Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Gadget's High Wire Act
Gadget found herself standing very still a few inches into the infirmary ward. True, there was open space in front and on either side of her for several inches in every direction but the sense of security that should have given her was offset by the fact that she was in a room with at least a dozen people who had recently tried to kill her. Admittedly some of them were in plaster casts now and didn't look like they would be terrorising her or anyone else anytime soon.
She crept forwards between the rows of snoring, wheezing, occasionally burbling victims of the flood - her flood - and felt her insides tighten with fear and anticipation of certain discovery.
Gadget was almost at the halfway point when she froze in mid-step or rather mid-tip-toe. She had heard a noise and it was not the unconscious, unembarrassed sound of a sleeping inmate. It was a careful, purposeful sound, made by someone who was trying to move without making any noise at all. Someone was following her.
The noise stopped when she did.
Gadget waited for a moment, her pulse heavy in her throat and her mouth dry. The sound had stopped when she did. As a ranger she was used to reviewing her options in a single heartbeat during the heat of a life or death crisis. She could call for Bubbles and the others but that might wake an inmate. She could turn and prepare to defend herself but any sudden movement could have the same effect. If whoever was moving was trying to remain hidden too, presumably they would not risk waking the inmates by attacking her, Gadget reasoned. She began moving quietly through the ward again and the sound started again.
Gadget could feel the hairs lift on the back of her neck but she ignored them.
Someone was behind her, someone who meant her harm. She could feel it in her tailbones. In a few more moments she would be at the double doors at the end of the ward and then she would be safe. Relatively speaking, of course.
She reached the doors. Carefully she stretched out a paw and pushed against the doors to freedom.
They were locked.
Of course they were locked. It was so obvious that Gadget almost said it out loud. Had she really thought that in a prison of all places the doors that lead to a stairway that could take you anywhere in the prison, including to the back door, would be left ajar so anyone could just wander through them in the dead of night.
The sound came again from behind her.
Gadget turned slowly, expecting a guard, most probably Marion Cedar, to confront her.
It was Bubbles.
Behind Bubbles the twins stood frozen like statues as though they were children playing a party game.
They weren't going to escape. Gadget looked into Bubbles' big brown eyes and wondered how to break the news. To keep the silence unbroken, Gadget sidestepped and allowed Bubbles to try the door herself.
Bubbles arched an eyebrow and held up the key she had taken from Haggs.
Gadget could have kicked herself.
Bubbles inserted the key, which Haggs had claimed would open every door in the prison, into the lock. She turned the key and was pleased to hear a click. She tried the door with one paw. It opened, ever so slightly, but with a creak that seemed loud enough to wake the dead.
All four of the escapees winced and looked round at the sleeping inmates. No one seemed to have moved.
Bubbles turned back to the door and pushed it open a little further, her nose twitching at the smell of damp and ruin beyond. She peeked through the crack in the door and saw that in fact, all that was beyond was a short hallway with a doorway to an examining room on one side, a heavily locked door to the drugs storeroom on the other, and another pair of double doors at the end. The doors at the end had another pair of round windows and through them Bubbles could just make out the main staircase that she had told the others about. Her heart started beating more quickly. They were really going to get out of here.
Bubbles opened the doors as wide as they would go. The twins slipped through, followed by Gadget. Bubbles stepped through after them, taking care not to let the doors shut with a bang.
The escapees looked back at the long ward and the sleeping riot it contained. Together they breathed a deep sigh of relief.
"I really didn't think we were going to get out there without waking someone up." Bubbles dared to whisper.
Bubbles' heart skipped a beat. The crash of the double doors at the far end of the ward being thrown open was sudden and deafening.
"WHERE IS SHE? I'M GOING TO RIP HER HEAD OFF!"
Before Bubbles' heart had even picked up its rhythm again the first cries sounds of distress, of fear, of pleas for mercy, started from the helpless inmates.
Haggs stood spread eagled at the end of the ward, her long arms pinning the doors wide open against the cracked plaster of the walls. Her hair was wild. Her eyes were blood red and her face was contorted by a terrible fury unlike anything Bubbles had ever seen before.
"We're gonna die!" wailed the twins, hugging each other in terror.
The inmates in the beds began screaming and crying with fear as Haggs stomped through the ward, turning her head from side to side to glower at them.
"She's here! She's here too!" One of the terrified inmates cried out.
It was not until that moment that Bubbles realised that Red, against all sense, had stepped back into the ward as though to meet the enraged Haggs half way.
"Haggs will tear her to pieces!" Bubbles breathed in horror.
Gadget walked lightly forward to block Haggs' path. She didn't feel scared and she wasn't being brave. If pressed, she could not have told what motivated her to step into the path of Haggs' oncoming fury. It could have been instinct to protect her friends, or perhaps her time as a Ranger had conditioned her to believe that good would always win however uneven the battle.
As she advanced Gadget had heard the cries of fear from inmates on either side of the ward but did not take them in. They were background noise, something she had heard on countless rescues but which she had to ignore until she had made whatever was causing the screams to go away.
"It's HER! She's HERE!"
"She's come to get us!"
"Haggs will save us!"
Only the last cry penetrated Gadget's mind, but it did so like a knife. Her head reeled and suddenly she felt out of her depth.
HAGGS will save them? Haggs is the rescuer but I'M the monster?
Gadget allowed her head to turn towards the patient who had spoken last. In doing so she looked away from the glowering white rat.
The hamster, who seemed ready to found a fan club for the meanest guard to walk a turn at Shrankshaw on the spot, shrank beneath the bed sheets under Gadget's gaze like a child confronted by the bogeyman. While Gadget stared Haggs took three long, quick strides and took Gadget by the throat.
Gadget gasped in shock at the sudden unexpected sensation of Haggs' calloused paw at her throat, the long steely fingers encircling her, the sharp claw points at the back of her neck. The sound was cut off midway when Haggs hoisted her off the ground and dangled her, effortlessly, at arm's length. She wrapped her hands around Haggs' wrist and tried to haul herself upwards, anything so her full weight wasn't pulling her vertebra apart.
Haggs allowed her victim to draw half a breath before choking her.
Gadget's eyes bulged. Haggs' fingers dug deep and didn't yield even when Gadget clawed at them. Worse yet, Gadget could feel there was yet more strength in them that Haggs had was holding in reserve.
Bubbles was running forward, shouting. Gadget couldn't make out the words for the sound of blood rushing in her ears. The already darkened infirmary ward was turning black. Then Bubbles hurled herself at Haggs and burring her elbow in the white rat's jaw with her full weight behind it.
If the blow had been aimed at someone Bubbles size, they would have been sent flying. All Haggs did was take a half step back and turn her head to glare at Bubbles instead of Gadget, so Bubbles began to pull and claw at Haggs' uniform instead.
"Get your paws off her!" She shouted. "Leave her alone! She's my friend!"
Haggs put her other huge paw over Bubbles' face to silence her then shoved in one smooth moment. Bubbles fell hard and slid two inches across the highly polished floor before she came to rest.
Gadget felt herself begin to pass out. She kicked at Haggs in the hope it would make the rat drop her but it was like kicking the trunk of a tree. Was Haggs really that strong or was her own strength giving out through lack of air, she wondered? Blue lights were flashing in front of her eyes and she was loosing strength in her arms. She couldn't think of any way out of this. Not with the situation so simple and so overwhelmingly stacked against her. Either Haggs would kill her here, now, or the others would distract Haggs long enough for the more able-bodied inmates in the ward to tear her to pieces.
Then she remembered - Bubbles still had the knife.
Still on the floor a little way from Gadget, Bubbles had also remembered the knife. In fact, she had almost impaled herself on it and her hand had reached for it at first not as a weapon but to see how back the damage was.
Now she turned it over in her hand looking at the smudge of blood on the point and thinking how that blood might mingle with Haggs'. She had plenty of reason to hate the guard without Red's life hanging in the balance but murder would be a new trick for her. Did they still microwave people for that? You couldn't hang someone properly when they were the size of a mouse; there wasn't enough weight in the body to break the bones, which was probably the only thing that had kept Red twitching this long.
Back at the end of Haggs arm Gadget was contemplating the same idea. As much as she shrank from the idea of anyone killing for her, it was beginning to sound better with every missed breath of precious air. Would she herself be an accomplice in the eyes of the law? Would it count as justified homicide because Bubbles was saving the life of a wrongly imprisoned Rescue Ranger? Gadget pictured her friend strapped into a chair made of microwave safe materials and wondered if she would fare any better in court a second time around, even now she had experience.
Bubbles stood up with tears in her eyes and the knife clenched in tightly in one hand.
"Let her go." Bubbles ordered.
"Who's going to make me?" Haggs asked, her eyes on Gadget's face watching for the moment they saw the great black chasm at the end of life and nothing more, but not seeing the knife in Bubbles' hand at all.
She saw a blur of moment in the corner of her eye, moving faster than she had thought possible for McGee. Then something struck her and she saw nothing at all.
Bubbles McGee watched Haggs' eyes roll up into her skull and her huge body fold like a deckchair. The big rat's grip had given out before her legs, dumping Red unceremoniously onto the floor. She made more noise hitting the ground than Haggs did and even found enough air from somewhere to squeak when she landed on a well padded but sensitive portion of her anatomy.
