THE CHRONICLES OF SOMEWHERE

An adaptation of "Snowmen and Sneak Attacks," a Blake comic by Bob Flynn.

Somewhere. That's a strange name for a town. But not half as strange as what happens there...

CHAPTER ONE: SNOWBALL

December 2000

DAY 1:

"Just our luck!" griped 10-years old Blake as he went outside. "Snow on the 1st day of the Christmas vacation. Of course, it couldn't have fallen a few days earlier, when it would have gotten us out of school..."

"Don't be so negative." replied his friend Dustin. "At least we get to begin our holidays with a bang: There's so much snow, the only limit to what we can do with it is our imagination, and that's hardly a limit. C'mon, let's build a snowman!"

"A snowman? That's sissy stuff."

"Since when? We always build snowmen, and there's always a new kind of snowman we haven't yet thought about. Besides, this is high-quality snow, perfect for the job."

"Perfect for making snowmen? Or... Perfect for making snowballs! While you lose your time on some silly snowman, anybody could strike you with a deadly blow of these. We're unprotected, my friend. First, we need to build a fort."

"Against what? Who's going to attack us in your own yard? Well, you can build a fort if you want... But I'm not helping!"

"What! Are you going to defend yourself with a puny snowman!"

"Call it a decoy."

"Dustin will be one sorry sap when he sees how cool my snow fort will be. I could use his help, tough..." The thoughts went on in Blake's head. Suddenly, he heard sounds: 'crr' 'shh'. That's when 5 very tough-looking teenagers suddenly walked in front of him.

"Aughhh!" yelled Blake in surprise. He knew these guys: They were Neal and his gang. To his yell, the 15-years old Neal replied:

"Well, lookit our favorite flatfoot. Surprised to see us, eh?"

"Well, yeah, said Blake nervously. What are you doing here?"

"Well, the Wolves need an HQ, so..."

"The Wolves?"

"That's how we decided to call ourselves now." The rest of the Wolves chuckled. "An' like I said, we need an HQ, so we're gonna build a fort here."

"Uh, I... I'd hate to burst your bubble, Neal, but... This is my yard!"

"Exactly. And that's why you're gonna help us build our fort, aren't you, weakling?"

"Uh... Right." Blake decided to avoid the awful pain that would automatically ensue from non-cooperation, and just hope that some extraordinary stroke of luck would get him out of this mess, or that Neal would get tired of this before he felt to urge to practice his pain induction skills on him again.

Meanwhile, in a different area surrounding the small town, 6 children roughly Blake's age were gathered. All of them were wearing something which vaguely resembled a uniform, and some of them wore helmets. They were very well equipped: walkie-talkies, computer-generated map of the neighborhood, you name it. A few minutes of observation were enough to see that one of them was the unquestioned leader of the group. Another one, who kept all the time sunglasses and documents, was talking to him:

"The climatic situation appears favorable to most types of operations, general. No clouds, and the snow is of high quality. It should allow us to establish an active defense perimeter by building a type-C snow fort, and prepare an important quantity of ammunitions, preferably type-5 snowballs."

"I know that, Jenson. But these conditions can also be useful to hostile forces, so I'd rather that the fort be built soon. How long till we can begin construction?"

"Not before operation Beaver brings us the required supplies, sir. A type-C fort wouldn't be any more efficient than a standard fort without the composite structure."

"Which requires wood, yeah. Well, the guys from Beaver would better hurry; hostile forces may emerge anytime. Speaking of which, get me a report from the recon team we sent to operation Snowsquale."

In a different area, 5 girl-scouts from the group known as the Squirrels were discussing. The one whom they called Jenny called the meeting into order:

"Okay, girls, here I go: As you have noticed, the town is all snowed over, meaning that patrols will have to be restricted to what won't lead to hypothermia. It also means that we'll have to play the UN among snow fighters, like every year."

"Uh, excuse me... interrupted the one called Abbey. I haven't really seen many snow fights back in Berkeley, and at the end of January when I came here, most of the snow had already melted... Do snow fights get that bad?"

"I don't know how it goes in other towns, but here... The snow season is when the Legion and the Renegade spend the most energy fighting each other. And Neal's bullies don't get less violent. So we've got to make sure nothing too bad happens."

"Why is it that I always carry the backpack, while you get to pull the sled? " Griped Private Jon, from the Legion's operation Beaver.

"Hey, don't complain." Replied private Marty. "Al least you got good military boots. My feet are already soaked.

Halt!" said Jon, as they noticed a panel that said: "DANGER: THIN ICE! 2 GOONS LIMIT!"

"That's weird. I don't remember any lake being here. And who would write "goons" on a warning panel?"

"I think I saw something move…"

The two Legion privates didn't have enough time to react. In a surprisingly short amount of time, something between 15 and 20 snowballs flew in their direction. None missed. The pair was still on the ground when their attacker, wearing something that looked a bit like a white ninja costume, appeared and said:

"You two are fools to side with the enemy. Alas, the hour of victory is at hand."

"Dude, that one guy took us out both with a killer round of snowballs. That's… Impossible!"

"To the weak of heart and mind, maybe… You two did a poor job covering your tracks. Rudiger won't be getting his much-needed supplies… Cooperate, and the ropes that will attach you to the tree won't hurt too much."

As he proceeded to tie them, he went on:

"For too many years, Rudiger and his Legion have held military control over the neighborhood. But now, the voice of the people shall be heard!"

Just as he finished, the privates walky-talky began making noises. He quickly picked it up, and listened:

"HQ? Here's Lieutenant Daniel from operation Snowsquale. Only presence in the area appears to be Dustin Quagmire."

"We don't need anybody on the operation field. Dislodge him."

"The hour has come, Rudiger" thought the ninja. "Soon, we'll be done with this…"

"Sir, there is no contact with operation Beaver! They don't answer anymore." Said Jenson.

"I smell trouble. Lieutenant Brigsby, go there and check what's going on."

In the meanwhile, Dustin had completed his snowman. He was, quite justifiably, pretty proud of it: He had managed to build it in the cubist style. "Not a stroke more…" he thought. Suddenly, he heard a voice behind him. He turned, only to see the white-clad ninja running toward him at a speed difficult to attain on snow, and yelling: "Comrade, you are under ambush! Take cover now!" Before he fully understood the situation, the ninja had pulled him behind the snowman, just before a wave of snowballs flew in their directions. Although their cover was half-destroyed by the attack, it protected them perfectly.

"My…My snowman!"

"It could have been you…Come on!" Insisted the other, while pulling Dustin quickly away.

"Um sir? This is lieutenant Daniel, from operation Snowsquale…We made Dustin go away, but, uh, he got away…"

"What? I hope I misheard that last statement, Daniel. That's impossible!" replied the general.

"He wasn't alone, sir. That guy with the white cloths and ski mask helped him."

"Blast it! It's Whiteout, the snow-fu renegade! That soon! Oh. He must have got operation Beaver. Which means he got a hold of our walky-talkies. Change our frequency immediately!"

"Our systems have only one frequency." Reminded him Jenson. "Store brand, remember?"

"Then we go silent! No more airwave communication! And remind me to buy equipment somewhere else - stupid toy store!"

11-years old Sergey got out of his house. He looked at the snow all around him. It brought back memories…

He wondered if here, too, there would be snowball fights. He didn't really know the kids here, come to think of it…Even after living in this town for, what, 6 months now?

"Oh, hi Dustin" said Jenny. "You look like you've just run 10 miles!"

"Not that much, but I've been running, yeah. It looks like the war has already restarted. Either that, or the Legion just didn't like my snowman."

"Oh. Rudiger's getting tough again, huh?"

"Yeah, it's always worse during snow season. But I still prefer him over Neal's gang. By the way, have you seen Blake? I think he's building a fort, and that may cause more harm than good, seeing how it could attract attention…"

"Blake? No, we haven't seen him" replied Abbey in a less-cheerful-than-usual tone. She still disliked Blake, obviously.

"But I have!" said a voice that sounded younger than the others. Everybody turned to see Beca, Blake's 7-years old sister, together with her best friend Wendy. "He's in our yard."

"Oh. Still? I'd have thought he'd be bored by now."

"I don't think he really has a choice. Neal & co. are with him, and he doesn't look happy about it."

"Uh-oh. Looks like he might need help…"

"As usual, said Jenny. Okay, let's organize an operation…"

Back in the more wooden parts of Somewhere's outskirts, 3 kids in white ninja suits were discussing strategy:

"We know all their locations, said Whiteout. The drawback is, they know that we know, meaning that they'll change these positions as soon as they can. Before we strike at their headquarters, we must further reduce their numbers. We must choose quickly : Here, lieutenant Brigsby will be alone, and an easy target.

Here, lieutenant Daniel and private Peter will try to reach their main base before we get to them. I suggest the following strategy: While comrade Bushido and me will hurry to attempt to catch the pair, comrade Shuriken will make an ambush on Brigsby, and strike with the light of justice!"

"Why an ambush, comrade Whiteout? I can easily defeat him without the effect of surprise."

"True, but Rudiger is cautious, and might have sent reinforcement to meet Brigsby. Take no unnecessary risks, comrades, and bring the wrath of the Renegade to this imperialist swine!"

The attack was unexpected. How could the Wolves notice the 4 well-trained girl scouts sneaking from behind them, when Jenny was distracting them? "Look, I'm pretty sure I lost it here. I just want to look for it!"

"Nobody goes on the Wolves territory, honey!"

"'Wolves'? That's how you call yourself now? Well, never mind. Bye."

"That's it, go away before we start hurting ya…"

Only 10 seconds later, when Jenny was far enough, did 4 snowballs hit the bullies. They turned around, but didn't see their attacker; the Squirrels knew a thing or two about camouflage, after all! Another group of snowballs was enough to disrupt any organization they might have had; it also gave Blake the opportunity to run away while everybody was busy. And since that was the real objective, the Squirrels just left.

A little while later, still panting, Blake met his helpers, together with Dustin.

"Thanks (pant), girls."

"You're welcome. But how did you get in that situation?"

"I was just building a snow fort, the wolves came, and made me help them build a snow fort for themselves!"

"Now that's just like them! Well, I hope they won't make too much trouble this year…"

"Actually, they're making trouble just by staying in my yard! Like I know them, they'll stay there for a looong time, and I'll need to get home earlier than that! Basically, I'm stuck!"

"Ouch. Well, good luck with that, but I'm afraid we can't help you there…"

After the Squirrels left, Blake and Dustin assessed their situation:

"You're right about this one - as long as they're in you're yard, you can't go home. We could, of course, obtain the help of a higher power…"

"No. Getting the adults into snowball business - or Neal business - is never a good idea. But we need to get them away somehow…"

"And I happen to know how."

Surprised, Blake and Dustin turned around, but couldn't see whoever had said that.

"Who…Where are you?"

"Not important right now. What matters is that I know a sure way to get the Wolves away from your yard, at least for the time being. For a price."

"What kind of price?"

"Not too much...20 candies and half-a-dozen dollars should suffice."

"That's not that little either. Whoever you are - and however you manage not to be seen - how can I be sure that you'll really send them away?"

"Simple: You'll pay me after I'm done."

"Hmmm…Okay, deal."

Sergey was walking in the snow. So far, this place seemed disturbingly quiet. But hey, Somewhere wasn't exactly a big city, after all.

All of a sudden, a not-so-quiet event changed the direction toward which his train of thoughts was headed: An array of snowballs were flying at high speed in his direction! With a speed that could have made most jugglers jealous, and despite his surprise, he managed to block some with his hands, and dive before too many of them hit him.

"What's going on here? He thought. Who's attacking me? Think quickly. All snowballs came from that direction. How many are they, 3? 4? Look attentively. Block snowball. There! A guy in white camouflage sitting in that tree. And he's throwing more snowballs at me - at an extremely high speed! If he had a pre-prepared batch of snowballs before, he could have thrown all those projectiles at me alone!" Sustaining a few hits, Sergey turned his back to the renegade, and with a speed as impressive as that with which he had blocked his enemy's projectiles, he rolled a 12-inch thick snowball. Not the best kind of snow for that, but it would do: To the ninja's surprise, the Russian kid managed to hit his head with his over-sized weapon from a 10-yards distance on his first try. It's hard to dodge when you're sitting in a tree, and equally hard to stay on the limb when a snowball almost as big as a bowling ball hits you at high velocity! Too hard for the renegade, anyway.

Shuriken was a bit dizzy after he fell on the ground, but he recovered quickly enough when he saw Sergey charging him. With practiced ease, he grabbed his opponent and threw him on the snow.

"Martial arts, eh? Okay, no more mister Nice-Guy!" In mid-fall, Sergey managed to stabilize himself, and landed crouched on his feet. With a quick footsweep, he made his adversary fall too, and jumped on him. After a quick close-combat, he managed to push some snow into his face; when Shuriken wiped it from his eyes, it was already too late to avoid the couple of snowballs that were flying toward him. Realizing that this fight wasn't turning to his advantage, he made the wisest available choice by running away.

"Who was this guy? Why was he dressed like one of those far-East warriors? And did he have any other reason than cheap fun to attack me?"

This time, Sergey's thoughts were interrupted by a voice:

"Hey, you! How did you do that!"

Sergey turned, and saw a kid roughly his age, but clothed no less strangely than his attacker: This kid was wearing what looked like some kind of military uniform, adapted to the snow. Sergey replied by another question:

"And who, if I can ask, are you?"

