Thick snow blew through the cold Antarctic air. The sky was dark, altered by the large amounts of radiation resulting from Duke Nukem's altered air conditioner factory duo. The ozone hole was widening due to the increased output of CFC's, and the conditions were growing more severe by the minute. If the Planeteers didn't act fast, the whole world would be damaged beyond repair.
The five Planeteers, clad in matching orange jackets, various colors of the same style of insulated pants, dark navy snow boots, and a variety of hats and scarves, sat cross-legged in a circle next to their solar-powered snow vehicles. The five youths leaned in close so as to hear each other over the howling wind. The factories were nearby, but they needed a plan.
"Can we sneak in on foot?" Kwame, the group leader from Africa, started the discussion.
"Da, I know how to travel in Siberian winter conditions." Linka, the blonde Soviet, nodded dutifully, her ponytail waving in the wind.
Ma-Ti, ever aware of the others' feelings, took a quick glance around the circle. While most were in favor of Kwame's plan, the red-headed American, Wheeler, looked agitated.
"Maybe we had better follow Linka." Ma-Ti chimed in earnestly, trying to keep Wheeler from opposing.
Perhaps he had said the wrong thing. Wheeler looked somewhat offended and stood up briskly, clenching a fist in determination.
"Hey, we have snow in Brooklyn too, ya know," he scoffed. "C'mon, Ma-Ti, we'll take out the other factory."
"Ah, I am not sure…" The Amazonian child whimpered uneasily, trying to resist having to leave the group. His spider monkey, Suchi, clung hard to the blue hat on his human friend's head to avoid being knocked off by the force of Wheeler pulling Ma-Ti up by the hand.
"Wheeler, do not be such a know-it-all. You will get lost!" Linka scolded him, coming to Ma-Ti's aide. She knew he had only said it because he wanted to impress her, but in situations such as these, she knew, one had to swallow his pride in order to succeed.
It was no use – Wheeler and Ma-Ti had already broken off from the rest of the group and were standing a small way off in the distance. Wheeler thrust his arm in the air and waved back at Linka.
"No way!" he declared confidently. "We'll find our factory first and shut it down." That'd show Linka.
While the remaining three Planeteers looked on, Wheeler and Ma-Ti began their search for Duke Nukem's factory. Soon they were swallowed up by the blizzard, nothing more than faint orange blurs on the horizon.
Wheeler and Ma-Ti had been walking for what seemed like hours, but the landscape hadn't changed. The deep snow swallowed their footprints, and the snow-loaded winds made it impossible for them to see more than a few feet in front of or behind them. For someone as small as Ma-Ti, getting through the snow was a struggle. He was starting to tire a bit.
"Wheeler, do you think we are near the factory yet?"
Wheeler stopped briefly and looked back at him. He glanced forward again and spotted a large metal protrusion peeking over the horizon line.
"Look!" he pointed excitedly. "What'd I tell ya Ma-Ti – I bet we beat Linka!"
"Huh?" In Ma-Ti's eyes, the metal mound didn't really look like a factory. Was this really about stopping Duke Nukem or one-upping the wind Planeteer?
Wheeler began to run toward the object with Ma-Ti close behind. It has to be the factory, he thought to himself. What else would be out in this icy wasteland?
"Oh no, we're back where we started!" Wheeler exclaimed, frustrated. They had indeed gone in a full circle and were back at their vehicle.
"Well, welcome back to the ice boat." This light attempt at humor from Ma-Ti was met with a deep frown from Wheeler.
"Come on, Ma-Ti, I know where we took the wrong turn."
Wheeler stomped off and the boys began their search anew.
More time passed. The sky continued to grow darker, and the snow thicker. The two Planeteers were still wandering about blindly in the vain hopes of finding the factory. It was getting harder and harder to see, probably because the ultraviolet radiation continued to mess with the weather conditions below the ever-widening ozone hole.
