously. "Why do you follow my orders? One word from you and the crew would toss me out a hatch. You'd have a free hand with Albacore."

"I was wondering when you'd ask that," he answered casually. "Well, first, I did give my word. My word is important to me."

"And second?"

"And second, from a strictly pragmatic aspect, there's enormous potential in you. This is the finest ship I have ever had the pleasure of commanding. Whatever you build next, I know I want to be a part of it." He shrugged.

"Thank you."

"There's a third reason, too."

"Which is?"

He half smiled. "I don't think it would be best to tell you yet."

"Why not?" Her voice was simply curious, not distrustful.

"Did I ever tell you my worst war story?" he asked, apparently changing the subject. "We were being depth charged by a destroyer - but if you ever tell this story to Monty, make it an airplane to flatter him."

"All right," she agreed, mystified.

"Anyway, we were leaking in the engine room. The electric motors had shorted out. We couldn't move. One of the torpedoes had slipped off its rack while being loaded into the torpedo tube. It rolled over both torpedo mechanics. That left one qualified torpedo mechanic aboard."

"You?"

"Me. The torpedo ran wild. The engine started, the blades started spinning. The forward torpedo room was filling with steam. Worse, this was a classified torpedo designed to self destruct after the engine ran out of fuel."

"So you were in a steam filled room, trying to disarm a torpedo in the ten minutes or so you had while the engine ran and depth charges exploded all around."

"Exactly," Jürgen nodded. "I was sitting next to a warhead with enormous potential energy, blinded by steam, working as quickly as I could and hoping I wouldn't do the wrong thing and pull the wrong wire and make it explode. Because the saddest part is, I don't think the torpedo wanted to explode where it was, not really. But it was so badly damaged, it couldn't tell friends from enemies and just might go off by mistake." He shrugged. "Mistakes happen, you know. There's more bad luck in the world than there is evil." He waited, as though finished.

"And the point to your story?" she asked, faintly.

"Be very careful around warheads," he said promptly. Then added, "No matter how you feel about them."

"And... how do you, uh, feel about warheads?"

"I was married during the war. She died in a bomber raid."

"I'm sorry."

"Why?" Jürgen shrugged. "I heard you say love is a word people use to get what they want."

"I didn't mean that you..." she said quickly. "I meant that..." she trailed off.

"That it's true when someone uses it about you?" Jürgen asked.

Widget looked down at her arm. "Thank you, Jürgen. You had best speak to the navigator."

"Permission to speak plainly, gn‰digens Fraulein."

She blinked. "Of course," she said automatically.

He stood very stiff, not awkward, but military. Not looking at her directly. "You have reason to believe what you said. I'm not denying it. But if you ever decide you're ready, I would like the honor of proving it isn't always true."

"Th - thank you, Jürgen. You had best speak to the navigator." Her heart was pounding so hard she could hear it.

Jürgen nodded politely. "Ma'am," He about-faced, and left her stateroom.

Widget took a small can of WD40 out of her dresser. Her hand was shaking so badly she couldn't use it.

She gave up, covered her eyes. Her face and ears were so hot they seemed to be burning. She was so happy it hurt.

Chapter Seventeen : Where the Socks Go

Shiro followed the Gray Mouse at a respectful distance. He was a rat who had worked for several evil megalomaniacs before, but she was the only one who was willing to come back to the engine room and talk about improvements to her own design. It had been several days since the incident at Trellis Island, and the Gray Mouse probably wanted to put aside thoughts of temporary setbacks with technical chatter. Shiro was only too happy to oblige her. Courtesy to one's boss aside, she was the only female on board, for all that he was careful to keep his behavior around her perfectly correct.

"Yes, I served on that one," he said with a smile and nod to her question. "That huge drill on front didn't really work out. The first time we used it on something harder than mud, it stopped cold and started spinning the whole ship around in the opposite direction. Never did get it to work right. Now this is what I wanted to ask you about," he said, coming to a stop before the heavily sealed door to the engine room.

Albacore used a version of the power generation system developed by the evil Professor Nimnul. While he had powered his lighting bolt throwing machine by kidnapping all the cats in the city and feeding them into a machine that rubbed them, the Gray Mouse's version used a wool sweater and flannel shirt tumbling together in a drier. The sparks flashing between the two garments allowed Albacore to cruise as fast as twenty five knots underwater, and they carried enough laundry aboard to circumnavigate the globe four times without refueling.

"Most of the ship's electronics are right behind the main generator," Shiro explained. "They're well insulated, and we have the backup bay up near the bow, but it might be safer to move these further away."

"Unfortunately, the Nimnul Effect which makes this engine practical rules that out. Nimnul was able to prove that the power of static electricity is immeasurably increased when there is delicate electronic circuitry nearby." The Gray mouse shrugged, hands out and palms up.

"I see. I wasn't really aware of the theory behind it. Although we're not as fast as a big nuclear sub, at least we can't have a nuclear accident - although I've noticed our laundry tends to be clingy."

"Static cling is the least of our dangers," the Gray Mouse intoned. "You see, what Nimnul doesn't realize, is that each spark is a small gateway to an alternate dimension. Usually that gap only permits energy to pass through to this universe; energy we can use. Otherwise, it would violate conservation of energy. But sometimes, a gap can open large enough for a physical object to pass through."

"You mean -" gasped Shiro.

"Yes, Shiro-san. That's where the socks go."

A particularly strong flash highlighted her profile in blue.

They stood in silence for a moment. It could have been pleasant, except that with the sudden quiet they both heard from behind them, in a lowered voice, "-think she's one of those lab mice-" before cutting off.

Widget pretended to pay attention to the sparks in the Nimnul reactor, while Shiro turned to give his subordinate a short lesson in The Pecking Order. Shiro gasped in shock, which made Widget spin to see what he was responding to. A young mole named Andy realized he had been overheard, and was taking a reflexive step backwards. Into part of the steering gear. Which was moving.