"Lieutenant Brigsby, of the Legion. And I've gotta say, I've never -well, almost never - seen anything like this! I thought only the General could defeat renegades single-handedly!"

"Renegades? You mean, the guy who just attacked me?"

"Yeah, he's one of them. They keep giving us trouble. Tell you what : Follow me to the Legion's HQ, and we'll talk about everything with the General and the Commander."

"I still can't believe the little twerp got away like this! An' dammit, where did the snowballs come from!"

"For the 1000th time, I dunno, chief."

"Well, whoever it was, they're gonna pay when we find them! Wait a sec… What's this?"

Blake and Dustin, who had been watching the Wolves discreetly from afar, looked in the direction where Neal was pointing: A sled was advancing toward the Wolves' snow fort, but nobody was pushing it; instead, a small engine with what seemed like small snow tracks was attached to the sled, and was pulling it forward. Also attached to the sled was a hose, with some white, shiny stone stuck in it.

The Wolves were still trying to understand what they were seeing when, having reached a spot only 10 feet away from the fort, the strange contraption revealed its purpose: A big stream of water erupted from the hose, ejecting the white stone. The Wolves yelled in surprise, but didn't react fast enough to prevent their fort from being utterly destroyed. Soaked and furious, the bullies charged the sled, and just then the stream of water stopped.

"¤£µ§! That's it - somebody's gonna die! Let's follow the hose to the house of the little piece of $&§ who did this!" yelled Neal.

The Wolves proceeded to follow their leader's order, while being followed themselves by Blake and Dustin. They quickly found where the other end of the hose was; unfortunately for their revenge plans, it was connected to the tap outside of one of their own houses!

"Dammit all, let's go back to the fort!"

Blake and Dustin got out of their way quickly enough to avoid detection. But when the gang reached the spot, another disappointment was waiting for them there: Not only had whatever was left of the fort melted, but the sled, no longer attached to the hose, had disappeared. Quite obviously, they were dealing with an intelligent enemy.

"So that's how you wanna have it, huh? Well, fine! No more mister Nice-Guy; the Wolves are gonna show their teeth!"

"Well duh! As if he had ever been a nice guy!" Blake whispered to Dustin.

After the Wolves had left, the duo examined the ruins.

"That was great! But what do you think that pebble in the hose was for, Dustin? To hit the Wolves?"

"Na, there was no way to aim. But maybe…" Dustin dipped his finger in one of the puddles, and then put the finger in his mouth.

"Judging from this, I think that pebble was actually a salt crystal. That stuff makes ice and snow melt."

"Wow! The guy who did this must be real smart!"

"That's the least you could say. I think we're dealing with some kind of genius."

"Smarter than you, Dustin?"

"Possibly. I'm not sure I could have thought up something like that."

"The real question is, can you afford having someone else do it." Again, that voice came seemingly out of nowhere.

"For crying out loud, where are you?"

"You will learn that soon enough. Anyway, I would like to remind you of our little agreement…"

"Well, it's not really cheap, but I've got to admit you did a good job. But I have to see you if I'm going to pay you!"

"Just deliver at my address :…"

A little while later, the duo had reached the address. It seemed like a normal house in Somewhere.

"Hey, Dustin, you know who lives here?"

"Nothing comes to mind…It's not the house of somebody from the Legion, the Renegade, or the Wolves…Not a Squirrel either, but that was the voice of a boy, anyway…Wait, I know! It's the house where some family moved 2 months ago! Let me check their mailbox…It says their last name is Waterstone. Let's check."

Dustin knocked on the door. Shortly after, a woman who seemed to be in her late 30s opened it.

"Good afternoon. Do you need anything?"

"Well, world peace would be nice, but for now we just need to meet some kid who said he lived here."

"Oh?" The lady seemed surprised. Then she called: "Keviiin! Come downstairs!"

A kid who looked roughly their age came. Blonde, messy hair, mischievous eyes, and a smile that shouted: "I could hunt you one by one!": Even if he wasn't very muscular, Kevin Waterstone was, in a certain way, scary.

"I suppose you're here for the payment."

"Uh, yeah…Thanks, by the way."

"Don't thank me. It's just the beginning…"

"What do you mean?"

"I've been observing this place over the last 2 months. Lots of stuff is going to happen; trust me on that one."

"If you say so…Kevin."

"Don't call me like that. Almost nobody does anyway."

"Then what do people call you?"

"The name is…Madman. The full title being: Madman, cunning mastermind, mad scientist, dark side geek and evil genius extraordinaire!"

"Let me get this straight" said general Rudiger. "A renegade attacks you by surprise, and not only do you get by, but you also manage to drive him away?"

"Well, I've got some experience…"

"Experience? What's your age, anyway?"

"My 11th birthday wasn't very long ago."

"About one year older than us. So where did you learn to fight like that?"

"I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Moscow. At one point, I got fed up with being the regular punching bag, so I trained myself really hard until I became the toughest kid there. I still train regularly."

"Lots of snow fights in your neighborhood, you say?"

"When we were lucky, they were just snow fights. But it could be worse."

"And for how long have you been here?"

"6 months, but I haven't gotten to know anybody yet. My English wasn't very good until recently. Now, if you don't mind, I too would like to ask questions. My first one is: Who are you?"

"You're right, I should answer your questions too. My name is Stanson Rudiger, but I am referred to as general Rudiger. Six years ago, at age 4, I founded an army called the Legion with a friend of mine, Raymond Mannster, often called 'Rayman'. We obtained impressive results, thanks to a professional organization, good use of strategy, and heavy personal investment. We gradually added new members. But then Mannster went all political on me, siding with military downsizing in the playground and Marxism-inspired social plans. He eventually seceded from the Legion to found his own army, with its main objective being to counter us: the Renegade. He calls himself Whiteout, because he aims to erase all wrongs…And he knows snow-fu…Which makes his name even cooler because he blasts his enemies with a blinding whiteout of snowballs!"

It took a little while for the general to calm down before he continued:

"He has found 2 apprentices, to whom he has taught snow-fu; they are codenamed Shuriken and Bushido, but Whiteout remains the most dangerous of the 3. Using a deadly combination of martial arts and guerilla tactics, they opposed us, and even thwarted me a couple of times, but we have had our own fair share of victories. Years have passed, and the status quo has remained unchanged. You can see what the Legion has become these days:

At the top of the hierarchy am I, general Rudiger. I am the Legion's head strategist and, thanks to intensive training since the Legion's foundation, also an elite fighter.

Brigsby said he thought only you could fight renegades.

Well, before Mannster's defection, I had many occasions to see him practice snow-fu, so I'm the one who best understands, except for the renegades, how this martial art works, and how to counter it. But generally speaking, you need 3 legionnaires to defeat a renegade.

Second to me is commander Jenson here. A genius in his own right, the commander is a master of tactics - as good as me, actually - as well as our main logistician, organizer, cartographer, cryptographer and, of course, technical expert. The gadgets he puts at our disposition may not be the stuff of James Bond movies, but they're probably the best 10-years old have ever put their hands on.

Next come our lieutenants, Brigsby and Daniel. Brigsby, whom you've met, is a veteran of the Legion; Daniel here, who just returned from operation Snowsquall, got his promotion after the battle of Somewhere elementary of '96.

The battle itself was the kind of mess that I don't want ever again on my record, but Daniel's group avoided a complete disaster."

"Why, what happened?"

"Long story, let's just keep it to the fact that I learned never to underestimate the ammo requirement."

"Well, it is a big pile of snowballs you guys have been building up here…"

"Yeah, the troops have been working since early in the morning. How much by now, Jenson?"

"Around 750, more-or-less 5. As for the fort, it meets most combat requirements. It still lacks some wooden structures, however."

"Good. Keep it up. Now, the Legion also has 6 privates. Peter here was with Daniel on operation Snowsquall; Frank has been with us for 3 years, and so has Ed. John and Marty were on a resource-gathering operation and haven't come back yet; I'm afraid they were captured by the enemy."

"Your Legion seems very…organized."

"We understand the importance of the professional approach. We use airwave communication, computer-generated maps, high-quality weaponry and defensive structures, secret codes, and more stuff that I couldn't tell you about without creating a security breach. And, of course, regular operations and intensive training. We are the best army under driving age in the world!"

"Whooa."

"Exactly. Now, I think that, when they captured our boys from operation Beaver, the Renegade got their walky-talkies, and listened to some of our conversations. They probably knew Brigsby was trying to reach HQ, and intended one them to ambush him. When you came, that renegade must have thought you were reinforcement from headquarters, and tried to take you out. I'm still surprised you managed to fend him off!"

"I've developed good reflexes. That, a precise aim, the strength to throw even a very big snowball, and fast fighting techniques…You see."

"Hm. Say, do you know anything about strategy?"

"I've never led troops, but I used to play a lot of chess before I started to train. Today I don't get to play very often, but I'm still very good at it."

"With that taken into account…Have you ever heard of brevet ranks?"

"You mean…"

"Welcome to the Legion, lieutenant Sergey! If you prove your value through this campaign, you will be given a permanent officer rank."

"Calm down, Wendy! Now explain what happened." Said Jenny to the nearly hysteric 7-years old.

"The Wolves…Becca and I…We were walking by…they attacked us…took Becca hostage…An' told me to tell Blake that if he wanted to see her again, he'd have to pay a ransom!"

"A ransom?" shouted Abbey. "This is sick! It's time that somebody taught Neal a lesson! Uh, by the way, Wendy…If Neal told you to tell Blake, why did you come to us?"

"Uh, because, because…'cause Blake's worthless?"

"Oh. Well, we still have to tell him. And isn't that him and Dustin there?"

The Squirrels and Becca's friend went to meet the duo, who were still a bit uneasy from their meeting with the grandiloquent, and possibly a bit deranged, kid who seemed to think he was a Hollywood villain. The situation was quickly explained to them.

"So basically, Neal won't release Becca until I pay a ransom. Well, it's all spent already."

"But we can't leave her with that bully till sunset!"

"Welllll…." A few cold looks from the Squirrels were enough to remind Blake not to let his many small conflicts with his little sister into this.

"Anyway," said Dustin, "he's right. He just spent a little 'fortune' on something, and Neal would probably ask for a foolishly big ransom. I could lend some of it, but you probably don't think accepting Neal's conditions is a good idea…"

"Heck no!" said Jenny. "We can't let him have everything his way forever! I say that we organize another rescue operation!"

"Again? This is going to become a tradition!" Abbey half-joked.

In the woods, the Renegade was discussing.

"Indeed, comrade Shuriken, we have seen the Slavic warrior that you told us about. While we couldn't catch lieutenant Daniel and private Peter before they reached the Legion's headquarters, we did arrive in time to spy on Rudiger as he introduced your opponent to his army, and gave him the brevet rank of lieutenant."

"Are you saying that he wasn't yet one of those swines when I ambushed him? In that case, it is a great mistake that I've made!"

"Quite, although it is quite understandable, given the circumstances. The important matters, however, are not to place the blame, but what strategy to choose:

The Legion now has an additional officer, who seems to be a true master of snow fights. More than ever before, a direct strike against the Legion would be difficult..."

"As for this fort, it is a class-B. That's the most resilient kind we can build with snow as our only material. We were planning on establishing a class-C fort, but that requires some specific wooden structures, which operation Beaver has been unable to bring." Commander Jenson was explaining more technical details to the Legion's newest recruit.

"Is there such a thing as a class-D fort?"

"In progress. I'm still in the engineering phase of the project.

Another tool is this officer notebook. This is where all information required by and restricted to officers is written. Such information includes secret codes, the address of an Internet forum where officers can discuss form their homes, and the itinerary algorithm."

"The what?"

"Itinerary algorithm. It has become necessary due to the Renegade's guerilla tactics: They sometimes try, early in the morning, to kidnap our officers as they leave their homes. This algorithm defines, in a manner that can't be predicted by someone not in possession of the notebook, at what hour everyone has to leave home, and what itinerary he must follow to reach HQ. So far, this has reduced our losses considerably."

Sergey took a look at the algorithm. "Wow. That's not exactly 5th-grade math you're using here."

"Algorithms are not part of the lessons, but I've learned the basics from computers" explained Jenson.

"Anyway," said Rudiger, "be careful with this notebook. In the enemy's hands, it could be dangerous."

"Okay everybody, here's the plan" Jenny addressed the Squirrels, Blake, and Dustin: "The Wolves have established their new headquarters down the hill - on its other side. They are holding Becca, and she can't run as fast as them. So, first we need a strike: We will use Dustin's idea of 4 'catapults' made of a plank and a log to send 'king-sized' snowballs at them. Then we will use Abbey's idea of her, on a sled, tied to a rope that we will all hold: She will quickly go down the hill, reach the Wolves' fort, have Becca climb on the sled; we will then pull them very quickly back here, and run away like scared rabbits. Our advantage is that, since the Wolves are down the hill on the other side, they can't see us preparing all this. Questions?"

A few minutes later, operation save-Becca-in-the-craziest-scheme-devised-so-far started. Down the hill, the Wolves had no idea what was about to hit them:

"You'll never get away with this!" yelled Becca.

"Hell we will!" replied Neal. "Who you gona call anyway, Bigbusters?"