"Wheeler, we are lost!" Ma-Ti cried out in frustration.
"No we're not!" Wheeler was insistent. He tried not to make it obvious that his confidence was wavering. Of all his possible companions, Ma-Ti was the most adept at sensing the slightest insecurity, even without using the Heart power of his ring. "I've been through worse blizzards in Brooklyn." A bluff.
"Really?" Ma-Ti asked wide-eyed, obviously fooled. "What did you do?"
"Well, actually...ah…" The situation looked hopeless. Wheeler's tone softened, and he looked sheepish. "I took the subway."
Before Ma-Ti could shake his head in disappointment at Wheeler's pig-headedness and the hopelessness of their situation, he heard a scream.
The last over-confident step had caused the icy ground to shatter beneath Wheeler's feet. Due to the thick layer of snow that had accumulated so quickly, he had been unable to tell that he had been standing on thin ice, right near the edge of the water. With a splash, Wheeler fell into the Antarctic Ocean.
Ma-Ti attempted to rush over to the edge of the pool, careful to watch his footing. Though smaller and lighter than his American companion, he still didn't want to risk falling in. It was no good – the ice was too thin.
Wheeler thrashed about in the ice-cold water, flailing and choking. Although he'd taken up swimming and wind surfing back on the tropical home base of Hope Island, he was no match for the freezing water of the Antarctic Ocean. Spitting out mouthfuls of salty brine as he tried to stay afloat, Wheeler quickly began to grow tired, his muscles stiffening and cramping. He wasn't going to last much longer.
Thinking fast, Ma-Ti thrust his right hand in the air, holding the silver bubble ring with a heart insignia to his forehead.
"Heart!" he yelled. Yellow ripples began to erupt from the ring, and moments later, a large gray shape streamlined deep beneath the surface of the ice and stopped just underneath the drowning boy. A leopard seal surfaced and thrust Wheeler onto the more solid ground of the shore, right next to Ma-Ti, then dove back into its sub-zero home and swam off.
"Wheeler, are you okay?" Ma-Ti knelt down beside his friend, who was hunched over, shivering. Even though their attire was waterproof to a point, they most certainly weren't wetsuits. Wheeler was covered head to toe in ocean water, his hair drooping and the ends of his sea-foam green scarf dripping. His ears, exposed to the cold, were turning pink as his face was whipped raw by the polar wind. Of all the Planeteers, Wheeler was the only one who felt no need to wear a hat. Now he wished he had, if even to protect the top of his head from losing heat just a tiny bit more.
"Y-yeah," he grunted between chattering teeth. "Just a little wet, that's all." His face tensed up suddenly, as if he were about to say something, then relaxed. He sniffed quietly. "Thanks for the save."
"You are most welcome," Ma-Ti grinned whole-heartedly. He was relieved that Wheeler was safe. While Ma-Ti had the power to summon animals and look into peoples' hearts, in a snowy environment like this, he felt Wheeler's fire power was invaluable; never mind the fact that they wouldn't be able to summon Captain Planet if they were short a Planeteer.
"Ha…hachoo!" Wheeler sneezed suddenly; a deep, sharp sneeze that rattled him from the inside out. Small beads of cold water flew off the tips of his matted red hair.
"Saúde! We need to find that factory soon," Ma-Ti urged. "Otherwise you may freeze!"
"You don't have to tell me twice," Wheeler shivered. "This stinks!" Leaning on Ma-Ti, he picked himself up off the ground and began to step forward again, this time in the opposite direction from the water. Ma-Ti supported him awkwardly, as Wheeler was quite a bit taller than the petite pre-teen. Suchi put his paws out and tried to hold Wheeler steady as well, chirping and chattering.
The two boys stepped forward, and despite being on solid land, they felt the snow crunch dangerously beneath them. A slight crackling noise, then the ground fell beneath them. Clinging to each other and screaming, they slid down a hole and landed on a hard, ice-coated slab of rock.
