At the very first glance at Canada's biome map a broad bar of taiga stretching across the whole continent hits the eye, pressed down by tundra above it while pillared by US border from below. One could probably call firs and larches abundant here true pretenders to be called real masters of this country, one of the sparsest in terms of population. That is, if one counts only humans as population and completely forgets animals and insects.
On the other hand, men's arrogant scorn suited four rodents and a fly of the heroic Rescue Rangers team perfectly, allowing them to cross state boundaries freely, avoiding customs red tape, and fight crime without minding jurisdictions or even contrary to them. That's why the friends had been able to react swiftly to the news of mysterious disappearance of furniture from Toronto's Casa Loma castle, arrive at the scene in no time, make all the inquiries and trace the thieves as far as the shores of Hudson Bay and the lair of a wealthy beaver with a taste for expensive wood who once hired Erol and Desiree D'Allure. No wonder, having put an end to his criminal activity Rescue Rangers' hearts were filled not only with a sense of fulfilled duty but also with deep pleasure and realization of having deserved a short getaway which was easy to combine with a trip back home since in July the Canadian taiga is simply wonderful.
"Oy, mates! We spend too little time in the woods! Too little!" Monterey Jack diagnosed in a lecturing manner as the Ranger Wing's landing gear touched anti-UV granules covering a flat roof of small but neat and very well situated camping-motel's main building. The motel crowned the hill cleaned of high trees and looked like a deck of a giant ship cleaving smooth bluish-green surface of coniferous ocean blending in the distance with already darkening horizon. "No, boy!" Monterey objected, answering Zipper's discordant squeak. "Our park doesn't count! City center can't be compared with primordial wilds! That's a different matter altogether!"
"True!" Dale agreed caustically. "No TV, no comic books… A real nightmare!"
Monterey hemmed. "Those things aren't worth being sorry for."
"No-no, Monty, he's right!" Gadget seconded. "We would have never become who we are if not for the comforts of civilization. Where in the woods would you get gears, batteries, wires, solder, glue, lamps, lenses, microchips, capacitors, springs-"
"Nowhere!" Chip answered knowing she could go on asking her rhetoric question for a very long time. He totally supported Dale, too, although didn't share his friend's priorities, and were it his decision he would deliver full lecture about pyramid of instincts and demands, proving indisputably the existence of direct interconnection between the absence of need of everyday fight for survival in severe conditions of wilderness and the presence of ability to spend time and efforts fighting crime and to profess lofty ideals of good and justice. Especially since Gadget, slightly taken aback at first, turned to him with thankful smile and it was impossible to imagine better opportunity to make a brilliant display of eloquence. But-
"Do you think they've got cable TV here? Or satellite?" Dale asked lustily. Chip's target audience represented by Gadget got distracted and started glancing around, looking for cables or antennas complying with TV-addicted chipmunk's request, and the moment was irreparably lost. Just a month ago it would have enraged Chip but the events after the A-Kha concert drastically affected his character and world-view, and he just hemmed with disappointment and started looking around, too. Dale's question, though, was positively answered not by him but by Zipper who proved to be prompter than the others and flew to the main entrance to read the information stand addressing potential guests.
"Don't overindulge, okay?" Chip instructed his whimsical congener knowing all too well that it was useless to promote temperance.
"Never offer to teach fish to swim!" Dale dismissed his advice with a wave of his hand and went along with the others to set up lodging for the night.
In his case, however, it was rather preparation for cinema-going. Dale quickly scouted locations of TVs, sorted them in his head according to accessibility criterion, stole a can of sweet corn from the kitchen and made himself totally comfortable in one of vacant rooms. In manager's office the TV was bigger of course, and agent 00-Dale had infiltrated much more secret and much better guarded facilities during his career, but this time the chipmunk decided it was silly and harmful to exert oneself while on vacation, and contented himself with a level of luxury the motel offered his ordinary guests. Assortment of channels proved rich enough to keep the Ranger in front of the screen till half past three ante meridiem, at which point he thought one should not only watch TV but also sleep thoroughly during vacation and headed to the bivouac his team set up in a hard-to-reach corner of the motel.
It was a warm, windless and moonlit night and nothing boded ill but barely had Dale took three steps across the roof when his muscles turned to stone, his fur stood on end, his forehead sweated and his eyes grew so wide they seemed to cover his entire face. He heard many things in his lifetime, both live and on TV, but nothing sounding like THIS scream. It came from far away but still pierced rodent's body to the marrow of his bones. Even those who've never seen an Animal Planet program would have recognized a large bird's scream, and since prior to their trip to Canada Dale and his friends studied materials gathered by Chip and Monterey Jack about the most dangerous local predators, Dale instantly knew he heard not just any bird but a great grey owl. Usually its scream was a bad omen to small rodents who happened to be on open terrain and a reason to run for their lives and hide, but this time the owl's cry meant neither "You can't escape me!" nor "Go away from my nest!" but…
"HELP!" Dale heard again and since it was clear now that it wasn't just his imagination spurred by mystic horror movie he just saw, he skipped to the bivouac.
"Chip! CHIP! CHI-I-IP!" he cried, immediately pouncing on his friend packed into sleeping bag whose rich experience allowed him to wake up almost instantly and get down to business at once.
"If it's not a fire, I'll club you to death," Chip threatened in firm voice without any trace of drowsiness.
Dale felt offended. "Club your fire! I heard owl screaming! Calling for help! Listen for yourself!"
Chip listened. Then he looked around. Then he moved his ears. Then he bent his head to one side and screwed up his eye. Then he uttered one but very substantial word. "And?"
Dale, already shifting nervously from one foot to another, spread his arms helplessly and smiled sheepishly. "You don't think I made it up just to annoy you, do you?"
"You know, Dale-" Chip began folding his arms but suddenly his muscles turned to stone, his fur stood on end, his forehead sweated and his eyes grew so wide they seemed to cover his entire face.
"See?" Dale raised his finger triumphantly as another prolonged "HELP!" faded in the distance. "I told you! I imagined nothing! This time it was different owl screaming, though, but-"
"Different owl?" Chip asked slowly, frantically blinking and moving his pupils about. "You sure?"
"Sure! I'm not some-"
"RESCUE RANGERS, GET UP!" Chip shouted making Gadget, Monterey and Zipper who had already started tossing and turning anxiously to jump up to their feet while still in sleeping bags. "Emergency take-off! All aboard! I'll explain everything on our way!"
As opposed to Dale, Chip screamed bloody murder in real emergencies only, so nobody asked any unnecessary questions. Chipmunk, in turn, didn't dawdle and showed his friends the ropes as soon as the Ranger Wing darted in the needed direction.
"Two owls just cried for help in the forest with interval of approximately two or three minutes. Something's definitely wrong here. Gadget, descend to the level of treetops. I'm afraid we won't see anything from a bird's-eye view."
"You'd better be afraid of becoming these same owls' prey." Monterey stated coldly.
"It's a forest reserve."
"So what? You think predators don't eat rodents here?"
"That's not the point. I suspect we have poaching here. If that's the case we must track the criminals down and bring forest rangers on them. And if something goes wrong, Wing flies faster than owls."
"And it's armed, too." Gadget noted, pointing across her shoulder to the tail harpoon gun.
"And has seatbelts!" Dale added, fastening himself as tight as possible. Monterey Jack just hemmed with sarcasm. His previous firsthand experience of 'contact' with great grey owls told him that neither harpoon nor, moreover, seatbelts would help them if need be…
"How about switching radio on?" Zipper offered. "These poachers probably use walkie-talkies. We can listen to them and find where they are!"
"I doubt they use walkie-talkies," Chip objected. "It's dangerous. Forest rangers can hear them and voice recording can be used as evidence during future trial. We'll look for them without radio, with our own eyes and ears. Gadget, damp the engines down. And don't turn the noselight on. If the poachers see the light, they'll either run away or start shooting. Dale, take station at the harpoon and watch our rear hemisphere."
"Yeah, yeah, who else could it be," Dale muttered but obliged and in a few minutes cried out: "Owl! Owl!"
Chip almost broke his own neck trying to see the bird in question but then Gadget abruptly turned the control wheel to the left forcing the Wing to make a U-turn between the treetops and everybody saw that their watchmunk was right.
"So large!" Gadget admired involuntarily.
"Large," Monterey Jack agreed solemnly. "Can swallow you in one piece without chocking."
"But it's easy to follow her," Chip countered optimistically. "Speed up but not too much, so as not to make excessive noise-"
Gadget was already reaching for engine revolutions regulator which proved out very opportunely for at that very moment the owl uttered a long-drawn-out cry and flapped its wings frantically but almost immediately went limp and plummeted down like a stone.
"There! Fast!" Chip cried. Gadget increased propellers' rotation speed to maximum at once and directed the Wing to the bird's crash site. It's hard to find grey owl in dark forest but, luckily for Rescue Rangers, it was lying almost on the same spot above which it caught bullet or something like that. Urged by Chip and not wanting to waste time on U-turns and converting the Wing into hover mode, Gadget abruptly pitched the plane's nose down. The dive was unpleasant but luckily short, and the landing was surprisingly pleasant owing to thick layer of fallen twigs.
"Is everybody alive?" Gadget asked habitually.
"Yes, yes!" Dale answered quickly in order to forestall potential Monterey's dumb joke. The Aussie, however, bit his tongue without any reminders so as not to, heavens forbid, break his oath to Gadget never and under no circumstances joke about health or, moreover, death. Her friends didn't know whether it was caused by her prophetic dream which allowed them to save Boeing or by A-Kha's songs on the concert, but since that day the mouse inventor began to react very painfully to this topic. She even went off into hysterics once and nobody wanted to repeat it…
"Look!" Monty roared pointing at the gun dart sticking out from the owl's right side.
"It's alive!" Zipper confirmed everybody's guess as soon as he reached the bird.
"Dale! Monty! Follow me!" Chip ordered curtly unfastening and jumping out from the plane. "We need to camouflage it! The poachers will be here soon! Gadget, fly the Wing behind that tree over there!"
Gadget obediently flew away in the said direction while her friends quickly threw a dozen of fallen boughs over the owl and hid here and there and waited. In less than a minute two men wearing camo suits and night vision goggles and armed with long-stemmed guns came running to the crash site from different directions.
"Where is it?! Where?! You see it?!" the one who came from the left kept asking nervously.
"No," his partner answered with cold restrain. "You sure it fell here?"
"One hundred per cent! It fell like a ninepin! I never miss!"
"Then where is it?"
"How should I know?! Loped away somewhere maybe-"
"Tranquilizer acts too quickly for that. They barely have time to scream if they are lucky. Looks like you missed this time."
"I never miss, I'm telling you!" the shooter shouted crossly.
His partner raised his hand pacificatory. "Ok, stop yelling. Let's say it was carried away by the wolf and leave it at that. What's on the radar?"
The shooter pulled out of his coat's pocket some strange device similar to portable GPS-navigator. "Nothing."
"Maybe we scared them away. Okay, six for a night is good, too. We're already ahead of schedule. With a little luck we'll cast off tomorrow."
"How about searching for this one? And darts don't grow on trees either-" the shooter said.
His companion shrugged melancholically. "Search if you like. Just don't use the flashlight. You know what'll happen if rangers see you." He put the sling of his gun over his shoulder, turned around and left. The shooter looked about him once more and poked his leg into a bough heap. Rescue Rangers caught their breaths but the man missed the owl, spat and left in the same direction as his partner.
"You heard that? He said 'tranquilizer'!" Dale said ecstatically when the Rangers gathered by the Wing returned from her temporal 'exile'. "That's some weird poachers!"
"Or not poachers at all," Chip added thoughtfully. Having seen the owl was shot with a tranquilizer dart he thought these men could be scientists ringing wild birds but the phrase about forest rangers refuted this hypothesis. "I'm worried much more by their words 'six for a night' and 'schedule', though. Along with 'we'll cast off tomorrow'."
"In this case we should follow them," Gadget concluded.
"We should," Chip agreed, then pointed at the owl still covered by the boughs. "But we can't leave it like that. Someone can eat it and we would become not saviors but killers, since it's clear that those two needed it alive. We have to wait until it wakes up. Gadget, can you remove the dart?"
"I think I can. And then what?"
"We'll sleep in the Wing and keep watch in shifts. We'll think how to catch those- let's call them poachers for argument's sake, tomorrow. Looks like they find owls with the help of some portable radar-"
"I doubt it," Gadget objected immediately. "I mean, you are right about the radar since they said it themselves, but I really doubt about its portability. I think they carried receivers only while the radar complex itself is deployed either in their car or in some totally different place. The second variant is more probable because in order to reliably locate owls flying over the forest both transmitter and antenna must stick out above the trees or, even better, be located on a higher ground like some hill or knoll-"
"Can it be detected?"
"In theory, yes, otherwise there would be no antiradar missiles. In practice you'll need to know at least frequency of the waves it emits. If they don't use passive scanning, that is, though I doubt it since owls can't be considered powerful emitters of electromagnetic signals. In other words, if we get to know the radar's operating frequency, we should find it easily."
"And to know its operating frequency we should find it first, right?" Monterey asked skeptically.
Gadget pursed her lips. "Well, basically, yes. On the other hand, if it detects owls then its wavelength must correspond with their size which means we have UHV-device here- Yes, I think I'll be able to locate it!"
Chip smiled. "I never doubted it even for a second! Okay, we'll get back to this problem in the morning. Let's have some sleep now. I am the first to keep watch, next are Monty, Zipper, Gadget and Dale. Oh, I almost forgot! Gadget, help me with the dart…"
Having removed the dart and treated the wound with antiseptic from the first aid kit, Gadget went to the cockpit to finish watching interrupted dreams. Chip took station at the tail harpoon gun he could lean on while remaining constantly ready for action. The night forest isn't the safest place for rodents, but Chip's watch passed without any adventures and he was going to start tugging Monterey when the boughs covering the owl started moving and the chipmunk woke everyone at once with a shout "IT'S WAKING UP!"
"No rest for the weary…" Dale mumbled, yawning from sleep and helping his friends to free the owl from the improvised camouflage net. Feeling the crushing weight diminish, the owl thought it was a sign of its strength rapidly returning and tried to jump on its legs. The legs didn't obey their master, though, and the creature born to fly kept falling on the twigs already rammed by its weight.
"Won't fly," Dale stated knowingly.
"Looks that way," Monterey agreed, already standing by the harpoon and aiming it at the owl's head. A simple precaution. After all, as soon as the owl woke up, Rescue Rangers were going to leave quickly out of harm's way and the predator's sharp claws. But first they had to wait for a moment when the owl would be strong enough to defend itself but still too weak to chase the rodents. This moment obviously hadn't come yet, that's why the Rangers were sitting in the Wing already but hadn't started engines.
Hearing their voices the owl turned its head and half-opened its golden eye almost as large as Monterey Jack. "Who..? What..?" it asked barely audible for owls but thunderously loud for the nearby rodents.
"We are the brave Rescue Rangers!" Gadget happily introduced the whole team at once. She didn't take her hand off the engine power button, though.
"Poachers shot you down with a tranquilizer dart," Chip informed with friendly business tone. "But we hid you and they didn't find you. How do you feel? Are you able to fly?"
"I don't know…" the owl flapped its wings a few times but not too persuasive. "I don't think so… Poachers, you say… And…" the bird turned her head, looking about and even almost backwards. "And where's Grey Feather?"
"There!" Dale prompted helpfully, pointing his finger at the varicolored fan stuck between pine boughs.
The owl looked there. "Where…? No, I mean not my feather but my friend. It's his name. Or it was-"
"Let me guess," Chip interrupted. "You heard him calling for help and came here, didn't you?"
"Precisely!" The owl turned its face, circular like a log cut, towards the leader of the Rescue Rangers. "You saw him? Know where he is?"
Chip shrugged helplessly. "We heard his cries but didn't see him. I'm afraid the poachers got to him first."
The owl visibly saddened. "To him, too…"
"Gadget, luv, shouldn't we be taking off?" Monterey Jack hinted tactfully. He was worried that his friends stopped tracking the enormous predator's recovery process.
The owl interpreted his words in its own way. It stood up, jibbed clumsily but stayed on its legs and flapped its wings two more times. "True!" it announced. "It's high time! We must convene the Parliament urgently!"
"Not we but you," Monterey corrected gloomily.
"No-no, we, we!" the owl repeated assuredly. "You must tell everybody what happened here! We've lost many already and didn't know what to do, but now, owing to you, we have a chance to bring everybody back!"
Rescue Rangers exchanged glances. The owl's words were reasonable, sure, but…
"That's, certainly, true," Chip agreed addressing the owl again. "But, you see, there's one thing…"
The owl nodded. "I know. Previously the rodents could attend our Parliament meetings in deputies' stomachs only. But we have an emergency here, and, moreover, you saved my life… By the way, what are your names?"
The Rangers introduced themselves by turn.
"Pleased to meet you!" The bird said. "And my name is Wide Beak." The bird lowered his voice. "And it happened so that I'm not the last owl in the hierarchy and I can guarantee that your lives will be spared. What would you say?"
Rescue Rangers exchanged glances once again. The owl's arguments were logical and his sincerity won their hearts. Not to mention that predators don't ask their victims their names…
Having read agreement on his friends' faces, Chip turned to Wide Beak. "We agree."
The owl nodded and spread his wings. "I am very much obliged. Follow me. And keep up! You won't find Parliament Hill without me!"