Standing on the opposite side of Haggs to Bubbles was Sheila, the white mouse who had tried to fight Red and Bubbles with the very same knife Bubbles was now holding, though that seemed about a hundred years ago now. Sheila clutched the lower half of a rat-sized crutch with both hands. The top half had broken off when she hit Haggs over the head with it and now Sheila surveyed the results of her handiwork with satisfaction.
From the floor, Red gasped for air.
Sheila took a deep breath. "I get to come with you, agreed?"
Bubbles nodded, mutely grateful for being saved from becoming a murderer as well as for her friend's life.
"Are you all right?" Bubbles asked Red without taking her eyes off Sheila.
Red answered with a low squeak.
"Did you land on your tail?" She asked, wincing at the thought.
"I wish I had, it might have broken my fall!" Red replied, hoarsely.
Sheila chuckled at that and Bubbles allowed herself a wry smile, too, before she helped Red to her feet. Red seemed shaky but that was hardly surprising given what she had been through. Perhaps, Bubbles thought dryly, this shock to the system was what Red needed to make her drop her weird Gadget Hackwrench fantasies
Gadget was grateful for two things. The first was the shoulder of her friend, Bubbles, which she was leaning on as she struggled towards the door. Without that, she doubted she would be up to walking. The second was that the patients were all too terrified to so much as get out of bed, let alone cause any trouble. She was in no condition for another fight and wouldn't be until she got her breath back, which might take some moments.
"Crazy girl, crazy girl." Bubbles muttered as she helped her along. "What made you try to face off against Haggs like that?"
"Thought I could slow her down." Gadget rasped, still clutching her throat with one hand.
"Yeah, right. For the two seconds it would have taken her to tear you limb from limb." Bubbles looked at her sideways. "Isn't Gadget Hackwrench supposed to be smarter than that?"
Gadget gave a chuckle that sounded more like a cough. "I'm beginning to think intelligence is overrated, it always seems to get me into more trouble than it gets me out of."
Bubbles looked at her doubtfully. "Taking on Haggs one on one wasn't smart, Red."
"You said we had to be quiet. If there was going to be a fight, we couldn't have it near the stairwell, because the noise would carry to the whole prison, right?" Gadget explained.
"But the prisoners in the ward?"
"They were already awake, so more noise in the infirmary wouldn't make things worse. There was going to be a fight one way or another and since they've feared and hated Haggs a lot longer than me and she's their natural enemy, I knew it was a choice between fighting them or her. I'd rather fight one big someone than a whole crowd of regular sized people." It sounded logical to Gadget, anyway.
"I should have known it would take more than Haggs strangling you to stop you talking." Bubbles lamented.
"We won't have long." Sheila interrupted them. "Can you lock the door behind us?"
"Yes, but it won't hold Haggs for long. Not if she was able to bust out of one of the solitary cells." Bubbles handed Gadget over to the twins and turned to secure the doors. What she saw gave her pause.
Several of the other inmates had risen from their infirmary beds and were standing around the unconscious Haggs in a loose, widely spaced circle. What Red had said was true, Bubbles reflected. Haggs had been hated and feared by a great many people since long before Red showed up. Scores would be settled tonight. Silently, she closed the infirmary ward doors and locked them with Haggs' silver key.
"We're already close to the top of the prison." Bubbles told the others. "Let's try to make good time before Haggs wakes up. When she does, I think we can forget about keeping quiet because the whole prison is going to hear her."
On either side of Gadget, the twins were clucking in concern.
"That was very brave." The one on her left said.
"Very, very brave." The right one added.
"And stupid, of course."
"Yes, very stupid. But brave."
"I think I'm starting to get the shakes." Gadget said as they helped her through the second set of doors on to the staircase.
One twin looked at the other. "Do you think? Just this once?"
"To make her feel better? Why not?"
"What-" Gadget didn't have time to finish the question.
"Big hug!" the twins chorused.
"Eeep!" Gadget barely had time to squeak before she was engulfed from either side by an outpouring of mousy affection.
"We really don't have time for this." Sheila complained.
Gadget found she could only struggle free by ducking under their arms and then side stepping out from between them. In addition giving Gadget a closer look at the twins' anatomy than she was comfortable with, it left the pair hugging each other instead of Gadget. It was some moments before they realised. When they did they turned their large eyes on her and blinked soulfully in unison.
"I'm really feeling MUCH better!" Gadget squeaked awkwardly.
"Hey, keep it down will ya? We want to get as far as we can before they all start chasing us." Bubbles told them.
Gadget had almost stopped blushing by the time they reached the top of the staircase. Below them was a square shaft of dirty grey light that dropped away into the bowels of the prison. The staircase they had climbed spiralled around the walls up to the point where it met the perfect black square of the airshaft from the human prison above. A thick cord hung out of the dead centre of the airshaft, a number six fishing hook hanging on the end.
"That must be part of the block and tackle they use to lift stuff up and down the shaft." Bubbles pointed to it. "But how do they get up there from here?"
The problem was they had come to a flat platform about six inches square with no safety rails on the side towards the shaft and there was no visible way of getting any higher.
"Do you think they're using a simple winding mechanism at the top of the shaft or some kind of counterweight?" Gadget asked absentmindedly.
"Who cares? We have to find out how they get up there to lower stuff down and we have to figure it out fast because we are at the top of a long staircase with nothing below it but lots of guards."
Gadget looked at the lifting tackle for a moment. "Perhaps they don't."
"Perhaps they have one crew working here to receive whatever is being lowered and another crew up at the top of the shaft who get there another way. Through the human prison up top, for instance." Gadget explained.
"Are you saying we're trapped here?" Sheila demanded.
"Well, it is a prison " Gadget pointed out.
"I slugged HAGGS and you guys don't have a way out of here?" Sheila's voice rose, as did her temper. From her expression, she didn't much care if the whole prison overheard her.
"There must be a ladder on the side of the airshaft, or a freight elevator. Something!" The note of desperation in Bubbles' quieter voice cut through Sheila's tantrum like a knife.
Everyone craned their necks to look for a way to climb higher. Gadget looked at the hook and lifting gear. Then she looked at a small electrical cable that ran down the side of the shaft to an electrical box behind the platform they were standing on.
"What about that box?" Gadget asked.
"We're looking for a way to get up that ventilation shaft, not somewhere to hide knickknacks, Red. Get with the program."
The box was made of metal, coated in a paint that Gadget knew from experience was non-conductive. There were no dials, buttons or switches visible because the front of the box was fitted with a heavy door and a strong lock.
"I think this is a control box for the lifting gear." Gadget said.
"Red, we're in trouble here. We need everyone to pull their weight, get it?" Bubbles scolded.
Gadget wondered if this was how Dale felt when he had something to tell everyone and no one was willing to listen. She resolved to give every one of Dale's hair-brained ideas a fair hearing from now on; after all, everyone listened to her when they thought she was Gadget!
Gadget nodded to herself, having both settled on a course of action and protected a long cherished illusion.
"If this box controls the lifting winch, I bet that could lift the weight of all of us." She said brightly.
Everyone turned back to look at her, their eyes appraising her. Gadget smiled back at them and waited for someone to say something. No one did. Slowly, she began to see there were just two possibilities: either she really was stupid and just couldn't see the flaw in what she had suggested, or she had finally said something smart enough to make her friends realise "Red" wasn't so crazy after all and therefore must in fact be Gadget Hackwrench, a person that a group of convicts, such as themselves, might well want to throw off a suitably high place, such as this platform they were all in fact all standing on right now.
Gadget found herself waiting, with great interest, for someone to break the silence.
One of Bubbles' paws clenched into fist. Her eyes were glassy.
Gadget held her breath.
"Good work, Red! That's brilliant!" Bubbles punched the air in triumph.
"It's locked and I don't think Haggs' key will open it. It's a box not a door." Gadget sounded almost defensive, as though protecting Red's sterling reputation as an idiot.
"So we pick the lock."
"Haggs still has my lock-pick."
Bubbles smiled and winked at her. "She doesn't have mine."
Gadget's jaw dropped.
"Yours? Wait, you have a lock-pick? No, wait, how can you have a lock-pick? I mean, in here? I mean, the search? Where could you hide ?" Gadget trailed off weakly.
Bubbles smiled at her.
Gadget felt her eyes grow wider and wider. She knew her expression was a perfect picture, the memory of which Bubbles would doubtless treasure for years to come. After enjoying herself a moment longer, Bubbles put her out of her misery.
"I'll give you a clue." She said kindly. "It doubles as a hairpin. For my hair."
The large number of nocturnal animals meant that there were more people about in the park after dark than in daylight when the diurnal animals were hiding from the humans. Lawhiney tried to look nonchalant as she searched for the Ranger's hidden garage, which, as Gadget, she was supposed to already know the location of. She found it more by squinting at the path worn into the grass between the tree trunk and the garage by the Ranger's feet.
She found the garage under a thick bush that had been carefully cultivated to hide anything of interest from human eyes while still looking as wild and natural as possible. The garage door was fitted with a Gadget original lock. A human made digital watch with a built in calculator was glued to the door. Two wires ran from it to a carefully drilled hole in the door. Lawhiney didn't need her old technical expert, Laurie the mole, to tell her that it was a combination lock. She surveyed the device for a moment and then reflected that if there was one thing that living in Gadget's shoes had taught her, it was how people got by when they had to live in close proximity to a caffeine-fuelled, mechanically crazed mouse and her inventions.
As she suspected the glue and the watch lifted without the slightest problem; someone had used a piece of sticky-tape as a hinge. Underneath someone had pinned a note that said "Kick Here" and drawn an arrow that pointed straight down.