Ma-Ti rubbed his head through his sky blue beanie and looked toward where they had fallen from. The amplified Antarctic sun was barely visible through the thick snow blowing above the entrance to the tunnel leading to the cave below. The South American boy stood up carefully and went to feel the sides of the cave. They were high – many times higher than the two boys' heights combined. If they were rough, Ma-Ti believed, they might be able to climb out. Unfortunately, the walls were slick and smooth, completely frozen solid with not even the slightest foothold indented in the ice.
Sitting back down with his arms wrapped around his knees, Ma-Ti sighed and looked over at his companion. Wheeler was still dripping wet, and ice was starting to crystallize in his red hair. Hunched over and shivering in the corner of the small chamber, Wheeler looked absolutely miserable. His sniffling escalated as he tried to keep the clear liquid from dripping to the floor like the water off the edges of his soaked scarf. Unable to fight it any further, a chill ran through his body:
Wheeler's shoulders hunched forward from the magnitude of the sneeze. Groaning, he wiped his nose on the back of his jacket sleeve, leaving a shining trail of clear mucous on the already wet orange surface. He slumped further down, curling his body tightly into a ball. His head was tucked downward, concealed by his knees. Ma-Ti crawled closer to examine him. While there were pools of water forming all around the Fire Planeteer due to the excess water dripping off of his drenched winter gear, Ma-Ti noticed that there were two streams in particular that were surprisingly constant, coming from about eye-level. Was he…crying?
"Wheeler, my friend," Ma-Ti spoke softly, placing a hand gently on Wheeler's shoulder. "Are you all right?"
Wheeler mumbled incomprehensibly between sniffles. Ma-Ti felt Wheeler's shoulders bobbing up and down very slightly in a sharp, uneven rhythm.
"Please speak to me," Ma-Ti asked more urgently. "What is wrong?"
After a moment to think and pull himself together to the point where he could speak clearly, Wheeler lifted his head to face Ma-Ti. Hot tears streamed from his icy blue eyes and down his cold, pink-tinged cheeks. He sniffled thickly between sobs. The young twenty-something looked completely shattered; a child lost in the wilderness.
He opened his mouth to say something, then stopped and looked at the ground, shaking his head. Ma-Ti and his monkey Suchi (who was perched on his shoulder) stared earnestly at Wheeler, silently urging him to speak. Although Ma-Ti could simply use his ring's Heart power to look inside Wheeler's mind and answer all the questions brewing inside him with very little effort, he felt in this instance such a move would be insensitive and intrusive.
Wheeler wiped the tears away with the edge of his jacket sleeve, then sniffled and went quiet, giving the impression once more that he was about to speak. He coughed and cleared his throat.
"This…this is all my fault," he whimpered.
"All of this," Wheeler continued, staring back down at the ground. More tears formed in his eyes.
"Wheeler, look at me," Ma-Ti spoke a bit more firmly, his warm brown eyes sharply focused on his companion.
"We're stuck in a freaking underground ice cave," he sobbed. "And the others don't have a clue where we are."
"Yes, but that problem is easily solved," Ma-Ti assured him, motioning to raise his Heart ring above his head. Wheeler reached out and placed his hand on Ma-Ti's arm, blocking the move.
"No, don't call them yet," he strained. "I mean, hear me out first."
Ma-Ti lowered his hand. "All right."
"This whole Planeteer thing was a mistake," Wheeler sighed. "When I first got that ring, I…I didn't know what to do. I mean, one second I'm savin' a guy from some punk and the next there's this ring flyin' out of a burning trashcan. Then I'm on Hope Island…and I see Linka, and…" He gritted his teeth, his cheeks burning with embarrassment.
"But Gaia chose you for a reason!" Ma-Ti reminded him.
"Yeah, maybe," Wheeler rolled his eyes glumly. "But I'm tellin' you it was a mistake. What do I know about saving the earth?"