Neal's laughter at his own joke was interrupted as he saw 4 objects flying, seemingly from the top of the hill. From a quick look, they seemed like 2-feet-thick snowballs. And they were headed in their direction.

One projectile hit the ground. Another one hit the Wolves' rudimentary fort, causing a wall to collapse. The remaining two hit one Wolf each, one of them being Neal, who fell to the ground, buried under almost his own weight of snow. The confusion generated among the barbarian forces was so great, that they didn't even react when Abbey went down their way on a sled and yelled at Becca to get on. By the time Becca complied, however, they were already starting to move, and went running after the girls, yelling "After them!" or "Stay right here, you ¤!". To the bullies' surprise, the sled suddenly started moving backward and, even stranger, upward! It was even going faster than they could run - after all, they were running in the snow, to which a sled was more adapted than legs; beside, the sled was being pulled by a team of six! They reached the top of the hill only in time to see their hostage and her rescuers running far away.

After Neal and the other Wolf were helped out of the snow, he enquired what had happened. After hearing his troops' story, he became really angry:

"That does it! Since this morning, we've been humiliated 3 times! Well, not anymore! I swear eternal revenge on the Squirrels! Death to the girl-scouts! Death! Death!"

As the sun disappeared beyond the line of horizon, a few figures approached a group of trees. To one of the trees were attached 2 Legion privates.

"There you are!" said Rudiger. "Well, it's past dinnertime, so military operations are on hold until tomorrow." As he and his men proceeded to untie John and Marty, he added: "By the way, We have a new lieutenant in the Legion. I'll tell you everything on the way."

"Boy, said Blake, who would have thought building a snow fort could get so out of hand? Maybe I should stick with snowmen."

"It's more dangerous than you think! replied Dustin. There are some brutal art critics around here!"

As everybody went home, Madman reflected: "Well, everything is falling into place. The Snowball War is beginning. Excellent!"

End of Day 1.

Day 2:

"Okay buddies, today we're having Squirrel flambé! Here's the plan: We cruise along, find the girl-scouts, catch them, and crush 'em! Questions?"

"Nope!"

"Great! Let's get hunting!"

At the Legion's HQ, general Rudiger was surveying the situation.

"How many snowballs, commander?"

"Between 1120 and 1160, sir. But I must warn you that snow is running scarce; if temperature were to rise, we might have to look for snow at a certain distance from HQ. I advise that we stop ammo manufacture for a while."

"Good point, Jenson. Put ammo production on hold. How is R&D progressing?"

"Satisfyingly well, sir. The class-D fortress will be built exclusively from snow."

"Just snow? You said composite structure was tougher..."

"True, but I thought of a structure that will allow the class-D fort to be nearly impossible to take, even from only few defenders. I've done some research on medieval forts, and discovered some clever strategies based on the angle of shots and the such."

Sergey, impressed, said: "I think I'm starting to see why you're nicknamed 'the human computer', commander Jenson."

"I have an analytical thought process. When confronted with data, I analyze it thoroughly, and make every possible logical connection."

"Which is what makes you one of the Legion's main advantages», completed the general. "However, our fort is still not a class-D, or even a class-C, and that makes us an almost easy target. We must obtain construction material to temporarily make a composite fort. Since our troops aren't busy making ammo anymore, I guess we can just as well send a task force get us some wood. We're launching a new operation Beaver!"

"That's a bit risky, general" remarked Jenson. "The Renegade will jump on an occasion like this."

"I know, but it's a necessary risk! Lieutenant Daniel, take 2 privates of your choice, and get us some material - and be careful!"

Sergey was still thinking about a few facts. "Say, commander... I've been told that what you did with the walky-talkies will insure that the Renegade won't eavesdrop on our radio communications... But how can you do that?"

"We've been taking this measure for a year and a half, since the Zamma fiasco: Every time we buy a walky-talky, I modify it slightly, so that it can later be easily set to emit and receive a different wavelength. Yesterday evening, I did that to all those we have - including the extras in stock - in my basement."

"Oh. I see you're quite the, the...How do you say it? Techno-whiz?"

After some time spent walking through the neighborhood, the Wolves eventually found what they were looking for: The Squirrels, in the middle of a patrol. Neal started the chase immediately: "There they are! After them! Show no mercy!"

Jenny was equally quick to react: "Danger! Run, everybody! Follow me! To the woods!"

"HQ to operation Beaver, HQ to operation Beaver. Can you hear me?"

"Operation Beaver's lieutenant Daniel to HQ. We're hearing you fine, general."

"Looking good. With a little luck, maybe the Renegade doesn't know you're there. How much longer till you're done?"

"About...20 to 30 minutes and we'll have everything. Then it should take some 25 minutes to reach HQ."

"Fine. Just don't let down your guard. Over."

With the communication finished, the general turned to the rest of his men.

"Anything to report, boys?"

"No sir."

"Everything's fine here, general Rudiger."

"Hold it. I think I've spotted someone coming toward us."

Everybody turned toward commander Jenson, who was looking through one of the pairs of binoculars. He quickly added: "I confirm: Unidentified subject, about our size, heading toward us from South-West.

Is it a renegade!" inquired Rudiger.

"Improbable, sir. His cloth are not white, and not a good camouflage. Allow me to focus these binoculars correctly... I can see clearly now. Subject is male, probably our age, and doesn't match facial records that we have of Renegade members prior to theirs becoming renegades. He will probably reach HQ in a few minutes."

"Well, that could be anything. Everybody grab a snowball, just in case."

A few minutes later, the subject reached the fort. Some of the legionnaires recognized him as 'hat' new kid', who had come to Somewhere 2 months ago, and that nobody really knew yet. Rudiger was the first to speak:

"Halt! Who are you, and what are you doing in a military area?"

"My professional name is 'Madman', to answer your first question. For the second...I have an offer."

"What kind of offer exactly?"

"A new weapon that you might find useful in your little war."

He then proceeded to open a small plastic bag that he had been carrying, and to pull a few snowballs from it. The Legion's men prepared to fight back in case he attacked, but instead he just handed the snowballs to the general.

"Behold the c-14 slushballs! I invite you to try them."

General Rudiger hesitatingly took the snowballs, and then threw one of them at a nearby tree, 15 yards away. It hit a small bulge. The general seemed impressed.

"Amazing! Even at a good distance, your snowball stays true to its intended flying course!"

"Provided that it was thrown by someone with a good aim, yes. But if it was, its structure insures that friction with air won't deviate it. In addition, it was built in such a way that while the outside crust is quite hard, the inside is slushy: When the c-14 hits the target - and it usually does - it first causes a kinetic shock, like a compact snowball; then the interior quickly melts and soaks your enemy, like any slushball. As you can see, the c-14 is by far superior to anything in your present arsenal."

"I'll have to give you that. Now, you said you had an offer, not a gift. So what do you want in exchange of your little wonder?"

"Well, the Legion is quite a big organization...And there's a non-neglectable part of your budget that hasn't been spent in equipment...I think $50 is a reasonable price."

"That's...not a small one either..."

"Consider the potential uses for my invention in you hands."

"Hummmmm...Excuse me for a moment while I discuss with my officers."

Rudiger went aside with Jenson, Brigsby and Sergey. He asked:

"Okay people, what do you say?"

"How much do we even have?" asked Sergey.

"$62 presently" replied Jenson. "We might have to cut on equipment spending for a few weeks, but odds are this won't affect the present campaign."

"Just how good are these snowballs?" asked Brigsby.

"As good as he's making it sound." said Rudiger. "This is like replacing slings with bows! I think we should agree to this deal. Anybody thinks we shouldn't?" There was no reply. The officers came back to Madman.

"Fine, buddy. If you give us the 'blueprints' now, you can be sure to find your money in cash this evening in your mailbox. Deal?"

"Deal. I know you know better than to betray a partner's trust, general Rudiger."

The Wolves could run faster than the Squirrels, but not a lot faster. This allowed the Squirrels to reach the woods, and once there, they had a good advantage: They knew the place inside-out from years of patrols as girl-scouts. After a few minutes of chase, the Wolves hadn't the slightest idea where to find them, and got lost. The bullies finally regrouped only 2 hours later, tired and confused.

"Anybody catch one of these stupid girls?" asked Neal, already almost certain of the answer, and not surprised in the least when all his boys replied negatively.

"I don't understand, comrade Whiteout. Why don't we attack and capture these 3 imperialists now, when they're alone?"

"Because that's what the Legion expects us to do. If we attacked them, they would have enough time to radio the general, and then the Legion would prepare us an unpleasant welcome at its headquarters. It is wiser to do what they expect the least: Strike their fort now, while these 3 are away."

"Do we stand good odds, comrade?"

"Alas, no. They still have the sheer advantage of numbers, their fort, and 2 excellent fighters. But at least we have a small chance to win, and if we do, then the Legion shall be done with!"

"We're only 5 minutes away from HQ, sir."

"Fine, Beaver. Hurry up, and you'll have a few nice walls protecting you. Over" Rudiger ended his surveillance of the forces on task. Here, his men had built a small stash of these wondrous c-14. He couldn't wait to field-test them!

The occasion presented itself earlier than he expected, when a snowball flew at high velocity toward the side of his head. It is only in the nick of the time that he deflected the projectile with his hand, and dove under the protection of the fort's wall before a full wave of snowballs could reach him.

"everybody in defense positions!" he yelled, while thinking: "They approached us without getting detected. Must be the Renegade. Pretty bold of them to attack our HQ - but they don't know of our C-14s!"

The Renegade was relying on sniper/gradual progress tactics: Each guerrillero was covering behind a tree, throwing a few projectiles toward the legionnaires, waiting for an opening, rushing toward a tree closer to the fort, and so on. That's usually a good tactical choice, because you can cause substantial damage to your enemy without getting hit very often by the time you reach his trenches/fortification, but here, they were getting aimed at by 8 enemy fighters, including general Rudiger and lieutenant Sergey. Eventually, they started getting hit themselves, and noticed a few things:

They were getting hit more often than expected. That was partly due to the addition of Sergey to the Legion, and partly to the fact that the Legion's ammo was eerily accurate.

When they were hit, they were hit hard.

The snow quickly melted, soaking their cloths and threatening their bodily heat.

The renegades were pretty tough, but they could see very well that they were losing this battle. They nevertheless tried to pull off their plan to its end, but, while running from one tree to another, Shuriken was hit by 4 C-14s, including one to the head. He fell down, and was quickly hit by 5 more. Seeing that this wouldn't end well, Whiteout made the only sensible decision and yelled: "Retreat!"

"Double-$-damn-it! How can we feed them their own fingers if we can't even catch them!" fulminated Neal. "Dammit, we can't let them off the hook like that. Guys, we've gotta find a way to catch those rats!"

Neal then waited, listening to any suggestion from his crew. It wasn't much unlike listening to a wall. Eventually, a voice was raised: "I can help you." The wolves turned and faced an unknown kid, probably 10-years old.

"Now who are you, flatfoot?" inquired Neal.

"People call me Madman. But let's get to business...

You people have a problem. I know how to solve it. For a price, I'll tell you."

"I'm not gonna give you a chewed-out gum!" said Neal as he lifted Madman, holding him by the collar. "You're gonna tell me how to catch the Squirrels right now or I'm gonna smash your face so much, that it's gonna look like jell-o!"

"Physical threats? You really aren't the sharpest crayon in the bunch, are you?"

"Whaddaya mean, dwarf?"

"If you don't pay me, what's to keep me from telling the Squirrels about my idea immediately after I tell you? As a matter of fact, what's to keep me from telling them how to take advantage of what I'll have advised you to wipe the floor with your behind?"

"Uhhhh..."

"Exactly. Basically, If you force me to give you my idea for $0, then that's exactly what it will be worth: $0. But if you pay me, my idea will allow you to catch the girl-scouts."

"Okay, smart-ass, we'll pay, but you'll regret it someday. How much?"

"Well, there's five of you...$40, take it or leave it."

"Are you nuts?"

"Isn't your revenge worth 8 dollars each, Neal?"

"Damn you, okay. So, what's this genius idea?"

"There you are!" said general Rudiger to lieutenant Daniel, who had just arrived with his group, and with construction materials.

"Sorry sir, we came as fast as we could. I hope there weren't any important losses?"

"Negative, Daniel. They couldn't get past our defenses - especially now that we've got a new weapon!"

"New weapon, sir?"

"Behold, the C-14 slushball! This will give an additional, nothing short of smashing edge against those commies! By the way, Jenson...How's the class-D coming along?"

"The plans are near-completed, sir. It will be possible to begin, and probably finish construction tomorrow."

"Let's review our situation" said Whiteout. "The Legion now has 11 members, 2 of which are elite fighters of our level. They certainly possess the supplies they need to build a class-C fort. And on top of that, they now use some new kind of snowball, which is substantially superior to any type we've ever designed."

"We're doomed." summarized Bushido.

"Never! I will never admit defeat to those fascists, understand!" yelled Whiteout at his apprentice. "I refuse to let Rudiger control the neighborhood with military might, exploiting the weak and crushing dissent! He may have obtained numerous important, even overpowering advantages, but someway, somehow, we will make his army bite the dust! As a matter of fact, I already have contacted the sensei, and he will soon send us a new weapon, with which we will finally win. Do you hear me? We shall overcome!"

"Say chief...That is a clever idea that geek sold us."

