Well, hope this one was worth the wait. Other things came up in real life, and I had the devil of a time deciding on the Fantasy level setting for this part of the plan. Settled for zombie pirates - everyone likes those, right?

Chapter 5: Half the Fun is to Plan the Plan

"Do you know any good hiding places for the stuff? We should keep it in separate places," Percy mused. "That way, if some of it's found, the whole plan won't be ruined."

"There's a squeaky floorboard in my room," Marlene offered. "I think I can prise it up enough to stick something under it."

"I can push up one of the ceiling tiles in my room," Kowalski suggested.

"There's a loose seam in my mattress – that's where I keep my candy," Julien said.

"Bedframe," Rico grunted. "Hollow."

"Okay, that'll be fine. We only need to hide three things, we'll be getting out once we have the key."

"Four things," Julien pointed out. "For the fire we need the bottle and the matches, remember?"

"Okay, get as many matches as you can sneak out, and we'll share them out," Percy told him. "If one of us gets caught, don't mention the others' names, and they won't look for the other stuff. We might still all be able to get out if one of us is caught, but not if all of us are." The others nodded.

The bell rang, and the orderlies started herding the patients out of the common room. "Okay, tomorrow, then," Kowalski said, no longer whispering. "See you all at breakfast."

As they walked out, Percy looked at Julien's hip, remembering the bruises he'd shown them. "Julien, are you sure you want to do this?" he asked in an undertone. "You don't have to get the matches. I'm sure we can find some other way."

"No, I'll do it. I am going to end up in his office anyway, I can at least do something useful when I'm there. It's okay, I can handle it." Julien smiled briefly. "Actually, this might help. I feel better knowing I will be outsmarting him. Think of it as a game, maybe."

"Good man." Percy patted Julien's back. "I really am sorry about this, but with luck, this'll be the last time."

Julien looked sideways at Percy. "You know, I am older than you, I have been here longer, and I am not the one heading for an unwanted operation. Why are you being protective of me?"

Percy shrugged. "You seem to need it more than I do."

The night felt less threatening than the last one. Perhaps it was because they had a solid plan and some hope. Perhaps it was because this time Percy knew that he could simply close his eyes and take himself away. Julien still sang, but this time it was comforting, not eerie as it had been last night. Julien's voice was pleasantly deep and soothing, and now he actually sounded happy. If Percy listened, he could pick out the lyrics. He hummed along until he fell asleep.

"The Gospel Train's a-comin', I hear it just at hand, I hear the car wheel rumblin' and rollin' through the land ..."

"Okay, Marlene, are you absolutely sure you're ready?"

"No, but I'd better be. We're probably not going to get another chance at this." Marlene scooped up a spoonful of oatmeal and dropped it back in the bowl. "Kowalski, are you sure you can get there in time?"

"Yes, I worked it out." Kowalski tapped his fingers on the table. "I'm on corridor-cleaning duty today, and the orderlies trust me enough not to watch me every minute, and I know Dr Stevens never remembers to lock her office – Dr Blauman's told her off about that a couple of times."

"Good." Marlene turned to Percy, a look of concern on her face. "Hey, Perce, are you okay? You look tired."

"Um, yes, I'm fine. Julien's been keeping me awake," said Percy, at a normal volume now they were onto a more innocent topic. Julien snickered. Percy glared.

"Ah, I see. Snorer or screamer?" Marlene asked, nodding knowingly.

"Singer, actually."

"Ooh." Marlene winced in sympathy. "We've got one of those in the women's block too. Look on the bright side, at least I know Julien sings better than Rhonda does."

"Damn right!" said Julien smugly.

Marlene rolled her eyes. "How are you still such a braggart?"

"Because I'm Julien Kingsley, cherie. I still have plenty to brag about!"

A short plump doctor with hair and beard the colour and texture of steel wool, whom Percy recognised vaguely from his first morning, heard Julien's voice and bustled up to the little group. "Kingsley! How are you?"

"Fine, Dr Morris, just fine," said Julien with a winning smile. "How are you and your little ones?"