"Maybe not much…yet," Ma-Ti mused. "We are still new at this. But, we are learning. We have done a lot already – we are active, we are trying. That is more than can be said for many people." He looked a bit sad as he said this, but the expression quickly vanished and he continued speaking. "You are brave, Wheeler. You do not back down."
"And that's what's landed us in this mess," Wheeler cried out in anguish. "I had to show her. I had to be the tough guy. But in the end – he'tch! - I'm just a big, wet idiot."
"Ah, so this was to impress Linka."
Wheeler's shoulders slumped. "Yeah…" He pressed the back of his hand against his nose and sniffled again.
"You were a bit irresponsible, yes, and your motives may have been less than honorable…" Ma-Ti tread carefully as he spoke. Wheeler was already miserable; there was no need to degrade him further. "But we really are not in any grave danger. Though, if you do not dry off your clothes soon, you may get sick–" Wheeler interrupted with another mighty sneeze. "-er. Saúde."
"Snf, No kidding," Wheeler sniffled. "But we're in the bottom of a cave in Antarctica. I'm bound to turn into a popsicle before I warm up."
"Did you forget what's on your finger?" Ma-Ti reminded him, indicating the index finger of Wheeler's right hand.
"What? My ring?" Wheeler looked puzzled. "Won't that just send me up in flames?"
"Not if you're careful," Ma-Ti grinned. "Here, take off your scarf and jacket and hand them to me."
Reluctantly, Wheeler unwrapped the wet cloth from around his neck and handed it to Ma-Ti. Shivering, he unzipped the puffy orange jacket and laid it on the ground next to him, revealing his light turquoise Planeteer-insignia tee-shirt. Like the jacket it was completely soaked through, holding icy water directly against the New Yorker's pale skin. Goosebumps ran up and down his arms, which he crossed tightly in a vain effort to keep warm.
"Okay, good," Ma-Ti nodded objectively. "Oh, I did not realize that the water had gone all the way through…" He glanced at the ground and noticed the puddle around Wheeler's boots, and how his pants clung to his muscular legs. "You might want to take the rest of that off as well."
Wheeler shot him a highly distressed look. All of his clothing, in an ice cave? The kid must be out of his mind.
Ma-Ti sensed his friend's discomfort. Now that he thought about it, it was a bit of a radical request, one that certainly wouldn't help boost Wheeler's pride. Though he'd learned from the shaman in his village that the best way to warm up was to let the body rely on its own heating mechanisms, he wasn't sure that this fact was common knowledge. No clothes were warmer than wet clothes, but modesty was key as well. He thought of another solution.
"You can borrow my jacket," Ma-Ti offered, begin to undo the zipper on his own orange coat. "It may be a little small, but it's better than nothing. The important thing is that we get you out of those wet clothes."
Wheeler pouted at him, still shivering.
"You can not be any colder than you are now, even if you take them off," Ma-Ti ordered him more sternly. "I know you are worried. I know you are uncomfortable. You just have to trust me. Please."
Sensing the urgency in Ma-Ti's voice, Wheeler slowly began to strip the wet clothes off his body. He laid his boots next to the jacket, and placed the white socks underneath beside the boots. As his bare feet touched the frozen ground, a strong chill ran through his body; he prayed he wouldn't get frostbite.
Hesitantly he began to peel the snow-pants off his lower body, revealing a pair of pale blue boxers that were blessedly not saturated by the water. The last thing left was the aqua tee-shirt, which was still clinging tenaciously to his upper body. As he peeled the wet cotton off his skin and over his head, his solid torso broke into a sea of goosebumps.
Ma-Ti was standing nearby with his jacket hanging unzipped off his small frame as his monkey Suchi sat on his head. As Wheeler hunched over, shivering intensely, the young boy removed it to reveal his own planet-insignia tee (a pale powder blue), beaded tribal necklaces and a feathered armband. Draping the orange coat over Wheeler's broad shoulders, Ma-Ti could feel the hair on his own thin arms raise in response to contact the frigid air.