Rescue Rangers met these words fairly skeptically – the terrain was mostly flat and even the smallest elevation was visible from far away, especially from the air. Nevertheless it soon turned out that Wide Beak didn't exaggerate and the owls' Parliament Hill was really tricky to find. It only barely stuck out above the ground level, made hill by quite a deep ravine surrounding it. The ravine resembled fortress moat so strongly that Chip couldn't help his curiosity.
"Did you dig it purposefully?" he asked their guide.
The owl looked down. "What? The ravine? No, surely not! What made you think so?"
"Well, it looked logical to me…"
Wide Beak laughed. "Oh, yes, I forgot that your entire life is devoted to excavation works!" Seeing that his joke wasn't quite appreciated the owl quickly apologized. "I'm sorry, I had no intention at all to insult you. I'm not too skillful in conversations with rodents, you know- Oh, we're almost there!"
"He's suspiciously too kind," Monterey Jack said, nervously moving his moustache. "It's no good sign, mates, no good…"
"Come on, Monty!" Gadget objected optimistically. "We saved his life! Why shouldn't he be polite to us?"
"Because he's an owl and we are who you know we are!" the Aussie explained gloomily. But even his bad mood couldn't prevent him from admiring the owl society's orderliness and swiftness of reaction.
Having told the Rangers to land in the centre of an area outlined by three high branchy firs, Wide Beak flew to the farthest and highest of them, and vanished among its boughs. Chip asked Dale and Monty to fetch him nightscope from the trunk behind the rear seat's back, studied the tree in question and concluded that the owl flew into one of the hollows densely covering the mighty trunk. After some time, most probably needed to persuade those in powers to convene the Parliament at unseasonable predawn hours, several owl flew out of the fir at once like bees from the hive, and soon the boughs of the three fir trees started to fill with drowsy deputies and other owls concerned. Among the very first to arrive was a female owl with six fledglings who immediately caught Chip's attention for she was met by Wide Beak personally and escorted to one of the honorable seats. Chipmunk concluded she was Grey Feather's wife. And if he and his team failed, she would probably become his widow…
His thoughts were interrupted by Monterey Jack's nervously hoarse voice. "Quite a place! Even the cannibal cats' pot was cozier!"
Indeed, as the morning was coming and visibility was improving the Rangers caught more and more glances of the gathered owls directed at them, curious and without any exaggeration carnivorous. They limited themselves to glances for now, which meant either that Wide Beak's word indeed carried weight or that it was strictly forbidden to eat anybody in Parliament or, most probably, both. Basically this situation suited the team but it was unclear for how long it would stay this way…
"Don't worry, everything will be alright!" said their patron landing near them, trying to calm their fears as fast as possible. "We don't eat meeting participants."
"And when the meeting ends?" Dale asked meticulously.
Wide Beak hesitated fleetingly. "Well, it depends on your speech. If it persuades the Parliament majority-"
"And how much is it?" Chip asked.
"As usual: a half plus one voice," the owl looked about him. "We have quorum already which is very good since it gathers very seldom nowadays after all these disappearances. There were even propositions to lower the threshold temporarily but the voting failed every time due to absence of quorum. So you are already very lucky. As for me, I tried to make it clear for everyone that this meeting is really important, too."
"Thank you," Chip said on behalf of the team.
"You are welcome. I don't do it for myself only, after all. All right, it's time for me to fulfill my duties. Stay here and don't leave anywhere. You'll be granted the floor, but not immediately. First a couple of protocol procedures must be observed. They can't be avoided, so I ask you to be patient and stay calm. Any attempts to quicken them, simplify them or violate established order in any other way won't help but most certainly worsen already guarded disposition towards you. You aren't privileged. On the contrary: you are greatly honored to attend the parliament meeting, the very sanctum of our society!"
Having finished on this solemn note Wide Beak took his leave and flew to the Presidium Fir.
"Does anyone else have a bad feeling about this?" Monterey asked his friends.
"Yes," Zipper squeaked.
"Plus one," Dale seconded.
"It's not too pleasant," Gadget agreed. "But I wouldn't say it's too terribly bad either. I mean, it had been worse before. Much worse. I know for sure…"
Chip nodded. "True. Wide Beak said everything depended on us only. As for me, it suits me perfectly."
"Looks like as for them, too," Monterey Jack grumbled, looking askew at the deputies conversing in whisper on gastronomic topics from under his brows. At that moment strict ceremonial hooting came from the Presidium, and a large owl wearing white judicial wig appeared from the topmost hollow, and there immediately was complete silence. Chip narrowed his eyes and looked for Wide Beak, saw him sitting just two levels below the Speaker and took a breather. The owl they rescued wasn't the last in the power hierarchy, indeed. That was reassuring.
"Mister Clerk, read the introduction," demanded the Speaker.
The owl was sitting right below him cleared his throat. "The extra meeting is attended by thirty eight members with a right to vote which is more than enough for quorum. Also attending are: the Speaker of Parliament, venerable Big Head; the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, venerable Sharp Wing; the Clerk of the Parliament, your humble servant Golden Eye; the Parliamentary Counsel, honorable Wide Beak; Sergeant-at-Arms, esteemed Strong Claw, and other officials. The agenda consists of one plank, namely 'Mass disappearances of our commune's members: causes, culprits and our further actions'. Reporter: the Parliamentary Counsel, honorable Wide Beak; co-reporters: the Brave Rescue Rangers. I finished."
Big Head nodded. "Thank you. Does anyone of those present have any questions, addenda or objections concerning agenda?"
The largest of owls sitting in dense cluster on the top branches of the fir tree to the Speaker's left immediately responded. "Venerable Speaker, allow me to express objection!"
"The floor is granted to respectable Long Beak," the Speaker announced.
"They have very monotonous names, no?" Dale pointed out in loud whisper. "They are already all alike, and now this-"
"Hush," Chip said without looking back at him, too preoccupied with catching every single word and glance of the surrounding owls. That paid off. For instance, fleeting sickly-sweetness in Long Beak's voice when he was saying the word 'venerable' indicated that this owl was in uncompromising opposition to the Speaker and would be the main source of problems…
"Thank you, venerable Speaker," the oppositionist said and spread his wings indicating the floor is his. "I have a following objection. According to the Regulations, only members of Parliament and other officials can be reporters and co-reporters! That's why I offer a suggestion to reject these Brave Rangers or whatever they call themselves!"
Big Head looked at the Parliamentary Counsel. They surely had had a long conversation about it prior to the meeting and now Wide Beak said nothing indicating he had nothing to add to what he had said in the lobby.
The Speaker turned to the floor holder. "The objection is rejected on the ground that we have an emergency here in which case the Regulations allow deliberate deviations from some terms if the Presidium decides so. This decision is final and carries no right of appeal. Have you finished, respectable Long Beak?"
"I finished," said the oppositionist. He bowed and folded his wings but it was clear that his submissiveness was feigned.
Big Head looked the Parliament over again. "Does anyone else of those present have any more questions, addenda or objections concerning agenda?" Nobody did, and the Speaker loudly clapped his wings thrice. "In that case the extra meeting of the Parliament is declared opened," he announced. "The floor is granted to the reporter."
Upon taking the floor Wide Beak got down to business immediately by owl society's standards, reducing the procedural preamble down to the necessary minimum, which earned him gratitude of Rescue Rangers and slight disapproval of the other members of the Presidium. He briefly retold the story of his miraculous deliverance from the poachers and asked to handle the floor to his saviors who had concrete constructive proposals concerning the returning of "abducted kinsbirds of respectable deputies of the Parliament and honorable members of the Presidium". These words made the Speaker and the owls occupying the fir tree to his right look at the rodents with poorly concealed curiosity while the owls occupying the fir tree to his left looked at them with even less concealed apprehension and even enmity. The latter were more numerous and Chip concluded that the opposition suffered less from the abductors than the Government party, and the present imbalance of power more than suited their needs…
"…surely hope to win the next elections and the rest of the world can go hang!" Chip heard Monterey Jack's mumbled grumbling and looked at him.
"What did you say?"
"I say that the whole Long Beak's gang is against us!" the strongmouse repeated slightly louder. "We're in no end of trouble. They had one protest already and there's many more to come, that's for sure! Every single one of them probably has the right to speak up..! Oh, here we are!" Monterey Jack pointed at the real forest of wings raised as soon as the Speaker finished the ceremonial phrase about questions, addenda or objections.
"Darned pettifoggers!" Dale grinded angrily through his teeth. "They value politics more than their fellows' lives! There's no polite word for it!"
"Actually, congress of baboons is much worse," Monterey 'soothed' him. "You can't imagine what they spill on one another and what they throw at each other…"
"If only I had something to throw at them…" Dale dreamt and this thought showed so vividly on his face that Chip informed him instinctively: "Don't even think about it!" Dale smiled to the ears and waved his paws in front of Chip's face as if saying 'here are the hands!' and 'catch me doing it!'
Meanwhile the Speaker concluded that all the opposition's objections were slight variations of the same thesis about inadmissibility of someone's who isn't objectively an owl active participation in Parliament meetings, so he combined them together and rejected en masse. Having checked that there were no more objections, Big Head waved the Clerk, the Clerk hooted his aide sitting on the fourth level from the Presidium tree's top, and the owl in question flew up to the Ranger Wing.
"Who will be the first to co-report?" he asked bureaucratically.
"Me," Chip said without hesitation. Wide Beak's public announcement that their team had a plan jarred on his nerves slightly for the owl did it without having consulted with them. Chip understood that it was probably the only argument which could force the Speaker to allow them to report, though. Fortunately, the team indeed had a plan. Though if it came to that, Gadget should have reported it, chipmunk thought that it would be wiser to leave her answering the concrete technical questions.
"What is your name?" the Clerk's aide asked.
"Just Chip?" The owl wasn't used to such short names.
"Chip the Rescue Ranger".
"With or without 'Brave'?"
There was no irony in bird's voice whatsoever, and Chip decided the game was worth the candle. "With 'Brave'."
"Then we'll announce you so. Please turn your back to me."
Chipmunk decided to refrain from asking questions and obeyed. The bird leaned forward instantly, grabbed his jacket's collar and carried him to the Presidium. Putting Chip who didn't have time to become properly afraid down on the bough occupied by Wide Beak, the Clerk's aide flew to his immediate superior Golden Eye, who in turn flew to the Speaker.
"The floor is granted to the co-reporter, Brave Chip the Rescue Ranger," Big Head announced as soon as all were back to their seats.
Now all the owls present at once were looking at Chip. It was frightening but at the same time allowed him to closely watch the audience's reaction to his words without fear of missing any winks or squints since the owls' eyes are fixed in the sockets, and in order to look to the side they have to turn their entire heads.
Cheering himself up with this optimistic observation Chip cleared his throat and spoke. "Good morning, venerable Speaker, honorable members of the Presidium-"
"Louder, please!" Long Beak cried out from his seat.
"Objection!" Wide Beak immediately answered perceiving the opponent's phrase as a foul play. "Discipline violation!"
The oppositionist didn't get baffled. "I strongly object! First, the co-reporter made no indications whatsoever that he has taken the floor. Second, he speaks really too quiet!"
"He must be mocking at me!" Chip thought. "He's an owl; he would hear me from the other end of the forest!"
The Speaker thought the same but formally Long Beak was perfectly right. "Objection is sustained," he said after a moment's thought. "I ask the co-reporter to indicate the taking of the floor clearly from now on. I also ask the Clerk's office to provide the deputies on their seats with the means to hear the report."
Feeling Wide Beak's apologizing stare on his back Chip slightly shrugged without looking back as though saying 'nothing to worry about' and spread his hands apart. A couple of opposition deputies bent and closed their beaks with their legs and burst with laughter, finally allowing the Speaker an opportunity to reprove them. That didn't baffled Chip who kept standing with his hands apart while the Clerk of the Parliament issued the needed instructions. In the upshot, Chip reported saying one sentence at a time which was then duplicated much louder by the owl specially appointed by Golden Eye.
"Good morning, venerable Speaker, honorable members of the Presidium, respectable deputies, those other present. The Parliamentary Counsel, Wide Beak, has acquainted you with the facts of the case already, so I won't repeat his words and will proceed directly to the plan to free your abducted kinsbirds from the criminals' hands and return them back to their families."
Grey Feather's spouse's face brightened visibly. She was the only female here — Wide Beak must have specifically arranged her presence during the hearing of the case concerning her husband's fate with the Speaker. If so, this card should be played to the full extent…
"These criminals," Chip went on, "must be stopped as soon as possible. According to their conversation we overheard, during last night only they put to sleep and abducted six owls, including Grey Feather and at least one more member of your commune. We heard his screams shortly before Grey Feather's, but to our great regret we didn't come in time to help him."
"Don't worry," Sharp Wing, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, interjected with Big Head's permission. "Prior to the meeting our messengers asked all the families. Only Grey Feather didn't return from his hunt. It means that the second owl you mentioned was some stranger. And it serves him right. Let it serve him as a severe lesson not to trespass our hunting and stomping grounds' sovereign airspace."
The deputies responded to his words with unanimous hum of approval. Chip's desire to help them decreased at least in half but he couldn't help it.
"Thanks for clarification, honorable Sharp Wing," he said. "I also consider myself obliged to inform you, that the criminals, again according to their own words, are going to leave soon, probably even tomorrow. This means that we must catch them this night or there will be no chances to find and return the abducted."
Grey Feather's wife stooped and lowered her face.
One of the oppositionists used the pause to his advantage. "Don't aggravate the situation! Stick to the point! To the point!" he screamed.
The Speaker reacted instantly. "Reprimand to be recorded! All questions after the report only!"
"Thank you, venerable Speaker," Chip said with respect, "but the remark of the respectable deputy is reasonable, and I will stick to the point indeed. It's not easy to find two people on such a wide territory, especially at night. But there is a way out. The culprits use radar to find their victims. Find the radar, and you'll find the culprits. My team has all the technical skills needed to solve this problem. So I ask the Parliament to give us twenty-four hours to gather necessary materials, build needed equipment and track the culprits. Thank you for your attention. I finished."
As soon as Chip lowered his tired hands, the Speaker asked, "Does anyone of those present want to ask the co-reporter any questions?" He hadn't finished the question yet, but both stands had already bristled with raised wings. Big Head consulted with the Clerk's office and granted the floor to the Government party. Opposition grumbled at this decision, forcing the Speaker to calm them down yet again. Chip thought the owls' Parliament definitely lacked photo finish.
"I and my fraction have a question," the deputy granted the floor began, "How are you going to find this so called radar?"
Chip expected this question and rapped out without a doubt, "I ask to grant the floor to the second co-reporter, Brave Gadget the Rescue Ranger, who will answer this question."
The Speaker sustained his request and soon Gadget was standing by Chip's side.
"Uhm, hello everybody!" she greeted the Parliament. Long Beak opened his mouth to protest, but Chip quickly grasped the mouse by her hands and spread them apart for her. The Speaker couldn't help but smile and pretended to study claws on his legs. The oppositionist snapped his beak idly and sat back on his bough.
"Thanks," Gadget said to Chip, embarrassed slightly, looking at him over her shoulder.
"You are welcome," Chip answered, smiling, and reluctantly let her go.
Gadget turned to the Parliament again. "Hello everybody again! My name is Gadget and the idea is like this…" She started her trademark long, detailed, and slightly confusing for the unprepared listeners, explanations of principles of functioning of triangulating radio direction-finder. The amplifier owl was only barely catching up with her, time and again lapsing from exact reproduction of Gadget words to their rough retelling. The deputies, including opposition, said nothing, though. First, they were astonished by this little mouse's ability to speak the language of technical terms so fast and freely. Second, nobody wished to be reputed as a featherbrain, so everyone diligently pretended to understand everything perfectly.
"That's it, time's up," the Speaker announced when it became obvious that the Rescue Ranger got slightly carried away. "Thank you for your exhaustive answer. I assume you are satisfied, aren't you?" he addressed the deputy who had asked the question.
"Yes, certainly, completely, verily!" the deputy confirmed eagerly.
"In that case, does anyone else of those present want to ask the co-reporters any more questions?" Big Head asked. This time the opposition was clearly quicker and the Speaker grudgingly granted them the floor.
"I and my fraction have a question. Can respectable co-reporters documentarily confirm they have qualification necessary to solve such a difficult and important task? We know that one doesn't measure a gift rodent's tail, but this case concerns lives of our dear kinsbirds and we would like to have some guarantees of job quality so to say."
Chip was ready for this question, too. He immediately asked the deputy what he thinks of human press. Upon receiving cautious answer 'generally positively' the chipmunk asked the Speaker's permission to read a few articles from reputable periodicals' criminal columns, and then asked the Clerk's office to deliver the materials for the Wing to the Presidium. Golden Eye was appointed as the reader by mutual agreement.
" 'Spaceplane Landing Mystery' ", the owl read the title on the first clipping. Just like Gadget's speech, the article was abound in special technical terms that didn't obscure the main idea of the authors: Spaceplane's maneuvers on the most important landing trajectory segment were beyond the autopilot's capabilities, and according to the astronauts' medical sensors readings all of them were unconscious at the time.
"You mean it was you who landed that thing?" Long Beak asked as soon as the Clerk finished reading. He laughed, "I see now that you aren't as Brave as you are Blatant!"
Wide Beak lost his temper. "Objection! It's a direct insult!"
Big Head nodded. "Objection sustained. But it should be said in all fairness that your claim indeed seems somewhat… overconfident."
"You want us to explain all our actions step-by-step?" Gadget asked.
"Interesting proposition," the Speaker said after some thought. "Even more interesting since it doesn't sound like sham or bluff. But I'm afraid that even if you tell us everything up to the tiniest detail we won't be able to expertly assess your story. Please, Mister Clerk, go on reading."