"Yeah, well, it had better work, or I'll make him eat his own underwear! 'nyway, say...ya all see what I see? How 'bout some appetizer before tomorrow's squirrel flambé?"

Brigsby really wasn't expecting any trouble. His day with the Legion was over, and he was going back home for dinner. When 5 bullies that everybody knew only too well suddenly showed up and displayed unfriendly, cruel, sadistic or, in one word, hostile behavior, he knew he was in deep trouble and couldn't do anything about it. He was lucky enough not to get clobbered, but nevertheless walked out with one less helmet (He did point out that it wasn't the Wolves' size, but they wouldn't listen), 1.75 less dollars, one less walky-talky, one less officer notebook, one more wedgie, and the knowledge that he had to report this on the officers' internet forum.

The discussion on the forum was, as always, quick. Upon hearing of the loss of a notebook to enemy hands, Jenson was very quick to issue a new itinerary algorithm to everyone. He also informed the other officers that the class-D fortress's design stage was now over.

In his room/lair, Madman was reflecting on the situation: "Three down, 2 to go. Add to that my little experiment...No wonder people declare so many wars, they can be so profitable to those who know how to take advantage of them!"

End of Day 2.

Day 3:

The patrol had begun normally. The Squirrels always went that way on that day of the week. As they patrolled, they noticed 5 big snowmen on their way. They wondered for a few seconds who had built them, and continued in their paths - and could only scream when the snowmen suddenly jumped on them, roaring like savage animals, shaking of some snow in the process and thus revealing themselves to be the camouflaged Wolves. The girl-scouts had gotten too close to have any chance of escaping, and shortly afterwards, they were held firmly in the bullies' grip.

"So, ya thought you could make us look like dweebs and get away with it?" Neal sounded less friendly than ever. He had always been a mean bully, but at that moment he seemed more cruel and sadistic than at any previous point of his life. "You've got to understand, butterfly-girls: We decided that this year, we were getting serious about our gang; we gave ourselves a new name, we got more, uh, methodical...And then you go and free our hostages! We can't have that, can we?

So we've got to make an example out of you. Hey, pal, hold this one too-" he said as he passed the Squirrel he was holding to a fellow Wolf -"You all hold them while I dig their graves in the snow! We're gonna bury them!"

"You can't bury us! You'll get in such troubles, you won't even remember how you got into them!"

"Eh, I figure you'll dig your way out after a while...But you'll be sooo frozen, we won't hear from you till February!"

Neal's plan wasn't perfect, as he soon discovered: As there were five Wolves and five Squirrels, each bully had been holding one girl-scout. But as soon as Neal started digging, one of the four remaining Wolves had to hold two Squirrels, and that was a considerably harder task. Especially when one of them - Abbey to be more specific - managed to knee him below the belt he didn't have, and to escape in the confusion. Order was eventually restored, but the runaway was now deep into the woods. "Well, we'll at least bury four out of five." concluded Neal.

"So, Jenson, please present your new design to us!"

"Here it is, sir. The wooden structures, which reinforce the fort against kinetic attacks, are all located in the inside of the wall, and are not visible from the outside, offering little to no information to the enemy as to the structural weaknesses, if any exist. The walls are 14 inches thick, and can withstand any amount of snowball hits that could realistically be thrown in a single battle. The walls' height makes it impossible for anybody less than 6 feet high to climb into the fortress alone; it is possible to do so with help, but this would require more time than an enemy can hope to have in a combat situation. Finally, in the unlikely case of a breach, all of the defenders can aim their ammo at the attacker from any part of the fort. As such, the class-D fortress is a major improvement over every class of snow fort that we have previously used, and meets not only all combat requirements, but also many non required qualities that make it easy to defend and near-impossible to take."

"Excellent, Jenson! Have the troops build it immediately."

As the Legion's forces set to build their new fort, Rudiger savored a feeling of invincibility that he hadn't felt in years:

"We outnumber the Renegade by almost 4 to 1. We have some of the best fighters in the region. We have the C-14s, which give us previously unheard-of firepower. And in a short while we'll have an impossible-to-take fortress! This is it! This year, we're going to crush the Renegade for good!"

Meanwhile, the Renegade was brainstorming in search of a strategy to bring down the Legion:

"Whatever happens, we can't afford to strike a group that includes both Rudiger and Sergey. We need to strike them separately.

We also know that they have superior snowballs. So we should sneak up on them and engage in close-combat, before they can take advantage of projectiles."

"Can't we take advantage of the fact that the area is hilly somehow? I mean, Rudiger didn't build his HQ on top of that hill..."

"That's only because there are too many trees there. Come one, there has to be a way..."

"And I can give it to you."

The members of the Renegade turned to face the boy who had said that - Madman, of course - as he went on:

"You are in a difficult situation. However, I have discovered a way in which you could take advantage of the local topography, as well as the impressive acrobatics skills that you have developed, in order to strike a serious blow to the Legion."

"Who are you, comrade? And what is this strategy with which you believe we could oppose the imperialists?"

"To answer your first question, I am most often called 'Madman'. As for your second question...Please understand that I'm no idealist. I don't want you to win the war any more than I want the Legion to win the war. But I will help you...for a price."

"Then...You are a weapon dealer! Just one more parasite who takes advantage of the war!"

"Exactly. But the way I see it, without my help, your entire war effort will crumble: You are no match for the December 2000 version of the Legion."

"That may be, regrettably, right...Name your price, capitalist."

"$15 and 15 gums will suffice. And if you doubt that my plan is worth my price, then simply let me explain it to you: If you decide to apply it, you'll pay me..."

The fort's construction was progressing well when an unexpected guest reached the Legion's territory: Abbey, still running since her escape from the Wolves. Rudiger, although he was surprised, was quick to react:

"Halt! You are trespassing on military grounds, civilian!"

"We have (pant) no time (pant) for that! (pant) (pant) The Wolves! (pant) They captured all the other Squirrels (pant)! Neal decided to bury them in the snow! We need help!"

"Uh...Could anybody please explain to the newbie?" asked Sergey while raising his hand.

"Long-story-short: The Squirrels are the local Girl Scouts, and are Somewhere's equivalent of the Blue Berets and the Red Cross. The Wolves - that's their new name, according to reckon - are a gang of five 14-years old bullies led by some spoiled brat called Neal. Abbey here joined the Squirrels almost as soon as she came to Somewhere, and that was almost a year ago."

"So what you're saying, ma'm, is that the barbarian horde is committing war crimes against your group. Hmmmm...allow me to consult with my officers."

Rudiger, Jenson, Brigsby, Daniels and Sergey quickly discussed the situation:

"First of all, said Rudiger, should we actually divide our war effort to help those pacifists? They've never been very supportive of our actions!"

"Correct, but incomplete, noted the commander: The Wolves are themselves a force to be reckoned with, and a force that we will have to oppose sooner or later. It would prove advantageous to support a group that is already opposed to them while we deal with the Renegade."

"Beside, added Daniels, the Wolves are notorious for war crimes, and the Legion's code of honor says that we shouldn't overlook that on our territory. And the entire town is supposed to our territory, remember?"

"Don't forget the Renegade! reminded Brigsby. They're probably just waiting for us to split our troops so that they can strike!"

"What's the big question anyway! erupted Sergey. Those bullies are threatening innocent, um, civilians, we should help! It's as simple as that!"

"Not that simple, lieutenant Sergey, explained Rudiger: Splitting our force in two would give the Renegade a golden opportunity."

"Then don't split in two; just send me."

"Do you think you can have a serious impact on the situation all by yourself, lieutenant?"

"I think I have more experience than anybody else with dealing with oversized bullies. I'm requesting permission to intervene, sir."

"Hmmmm...Granted!"

While the Legion was debating on the matter of intervention in a parallel conflict, the Renegade was preparing its counter-strike:

"I'm not sure I like dealing with that 'Madman', comrade Whiteout."

"I don't like it either, comrade Bushido. His kind - the arms dealer - are among the worst scoundrels of war, filling their pockets thanks to conflicts. It seems, however, that with the escalation of the ancient war of the Renegade against the Legion, the later has gotten the upper hand; without the dealer's bold plan, we were doomed to defeat!"

"Speaking of which, said Shuriken, I'm not sure I like the plan, either. It is, indeed, bold, but it is also insane, just like the brain behind it. I'm not even sure we can pull off a stunt like that!"

"Which is why we will be spending the following hours training for tomorrow's strike, comrade."

"Shouldn't the book sent to us by the sensei suffice, anyway?"

"I have skimmed through 'Advanced Snow-Fu'. I will give us an edge, but remember that it never pays to underestimate Rudiger - he is dangerous."

"Thanks for helping, Sergey." said Abbey as the two headed toward the Wolves' location.

"It's nothing, really. Just doing my duty in the Legion."

"Now where did you get that line from? It's not the Legion's routine to oppose bullying - most of the time they just play 'war' against the ninjas and try to control everything. So I'd like to ask you - why are you hanging around with that Rudiger? He's only a notch or two better than Neal!"

"I don't know...But, y'know...I didn't really know anybody here, even after 6 months. Then I saw how the Legion works...It's really, um..."

"Cool?"

"Yeah, that's it. And I haven't seen them do anything bad so far, you know."

"That's because they're too busy with their never-ending 'war'. Most of the time, Rudiger is trying to enforce his military rule over the neighborhood. He does fight off all kinds of bullies - or at least he used to, before they stopped - but he figures it gives him the right to raise taxes on everyone. He isn't as bad as the Wolves, I'll give you that - but I still think we would all be better off without the Legion in Somewhere. Oh! Look!"

It appeared that the Wolves were near-done with their dirty deed: They were almost finished putting snow on what could be assumed to be four 'graves' for the Squirrels.

"Darn! said Abbey. What do we do now?"

"We use our main advantage: our brains, said Sergey. Let's quickly find a strategy..."

Shortly afterwards, the Wolves were surprised by a quick strike as Sergey and Abbey charged toward them, throwing a handful of snowballs, passed between them, and continued their straight path in the woods.

"After them! yelled Neal. I'll stay here and make sure the girls don't escape yet from their tombs!"

The four Wolves raced after Sergey and Abbey, but the two younger kids had a head start. The Wolves didn't even notice as they hid behind trees, and the bullies passed them, thinking that their prey was still beyond them. As soon as the Wolves were far enough, Sergey and Abbey left their hide-out, and went back to Neal.

Neal was unpleasantly surprised: "How did you schmucks get away from my buddies?"

"Well, your friends do pass the 'big and dumb' test with flying colors", said Abbey.

" 'doesn't matter anyway. I'm sooo gonna pound ya into next week."

Sergey positioned himself for combat. It wasn't the first time he fought against somebody bigger and stronger than him. It was almost a habit. Except that here, the difference in strength was overpowering: Neal was 3 years older than him, and pretty big and tough for his age. "Think fast. He can crush me in close-combat. But I can't avoid it for long. Must put at disadvantage. Must gain time."

Both fighters charged toward each other. But before collision, Sergey unexpectedly dove toward Neal's legs, causing him to trip and fall head-first in the snow. Sergey got up before he did, let himself fall on Neal's back - causing him to squeal in what was an unmistakable sign of pain - and got away before Neal could catch him. By the time the bully got up, Sergey had rolled an 8-inch-thick snowball - speed and dexterity were his department - and hurled it toward his enemy's cheek.

Furious, Neal charged Sergey; Sergey kneeled, picked up some powdery snow, and threw it toward Neal's face, thus blinding him temporarily. Neal held his face, letting his guard down, an opportunity that Sergey took to charge him. Soon the two were rolling in the snow, fighting savagely. Sergey had the advantage at first, but eventually Neal's strength prevailed. He stood up, basking in his victory against a kid who wasn't as high as his neck, and whom he lifted, holding him by the collar.

"You loser! Didja really think a bug like you could defeat me?"

"Actually, he was just buying time." said Abbey.

Neal turned and, in horror, understood: While he had been busy fighting Sergey, Abbey had dug up one of her friends, who had helped her dig up another one, and so on. The five Squirrels, all free, had had enough time to make about 10-15 snowballs each, and seemed quite intent to use them.

Thinking fast, Neal threw Sergey toward the girl-scouts. That was one of the smartest things he had ever done. That was also pretty stupid (thinking fast wasn't Neal's main skill): The Squirrels were about 5 yards away from Neal, and there was absolutely no way he could throw Sergey that far. Sergey fell on the snow, and the Squirrels showered Neal in snowballs. After being hit some 60 times, Neal fell to the ground, unable to respond.

"Come on, Sergey" said Abbey while helping him get up. "We'd better get going before the other Wolves come back."

After being given some hot chocolate and thank-yous by the Squirrels, Sergey went back to the Legion's HQ. The fort was already completed; it was a truly impressive sight. After getting Sergey's report, Rudiger congratulated him on "kicking those barbarians' butts", and told him of his plans to smother the Renegade. "Today, the neighborhood. Tomorrow, the world!" Sergey asked a few questions concerning the Legion's policies, especially the taxing policies.

In Jenny's house, the Squirrels were discussing:

"We can't go patrolling tomorrow! With all that snow and being buried in it, we're gonna have a cold!"

"They said it's going to get warmer. And we can always take very warm cloths."

"But then we won't be able to run! If the Wolves see us, they'll finish us!"

"This is not the time to cower away from them! They're causing more trouble than ever! They mugged Brigsby yesterday! Blake, Dustin, Becca and Wendy barely dare to go out now! Neal thinks he rules the neighborhood, and if we stay inside, we prove him right!"