Widget took a flying leap across the room as Andy's foot was pulled between two large gears. Andy started to scream as the gears began to pinch the Achilles tendon in the back of his ankle. Widget came to a stop next to him. She knew she could never pull Andy out from between the two metal gears, so without hesitating she wedged her left arm between two small ones.

This gave her a considerable mechanical advantage. The steering assembly stopped moving. Andy's foot was still caught, but it was not being pulled deeper in.

Shiro was at an intercom on the far wall. He pressed a button marked with a red cross. "Station three-nine, we have a crewman with his foot trapped in machinery." Widget was next to another intercom; she pressed a button marked "Bridge."

"Hold rudder steady," she ordered. "Someone's stuck in the transmission gears." She didn't bother to identify herself - she was the only female aboard.

"Hold rudder steady, aye," came Jürgen's immediate response from the bridge.

The sharp, explosive sounds of compressed air blowing water out of the ballast tanks filled the room, then the sound of a change in speed. "Standard" to "Reverse Emergency." Pressure against her feet showed that the Albacore was rising sharply.

Shiro and Widget looked at one another steadily. Boats in mid ocean didn't simply move their rudder on a whim. Widget had hoped they had reached a waypoint, but it was now obvious they hadn't. They were trying to avoid something. Since they couldn't use the rudder to go around it, Jürgen was now trying to go up above it.

Shiro watched while the Gray Mouse tried to pull her arm out of where she had wedged it. Her arm didn't move. He flinched, but she didn't, as she threw all her weight against her left arm, popping it out from between the gears.

Albacore didn't have a doctor aboard. Instead, they had a paramedic, or "Pharmacist's Mate." He was a hamster named McKyle, who came skittering into the engineering room, holding a bag of equipment. He dropped down next to Andy and started examining his foot.

"I don't think the bone's crushed," he said. "The pressure of the gears is keeping him from bleeding much, but when we get his foot out, I can control the bleeding."

Widget nodded and hit the "Bridge" button on the intercom. "Jürgen, please count to ten and then give me rudder amidships. Count to ten again, and if I don't call you, you may resume rudder control."

"Understood," Jürgen said briefly.

Andy was tensing up.

"Andy," Widget said in her softest voice and taking his hand, "look at me."

As the rudder gear reversed and popped his foot back out, Andy screamed and gripped her hand so hard it felt like he would crush it. McKyle got to work on his foot; the smell of Andy's blood filled the room.

"You okay?" Widget asked him.

He grinned through tears. "Yes, ma'am."

She laughed and patted his hand before standing up. "We need guards on those gears," Widget said to Shiro. "I'll do a sketch tonight, we can discuss it tomorrow morning."

"Yes, ma'am," Shiro said. "Perhaps you should have your arm looked at?"

McKyle looked up. Widget touched her metal arm. "No," she said finally. "I'll take care of it myself."

"Doesn't it hurt, ma'am?" Shiro asked, worried.

"Of course it hurts," she snapped back.

===

The obstacle had been a ballistic missile submarine, very silent, probably American or British. Although a hard collision was unlikely, Jürgen had been steering to avoid hitting the enormous, slowly drifting warship's bow wave. Heading for the surface had made noise, and the skittish leviathan, perhaps thinking Albacore was a more distant Human sized vessel, had plunged gently for the depths, missing the rodent sub by a considerable margin. The Gray Mouse shook her head. She had no idea if submarines carried weapons able to attack the torpedo-sized Albacore, and she had no desire to find out.

She had fixed her left arm and was starting to sketch a guard for the steering gears. She looked at the watch that hung on her wall: it was three PM. Designing the guard was more difficult than it sounded, because the guard had to be firmly fixed to the floor, yet easy to remove for repair work. She also wanted to design the guard in such a way that it could also cover other exposed gears throughout Albacore. That way, their machine shop would only have one pattern to repeat, and they could keep anyone from stumbling into or catching their fingers in the other gears running the control surfaces of the submarine. Her pencil rolled off the table.

She frowned and looked at the three dials next to the watch: Albacore's heading, speed, and depth. They had gone from 2/3 speed to Full speed, on the surface, and the direction they were moving had changed by almost ninety degrees. The air compressors wouldn't have enough power to run at Full speed, so they weren't storing compressed air to replace what they had expended earlier. Albacore did not run well on the surface; just about the only reasons she needed to surface in mid ocean was to replenish compressed air, use the Iridium satellite telephone link, or get a navigation fix via the Global Positioning System. So, she was not surprised when someone knocked on the door to her cabin.

"Come in," she said.

Jürgen and McKyle stepped inside, and closed the door behind them. She looked up, wondering what would bring them both in. "Andy has a problem?" she guessed.

"Yes, ma'am. Andy's foot needs surgery," McKyle said, sitting on her bunk, since Widget was in the only chair. "The Achilles tendon is detached and he won't be able to use his foot until a hospital on shore operates. Worse, he's allergic to the antibiotic I gave him."

"Aren't we heading for shore?"

"Andy doesn't have enough time," Jürgen explained. "We need to call for an airplane to pick him up and fly him to a hospital."

"Well, it's always a little embarrassing when a criminal mastermind has to call for an ambulance," Widget said shrugging, "but it's justifiable in this case. Thanks for asking me first."

Jürgen hesitated. "Ma'am, this might be ... very embarrassing."

"Why?" she asked, blinking her pink eyes. She Got It. As an albino, it was physically impossible for her to get more pale than she was. "Oh, no. Please don't tell me that -"

"The Rescue Rangers are the only organization in range with a vertical takeoff aircraft able to reach us and return." Jürgen and Widget said simultaneously.