" 'Airliner's Miraculous Escape: Aliens, Guardian Angels or Rise of the Machines?' " Golden Eye read. Long Beak smiled unpleasantly, but despite its yellowish title, the article about mysterious incident with Flight NA10031 was written in more than serious, reasonable and thus even more chilling manner.
"You imply that you repaired this airliner, too?" Long Beak asked with irony but within politeness boundaries.
"Exactly!" Gadget confirmed. "Want me to draw a blueprint of the ARK?"
The oppositionist didn't comprehend. "Excuse me, a blueprint of what?"
"Aircraft Rescue Kit, ARK for short. That's the proper name of what the article's author calls 'a conglomeration of planks with suction cups'."
A murmur of admiration swept over the fir trees. Long Beak felt he was losing initiative and took the offensive. "It's still not a proof! I can draw anything, too! Give us the facts, not some idle talk!"
"As you wish," Chip said, unruffled. "Honorable Golden Eye, please, read the third article."
The Clerk took the last clipping into his claws. Sure, Rescue Rangers had much more of them, for they began to collect them almost immediately after beginning of their work as team. While traveling, though, they took along only the stock set of three articles about their most celebrated cases. For now they were the spaceplane landing, the airliner rescue and the catching of Aldrin Klordane. Formally speaking, during that case they hadn't been a team of Rescue Rangers in the modern sense of these words yet. Nevertheless, the theft of global gold reserve, if successful, would have become the true crime of the century. On the other hand, during the trial described in the third article, Klordane publicly announced that his plot was uncovered not by law enforcement agencies but by 'a handful of chipmunks and mice'. Humans certainly thought the bandit was trying to humiliate his captors and feign madness in order to evade prison sentence, but on the whole it was the most direct evidence of the Rangers' active involvement. Only list of the team members' names would make the picture more complete. And Long Beak jumped at it.
"How do we know that you are indeed the rodents mentioned in the article? There are plenty of chipmunks and squirrels out there!"
"You mean that such rodent teams are common?" Chip asked insinuatingly. The opposition leader, an ardent advocate of principle 'the one whom you eat is strictly inferior to you', felt like hit by a boot to the head. If he said 'yes', he would crush the theory of superiority of upper links of food chain. If he said 'no', he would confirm his adversaries' claims…
Long Beak decided to majestically evade the direct answer. "Still it's not a proof!" he said and instantly attacked again. "As a matter of fact, the Human press can hardly be called an impartial source of information! How about representatives of other species who can confirm you are the ones you are posing as? I hope you don't help humans exclusively, do you?"
Rescue Ranger hesitated for a moment and Long Beak thought his question took the rodent by surprise. He was wrong, though. Chip had foreseen this variant of conversation development, and his short pause was due to doubts about possible recommenders. He could list lots of names, but the majority of them would probably mean nothing to the owls living in Canada forest reserve. And there were not too many really widely known animals among the team's 'clients'…
"Do names 'Flash' and 'Canina La Fur' ring any bells?" Chip asked the whole Parliament at once. Long Beak didn't like it and he was about to object and make the co-reporter to answer him personally as the question author, but he was forestalled by nobody else but Strong Claw, Sergeant-at-Arms.
"What 'Flash' are you talking about? The Super Dog?"
"The Wonder Dog," Chip corrected.
Sergeant-at-Arms nodded. He deliberately made a mistake in order to check the chipmunk. "Yes, The Wonder Dog. We know him. Last winter he was here shooting his new film. The shooting area bordered our grounds, so I and my subordinates were ordered to observe and then report the results to the Parliament."
"Yes, yes," the Speaker nodded several times. "I remember now. It was exactly as you say. I remember you pointing out that the dog did all the stunts himself despite his star status and as a result we unanimously gave a commendation in absentia to him. So the answer to your question will be yes, his name does ring many bells to us. Am I right, respectable Long Beak?"
The oppositionist forced himself to smile mellowly. "You are, the venerable Speaker, you surely are."
"In that case, the venerable Speaker, honorable members of the Presidium, and respectable deputies," Chip began. He was already fed up with all this red tape language but knew it couldn't be avoided and diligently repeated studies phrases, trying hard not to mix them up. "I'm sure you'll be interested to know that Flash wasn't always like that. For a very long time all his stunts had been performed by specially selected stuntsogs, since he was very afraid of the height. It was we who helped him to overcome it."
The deputies started humming, looking at one another in disbelief. Long Beak had his former self-confidence back. "Dear co-reporter, don't you think your words are too high-flown? And we must yet again accept them on faith, am I right?"
"No, you aren't," Chip answered calmly. The oppositionist sulked as though puffed up by blacksmith bellows, but chipmunk was already talking to the Sergeant-at-Arms. "Esteemed Strong Claw, could you please tell if during your observations you or your subordinates saw any badge Flash was wearing?"
The Sergeant-at-Arms shook his head. "No."
For the first time during the meeting Chip really started worrying. "And… some other decorations maybe? Pins, medallions-"
"I saw a medallion."
"Describe it, please," the chipmunk asked, feeling his spirits rise.
"Since Flash wore it only after shooting sessions, I caught only a glimpse of it," the Sergeant-at-Arms said not without proud, "but I remembered it very well. It was a circle divided in two halves, red and blue, by yellow lightning, with two white Human letters 'R' written over it."
Chip sighed in relief. Upon naming Flash 'the Honorary Ranger' he pinned a badge with his team's emblem to his suit. Apparently, the dog had problems with the pin and remade the badge into the medallion worn on his neck.
"It's our team's emblem," Chip told the owls. "We gave this medallion to him. He is an honorary member of our team. You want proof? We had it. Esteemed Strong Claw, I have a great favor to ask of you: look at the symbols drawn on our plane's wings, and compare it to the medallion Flash wore."
Upon receiving the Speaker's permission to leave his station temporally, the Sergeant-at-Arms flew to the Ranger Wing and back.
"They are identical!" he announced not hiding his astonishment. The nearest deputies to the aircraft even rose on their legs and turned their heads almost upside down in order to see the emblems on the wings whose tops faced them.
"It's not a proof!" Long Beak repeated like a wind-up toy. "Maybe it was you who borrowed that emblem from the dog, not vice versa! You saw it in his movie and borrowed it!"
"Esteemed Strong Claw testified that Flash didn't wear the medallion during shootings," Chip reminded him.
"Then you saw it when he wasn't shooting, just like esteemed Strong Claw did! Maybe you sneaked into his dressing room! In his absence even! Maybe you are thieves! Prove us that-"
"NO!" Gadget cried having lost her temper. "YOU PROVE IT! Prove we are thieves, liars and everything else! You can't? Then shut y-"
She didn't have time to finish the phrase, muted by Chip's paw covering her mouth tightly. "Don't! That's exactly what he wants!" Chip whispered quickly into her ear, then removed his paw and turned to the Speaker. "Venerable Big Head," he said. "I'm afraid we provided the Parliament all proofs of our competence we could. The respectable deputies will have to make their decision based on the information and materials they already have only. I'm sure their decision will be wise and reasonable. Thank you for your attention, I finished."
"Me too," Wide Beak said. There was a short pause which lasted until Gadget calmed down enough to understand everybody was waiting for her.
"I finished, too," she mumbled gloomily.
Big Head took the floor. "I want to thank the reporter and the co-reporters. I understand that not all of those present are fully satisfied, but," the Speaker eloquently threw back his head to look at the sun already risen high above, "it's getting late already, and the case is urgent, so the decision must be adopted on this meeting. As a result, I suggest to do it this way: limit the debate by a single speech from each fraction according to ordinary time limit, and then proceed straight off to voting. Any objections?"
"No!" both fir trees echoed with discordant chorus. At first Chip was surprised by this, but then he understood that, for one thing, all deputies are equally overcome by sleepiness regardless of their party membership, and also the opposition deputies see no reason to drag out the meeting beyond necessity being totally sure of its victory. And considering that the screams from the left were louder than from the right, they had every reason for it…
"Thank you," the Speaker said. "In that case, let's move on to the debates. I ask fractions to determine the reporters."
"Long Beak!" was a cry from the left.
"Bushy Leg!" sounded from the right.
"Thank you. The floor is granted to the respectable Bushy Leg. Time limit is ordinary."
Chip looked at the head of the Government party with interest. Until now this owl's participation in the meeting consisted of a single question about ways to find radar. His legs were obscured by heads of owls sitting on lower branches, and it was hard to say how much bushier than the average they were. However, one couldn't say that Long Beak's beak was noticeably longer than other owls' beaks, and Wide Beak's beak wasn't distinguished with some phenomenal width either. So the principles of owls naming remained a mystery for Chip.
To Bushy Leg's credit he didn't mill the wind and kept within a half of time limit. Expressing some uncertainty as to the Brave Rescue Rangers qualifications for forms sake, he nevertheless urged his colleagues to vote for Wide Beak's proposal to accept their help. His words weren't unexpected for the Rangers but they were still pleased to hear them.
Long Beak, on the contrary, was expressly verbose. First he apologized to all present in general and the reporters in particular for his previous harshness. Then he apologized for his future harshness. Then he began to wordy express his love for his kinsbirds, both present and absent, surely including those kidnapped whom he never forgot even for a moment and of whom he cared round the clock…
"Here we go," Monterey Jack rolled his eyes and leaned back on his seat heavily. "It's true that wagging one's tongue is easier than digging the trench!"
"Yeah!" Dale agreed. "Why on earth is he named Long Beak? Long Tongue suits him much, much better!"
The strongmouse nodded gloomily. Dale listened to the oppositionist's speech for some thirty more seconds, got bored, started glancing around and saw an owl fledgling looking at him. The fledgling was noticeably bigger than Dale, but, judging how frequently his mother slapped his head with her wing, he was the youngest in the family, was burdened by the meeting and wanted to play. Dale was aware that this sweet feather ball would soon become a giant nighttime hunter, but at the moment chipmunk felt they were twin souls and couldn't help but get filled with sympathy for him.
Noticing he's got Dale's attention the fledgling happily opened his beak. Dale pulled a face at him. The fledgling goggled his eyes and inclined his head to the side to examine the unknown monster from a different angle of sight. Dale inclined his head to the same side. The fledgling inclined his head further. Dale did the same. The fledgling continued to follow his line, that is, to bend his neck, and Dale mirrored his actions. But his neck wasn't nearly as supple as the fledgling's, and in the end he somersaulted over the plane's side and fell to the ground. The fledgling started jumping happily and flapped his wings asking for an encore. His mother immediately slapped him with her wing, but it was already too late. Long Beak never liked his speech interrupted, and now, in this very tense moment, he became truly infuriated.
"What's that?! How you dare?! Forget where you are or what?! Who let you in here in the first place, and with children on top of that?! You must leave them at home when you go to the Parliament!"
"Mind your tongue!" Wide Beak took down a peg at him angrily. "It's White Neck, Grey Feather's wife!"
"Thank you," White Neck dolefully thanked her defender, and looked at the oppositionist. "My husband was abducted, so we came here together. I thought the children should be present when the fate of their father was decided. That it would be useful for them…"
"I'm sorry, I was unaware," Long Beak mumbled, but White Neck seemed not to hear him.
"…and it turned useful indeed," she went on. "Where else you can find such TIMESERVING and HYPOCRISY! THEY ARE YOUR FRIENDS! YOUR MATES…!"
"Stop it!" Long Beak shouted. "Objection! I-"
"…YOUR FELLOW PARTY MEMBERS, AFTER ALL! AND YOU-"
"You don't know what to do! You have no ideas of your own! So why are you-"
"…You are fine with it, yes?! Tell the truth!-"
"It's scandalous! I…"
"Say it to everybody! Say it to me and my children! SAY IT!"
"WILL IT EVER FINISH OR NOT?" Long Beak screamed his head off. White Neck has had her say already and sat silently, clasping her children to her with her wings. The oppositionist cleared his throat and assumed a dignified air. "Forgive me. I was saying that everything White Neck said were unfounded insinuations! I understand how she's feeling right now, but this doesn't give her right to insult the Parliament deputies! I and my fraction care for the good of all the abducted only! All abducted, with no exceptions! And our position on this case is dictated solely by our caring of their and everybody's good. We will vote against the proposal and urge all responsible deputies to follow our example! Thanks for your attention, I finished!"
"In this case the debates are over," the Speaker announced, not commenting the emotional outburst which accompanied Long Beak's speech. "I ask the deputies to answer the following question: do you support the proposals made by authors of the report 'Mass disappearances of our commune's members: causes, culprits and our further actions'?"
The air got filled with the shouts 'Yes!' and 'No!' When they ceased, the speaker who had been listening attentively, announced, "Opinions are divided, but the 'No' variant prevails. The proposals are rejected."
"That's it," Chip thought. Fortunately, he wasn't familiar with the procedures enough.
"We demand the roll-call vote!" Bushy Leg shouted, immediately supported by his entire fraction.
"On the deputies' demand the roll-call vote will be held," the Speaker said. "I ask those who support acceptance of the proposals made by authors of the report 'Mass disappearances of our commune's members: causes, culprits and our further actions' to raise their wings."
White Neck looked with her teary eyes at the opposition fir tree. Either because of this, or under the impression of her anguished appeal, not only all Government party representatives, but also six oppositionists raised their wings, who sat closer to Grey Feather's wife than their fellows. However, they could be equally well considered sitting farther away from Long Beak, and one can't deny the possibility of interfraction struggle, too…
The Clerk counted the raised wings. "Pro — nineteen."
"I ask those who are against acceptance of the proposals made by authors of the report 'Mass disappearances of our commune's members: causes, culprits and our further actions' to raise their wings." The Speaker said. The rest of the deputies raised their wings.
"Con — nineteen." The Clerk announced and threw his head back. "Venerable Speaker, I ask you to either use your right of the decisive vote or hand it over to your deputy."
Big Head cast another glance at the Rescue Rangers. There was a grain of reason in Long Beak's words despite his sheer bias. They saw these rodents for the first time in their lives, and their plan sounded totally phantasmagoric… On the other hand, there were no other proposals, and Big Head doubted there would be any, and if the abducted owls weren't back before the next elections, the oppositions wouldn't hesitate to blame him personally for it. This thought filled the Speaker with resolution and he looked about him. "I will use my right of the decisive vote. I vote pro. The proposals made by authors of the report 'Mass disappearances of our commune's members: causes, culprits and our further actions' are accepted."
The right fir tree rejoiced. Overwhelmed with emotions, Chip felt giddy and would certainly fall if not for Gadget embracing him abruptly. "It's victory, Chip! It's victory!" she shouted right into the chipmunk's ear. He didn't even wink though. He couldn't remember when the last time he had felt similar euphoria was. Probably never. After all, their team had never won political victories before…
"Venerable Speaker!" piercing, almost on the verge of screech, Long Beak's scream was heard through the uproar. "Venerable Speaker!"
"And Longue Tongue is against!" Dale smiled caustically. The opposition leader didn't hear him, of course, and went on screaming, "Venerable Speaker! I have a supplement!"
Big Head raised his wings above his head, asking everybody to fall silent. "I'm listening."
The oppositionist started on a merry note. "I and my fraction are very glad for Wide Beak and the Brave Rescue Rangers, and sincerely wish them good luck. But I'm afraid that we have totally overlooked a really important aspect. I mean responsibility, for the rescue of our kinsbirds is a truly important task. That's why I propose to supplement the resolution if Parliament with a paragraph introducing the plan authors', that is, the Brave Rescue Rangers', personal responsibility for the plan's fulfillment. In particular, to revoke their parliament immunity in case they fail. I and my fraction think that it will be, in the first place, wise, because it will rouse the Brave Rescue Rangers to have more zealous and attentive attitude towards their duties and will be conductive to the increase of the quality of their work. On the other hand, it will be just. Thanks for your attention, I finished."
The Rescue Rangers didn't like this supplement very much since, if anything went wrong, it would turn them into the target of mass owl hunt. Nevertheless the result of the very first oral voting for it was unanimous approval, and the Government party deputies shouted their 'yes!' just as loudly and united as the six renegade oppositionists. Only Wide Beak who had no voting right asked to record his non-agreement as a separate opinion, but it didn't change anything.
"I'm sorry it turned out this way," he told the Rangers after the meeting was closed.
"Don't be," Chip friendly waved his apologies aside. "I did everything you could."
"Unfortunately, it's true," the owl agreed. "If it had been my decision, everything would have turned out differently, but we have democracy here-"
"Some democracy!" Dale said with gloom sarcasm, sitting with his hands crossed.
"There's no other. After all, you are alive only because of it."
"But not for long, seems to me," Monterey said with the same gloom, looking sideways at two Parliament bailiffs, subordinates of Strong Claw, standing astride the Ranger Wing.
Wide Beak spread his wings. "This depends on you only. By the way, what are you planning to do?"
"We'll build the direction-finder!" Gadget responded eagerly. "I don't have all the necessary components with me, though, but there's a city nearby where we'll surely find everything we need!"
"In that case, I'm going to sleep," Wide Beak informed them. "I am of no use for you in the city, anyway. I'm too visible."
"Don't worry, we'll manage it ourselves!" the inventor assured him with a bright smile. The very next owl's words disconcerted her, though. "Just remember that you won't be let go all at once."
"Well…" Wide Beak nervously scratched ground with his claw. "What if something goes wrong and you decide not to come back here-"
Dale jumped up on his legs and hit himself in his breast with his fist. "You'll have our word! The Brave Ranger Word!"
"It's no go, sorry. So I advise you to divide into two pairs… that is, in three and two," Wide Beak quickly corrected himself following Zipper's enraged squeak.