"We're all doing great, thanks – the girls want me to thank you for the signed record. Oh, and don't forget, you have an appointment with Dr Blauman at four. Keep up the good behaviour and we'll soon be weaning you off the morphine permanently. That'll be a relief, huh?" he said, slipping something into Julien's hand; specifically, something that looked like a pink lollipop.

"Aheh. Yeah." Julien grinned awkwardly and hid the sweet in his sleeve.

"No need to be embarrassed, Mr Kingsley. Plenty of folks fall off the straight and narrow once in a while, it's our job here to get you back on." Dr Morris nodded to the others. "Miss Lee, you're seeing Dr Stevens this morning, aren't you? Good, good. See you all around." He smiled and walked off, hands in the pockets of his white coat, humming a lively jazz tune Percy recognised as one of Madame Kingsley's.

Julien winced. "Nice enough guy, but I don't think I'll miss him when I leave," he whispered.

This morning, Percy was on indoor cleaning duty instead of gardening. Fortunately, he and Kowalski were working on the floor on which Dr Stevens' office was located. If all went well, Kowalski would be coming downstairs at lunchtime with the map. Percy lurked around the corner from the doctor's office, scrubbing brush in hand, watching the doctor wait patiently for Marlene to be ready.

"Miss Lee, I hate to push you, but at this rate our hour will be over before we get anything done," Dr Stevens said in an attempt at her usual upbeat manner. Percy got the impression Marlene was starting to try her patience a little.

"Okay. Okay," Marlene breathed deeply. "I can do this. I gotta do this ... I can't do this!" Marlene tried to run, but Nurse Alice grabbed her arm.

Dr Stevens sighed. "Okay, if you don't feel up to going outside today we can just have another counselling session," she said, opening her office door. "Come on."

Percy seized his chance, dropping the mop and darting forward. "Wait!" Doctor, nurse, and patient turned in surprise to see him. "I-I can help!"

"Really?" Dr Stevens looked at him, raising one neat blonde eyebrow in a manner which made Percy blush like a forest fire and shuffle his feet.

"Um, I mean ... Marlene and I are becoming friends, perhaps I could provide moral support?"

"Hey, that's a good idea!" Marlene said, nodding enthusiastically.

"Doctor, I don't recommend this," said Nurse Alice. "I can't control two patients at a time."

"Oh, come on, Alice, when has Miss Lee ever needed to be controlled?" said Dr Stevens, tutting. "And Mr Snow has been a model patient as well. I'm sure there'll be no problem. Come along, then!"

Percy held his breath as Dr Stevens took Marlene's hand and he followed them and Nurse Alice down the corridor. His prayers were answered; Dr Stevens did not turn back to lock her office door. As they passed Kowalski near the stairs, Percy winked to him. The plan was under way.

"Okay, men – and woman," Skipper said, nodding to Marlene. "Our first objective is the closest. That scum Blowhole has managed to get the first part of his diabolical device into our very own zoo, right under my beak! I swear to you all, we will never let him get away with that again. It's in the veterinary hospital – the evidence is that he sneaked it in with one of the humans. Our job is to get in there, find it, and destroy it. If we can work out what it does, that's a bonus. Now, obviously, the first step is to get the humans out of the way. Kowalski, options?"

"I suggest Rico and I take care of the device while someone else provides a distraction," said Kowalski, scribbling on his clipboard. "I recommend that the distraction is provided by Marlene and Julien."

"Wait, why do I have to be the distraction?" Marlene asked.

"Do you want to be in the near vicinity of a machine which we don't have time to train you how to disarm and which could potentially explode and kill you if it's mishandled?" asked Kowalski, raising an eyebrow.

"Distraction it is. I can do distraction." Marlene giggled nervously.

Julien scoffed. "Not as good as I can do it. Distraction is my middle name!"

"I didn't know you had a second name," said Marlene, raising an eyebrow.

Skipper cleared his throat and said "Focus, people."