"Oh, no," Widget said. "No, no, no. Oh, spit!" she yelled, tossing her Ticonderoga #2 clear across the cabin to a cork bulletin board where it embedded itself point first.

McKyle whimpered softly. It had missed him by a fly's whisker.

"How can I possibly ask them for a favor when they're the objects of my vengeance?! It simply isn't done!"

"Ma'am, I'll handle it," Jürgen assured her. "They're usually happy to do something like this."

"So they can gloat! Fine. Just don't mention this to me again." She rubbed her temples. Her migraine was coming back.

"Thank you, Widget." Jürgen looked at McKyle, as though encouraging him to speak.

"Ma'am," McKyle said, his voice choked, as though his mouth and throat were dry. "Andy is very ill. He's delirious."

"Mr. McKyle, I appreciate your concern, but we're doing everything possible to get Andy to a hospital as soon as we can." To McKyle's grief, she started tinkering with another pencil. Like most engineers, she kept a large number of them. Sharp, too.

"He's been asking for his mother, ma'am."

"Mr. McKyle, are you asking me to come down to sickbay to hold his hand?" her voice was sharp and angry.

"Yes ma'am," McKyle gulped. "I am asking you to come down to sickbay and hold his hand."

Chapter Eighteen : A Moral Dilemma or Two

The phone rang. Monty picked it up, straining to listen over the roar of the TV, which was showing one of Dale's monster films.

"'Ello, Rescue Rangers," he said. "Jürgen? ... Well, how bad is 'e? ... Roight. Wait, let me get this down. Your GPS fix is 30.319 north, 67.816 west, course 265, an' yer makin' 20 knots. 'Scuse me one moment." Chip, Dale and Zipper were staring at him. "Guys, we got what you'd call a moral dilemma."

"A mayday from someone who was trying to kill us last week?" Chip sighed deeply. "We can't really say no, but I don't want to go charging into this. Where's Gadget?"

"She's sitting over-" Dale started, pointing at an empty chair.

The mail box they used as a hangar door opened with a clang.

"She's charging into this," Chip snapped, vaulting off the chair.

Monty was frozen. He dropped the phone and sprinted after Chip.

Dale picked up the phone. "Captain Jürgen? Dale here. Look, we're having a little conference ... would you mind if we called you back?"

A few moments later, Dale sauntered into the hangar. He carried a bowl of popcorn under one arm, and settled in to observe the conversation.

"She built a WHAT?!" Chip screamed at Monty.

"'Oming torpedo," Monty repeated himself.

"And you didn't tell us?"

"Well, I thought she was ... jest keepin' busy," Monty said lamely.

"Monty," Chip said quietly, "People write fan fiction to keep busy. They do not build torpedoes to keep busy."

"Gadget would," Dale interjected.

Monty nodded. "You gotta admit 'e's right. Gadget would."

Chip took in a sharp breath. "I concede the point."

Gliding on velvet soft wings, Foxglove, a pretty young bat who had first met the Rangers when she was a evil witch's familiar, swooped down to the tallest oak tree in the park, alighting on the landing strip. Her sensitive hearing had picked up the argument between Chip and Monty some distance off, and since she was up early anyway, she thought she would see what was going on.

Monty and Chip were arguing violently, while Dale sat and munched popcorn. "Hi, honey," she said and sat next to him, helping herself to a kernel of Dale's snack. Foxglove was never shy about the fact she considered Dale both tasty and eligible. She finished her popcorn in two bites and took a second kernel.

"Afternoon, Foxy."

"What's going on?"

"Well, Gadget's taken the Ranger Wing to respond to a mayday. Crewmole on a submarine needs to be taken to a hospital."

"And she went alone?"

"Yep. It's almost certainly a trap, because the sub's owned by an evil megalomaniac who just tried to kill us."

Foxglove started. "And she went out alone so she wouldn't endanger any of you? That's so noble."

Dale swallowed popcorn. "Well, maybe not, because she brought along this torpedo she built."

Foxglove blinked. "Gadget's going to sink a submarine that just gave a distress call?"

"It looks that way," Dale agreed.

"Isn't that a violation of the Geneva Convention?" Foxglove asked. She wasn't sure how she felt about her blonde mouse friend committing a war crime.

Dale lifted a single finger and hastened to choke down a mouthful of popcorn. "Technically, no," he explained. "While the Geneva Convention outlaws arming and attacking rescue vehicles, it goes on to specify that the owners of those vehicles must mark them clearly with one of five recognized symbols, the most famous of which is a red cross on a white background."

"And the Rescue Rangers logo is not one of these symbols. Still, that's a little ruthless for her, isn't it? Who's aboard the sub?" Foxglove asked, wondering who could spark such fury in Gadget.

"Her twin sister, Widget."

Waboom.

"Gadget has a twin sister?"

"She didn't know until last week. Monty dropped Widget into the river when she was a baby."

"He what?"

"It was an accident," Dale shrugged. "Stuff happens."

"So what are you doing?"

"Chip is blaming Monty for not telling us about the torpedo. Monty's yelling at Chip for spending all his time recently interviewing cats. Zipper is looking disgusted, and I'm explaining this all to you."

"I mean, something productive." Her voice was a little harsh.

Dale shrugged again. "Gadget took the Wing, which is faster than the Ranger Plane, which has been cut in half and is at the bottom of the bay. Zipper can't catch up to the Wing, and neither can you. If we call Widget on the sub to warn her about Gadget, Widget will shoot her down. And, of course, if it is a trap, then Gadget's justified in sinking the sub. If it isn't a trap, things get murky. The way I see it, we have a moral dilemma."

"I'm sorry," Foxglove said. "I picked a really bad day to drop in, huh?"

Dale shook his head. "About normal, I guess."