Chip hurried to smooth the blunder. "Consider it done," he turned to his friends. "Me and Dale will stay here, Monty and Zipper will accompany Gadget. Gadget tells what she needs, Zipper looks for it and Monty carries it. Questions, addenda, objections?"
Wide Beak smiled. "I see you have everything the owls have!"
"Thank goodness, not everything," Monterey answered. The owl thought for a moment, but in the end primly bowed his farewell and flew away without saying a word.
"You shouldn't have said that!" Gadget put the Aussie to shame. "He's a friend, after all."
"As for me, I avoid to befriend those who can swallow me in one piece without choking," Monterey Jack countered. "All right, let's speak on brighter matters. When we depart?"
"When you'll be ready?" Chip asked Gadget.
"At once if you like," the mouse answered.
The team settled on that so as not to shelve the case. Gadget, Monterey Jack and Zipper left shop-touring while Chip and Dale start making the camp they could rest peacefully. They had to put their rest off, though, for the brimful Wing returned unexpectedly soon and without Monty and Zipper, who, according to Gadget, stayed to guard the loot.
"You robbed a trailer truck with home appliances?" Chip asked half-jokingly.
"Oh, come on!" Gadget laughed ringingly. "Sure we didn't! We just found a cabin not too far away with radio and loads of spare parts!"
"Luck's on our side," Chip smiled.
"It's not the word! I found the spare parts after having disassembled the radio, though, but if someone needs it urgently, they will assemble it back with no problems! Like I said, there's enough spare parts to build three radios!" Gadget explained and began to handle her slightly taken aback friends hanks of cables, bunches of transistors and piles of condensers. The Parliament bailiffs had little idea what those things were needed for, and looked sideways at the rapidly growing details piles with ill feelings.
Having transported all the details she picked out, Gadget started building the direction-finder so fervently that Chip had to fly to pick up Monterey Jack and Zipper himself. By the time of their return the direction-finder was half-complete. Gadget was unable to enclose it into some kind of case, and it looked like a Christmas garland decorating a fir tree, which connected the treetop-mounted antennae with the makeshift two-axis plotter like the one used in the Weather Amplifier. This time though the needle marked not a point on the city map where local winter was coming, but azimuth of the source of a radio-signal with a wave length needed to detect flying owls.
"Just another similar one under the next fir for triangulation — and the system is ready!" Gadget informed her friends thoroughly examining the device.
"Bags, you climb the next fir!" Dale quickly said to Chip while scratching spots of his body injured by the tree's needles.
"What for?" Gadget wondered. "We have the Wing now! We can assemble the whole circuit on the ground and lift to the top by the antennae!"
Taking advantage of Gadget's looking in the opposite direction Chip put out his tongue at Dale. Dale answered with a fearful mug employing mouth stretched out by its corners with index fingers and lower eyelids pulled down with thumbs. The closest of two bailiffs involuntarily started back from him.
The availability of the Wing indeed made the team's task much easier, and the secong antennae was installed in a few minutes only. During test run the device detected nothing which was explainable but still left a nasty taste in everybody's mouths. On the other hand, the absence of explosions, inflammations and other problems more than made up for it.
"Who's the first to keep watch?" Monterey Jack asked as the team had some hasty snacks and started preparing themselves for a very important in-between two night vigils afternoon nap.
"We're already guarded," Dale objected talking about the owl bailiffs. He hadn't slept for more than a day and a half and was barely fighting his drowsiness.
"You'll entrust them your own life?" The Aussie shook his head reproachfully. "You are falling dangerously deep, lad!"
"Not yet," Dale objected and yawned. "But I will soon…"
"Dale's right," Chip said after some pondering. "If the owls decide to kill us, no watch will save us. And we really need to have a sleep, for the night will be long and eventful. At least I hope so."
"We'll have to survive that long first," Monterey said sullenly.
"Stop it, Monty!" Gadget pulled him up. "If they had wanted to kill us they would have done it long ago! We have the Parliament immunity!"
Monty could say many things about that, but they were for the most part family unfriendly, so he kept his frowning silence and solemnly swore not to shut his eyes even for a second. Looking around in search of a place for an ambush he decided that the best way would be to get into his sleeping bag and pretend to be sleeping. Having done this he tossed and turned trying to find the best pose for a tireless vigil and started snorting ostentatiously while watching the world around him from beneath half-closed eyelids. It was worse than he thought, so he decided to close his eyes and periodically open of them for s second. The intervals between openings gradually increased, at some point they stopped completely, and then Monty woke up because somebody was shaking him and calling his name.
"I knew it!" he thought jumping out of his bag and assuming a boxing stance in midair. "Where are they?!" he asked intimidatingly. "Where are these beaky pillows?! I'll punch their down out of them!"
"There are none," Zipper answered. Monty stopped spinning around, looked about him and saw that there were no owls indeed. The broken radio parts the direction-finders had been previously composed of lay around in abundance, though.
"Dancing grizzlies…" the Aussie muttered only thing he was capable of saying at the moment.
"That's an understatement, Monty," Gadget agreed coming up to them along with Chip and Dale. Gadget was carrying a cable stump in one hand and deformed transistor in another. "Everything is mashed to a silicon. Somebody worked really hard here. Methodically, thoroughly, with love, with assiduousness-"
"Oh, don't get upset, luv," Monterey said. He tried to embrace her by her shoulders, but the mouse evaded him adroitly.
"I'm not upset! I'm enraged! I have the right to!"
"Sure you do," Monterey nodded pacifyingly. "But what's the use? Enraged or not enraged, we're way over the edge- Is the Wing broken, too?"
Chip shook his head. "No. It was left untouched. Which means that-"
"We must skiddoo for our lives!" Monterey finished for him. "Come on, mates! Let's fly away before these satraps return!"
"That's the point, Monty," Chip went on calmly. "Don't you find it strange that the vandals were interested in direction-finders only and did nothing to our plane?"
"No! I find it very nice!"
"And I find it to be a trap."
Monterey Jack instinctively lowered his voice. "You think they rigged the Wing with explosives?"
"No," Chip repeated, "it was left completely untouched. And I think I know, why. Because somebody will profit greatly if we fly away. Do you know whom I'm talking about?"
The strongmouse turned dark as if a storm cloud. "Long Beak…"
"Exactly. If we had died, we would have become martyrs in the owl commune's eyes. But if we fly away, we'll become perfidious traitors, or even murderers — who knows what happened to those two bailiffs. And I can stake my life on Long Beak immediately using our disappearance to suit his needs, blame everything on Wide Beak and the Speaker, press for their dismissal and come into power. Do you really want it?"
"Me?! Want it?!" Monterey roared like an injured beast. "I want to pluck that stinker like a wet rag and punch his feathers down his fetid throat!"
"I'm with you!" Dale volunteered immediately.
Chip raised his hand imperiously. "We all want it. But we have no proof. That's why we'll take a deep breath, exhale slowly, count to ten and then do the following. Dale, you and me will fly to Wide Beak. Monty and Zipper, help Gadget gather all the parts and determine if it can be repaired. All right, friends, move on! Time's of the essence!"
…It goes without saying that the scandal was truly grandiose. Awakened by Wide Beak, the Speaker of the Parliament mobilized everybody under his jurisdiction, but still no trace of two bailiffs guarding the Rangers' camp was found. Long Beak immediately made an ardent speech encouraging his supporters and all commune members who cared to do their best to find the murderers of the two loyal law enforcers, and bring them to justice. By this time Chip had already known that there were no signs of struggle on the crime scene, and that both bailiffs were childless bachelors, and the obvious conclusion was that they were the ones who smashed the direction-finder and laid down somewhere in the nearby forest waiting for the government change. The Rescue Rangers couldn't find them, but they could do so as to make their political emigration take much longer than they had planned…
"Oh, here you are!" Gadget rejoiced upon seeing Chip's silhouette through midnight mist. "And I wondered where the heck have you gone!"
"I was filling our canteens here and got lost in thought-" Chip answered without looking back at her. He was sitting on a bank of a small and barely audibly purling stream. Gadget came up to him and sat beside him. They were alone if not for a parliament bailiff sitting on the nearby fir tree bodyguarding the Rescue Rangers leader personally. Another five bailiffs led by Strong Claw himself and overseen by Big Head and Wide Beak themselves guarded the direction finders Gadget had rebuilt out of spare parts and clear improvisation. "So, is it working?"
Gadget nodded. "It is. Well, that is, it turns on and off. What are you thinking about?"
"Are you ready to stake your life on its operability?" Chip asked having ignored her question.
Gadget shivered. "Uhm, er… Why are you asking?"
"Because there is a probability that you and others will have to do it. Because of me."
"Why because of you? It wasn't you who broke the devices!"
"But I could have listened to Monty's advice and left-"
"Oh, come on! You know better than I do that Monty would have never left! Yes, he sometimes falls into pessimism but that doesn't mean he's got cold feet. He just goes over the options, like you. It was the same with him and daddy. They divided their roles. If daddy was wholly into something, Monty would argue about dangers and risks. And if daddy doubted — he would list all the gains instead. And in the end they would do the right thing. And you did the right thing today."
Chip nodded. "Yes. That's the word. It was the right thing to do. But was it the good thing to do?"
"I don't understand," the mouse confessed looking into his profile keenly.
"Oh, please, it's crystal clear. We help the owl each of which eats up to a thousand of rodents per season. If my parents knew about it, they would bury me alive. They've always said that the predators were monsters and the world would be better without them."
"But you don't think so?"
"No. They read no human books and so no human TV documentaries. And I did. And I know that if predators suddenly disappear we will breed in such quantities that we'll run out of food very fast and in the end we'll perish entirely. No predators can exterminate us completely, but if left on our own we'll do it in no time. Surely at first we'll get the most out of our lives, we'll feel great, but then- there will be no 'then' then."
"So what troubles you?" Gadget inquired.
"That 'good thing' and 'right thing' are two very different things. And that only few understand it, even among the humans who have all those books and documentaries. And that while doing the right thing you often harm those around you, and while doing the good thing you lay mines under both your and their children. And the majority living only for a day would never understand and forgive you. And if you yield to them you'll never understand and forgive yourself. And you carry on doing what you did and act like you acted, sacrificing those around for the sake of those who'll come after you. But there's always the risk that those who'll come after you won't do the right things and it will end with the same extinction and it will turn out that your sacrifice was totally useless."
"No," Gadget said with conviction. "There will always be someone doing the right things. In the next generation, too. And in the next one. And in the next after the next after the next. There will surely be. There can't not be."
"I think so, too," Chip agreed. "I'm glad you understand me."
"I don't simply understand you," Gadget said, moving close to the chipmunk and putting her arms around his neck. "I'm proud of you."
And she planted a kiss on Chip's prickly brown cheek. Chip felt drums beating in his chest, his thought rushed about, and for a second he ceased caring about all those interspecimen barriers and almost resolved to saying aloud everything he had been wanting to tell Gadget since their very first meeting, but then Dale's scream was heard from the camp heralding that they got the bearing…
"A little more than six miles to the north-north-west from here," Gadget announced having made necessary geometrical calculations. "Judging by how deep the needle went, the emitter is very powerful. It's our client for sure!"
Despite his burning desire to personally participate in the rescue operation, the Speaker thought it was unreasonable to move away from his accountable territory for entire six miles. So the Wing was accompanied by Wide Beak, Strong Claw and two bailiffs. At first it seemed that there was nothing in the sought-for point, and either the device functioning or Gadget's calculations were wrong. But during the third fly-around the search party took notice of some strange fir tree, which, when they examined it closer, turned out to be a very cleverly camouflaged telescopic jib crowned by cone-shaped cover concealing the emitter. The jib was mounted on a wheeled trailer covered with camouflage net and holding the storage batteries feeding the radar. An elegant design. And not a single trace of the abducted owls.
"We'll wait here," Chip announced.
"And how long will it take?" Strong Claw inquired.
"If they stick to the yesterday schedule, they'll be here around 5 am."
"At dawn, you mean?" The chief bailiff shook his head vigorously. "We can't wait here for that long!"
Chip stayed unruffled. "You can see for yourself that there are no kidnapped owls here. Therefore, they are kept somewhere else, which means we have to wait for the poachers and follow them to their hideout."
"But we can't-"
"Sorry to interrupt you, Claw," Wide Beak intervened. "I know you can't leave the commune for long, especially now. We'll do it this way. I'll go with the Brave Rescue Rangers, and you and guys will go back. It will be the best way."
"You think so?" the Sergeant-at-Arms said thoughtfully. He didn't want to let his high-ranking friend go alone, but it was even riskier to assign one of his subordinates to escort him. First, the situation at hand was such that each owl mattered. Second, after Chip shared his suspicions with him, Strong Claw could no more be one hundred per cent certain about his subordinates… "You are probably right. Be careful. I don't want my cousin to become a widow mother."
Wide Beak smiled. "I want it even less, trust me." The two owls warmly embraced each other and in a few seconds Strong Claw and his attendants noiselessly vanished in the night.
"If those people come here only in the morning, I hope you don't mind me going hun-" Wide Beak stop short in confusion. "…feeding a bit, do you?"
"Sure," Chip answered as indifferently as he could.
"Just take this!" Gadget tied to the owl's leg one of the vibrotranceivers used to save the airliner and included in the necessary minimum of equipment the team always carried with them ever since. "If the poachers come while you are away, we'll let you know! Oh, and stay beneath the treetops or else the poachers will find you and shoot down again!"
"Yes, one time is more than enough for me!" Wide Beak laughed and flew away.
"What have we come to?!" Monterey ritualistically raised his hands towards the stars. "We don't just free predators but supply them with communication equipment already! What's next? Arming them?"
"Oh, that would be funny!" Dale laughed imagining their team as characters from 'Lord of War' movie. He quickly became serious, though. "By the way, I've been wanting long to ask why we don't arm the rodents? They would be able to defeat themselves from the predators and rogues like Capone! And we would have to work less and would have much more free time…! Although, no," he immediately corrected himself. "You never know if some of them get some nasty ideas and do something even Capone can't dream about! To heck with that!"
"My thoughts exactly," Chip assented. He was slightly disappointed because of lost opportunity to win a brilliant polemic victory. In contrast, Gadget was very happy to hear such a reasonable discourse from Dale and immediately rewarded him with a kiss on his cheek which made Dale fall into prostration and sit down right where he was standing. Chip pulled a jealous face but then remembered the kiss at the stream and decided he had nothing to complain about and that he would eventually not let his chance slip through his fingers…
Contrary to forecasts, the owl catchers arrived around 3 am already on a light full-size pickup truck. Fortunately, Wide Beak had returned from his hunt by this time, so the Rangers didn't have to 'page' him. The poachers immediately got busy with the radar, allowing Zipper to study the contents of car's tarpaulin-covered trunk.
"Twelve containers. Eight have sleeping owls in them," he reported.
"That's just those they caught today," Chip stated. "We should follow them to their base. The rest of the abducted are probably there."
"Probably?" Wide Beak became nervous. "You mean they can be in some other place?"
"It depends on what those people need them for," Chip said evasively.
"Yeah! If they make pies with them, then-" Monterey stopped under Chip's killing stare and laughed nervously. "He-he, what am I talking about? Who cooks pies with owls, he-he…"
"Yes, yes!" Gadget nodded fervently. "Nobody ever cooked, cooks or will cook pies with owls, crows or swallows!"
"What have crows and swallows to do with this?" Wide Beak asked, his voice anxiously hoarse. "You keep something from me, do you? Tell me the whole truth!"
"I swear we keep nothing from you," Chip hastily assured the bird, pondering beforehand how and with what they can stop her from leaving their cover and attacking the owl catchers. "It's just that previously we had a case of a mad old woman who caught entire flocks of migrating birds to use them as stuffing for her pies. But we handled her and her son accomplice over to the authorities and saved all the birds. So don't worry and let us handle everything. Ok?"
Wide Beak nodded solemnly. Chip peeked from behind the tree they were hiding behind and saw that the humans had finished dismantling the radar and are coupling the trailer to the pickup. "Rescue Rangers, to the Wing!" he ordered.
Although the culprits drove the car using not the headlights but night vision goggles, it was hard to lose sight of such a large truck and its big trailer, especially since the humans weren't trying to drive her into the thicket. On the contrary, they drove out on the more and more open space, finally driving along a dirt road and then an asphalted two line highway, where they drove without hiding, with headlights, parking lights and cabin illumination on. They were obviously in a hurry, but the heavy trailer didn't allow them to accelerate fully, and they moved with a speed of 40 mph. It was pretty comfortable for Wide Beak, but Chip couldn't help but wonder how to transport the owl along with the Wing if they needed to travel significantly faster. The most obvious variant was to use a suspended cargo net, but it could lead to the plane overload and cause it either to fall down or to lose her speed and aerodynamic features. Six of one and half a dozen of the other, as the phrase goes…
"Looks like that's the place," Gadget observed. Chip diverted his attention from his thoughts back to the truck which was turning into a narrow spur track leading towards absolutely ordinary storage yard with two silver roundish hangars and a comparatively small administrative building. The car headed towards the left hangar, braked down waiting for the massive gates to open, and disappeared inside. Gadget flew along the yard's perimeter and landed the plane on the darkest patch of the territory enclosed by metallic fence. Wide Beak plumped by their side, breathing heavily.
"I haven't flown like that for quite a while!" he told the Rangers. "I fear to imagine what will be if they take something faster."
"We'll come up with something," Chip flung out a curt remark and jumped out of the plane. We must first find out what's going on here… Where are you going?!" he called to the owl shooting upwards. "You can't go there!"
"But- Oh, yeah…" Wide Beak turned around and landed back. "Sorry, nerves."