"Okay, buddies. They got away this time. But the scouts ain't gonna go without punishment. I just remembered something from a movie I saw a while ago. We're gonna do the same tonight to that Barbie-doll. Go Wolves! Aroooooooo!"

The sun was setting, and Raymond mannster - who preferred to be called Whiteout - was going home. At his doorstep, he was surprised to see a tough kid whom he had never really gotten to know, but whom he knew was called Sergey, and was a member of the hated Legion. Immediately shifting to combat position, Whiteout looked around to see if any other imperialist swine was around.

"Don't worry, I'm alone. And I didn't came to fight you - comrade."

"Did Rudiger send you here to negotiate?"

"Rudiger didn't send me at all. I came because I don't want the Legion to control the neighborhood. Your Renegade is fighting for freedom and equality - I like that. Do you have an opening position?"

"How do I know I can trust you?"

"I have two 'gifts': An officer's notebook..."

"We've been trying to get one for a long time, but it could be a fake."

"...and the 'blueprints' of the C-14 slushball."

In the Waterstones' home, Madman examined the situation: "I think I can tell where this is all leading...Perfect. One more transaction, plus the lab work...I'm such a genius, it's almost scary!"

End of Day 3.

Day 4:

That morning, Abbey was woken up as usual by her parents, had her morning routine, remembered the Squirrels' meeting, put on some snow cloths, opened the door...and was buried under an avalanche of snow, which had apparently been stacked up against her house's door during the night. Her parents were near-hysteric, and couldn't believe somebody had played such a prank on their household. It was such a mess!

Eventually, Abbey convinced her parents that it was okay, and that she didn't regret moving. Then, still angry at the Wolves, she made her way to the meeting.

That morning, Jenson woke up as usual a few minutes before his alarm clock was due to ring. He had his morning routine, which included a check-up of his computer and the Legion's plans for the day. Then, he put on the Legion's winter uniform, as well as his eternal sunglasses, and opened the door. But just as he left his block, something fell on him. Before being tied-up and gagged - which was an impressive feat, even if Jenson wasn't the best fighter in the Legion - he had more than enough time to realize that his attacker was none other than Whiteout, who had apparently been waiting for him on a limb. He also realized that it meant either one of two things: Either it was a freak coincidence - quite implausible - or the Renegade had somehow gotten ahold of the itinerary algorithm. The most plausible explanation was betrayal.

"I don't like this at all, Daniels. Four of our men are late. Now, with lieutenant Sergey, that's understandable; even if he's an officer, he's still a rookie. With privates John and Marty, that's unusual, but no newsflash. But with Jenson, that's a sign of the apocalypse. And with all of them together, that's a sign of hostile activity, presumably renegade. Daniels! Brigsby! I want everybody in combat position!"

"Shouldn't we send a reckon force, sir?"

"No way! There's already too few of us as it is - dividing our forces now would be suicide! Okay, not really - we've still got the fort and the C-14s!"

"You mean they actually had the nerve to booby-trap your own doorstep? What jerks!"

"Yeah! As if it wasn't bad enough that Rudiger and Whiteout keep fighting since age six, everybody also has to suffer because of those bullies!"

"And it doesn't matter that so far they always failed - they'll just keep trying to get revenge, and not just on those who opposed them!"

"Look, girls, we can complain as much as we want, but I think it would be more productive to actually do something. I mean, we can always rescue the hostages the Wolves take, but they'll just take some more. If we want them to stop, we have to force them!"

"Well said, Abbey. But I don't really see how we can do that. I'm positive that Neal's dad won't ground him for being a bully - sometimes I think he's proud of it! And before we try to take out the Wolves, I think we should make sure that they don't take us out!"

"That could be arranged."

The Squirrels looked around, but didn't see anyone who could have said those words. "Who are you? Where are you?"

"You may call me Madman, although my official name is Kevin Waterstone. And I have an offer to make to you."

"And that would be?"

"I happen to be very well-informed on the Wolves' movements - and on yours, too. For a good price, I could inform you of the paths to take in order to avoid your least-favorite barbarian horde, exactly the way I'm communicating with you right now."

"That sounds a bit far-fetched..."

"You will only pay me in a few days, after I have demonstrated the veracity of my claims."

"Sounds good. But what do you want?"

"$30 as well as 30 candies. To be more specific..."

"So you were our leak. Not surprising."

"Don't take it personally, comm...Jenson. I just don't agree with the Legion ideologically. Before 3rd grade, I was a weakling and a bully-magnet. When I decided to shape up and become the toughest kid in my neighborhood, I swore that I wouldn't become like the other muscle mountains; I wouldn't take advantage of my strength to exploit others. But the Legion does just that, even if I'll admit it's still better than normal bullies, with the code of honor and all."

"You assume quickly that the Renegade is better."

"Enough idle chat, said Whiteout. Commander, we brought you and the privates here not only to subtract you from Rudiger's forces, but also to obtain information. I won't ask you how to fabricate these deadly C-14s, as comrade Sergey explained to us not only how to build them, but also who gave you their secret. Madman may have given you an advantage, but he gave us victory!"

"Interesting. I see Madman has dealt with you too. What has he given you?"

"I see no good reason to give information to an enemy officer; I want information from you. More specifically, I want to know of the D-class fortress's weaknesses."

"I doubt it even has any weakness. It was designed to resist anything in conventional snow warfare."

"Well, I'd be surprised if you hadn't nevertheless thought of a way to attack it. You're always thinking, Jenson. I'll give you one last chance to give us information without unpleasantries."

"You have no knowledge of what knowledge I possess, but whether or not I know something that you don't, my reaction would be the same: No comment."

"I didn't expect anything less of you, commander. Well, I tried...I guess the unpleasantries may just as well begin." Turning to his apprentices, he said: "Start tickling!"

"Man, that's the worst holydays ever! First the Wolves try to make me their work-slave, then they kidnap my sister and don't even tie her up, and now not only am I too afraid to go out because I know the Wolves are out there, I'm also too afraid of walking in the middle of a full-scale battle between the Legion and the Renegade! And what's worse, our best hope is that these two keep up with their not-so-little war, cause if any of those loons wins, things would go insane - well, more insane, anyway."

"I see your point, answered Dustin. It's upsetting to be nothing more than a spectator in a conflict, and to still get hurt. You know," he said, as his eyes lit up, "there's this chatroom I found a couple of weeks ago, where I've been discussing with a few really smart people...There's Nerdboy, who's super-logical; Einstein, who's the smartest person I've ever talked to; Wonderchatter, who always has lots of insight..."

"What's your user name?"

"Dali."

"Figures."

"Anyway, maybe I should tell them about our problem. That would require revealing my age, but that shouldn't be a big deal...And if somebody could give us a good advice right now, then it would be them!"

"Hold it. You, Dustin, the genius with amazing artistic and computer skills, are actually going to ask for an advice!"

"Sheesh, Blake, stop making such a big deal out of this! Just because you've been called an idiot a few times doesn't mean you should develop an inferiority complex!"

Commander Jenson was extremely unemotional, especially for a kid. Always serious, always thinking, always poker-faced (not to hide something, but simply because expressing emotions wasn't natural for him). Very few people remembered him ever smiling, and he never, never laughed. After 22 minutes of tickling - which were starting to tire even his captors - he still wasn't laughing. He was, however, spasming and convulsing, making sounds which suggested near-desperate attempts to remain in control despite pain, and trying not to faint from breathing difficulties.

Finally, he somehow managed to say: "Enough...Enough...I'll...tell you...(wheez)..."

"At last. I'm listening, commander. What are the weaknesses of the class-D fortress?"

"Southern wall...Structural failure...It would collapse if hit with sufficient strength, such as that of a kick."

"Very well. Comrade Bushido, go on reckon to see if such a weakness is apparent. I deeply mistrust any information coming from an enemy, even under heavy coercion."

"heavy coercion? That was nothing short of torture!" interrupted Sergey.

"War isn't pretty, comrade. But what must be done for the noble cause will be done."

"Anyway, you're wasting your time. Just yesterday I asked Jenson if the fortress was any more vulnerable from any particular direction. He said it wasn't."

Whiteout eyed Sergey, then Jenson, who had regained his full composure and was looking at him with his single-minded look, which would have probably been very disturbing if his eyes were visible, instead of hidden behind his shades. Finally, the head of the Renegade spoke:

"As always, you impress me, commander. Not only do you resist torture for a longer time than almost any other person could hold, but when you finally break, it is only to give your enemies false information. Although I'm almost surprised that you didn't give us false information that comrade Sergey couldn't refute."

"It's hard to think after your 'coercion'."

"Indeed. Anyway, this matters not: With or without a weakness in the imperialist fortress, we of the Renegade are finally going to defeat Rudiger and his men once and for all!"

"By the way, said Sergey, about the whole snow-fu thing...I can live with the fact that we know next to nothing about this 'sensei' who gave you both books and taught you this martial art...But I'm worried that I have almost zero experience with it. I think I'm a pretty good fighter as it is, but my fighting style is very different from yours! Won't that be a problem?"

"You will learn. And for now, your way of fighting will be sufficient. Enough idle talk now: Cry havoc! For justice! For equality!"

"Okaaay, said Jenny, is that all you want, your majesty?"

"That was almost funny. Almost. But no, there's still one thing I want. Nothing big, really. It's just that, you see, Somewhere is a big jigsaw puzzle, and there's still a piece or two that I haven't found..."

"What do you want?"

"Simple: I want to understand what exactly happened between miss Abigail Sanders, also known as Abbey, and Mr. Blake Cadenza."

All eyes stopped looking for the source of Madman's disembodied voice, and turned toward Abbey, who looked rather annoyed:

"That's none of your business, and it's not a big deal anyway!"

"Nor do I think it is one. But if I am to understand what makes you people tick, I need this kind of details. Need I remind you that last time you met the Wolves, they tried to bury you in the snow...And now, that you've humiliated them again, they'll probably want to do worse?"

"Okay, okay! Here's the story: When I came here a bit less than a year ago, Blake was one of the first people I met, because my table in the classroom is right next to his and Dustin's. On the first day of school, he tried to approach me in the canteen, tried to flirt with me - pathetically - but then he was amazed that I took the vegetables instead of the meat. When I told him that eating meat was against my beliefs, he immediately assumed I was in a cult or something. When I told him that he was encouraging the slaughter of innocent animals, he replied that he 'had a deal with the vegetables: He didn't bother them and they didn't bother him'. When he thought I wasn't hearing, he told Dustin that kids didn't eat their vegetables, period, and I must have been brainwashed. The next day, he picked up some unnecessary ego, and flirted with me in the most idiotic and annoying way. I then scared him enough that he left me alone for a little while, then he tried to approach me with Becca - he was probably thinking something in the lines of 'chicks dig little sisters'. Luckily for me, Becca explained to him rather loudly that I just didn't want to be with him. That's how Becca became a friend of mine.

Since then, he has tried a few times to approach me, but I've always told him to leave me alone. There. That's all there is to the story."

"(chuckle) Poor guy."

"Well, yeah, I'm kinda sorry for him. But he just won't take a hint."

"Okay, are you satisfied now, Mr. enigmatic ghost?"

"Sure. So I'm gonna tell you to head North now, or the Wolves will catch you in about 3 minutes."

Three legionnaires were attached to a tree: Two privates and one commander. The latter, never without tools and resources, had figured a way to have a blade from his Swiss army knife rub against the rope.

"Still nothing from any of the missing soldiers. This isn't good, boys...We have a definite advantage here, but we must be extremely careful. We may have superior weaponry, fortification, numbers and organization, but the enemy - especially this enemy - is not to be underestimated. Ever."

On top of a small hill full of trees that overlooked the class-D fortress, four figures in white ninja suites were preparing their sleds. Before launching the assault, Whiteout said: "You build a wall - I watch it fall."

In a second, the renegades began their high-speed course toward their objective. Normally, going like this through the woods is suicide; but with renegade agility, together with a particular, less-dangerous path discovered by Madman, it was possible to race toward the fort without ever slowing.

Soon, the sleds had reached the imposing snow structure. Giving their sleds the right inclination, they were able to make them climb part of the way up to the top of the walls; Whiteout and Sergey then jumped, landing inside the fort, grabbing Rudiger before he could react, going with him over the wall, and getting back on their sleds, still holding Rudiger.

Having captured what was to them what Moby Dick was to Ahab, the renegades immediately rushed downhill, away from the 7 legionnaires still entrenched. However, two things blocked their escape: The first was the fact that Rudiger, not willing to go down without a fight, was braking as much as he could with his arms and legs. The second was that at the hill's bottom, they could see the very legionnaires they had previously captured, apparently freed and heading toward them.

"Stop! yelled Whiteout. You three defend our flanks. I settle something..."

Rudiger jumped on the occasion to get up. He glanced quickly toward the fourth renegade, with an angry, betrayed look that showed that he had understood who it was. Then, before anybody could stop him, he threw his walky-talky as far as he could downhill; it landed in the snow, a few feet away from commander Jenson, who quickly picked it up. Finally, the general faced his arch-nemesis.

"Stanson Rudiger, we meet again!"

"That's...That's general Rudiger to you, traitor!"

"Oh, so now you're a general, are ya? Pretty quick jump in the ranks since I left!"