Lawhiney balled the toes of her foot and kicked like someone who knew how to fight dirty. The garage door swung open so fast she had to jump back. Sitting inside, crouched in the darkness like a big, friendly spider in primary colour makeup, was the Ranger-mobile, Lawhiney's ride to freedom.
A few moments later a few of the nocturnal denizens of the park witnessed what they thought was Gadget Hackwrench driving the Ranger-mobile out of the park on what they assumed was a private mission of mercy. They knew it couldn't be a rescue since she was plainly, to their dark adjusted eyes, riding solo and it was far later than that nice Hackwrench girl was normally seen out and about, which was a shame, they would say later for anyone who asked.
Lawhiney found the dirt track, away from the human paths, that the Rangers usually used to exit the park with a little searching. As soon as she was clear of the Ranger's tree and their neighbours, she turned on the lights and opened up the throttle. She soon discovered that Gadget, for all her faults as an inventor, was an excellent mechanic and that the Ranger-mobile had an impressive turn of speed.
In the cool night air, with the wind in her hair and the darkness covering her, Lawhiney felt free. Free of the law. Free of the Rangers. Free of Geegaw. She felt the wind against her face for the first time in weeks and with it she knew that she was leaving everything that had happened in that time further and further behind her.
She had been driving for ten minutes at a little over twenty miles an hour, which seemed a lot faster to a mouse girl with only an inch and a half of plastic and air between her rump and the tarmac than it might to a human being surrounded by metal and generous upholstery, when she saw the cryptic but well understood markings that marked a false storm drain cover that was actually the entrance to the nearest small animal expressway. Lawhiney took the turning, quietly trying not to think about the street-gangs and blackmailers who occasionally put the same marks up over real storm drains, like everyone else of her size who found themselves driving somewhere they weren't use to.
The storm drain led to a normal rodent speedway that had been built along the roof of the human storm sewer, wide enough for two lanes of traffic each side, a regular interstate freeway by small animal standards. She followed the speedway to the edge of the city, heading towards the docks. The speedway would only take her so far then the rest of the way would be on the surface, along dirt tracks and the sides of human roads, but that was the way she liked it because she had some thinking to do.
An hour later, at one in the morning, Lawhiney turned off the speedway and drove out into the night. The air was colder now and there was a light mist that made Lawhiney wish for a pair of Gadget's goggles. She was alone on a dirt track road that ran through the darkened autumn woods on the edge of the city and finally had room to think.
Away from the Ranger HQ the events of the last two months seemed like a long nightmare, a fever dream brought on by too much fast living. She remembered the moment in the hospital when Ratigan had been late for his appointment with her. For a moment she had believed, truly believed, that there was no Ratigan, no Geegaw, no pearly gates or fiery pit awaiting her and that she had simply awoken from a bad accident with a few screws loose and a bad conscience that liked to play dress up with her imagination.
It sounded convincing now. She tried the idea on for size and it seemed to fit well. Lawhiney knew in her heart that if she spent too long thinking about it she wouldn't just be entertaining the idea as wishful thinking, it would be a permanent resident. She could see herself papering over the memory of the last two months with a pat, convenient explanation that would leave her free to continue lying, cheating and deceiving her way through life until her last day came.
Still, she questioned herself, what about her leg? Geegaw had healed it hadn't he? She could walk right now because of him and that wasn't something a hallucination could do. Doctor Bell had thought his initial diagnosis was wrong when he had seen the ultrasound results, perhaps it was. Then again, he'd also said she was a fast healer. Maybe that was it. Maybe she was just the type who bounced back fast. Yeah, that was the ticket. It sure sounded like her.
But why would hallucinations try to reform her? Why hallucinate Gadget's father?
Clearly pretending to be someone else for long periods of time was bad for you, Lawhiney decided. She had spent too long crawling around in Gadget Hackwrench's skull and it had finally got to her. Obviously she had seen Geegaw's picture on Gadget's bedside table and forgotten about it, long before the hooded figure of the guide revealed his face to her. Perhaps she'd even been jealous. Gadget was such a goodie-two-shoes that surely she must have had a remarkable, perfect upbringing. Lawhiney thought of Geegaw a little regretfully. She would have liked him to be real but hadn't he, in fact, been too good to be true?
Lawhiney set her mouth as she came to a decision. "Well, that settles one thing. I'm never going to pretend to be Gadget Hackwrench again."
With that sacrifice that was not truly a sacrifice Lawhiney laid to rest her memories of Geegaw Hackwrench - hallucination, ghost or whatever he was - and turned her mind to deciding what exotic places she would visit so she could start anew.
"I can't go back to Hawaii. I liked island life though. Somewhere sunny with beaches and lots of gullible tourists, I think. Maybe the Caribbean." Lawhiney mused. "Then again, Pierre made Paris sound so nice when he was pretending he had actually been there."
Before she could make up her mind the headlights lit up a single, ghastly impossible figure directly in the path of the Ranger-mobile. A tall, broad-shouldered rat wearing a top hat and a cape stood in the middle of the road, his arms spread wide as though to bar Lawhiney progress.
Lawhiney swerved, yanking the steering wheel by reflex. The edge of the road kicked at the wheels, threatening to send the car spinning out of control.
Hallucination. Just a hallucination, Lawhiney thought desperately and forced the car back to the centre of the road and onto a collision course with the spectre.
At the last moment it occurred to her that she might be seeing Ratigan where someone else, an innocent stranger, stood waiting to be run down. It was too late to turn, too late to break.
Lawhiney screamed as the Ranger-mobile hit.
Ratigan's legs dissolved like mist under the fender of the Ranger-mobile. His lower body blew away like smoke as the front of the car ran through him, allowing his head and shoulders to pass through the windshield without touching it.
Ratigan's face was a delighted, joyful, mocking laugh as his face rushed towards Lawhiney's face like a custard pie. His mouth was as wide and dark as a subway tunnel as Lawhiney rushed helplessly towards it as though she were going to be swallowed up. For an instant her eyes were inside his mouth and she could stand no more.
Lawhiney covered her eyes with her paws and tried to curl into a ball. She had forgotten that she was supposed to be driving a car, a fast car, down a treacherous woodland back road.
This time the rough ground at the edge of the road didn't kick the wheels back into the middle of the road where they belonged, it sank its teeth into them like a predator and savaged them. The Ranger mobile spun twice then flipped. The car continued to slide along on its side for nearly three feet before slamming into a large rock and stopping dead.
For a moment there was silence. Then sparks flew from the underside of the wrecked vehicle and the headlights died, leaving the scene in darkness.
Chip's heart felt like a cracked ingot of lead that rocked with every step he took. He hadn't known he could feel this bad, and his life had contained a fair share of the world's grief. The scary part was that it didn't feel worse because he felt numb. He had taken enough bruises to know that meant the real pain was to come.
He had taken off his old leather jacket and hung it neatly in the closet he shared with Dale. As an afterthought he had covered it with a plastic bag like it had just come back from the dry cleaners, so that it would stay clean until he returned.
It wasn't until then that Chip realised he was leaving. Once he knew what he was doing it made perfect sense. Tonight's events were going to mark him for a long time and he didn't want his friends to see him until he had worked through enough of the pain and confusion to at least hold himself together on the outside. He was leaving the bomber jacket behind along with his trademark hat because he didn't want to be identified, didn't want to be recognised as someone who was a symbol for something good and worthwhile. Not until the world seemed like a good and worthwhile place again.
He put on the still battered and travel stained trench coat he had worn when he had gone chasing across the country in search of the girl who was now locked up in Shrankshaw Prison. It had been a fool's errand and since he had stood on a railway track to deliver a eulogy for Gadget Hackwrench and forgotten that a train was due, the coat was had become something that he would forever associate with his own monumental foolishness. It seemed to fit better now.
It took a moment to pack a small travel bag with some essentials and he couldn't bring himself to leave his hat behind. Then he was on his way out the door with a last look at the room Dale and he shared. He stared at his neatly turned down bunk and Dale's tangled bed sheets that resembled a gorilla's nest, at the small collection of neatly bound books he kept for bedside reading and at the tattered, read-to-bits scattering of comic books Dale left on the floor. With a sigh he turned out the light and closed the door.
Chip was halfway to the front door when he met Monty coming the other way. The big Aussie mouse took in his travelling clothes and expression at a glance and immediately decided not to ask.
"All right, Chipper?" Monty's tone was deliberately light.
"Feeling a little tired, I guess." Chip replied after moment's pause.
Monty scratched his head and plainly didn't believe him. "Gadget told me she was going to visit her friend, Jenny. Says she knows it's late but Jen works shifts and wouldn't have been home earlier."
"Did you offer to see her there safely?" Chip asked mechanically.
"It's safer at night. You know that, Chipper. The humans are all tucked up safely in bed and the ones that don't know any better can't see a darn thing."
"It isn't humans that concern me."
"Gadget can handle herself. Besides, I think she wanted to get away from us for a while. She said she'd been going stir-crazy, cooped up with that gammy leg of hers."
"I know how she feels." Chip said distractedly. Somewhere inside of him, hope was twitching like a dying animal. "Did you say stir-crazy? That might explain a few things. Monty, would you say Gadget has been acting oddly, recently?"
"You know, different, out of character. More absentminded than usual, less talkative - much less talkative, actually - eating differently, locking herself away in her room and her workshop away from the rest of us?"