"Happens," Chip excused him generously. "But from now on try to keep cool. If we need you, we'll send you a signal. Rescue Rangers, away!"
The friends found a way inside fairly quickly and easily located the pickup truck. The owl hunters have uncoupled the trailer and unloaded the containers on the floor already and at the moment were discussing something with a balding fatty wearing a checkered shirt and blue overalls; most probably, the yard administrator.
"…on his way already and will be here soon," the Rangers heard the ending of his phrase. "The documents are all right, everything's set in the harbor, too… Bah, you know it all without me, yeah…"
"Billy, you are too nervous today," the man who shot Wide Beak noted. Only now in good lighting and in the absence of night vision goggles covering half of men's faces the Rangers were able to have a good look at both poachers and notice their South American origins. "Something happened?"
"No, I can't say anything happened…" Billy shrugged his shoulders vaguely and seemed to change the subject. "It's the last bunch, isn't it? There would be no third one, right?"
"Right," the shooter's companion answered. "You like it so much?"
Billy's face contorted. "Heavens forbid! Quite the contrary! No, don't think any wrong, I don't mind the ordinary cargo a bit, it doesn't want to eat as they say, but these… these…" he looked at the containers with the owls already starting to wake up and winced with disgust. "It's horrible! They glut like pigs! And I have no meat plant here! And the prices are sky-high these days! And those refrigerators and additional ventilation cost me such a pretty penny that-"
"Every single bill was paid," the shooter's companion reminded him. He was definitely playing first fiddle in their band.
"Yes-yes, I remember and I am very grateful, but-" the fatty stopped short and smiled flatteringly. "You know, I, let's put it that way, I don't like animals. I've never liked them, even as a boy. I'm- I'm afraid of them. I have a phobia, you know? I even have a health certificate! And then these and so many and for so long-"
"And you would like to get — how do you call it? — moral damage compensation?"
Billy nodded eagerly. "Something like that, yes! Guys we've worked for a long time, you know me! My mouth is shut! Do I ask too much? It's a trifle, a little bonus, five thousands maximum-"
"Five thousands?" the elder 'poacher' asked. "And where are the other twenty five? You ate them or what?"
"What twen-" the administrator was about to ask but his interlocutor stepped up to him with lightning speed and grabbed his face by the cheeks, making Billy's lips purse out.
"Consider yourself smart, Billy, and us fools? Think we can't count? Think we can't check the prices from other sources and find out that your expenses are greatly overstated?"
The administrator mumbled something inarticulate.
"Listen carefully, Billy. Sure, the boss values you greatly and remembers your past services. So he pretended not to notice those twenty five thousands. But you are going too far, Billy. And that's very bad. It means you are losing your fear. It means you cost the boss more and more each day. You may not notice this, but the boss notices everything. And as soon as you start costing him more than he profits from you-" the Latino-American snapped his fingers in front of Billy's bulging eyes making him screw his eyes and start shaking. "I see you know what I mean. And now take these birds to the others and feed them to bursting point. They will spend twenty four hours travelling, after all."
Having finished, the 'poacher' pushed Billy away, waved his partner to follow him and went to the hangar's side exit. Billy watched them with hatred, cursing them silently, but he didn't have courage for anything more than that so he spat, picked up one of the containers and minced to the far section of the warehouse trying hard not to look at the owl inside.
"Should I fly after him?" Zipper asked.
Chip shook his head. "There's no need to. First, the owls are in no danger whatsoever. Second, we have only the second shipment here and we must locate both of them. We'll follow the cargo. Monty, you are a seasoned sailor, where's the closest harbor from here?"
The globetrotter parted his hands. "No idea. I haven't been here too often — there's too many owls here. But I think the nearest harbors should be on the Great Lakes, as the humans call them. Stupid names, I must say. They aren't that much great. Once I've been to… heck, where was that…?"
"Later," Chip grew thoughtful. "You can travel very far by the Great Lakes, but in 24 hours you can reach the opposite coast at most, and on the opposite coast there are the USA, and we have Latino-Americans here… Guys, looks like these bandits are going our way!"
"You think they are taking the owls to the West Coast?" Gadget asked. "But you can't get here in 24 hours. If only by aircraft-"
"Which can be awaiting them on the other side of the Lakes," Chip held his own. "Everything's possible! But enough of blind guessing. We'll know everything for sure soon."
After some thinking the Rangers agreed with this logic and the plan. It was much harder to convince Wide Beak, though.
"But why?!" the owl kept asking angrily, looming over the Rangers like an enormous varicolored cloud. "Why can't we save them right now?! You keep saying how experienced, brave and masterful in your trade you are! Can't you come up with anything?!"
"Sure we can," Gadget objected. "We can activate fire alarm in another hangar, steal Billy's keys on the quiet, then-"
"No, no, no!" Chip hastily interrupted her, seeing the owl's eyes blazing. "It's not that we can't come up with anything. It's about whether we need to do it. Since here we have only half of the abducted owls, we don't need to come up with anything. We'll come up with something when we find all of them."
"Well, let's free Grey Feather at least!" the bird kept insisting.
"No way. The culprits will notice his absence and become alerted."
"Okay, I agree to take his place! And he will fly back to our commune! Tell the good news!"
"That's definitely no go!" Chip was totally categorical. "First, this selectivity will enrage other captives. Second, and much worse, it will insult your fellows and your voters. Do you want to make Long Beak and his clique a princely gift? No doubt, he'll appreciate it at it's true value!"
Wide Beak moved his mandible about but found no counterarguments and sighed. "Yes, he surely will… And you are truly awesome! Looks like I'm very lucky to have met you! What is your position if it's not a secret?"
Chip didn't understand. "What position?"
"In the rodent hierarchy. For example, I am the Parliamentary Counsel, as you already know. And who are you?"
"Nobody!" Dale answered proudly with his arms akimbo. "We're all by ourselves!"
"That's how it is!"
"Is it possible?"
"Oh, my…" Wide Beak muttered and dropped the topic, although the Rangers felt he didn't believe their answers and kept conceiving them like super secret agents of the mouse government. Chip decided not to dissuade him hoping it was better this way since it would discourage the owl from arguing with them in the future.
Right before the dawn silence and tranquility were broken by a powerful truck towing a platform trailer with ventilated 20-feet container, which the driver and two Latino-Americans filled with forty three great grey owls in total. Then the Latino-Americans changed their hunting camo suits for business suits and sat not in the pickup but in imposing grey sedan with 'IBAMA MMA' logo on its sides.
"What does it mean?" Wide Beak asked.
"No idea," Chip confessed. He was intrigued by this question, too, but the only computer in the vicinity was in Billy's cabinet, and the administrator didn't sleep that night and pointedly ignored the truck's arrival, so there was no chance to dig up something from the Internet. "Okay, guys, let's follow them!"
As soon as the cars left the complex grounds, the Wing and the owl took off and flew after them. The sedan was leading the way, allowing the mixed search and rescue party land on the container unnoticed. Wide Beak immediately got the idea to contact the abducted by knocking on the roof with his beak, but Chip dissuaded him by pointing out that the communication would be one-sided and only agitate the prisoners in vain.
The master owl-catcher didn't lie about 24 hours, but it turned out that he meant the duration of not a whole journey but only of its truck portion. Fortunately, it was not without interruptions. At the end of the eleventh hour the convoy arrived at a guarded truck terminal where another towing truck and a fresh hauler were waiting for it. While the container platform was being recoupled to another tower, the Latino-Americans went to a nearby fast-food, Wide Beak flew hunting and the Rangers got busy with victuals and information gathering.
"IBAMA MMA stands for the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources under the country's Ministry of the Environment!" Chip told his friends after having paid a visit to a nearby cyber-café. "It explains why they drove past the Great Lakes. They are taking container to the Atlantic coast, to the ocean harbor!"
Monterey Jack scratched his chin. "These lads don't look like ecologists to me."
"I doubt they are ecologists," the chipmunk agreed. "Ecologists don't avoid forest rangers and don't threaten the storage complex administrators. Obviously, it's just a cover for something. Most probably, smuggling."
"But smuggling of what?" Wide Beak asked. "Owls?"
"No, not owls. Billy mentioned some other cargo, the one that doesn't want to eat," Chip threw back his head to meet the owl's gaze. "I think he meant drugs. Do you know what it is?"
"I do," Wide Beak nodded, offended somewhat. "Sure, we live in the woods, but we have some knowledge about the outside world. But what the owls are for?"
"Who knows," Dale said remembering one of Dirk Suave movies. "Sometimes drugs are transported in the stomachs of human couriers. Maybe these bleeders came up with a plan to transport it in the owls' stomachs."
"Or in their stuffed bodies," Gadget blurted out rashly.
Wide Beak almost mewed in terror. "What?! No! How?! No way! We must-"
"Don't panic!" Chip screamed his head off. "If those guys wanted to use stuffed owls, they wouldn't take them to the back of beyond alive! I think they have something much more elaborate in mind- Oh, they are ready to drive away! Take your seats!"
The Rangers and Wide Beak returned to their previous seats on the container's roof and their journey eastward continued. Just like Chip predicted, their destination was an harbor on the Atlantic coast, and not some tertiary one but one of the largest, in Halifax. The convoy reached the city way after midnight, so it was very easy for the rodents to stay undetected.
Upon entering the harbor territory one of the Latino-Americans left the sedan, took a briefcase from the back seat and went to the administration building. Chip told Zipper and Wide Beak to follow him. Dark feathers and silent flight made the owl ideal carrier for a little fly, in turn capable of sneaking to the places where a large bird would be surely noticed. It was doubtful that Latino-Americans or, moreover, the harbor workers would chase the owl since in Canada, just like in the USA, wild animals are severely protected by law. Still, it was better not to meet the culprits' eyes more often than necessary. Who knows what they could take into their heads…
"The owls will be loaded onto a container ship," Chip reported as soon as the owl delivered him to the Wing which had landed on a portal crane's boom. "Name: 'Kathy'. Port of registry: St. Jones. Destination: Rio de Janeiro. Departure: 8:22 AM."
"The lads work fast!" Monterey Jack commented.
Chip nodded solemnly. "Very fast indeed. Perfect organization. They have clout everywhere."
"And a pretty strong one!" Dale assented, watching through his binoculars at the activity in a customs area. The newly arrived container was weighed first, and then, under customs officers strict supervision, the whole team of Latino-Americans wearing similar green overalls with "IBAMA MMA" inscriptions on their backs brought all the cages out of the container to check the birds' condition, clear dung out, and refill food and water dispensers. "Hey, guys!" Dale exclaimed. "I've got a question: you really think we should rescue these owls? It seems they feel quite good the way they are!"
Wide Beak hiccupped.
Chip forced out a laugh. "Oh, Dale, you're such a wag! Such a wag!" He punched his friend with his elbow, desperately blinking at him with both eyes in turn. "What a laughable idea! I barely restrain from rolling on a floor laughing!"
"What…? Oh, yeah!" Dale blinked understandingly and laughed as loud as he could. "You liked it, yeah? Liked it?"
"Of course I did!" Chip looked at Gadget, Monterey and Zipper invitingly, and they immediately put their hands on their stomachs pretending to laugh uncontrollably. The last but the sincerest to laugh was Wide Beak, having no idea how serious was the problem at hand.
The problem was a logical implication of the notorious dichotomy "good vs right", and the Rangers' constant blade running. Not only criminals had reasons to hate them. Relatives of the rodents killed by the cats the Rangers had saved from Nimnul's lab had the right to consider the team their enemies, too. For that matter, all the animals had the right to consider them renegades for helping humanity. True, Rescue Rangers tried hard to stop the criminal schemes of Fat Cat, Capone and those of their ilk. But it never occurred to them, say, to destroy slaughterhouses or fishing trawlers, though when aforementioned Fat Cat built the fish luring system using shells of hermit crabs, the Rangers risked their lives to disable it.
At first glance it seemed to be a vivid example of double standards on the verge of schizophrenia. But actually it was based on cruelly inexorable logic. Fat Cat built his fake sea noise generator to monopolize access to fish and force the other cats to pay for it, that is, he wanted to privatize goods vital for his own species which was wrong and dishonest, even though hard-earned. On the contrary, slaughterhouses and trawlers were means of survival of humanity as a specimen, and ceasing of their work would cause large-scale famine and death of billions. That's why even if the Rescue Rangers had physical ability to put an end to world livestock and fishing industry, they would never do it. Like it or not, food chains were also one of the rules of this world…
As well as the zoos. Sure, they weren't as vital for humans survival, but they verily were for rare and disappearing species of animals. Not to mention that a simple comparison of longevity of those living freely in the wild and in open-air cages with regular feeding and veterinary help was so strong in favor of the latter, that the overwhelming majority of zoo dwellers the team had met had not a slightest wish to leave them. Naturally, it never occurred to the Rescue Rangers to impede functioning of zoos in any way.
That's why if these Latino-Americans turned out real members of government environmental organization exporting Canadian owls as part of some project useful and important for Brazil ecosystem, the team would find themselves in terribly uncomfortable situation. Only Chip's intuition which was literally yelling him that it was a cover-up for some crime kept him from sending Wide Beak off on some plausible pretext. But the possibility of mistake still existed, and at the moment Chip wanted the Latino-Americans to be criminals not only because of his inherent workaholism, but also because he had no intention whatsoever to deal with enraged great grey owl…
"Oh well," Wide Beak complimented the Rangers. "I see you aren't just brave, but also humorists!"
"It's essential for our job," Chip assured him, stealthily wiping sweat off his forehead. "Okay, joking aside, I think we should move onto the ship while it's dark and find safe lodging place."
A bright-orange fully enclosed aft lifeboat was unanimously voted as the safest place on the ship. It wasn't ideal for observing what was going on around, but it was guaranteed that nobody would peek into it without rhyme or reason, while the Rangers could observe the surroundings from the bulkhead's roof in shifts. And now they were sitting there watching the container with owls being lowered on an honorable and easily accessible place on the deck level, the owl catchers and the rest of 'Brazilians' coming aboard, gangway being raised, moorings being cast off and, finally, Kathy putting out.
"Could you please tell me how long we'll be sailing?" Wide Beak asked. "I'm feeling out of sorts so to say…"
"What?!" Monterey Jack was astonished. "It can't be! Birds can't have seasickness! I know it for sure! I have plenty of friends among seagulls! I even befriend an albatross! Name's Wilbur! Heard about him, no? Oh, he's quite some guy, I must tell you! Once me and him were at-"
"Stop it, Monty!" Gadget demanded. "There isn't time! We have a suffering owl here!"
"I'm not suffering," the bird objected. "I… I'm worried. I've never been so far from home, and previously there were at least some trees around, but now there's nothing at all! It's not for long, isn't it? For a day, two days maximum, yes?"
"I wish it were!" The Aussie laughed. "Only planes can travel from Canada to Brazil in a day! Trust my experience, this tub will drag along for a couple of weeks!"
"A couple of we-" Wild Beak repeated sluggishly and weakly leaned back on the base of a mast that came very handy. "Now I think I'm suffering…"
"Then go back to the lifeboat, imagine it's a tree hollow and sit there," Chip advised. "We'll take your feeding on ourselves."
"Really?" The owl almost shed a few tears because of such self-sacrifice.
"Sure. The ship must have a reserve of owl food. In the last resort we'll get food from the caboose."
"Oh, that's way better," Wide Beak sighed in relief. After all, the Rangers still enjoyed the Parliament immunity, and if he ate them, even by mutual agreement, he would break one of the oldest founding rules and he would hate to do it.
The following eight days were quiet, if not monotonous and dismal. 'Kathy's voyage fell on a short period of calm between two storms traditional for this time of year in the Atlantic and often developing into hurricanes. So the Ranger's only entertainment was regular sorties to the caboose which gradually became routine exercises of developing team interaction in close quarters and with active opposition presence.
First four times went on not too smoothly, and Zipper had to take the cook upon himself in the same way he had distracted the traffic controller responsible for Flight NA10031. But the Rescue Rangers quickly adapted to cook's route and modus operandi, measured the distances between all key spots with accuracy within one tenth of inch, synchronized their actions per milliseconds, and other expropriations went on without any excesses. It radically improved atmosphere on board in general and in the caboose in particular, and allowed Zipper to spend more time in the cabins of 'IBAMA MMA representatives' spying, eavesdropping and making conclusions. At least, that's how it should have been…
"Still nothing?" Chip asked for the record only for Zipper's facial expression was perfectly eloquent.
"Nothing," the little scout acknowledged. "They all talk about everything else except what those owls are for. Like it's some kind of taboo."
"They keep secrecy," Dale announced knowingly, pointing his finger at the lifeboat's roof.
"Good," Chip concluded. "If they have secrets to keep, then they are clearly not ecologists. We should keep our weather eyes open! I have a feeling that the container with owls will never reach Rio…"
This conversation took place on the sixth day of voyage. And in the very beginning of the ninth, almost immediately past midnight, Dale came running from his post like a bat out of hell and traditionally started general reveille with Chip.
"It's ruined, Chip! It's ruined! Container gets opened! Owls get removed!"
"Hooray!" Chip cheered. "I knew it! To the roof, hurry!"
With a little help of Wide Beak assuming a role of aerotaxi the Rescue Rangers were in position in less than a minute. The ship was drifting, with all her illumination shut off, and men wearing night vision goggles and resembling ants from above were shuttlecocking along the deck handing containers with owls to one another along a live chain stretching as far as a starboard hoisted net. As soon as there were ten containers in the net it was lowered down overboard where an impressive-sized motor yacht moored to the container carrier was waiting for it.