"Ahem. Okay, yes, distraction," said Julien, clicking his heels and saluting gracefully, if sarcastically. "Any specific requests for distractions?"

"Breakout should do it," said Skipper, spreading out the map over the table and pointing to the veterinary hospital. "Marlene, we know it's your day for a vet checkup. We fixed the lock on the carrying cage in advance. Once Alice takes you out of the hospital this afternoon, you should be able to open the cage from the inside. Once you've done that, go nuts. If you feel up to it, get outside the zoo. Recapturing feral you should keep her busy."

"What about me? You need me, right?" said Julien ingratiatingly, clambering over the table and hanging off the very annoyed Skipper. "What about meeeee?"

"Get off!" Skipper shoved Julien, causing the ringtail to land painfully on his rump.

"Oww! Hey, you damage the booty, I won't be shaking it for this job."

"I don't care, as long as you find some way to keep the vets occupied. They should come out of the hospital when Alice starts yelling, if not you can go in through the window. I guess you can take it from there. Just make sure we can get in unhindered."

"Got it, bossy penguin." Julien winked and raised his paw for a high-five. Skipper obliged.

"Okay, boys – and girl. You all know your parts. Make me proud!"

"Julien, stop that, you're going to break the shaft."

Julien sticks his tongue out at Kowalski, dangling upside-down by knees and tail from his carefully-balanced naginata. He drops to the ground and slings the weapon onto his back, producing one of his trademark lollipops from his sleeve. "So is the Skipper going to arrive any time soon? I'm getting bored." He slinks up to Marlene and hangs off her, making puppy eyes. "Boooooorrrred, I am telling you."

The otterfolk shoves him away. "Quit it! He'll be here."

They sense it, not so much a sound as a change in the texture of the air. All five leap up, weapons at the ready, to see Skipper emerging from the shadows, clapping slowly. "Nice reaction time, kids. C'mon, we have a mission ahead."

The storm is rising around their perch atop the cliff. The wind ruffles their hair and feathers, and Percy feels raindrops landing on his cheeks and hands. Skipper has to raise his voice to be heard over the gale.

"Okay, kids, our objective today is the shipwreck down below!" He waves over the side of the cliff; they look down, to see a deep cave in the cliffside and pieces of splintered wood tossed on the growing waves. "The good ship Revenge, pride and joy of the Pirate King! Within that ship is a chest, and within that chest is a map! A map which, so it's said, will lead to untold riches! It's our job to get it for the Temple before the Pirate King's followers can retrieve it!"

Marlene raises an eyebrow. "Isn't this the ship which is supposed to be haunted by the walking corpses of its former crew?"

"Why, are you scared?" asks Julien, in a mildly mocking tone.

"Of course not! Just wondering if we need the special ammo," says Marlene, patting her gun affectionately. "What is it for ghouls? I know silver's werewolves ..."

Kowalski pushes his goggles up the bridge of his nose. "I suggest we go for the impact explosives. Those fix most things."

Skipper nods. "Good man, Kowalski. Load up!"

"Whoo!" Rico cheers, twirling his axe around his head as if it weighs nothing.

The group swing their guns off their shoulders or pluck them from their holsters and press the appropriate keys on the handle to set them with the explosive ammunition. Percy reflects that magically-enhanced weapons have their perks; for one thing, they never run out of ammo at a bad moment, and not having to carry fresh rounds saves a lot of weight. They check the guns' mechanisms, test their blades' edges, stretch their muscles.


"Ready, Skipper!" the group shout back with a salute. Skipper spins around with a swirl of his coat and steps to the edge of the cliff, the wind threatening to pull him out into the air. He turns back to face them.

"One last thing!" he shouts. "I know it's our first official mission, but you've been trained to work as a team! Try to keep that up! A mission is like the Omega Boom attack; it can be done solo, but it works much smoother with a few more along! Got it?"

The group nod determinedly. "Yes, Skipper, of course!" Percy says, beaming and puffing his chest out proudly.

Skipper smiles, and leaps out into space, coat billowing behind him. With no hesitation, the group follow.