"I wouldn't say that last one was out of character for Gadget." smiled Monty. "Gadgie has always been a little reclusive. I wouldn't get tied up in knots over it, Chip. I'm sure she just wants to enjoy herself, now she's got her 'ealth back."
Chip turned away, as though in deep thought. In fact, he just didn't want Monty to know how much pain his words had innocently caused him. "I guess that explains a lot."
Monty seemed to sense a change of subject was in order. "Ah, have you seen Dale? I was supposed to tell him when the film that just ended started, only I can't seem to find him anywhere."
"I imagine he's either sleeping with Gadget."
Monty blinked. "Uh, you mean sleeping, or with Gadget, right?"
"That's what I said, isn't it?" Chip said, riled.
Monty struggled for words. "Perhaps he's seeing Gadget to Jen's, like you said, but she said she didn't know where he was either."
Chip shook his head. The detective in him, that part of himself he pictured as Sureluck Jones, was trying to get his attention but he didn't want to know. "That doesn't make sense. Why wouldn't she know where Dale is?"
"Do you know where Dale is?"
"I - no, Monty. I only know where he's been."
There was a twist in Chip's voice that raised the fur on the back of Monty's neck. Something was wrong here, badly wrong, and no matter what Monty said he seemed to be making things worse without getting any wiser about the nature of the problem.
"I, uh, look Chipper, I'm feeling pretty tired. Perhaps a good night's rest and things will seem clearer. Could you do me a favour?"
Chip almost gave a quiet, hollow laugh. "No problem, Monty."
"I promised Gadget I'd take out her trash."
This time Chip gave into the laugh and it sounded as hollow and empty as he had feared. "Are you going to see me to the door?"
"To take out the trash? That don't make any sense, Chipper, I might as well take it out myself if I did that."
"You want me to do it? You want me to take out the trash from her workshop?" The pause made those last three words sound as ominous as a line from a horror movie.
Monty began to suspect that Chip was playing some bizarre joke on him. "Uh, yeah Chipper. Unless'n that's asking too much o' yer."
Chip felt ready to cry. "No. It's not asking too much. I'll do it on my way out."
"Uh, you going somewhere then?" Monty looked again at Chip's trench coat and overnight bag and this time made sure Chip saw him doing it.
Chip also looked himself up and down, as though seeing the clothes and baggage for the first time. "I - well, yeah, I'm going somewhere, Monty."
"Any where in particular?" Monty daintily tested the waters at this end of the conversation.
"I, uh, I haven't puzzled it out yet."
Monty's eyes flicked to Chip's hat. "You've got your hat on. Is it a case, Chipper?" He smiled in understanding.
"Uh, sure Monty. I have to go out and track down a few leads. It could take a while. You know how it is."
"Isn't that the coat you wore when you were out incognito, trying to track down that impostor?" Monty took the logic a step further.
Chip shrugged helplessly. "Sure, Monty. I left a few leads hanging when I rushed back to make sure Gadget was okay."
"But that girl's behind bars now!"
"But not her accomplices, we haven't even confirmed that lunatic who tried to strangle Gadget is one of them and the other two are still on the loose." Perhaps he would try and track them down, Chip thought, in between times feeling sorry for himself.
"You're leaving tonight?" Monty scratched his head again certain he was still missing something.
"Yeah. I decided this evening."
"Well, it's a bloomin' strange time to start a journey but if your mind's made up " The big mouse shrugged, surrendering.
"It is. I'll get the trash on my way out. I guess if you're not seeing me to the door, I'll say goodbye."
"You, ah, want me to pass that onto the others?"
"Sure, Monty. You give them my best for me." Chip hung his head and passed his friend, perhaps the only true friend he still had now, without looking him in the eye.
Monty watched the chipmunk's retreating back as Chip continued down the corridor towards Gadget's workshop before shaking his head and turning towards his own bed. He was halfway there before he remembered that he had forgotten to tell Chip to empty Gadget's wastepaper basket before taking the trash out.
Chip paused outside the door to Gadget's workshop. He couldn't think of another door he wanted to open less. Twice he raised his paw to the handle and pulled it away again as though the door was hot. Finally he hated himself for drawing the experience out and forced himself to get it over with.
But first he knocked.
He couldn't stand any more shocks tonight.
A stiff breeze blew through the workshop, hitting him in the face and pushing past him as though it was in an even bigger hurry to get out the door than he was. The crumpled balls of paper that littered the floor rolled like tumbleweeds and Chip was briefly thankful that Monty hadn't said anything about sweeping up.
Again, Chip's imaginary detective plucked at his sleeve, trying to get his attention. Although Gadget's workshop was pretty much as it had been the last time Chip had seen it, it held fewer distractions to stop him noticing the little details that surrounded him.
The place was messy, though Gadget seemed to have left all of her inventions untouched and her tools were all in their intended places. Chip noted a thin film of dust on the closer tools and deduced that they had been unused by Gadget since her return from hospital. There was an unopened, envelope on her workbench, with no dust. The swirl of paper debris on the floor suggested that she had been writing, drafting something many times, and had discarded many early attempts before achieving a result she was happy with, which he presumed lay in the envelope on the workbench. Chip knew Gadget was, although disorganised and absent minded, generally a tidy mouse and an excellent aim. The waste bin was close to where she had clearly been sitting - too close for her to miss every single time - and was now empty on its side. It followed, logically, that the paper had been in the bin until it was knocked over, say by some wildly flailing limb belonging to a person who was in the midst of some all consuming physical activity.
Chip felt his eyes fill with tears.
What was he thinking, for crying out loud? He should know better than to go playing detective in his own home, just because his two best friends had betrayed him?
Chip felt something inside of him let go and he felt both better and worse for it without knowing why.
They hadn't betrayed him. He recognised and accepted the knowledge like a soothing balm for his troubled heart. Gadget had never promised him anything. Dale had been both open and vocal in his intentions towards Gadget. Chip hadn't been betrayed, yet here he was acting like his two best friends were a couple of crooks on the run.
Chip stiffened as a new and terrifying thought came to him.
Perhaps the reason neither Dale or Gadget were in the tree house right now was that they were indeed on the run - from him! At the very least they could be laying low at some safe distance until his ire blew over. Was that the kind of person Chip Maplewood really wanted to be? Was that who the others saw him as?
Feeling humbler than he had ever felt in his whole life, Chip bent to pick up the sack and paused. On the floor next to the garbage sack was an un-crumpled piece of paper that clearly had writing on the face down side. Presumably it was an abandoned draft at whatever was in the envelope on her workbench. All he had to do was flip it over and he would know what she had thought so important that it took so many attempts to say. If it came down to it, Monty was probably in bed by now and there was no one to stop him or ever know if he ripped open the envelope and read the full, finished version of whatever Gadget had been writing.
Chip straightened up until the envelope was at eye level. Written, in especially neat handwriting instead of Gadget's usual hurried scrawl, was his own name and the heavy, underlined injunction that it was only to be opened if Gadget did not return before breakfast. If questioned he could claim that it was intended for him. No one would know he was snooping and if they did, he could justify himself.
He reached out for it.
His better self would know. The part of him that was the person that he should be would always know that he had, in some small petty way, violated Gadget's trust and if he opened it and found it was just a list of things she wanted to be picked up at the city dump tomorrow that would be no excuse in the eyes of his conscience.
Slowly, Chip withdrew his hand and tried not to see that it was shaking. He would be gone soon and Dale and Gadget would be free to come back. He was confused, not thinking straight, and it was for the best if he went somewhere far, far away from here until everything was clear again. Perhaps it was for the best that Gadget and Dale weren't here. After all, how many police reports began with an experience like the one he had this evening?
Chip grabbed at the sack with his eyes still on the envelope and only looked down when he realised that it wasn't tied shut. With an angry jerk, he hauled on the strings at the top of the bag like he was strangling someone and dragged the sack out of the door.
It took two attempts to close the door. The first time the corner of the bag got caught in it and he slammed the door angrily without noticing. Chip hauled the bag along the ground by one hand, his overnight bag in the other, grumbling all the way.
The bag thumped against every step down the stairs on the way to the front door like there was a dead body in the rubbish sack and Chip found something satisfying in the sound. Some idiot, probably Dale he thought with particular viciousness, had left the front door partly open, which explained the strong draught from the window when he had opened the door to Gadget's workshop.
Chip swapped hands because the arm that had been dragging the rubbish sack was getting tired now. He dragged the sack out the door into the cold night air and hoped that no owls had been watching the crack of shaft of light from the living room as he pulled the sack out onto the porch with him.
Once outside, Chip looked over the edge of the porch into the darkness below. There were a lot of steps to the ground and if he lost his grip on the sack it was heavy enough to drag him off the stairs and send him plummeting into the dark with it. People had died that way. Admittedly, the small mass to size ratio meant that a small animal's terminal velocity was slow and not usually fatal unless you landed badly but it still wasn't something Chip wanted to explain in an emergency room.
The sensible thing to do, from perspective of someone up in a tree with something heavy they didn't want to carry down to the ground or drag and risk falling, was to throw or drop it. Monty would have walked out as far as he dared on the thick branch towards the waste bin on the other side of the tree, hoisted the sack over his head and thrown it a fair distance into the trash. That was probably why Gadget had asked him to do this. The trouble was that people got killed when trash bags landed on their heads too. Particularly when there was something heavy in them.