Chapter Nineteen : Chip & Dale Talk About Munitions

Dale got up. Somebody had to derail the speeding train of acrimony, and Foxglove had shamed him into it, even though it seemed like trying to stop a horse by blocking it, which is almost guaranteed to fail when you're a chipmunk.

"What I don't understand," he said loudly enough for Monty and Chip to hear, "is how Gadget expects to sink Albacore with a 14.5 round. That's gotta be smaller than the .22 bullet Widget shot at us, right?"

"No, Dale," Chip explained patiently. "That's fourteen point five millimeters and twenty-two hundredths of an inch. The 14.5 is much bigger."

"The 14.5mm is about 160 times as powerful as a .22 round," Monty added. He had been researching the 14.5mm Soviet recently. "Any bigger, an' you're a cannon."

"Twenty-two hundredths of an inch?" Dale asked with a frown. "Funny, but it looked bigger when she was pointing it at me."

"Bullets usually do," Chip agreed.

"They measure diameter, lad," Monty explained. "A 14.5mm round is about 155mm long."

"Oh. Fifteen millimeters is about like this, right?" Dale asked, holding his hands thirteen millimeters apart. "But the big round thing I saw Gadget working on was about this thick," he said, spreading his hands another ten millimeters.

"A Soviet fourteen point five millimeter machine gun round is act'ally twenty five millimeters in diameter," Monty agreed. "It's necked. The bullet is only -"

Perceiving that Dale's mind was close to a general protection fault, Chip cut in. "Dale," he asked, "Did you get the number of that sub?"

Chapter Twenty : Reconstruction

"Captain Jürgen?" Chip asked the microphone sitting in front of him. "My name's Chip. We met briefly."

"Yes, sir," Jürgen said politely. "What can I do for you?"

Chip exhaled slowly. "First, I'd like to tell you that a rescue aircraft has been dispatched. It should reach you within two hours."

"Thank you, sir."

It may open fire on you, but it'll be there... "May I speak with Widget, please? It's important, and I'm afraid it's personal."

There was a pause. "One moment, please."

Monterey, Dale, Zipper and Foxglove stood in a semicircle behind Chip. Monty was nervously drumming his fingers - watching, Foxglove recalled a moment the month before. Monty was helping Gadget stand up, and Foxy had suddenly noticed that Gadget's entire hand was smaller than two of Monty's fingers. She also recalled the affection that flowed between them; Gadget didn't need help standing up, and Monty knew it, but he couldn't resist a chance to offer and she couldn't refuse any gift from him, no matter how trivial.

"Widget here," came the voice out of the Walkman headphones Gadget had rigged as stereo loudspeakers. "I'd like to thu - thu - thank you for sending help so quickly." The grinding of her teeth was barely audible.

"You're welcome," Chip said calmly. "May I presume on your gratitude and time?"

A confused silence. "Very well," she said cautiously.

"I've found some interesting issues concerning what happened on the bridge. I'd like to share them with you."

Widget sighed. "You expect me to believe that you've uncovered startling new evidence which proves my father didn't abandon me?"

"At least hear me out."

"You have my undivided attention." Her voice turned silky. "I assume you'll point out there was no reason to abandon me when it would have been easy to kill me?"

Chip inhaled deeply. "No, ma'am, I will not."

Monty jerked, staring at Chip.

"Although that sounds reasonable, a little thought shows that's a false line of logic. Actual infanticide is very rare. What is more common, both historically and today, is exposing infants. I found some laws from Roman occupied Egypt describing adoption and inheritance rights of infants which had been exposed but were then taken and raised by other people. Today, consider the baby in a dumpster syndrome, and the stereotype of the baby left on the doorstep. Geegaw's and Monty's alleged abandonment of you is entirely typical."

"Chip," Monty started.

Dale elbowed Monty. "Give him a chance."

"So why in the river?" Widget asked dubiously.

"Why not the river? Think of Moses. You couldn't be left anywhere nearby, because an albino, one armed, newborn, female, mouse would be entirely too easy to trace. Your version of events is internally consistent and logical. In fact, it could be argued you must have been placed on a raft since your survival otherwise is so unlikely."

"What are you doin' -" Monty began.

Chip hit the cough button. "Monty, quiet!" he snapped. The anger that spilled out showed just how nervous the chipmunk was, despite his calm behavior on the mike.

What Chip did was convince Widget she was speaking to someone who would at least try to keep close to the truth. Which was essential for what Chip was trying to do.

"All right," Widget said guardedly. "What's the catch?"

"The catch is that what you know supports two opposed scenarios. First, yours, that your father abandoned you and Monty was an accomplice. Then, mine, that Monty's description of how it happened is correct and that it was a horrible accident."

"You just admitted Monty's is yours," she said with a smile.

"Should I insult your intelligence and deny it?" Chip pointed out. "I know Monterey and I cannot imagine him helping a friend expose a daughter. He would have adopted you first. Even granting that he's changed down the years, he would not lie about it now, not to me, and certainly not to you. In my opinion, the Monty I know would accept responsibility for his past actions."

"So we've reached an impasse." Widget's hand hovered near the hangup button. Then she remembered the rescue aircraft might be recalled - Andy needed these people, and she owed it to him to be polite to Chip.

The possibility he was stalling for time occurred to her - only to be dismissed. There wasn't any reason to lie to keep them surfaced, when they knew Albacore's course, speed, and position.

"Have we? Let's consider what we both know: you fell into the river."

"I was thrown into the river." Her voice was cold and angry.

"With all respect ma'am, that is an assumption. The fact is you were in the river. Do you agree?"

There was a long pause. "Yes, I agree."

"And, in fact, the only real difference between your falling in the river accidentally and being thrown into the river is the intent of the person who did it?"

Widget frowned. She felt as though she was wandering into a trap, but she couldn't see it. "Yes, I agree."

"That's where we disagree, ma'am."

Widget blinked. "What?"