"All right, now, you need to focus," Ma-Ti explained, rubbing his arms to try to stay warm. "You need to have full control over your fire power. Just summon enough of it to dry the water." Perhaps he was over-simplifying his instructions, but his companion seemed fairly out of it due to the pressure of the issues weighing down on his mind.
Wheeler clenched his right hand into a fist and aimed his ring at an angle just above the jacket and scarf. Through chattering teeth, he managed to whisper the word, "F-fire", and a small flame erupted from the crystal bubble that had begun to glow red. Holding his hand steady, he held the fire he had summoned just above the tee-shirt spread out on the ground. The water in the cloth began to evaporate, turning into a puff of steam and vanishing into thin air soon after.
As he hovered the ring over the various articles of clothing, he noticed a tickle beginning to build deep in his sinuses. Trying to ignore it, he focused on the task at hand - the top half of the jacket was nearly dry, now to move to the bottom half...sniff. The tickle couldn't be ignored. The sharp sniffle, intended to extinguish the tickle, only served to fuel the burning that was mounting to the intensity of the flame spilling out of the ring. The entire jacket was dry, the down having been returned to its fluffy state…he had to stay focused!
Wheeler sniffled harder, desperately trying to hold back as he moved onto drying the snow pants that lay in front of him. Ma-Ti sat off to the side, watching intently. He could see the discomfort mounting on his friend's face, and he glanced around him to make sure he had a place to run in case Wheeler lost control. The cave was small, yes, but if he moved fast enough, the boy knew he could avoid getting burned in a pinch.
And he just might have to. The redhead's hand began to shake as his nostrils began to flare uncontrollably. His breath hitched suddenly, and unable to hold it back,
Wheeler erupted into another sneeze.
Not only putting him out of the control of his body, the sneeze has caused his powers to run rampant as well. The flame pouring out of the ring flared with the crescendo of the nasal outburst. Ma-Ti dashed behind Wheeler, quickly grabbing his right arm and pushing it up so the fire spiraled skyward.
Unclenching his eyes from the force of the explosion, Wheeler noticed the ring's flare-up and quickly willed it to stop. The flames dissipated with barely a hint of smoke, and Wheeler surveyed the damage. On the ground in front of him was a small scattering of ashes where his socks had once been. Though he wasn't pleased with the thought of having lost even the smallest layer that could provide warmth, he couldn't help but be grateful that he hadn't singed something larger.
Ma-Ti let go of Wheeler's arm once he felt his companion was suitably in control again. His stern glance connected with the elder's, who was starting to look a bit tired. Ma-Ti clenched his right fist and his ring glowed faintly.
"Do not give up."
Sensing the added intensity in Ma-Ti's eyes, Wheeler repositioned himself above the remaining clothing items. As he positioned his ring hand to re-summon the flame, he realized that his arm had stopped trembling from the cold. He felt relieved knowing that Ma-Ti had indeed known what he was talking about. If he'd been trapped in the cave with Linka, he'd probably have rendered the situation hopeless by now. He was coming to understand that now.
Wheeler put his full concentration to the task. Something in his nose tickled relentlessly, but he fought to ignore it. As much as he wanted to give into the subconscious urge to sniffle, he couldn't afford to give in to even the slightest distraction. He had been lucky with the socks – had he incinerated his jacket or any of the other outer layers, he wouldn't have been much better off than without any clothes at all against the Antarctic winds that waited above the cave.
Within minutes the rest of the clothes were dry. Stopping the flame, Wheeler cast a glance at the display of garments lying on the stone floor of the cave. Satisfied, he swiped his nose with the back of his wrist to wipe away a strand of clear liquid, then set to work re-dressing himself.