So Chip looked into the dark abyss at the side of the tree, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the light, hoping an owl didn't come along, and never dreaming that the abyss was literally looking right back up at him.
Chip's eyes had just got used to the night when he heard a noise on the steps next to him. He turned his head to see what was there and some fool shone the brightest light in his eyes since Gadget tested her 50,000W halogen camera flash at his birthday party. Chip cursed and hoped it wouldn't take two days for his vision to come back this time. Not being able to find your own way to the bathroom was embarrassing.
"Mister Maplewood? Is that you?" A young voice asked with grown-up concern.
"Get that light out of my eyes! Haven't you heard of owls?" He snarled. The voice complied and he returned the favour with his name. "Yeah, I'm Chip Maplewood of the Rescue Rangers, who are you?"
The torch vanished.
"Watcher Diane Hazelleaf of the Street Watch, Sir." There was everything but a salute on the end. For all Chip's eyes could see, there might have been that too.
Chip scowled. He wasn't in the mood for this. "Is that Hazel Leaf with one or two L's?" he was asking for future reference. He was feeling just mean enough to report her to someone if she put a foot wrong.
"Local neighbourhood watch reported something to us, sir, and we had to investigate."
The voice was young. Sounded about Tammy's age. If she was alone she probably didn't know better. Well, she would find out the hard way, Chip vowed.
"Neighbourhood watch is basically neighbours who have been broken into themselves trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, or people who need a social ladder to climb before they feel part of the community. They report to us in the park, Patroller, and that makes this my jurisdiction. If there was a problem they should've told us, in which case you tell me."
"I'm sorry, Sir, but the Rangers have been down for a while, what with you being out of town and Miss Hackwrench's accident, so the Neighbourhood Watch has been reporting to us instead for some time now." She sounded like she was reporting to a parade sergeant.
Chip wished he could see her face. So there was a problem in the park, was there? And the local community - he knew the fat old mole no one liked who had elected himself president of the local Neighbourhood Watch because no one else wanted the job - had gone to the Street Watch instead of the Rangers? Odds were the mole was still thinking of the bad press coverage Gadget had got a couple of months ago. He had hoped the coverage of the impostor's trial had put an end to it but there were those who would make an advantage out of anything. Well, he'd have a talk with the mole tomorrow morning and the whole thing would be straightened out, or there would be a new president of the Neighbourhood Watch, one with his recommendation.
"It seems your garage has been left open." The voice said.
The Patroller was a squirrel, Chip was sure of it. He took a deep breath. That darn lock of Gadget's. They were supposed to type in Pi to some impossible number of decimal places and hit enter but no one could remember the right numbers and the battery kept quitting and locking them out. One dark night, he, Monty, Dale and Zipper had crept out with a pry-bar and prised the face of the calculator wristwatch up until they could get at the hole underneath it to short out the lock. When that hadn't worked, Dale had kicked the door and it had magically opened. Chip had pinned a note there to make sure they knew where to kick ever since and one of them had made sure to distract Gadget whenever the door was opened to avoid her noticing that one of her proudest inventions didn't work. Asides from hurt feelings that might involve, she might fix the darn thing.
"Sir? Did you know the garage door was open?" The squirrel was being persistent.
"No. I didn't. The lock plays up sometimes. It was one of Gadget's creations." A member of the neighbourhood watch would have known what that meant. He meant to make a point of it when he talked to her boss if she didn't.
"Let me through, Hazelleaf. I'll deal with this." A deeper, older voice sounded from behind her.
A mentor, trying to rescue the youngster from the deep water she had gotten herself into without realising. Almost in desperation the young Patroller spoke up a last time. "Sir, can I ask what you were doing just now, before I shone the torch in your eyes?"
"I was considering whether it would be safer to drop this rubbish sack off our porch or drag it down all these steps one handed." Chip replied.
"Oh, well I'm glad you didn't decide to drop it off your porch, sir, because Patroller Ramon is down there and it might well have caused serious injury if you had anything particularly heavy in that sack."
"I said: I'll deal with this, Hazelleaf." The older voice boomed from behind her.
Chip, who prided himself on being able to tell species from voice alone, frowned. It had to be someone small enough to climb the steps but with a chest big enough to produce such a voice. It turned out to be a fellow chipmunk as fate would have it. Chip frowned at him and waited to see how he would deal with things.
"Evening, Mister Maplewood. Sorry to have troubled you like this. Mind if I ask what you have in the sack there?" The chipmunk spoke in a balanced but authoritative tone that could have been an imitation of Chip himself.
Chip rolled his eyes. "I don't rightly know. Trash, you know, garbage. Nothing important. I was about to throw it out."
"You don't want to be dropping it off a porch from this height, if you don't mind me saying so. Could kill someone."
"Yeah, I know. I was just trying to see if it was clear below when you happened upon me."
"Eh, is that an overnight bag, you've got there?" The chipmunk queried. There was a click and suddenly a torch beam was spotlighting Chip's little black bag.
Chip froze. Okay, he was definitely taking this to whoever ran the local Street Watch Patrol House.
"Yeah. It's my overnight bag. I was going out." He said in a tone he knew would get hurt looks from his nearest and dearest.
"At this time of night?"
"It's safer to travel by night. Hadn't you heard of-"
"Of humans, yes, of course sir. Uh " The chipmunk seemed embarrassed to continue.
Chip growled. "Are you seriously going to ask me to open my overnight bag so you can look at my tooth file and spare nightshirt because someone saw our defective garage door open and told you we might have been broken into?"
"No, it's just that isn't your normal jacket, is it, sir?"
Chip could have sworn. He could quite see how otherwise perfectly law-abiding people got hauled in front of a judge now. Luckily he had enough sense to refrain from cursing them out or throwing punches but he would certainly be talking in person to whoever ran their headquarters and he would make sure these two numbskulls heard about it at length.
"No, of course this isn't my normal, old, bomber jacket, which I have by the way been wearing since the mid-eighties. It's warm and hard wearing when I'm working but I'm sure you don't expect me to wear it all the time, however often I agree to wear it for photographers, and I can't help it if those ungrateful half-wits in the press keep recycling those old pictures of me." He yelled. "Now, have you got any more stupid questions or would you care to make yourself useful and help me carry this darn thing down to the human waste bin?"
The chipmunk seemed taken aback.
"Uh." He said. After an uncertain pause, he reached for the nearest hold he could get on the paper sack.
Chip could tell at once the chipmunk Patroller either didn't live in a tree or didn't use paper sacks at home, because he grasped it by a crease instead of a corner and pulled at it like it was half the weight Chip had indicated it was. Couldn't the fool see he wouldn't be complaining if it were something he could carry by himself?
The sack tore like tissue paper under the Patrolman's clumsy handling and as it half lifted Dale's limp, corpse-like body rolled out onto the balcony like the end of a garish, well prepared and particularly baffling conjuring trick.
Three torch spotlights clicked on and locked onto Dale's slack-jawed face and bloodied hair. Two of them moved up instantly, into Chip's eyes again, but not before he had seen for himself the reappearance of the disappeared chipmunk.
Chip blinked at what he could see of the body and then back into the blinding, third-encounter light beams the Patrollers were shining at him.
"I - " he said. "I can explain."
"Mister Maplewood, sir? Can you?" The chipmunk sounded like a drill sergeant now.
Chip looked down at the helpless form at his feet. He looked back up helplessly and said: "No."
Bubbles cracked the lock like an expert, which she undoubtedly was, although it made Gadget uncomfortable to admit it. The door popped open and inside was a simple control panel with only three controls: An on-off switch, a pair of buttons to raise and lower the hook and another pair of buttons marked "forward" and "back". Bubbles peered at it.
"Looks simple enough. You don't have to be Gadget Hackwrench to work this out." Bubbles teased.
"Won't one of us have to stay down here to operate this thing?" One of the twins asked.
"Oh, great! So do we draw lots or something to see who Haggs gets to break in two?" Sheila complained.
Everyone looked at the little box on the wall that held the key to freedom. Gadget was one deep breath away from suggesting how she could rewire the box to lift them automatically when Bubbles spoke up.
"We could just lower enough cable for someone to drag the hook over to the controls. That way someone could hit the on button from there." Bubbles suggested with elegant simplicity.
Gadget did a double take. Never had her inventor's itch been so effectively stepped on.
"Okay." Bubbles said. "Who wants to see if this thing works?"
Bubbles reached out and flipped the switch.
A shrill, piercing wail assailed their ears and seemed to echo around the staircase, reverberating deeper and deeper into the bowels of the prison. It sounded like a truck was reversing down the airshaft and was about to squash them all but all they could see above them was a string of cherry-red fairy lights that were wired to the side of the shaft.
"Switch it off! Switch it off!" Sheila and the twins chorused.
Gadget and Bubbles both dived for the switch. They siren was cut off in mid-wail. The fairy lights went out. In the sudden quiet everyone was as still as statues, all frozen, except for the eyes flicking back and forth at each other as they waited for the inevitable hue and cry. It soon came, as painful to their ears as cat claws on a blackboard.
Prisoners beat the bars of their cells with whatever came to hand. Guards shouted as they ran.
"Well," Gadget began, "at least there's one mercy - "
The double doors to the infirmary exploded outwards with such force that one of them tore off its hinges entirely, crashed over the staircase railings and tumbled down to hit the floor at the bottom of the stairwell with a thunder-like clap, after having seemed to hit every single flight of stairs on the way down.