"Imagine yourself in Geegaw's position - assuming it was an accident for a moment. You've jumped into the river with your newborn daughter. Your other newborn daughter is missing. What's the first thing you do?"

Monty inhaled sharply.

"I'd look for the other baby."

"You can't find her."

"Then ... I'd warm Gadget up. Bird in the hand."

"Exactly." Chip took in a deep breath. "Ma'am, he took Gadget back to the hospital. Hospital records show Gadget was re-admitted into the waiting room about thirty eight minutes after the two of you were discharged. She is described as having some water in her lungs."

There was a short pause. "I think you'll agree, ma'am, that holding a newborn underwater would be an easily avoidable risk in the scenario you proposed. All they had to do was say Monterey and Geegaw split up, with Monty going over the bridge."

Chip waited for a response. Widget's hand clenched into a fist, tighter and tighter.

"You're lying," Widget snarled.

Chip inhaled deeply twice. Foxglove looked at him, knowing he was about to explode. Chip's temper wasn't the best.

"Ma'am, I'm aware it must seem that way to you. But please keep in mind I cannot show you the documentation. I found three doctors, four nurses, and eight former workers who either saw the incident or recall hearing about it." Foxglove blinked, astonished that Chip had not gone ballistic.

"And where was Monty during all this?"

"He was looking for you, ma'am. Everyone who could be spared left the hospital. Monty refused to change into dry clothes until the middle of the next morning. He was showing symptoms of hypothermia, and also received treatment. I have those records as well."

Widget fell silent.

"Ma'am, are you still there?"

"Yes... yes, sorry." She gulped twice.

"And then there's the matter of eyewitness testimony."

Monty frowned. "Nobody saw..." and trailed off when realization dawned on him.

Chip looked up.

"Of course somebody saw, Monterey," sounded a dead voice from the earphones. "You expect me to believe you found the cat after all these years?"

"Ma'am, cats are longer lived than mice. In addition, unlike dogs, cats tend to have small, specific hunting areas."

"They're pelagic," Widget agreed.

"Finally, ma'am, cats are not modest, and if you ask them in just the right way, they'll tell mouse stories for hours." Chip swung a memo recorder up on the desk. "The first voice you're going to hear, ma'am, is Spunky. He's a young cat who was kind enough to lend us a paw."

Chip tapped the play button.

"Wow, Mr. Mungo. I'll bet you frightened half the mice to death."

"Well, Spunky," chuckled the voice of a cat who had seen better days, "I probably shouldn't brag about it, but one night I remember I chased two mice right off that bridge. They took one look at me coming and they jumped right off. Two males, and one of them was pretty big..."

Chip hit Stop. "Mr. Mungo didn't remember the exact date, but recalls it was early summer, many years ago."

"Of course, you realize I don't believe you."

"I can understand that, ma'am. I'm prepared to meet you alone, or on your boat, with copies of the documentation." He hesitated, and licked his lips. "I'm not offended, ma'am," he lied. "I understand you have prejudices too."

Widget snapped at the phone. "You're saying I want my father to have thrown me out with the trash? You're saying this doesn't ... hurt when I think about it?"

"Ma'am, there's a satisfaction in fighting evil, especially when we win. I understand it hurts to think your father never loved you. But it also hurts to think how narrowly you missed having all that."

"Thank you, sir. I'll consider -"

"You're an engineer, ma'am. You like to see causes and results. I can understand it must hurt to think that losing your father was the result of blind chance, bad luck, like your arm."

"My father -" Widget started.

"Is dead." Chip finished. "Ma'am, he's dead, dead, dead. He never knew you, and he'll never know you. But this thing you have going with your sister - I think it's taken on a life of its own. And whose fault is that, ma'am?"

There was a long silence.

"Ma'am?" Chip asked again. The line was still open.

"Chip?" asked Jürgen's voice.

"Sir?"

"Widget's unable to come to phone just now," Jürgen said smoothly. "She asked me to thank you again for the rescue plane. Thank you, sir."

"Good bye, sir," Chip replied automatically. He hung up.

Chip rested his head and arms on the table. The tension and fear came bubbling to the surface as the chipmunk started shaking. Dale wordlessly put an arm around his friend.

"What if she didn't believe me, Dale?" Chip asked. "What if I just got her more angry?"

Jürgen hugged Widget gently, stroking her hair while she cried over bad luck and lost opportunities.

Chapter Twenty-one : In the Hands of the Blonde Mouse

Shiro cleared his throat. This wouldn't be easy to say.

"Ma'am," he said, his voice rough, "I've worked for a lot of evil megalomaniacs in my time, and I wanted to tell you that you're the first who would hold a wounded henchman's hand and let him call you 'Mommy.'"

Her pink eyes regarded him. "Thank you, Mr. Shiro," she said, her voice a little flat. "But I actually consider myself to be more of a Byronic tragic hero."

"Yes, ma'am," Shiro agreed immediately. He was too polite to point out that most of his previous employers did as well. They were standing on the Albacore's deck with ten crew posted as lookouts, and the injured mole, waiting for the rescue plane to arrive. The sea was behaving well today, and the crew was scanning about with binoculars. "Where did you learn that mole lullaby?"

"I just knew it, okay?" her voice was getting a little testy.

"Anyway, ma'am," Shiro finished, "I just wanted you to know that the whole crew knows about it -" she groaned softly "-and we all really appreciate it."

"Thanks, Shiro-san."

"Aircraft spotted, bearing two nine niner," called a lookout.

===

Gadget slipped sideways to her right, starting her attack run.

She wanted the torpedo to hit square against the side of the target, but the boat's speed would make that impossible. Instead, she would launch it against Albacore's bow port side. The Russian machine gun bullet would easily penetrate on a glancing blow to wreak havoc inside the boat.

Albacore began to slow down.