"Why You..."

The two old enemies faced each other with anger deforming their faces; soon they would begin a duel of epic proportions. Their single-minded desire to destroy each other was suddenly interrupted when Shuriken yelled : "Look out!" Turning their heads, they saw the problem:

Even before getting a walky-talky, Jenson had been analyzing the situation: Right now, the general was alone amidst four renegades, two of whom were probably as good fighters as him. Even if he got in a duel with one of them, there was a risk that the Renegade would get away with the incapacitated general before the troops coming downward from the fort or those going upward with the commander could reach them. They had to be forced to flee now, while the general could resist attempts to take him away. Thus, Jenson had ordered the troops coming from the fort to quickly prepare a few king-sized snowballs, and throw them downward in the fashion of bowling balls. By the time the projectiles were halfway toward the Renegade and Rudiger, they were already about 3-feet thick, and a danger to anybody standing in their way.

"Follow me!" shouted Whiteout, leaving for now his much-awaited for duel with Stanson Rudiger and jumping on his sled. Soon, the Renegade was gone around the hillside and beyond the line of sight. The general, realizing that he didn't have the time to dodge the gigantic snowballs that were rolling toward him, made instead the snap decision of diving under one of them instead. The weight of the ball suffocated him during the split second during which it went over him, but at least he wasn't absorbed into it.

Less than a minute later, the entire Legion was gathered around the general, who was still catching his breath. He tried to say something to his men, but stopped in mid-track; his expression changed from satisfaction to horror, and he yelled: "Oh D...To the fort! Quick!"

The Legion immediately rushed toward the aforementioned building, with only some of its members understanding the general's fear. When they reached their base, however, it was too late: The Renegade, circling the hill, had had the time to run all the way to the fort from the other side, and were now entrenched in the class-D fortress with an ammo stack of more than a thousand c-14s! As soon as the Legion showed up, the ninja guerrilleros began to bombard them with an amazing fire rate of the devastating snow spheres. Rudiger understood quickly that he had no other choice but to order a retreat. If anything, the irony of this situation was sickening to him.

That evening, on a particular chatroom, 3 people were 'chatting'. Wonderchatter told them that he/she couldn't participate that night, because he/she had to work out some problems with some friends, some of which had a small cold. Nevertheless, the discussion was interesting:

Dali: Say everybody, I got a problem and thought u might help

Einstein: Please tell.

Dali: See, I'm 10 and there are bullies in my neighborhood who pick up on everyone, including me and my friend. Suggestions?

Einstein: I'd suggest finding an ally stronger than them. U probably don't want an adult...

Dali: Not really.

Einstein: Try someone who knows everything about them. Somebody resourceful and well-informed. Sure there's one.

Nerdboy: An ally from the inside, or just well-informed? Either useful, but double agents complications.

Einstein: Try someone who knows a lot.

Dali: And if he doesn't want to help us?

Einstein: He'll surely find something u can do for him.

Nerdboy: Probably correct.

Dali: Maybe u're right. I'll try.

Nerdboy: Please inform of further events.

Before going to sleep, Madman examined the weather conditions. "Looks like we'll have a blizzard tomorrow. Good."

End of Day 4.

Day 5:

True to the predictions of the weathermen and of Madman, on the 5th day of the snowball war the conflict was set back by heavy snowfalls and winds. This wasn't the kind of day where you wanted to stay outside for long; Dustin and Blake, however, dared to walk all the way from heir respective homes to the Waterstones'.

"You really think going to see that bonker could help?"

"Well, we know he's super-smart...And he seems very well-informed. I say it's worth a shot."

In Jenson's basement, the Legion - now composed, again, of only 10 members - was reviewing the situation:

"The Renegade now has four members, including Whiteout and Sergey. This means they stand a chance against us in an all-out fight. They evidently know how to make C-14s, and have an enormous stash of them. finally, they have the class-D fortress, which we designed to be impossible to take. At first glance, it might seem like they've become invincible in one day.

However, we're not going to let this bunch of masked commies have the last word - we're gonna show them who's boss! We will strike back, and bring forth punishment over what they just did! Go Legion!

Suggestions, anyone?"

At Jenny's, the Squirrels were resting, enjoying their hot chocolate and marshmallows, and discussing of war and politics.

"You can't expect bullies to leave you alone. As long as they think they can get away with it, they'll pick up on those weaker than them, said Jenny."

"But they don't get away with it! They've been hit by catapulted super-snowballs, Neal's been hit by a barrage of normal snowballs..."

"True, said Abbey, but they still don't take it seriously. For them, no matter how often we escape, how often we beat them in a hit-and-run operation, how often we win, we're still smaller kids whom they have the right to crush because they can."

"Abbey has a point, said Jenny. And even if this 'Madman' has helped us avoid the Wolves yesterday, and will continue to do so, it doesn't solve the problem. They'll keep going after us, and after everybody else, unless we make sure that they can't get away with it.

But even if we solve the Wolves' problem, we're still stuck in a war zone with the Legion and the Renegade. We have to find a way to put this conflict on hold."

"Then let's get thinking", concluded Abbey.

"Please come in", Madman told Blake and Dustin. "I've been expecting you."

"Figures", noted Blake.

"You see, said Dustin, the town has been going crazy - well, crazier - this winter, and it just isn't safe to be outside anymore. So we figured, since you appear to have plenty of resources, maybe you could help us or something..."

"Nothing's free, my friends. I can ensure that you won't get mugged during these holidays, but I'll want something in exchange."

"What else could you possibly want! interrupted Blake. Last time I bought your help, it was anything but cheap! I'm kinda short on cash right now!"

"I know, and I won't ask for money. For avoiding you trouble with the bullies, I want you to help me with one of my technological projects!"

"Uh-oh. That sounds like troubles..."

"Here is my 'computer lab', also known as 'my room'. It serves more purposes than just computer games and Internet functions, of course."

"What is it that you do with them, then?" asked Dustin, quickly shifting from apprehension to curiosity.

"Well, among other things there's this chatroom I created, and were I convinced a few interesting characters to discuss regularly. Here are the logs:"

Dustin examined the chatroom's logs, first with curiosity, then bewilderment: "That's...That's the discussions I've been having lately with Nerdboy, Einstein and Wonderchatter!"

"Quite indeed, 'Dali'. All of you were looking for intelligent discussion with intellectual equals. That's why steering you toward this chatroom was easy. You had insights on art that would lay a good deal of professional critics to shame - even if that's not saying much - as well as a better understanding of psychology than any of our parents, and computer skills that could get you a job in the IT market. Nerdboy, aka Jenson, may have had the satisfaction of bringing victories to the Legion, but only here did he find people who understood the more technical side of his work. Wonderchatter, aka Abbey, is a prodigy in her own right, and has more people skills than all the presidents we've had rolled together: Have you seen how well she has adjusted to Somewhere since moving, less than a year ago? As for me, Einstein, aka Kevin, aka Madman, I was smart enough to lure you all here, and talk, and talk, and talk, revealing many things that helped me understand the interpersonal dynamics of this town in record time!"

Dustin and Blake were at first too flabbergasted to reply. Eventually, Dustin came to his senses:

"So it was you, Abbey and Jenson the whole time? Did either of them ever find out?"

"Heck no! Remember, I was the one who advised not to go into too much details about the various 'examples of situations' we gave during our talks. So you would sometimes recognize a situation that resembled a bit one that someone in your town had. But these few weeks, even if they were enough to obtain much information, were not enough for any of you to figure out who the other three were! That's no wonder, since you didn't even have a reason to think these were people you knew."

"Okay, I'm impressed. So yesterday, you suggested that we come and see you about our problem."

"Exactly. You're starting to understand."

"But wait...You said your 'computer lab' was also for other things than games and Internet, and somehow, I don't think you're talking about your bed over there."

"Correct. Let me show you something:"

Madman then proceeded to a few operations on his computer. Soon, a schematic map of the neighborhood appeared, with many green dots here and there. Some were red and flashing. Madman clicked on a red one. Immediately, sound began to flow from the computer, not much unlike that of an old radio: "I'm telling you, the kids these days are crazy. Those with the Rudigers' kid take their army thing more seriously than I take my job. I mean, sure, Rudiger is a Navy Seals captain, so it's no wonder his son wants to be a military, but they're just going too far. As for those with the Mannsters' son, all I know is that they're Rudiger's enemies. Then there's Richard's son, Neal. I really don't like that punk's gang; they're street criminals in training..." The voice became too dim to be heard, but Blake and Dustin had already recognized it: It was the voice of Jenny's mother.

Smiling triumphantly, Madman turned to his guests, and said in an affected casual tone: "I call this network 'Sub-Echelon'."

Dustin remained silent for a moment, still processing the information and making logical conclusions in his mind. Eventually, he began talking:

"Sub-Echelon. Of course. Echelon is the codename for the American electronic surveillance program that taps into phone, fax and e-mail communication. What you did was hide an entire network of microphones through the town, so that you could hear what everyone said -"

"Only when they were outside. Please don't think that I have a way of knowing everything that is being said; some happens outside the network's 'earshot', and I couldn't possibly listen to everything that is recorded."

"Right. These green dots each represent a bug; when a bug detects some noise, it informs your computer, and the dot goes red. With this network, you've been able to spy on all of us without us ever suspecting that we were being spied upon!"

"This is sick! interrupted Blake. For how long have you been violating our privacy like this!"

"Sub-Echelon was operational about one week after we moved here."

"Anyway, continued Dustin, I suppose your bugs have two-way communication. That's where the disembodied voice was coming from."

"Brilliant, Holmes. Of course, I'm a bit more talented than Moriarty..."

"Hold a sec, said Blake. But if the voice was coming from some microphone, we would probably have found it!"

"Not at all. They were well hidden on trees, in bushes...And I camouflaged them well. Remember, you were looking for a hidden human, not a half-inch large machine. Beside, in most places, the microphones are close enough that I could speak through two of them at once, making the search even more complicated."

"Well, said Dustin, I have but three things to say: First, that this entire system is simply brilliant. Second, that I agree with Blake on one thing: This is sick. You may pride yourself an evil genius, but this is just too much. Lastly, I have a question: How on earth could you create something like that! You're about 10-years old!"

"Well, aside from my natural genius, amazing brilliance and charming modesty, I also have a personal history that made me quite adept at this sort of things. But I'm not here to tell you my life story - I'm here to gloat about my achievements, and then present you with a deal."

"I think I can see how you can help us against the Wolves: With Sub-Echelon, you could always warn us against their approach, and tell us where they're coming from. But what do you want in return?"

"To explain that, we'll have to go to the basement..."

"Come to think of it, the situation isn't as bad as it seems" said general Rudiger. The Renegade may have our fort, but that's actually not an advantage for them: Now that they have it, they're going to fell obligated to keep it, and to defend it. The kicker is, that's what they're worst at: They're a guerrilla force; they know how to strike at a vital point, neutralize an expedition force, cut supply lines...But they always rely on attacking before they realize they're close, and running away before we can strike back. Now, they're going to stay sitting duck in our supposedly-impossible- to-take fort, waiting for us to attack them! If we can only figure a way to breach their defenses, we can crush them like bugs!

So basically, we need a gimmick to crash inside the fort. Suggestions, anyone? Jenson?"

"Here is the basement, which is mostly my workshop. My parents don't go here much; I suppose some of my inventions scare them off. Like that time two years ago when I decided to make my own gunpowder..."

"How frankensteinesque. I see you're into that 'mad scientist' thing at full steam."

"Yeah, added Blake, I'm half-expecting to see Igor popping out from a corner..."

"I think this time, we're Igor", reminded him Dustin.

"That's the spirit. I usually build my machines alone, but there's this little problem..."

"Which would be?"

"Explosives. You see, I have enough knowledge and equipment to make them...But it's still very dangerous. Now, a lot of what I do is dangerous, but this is dangerous to me. I have to be extra-careful with that stuff, and that takes time...As a result, some of my more urgent projects are behind schedule, and I need a couple of lab assistants."

"Hold it right there! objected Blake. There's no way I'm manipulating explosives, you hear me! No way!"

"Come on, do you really think I'd let somebody without prior experience in chemical handling fiddle with explosives in my workshop! My creations could get damaged! No, the explosives - simple black powder, to be specific - are already complete, and I put them where I'm sure they won't explode. I just need your help building a machine - the dangerous part will be when we all test it together."

End of Day 5.

Day 6:

On the 6th day of the Snowball War, the weather was rather pleasant. As a result, the events were not:

The Legion, thirsty for payback, was converging toward their fortress-turned-Renegade-lair. They were pulling with them 3 identical contraptions, built on sleds...

"Y-you're absolutely, completely positive that this infernal machine won't blow up, right?" said Blake.

"I told you, I made this thing as safe as it gets. You don't think I would get on it if I wasn't sure, do you?"

"Well, you do seem clinically insane..."

"I may be a mad scientist, but I don't have a death wish. Now let's get on, and let's roll!"

Madman and his very nervous lab assistants, all wearing helmets and goggles, then mounted what seemed like a wooden sled/bike hybrid, with a homemade rocket on each side, and what looked roughly like a rifle/cannon hybrid mounted on its back.

"I'm telling you, the whole system is pretty simple. It's been done before! I'm just the first one to do that with a sled..."