"AHHRGH!" Roared a partially shaved Haggs. "Where are they??"
The escapees all looked over the edge of the platform at the seething rat and the shattered door that lay in the middle of the floor far below them, surrounded by a small circle of guards.
"Well," said Bubbles, "on the upside, at least we don't have to worry about keeping quiet any longer."
The guards were at the bottom of the staircase, a long way down. It had taken the escapees several minutes to get to the top of the staircase where they were now. Haggs was already halfway up and would easily reach them first but they would still have a good two minutes to say their prayers or take a flying leap if that seemed the better option.
"We're going to die." Sheila said carefully.
"Flip the switch again! It's our only chance!" Gadget was seized with a sudden burst of terror as strong as any she had known since coming to Shrankshaw.
If they were caught, then there would be no release. They would be tried for escaping lawful custody and this time, when the truth was learned and they realised that she was indeed Gadget Hackwrench, she would be disgraced and sentenced under her own name. The moment when she had seen Ms. Cedar outside the infirmary came back to her. Why, oh why, had she suppressed her impulse to raise the alarm and take one last shot at explaining things to someone in authority?
Guilt poured onto her fear like petrol onto a fire. She had never felt like this. She threw herself at the control box and hit the switch. The siren blared again forcing the others to put their paws to their ears.
"Well, there goes any doubt about where we are, if they had any." Sheila scowled.
"Haggs is on her way up." One twin said.
"So are the guards." The other added.
"Uh, how many guards?" Bubbles asked over her shoulder as she tried to pull Gadget away from the control box.
"Looks like, uh, all of them."
"All of them?" Bubbles growled, knowing that was impossible.
"Well, all the nightshift anyway." The twin allowed.
"Red, I don't think that hook is going to save us." Bubbles said.
"I won't be caught!" Gadget insisted. "Don't you see, Bubbles? If I'm caught, this whole thing will start over again for me, only this time double because everyone will know who I am and what I've done!"
Bubbles looked sideways at her as if seeing something unfamiliar in her friend's place. Uncertainly she said, "I don't think that hook can get to us before Haggs, Red."
Gadget looked at the hook. It was hanging halfway to the other side of the stairwell, more or less over the place where the infirmary door had finally come to rest. The cable was already lowered, thank God, but the mechanism that moved it from one side of the shaft to the other was moving unbelievably slowly.
No doubt this was intentional.
If Gadget knew anything about lifting equipment it was that what looked perfectly solid on paper came apart like cheese-straws when a payload started swinging about, putting strain on the equipment in unfamiliar ways. She looked at her friends and made a quick mental estimate as to each girl's weight that they probably would have found unflattering and totalled the numbers. Belatedly she remembered to add her own weight, allowing an extra ten percent for the slimming effect of her own vanity. The number she came up with was far enough under what she gauged the lifting gear to have been designed for that all five of them could have performed the Fat-Cat Stomp on a hardwood stage while wearing leaden boots without risking a catastrophic mechanical failure.
Gadget began to tear at the control panel with her fingers. Bubbles tried to stop her but Gadget shook her off and ignored the sparks as the panel pulled away from the housing, revealing a tangle of wires and cables and mysterious electronic boxes and dials. Gadget knew what each and every one of them did. It was like seeing old friends again. Her nimble fingers ignored the sparking wires and tugged at a variable resister, using claws where she would have normally used a screwdriver.
The speed of the hook's slow crawl towards them doubled and redoubled until it was racing towards them like an out of control vehicle and the escapees began to back down the stairs to safety. Gadget stayed at the controls, her back to the deadly point rushing towards her.
Bubbles' voice stirred Gadget enough to look over her shoulder and see the danger. She flipped the switch at the last second only to see the deadly sharp point of the fishing hook swinging violently towards her back. The tattered live wires continued to crackle and spark a hand's span from her chest.
Bubbles screamed from the staircase below.
Gadget threw herself to the floor.
The hook swung over her head, missing by millimetres and continued towards the control box. The steel point hung there for a moment, as though savouring the moment when it would stab the delicate electronics like a scorpion stinging itself to death.
Bubbles and the other mice gasped from the steps below, too far away to do anything and so close the disaster seemed to taunt them. Then Gadget's hand closed around the metal hook, stopping it just kissing distance from the same controls that had set it in motion.
"I got it!" She shouted.
"Here comes Haggs!" a twin shouted.
"All aboard the Shrankshaw express!" Bubbles shouted.
"How are we all going to fit on this thing?" Sheila asked.
"I'll play the cable out more and we can each hang on to our own stretch of it like a string of pearls." Gadget said. "The hook is big enough for one person to ride up on it like it was a swing."
"Are you crazy?" Bubbles yelled at her.
"It's that or form a daisy chain with one person hanging onto the hook and everyone else hanging onto someone else's legs." Gadget pointed out. "Wait, These overalls are pretty hard wearing. If we put the hook through the belts I bet we could get two or three people on the hook itself."
"Could you pick an idea and stick with it?" Sheila yelled. "Haggs is almost here!"
Gadget flipped a switch and the cable played out another six inches of cable. "There's a small disk on top of the hook, probably meant to let the hook turn without twisting the cables. If two people hug with the cable between them they can use that as a foothold."
"Sounds like a job for us." One of the twins grinned.
"We'll need to hold the hook steady." Bubbles pointed out.
"I got that covered." Sheila told her.
The hook was now resting on the platform. Sheila flipped it up right and carefully took hold of both the barb in one paw and the shaft in the other before sitting down on the curve of the hook as though it were a swing. The shaft of the hook was about waist high to Gadget, which meant it was low enough for the twins to take hold of the cable and climb up on without too much trouble. Gadget and Bubbles held the hook.
Gadget looked at Bubbles with a worried expression. "If you're going to fasten yourself to the hook, you'd better do it now, while I set the controls."
"You don't have any crazy notions about trying to take Haggs one on one again, do you?" Bubbles returned her look with equal concern.
"Lesson learned. I promise." Gadget told her.
Bubbles removed her belt and made a loop that she slipped over the end of the hook. Gadget turned back to the controls.
"Okay, now that I've worked on this thing it's going to move a lot quicker than it did before, so everyone hang tight."
Bubbles wrapped the free end of her belt around her wrist as tight as she could and gripped it with both hands.
"I'm ready." She called over her shoulder.
"Sounds like fun!" A twin said. The other twin squeaked as the one who had spoken hugged her tight.
"McGee! Hackwrench! I'm going to kill both of you!" Haggs roared from just one flight of steps below them. "There's nowhere to go! I've got you now!"
Gadget's heart leapt. Haggs had just said her real name out loud! The other guards must surely have heard her at that volume! Indecision froze Gadget. That one angry, thoughtless yell must surely free her. It proved who she was. It proved Haggs had known who she was and that she meant to kill her! In a breath Haggs had removed any need for Gadget to break the law and escape.
Gadget turned to stare at her tormentor in triumph - and realised that freedom would only come if she lived through the next ten seconds!
Haggs was racing up the staircase. The long climb had scarcely winded her. Her face was a nightmare patchwork of fur, shaving foam and bald skin, all twisted with rage. The twitching muscles and creasing skin where Haggs' bare skin was exposed gave her a half-human appearance that seemed to amplify her expression in a way that would haunt Gadget's nightmares for years to come.
Gadget threw the switch without another thought and with a whirr of machinery the hook began to move. The slack cable was taken up quickly, almost yanking the twins from their footholds before they could change their grip. Sheila yelped in surprise as hook moved under her.
Gadget rushed to take her place only to find there was no room at the inn. Her eyes met Bubbles'.
"Grab hold!" Bubbles said. "I can hold both of us for a little while."
"Wait! The control panel! Haggs can just turn it off and strand us!" Gadget turned back from freedom just as the hook lifted Bubbles off the ground.
"RED!" Bubbles yelled. The hook and it's crowd of passengers was already swinging away from the platform, carrying them all out over the dizzying drop to the stairwell floor below.
Gadget had turned back and was reaching for the control panel when Haggs reached the last step.
"Got you!" Haggs laughed.
Gadget looked up in dismay as the white rat reached for her. Turning her face away, she tore at a loose wire from the control box and jammed it into Haggs' outstretched paw.
Electricity was an old acquaintance of Gadget's and she used it now as a weapon. Haggs recoiled from the shock, missing the step behind her and tumbling backward. Gadget took a heartbeat to savour the satisfaction of having paid the guard back for nearly strangling her then slammed the door on the control box before twisting the handle and locking it tight shut.
Bubbles was holding on to the hook with one paw, holding the other out as far as she could reach for Gadget to grab hold. She was already far out of reach, the hook having swung half way out into the middle of the stairwell. It was swinging back but by the time it was closest to Gadget it would be too high to jump.
Gadget assessed the situation, her lightning fast brain searching for a way out and finding none. Then Haggs was back on her feet and tearing at Gadget's prison uniform, lifting Gadget off her feet and shaking her.
Gadget took a deep breath, remembering the last time the rat had laid hands on her. Haggs slammed her against the wall and knocked it back out of her. Being lifted off the ground freed Gadget's feet for action and she used them wildly, kicking and clawing at the rat.
Haggs hissed and moved her paws towards Gadget's throat.
Haggs howled and released her.
Gadget kicked out against the top of the control box with one foot and planted the other firmly on Haggs' chest. Before the demented, bullying guard could even step backwards Gadget had taken a giant step from the control box up onto Haggs' shoulders.