There was a litter on deck with a mole lying in it, but Gadget had expected that. What she hadn't expected was the large number of crewmen on deck with him. And the way the ship slowed down, as though presenting itself as a target.

She put her hand on the release switch.

And took it away.

She could imagine firing the weapon against a shape in the water, but not at the people she could see on deck. Maybe she had been fooling herself all along.

Her eyes swept the deck, and rested on her sister.

Well, she thought, let's get this over with. And she steered the Wing into a vertical approach.

===

"Gott in Himmel," hissed Jürgen. "That plane is armed. Ma'am, get below."

"If she's going to sink the boat," Widget observed mildly, "then I'm safer out here. Besides, she's coming in for a landing."

Widget couldn't explain her real reasons. Jürgen would object. She stepped away from the crowd, towards the aircraft. She wanted to present a clear target.

Gadget brought the Ranger Wing down, and leapt out before the blades stopped turning. Ignoring her sister, she touched the face of the shivering mole in the litter. It's real, she thought, surprised. "Let's load him up," she said briefly.

"Wait," Jürgen said. "Let's get that torpedo off your plane first."

"You'll pry that torpedo out of my cold dead fingers," Gadget hissed. "You've already shot me down once."

"We're not going to fire on you when you're carrying a wounded crewman," Jürgen pointed out.

"I wouldn't put it past her," Gadget said, pointing. "I won't launch a torpedo after picking up a wounded crewman."

"It's the easiest thing in the world to launch a weapon at a shape in the water," Jürgen contradicted her.

"Well, yeah," Gadget admitted. He's got my number.

Widget shook her head, as though in disgust. "Look, we can't waste time staring at one another's weapons."

"You have a suggestion?" Gadget and Jürgen asked simultaneously.

Widget sighed. She didn't want to do this. "Gadget's afraid to leave because we might shoot her down. We're afraid to let her leave because she might sink us. So I ride back with her. We won't shoot me down, and with me captured, she doesn't have a reason to sink the Albacore."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Jürgen interrupted, making the "time out" signal with his hands. "Remember? We sank a cruise ship last week. People are angry at you."

"Besides, I have to look at Chip's evidence," she admitted.

"Widget," Jürgen said slowly, "He's probably lying."

"Jürgen, I have to know. This all stops until I know one way or the other. Clear?"

Gadget shifted uncomfortably. She had no idea what they were talking about. Still, it was easy to guess: Chip had found, or claimed to find, something about Widget's past.

Would Chip lie about something like that? Probably, if he thought it would help me.

"At least make her promise to let you go first," Jürgen protested.

"Why? She'd lie," Widget pointed out.

"I would not," Gadget snapped, looking up angrily. For some reason, a crewmouse had asked her to autograph a video cassette labeled Mighty Mouse, and it seemed simpler and faster to comply than to ask for an explanation.

"Would too!"

"Would not!"

"But..." Jürgen stood helplessly.

"There's a mole dying here, sister," Widget finally snapped.

Gadget took a breath. "Right. Let's go." Gadget checked the straps holding Andy's stretcher in the back seat of the Wing. The crewmen standing about her blinked in astonishment, and she turned to see what they were looking at.

Widget had stepped close to Jürgen and was now kissing him softly on the lips. Jürgen was getting over the surprise, and was holding her gently. She pulled back, smiled, and touched his nose.

"I be bock," she said in a bad imitation of Schwartzmaus.

He smiled and laughed. "Promise?"

She shook her head. "You know I can't."

A second quick kiss and she was walking towards the Wing.

===

They made the first half of the trip in total silence.

"Any infection on the ear?" Gadget asked.

"Didn't even need stitches."

"Pity."

"Sorry to disappoint you. You've got a few lumps," Widget observed.

"Getting better. The swelling's down. He's old enough to be your father," Gadget heard herself say.

Widget glanced over at her. "Older men are nicer."

"They are?" Gadget blinked.

"You didn't know?" there was something faintly mocking in her tone.

"Well," Gadget said, her face starting to burn, "Some of us have certain values -"

"Some of us can't get a boy-friend," Widget chanted gleefully.

"I had a boyfriend!"

"Mommy?" asked Andy, interrupting them.

"Pardon me," Widget snorted to her sister. She turned around in her seat, and continued in a very different voice. "Honey mole?" she asked gently.

"I'm cold, Mommy."

Widget leaned against Andy, warming him with her body heat. "Better?"

"Uh-huh." The mole sighed contentedly.

"Can you sleep if I sing you a song?"

"Okay."

"Little mole, God gave to you,

lots of dirt to tunnel through.

Eat your worms, from tip to end.

Recall the Cat is not your friend.

Beware the Hawk, and tunnel deep.

But now's the time for you to sleep."

Widget remained twisted into an uncomfortable position for some time, before Andy's breath became regular. Bones creaking, she sat back down next to her sister, and folded her arms angrily.

Gadget thought. She was trying to kill you last week. Like you wanted to kill her.

Where do those sides of us come from? What makes us decide which side to show? Gadget thought back to the last few days, and knew she didn't want to live like that. Even though it was self defense.

"Where were we before Andy interrupted?" Widget asked.

"You were mocking me for my romance free lifestyle, and I was about to brag about a disastrous relationship in an attempt to sound more experienced than I am."

"I remember. You said, 'I had a boyfriend.' I suppose I should make fun of the fact there was only one, and then you can say at least you knew his name."

Gadget sighed. "I'm sorry, Widget, but I don't want to hurt you any more."

"I'm glad. I'd like to call a truce. Your Chip claims he can prove our father didn't try to kill me, and I'd like to see the evidence."

"Why does that make such a difference?" Gadget asked, guarded.