With Madman steering, Dustin in the middle and Blake behind holding the 'cannon', the group set off as the twin rockets began burning their fuel, whatever it was. The effect was pretty impressive, as the vehicle easily reached a speed of 15-20 mph. Madman was making sounds which could be interpreted as a mix of adrenaline and satisfaction; his assistants were making, phonetically, something like "AAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIAAAAAAUUUUUUGGGHHHHH!"

The high-speed course went on for more than one-and-a-half minute, during which they raced through Somewhere's surroundings. While Madman wasn't being careful enough to get a driver's license, he at least had the good sense of avoiding the more woody areas. After Blake and Dustin stopped screaming - being oxygen consuming creatures - he told them : "Okay, seems to work. Last time I checked, the Wolves were going this way...Dustin, you always lean with the vehicle to compensate for Blake's movements, Okay?"

"K-k-ok-okay!"

"You, Blake, use the compressed air cannon to blast them!"

"Y-y-y-yes sir!"

"Then let's rock!"

Neal and the Wolves were growing more and more frustrated: They kept searching and searching, but just couldn't find the girl-scouts or, for that matter, any easy target at all! The worms were probably hiding in their homes. And even if building a snow fort - like the one they had built downhill - was less satisfying than it used to be, muggings always gave them the same satisfaction...And were always a profit-bringing activity. If they couldn't get some good violence quick, this would be their dullest Christmas vacation yet...

Suddenly, they heard a strange noise coming in their direction, a bit like that of jet planes flying nearby. They turned toward the noise, trying to figure out what could make it. After less than 10 seconds, they saw the most bizarre sight of their life so far: some kind of rocket-sled with three kids on it, who couldn't be recognized with their helmets and goggles. The vehicle was still some 20-25 yards away when the driver yelled "Fire!". The following second, the kid at the back aimed some kind of cannon in at them. Then, with a sound like a gunshot, snowballs shot from the cannon and hit the Wolves at a speed that could never be reached by a thrown snowball, and knocked the Wolves down. Still astounded, the 14-years old didn't react at first...And then got up, with Neal yelling: "After them! Kill! Kill! Kill!". Of course, there was absolutely no way the Wolves could run in the snow at only half the sled's speed...

"I think we've lost them! said Dustin. You can slow down now!"

"Actually, we're headed for the lake", replied Madman.

"What!" yelled Blake and Dustin in chorus.

"Bail out!" shouted Madman, letting himself fall from the sled. Blake and Dustin were quick to do the same.

The whiz kid's crazy contraption kept moving at high speed, finally reaching the downward slope that was followed by the presently-frozen lake. I continued in its course, going almost 10 feet in the air - arguably, it was the ground that went 10 feet downward, and the sled that had kept to its course before finally giving in to gravity, but the result was nevertheless impressive. It then crashed into the lake's frozen surface, its rockets exploding from the shock in a fiery deflagration that pyrotechnicians often try to reproduce. Amazingly, the ice didn't break.

The three test-pilots approached the lake, and for a while just stood there and watched. Finally, Madman pulled a notebook from his pocket, and said as he wrote: "Rocket-sled test: Complete success."

Blake turned to the mad-scientist-in-training, grabbed him, and yelled: "Complete success? You almost killed us!"

Madman calmly replied: "That's not trying to kill you. Dropping a 2-feet wide water balloon full of poison ivy juice on you wouldn't be trying to kill you, either. Nor would it be what I will do to you if you don't let go of me now - I'll do something worse."

In what was probably the wisest move, Blake let Madman go, and did his best to calm down.

"Of course, our deal still holds - you have my protection from the Wolves till the holydays are over. But for now, I'd suggest that we go this way."

"Why?"

"Because according to Sub-Echelon's observations and my own logical predictions, something important is going to take place there, and it would be in our best interest to take part in it."

Glancing one last time at the still-burning remains of his invention on the thinning layer of ice, he added: "One more tip: Don't walk on the lake."

The attack was brutal, but nevertheless well-organized: On each of the Legion's sleds, Jenson had attached a plank big enough for the legionnaires to walk on it. The planks were in a diagonal position, so that when the sleds were put against the fortress's walls, the legionnaires could use the planks as ladders leading inside the fort. To make climbing even easier, Jenson had put the biggest nails in his workshop halfway through the planks, so that one could step on them easily. All the legionnaires had to do was push the siege-machines next against the fort's walls; the renegades couldn't even shoot them down with snowballs, because the plank protected them.

With optimism-boosting ease, the Legion charged inside the fort. The D-class had been made big enough to hold 11 legionnaires, and even more, but in this situation, the combatants weren't very far apart; the battle was waged almost completely in close-combat.

While there was no doubt that the Renegade had far better fighters than the Legion - except for Rudiger, who had trained intensively since the very beginning - the Legion had the advantage of numbers. The advantage of surprise, however, was already gone: The Renegade hadn't expected such an attack, but the masters of advanced Snow-Fu, as well as Sergey the Invincible, as he had been nicknamed in Moscow, all had quick reactions. Neither side was winning; Rudiger was in the process of stuffing a big chunk of the wall into Whiteout's face, who was himself in the process of administrating a Snow-Fu kick to Rudiger's belly, when somebody shouted: "Hold it!"

The fighters turned and saw the source of the yell: Abbey, obviously upset, who was together with the rest of the Squirrels, as well as Becca and Wendy; Madman, Blake and Dustin were coming, too, from another direction. Abbey went on:

"Are you people nuts! You declare war on each other, you keep it going for years, everybody's afraid of becoming civilian casualty...That's insane! You tie each other to trees, crush each other with barrages of snowballs, kick each other...What fun is this! You two" she said, indicating Rudiger and Whiteout, "have been fighting each other for so long, I'm not even sure you know clearly what you're fighting for!"

"We're sworn mortal enemies, replied Rudiger. I thought that much was clear."

"Besides, added Whiteout, we have ideological disagreements..."

"...and you're pulling everyone into them with you. Nice."

"The moral sermon can wait, interrupted Jenny. We must ask you to put the conflict on hold for a short while, so that everybody can participate in some...negotiations."

A few minutes later, everybody was preparing the chairs in the snow for the diplomatic talks: The Legion, somewhat put off by not getting a complete revenge on the Renegade right now, but satisfied that things were still well-organized; the Renegade, appalled at having to negotiate with the Legion, but content with having discussions that might lead to a greater good; the Squirrels, who had been preparing for these talks since the previous day; Blake, Dustin, Becca and Wendy, who were hoping to be done with the war; and Madman, still as mysterious as always. And while everything was being set, some individual discussions were taking place:

"So basically, I was Dali, Madman was Einstein, Abbey was Wonderchatter and you...were Nerdboy. I still can't believe he's been manipulating us like that."

"This is especially interesting paired with other data: Madman has been selling 'military technology' to the Legion as well as the Renegade. We should inform Abigail, as soon as she is done talking to Sergey."

"So, I see that you've 'gone renegade'."

"Yeah, I thought about what you said...and what I saw...Rudiger's Legion is better than normal bullies, but not better enough. So I thought..."

"...that you'd be on the good side by fighting against them."

"I don't know what I was thinking...No, wait, that's not rue: I know what I was thinking. I was thinking that the renegades were idealists, and that they wanted to make everybody equal, and fight bullies. But they're insane, and they're so caught up in their war against the Legion, that they've lost touch with reality. So who should I work with - and why do I suddenly want to work with anyone at all? Back in Moscow, I always got by alone..."

"I'm no analyst, but...Well, I mean, you've been here for 6 months and we still hardly know you!"

"I didn't even know much English before coming here, so yeah, I've been a loner. Maybe that's why I wanted to join a group. And the Legion was just so organized, so...Do you have a word for it in English?"

" 'Cool'?"

"Yeah. But even if they're not really bad, like the Wolves, they're still...I just couldn't agree with that. So I thought I'd be on the good side with the Renegade. But, no matter what group I join, it will never completely agree with me on everything, will it?"

"I don't think so. But you don't have to join any group, you know."

Eventually, all was set in place, and Jenny began her speech, on which she had worked for almost an hour:

"Ladies and gentleman, as you all know, snowball-fights have escalated this winter to the point of total war. There are multiple conflicts raging, and civilians don't dare to go out anymore. Before we discuss any possible pacific resolution to this conflict, I believe we should take care of the one element which won't agree to peace: The Wolves.

Everybody here, at a point or another, has suffered because of the Wolves: They've always been exploitive, sadistic bullies, and they keep getting worse. They keep attacking civilians and combatants alike, mug innocents, kidnap for ransom...This is why I suggest a temporary alliance to stop them."

"Hold it right there, Blue Beret, interrupted Rudiger. I dislike the Wolves just as much as the next guy, but with all due respect, this sounds a bit like you're asking everybody to wage your war for you. What's then to keep me from asking to form an alliance against the Renegade, or vice-versa?"

"There's a few differences. We, the Squirrels, are the only group here that isn't aiming for power, but for peace and the security of the non-combatants."

"I object to that! said Whiteout. The Renegade isn't aiming for power, but for justice!"

"But you try to take the power so that you can force justice, replied Abbey. Same thing as far as this subject is concerned."

"If I may add, Madman joined the conversation: If you look at it long-term, the Wolves are everybody's enemies. If they make squirrelburgers, and wreak havoc on the non-aligned among us, their next target will be any group that stands in their way to domination over the neighborhood. They'll go after the Legion and the Renegade in no time, and they might actually win; they're dumber than gnats, but stronger than oars. I'm not a military leader - although I can win easily at any strategy game - but I'm smart enough to tell that it's better to go after those bullies now and together than wait. That's my 2 cents worth."

"I would like to point out that the Wolves' actions go against the entire military honor code, noted Jenson. An alliance against them is justified both strategically and morally, according to the Legion's rules. I suggest to join any alliance against them, sir."

"As far as the Renegade is concerned, admitted Whiteout, the Wolves are nothing more than exploiters who live by the rule of force. That would make them targets of importance equal to that of the Legion..."

"What I suggest, concluded Jenny, is an alliance of everybody present to defeat the Wolves once and for all. If they were to suffer a truly crushing defeat, I think they would leave us all alone for a good while. The Squirrels will be a part of this alliance. What about you?"

"Count me in", said Becca.

"Ditto", replied Wendy.

"Gladly", said Dustin.

"Same here", added Blake.

"We will aid you in defeating the swine!" declared Whiteout.

"The Legion will participate in this campaign", decided Rudiger after consulting with his officers.

"Well, I suppose I've already milked everything from you people, pondered Madman. Oh, what the heck, it might be fun. I'm in."

"Then we have consensus, said Jenny. First, we must come up with a battle plan. We'll need a map..."

"Here's one" said Jenson, handing a computer-generated map of the neighborhood.

"The wolves have built their new snow fort here" said Madman, indicating a location on the map.

"Those idiots! said Rudiger. Don't they have any sense of strategy whatsoever! They've put their snow fort right next to a hill from where anybody can attack them with the advantage of high grounds!"

"Yeah, it helped when we rescued Becca, noted Abbey. But how do we get them?"

"If I may suggest, said Madman, I have a few inventions that I'm dying to test on them..."

"Like what?"

"There's three. First, the Avalanche Bomb. See, I made some simulations of the snow on this hill...My idea was to take a metallic recipient for highly-compressed gas, not much unlike an extinguisher, and connect it to an inflatable object, not much unlike an inflatable life-boat. Because it's so compressed, the whole thing takes a very small volume, and could easily be buried under the snow at the top of the hill. Then, all I have to do is push a button, and the inflatable object will multiply in volume, pushing away the snow in such a way that it will cause a micro-avalanche to run down the hillside, wrecking the Wolves' fort."

"Uh...Are you completely positive that this crazy machine will work?" asked Abbey.

"99 percent sure. Now, for my second invention: The C-18! Here's a sample." He handed it to general Rudiger, who examined it: It looked like a snowball covered with a fin ice layer, with a piece of rubber protruding from the snow, but covered itself with the ice. Intrigued, the general asked: "What is it?"

"It's simple: I took an empty balloon, and built a snowball around it, letting only the end of the balloon sticking out. I then let small amounts of water near freezing temperature stream on the snowball, forming a solid layer of ice around it. Then I stuck an air pump in the end of the balloon, and filled it with air. Finally, I covered the tip of the balloon with a layer of ice. Of course, these take some time to make, and so far I only have a batch of 30."

"I see, commented commander Jenson: The high pressure inside the C-18 makes it prone to a very weak 'explosion'. When it hits the target, the ice layer breaks, and the 'explosion' ejects with additional energy the ice and compressed snow. A powerful projectile."

"Exactly. Finally, my most sadistic weapon..."

"I don't like the sound of this", worried Abbey.

"Don't worry, I won't break the Geneva Convention. Anyway, I couldn't bring a sample with me, but here's the principle: I took a balloon - again - which I put inside a balloon, which I put inside another balloon: The three layers of rubber give a stronger resistance to pressure. I then filled it with water, increasing the pressure to a point where I'm fairly sure a single balloon would burst; finally, I kept at a temperature of minus 15 centigrade, well below freezing temperature: The water 'wants' to freeze, but the pressure from the balloons keep it from doing so. But when you throw on it on, say, a wolf, the balloons break, the pressure drops, and the water freezes almost instantly, giving you an ice-covered dofus! I name this weapon - the Ice Bomb!"