Ma-Ti wasted no time in zipping his own coat back up. In worrying about how his friend was holding up, the boy had barely thought about how chilly he himself had gotten. As much as he wanted to take more time to simply enjoy the warmth of the layer of down pressed against his skin, he knew that they had to keep moving. He started to take a step toward the other Planeteer when he stopped suddenly, clutching his hands to his head. The ring on his right hand pulsed yellow.
"Yeah?" His voice had deepened slightly from the congestion.
"The others…they're in trouble!" Ma-Ti panicked. "We need to get to them immediately!"
"Whoa, slow down!" Wheeler's eyes widened. "What kinda trouble we talkin' here?"
Ma-Ti closed his eyes and focused on the pulses coming from the ring. "Duke Nukem has them trapped…their feet are frozen in ice, and Gi's ring is below the surface. He has amplified the radiation pouring through the hole in the ozone layer…the others are in danger! We have to go free them!"
"Yeah, okay, I get it," Wheeler tried to keep Ma-Ti calm. "But we're kinda stuck, aren't we?"
Ma-Ti gazed directly into his friend's eyes, brown piercing icy blue.
"I have a plan."
"The walls of this cave are completely smooth," Ma-Ti touched one of the vertical walls to prove his point. "But, it is impossible to say whether they are ice or if there is rock behind them. Your ring can tell us for sure."
"Okay…" Wheeler held up his ring and aimed it at the wall. "Fire!"
The flame licked at the ice and caused it to melt, then quickly evaporate. Left in its wake was a solid sheet of rock.
"No!" Ma-Ti pounded his fists against the nearest wall. Suchi leapt off his shoulder in surprise. "This is no good!"
"Huh?" Wheeler looked at him, puzzled.
"If the walls had been ice," the frustrated boy explained. "We could have been able to make footholds and climb our way out!"
"I'm not so sure about that," the fire-wielder countered. "On any other day, sure, gettin' out'd be a snap. But I don't think I've got it in me to climb those walls today."
Ma-Ti stared toward the opening of the cave. It's true – the walls were exceptionally high. Considering it more seriously, he found it doubtful that even he would have had the energy to climb out. The boy slumped down and knelt with his back against the wall of the icy prison, his teeth clenched in frustration. Suchi cautiously approached and lay a small hand on his knee in an attempt to get his human companion to not give up hope. Ma-Ti refused to acknowledge the spider monkey's gesture, choosing instead to glare at the ground.
Wheeler knelt down beside his friend, sniffling lightly.
"Okay, so we can't get out for now, no big," he placed a hand on Ma-Ti's shoulder. "I know I've really screwed things up, and I'm sorry. But this situation isn't completely hopeless."
Ma-Ti shifted his head slightly and glanced at the redhead out of the corner of his eye, slightly interested in what he might have to say.
"The others," Wheeler began. "They're trying to shut down Duke Nukem's operation, right? Sure, shutting down the factories are easy enough…but who do you think's gonna take down the real big baddie?"
"Captain Planet!" Ma-Ti's eyes widened as he uttered the name. Of course! He'd gotten so involved in making sure Wheeler didn't freeze to death that he'd nearly forgotten the original objective.
"Bingo!" Wheeler's eyes flickered with hope. "We don't actually have to be there for the blue guy to do the job…we've combined our powers from different places before, it'll be a cinch. But, once it's all said and done, who's to say he can't swing by and save us from our little predicament before goin' back in the rings?"
"Wheeler," Ma-Ti's smile returned and he relaxed his posture. "That is a great idea! But even if we asked everyone to summon Captain Planet, Gi's ring is below the ice – it'd be no good!"
"Hey," Wheeler smiled coyly. "Don't discount your power. Haven't you got any friends around here who could help you out?"
Picking up on the hint, Ma-Ti nodded in comprehension. Quickly he stood up and aimed his ring toward the sky and activated his power:
"Heart!" The ring began to emit waves of yellow light. "My penguin friends…please help us…"
Satisfied with the command he sent, he lowered his hand and smiled confidently at Wheeler. "Help is on the way!"