"Gadget... I don't know. I mean, I did things when I was younger. Sometimes to live, sometimes because I wanted something, or because I thought it would get me friends. And I always knew they were wrong, but I thought it was all someone else's fault I had to do them." She shook her head. Her voice was sad and tired. "You get an image of yourself, you know? But I guess it's just been me all along."

"Do you know Andy well?" Gadget asked.

"Not particularly." Widget shrugged. "He's a stoker - power plant crew."

"Then why be so nice to him? He won't remember it when he's better, he's not important enough to flatter, and nobody expects it of you."

"I don't know," Widget admitted. "It just came out."

"Widget," Gadget said, and her voice suddenly cracked, "I don't know what Chip found. But our father couldn't have abandoned you, any more than you could keep it from 'coming out.' He couldn't have done it to a stranger. If you believe Jürgen loves you, why can't you believe our father loved you? You're worthy of it."

"What..." Widget said slowly, asking the question she suddenly felt needed an answer, "What was our father like?"

Gadget smiled. "I think my earliest memory is being hugged to a bomber jacket and smelling gasoline. No matter what I did or how I felt, I always knew he would help me, even if all he could do was make me feel better. He was so proud of me."

"Bomber jacket, huh?" Widget smiled to herself.

"We had a steady stream of riffraff and out of work airmen moving through our house all the time. He spent two weeks in the Atlantic after he went down trying to fly feline leukemia medication to the Azores. Unfortunately, he was a bold pilot, and you know about old, bold pilots. I think he'd be proud of you, Widget. Because you're a crackerjack engineer, and because of the stuff that just comes out of you."

Widget grunted.

"Where did you learn a mole song?"

"I used to live next to a mole burrow," Widget explained. "I heard them every night."

"And you never complained about the noise?"

"I liked it."

"Are you still in touch with your, uh, boyfriends?"

Widget was silent for a while. "Truth be told, they were all disasters. You're probably smart for avoiding it. Jürgen, well, that just started today and I'm scared to death."

"Jürgen seems a good man."

"Would our daddy approve?"

"Golly, I never knew him to bear a grudge. I know he would have disapproved of my boyfriend. Our father was a wonderful judge of character. I always envied that in him. Did your boyfriends ever break your inventions and claim it was accidental?"

Widget smiled. "Yours too?"

"We've got other family, you know," Gadget explained.

"No... no, I didn't." Something that obvious had never occurred to Widget before.

"My mother's side, mostly. They don't approve of me."

"Why not?"

"Because nice girls don't tinker with engine parts."

Widget grinned. "You have got to be putting me on."

"Not at all. Cousin Gidget? She doesn't know the difference between a SPARC workstation and a spark plug."

Widget pounded the instrument panel and choked back laughter.

"I think I like you as a sister," Gadget finally decided.

"Uhm," Widget coughed, and looked forward, clearly nervous. "Uh, mutual."

"You know," Gadget said, clearing her throat, "maybe you should talk to dad about this."

Widget blinked at her sister. "He's kinda dead, Gadget."

"Uh-huh. Once we drop off your friend, do you wanna visit him?"

"I guess I'm free for the evening," Widget said cautiously.

Chapter Twenty-two : "I Have Met The Enemy And I Am Her."

There aren't many trees near most airports, but under one of the rare ones were two mouse sized graves. Widget was staring at them, trying to understand what she was feeling. She had never resented her mother; sometimes she even imagined that her mother would have kept her father from abandoning her. It was dark, and the graves were a little hard to see, but they were there, they were together, and while logically Widget knew they were only old holes, she couldn't escape the sense her mother was happy to be with her father.

"Mom, Dad," Gadget said. "You'll be happy to know Widget didn't die. She's here, and I think ... there's a lot to like about her."

"Uh..." Widget swallowed nervously. "Hi. Gadget, can I be alone?"

"Sure," her sister said. "Dad and I used to live in that B-25 fuselage over there. If you come in, be careful of the deadfall traps."

She turned and walked through the grass, towards the old bomber that had been her home when she was young.

"Uh, well, Mom, Dad," Widget started. "I uh, kind of thought that you abandoned me when I was a baby. You see, I'm... not much of a judge of character, and I - well, maybe I took some things people told me when I was younger too seriously. I didn't think you liked me much. That anyone could like me much. But there's someone now who loves me. And I think it's real, this time. He's, uh, an old war buddy of yours.

"Also, I've met my sister, and well... well, she's a little loopy, but I don't there's anything wrong with her a few months of therapy wouldn't cure. So, I'm beginning to think that maybe, uh, I'm the one with the problem.

"So I guess, I'm sorry I thought that of you.

"You don't know me, so maybe we have a lot to catch up on. I know Dad was really into airplanes, and Gadget's the same way," Widget smiled. "I like the ocean. I've always lived near it, and ever since I was a little girl, it sounded like a friend to me. Even when there was a storm, it never frightened me. I felt like it was showing how powerful it was, how much you had to respect it." She sat down on the grass and resumed in a more natural tone. "Sometimes I think that the ocean didn't drown me when Monty had his accident, because it knew how much I love it..."

===

"But where's Gadget?" Dale asked, worried.

Chip leveled the harpoon gun, loaded with a net dart, at the wetsuit - clad figure sitting at the grave, talking too softly for them to hear. "Let's ask her."

Dale put his hand firmly on the harpoon gun, pushing it down. "No," he said, shaking his head.

Chapter Twenty-three : Trials and Tribulations

Widget's trial quickly became a snarl of treaties and jurisdictions, with the precedents of the Count of Monte Christo, Captains Nemo and Harlock invoked to give her Byronic Hero status. When a petition from the dolphins and other cetaceans arrived (written with one of those pens that works underwater) and the builders of Minuscule dropped their suit in gratitude for the lucrative movie rights they now had, Widget was given two years of probation during which she had to abstain from committing acts of vengeance without the permission of her parole officer.