"Yacht's name is 'Esmeraldina'," Zipper reported upon returning from his reconnaissance flight. "Port of registry: Hamilton, Bermuda."
"'Esmeraldina', Hamilton, Bermuda…" Chip nipped at his lower lip thoughtfully. "Sounds familiar-"
Gadget nodded. "For me, too. I think she was mentioned in a special about world's largest motor yachts- Yes, exactly, I remember now! She's twenty-eighth! Now she's probably lower, though, thirtieth or even thirty-first. These yachts are being built at such a speed it's plainly amazing!"
"If this one is the thirty-first, the first must be like an aircraft carrier!" Dale joked gushingly.
"Something like that, yes. If not bigger. That is, there are aircraft carriers that are smaller than her. She's as long as-"
"Just a sec!" Chip interrupted her. "Did that special mentioned her owner's name?"
"The largest one? Some Arabian sheikh. Or maybe some Russian oligarch…"
"No, I mean 'Esmeraldina'".
"No, I don't remember. Sorry."
"Don't be. We'll find out for ourselves; been there, done that. Let's think how we can sneak onto that yacht…"
Being very busy, even night vision goggles didn't help the crews of both the container ship and the yacht to notice a small plane and an owl hop from one ship to another. The Rangers hid the Wing under pleasure cutter's launching ramp, waited for the yacht to leave 'Kathy', and then, actively assisted by Wide Beak, reached the balcony encircling the upper deck and carefully peeked through the bridge's horseshoe-shaped viewing window. Owl-catchers went here when the loading was finished, and they clearly weren't simple executors of the mysterious boss' will.
"So? What's in there?" Wide Beak asked impatiently. His size didn't allowed him to peek through the window without risk of being spotted.
"They discuss their route," Chip answered. He couldn't hear words, but facial expressions and gestures of the men bent over digital map were more than enough. "The master hunter doesn't like our speed at all. Demands to speed up, points at his watch time and again. Interesting. They were calm previously, and now such a rush. Why?"
"Plans changed?" Gadget surmised.
"Or something nasty happened," Monterey Jack added.
"Or they don't want to miss their favorite early morning show," Dale spoke out in his usual vein. As it was often the case, his remark, senseless at first sight, was closer to the truth than all other.
"Do you know where we can reach from here before dawn, Monty?" Chip asked.
The strongmouse became lost in thought. "Let's see, let's see…" He looked at the sky of stars and began to reason aloud. "Draco is starboard, and Aquila and Serpens Cauda are aft, and we've been at sea for eight days heading southwards, so we're near the Bermuda and moving westwards… Well, if we don't make any turns, we'll reach the Bermuda!"
"It's logical!" Zipper squeaked. "Her port of registry is on the Bermuda! She's heading there!"
"With contraband owls on board?" Chip asked rhetorically. "Oh, I doubt it so much-"
"And what if it's not contraband?" Dale suggested. "What if it's legal purchase? If there exist egg collectors, owl collectors can exist, too! The owner of the yacht like this can be a very odd fellow!"
Chip was about to object that there were too many tricks for a legal purchase, but then he asked himself, if it was really so. Mr. Dumpty, for instance, went to astonishing extremes in order to gather the one and only really full collection of birds' eggs in the world. And if in that case the Rangers had a rightful pretext to interfere, for if they hadn't rescued the booby' egg, entire biological species would have been on the verge of extinction, the situation with great grey owls wasn't that dire…
"Still," Chip pulled himself up almost immediately, "if these people act in such a roundabout way, then it's definitely something illegal, no matter whether it's drug trafficking or just stocking of a private zoo. We still have to put an end to this, inform the authorities, and let the human court do its job…"
"Then we must find out if it's an oddity or something worse," he said aloud. "Zipper, stay here and watch those two. Dale, come with me — let's check how those owls fare. The others go to the Wing and have a rest. But try to hide as best as you can. The yacht is smaller than the container ship, but her crew is as big, if not bigger."
Actually, there were thirty eight men on board — almost four times more than on 'Kathy'. If the Rescue Rangers and Wide Beak had to spend a few days here, they would have to make significant efforts to stay unnoticed. Fortunately, the hypothesis about the dawn being the deadline for the yacht's staying in the open sea proved correct, and at the end of the third hour of her voyage it became clear she was heading towards a small island looking from afar like a dark-grey cloud fallen on the sea surface. The ship was skimming towards it at full speed and it quickly grew larger and larger, but there were no visible signs of life such as lights or at least outlines of harbor infrastructure. It suddenly occurred to Dale that they were doomed to take involuntary part in a ritual mass suicide against the island performed by a sect of owl worshippers led by maniac, the yachts captain. The chipmunk was about to share his revelation with his friends but suddenly the rocky slope of the island's bank rose, revealing a gaping pitch-black gates to which the yacht was heading.
"Wow! That's some serious hardware!" Gadget couldn't help but notice.
Dale inhaled deeply to inform his friends that this seemingly uninhabited island was turned by maniac scientist Dr. Morbid into a testing grounds for his monstrous genetic experiments, but his tongue refused to say such a terrible truth, and so he expressed himself loud and clear. "A-a-a-a-a! We're all gonna die!"
"Quiet!" Chip snapped at him. To tell the truth, he was feeling uncomfortable, too. Curiously enough, the calmest member of the group was Wide Beak, who was so amazed by everything around him that his curiosity supplanted fear.
The yacht's captain and helmsman were both the true masters of their craft and guided the vessel confidently, making very delicate maneuvers in almost total darkness. Only when the gate disguised as a part of the slope lowered behind ship's aft the lamps began to turn on gradually so as not to blind anyone and the scenery began to show through the darkness like an image on a photo paper sheet thrown into pan containing developer. Turned out, the yacht was in a large grotto with a built-in full-fledged harbor capable to serve not only 'Esmeraldina' but also a twin-engine cargo sea plane. The plane looked too shabby and mass-produced to have any fanciful name, but stout hose connecting her wing with a refueling machine on the pier and the pyramid of containers with the first portion of abducted owls hinted at the given plane's special role in the upcoming operation.
"All hail the meeting committee!" Monterey Jack exclaimed. Chip stopped studying the plane, looked at three men wearing camo suits coming towards yacht's lowering gangway, squinted, rose his binoculars to his eyes, peered at the face of the man in the middle, shuddered and understood everything.
"It's Alejandro Sosa!" he whispered to his teammates, his voice hoarse with agitation. "One of the greatest drug lords! Investigation Discovery made a whole series about him!"
Dale made a fuss. "How can it be?! He was killed ten years ago! In his own mansion! In his own pool! With a shotgun!"
"No, it was his business associate who was killed in the pool," Gadget corrected him. She remembered the series better. "He was killed by limo explosion."
"Some bad explosion, if he's here," Wide Beak noticed. "Are you sure it's him?"
"Absolutely," Chip confirmed. "He surely is ten years older and wearing a beard now, but it's definitely him! Looks like that explosion was staged by Sosa himself to go into hiding. Or he used the explosion to go into hiding. Darn, I should have guessed it right away! He owned 'Esmeraldina'! That is, 'Caribbean queen' — that's the yacht's maiden name. She became 'Esmeraldina' after she was sold to a new owner who wished to remain anonymous. But since she's here-"
"Then Sosa bought it from himself!" Zipper finished. "Very convenient! He got both the yacht purchased and his money laundered!"
Chip nodded solemnly. "Something like that. If Sosa is involved, then we definitely have a case of drug trafficking here, and on a breathtaking scale. But what he needs owls for? How much can be transported by them? Half a kilo each? It's a drop in the bucket compared to his usual amounts…"
"Maybe his business is suffering," Dale offered a version. "It's hard to be on the rise when you are dead!"
"Hard to rise, you say?" Monterey looked about him carpingly. "I wish I lived like that when I'll d-" He stopped abruptly and shot a glance at Gadget. The mouse was too infatuated with examining a visible part of the grotto gates' locking mechanism, but the Aussie just in case decided against finishing his phrase. "Well, you know what I mean!"
"We do, we do," Chip mumbled vacantly. He was watching Sosa warmly greeting the owl-catchers who were the first to descend the gangway. When the drag lord and the 'master poacher' headed towards metal winding stairs at the far end of the pier, Chip pointed Zipper at them, and the fly saluted knowingly and flew after them.
The stairs led to a spacious room hewed in the rock strata with enormous angled windows overhanging the harbor grotto. Sosa told his bodyguards to wait behind the door and led his companion to a large square table covered with maps of the Caribbean. Exercising his rights as the master he poured them both drinks and immediately got down to business.
"How do you feel? Can you fly in half an hour?"
"Sure I can, but what is this rush for, Alex? 'Miraflores' will reach Rio tomorrow in the evening only, and 'Kathy' will do the same in whole five days."
"Weather forecast, Mandy. The nearest storm is expected to hit us on Wednesday. Before then we need to make four flights minimum or, much better, five."
"Why so many? We calculated everything. It takes just one flight to transport all the stuffed birds."
"Because, Manny, you'll transport not the stuffed but alive birds."
Manny stared at his boss with suspicious amazement.
"Wait a sec, how's that? We were always talking about- You changed the plan again, didn't you?"
"No," Sosa answered impassively. "It was like that from the very beginning."
Manny placed his thick-sided glass on the table with a loud tap.
"You mean all this time you've been fooling me? Me? You right hand?!"
"Stop yelling," the drug lord reigned him in. "It was necessary and better for everyone, including you."
"You still have doubts about me? After so many years?"
"I didn't have doubts about Toni and Mauro. Remember them? I barely had time to kill Toni. Mauro got let down by timer. I would very much like to tell you everything at once, but I couldn't. I was helpless." Sosa spoke the last phrase so heartfeltly that Zipper felt sorry for him for an instant. "But now, when you are back, I am able to tell you all the details. Only you, Manny. You know what I mean?"
"Sure, Alex," Manny drained his glass and sat at the table. Sosa went to a corner of the room to press a button lowering window blinds, then sat down facing the door.
"The plan of operation is as follows," he began without long introduction. "You and Ramon… You don't mind working with Ramon, do you? How do you like him?"
"I'm satisfied with him."
"Good. You and Ramon will fly here," Sosa indicated a spot on the map with his finger, and Zipper flew over to the lamp above the table to see everything better. "It's way out of territorial waters so there should be no problems. You splash down, hook the containers with the powder to the owls, let them go, and fly back here."
"I think you can just as well scatter the powder over the ocean."
"Make no hasty judgment, Manny. Why, do you think, I told you to get that loony granny out of the asylum?"
"Because she is a cousin of your mother," Manny answered, his coldness returned.
"Yes, that's what I said," Sosa didn't argue. "But that wasn't true. I needed her as the inventor of magnetic bird bait."
"Hello, loony bin? We're searching for talents!" Manny commented bitingly.
"That's another reason why I told you nothing," the drug lord said with no annoyance whatsoever. "You're too narrow-minded. Does it really matter if the person is mentally healthy if his or her inventions do work? How one uses it — that's what really matters. Sweeney used it to catch stuffing for her pies — utter nonsense if you ask me! — and naturally went to the loony bin. I'll use it to get drugs on the continent and naturally will, again, become the number one in drug business."
"Using owls?" Manny was getting more and more convinced that his boss went mad because of sitting put on this island, but couldn't resolve to tell it straight and expressed his concerns evasively. "You'll rather become the first drug lord put into the loony bin according to his deserts."
Sosa smiled indulgently. "I'm telling you, you're narrow-minded. The owls are a temporary measure. We'll use them for four-five flights, no more. But it will be enough to crack America open like an oyster and then revert to our traditional means of transportation and sales volumes, and increase them even further in the future."
Manny thought for a moment. "You want to make gringos remove the blockade around Florida Keys?"
Sosa smiled with content. "Precisely! They boast to have stopped the drug trafficking almost entirely, but as soon as the new large lot of fresh coke hits the streets of Miami, there will be doubt in their hearts as to the effectiveness of their actions. At that very moment my pocket men in Washington enter the backstage, and gradually, on the sly, with mottos on reducing budget expenses and easing taxpayers' burden the blockade is removed and on one fine day our submarines are rulers of the sea once again! Isn't it brilliant?"
"If it pans out, then it is," Manny agreed.
"Then do your best to make it pan out," Sosa said. "In fact you have only to fly over to the designated point, let the owls go in the direction of the shore, and fly away. The bird bait will do the rest. It acts on owls, we checked that. Tomorrow 'Esmeraldina' will sail to pick them up, and tomorrow night you'll be able to fly twice. And the next night, too. As a result, we'll deliver two hundred and fifty kilos of the powder to the continent even before there will be a commotion in Rio because of empty containers. It will be enough to make gringos believe their blockade is leaking like a sieve. And we'll be on good wicket just like in good old times!"
Manny smiled excitedly, infected with his boss' enthusiasm. "I like that, Alex! I'll be flying then!"
"Break a leg!" Sosa jokingly wished his aide. Manny laughed and left his boss' office without noticing a green fly flying through the doors along with him. In less than a minute the insect in question was retelling the contents of their top secret conversation to four rodents and owl.
"…and Manny left. That's it," Zipper finished his quick but detailed report.
"Oh, brother…" Dale muttered.
"It's horrible!" Wide Beak was so agitated he began to shuttlecock along the whole space under the ramp. "We must do something immediately! What have you said before? Turn on the fire alarm, steal the cage keys-"
"No go," Chip shook his head sadly. "Too many people around. We'll have to do it in some other, more deserted place. There," he pointed his hand at the sea plane. "There will be only two men on board and they will stay in cockpit most of the time. Exactly what we need, in short."
"Yes, but first we have to get in there somehow!" Monterey Jack reminded him.
Chip smiled slyly. "We'll get there. We have an owl up our sleeve! Know what I mean? If not, I'll explain it now…"
…When the containers on the pier ran out, Manny and Ramon who oversaw the loading procedure exercising their rights as the executors of the operation's most important stage went to 'Esmeraldina' once again to check everything for the final time. Upon hearing a great grey owl's cry and then finding the representative of that species in the yacht's empty hold they felt consternation and anger.
"I knew it!" Manny shouted heatedly. "These blockheads can't do anything right!"
"And what we do now?" Ramon asked nervously, standing still and keeping his eyes glued to the bird sitting on the floor. "Should I get our guns?"
"What guns, you idiot? We can't put it to sleep! It ought to fly to Florida with a package in an hour!" Manny involuntarily raised his voice but immediately stopped in fear to scare the owl away. But the bird kept sitting on the floor looking at them, and Manny sighed in relief. "That's what we'll do. You block the door and I'll catch it."
Ramon obeyed and took position in the doorway to prevent owl from flying out of the room. Manny began to move slowly towards the owl. Wide Beak (it was certainly him) watched the approaching human warily, trying hard to suppress his urge to rush about in search of exit. The Rangers told him strictly not to resist the capture. They guaranteed the humans wouldn't hurt him. He believed them. And now regretted it-
"ARGH!" he shouted as Manny jumped up to him, grabbed him by his legs and lifted brusquely. The owl lost his spatial orientation for a moment and flapped his wings in panic, but the human didn't loosen his grip, and eventually Wide Beak got exhausted and just hung there upside down.
"The real men need no guns!" Manny said smugly, proudly showing his trophy to his partner. Ramon wasn't imbued with the moment's grandeur.
"Let's get rid of it, Manny," Ramon moved his thumb across his throat. "Let's do it in, okay?"
Wide Beak hiccupped brokenly.
"What for?" Manny asked, looking asquint at his partner.
Ramon hesitated. "Don't know. Some bad feeling. We're going to fly through the Bermuda Triangle, and then this owl appears and- I don't remember it, see? You know I have a perfect memory for faces, voices, car license numbers… It saved our hoods many times, remember? So I tell you: I've never seen this owl before. We didn't catch it. How it get here? Where it came from? Why it behaves so strange: not flying away, not screaming, not fighting you… I know it sounds silly, but what if it's some super owl? Like that Conrad the Parrot, Flash the Wonder Dog's sidekick? Honestly, Manny, we should kill it out of harm's way!"
Manny was silent for so long that Wide Beak had time to bid his life farewell at least ten times and curse the day he met the Brave Rangers. But then Manny stepped up to his partner with the same speed he caught the owl and boxed his ears ringingly.
"I've never heard such gibberish before," he spoke scornly through his clenched teeth, moving his face close to his partner's. "Wake up. You've been to Miami for too long. Don't watch TV that much. Wait for me in the plane, I'll be quick."
Satisfied with humbled and insulted Ramon's downcast nod, Manny quickly went to the storage room in the deep end of the grotto, shoved the owl into the first spare container he saw, and brought it to the plane. The containers with owl were stashed on the shelves of the racks stretching for the cargo hold's entire length, strongly fastened to the sides and closed with tightly stretched safety net to prevent their contents from falling out. Having placed his burden on the second shelf from the top on the left side, Manny went to the cockpit and shut the door tight behind him so as not to hear owls' screams he was already fed up with. If he were able to understand their language, he would come to know a lot of interesting things…
"Heya! We've got fresh stuff!" the owl sitting in the container right across Wide Beak's one saluted him with undisguised and unpleasant joy. "What's your name, fella, from where do you hail, what you live by?"
"If you are interested in my name, please, introduce yourselves first," Wide Beak replied with dignity.
"Wow! We're so cheeky!" his interlocutor baby-talked from behind safety net and lattice door of his container. "All right, I'll forgive you the first time. Name's Bald Skull. Heard about me?"
"I've had the pleasure," Wide Beak answered gloomily.