"Awesome," Wheeler gave him a thumbs-up. "Keep me posted – when they're free, let's summon the Cap."
"All right," Ma-Ti knelt where he was standing and hovered the ring before his face. "Heart." Using his power, he could catch glimpses of the thoughts running through his friends' minds so as to track the progression of events.
Help had arrived in the form of a flock of penguins.
"Look what the penguins are doing!" An exclamation from Linka.
They were carrying out Ma-Ti's orders, pecking at the ice to free the three Planeteers.
"My foot's free!" Kwame again.
"Mine too!" Linka.
"All right!" Gi.
"My ring! Thank you!"
Ma-Ti lowered his hand, opened his eyes, and looked toward Wheeler. His colleague had been watching the entire time, looking away only to wipe his ever-running nose on the back of his sleeve.
"Gi has her ring," Ma-Ti informed him. "They are free."
"Great work, Ma-Ti," Wheeler flashed a smile at his friend. "Are they ready to summon the Cap yet?"
"Let me see…" He closed his eyes and called upon the ring's powers once more. "Heart."
Wheeler watched in anticipation. Cooped up in the cave, he was starting to get restless – he wanted nothing more than to plant himself someplace warm and not move until he was better. To think just hours before he'd been complaining about the heat on Hope Island…!
Moments later, Ma-Ti lowered the ring.
"They want to get away from the source of the radiation before calling Captain Planet," Ma-Ti relayed the information he had received. "They think it will just take a few more minutes. They will signal when they are ready."
"Okay." Wheeler sat himself back down on the ground and waited.
The two boys in the cave imagined what might have been going on above the surface. What kind of set-up had Duke Nukem managed to rig for himself? How intense had the radiation gotten? Was the Ice Boat fast enough to outrun whatever transportation he had available? What kind of situation would the others have to find themselves in before they needed to combine their powers…? As time passed, the boys found themselves deeper and deeper in thought.
A sudden glow from Ma-Ti's ring snapped them back to reality. Kwame's voice came streaming through the young boy's head:
"It is time. Let our powers combine."
Ma-Ti hinted to Wheeler that he should get ready to contribute his power to the mix. He was met with a stern nod of approval. The two gazed skyward and waited for the colored beams of light to appear. Almost immediately a green light became visible. Wheeler took this cue to thrust his ring up.
A red light jumped from the ring to the sky, intersecting with the green light that had appeared just moments before. Blue and aqua beams flowed from the same direction soon after. Once positive that the other four Planeteers had contributed their ring's powers, Ma-Ti thrust his arm forward and added the final ingredient to the mix.
As soon as the yellow beam from Ma-Ti's ring met the others, there was a bright flash of white light…then the sky returned to its normal state. The flash had indicated that Captain Planet had been summoned successfully, but had most likely appeared closer to the other Planeteers to take on Duke Nukem. Once again, the boys in the cave were left to wait.
The initial rush Wheeler had felt when he was formulating his plan had begun to wear off. Sitting on the ground, chills ran through his body once again. He curled himself in as small a ball as possible, trying to trap as much warmth as possible. His nose protested to the situation as well – if he didn't sniffle every few seconds, it would run relentlessly. Even though he knew help was on the way, he couldn't help but feel miserable. He sunk his head into his arms and attempted to doze off and forget the situation…
Wheeler snapped back to reality as he felt Ma-Ti shake him awake.
"He is here! Get up," Ma-Ti urged.
Wheeler scrambled to his feet and looked toward the entrance of the cave. Shimmering in the Antarctic sun, a blue crystalline figure came into view.
"Cap!" Wheeler called out, waving his arms in the hopes that the figure overhead would see. "We're down here!"
Whether Wheeler's flailing and calling actually had any effect, he wasn't sure, but the figure came closer. Red boots on crystalline legs lowered themselves into the cave.