Gadget's construction of a torpedo did not pass entirely unnoticed. The Small Animals Council for Outlawing Private Ownership of Military Equipment (SACOPOME) attempted to make this an issue, but were faced with stiff opposition from the Small Animals Torpedo Association ("Torpedoes don't sink ships, water sinks ships!") and even their attempt to have Gadget prosecuted for not paying the import duty on a Russian machine gun bullet faltered when it was discovered there weren't twelve animals in the city who would agree to jailing a Rescue Ranger.

Chapter Twenty-four : Two Ways to End a Story

Wedding bells rang in joyous celebration, and all the lives touched by Geegaw Hackwrench came to town to witness the union of his daughter to the man with whom she had shared her work so long. It was, perhaps, the first time a bride wore a long sleeved black gown.

Widget stepped slowly down the aisle, her arm in Monterey's. Monty wore his old Rodent Air Force dress uniform - retailored -- and his hair was slicked back, as he prepared to give his old friend's daughter away.

"Hey, Gadget," whispered Dale. "Don't you think this bit is a little, well, sexist?" Dale wore a tuxedo with an orange and green color scheme which could be used for traffic cones, except Dale's induced nausea.

"Probably," Gadget admitted. For once she was wearing a dress of her own free will that wasn't a disguise. She had even left her goggles at home, since the colors clashed. "Still, Monty needs the closure."

Chip, in tuxedo and without a fedora, swallowed repeatedly to cover his nervousness.

The groom wore his old Kriegsmausine dress uniform, his medals exchanged for new ones which weren't as embarrassing to show in public.

Gadget looked over the attendees. The presence of her father's old (mostly bachelor) friends and the entire crew of a submarine had tipped the demographics of the event to nearly 2.3 males per female. Gadget generally preferred to be a wallflower, but tripping the light fantastic seemed unavoidable this time. She would be on the floor every dance, if it helped make her sister's wedding a success.

"The reception should be interesting," she muttered to Foxglove.

"Yeah..." the bat sighed happily.

===

Fat Cat was waiting outside the church.

Chip knew he should have been worried, but he couldn't talk himself into more than wary concern. It felt wrong. Fat Cat had no particular reason to wreak havoc on the wedding, and in any event, it was too public, too obvious for him. He held a large bouquet of roses in his hands. Chip considered swinging into action, but Widget and Jürgen took over like the efficient team they were; Widget in command, Jürgen implementing and supporting.

"Fat Cat," Widget nodded politely.

"Dear lady," he nodded. He nodded at Jürgen. "Congratulations, sir."

"Thank you," Jürgen replied.

"May I ask if you will be keeping your maiden name?" Fat Cat asked politely. He blinked. "Say, is Jürgen your first or last name?" he queried.

"Both," Jürgen replied. "My father stuttered and was too shy to admit it."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Do you have a middle name you could use?"

"Yes, but it's Jürgen."

"I was planning on keeping 'Hackwrench,'" Widget replied. "I haven't had it long and I'm not tired of it yet."

"Besides," Jürgen pointed out, "it doesn't have that umlaut. I've never been fond of my umlaut."

Fat Cat shook his head. "It's a shame you're Byronic. We could have accomplished a great deal together."

"Yes," Widget readily agreed. "It's a shame you're irredeemably evil."

"I prefer to think of it as tenacity." He offered the roses. "If I may?"

"Thank you," Widget nodded.

The roses flattened her onto the pavement. The thorns might have seriously injured her, if her wedding dress had not been made of Kevlar. Of course, any cat knows that thorns are the idea behind roses. Still, in dropping the flowers, the feline crimelord had made a mistake both honest and somewhat flattering.

===

Quickly resuscitated, Widget flipped her bridal bouquet experimentally in her hand, wound up, and fired it at her sister with the terrifying accuracy of a laser guided bomb. It was even money if Gadget would catch it or be impaled by it, when Foxglove swooped down from the rafters and scored an interception worthy of a Patriot missile battery. If you want to catch something in mid air, be a bat.

A spirited discussion ensued with Foxglove carrying the day by pointing out that "nobody said I couldn't," setting a precedent taken advantage of by Mr. Fenton as the garter was tossed. The climax of the tradition was a bit disappointing, as the membrane stretched between Foxglove's legs made it impossible to go far past her ankle, but everyone made the best of it.

Widget and Jürgen stepped out into the center of the room for their dance to what would thereafter be their song: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

"Gadget's agreed to overlook converting the layout of Albacore," Jürgen whispered into his wife's ear.

"I know," Widget agreed. "She's rearranging things so we can share one big cabin."

Jürgen cleared his throat. "Maybe we should tidy up the meditation chamber before she starts work?" he suggested.

Widget blinked. "Omigosh."

When the dancing began, Chip had more or less made up his mind to sit it out - his chances were reasonably low, and the submariners probably deserved first shot. Gadget cleared her throat, blinked at him, and grinned.

"I can't give you every dance," she started apologetically. "But I'd like to give you the first."

Suddenly worried, Chip looked for Tammy. She was being swept off her feet by Mr. Calvert, and her teenaged ego was presumably safe for the time being, despite her crush on Chip. Monty was moving out onto the floor with Tammy's little sister, Bink. Foxglove was towing Dale out, using his necktie as a choke collar. Andy the Mole had found a partner, and would presumably do his best despite the cast on his foot. At least he'd have a chance to talk with someone who wasn't aware he had been calling a superior officer "Mommy."

Chip bowed with a grin and gave her his arm. Soon Chip and Gadget were moving to the music - Veteran of 1000 Psychic Wars by Devo - and smiling at one another. Chip rested his cheek against hers, and closed his eyes for a moment although he was leading, smiling and breathing in the gentle aroma of machine oil and super glue he had come to treasure.

Well, heck, he thought. The last time was only a dream.

Pick of the Litter

77

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6

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