As Haggs spluttered and raged and tried to keep her balance, Gadget screwed up her entire body and took a flying leap of faith towards her friend's outstretched hand.
Gadget seemed to hang in the air as time slowed down. It seemed impossible that she could reach the outstretched hand Bubbles was holding out to her, even though the swinging hook was bringing her closer.
"RED!" Bubbles screamed in terror.
Gadget didn't see her life flash before her eyes the way it had the last time she thought she was going to die. That scared her almost as much as the thought of the huge fall she was going to take if she missed the outstretched hand Bubbles was holding out to her.
The hook finished its swing and paused as if holding its breath. Bubbles and the precious chance not to fall to her death was as close as they were ever going to get. For a split second Gadget thought she was going to make it.
Then the hook began to sway away.
Gadget felt the distance between her hand and Bubbles' hand stretch as though her senses had been extended beyond her body and into the air between them. One second Gadget was looking at her friend's anguished face, the next she was looking at her knees as they rushed past an arm's length away.
As Bubbles' feet rushed past in a blur of motion Gadget grabbed wildly as fear took hold of her completely. As her right hand closed around Bubbles' right foot and her left scrambled to join it.
Bubbles cried out as though tortured as the weight on her right arm suddenly doubled. The entire right hand side of her body was stretched like a rope.
Gadget felt the feet begin to slip through her paws as time began to speed up again, the world whipping past her as though she was caught in a tornado. There is a difference between catching something and holding it and for Gadget that difference was life and death.
The distance between her and the floor was enough for her hands to tighten of their own accord to the point where her claws raked through Bubbles fur and skin and made her friend scream. Gadget was facing the opposite direction to Bubbles, so her left was Bubbles' right. Gadget moved her right hand to Bubbles' left foot. She couldn't stop her claws digging in point first, hard. Normally she kept them cut short but in Shrankshaw they weren't allowed anything as dangerous as a nail-clipper, so they had grown to a length that could probably tear someone's throat out if she had a mind to.
Gadget, Bubbles, the hook and all its passengers swung alarmingly. The stairwell dropped away as if Gadget was falling in reverse and the airshaft came down to enclose her. Somewhere far, far below, Haggs was screaming with rage.
"You won't get away with this. I'll find you. I know how to find you and when I do, even I don't know what I'll do!"
Gadget saw her claws drawing blood, enough blood that she could smell it. She was sorry, instantly, for Bubbles but knew no regret or sorrow would be enough to make her hands relax their grip even slightly. No matter what part of her friend's anatomy her claws were sinking into.
Above her, Bubbles fought to get her free hand back onto the belt that held her and Gadget above certain death. As she did there was no way she could miss the fact that the belt that held both of them was slipping through her fingers.
"We're going to fall." She hissed through clenched teeth.
Gadget had arrested her fall. "I'm going to climb up."
"Climb up what?"
Bubbles looked down and gulped hard. Gadget couldn't tell if she was gulping at the drop below her or the thought of Gadget's claws making their way up her whole body.
Gadget lifted herself as though she were doing chin-ups at her annual physical review. There was nothing to grab but knee. It would have to do. She pulled her way up, one hand over the other, until both hands were just below Bubbles' knees and she couldn't climb any higher because at that point her fingers weren't long enough to wrap around Bubbles legs anymore, which meant she risked losing her grip entirely.
"I can't get any higher." She called up. "I need something to hang on to. Give me your hand."
"Can't." gasped Bubbles. "We'll both fall."
Gadget blinked in consternation. Short of gouging huge holes in her friend she couldn't see another way out of this situation so she hung for a moment, watching the belt slide through Bubbles' grip, millimetre by millimetre.
Something flicked against her face. For a moment, Gadget couldn't imagine what could be at the same height as her to annoy her in such a fashion. Then she saw Bubbles' tail twitching madly, right in front of her nose. The time Bubbles had tugged on her tail for poking her tongue out at a guard came back to her and without a second thought Gadget shifted all her weight to one arm, reached out with the other and took hold of her friend's tail.
"Sorry." She muttered and let go with the other hand.
"AUUUGHHH!" Bubbles cried as Gadget swung from her tail.
Gadget pulled herself up half an arms length and started clawing at Bubbles' waist to use her belt as a handhold.
It wasn't there. The belt wrapped around Bubbles' wrist allowing her to hang from the hook, Gadget belatedly remembered. She snarled and seriously considered sinking her teeth into Bubbles' leg instead. Her fingers found the waistline of the heavy wearing prison uniform, though, and she pulled on it with all her remaining strength.
"What are you doing to me?" Bubbles wailed.
Gadget didn't answer as she used every handhold she could find without fear or embarrassment to get her closer to the hook they hung from. The hook was solid. The hook was good. If she could reach the hook, all would be well.
She dragged herself up by Bubbles' collar and found herself nose to nose with her cellmate, who had begun panting as though she were in labour. They shared one brief, exhausted look at each other and then Gadget climbed on.
Gadget reached the belt Bubbles was hanging onto and kept going.
"What - " Bubbles demanded, before Gadget's foot came down on her face and silenced her.
Gadget reached the hook. The metal felt solid and reliable under her paws. Sheila was clinging on to the shaft and glaring at her.
"You stupid, crazy, dumb - " Sheila snarled at her.
"There's no way to shut this thing down from here. When we reach the top, we'll be pulled into the winding mechanism." Gadget told her the bad news.
"We'll be killed! Why didn't you say something earlier?"
"I forgot. I have to climb up and get there first to switch this thing off!"
Sheila was rocking forward and back on the curved metal bar she was sitting on, fighting to keep her balance. She looked like she was getting seasick. "Okay." She assented miserably. "But you better be more careful where you put your hands and feet than you were with Bubbles!"
"I'll do my best." Gadget promised. "Could you help Bubbles to hold on, once I'm clear?"
Sheila snarled something short and unintelligible but nodded.
Gadget planted her feet on the curve of the hook and gripped the point in one hand to steady her self as she stood up. She put her other hand on top of Sheila's head for balance and forced herself to look up instead of down. They were perhaps half way to the top of the airshaft and her muscles were screaming. She planted a foot on Sheila's shoulder and used the shaft of the hook as a handgrip until she could reach the disc of metal that the twins were standing on.
"Oh no you don't" Yelled one of the twins. "There's no room up here!"
"I got to! Didn't you hear what I told Sheila?" Gadget yelled back.
Gadget took hold of the disk and pulled herself up, her feet on the slippery metal of the hook's shaft as if she were climbing a rope. One of the twins lifted a dainty foot and let Gadget take hold of the cable they were hanging from. Then Gadget's foot slipped and she was hanging by one hand, certain she was going to fall and land on the sharp, unforgiving metal point behind her.
Her voice made a helpless animal sound without the permission of her brain. There was no time to think. Then one of the twins was crouching on the small metal disk and holding on to her.
Gadget felt a gratitude she knew she could never express. The second twin joined the first mirroring her almost perfectly and together they hauled Gadget up until all three of them were perched dangerously on the tiny metal disc that had seemed too small for even one person when they had first seen it.
"Just stay here!" A twin suggested.
"Safer that way." The second agreed.
"I have to get to the machinery!" Gadget insisted. But her muscles were all spent now.
"How much further?" Sheila called up from below.
Gadget looked and was horrified to how close they were to the machinery at the top of the crane. She could see the huge drum of cable, the cogs of the gears, the electric motor that powered the whole thing and the steel edge of the wheel the cable played over that looked as sharp as a bacon-slicer.
Fear was her fuel now, the only thing keeping her going. Gadget shinned up the cable towards the finger hungry pulley wheel above her until she judged that she was far enough above the twins that her body would miss them if she fell. Timing was everything. Get it wrong and her paw would be pulled up into the pulley with the cable.
She reached out with her free hand just a second before the one on the cable was due for its appointment with sharp metal. Her hand closed about the support strut that held the pulley and she released the other hand. Suddenly she was swinging like an ape, from one hand to the next until she was at the edge of the platform that held the lifting equipment.
"There's nowhere to jump to!" called out one of the twins.
"The loading bay is on the other side of the airshaft!" complained the other.
Gadget paused, just as she was about to pull herself up onto the lifting platform and saw that they were right. There was a platform, much like the one they had left behind, on the far side of the airshaft. A pair of stout steel rails held the platform and between them was a single grooved track that meshed with a turning cog below the platform so that the crane could pull itself along.
She dragged herself up onto the platform. The heavy machinery she had come to stop took up most of the space. Her first plan had been to disconnect the power but that meant the platform would be stuck at the end of its rails, as far away from the safety of the loading bay as it could be. She only had moments to come up with an alternative plan of action but Gadget was in her element now. It took a moment to find the cover for the electronic relay system that turned raw current into mechanical movements and gear changes, but when she had found it the cover opened easily.
Gadget took a deep breath and winced in advance of the pain she knew she was about to get and then tweaked a wire she knew she wouldn't be using for what she had in mind. She crossed the wire with the one that carried power to lifting motor and stuck the end of it into another terminal.
A brief blue spark lighted Gadget's face from beneath. The crane lurched under her and from below came the screams of her friends. It began running along the rails at the faster speed that Gadget had rigged a few minutes earlier, just before this crazy ride had begun.
"We're running out of cable!" The twins yelled at her.
Gadget crawled back out onto the crane's arm and held out a hand to the twins below. They both reached for it and then stared at each other.