"Hope you boys don't mind me dropping in."
The boots landed on the floor of the cave, and Wheeler and Ma-Ti found themselves face to face with the green-mullet-wearing environmental superhero. Relief washed over Wheeler's face, and he rushed over to the Captain.
"Oh man, Cap," he was practically in tears. "You have no idea how happy I am to see you." It took all his willpower not to hug the man.
"I'm happy to see you too, Wheeler," Captain Planet responded warmly. "But something tells me you'd be even happier to see the outside of this cave. Come on, let's get you and Ma-Ti out of here."
Captain Planet grabbed hold of Wheeler in one arm and Ma-Ti in the other, then pushed off the rock bottom and propelled himself through the icy tunnel back up to the surface. He flew swiftly and confidently through the Antarctic air, barely slowed by the extra weight of his "passengers". With the ice cave far in the distance, the superhero placed the two Planeteers down near the Geo-Cruiser.
Seeing Captain Planet's successful return, the other Planeteers streamed out of the vehicle and flocked around the three newcomers.
"Well," Captain Planet observed. "It looks like everything here is fine. The Duke's nuked, the factories have been shut down, and all of you are safe. I think its about time I take my leave. The power is yours!"
With that, Captain Planet dissolved in a flash, with the five beams of light returning to the Planeteers' rings. Redirecting their sights from where the hero once was, the Planeteers focused on their recently returned friends.
"Wheeler, Ma-Ti! You're all right!" Gi squealed.
"What happened to you?" Kwame inquired. "We were worried."
Linka stood off to the side, silent but obviously relieved.
"We were stuck in a cave," Ma-Ti explained to them. "Many things went wrong…but Wheeler saved us in the end."
"Hey, I can't take all the credit," Wheeler interjected between sniffles. "If it hadn't been for Ma-Ti, I'd have lost it and frozen to death." He flashed a thankful, sheepish smile at his young friend. After Ma-Ti returned the smile, Wheeler shifted his gaze to Linka, who had yet to look him square in the eye.
He'd gotten himself into a tricky predicament because he had refused to listen to her. She was right; he knew that now. He had swallowed his pride once back in the cave – he had to prepare to do it again. He broke out from the circle of the group and took a few strides towards Linka.
"Hey." He stood directly in front of her. "I uh…I wanted to apologize."
Linka looked up, curious. "Oh?"
"Yeah," the redhead admitted sheepishly. "You were right. We did get lost, and yeah, it's my fault. I…I just wanted to impress you. It was stupid, I'm sorry."
"Wheeler," she finally spoke. "We are members of a team. You should not try so hard to impress. I would have been more impressed had you followed the lead I had set to follow from the start."
"I know, I was a jerk, I –" A sudden wind blew past, causing Wheeler to shiver from a sudden chill. "ESCHu!" The sneeze cut him off.
"Shh," Linka placed her gloved fingers to his lips. "What's done is done. Yes, you made a mistake this time, but you are safe. I would even say you've learned your lesson, judging by that little sniffle you picked up!" Wheeler blushed when she pointed this out – she'd noticed. Suddenly having fallen in the Antarctic Ocean hadn't seemed so bad, maybe even worth it… "For now, we need to get you home."
"Aw, babe," Wheeler uttered a sigh of relief. "I never thought I'd hear those words again."
Linka sighed and shrugged. He was an idiot, yes, but a cute idiot. She quickly shook herself out of her momentary reverie.
"Come on, Yankee, get in the Geo-Cruiser." She pushed him into the aircraft and the team prepared for take-off.
It had been a long and crazy day, but things were finally starting to calm down. Wheeler, thoroughly exhausted by the cold and stress, reveled in the warmth of the cockpit. Dozing off, he dreamt of the bed that awaited him back on Hope Island. No ice, no snow...and maybe, just maybe, someone who would watch over him.