"Creepy, said Jenny, obviously ill-at-ease. But with all that, and a good strategy, I don't think there's a way we could lose. Of course, we'll need some time to produce enough ammo...But tomorrow, we strike!"

End of Day 6.

Day 7:

"This is boooring" complained Neal, sitting idle in his rudimentary fort. "C'mon, guys, let's go Squirrel-hunting! The girlies are still gonna pay!"

"Yeah, chief, let's...Hey, what's that on top of the hill?"

On top of the hill was assembled a heteroclite alliance of 24 kids aged from 7 to 11, all ready for battle. Realizing the importance of the moment, Jenny felt, for a short moment, dwarfed by the turn of the events, but quickly regained her composure, realizing that they were going to fight and win for a noble cause, and in no small part thanks to her.

Some of the Alliance's members were puzzled by the fact that Sergey had come without any uniform whatsoever - but not the Squirrels, with whom he had had a talk the previous day: He obviously couldn't join the girl-scouts, nor did he want to, but he considered himself an associate on matters such as the protection of the neighborhood.

Jenny addressed the Alliance: "Final check: Squirrels, ready?"

"Ready!" replied four different voices.

"Legion?"

"As ready as we'll ever be!" answered Rudiger.

"Renegade?"

"Ready as ever!" said Whiteout.

"The non-aligned?"

"Fine."

"Ready."

"Let's roll!"

"Let's rock!"

"Yeah, let's!" replied Wendy, Becca, Dustin, Blake and Sergey.

"Then, uh, Madman?"

"Everything is primed and ready, Miss UN secretary!"

"Then, Madman, unleash the Avalanche Bomb!"

"We'll show them hell!"

In their fort downhill, the Wolves were still trying to figure out what the heck was going on, when, to their amazement, the snow uphill began to move, as if something big was coming from under it (actually, the Avalanche Bomb was taking up volume). At first, the noise was a mechanical whistling, coming from the air pressure system. But then, the noise became a heavy rumbling, as frighteningly-large amounts of snow rushed downhill, burying the Wolves and their fort. Of course, this was a small hill, not a mountain, and the amount of snow wasn't big enough to be dangerous; the Wolves quickly pulled themselves out of the snow, although they were still somewhat dazed. That's when they heard "FIRE!"

Looking up, the Wolves saw a now-familiar sight: 15 super-sized, 2-feet-thick snowballs flying in their direction. They were too dazed to have the reflex to dodge, and were all hit without exception. As they slowly got up, aching all over, they heard a new yell: "CHARGE!"

Looking up again, the Wolves saw the next wave of attack: Four sled-riders - the Renegade and Sergey - charging toward them at high speed. "Fight 'em!" was all Neal said. The Wolves barely had the time to get into something vaguely resembling a defense position when they were hit by the sled-riders' projectiles: C-18s which, in addition to their improved punch, also got an additional kinetic energy boost from the sleds' movement speed. The Wolves never knew what hit them - but they knew it hit really hard. They didn't even get to fight the sled-riders, as they just went past them: Two went to their right, two other to their left, and circled them from behind, all the while throwing more and more C-18s. With their remaining inertia, the sled-riders then took some distance from the Wolves, leaving place for the final attack wave, as general Rudiger and Jenny, who had gone with their respective troops half the way downhill, yelled simultaneously: "CHARGE!"

The Wolves didn't stand a ghost of a chance: The 10 well-trained members of the Legion, the 3 martial artists of the Renegade, the 5 scouts of the Squirrels, Blake, Dustin, Becca, Wendy, and Sergey the Invincible all attacked them under the watchful gaze of Madman; not only were the odds of 23 to 5, but the Alliance also had a respectable batch of C-18s, and of the dreaded Ice Bombs: The Wolves were bewildered, to say the least, when after water balloons exploded on them, they suddenly found entire parts of their bodies covered in ice! Cornered, outnumbered, and outgunned, the Wolves tried to fight back, but after a short while it became obvious that they were losing big time, and they fled in the only direction by which the Alliance hadn't cornered them: Away from the hill. Bruised, battered, frozen, and generally distraught, they ran away from the battlefield as fast as they could, which wasn't that fast; some had a leg covered in ice.

Seeing the bullies running away, the members of the Alliance didn't pursue them, but threw a few last C-18s for good measure. But something had still to be done about the Wolves, and Jenny and Abbey knew how to take care of it as they moved toward a young tree.

"After you, my dear."

"Leaders first."

"I insist."

"Together, then. "

Feeling very smug - in a good way - the two each put an Ice Bomb on a low limb of the tree. Each then pulled her limb - and then let it go, catapulting the Ice Bombs toward Neal's legs. It was a double bull's-eye, and the bully, unable to move his legs (as they were now stuck inside a block of ice), fell nosefirst in the snow. His gang members didn't dare to stop to help him.

Crawling helplessly on the snow, Neal was a pathetic sight if there had ever been one; he didn't have any of that tough-guy confidence anymore. Pretty soon, he was surrounded by the victors.

"So, Neal" said Blake, "thought you could bully us forever, huh?"

"Did you really think we'd let you hurt whoever you wanted and get away with it?" added Jenny.

"We decided to punish you exploiters, and we'll do it again if we have to!" declared Whiteout.

"You greatly under-estimated us", gloated Rudiger.

"Beside, you're not half as smart as you seem to think, noted Madman."

Sergey then crouched, grabbed Neal by the collar, and lifted his head toward his own, as he said: "This time you got off light, Neal. But I swear, next time you hurt somebody here, you'll end up far worse." Sergey then dropped Neal, whose face dived in the snow again; he then crouched in front of the block of ice that held Neal's legs, concentrated, recalled what he had read in that old self-defense book, prepared his fist (with the right disposition of the fingers), breathed deeply, and yelled "haï!" as he broke the ice. As Neal got up, Sergey told him: "Now go, and don't ever bother us again."

"Or anyone else, for that matter." added Abbey.

"A battle of epic proportions, if you'll ask me" concluded Dustin, after Neal had left.

"Quite, agreed general Rudiger. Best battle I've seen, despite the lack of challenge. Speaking of which," he eyed Whiteout with some hostility, "we still have some unfinished business."

"Which shouldn't wait any longer, agreed Whiteout."

"Not so fast! interrupted Jenny. Now listen to me closely:

This little war of yours has been going on for far too long; I think it even started in pre-school! Now, if you want to fight 'till the end of times, that's completely up to you. But you're pulling many, many people with you into your conflict, which is 25 strategical, 25 ideological, and 50 personal! So deal with this personally, not through a 14-persons military campaign!"

"Right! added Sergey. Personally, I'm sick of you sickos!" he shouted, and threw both his Legion helmet and his Renegade hood to the ground. "You just finish this with a duel or something!"

Rudiger and Whiteout hesitated for a short while, and then looked toward each other with defying looks:

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: We have a score to settle, and if it's a fair fight you want, I'll give you a fair fight!"

"If this is what it takes to bring you imperialist down, then so be it! I've waited long enough to crush you!"

"You can always try, Mannster...But I know each and every one of your snow-fu moves, and how to block them!"

"I've learned much during the years!"

"So did I!"

Without further talking, the two enemies charged at each other. Soon, the Somewhere kids were treated to a titanesque duel: Nothing could seemingly stop the two.

Whiteout, more so than Rudiger, was swift with acrobatics, high jumps, and kicks. More than once, he stood on his hands just so that he could kick Rudiger in the head. The general, on the other hand, was fairly adept at blocking the renegade's attacks, at slamming him against the snow-covered ground, and at punching him repeatedly at an amazing 'rate-of-fire'. At one part, it seemed like Whiteout was winning, as he managed to hit Rudiger with a series of kicks, and force him against a tree; but just as he was preparing another kick, Rudiger grabbed a limb above his head, and lifted his feet in one swift motion toward Whiteout's jaw. Before Whiteout could do anything, Rudiger then demonstrated his 'gattling fists': a series of punches going at such a fast rate that nobody could have done anything to defend himself...Except for a warrior of Whiteout's level who, before the 15th punch, brought Rudiger to the ground with a footsweep.

"How many hits can they take for crying out loud! yelled Abbey."

"Well, it looks like they fight as well as I do, noted Sergey. After enough training - and enough getting hit - you can become pretty resistant to these things. I think they can hold for some more."

Indeed, the two fighters were still going at it fiercely - but cleverly, thinking many moves in advance. At one point, finding themselves at a considerable distance from each other, they charged each other as fast as they could, colliding in mid-air, and fell to the ground. For an instant, it seemed like they were finished; but soon, they began to rise, groaning, and attacked again. Reaching a slope, they made each other fall, grabbed each other, began rolling downhill without stopping their fight...

The slope, however, led straightly to the lake. Still rolling, the two fighters reached the lake, then kept rolling on the ice for a few more yards. That's when they stopped fighting, suddenly realizing in what danger they were: The ice layer covering the lake, already thinned down by Madman's rocket-sled, was beginning to crack under their weight.

The other kids rushed to the lake, where Rudiger and Whiteout, having gotten up, tried to reach the shore as quickly as possible. However, it's pretty hard to go fast on ice...

Rudiger and Whiteout had only gone half the way when the ice broke, and fell in the freezing water. After a very short panic, the other kids threw them a rope (provided by the Squirrels), which they immediately caught. They were soon hauled to the shore and brought warm towels; meanwhile, the Squirrels set the chairs for a new round of negotiation.

Rudiger and Whiteout were still shaking and blue when the diplomatic talks began. Jenny started with her speech:

"The war between the Legion and the Renegade has gone on for too long. Almost everyone here, at one point or another, has been collateral or non-collateral damage. We of the Squirrels and the non-aligned have agreed to reach for a temporary cease-fire between the two factions."

"W-w-we d-d-don't want a cease-fire, said Rudiger."

"But everybody else does. And we will force one if necessary. Here are our conditions: The Legion and the Renegade are to abstain from any military operation directed against each other until next year's Christmas holidays. If you do fight, all ten of us will attack whichever side is winning, and thus ensure a constant stalemate."

"Of course, thought Abbey, you've been fighting without anyone actually winning for 4 years now, and the constant fight is what has kept your groups going and improving in abilities, but you're still aiming for victory."

"In this conditions, continued Jenny, surely you realize the war is absolutely pointless."

"Damn you," said Rudiger, already less cold, "F-fine. One year of cease-fire between us - but don't you think our operations and t-training will stop!"

"T-the same a-applies for the R-Renegade!"

While they were discussing, Blake noticed something odd: Madman, at the other side of the 'negotiation table' (there was no table, of course), was rubbing snow against his cheeks. "what is he planning now?" Wondered Blake.

"Fine, replied Jenny. That's your own business. But just for one year, we'd like to have peace in the neighborhood. Meeting adjourned."

As everybody rose from their chairs and put everything back in its place, Abbey moved toward Madman. "There's just one thing left to do," she said. With that, she slapped Madman so hard he made one and a half revolutions before falling. "That's for manipulating us all like pawns on your chessboard and exploiting us shamelessly!" With that said, she joined the rest of the Squirrels and left.

Madman, apparently undazed, got up and cleaned himself from the snow. "You okay?" asked Blake.

"Sure. Why do you think I was rubbing snow against my cheeks?"

"Huh?"

"Anesthesia. The cold made my cheeks numb, so the slap hardly hurt at all."

Dumbfounded, Blake gaped at the evil genius with his mouth wide-open for a while, then regained his composure, and said: "Madman, you're the most scheming, intelligent, devious, insane arms dealer I'll ever meet!"

"Why, thank you. You know, it's quite interesting, by the way, that I, the only guy who hasn't thrown a single snowball throughout this war, am also the only guy to whom the war profited! $141 and 55 candies from selling ideas and weapons to various factions! All I had to do was sell them to whichever faction was losing, and when they started winning, sell another idea to another faction! It was almost too easy!"

As the mad scientist walked away, Blake turned to Dustin: "What do you think of this guy?"

"I think that, if Rudiger doesn't take over the world, Madman probably will."

Meanwhile, as most kids had gone home, Jenny and Abbey were discussing:

"Do you think we're done with the Wolves?"

"Probably not forever, Jen. But after today's victory, I think they'll lay low for a while. I'm more worried about that would-be mastermind...He's a complete sociopath! And a smart one at that! Did you notice how easily he manipulated us all?"

"Yeah, he's scary. But at least we got some peace and quiet, even if it's only temporary."

"Especially that Christmas Eve is tonight, remember?"

"G...I can't believe it! With the war and all, I had completely forgotten!"

"Then it's a good thing we're finished with it. Merry Christmas, Jenny. Peace on Earth."

"Merry Christmas, Abbey. Peace on Earth."

As Kevin Waterstone, aka Madman, came home, his parents hesitantly asked him: "So, Kevin...How do you like the new neighborhood?"

"Oh, it's a blast! You know what's really great about it - as opposed to where we used to live? Here, nobody's as smart as I am!"

END OF CHAPTER ONE

Characters, names, and their likenesses, including Blake, Dustin Quagmire, Becca, Abbey, Stanson Rudiger, Marty, Jenson, Brigsby, Whiteout, and Nerdboy are the intellectual property of Bob Flynn © 2001. All rights reserved.
Segments of dialogue and plot structure of this story adaptation have been taken from the comic "Snowmen and Sneak-Attacks," which can be found at this URL:

http: -slash- -slash- bob -dot- bigw -dot- org/bobcomic/comiczone/snow -dot- html