"You first." Gadget chose a twin at random. The twin took her arm. The weight was so great Gadget feared her arm was going to dislocate.
The first twin pulled herself up to the platform Gadget was standing on. Once there the two of them helped the second twin up with relative ease. The trouble came when they realised the crane wouldn't bring Sheila in reach until the metal disk at the top of the hook was touching the pulley wheel.
"Sheila! You've got to stand up on the hook!"
"I can't!" wailed Sheila.
"You have to!"
Sheila forced herself to put her feet on the swaying metal bar beneath her. The moment she had straightened her legs, the metal disk hit the pulley wheel with a bump that made her sit down again. Sheila's face became a picture of pain.
Gadget winced in sympathy. Before she could urge Sheila to try again the whole crane began to creak.
"This thing I'm sitting on is getting really hot!" one of the twins yelled at her.
Gadget looked back more in surprise than concern and realised the twin was sitting on the electric motor. As she watched, the motor began to throw sparks. "Get clear!" she told the twins. "Use the rails this thing is running on to get to the platform."
The twins looked at her in alarm.
"We can't walk on those rails!" The other twin told her. "They're too rounded and narrow! It'd be like walking a tightrope!"
"You don't have to walk on them! The speed this thing is coming apart, you're going to have to run!" Gadget told them. She turned back to find Sheila standing with an arm stretched out to her. Gadget risked her weight to the crane arm again and clasped hands with Sheila.
The task of pulling Sheila up to the platform was easier with the hook briefly stationary.
"Go on. Follow the twins." Gadget yelled, looking back over her shoulder to see that the twins were indeed almost running along the notched third rail that the platform was winding itself along. The platform was moving at such a speed that it was dogging the twins' heels at every step.
"Hey, what about - " Bubbles called out but was cut of by an ugly pinging sound from the cable besides Gadget. The metal of the pulley arm creak and crack.
Gadget looked at the support arm, knowing instantly and from long experience that it was about to fail catastrophically and that she had exactly enough time to jump for cover and do nothing else. Her reflexes took over and she was jumping, one foot coming down on the winding drum of cable, the next on the back of the electric motor. The motor was hot enough to singe her hair and fur as she dropped into a low crouch behind it and waited for the end.
"Hey! Where did you go? Come back!!" Bubbles screamed.
Gadget put her paws over her ears. She told herself it was to shut out the sound of failing metal and grinding gears. The motor threw sparks through its ventilation grill, burning holes in her uniform.
The end came with the scream of tortured metal and tearing of metal teeth stripping the gears. The drum of cable jumped on its bearings as though it were about to break free entirely go spilling down the airshaft. The metal gave up before the cable. The wheel at the end of the arm broke free of its bearing with gunshot crack and bounced over the cable drum and past Gadget. It hit one of the rails the platform was crawling along and ricocheted into the airshaft below. A long, loud, ringing sound reverberated off the metal walls, as though someone had struck a large brass bell.
The cable continued to make dangerous pinging sounds. Gadget knew that when it snapped both ends would break free of the tension with enough force tear someone's head off. She also knew that Bubbles would fall to her death.
The pulley wheel of the arm came down on the cable drum, having been bent double by the force of the motor. The fraying part of the cable that had been caught between the two long metal struts and one of a triangular piece of tin that reinforced the lifting arm pulled free and began to wrap around the drum, which was grating against the metal arm.
Gadget closed her eyes and thought of Bubbles, her only friend since this nightmare had begun. Suddenly the top of the hook appeared over the top of the cable drum. Gadget could hear Bubbles screaming from the other side of the drum. Gadget stood up in time to see the whole hook flip over the drum barrel.
Bubbles gave a long Doppler shifted scream that ended with her flopping over the casing of the electric motor and laying there like a stunned fish. She blinked at Gadget dazedly for a second and Gadget wanted nothing more than to give her a big hug.
Then the metal hook, its shaft as thick as Gadget's wrist, gave way. The cable drum began to bend the hook around itself like a man toying with a rubber band.
"Eeep!" Bubbles had time to yelp and flail with her free hand before being yanked backward off the motor casing and toward the cable drum.
Gadget grabbed her friend's hand, trying futilely to stop her from being pulled into the cable drum and turned into mincemeat. There was no way she could be stronger than the motor. Gadget glanced back at the electronics box that controlled the motor and the gears but she had closed the cover. Even with a quick jump and if she found the right cable at a glance, which she might, Bubbles would be gone by then. She looked back to Bubbles to tell her to let go of the belt and knew she didn't even have time for that.
Gadget's eyes went to the belt. She saw the problem in an instant. Bubbles had wrapped the belt tightly around her wrist with some loops crossing others. The problem was her own weight had tightened the belt even further and now the belt might have well been tied to her with the Gordian knot.
Gadget knew what she had to do but Bubbles' paw was already almost touching the cable drum. Without hesitation she put her head right under the cable drum, into the lion's mouth, and bit down twice on the belt as hard as she could.
The belt gave way and Bubbles and Gadget scrambled backwards and clambered over the electrical motor to relative safety. Together they gasped for breath and shook with relief. Bubbles looked over at Gadget and their eyes met. For a second, Gadget expected her to start laughing the way she did with the Rangers after a close call.
Instead, Bubbles looked down at something, then back at Gadget with an arched eyebrow.
Gadget shook her head blankly.
Bubbles lifted her arm and shook her hand, which Gadget was still clasping. They were holding hands. Gadget started to giggle. Then a dreadful crack sounded behind them. She looked over the top of the motor and saw the cable drum bouncing on it's bearing. The barb of the hook had dug into the surface of the platform and now the cable drum was tearing itself free, using what was left of the hook.
"Big trouble coming this way!" Gadget told Bubbles.
"Worse than Haggs!"
"There's nothing worse than Haggs."
"The cable drum is about to come after us."
"Except that." Bubbles staggered to her feet.
Together, the pair stood on the edge of the platform and looked at the safety of the loading bay where Sheila and the twins were waving at them.
"Jump?" Suggested Bubbles.
"Couldn't we walk the rail? I'm so tired." Gadget pleaded.
"You think we've got time before the drum breaks free?" Bubbles asked, looking over her shoulder.
Gadget looked back with her. "In theory, my guess would be - "
The cable drum reared up over the electrical motor.
"-No!" Gadget finished. "Jump for it!"
The cable drum rolled up and over the motor and gears that drove it, still turning with its fearsome momentum.
Gadget and Bubbles took a great breath and leapt for the platform. The cable drum bounced off the platform where they had been standing. The distance between the platform and the loading bay was less than it had been when Sheila and the twins had made their way across the rails but the drop below them if either of them missed their target seemed greater than ever.
The cable drum bounded over them, tumbling into the darkness and crashing against the metal wall, setting up echo after echo that must have travelled to every part of Shrankshaw and the human prison above.
Gadget landed first. Her legs folded under her and she rolled, cannon-balling into the twins, who went down on top of her in a heap.
Bubbles landed flat on all fours with a bang and lay there gasping like a fish on a riverbank. She closed her eyes, feeling she could lie there for a hundred years and not get up. Finally, she opened an eye and took in the comic tangle of arms and legs beside her.
"Are you having fun there?" She quipped.
"Uh, could someone get their whatever-that-is out of my face?" Red asked.
Giggling, the twins untangled themselves.
"You, girl, have a talent for destruction." The first one to free her self said.
"Yeah, we're really unleashing a dangerous force on the world by setting you free! Think we should take her back, so the guards can lock her safely away again?" The other agreed as she struggled free.
"HEY!" Red squeaked.
"Pipe down, Red. They've got a point." Bubbles instructed. "I doubt Gadget Hackwrench could have done a better job of destroying that thing if she had wanted it in pieces in short order."
Bubbles turned a jaundiced eye on the smoking platform that was still moving towards them. "It looks pretty well destroyed to me and we all saw you do it."
"That's right!" Sheila added from the doorway.
"You go on denying it and I may remember that you swung from my tail for just long enough to give the twins that show they wanted." Bubbles threatened.
Red looked suitably chastened.
"How do we get those doors open?" Bubbles asked Sheila. "That platform is getting closer every second and I don't want another encounter with it."
"It's locked, barred and bolted." Sheila reported.
"From the inside." Sheila grinned at them and slid back a large iron bolt.
They opened the doors just as the crane platform reached the end of its rails and started throwing sparks in all directions. The gears began to make a loud whirring noise and smoke began to pour out of the motor.
Sheila slid the heavy door shut behind them, cutting off the dreadful swansong of heavy machinery and twisted metal behind them. Together, the rag tag band of escapees staggered away from what seemed to be a large square metal air vent on the roof of the human prison that had been built over Shrankshaw.
There was an open sky with a full moon above them. The moon was ripe and yellow. It seemed to scowl down at them but even so it was the prettiest thing they had ever seen.
"Three months." Said Gadget. The others looked at her. "Three months. That's how long I've been inside. I don't think I've ever spent so long indoors. Not even after my father died. I'd forgotten how big the outside was."
"Is that the moon or sun?" One of the twins asked.
Everyone stared at her.
"We've been inside a little longer than three months." The other apologised.
"Moon. It's night and that breeze is bringing a storm in from the east." Bubbles said. "My folks lived on a farm. You learned to keep an eye on the weather."
"That's not all it's bringing." Gadget said. "Feels like it's bringing freedom to me."
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