Bald skull was one of those whom members of owl communes contemptuously called 'the bumpsters'. These owls didn't have their home hollows and lived where they could and how they could. On their own, but at the others' expense. Such words as 'territory', 'parliament', 'order' and 'law' meant nothing to them. "Cage suits him perfectly!" Wide Beak thought to himself. And he was right. Bald Skull really loved to be here. Feeding on schedule, roof over his head, opportunity to pick on the others not risking your own feathers; in other words, he felt being in paradise.
"Liked it, I hope?" Bald Skull roared with disgusting laughter. "So, fella? Will you name yourself? Or you're ashamed of it? Don't be, fella, we don't peck!"
"Earthworms are your fellas, bumpster. And I am Wide Beak, the Counsel in the Big Head's Parliament."
The rack rocked with murmur.
"You talk rude, fella," Bald Skull's voice indicated he was boiling with rage. "What if I tear your beak off and shove it back with another end, huh? You think you can do everything when you're in cage? You're wrong. Terribly wrong."
Wide Beak didn't deign to answer him. Bald Skull had already got out of the habit of getting kicked in the butt and remained silent, too, devising plans of revenge in his mind.
When it was clear their conversation had ended, a scream was heard from the far end of the left rack. "Beak! Hey, Beak! You hear me?! It's me, Grey Feather!"
"I hear you!" the Parliament Counsel screamed joyfully. "I was so worried about you! Who's else here from our Parliament?"
"Me! Me! Me!" was heard from all sides.
"One by one and with names, please!" Wide Beak demanded. Making sure all the recently disappeared owls were present, he addressed the rest. "Now other Parliaments! How many of you are there and who's your leaders?"
The names started flowing again. When there was silence again, Wide Beak asked his next question. "How many bumpsters are there?"
"Quite enough for you," Bald Skull answered.
"And besides Bald Skull?" Wide Beak inquired. Nobody answered. Well, it was quite expected. Now it was clear why nobody joined their initial conversation. The bumpster had no competition from his 'colleagues' and felt himself at home, so he easily subjugated all other owls, much more decent but taking their imprisonment much worse. Another reason to put an end to it… "Perfect. Now listen me very attentively. We'll be home soon. Don't ask how or why. You'll know everything in due time, I promise! I can say only that I wasn't caught like you. I'm here on assignment of Big Head's Parliament and came here in a different way. Yes, I'm sitting in a cage right now, like all of you. But I have friends out there who'll rescue us all! As soon as the plane takes off they'll show themselves! Please, be patient! Your mishaps will end soon! Thank you for your attention, I'm finished!"
Even if Wide Beak proclaimed himself the Supreme Ruler of Canada, the others would probably be more inclined to believe him. None of his public speeches ever caused such turmoil. Only when Ramon ran in and bashed the shelves with his long thick stick did the owls calm down. Ramon left, muttering flowery curses under his breath, and in ten minutes old battered Conwing flew westwards carrying two men, one hundred and one great grey owl, fifty kilos of pure cocaine packed into airtight plastic containers, and also five stowaways unforeseen by operation plan.
"You're genius, lad!" Monterey exclaimed excitedly in deep voice, lowering cardboard sheet shaped like the owl cage cross cut which divided its inner space into two unequal sections. The larger was occupied by Wide Beak, the smaller by completely unnoticed Rescue Rangers. "How you knew he would take exactly this container?!"
"It's elementary, Monty," Chip answered, majestically cocking his hat. "This container was the closest to the door and was opened wide! Ninety five percent of people would choose this particular container! It's psychology!"
"Strange," Dale said, scratching his head. "I've always thought drug dealers fell into the last five."
"Changing sample doesn't change the initial proportion!" Chip proclaimed pompously. Dale froze with his eyes slightly slanting. "Okay, don't bother. Our goals are clear, tasks are designated. Rescue Rangers, to business!"
Cargo hold's dim light along with the safety net didn't allow seeing the insides of the containers. But no sooner had Chip issued his battle cry than all the night hunters who had phenomenal hearing turned their heads in his direction at once.
"Who's squeaking there, huh?!" Bald Skull asked loudly. He could distinguish words through the dim of piston engines but unmistakably determined the species of the speaking one. "Is it indeed a chipmunk?! Hey, fella! They gave you a rodent for the road? For what merits, huh? Maybe you're a stool vulture?"
"Yes, I do have two chipmunks, two mice and a fly here," Wide Beak replied. "But they are not food. They are the friends I've told you about! They are the Brave Rescue rangers! Make them welcome! But remember," he added quickly feeling on the biofield level his kinsbirds rousing themselves, being tired out by dry feed and longing for fresh meat, "they are here on assignment of Big Head's Parliament and enjoy the Parliament immunity! And my personal protection!" he added addressing Bald Skull personally.
"No problems, fella!" The bumpster sounded peaceably, even benevolently. "I'm not some wild beast eating its rescuers, am I?"
"Ain't you?" Wide Beak thought caustically to himself. But he said nothing aloud so as not to flare tensions up for no reason, and watched the Rescue Rangers instead.
The rodent team clearly demonstrated that while the elective democracy could work in satiety and tranquility, emergencies demanded undivided authority and strict discipline. Following directions of Zipper who flew out of the cage, Monterey Jack was about to hit the lock's weak spot with his crowbar, and Dale had already jumped on his shoulders to fix a fishing hook used as a grappling one in ventilation slit on the container's roof. He threw the other end of grappling line to Chip who nimbly tied it around a bundle of flexible tubes with connecting pipes on their ends held vertically by Gadget who threw them out of the doors opened by Monterey as soon as the knot was tightened and the rope uncoiled rapidly, bringing the tubes as close to the floor as possible.
"And what are those tubes for?" Wide Beak asked poking his head out of the container as far as the safety net allowed him to.
"To disable the aircraft control system!" Gadget answered sincerely and smiled radiantly.
Wide Beak blinked, stunned. "But we were going to simply distract the pilots!"
"We were, true. But then we thought it would be faster and more reliable to do it in a roundabout way! I'll deal with the controls myself, and the guys will open all the cages!"
"Ok then," the owl conceded.
But Gadget saw doubt in his eyes and felt the need to dot all i's. "You must be asking yourself why I brought tubes and not, say, hammer. I'll tell you: the reason is that we need to delay the landing, not to hasten it, and these tubes will help me do just that. You know how aircraft hydro-mechanical flight control systems function, don't you?"
"Actually, I don't-"
"It's very simple! When the pilot turns the rudder or presses the pedal-"
"Gadget, we have tight schedule!" Chip reminded her 'unobtrusively'.
"Oh, yes, right!" Gadget regarded the owl with a guilty smile. "Some other time, then!"
"Sure!" Wide Beak nodded, relieved. On more than one occasion during their voyage he couldn't help but notice that the little inventor knows so much about various vehicles' drawbacks and potential risks associated with using them that every single conversation with her left no hope that their current ride, sea voyage or flight would end happily. Wide Beak knew he had nerves of iron and had lived fairly long by owl standards, had achieved much. But the other owl could have easily panicked…
It wasn't panic they should have feared, though, but righteous anger. Rescue Rangers' actions, or rather, the motives behind those, made the imprisoned birds wonder frankly. Who ever heard of the prey saving the predators? Why these rodents unlock containers, but don't touch the safety net blocking exit? If they came on board in Wide Beak's cage, why they started to act only after takeoff? Wasn't it more logical to conduct the rescue operation while on the ground? Is there some foul play behind it all?...
These and similar questions were being asked more and more often, and finally Chip was forced to make official statement. "Honorable owls! I perfectly understand your feelings and worries. I want to assure you that the modus operand we've chosen is optimal. It would have been silly and dangerous to try to free you on the ground, in the tightly sealed grotto on the island far away from the mainland; and it would have ended in numerous deaths among you. Now the plane is flying towards the continent. We have means to make it land no further than ten miles away from the shore. As soon as it happens and the tail ramp is lowered we'll drop the net. But right now we need it to make your kidnappers think that everything is alright until it is too late. Although, if you keep worrying, shouting and trying to break the net prematurely, they'll understand something is wrong, turn the plane around, and our attempt to rescue you will fail. Probably even once and for all. So please, trust us and stay calm. We'll rescue all of you. Thank you for your attention."
"And what if we don't wanna be rescued? The food is quite good here!" Bald skull shouted. But his scream was like a lone voice in the wilderness, for other owls, impressed with chipmunk's rhetoric and flattered by his addressing them as 'honorable', heeded his plea and calmed down up until the moment when every single living being on board panicked…
But that moment was yet to come. Right now Gadget was demonstrating miraculous spatial imagination and physical flexibility while crawling through a labyrinth of wires and pipes which occupied the plane's hull's inner hollow. She was heading to the very heart of the tail section where hydraulic amplifiers of elevation and direction rudders were located. Gadget could easily disable them, but that would only make it harder for pilots to control the plane, and Rescue Rangers needed to intercept it in order neither to allow the drug smugglers to land in the predetermined point nor to turn around and head back to the island. The only way to do it was to 'reprogram' the servovalves providing pressure for the amplifiers. That's why Gadget was dragging after her a 'snake' of interconnected tubes found in the grotto hangar.
During the first stage Gadget exchanged inlet mains of elevation rudders' amplifiers, and then jerked out inlet main of direction rudder and loopbacked it with one of the pipes she brought along. As a result the integrity of hydraulic loop remained intact, but the pilots had to exert themselves to control the plane's yaw, while the pitch controls reacted in the opposite way — when the pilot pushed the control column, the plane pulled her node up, and when he pulled the column she lowered it. It would quite enough to create confusion but the rule was very easy to find out. So to drag the flight out long enough for the plane to fly extra fifteen miles westwards it was necessary for the plane to react to the column movements and pedals pressings in as unforeseen way as possible. Or even better — react differently each time…
The plane's nose rose up slightly. Then lowered abruptly. Then rose even more abruptly. "They are mastering it!" Gadget concluded, wiped hydraulic oil off her goggles with her sleeve, and got back to work, methodical and purposeful as opposed to atmosphere in the cockpit.
"What the heck is going on here?!" Manny hissed when he managed to stabilize the plane somewhat. "The hydraulic pressure's normal, temperature's normal, and the plane behaves like bewitched!"
"She is…" Ramon bleated, pale and shuddering. "It's the curse… The Bermuda Triangle…"
"You say these three words one more time and I shoot you, I swear!" Manny threatened. "Whatever caused this trouble, it won't thwart our mission! By the way, it's time to start descending already…" Having said that he pulled the control column towards him, reckoning it would make the plane descend to where she would be invisible to coastal radars. But instead of going into a dive the plane for a reason unknown banked sharply to the left.
"And you asked what the net is for!" Monterey Jack said didactically addressing the occupants of the containers in the right rack saved by the aforementioned safety net from falling on the ground and being smashed by those very containers. The plane almost immediately banked to the right, proving the Rangers' sagacity to another half of owls, too.
Ramon, on his part, became fully convinced that it's the manifestation of some dark evil forces, and even 'determined' their 'source'. "Manny!" he wailed. "It's the owl! The owl! The last owl! We must throw it out! Out! Let's throw her out, Manny! Out! Out!"
"Quiet!" Manny roared. He was certain that the owl had nothing to do with it, and he had no intention to find out how the crazy plane would react to opening the cargo ramp. In midair, that is. "We'll check everything out when we land! It's not too far!"
His last phrase turned out being totally naïve. The sea plane landed neither in the designated spot, nor on the line between US Exclusive Economic and Contiguous zones three miles further westward. The pilots tried like every single combination of control column and pedals positions, performed almost complete set of aerial stunts their twin-piston-engine plane was capable of, but couldn't make her lower her nose. They were approaching the coast impermissibly close. They were constantly and insistently called by radio, and any minute fighter planes could be sent to intercept them. The only thing keeping the Latino-Americans from jumping out with their parachutes was fear of Sosa's rage and his inescapable punishment which made the possibility to die in plane crash look like a month-long probation.
Sure, Rescue Rangers didn't intend it to end that way, so Gadget was constantly keeping track of time despite her work being simultaneously very hard and, to be quite frank, insanely captivating. She was the daughter of the aviator who kept repeating that the planes live only in flight, and she especially enjoyed the process of keeping the winged machine airborne. In fact, if it were her decision, she wouldn't allow the plane to land until fuel ran out. If Rescue Rangers needed to land the plane prematurely she'd fell real pangs of remorse. She was glad she had fallen into that temporal loop instead of Chip, for instance, who recently asked her simply and straight out why they had built the ARK instead of throwing some scrap into that Boeing's engine to avert the flight completely. He was sincerely amazed when she answered that the flight must have taken place. Chip was a smart guy, but sometimes he showed complete ignorance. For there are things perceived not by one's brain but by heart. Dale, for instance, had no problems with it…
Vibrotranceiver on Gadget's belt made three powerful impulses. Chip was hinting her unambiguously that they oughtn't to abuse the US airspace's hospitality or they would be indeed shot down. It really surprised Gadget whose inner clock showed they were still far enough from the coast. But then she critically surveyed the alternative hydraulic loop she had woven, rationally evaluated her abilities and speed, and concluded that she had been slightly carried away indeed. Never mind, though. The pipe system she built only seemed random and senseless, but in truth it was very well thought out and even elegant. Unplug three pipes, join two of them and plug the third instead of the middle one — and the plane will be able to dive once more!
But losing the ability to pitch-up at the same, which, between you and me, is very, very bad.
Gadget didn't despond, though. "You can't consider a glitch which can be fixed in just one small step serious," she thought, diving beneath the main distribution nod and plugging out the needed pipe which then should have been connected to the nearest inlet connection of the servovalve. Unfortunately, at that very moment already desperate Manny with no ulterior motives at all pushed the control column, and the plane pitched down so sharply that Gadget let the pipe go and fell at least a feet down before being stopped by a frame.
"Darn!" Gadget screamed. The hull's inner hollow was ruled by whistling of air streams and noise of engines, but even their combined efforts couldn't deafen piercing screams of the cargo hold passengers. During pilot's war against the control the plane hopped up several times, so it was hard to tell how much time they had before hitting the water. But it was absolutely clear that it was diminishing with every passing second…
"Hold on, guys! It will be jiffy quick!" Gadget shouted and started climbing towards convulsively thrashing pipe. Curiously enough, the screams of owls became quieter, but the reason for it was Chip's words which owls heard much better and which carried much weight and authority. "He probably told them it's all part of our plan, and that everything will be alright," Gadget thought. "Golly, I hope he is right…" This thought made her dart forward faster, but she managed to climb only a couple more inches at best. Every single surface, every possible foothold was covered with hydraulic fluid which washed the surroundings every time Gadget tinkered with pipes under pressure. And the dislodged pipe was adding more and more of it. Gadget knew she had to plug it with something. But first she needed to get to it, and in order to do that it must have been plugged first…
Her vibrotranceiver came to life again. Three short impulses, three long, three short. Having brought owls to reason, Chip now hinted his inventive friend that if she didn't make it, their efforts would be worse than fruitless. They would be deadly harmful…
Like ejection seat this thought brought Gadget out of paralysis and vicious circle and allowed her mind to find and effectively use resources at hand. She unzipped her overalls, took off her shirt, tore it into stripes, tied them together and threw this makeshift rope around the nearest bundle of cables. Pulling herself up along the loop and anchoring on the new spot, she repeated the process with the next bundle of cables, then with one more and finally with one of the hydraulic system hoses from where it was but a step to the target pipe. Lassoing it with her former shirt, Gadget pulled it towards her, wrapped the oily but still rough enough fabric around it and plugged it into place with all her force. The plane pitched up sharply, then lowered, then pitched up again as though Manny couldn't believe their miraculous escape and decided to check everything to make sure everything indeed works normally. Then the sea plane started descending, this time purposefully, and less than in a minute touched the surface of the sea. But only when the aircraft stopped and the engines switched off Gadget dared to let the pipe go and take a deep breath.
"HAY" her vibrotranceiver said in Morse code. Chip was inquiring how she was.
"NP" Gadget answered, meaning 'no problem'. She wiped her face with the cleanest parts of her former shirt and started off to the designated meeting point. Her friends didn't sit idle either.
"Ready!" Chip commanded, and four Rangers already in position near the top of the cargo ramp took ropes tied to locks of the safety nets' fasteners. As expected, the humans showed up fast.
"Let's drop it, please!" Ramon was almost nagging now. "Blow it up and swim away. We're near the shore, the Coastal Guard will be here any minute…"
"So move it while it hasn't!" Manny advised him angrily. His voice was so strong and movements so steady and purposeful it was hard to believe he was in danger of dying in a plane crash just a minute ago. He ordered his partner to open the cocaine case, Manny turned on the ramp lowering mechanism and went to the right rack. Ramon, in turn, took the left one.
But as soon as they approached the safety nets they both fell down synchronously, and the doors of the containers started knocking as the owls were leaving their cells strictly following predetermined procedure: those in the right rack were leaving in order from tail to nose, those in the left rack — from nose to tail. This allowed to avoid collisions and jams, and the doors of the containers which opened to the left side blocked the neighboring containers when those were already empty. The only obstacle between owls and freedom were the humans caught completely by surprise, but not for too long.
"What will you say now?" Ramon asked from the floor where he fell voluntarily. Manny tried to make resistance and was literally swept away by the winged mass, and was no sitting by the ramp, scratching aching back of his head and spitting out feathers stuffed into his mouth. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"That owl. That's who made it. I told her to shoot it, and you called me mad, and now you see where we are and where they are…"
Manny rose to his feet intending to shoot Ramon in his kneecaps and throw him overboard, but then he glanced at the doors to the cockpit which remained open and saw a searchlight moving towards them from the west.
"Yes, here they are…" he muttered and turned to his accomplice. "Stop lying and help me!"
"Oh, that's not good!" Dale commented, bound to the elevation rudder's lower surface with suctionshoes and watching the criminals swiftly throwing in the sea rapidly drowning cocaine packs. "We should do something! Or Coastal Guard will find nothing!" he told Chip who was standing, that is, hanging upside down beside him.
Chip shrugged. "Well, they will fray their nerves in any case. It's good enough that we saved the owls and foiled Sosa's plans. And don't forget we have his island's coordinates. As soon as we get to the continent we'll send them anonymously to the authorities, and they'll cause him no end of trouble!"
"Oh, yes, they can do that!" Dale agreed eagerly, but immediately got worried. "Oh, and what about the Wing? If they make to the island what they did in 'You Only Live Twice'-"
"They won't," his more reasonable congener reassured him. "Still, I think we'll return there before the law enforcement operation — it usually takes them long to come up with the plan and such. I'll ask Monty if he knows any other albatrosses in the neighborhood aside from that Wilbur… Oh, by the way, let's move, or he'll outrun us!"
"No way!" Dale proclaimed and the chipmunks hurried towards the rudder's leading edge. It was easier to climb on the hull there and then go up to the fin at the foot of which the team was about to gather after leaving cargo hold. While the rodents were physically unable to outrace Zipper, the spirit of healthy competition demanded them to outrun the fat Aussie barely moving his legs shod in extra powerful suctionshoes almost as large as trays.
Chip was the first to reach the leading edge, but he had to hold his hat with one hand all the time, so Dale was the first to climb on the upper surface. He leaned to lend his friend a hand but then felt with his sixth sense someone's intent and raptorial gaze, turned around and saw owl's sharp-clawed legs bristling for the capture. An instant later they closed on his Hawaiian shirt's collar and jerked him up in the air, literally tearing his legs out of laces of his suctionshoes which remained stuck to the rudder.
"Hello, fella! Missed me?" the owl inquired tauntingly.
Dale recognized the voice and threw his head up. "Bald Skull?!" he shouted. "You… You are ungrateful skunk! I've rescued you!"
The bumpster laughed. "And I thank you very much for that! Don't take offence, good munk; I don't have anything against you personally. But fly to the middle of nowhere with an empty stomach — well, it strictly contradicts my principles!"
"Principles?!" Dale got enraged. "You have none! You… You are a miserable creature! Inglorious bastard! Silent lamb! Rolling stone! Raging Bull! Gone-with-the-winder! Green eggs and ham!..."
The flow of epithets only made Bald Skull laughing harder. Dale understood it was useless, too, and knew he was, sadly, doomed. They left the Ranger Wing on Sosa's island. Zipper couldn't catch up with an owl. The other rescued owls led by Wide Beak and members of the respective Parliaments were probably halfway to Florida by this time. Cause of death: eaten by the rescued. How ironic…
"Stop, you winged brat!" the threatening shout came from behind. "Stop or I'll peck!"
Dale couldn't turn around but he immediately recognized Wide Beak's voice and cheered.
"Don't stir!" Bald Skull reprimanded him. "Catch me if you can!" he shouted archly over his shoulder and flapped his wings vigorously trying to leave his persecutor far behind. Normally he would succeed — the bumpster constantly living on the edge was in better shape than the respected Parliament Counsel. But after almost two weeks of imprisonment in container Bald Skull's wings lost their former vim and the prey in his claws additionally worsened his aerodynamics, so Wide Beak was slowly but steadily catching up with him.
"I said stop!" he shouted louder and more threatening.
"You'll never get me!" Bald Skull croaked. Basically, if it came to fighting, he would almost certainly win — years of survival on his own made him work out his sudden approach on his opponent from behind followed by deadly blows with claws and beak perfectly. This time he was let down by his greed which prevented him from throwing his prey down, combined with him underestimating his foe. The bumpster regarded all bureaucrats as dawdlers and dunderheads capable only of wagging their tongues. He was totally sure that Wide Beak would negotiate with him, abuse, admonish, shame him and do other stupid things giving him time to reach some plot of land where he would leave his prey for a moment and then give this snob a good old-school thrashing with his freed claws. The only thing he failed to take into account was the Parliament Counsel's pretty rough and reckless youth…
"Argh!" Bald Skull screeched when Wide Beak caught up with him and plowed shallow but burning furrows on his back with his claws. "What are you doing, you brute?! It hurts!"
"It will hurt much more! If you don't let the munk go, I'll mutilate you!" Wide Beak threatened and backed up his words by scratching his opponent's back once more, this time deeper.
"Help! I'm being defeathered!" Bald Skull yelled. Dale froze: that night on the motel roof he heard this exact 'help!' So that was Bald Skull's cry for help that led them here… dale was so surprised he didn't noticed he began to fall. Fortunately for him, Wide Beak noticed it immediately, dived sharply and caught the chipmunk in just a couple of feet above the water.
"How are you? Alive?" he inquired instantly.
Dale nodded actively. "Alive, alive! But if it weren't for you, I'd- Wait, how did you-"
"ALL RIGHT, FELLA, YOU'RE FINISHED!" Bald Skull's cry came from behind Wide Beak's back. The bumpster attacked, hoping to make his enemy pay for all the troubles he had caused at once. Now, with his legs free and attacking from above and behind, he was extremely dangerous. There was no time to hesitate.
"Going far?" Bald Skull shouted mockingly seeing Wide Beak' abrupt, almost vertical climb. "The height won't help you! You can't hide from me there!"
Bald Skull darted to intercept Wide Beak, his legs spread wide to cause lacerations on his enemy's shoulders to make him unable to fly. But right before they collided Wide Beak far-seeingly slowed down and Bald Skull flew over him. His attack wasn't fruitless, for the claws on his backwards-oriented fingers scratched Wide Beak's forehead. But the bumpster wasn't even remotely satisfied with it, so he turned around and chased the Parliament Counsel who resumed his climb.
"You can't hide!" the bumpster repeated.
"Yes, you're right!" Wide Beak answered. He was barely flying judging by his voice. "You won! Take him, he's yours!"
"Wha-?! Ho-?! Don't do th-A-A-A-A!..." Dale squealed as his 'savior' unclenched his fingers. Even Bald Skull, master of meanness, was unprepared for such a treachery and watched the pirouetting rodent with his beak wide open and eyes bulging.
"Hey, that's a good turn of you, fella! Very good!" he praised rapidly vanished Wide Beak. "I should have done it straight away, you know!"
Bald Skull slowed down aiming at Dale who was plummeting down while filling the vicinage with his heart-rending yells-
-and got hit in the head.
After throwing the chipmunk away, Wide Beak didn't fly for his life as it seemed but performed a vertical loop and went for ram attack. The beak blow in the back of his head made Bald Skull see the living daylights illuminating the world around him. But almost immediately the light changed into the total darkness, and the bumpster entered flat spin, fell down like a senseless rock and hit water with a deafening splash. Dale would definitely share his fate if it weren't for Wide Beak who, just as before, caught him in the last moment.
"It's me, don't be afraid," he told the chipmunk who was unable to distinguish owls by their claws and kept yelling his head off.
"You?!" Dale couldn't believe his ears. "Oh you- Wait a second- So it was a lie?!"
"Evasive maneuver," Wide Beak reformulated. "I'm sorry I made you feel nervous, but I had to convince Bald Skull that I abandoned you for real, and it was possible only if you believed it, too."
"You say I can't feign fear?! You don't know me!" Dale sulked for a moment but quickly forgot about it. "And where's Bald Skull?" he asked.
"In the water," the owl answered.
"What do you mean? He drowned or what?!"
"Some birds don't drown," Wide Beak said barely opening his mouth.
"You think so?" Dale asked hesitantly.
The owl looked at him with bewilderment. "Don't say you want to rescue him!"
"No way!" the chipmunk admitted honestly. "Once is quite enough for me!"
"For me, too," Wide Beak agreed, relieved.
Conwing was easy to find thanks to United Stated Coastal Guard Cutter drifting nearby, her bright searchlight pointed at the aircraft's nose. The tail, by contrast, was lost in darkness which hid from human eyes the owl's arrival and Chip's, Monterey's and Zipper's rejoicing at it. Gadget got lost in the hull and it took her quite some time to find the needed hatch, so she joined her friends much later, prompting Wide Beak to repeat how he turned his flock guidance to Gray Feather and came back to check if Bald Skull had some mean tricks on his mind…
"So that's how it was," the owl summed his tale up. "Well, it was the least I could do to repay you somehow. Sure thing, now you enjoy lifetime parliament immunity! Well, not from this very moment on, surely, we'll need to pass this issue through the Parliament first, but I'm sure there will be no problems with this after the next election. Once again, owing to you," Wide Beak looked at Monterey Jack with a meaning. The Aussie described all Long Beak's foul deeds and intrigues so vividly to all the captives that it was clear he had no chances of keeping his Parliament member's bough. Monterey Jack couldn't help but exaggerate somewhat here and there, but in general he was absolutely right, and the Parliament Counsel decided not to correct him publicly. After all, he thought, the oppositionist would have an opportunity to comment each and every charge against him, and it would be rude to deny him another chance to practice his oratory… "All right then, I should leave before my flock decides I perished and continues its journey, or else I'd never find them. Our work here is finished, am I right?" he nodded at the USCGC.
"Not quite," Chip answered. Drug dealers had been fairly successful at convincing Coast Guardsmen that they were Brazil ornithologists in distress. The guardsmen still expressed their wish to examine the aircraft, but the criminals had thrown their guns and drugs into the sea and weren't afraid of anything, so they were calmly watching the cutter crew preparing to launch an inflatable speedboat. Chip had almost put up with Manny and Ramon escaping immediate justice and having to inform the authorities about Sosa's whereabouts separately. But then Wide Beak got back on stage, which meant that it was possible to try implementing one of Chip's plans… "Is it possible to open the ramp silently, Gadget?" he asked.
"You mean the aircraft's tail ramp?" the mouse asked. "Yes, of course! The ramp can be lowered manually in case of hydraulics failure. There's a special hole in which you insert special handle and rotate it. Sure thing, you'll have to keep rotating for quite some time-"
"There's no need to. Can you show Monty the way?"
"I can. But it's useless. He won't squeeze through there. It was hard even for me to do it."
"Will I squeeze there?"
"You? You will."
"Perfect. Dale, go with Gadget and open the ramp slightly ajar."
"Is it really necessary?" Dale asked, drawling. Surely he was ready to go through both fire and ice with Gadget, but rotate some handle for quite some time was different thing altogether…
"It is," Chip answered firmly. He felt a little pang of jealousy but immediately drove it away as some senseless and harmful childishness. It was doubtful Gadget would choose Dale as a result of their short cooperation. If it comes to that, it was doubtful she'd choose hem ever. If she wouldn't choose him, she would never choose Dale, that's for sure… "Zipper, watch the cockpit. Monty, come with me. Beak, take us down on the float under the right wing…"
"…Lieutenant McGregor, United States Coast Guard," the officer in charge of the examination crew formally introduced himself when their motorboat approached the aircraft.
"Manuel Cardozo, Ramon Bernardo, Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources under the Brazil Ministry of the Environment," no less formally introduced both himself and his partner Manny, holding out their IDs. "As we've already said, we have only empty cages on board, but if you are interested-"
McGregor nodded. "We are interested. We're interested in everything. Dutchie, Spike, search them. You don't have objections, do you?"
Manny smiled. "Not a single one! We're peaceful people and have nothing to hide!"
The search, predictably, turned out fruitless and the guardsmen asked to show them the plane's cargo hold. McGregor entered first, followed by Latino-Americans. Glancing about the racks with cages, lieutenant went deeper inside. When Manny and Ramon saw what had caught his attention, they froze and turned into stuffed dummies with mouths wide open and visible nervous tic symptoms. McGregor came up to the cargo ramp, sat down, opened one of ten oblong plastic containers, tasted a white powder it contained with his tongue and felt a typical numbness. "Cocaine," he said to his subordinates. "Pure as it comes. About twenty ounces. And it's just one container."
"It's… not ours…" Manny forced himself to utter.
McGregor smiled broadly. "In case you'll be blatant enough to accuse us of sham I want to inform you that each of us has a portable camera broadcasting to the ship. Our coming here is fully documented. So you have no chance of- STOP RIGHT THERE!" he shouted at Ramon moving in his direction.
Ramon turned even paler and dropped to his knees. "Please!" he pleaded. "Save me! Take me away from here! I'll tell everything! Everything! We work for Alejandro Sosa! He's hiding on…"
"SHUT UP, YOU MORON!" Manny lurched at him. The guardsmen behind them were on alert, though. They grabbed him by his shoulders, pressed into the rack, tripped him up and twisted his hands. Manny was still able to heap profanities and horrible threats at his accomplice, but Ramon didn't care. He was willing to do anything if only to leave the cursed plane as soon as possible…
"Oh man," Dutchie said to Spike when the hysterical Latino-American's story reached the Bermuda Triangle and the Superowl's tricks. "I've always suspected drug dealers were inadequate, but I could never imagine how much!..."
"…In the end sailors handcuffed both of them and sat into their boat. That's basically it!" Zipper finished his tale of what happened on the plane.
"Yes," Chip agreed and deeply inhaled the oceanic air. "Now that's really it!"
"I love how it worked out!" Monterey Jack said, stretching himself with pleasure. "I must admit I doubted any good would turn out of it, but the result speaks for itself! Lad, you're genius!"
"He just got lucky that the leader of that sturgeon crew was a relative of one of Fat Cat's 'hens'," Dale objected waving his aching hands.
"I don't think so!" Monterey Jack objected. "My daddy always says: 'Do good and throw it into the sea! The sea never forgets!'"
"Take that, Dale!" Chip said victoriously. He couldn't deny the fact that luck played essential role in his plan, though. They got lucky not only with sturgeons but also with Wide Beak who was capable of catching the containers brought by the fish from the sea floor and thrown into the air by Monterey Jack, and passing them over the ramp slightly lowered by Dale then. Afterwards Dale and Gadget stacked the containers into a neat and prominent pile and left. The rest is history… "Okay, guys, why don't we have a snack? I think we deserved a festive meal!"
"Don't you say!" Monterey Jack agreed enthusiastically. "As for me, I could swallow an owl now! A great cheese one, that is!"
"And a great chocolate one for me!" Dale kept the joke up. After dropping them on the Coast Guard Cutter, Wide Beak went after his kinsbirds and was already too far to hear them.
"Then go and investigate if they have something suitable on the caboose. And take some samples, too," Chip winked. There was no need, though, for Dale, Monterey Jack and Zipper were already heading towards the nearest door of the bulkhead. Chip went in the opposite direction, to the ship's stern. Gadget was standing there, leaning her elbows on handrail and watching the stellar sky above. Chip never saw her zipping her overalls up to the neck, but it really suited her. As for him, almost everything suited her, including stains of hydraulic liquid sparkling in the moonlight.
"How are you?" he asked coming up and leaning on the handrail.
"Great!" Gadget answered. "Breathing the air. Watching the stars. And you?"
"Same here," Chip looked up at the sky though it was of no interest to him at all. "Nice!"
"Very. You know, I noticed I don't' remember when was the last time I watched the stars just like that. That is, I see them often, sure, but just standing there and watch them, worrying about nothing, not sitting in ambush, not flying the plane, not solving some tough problem in my mind… I think it was back in Mitchell. My bedroom, well, not really bedroom, bedroll, was right on the instrumentation panel, under the canopy. The stars were always, well, when the weather allowed, that is, the last thing I saw before falling asleep. And I always had such beautiful dreams… So I think we probably should… Are you listening?"
"Yeah, sure!" Chipmunk nodded expressively despite having been delusioned for a moment by her charming voice. "What we should?"
"Expand HQ with a pavilion for astronomic observations."
"Great idea!" Chip sustained immediately. "I've always wanted to learn orienting by stars! Remember how Monty quickly identified our location? It's a priceless skill!"
The mouse nodded. "Yes, I was impressed by his reasoning, too. These constellations have such unusual and beautiful names. Sure, it's hard to understand why they were named so at first glance. And, to be honest, at the second, too. But if you take a telescope and see all stars they consist of and not only the brightest ones, the resemblance will be apparent. So the telescope is necessary. Which one's better: refractor or reflector? What do you think?"
"You are the best!" Chip thought. "What's the difference?" he said aloud.
"In refractors parallel rays of light are bent to converge at a focal point. That's why they are called refractors, or literally 'benders'. Reflectors use curved mirrors which reflect light without bending it which prevents chromatic aberration."
"It's better without aberration," Chip said. He had no idea what it was but he didn't like the word. He didn't like this topic at all. After all, he's standing under stellar sky on he ship's deck in the middle of he ocean at arm's length from the most beautiful girl in the world- and they're talking about telescopes?! No, to heck with it! Specimen differences, intellectual level — they are only conformities. He must tell her everything here and now while they are alone and nobody interf-
"AAAAAA!" Dale yelled flying out of the bulkhead and galloping towards them. "Don'tstandtherehelpmeMontycaught acheesescentgotintocheesecut termeandZippercan'tgethimoutlet'sgoI'llshowyoutheway!"
"Wha-?" Chip wanted to ask but Dale grabbed his collar impatiently and dragged along so fast that Gadget barely kept up with them even running on all four.
"It's a nightmare," Chip thought folding his arms and sliding on the deck on his soft spot. "There's no salvation from them. Monty must get help! Medical! When we get home, I'll go to Small Central Hospital and ask whether they have mental facility. In-patient. For two rodents. It will be useful for Dale, too. Maybe he'll meet someone there…"