A Collaborative Effort: Part 7
"Discovery is seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought."
Lovely office space youve got here, Bob remarked, gazing about the spacious conference room and eyeing the framed artwork and polished oak table while lounging in a plush leather office chair. Whats it rent for?
Actually, we own the building, Leah stated.
Oh. Good choice. I own my building as well, Bob nodded, Eliminates the need to worry about things like eviction, Ive found. Its not quite as nice as this place, but I have hopes of fixing it up in time. Though it would help if my associates would stop tearing their offices apart in between cases, he added, shooting Ferdie a Look.
The Vorschlag demon was a case, and it didnt tear my office apart, Ferdie shot back, eyes never straying from the screen of his laptop as he battled Dios in some shooting game or other via the wireless LAN. It tore out the wall and chewed up my car. Thats completely different.
Anyways, Bob smiled nervously, helping himself to another cup of coffee, Wondrous coffee selection here, too. So strong; richly textured and full of body.
Its nice to talk to a fellow connoisseur, the scarlet feathered agent replied, Most of these louts call my brews slop and claim Im trying to kill them.
Arent you? Dios deadpanned from across the table.
Bob glared at the squirrel, then turned his attention back to Leah. Dont let it get to you. Only a few cultured souls can appreciate gourmet coffee. The rest simply believe sprinkling cinnamon over flavored cappuccino elevates their position in society.
On other side of the room, Beak, having given up trying to understand the computer game and coffee talk some time ago, was wandering aimlessly back and forth, admiring the décor and getting quite confused by the postmodern artwork adorning the walls. Eventually, sensing that no one in the room was about to explain the significance of three red finger-painted lines on a yellow square or the reasoning behind naming that particular image Mercurs Lament he settled on counting the holes in the ceiling tiles. Hed just finished his third tile 9, 967 holes when Ferdies laptop beeped, causing the bluebird to snarl in annoyance as Dios pumped a fist in the air triumphantly.
Yes! Got you! the squirrel cheered.
No fair! Ferdie protested, I got a priority message; it pre-empted the game and locked my open windows.
Better be from your sister, Bob grumbled, As nice as our company is, were wasting time. Poor Newt could be suffering at the hands of that madman Periwinkle as we speak!
(Actually, Newt and Joe were currently watching as Periwinkle, infuriated to the point of nearly foaming at the mouth, was threatening to toss an unfortunate door-to-door salesman into a vat of boiling oil unless the scientists told him which of them was which. For their part, the kiwis were currently debating the ethics of remaining silent. After all, solicitors of that sort are almost as bad as telemarketers.)
Ferdie frowned, peering at the message on his laptop. Huh, its from Iiwi. Says she found the full Pufferfish file. Sent me a copy, too, but itll take a moment to decrypt or, no, here it is. His eyes got wider as he paged through the document before him. Wow. Uh, say, Dios? There a printer I could use? This things huge.
How huge? Dios enquired. Weve got different printers for different volumes.
Right now, were at 500 pages and counting, Ferdie blinked, Its still decoding the sucker. Jeez, whered she get this?
Email her and ask, Bob muttered around a mug of coffee.
I cant, Ferdie shook his head, She sent it from a scrambled secured line dont ask, he told Dios, - And even if I got a fix on it, with a tagline of Im going to bed now; wake me and die, Im not about to bother her. Ive grown far too addicted to living.
While the argument raged on, Dios ducked out to grab one of the laser jets and have it delivered into the conference room for use. Unfortunately for the poor squirrel, he stepped out of one lions den and into another.
Pig-headedly stupid thing to do, Drew was hollering as he stormed down the hallway. Civilians - dangerous civilians with reputations that I shudder to contemplate - and you let them into the Agency. Why dont you hand them the decryption key for our main servers while youre at it!
Dios stepped into the path of the rampaging chipmunk and shook his head. Wouldnt do them a bit of good if you did none of them could decipher the language, he quipped.
Drew swung around, homed in on the smart-ass and snarled. Keep your voice down. I cant believe you, any of you! That blasted mouse and his complete lack of respect for the rules has gotten to you all. Do any of you realize how catastrophic it would be if any one of them wandered into the wrong sector? Or even overheard the wrong conversation?
You mean like the one we are currently engaged in, Xiao calmly pointed out. Drew went red at the statement.
Conversation, Thera muttered. Funny, I thought this was Drew yelling at the top of his lungs and the rest of us calling him a dumbass in the back of our minds. Or is that just me?
Thera, Drew growled.
Oh, stuff it, the skunk snapped. You know, Drew, the rest of us do understand the meaning of the words national security, okay? Weve taken every precaution, and it would be really nice if you could trust us. Especially since *we* know a heck of a lot more about the situation than you do.
Drew went even redder in response and William wisely stifled his laughter. I suggest you relax, Drew, before Thera gets really riled. For now, allow us to do our jobs, please.
Very well, the chipmunk grudgingly replied. Just keep me informed before you make monumental breeches of security.
Certainly; however, we need to be going - the rest of our guests just arrived, William informed the group. The police are at our front gate.
Theyve probably got metal detectors and scanners in there, Ferdia remarked as she and her partner stowed their helmets, You might want to leave the unconventional stuff with the bike.
What makes you think they wont search it while were inside?
What makes you think they will?
Just a hunch, the mouse shrugged, as they walked towards the glass-doors of the entrance. But it cant be helped now. I wouldnt worry about it, though. Nothing Im carrying looks more outlandish than a cell phone.
The glass-enclosed entryway was abuzz with activity, agents striding purposely this way and that, lost in their tasks. Ferdia paused a moment to gawk at the grandiose scale and presentation of the place, far more accustomed to the neglected disrepair of the precinct house. She caught sight of an amused William Locke approaching the lobby from a side corridor, and snagged her partners shoulder before moving to meet the young agent. Squeaks turned to follow her, but paused mid-step, whipping his head around as something caught his eye.
Something wrong, Squeaks? Ferdia turned.
I said, is something wrong?
The mouse shook his head. Not exactly wrong, just
he glanced back at whatever it was that had caught his eye, Not something I expected to see, thats all. Coincidence, probably.
Well, admire the décor later, the bluebird grinned, snagging his arm and leading him towards their waiting escort, Were late for a meeting with the feds.
Hello, detectives, Im glad you finally made it, William greeted them by the elevators, subtly waving away the security approaching from behind. I see you truly did have no trouble locating the Agency. Please follow me; the others are waiting.
The younger mouse led them to a large conference room several floors up where Bob and company were slowly going bonkers.
About time, Ferdie muttered as they entered the room. Only an hour away, huh? So how come it took you two speed demons two hours to get here, sis? Just where were you guys?
Even Beak had the good sense to get out of the line of fire.
Driving through the desert mountains, Ferdia replied levelly, with only the slightest hint of an eye twitch betraying how close her brother was to annihilation, Most of thats off road, which slows your top speed considerably.
We also had to stop to fix a flat tire, Squeaks added.
Ferdie raised an eyebrow. You expect me to believe you carry a spare tire on a motorcycle?
No. I carry a portable air pump and sealant, the mouse replied. Its not all that hard to seal a tire puncture.
Oh, Ferdie frowned, looking disappointed and not wholly convinced.
Ferdia smacked him upside the head, scowling. Why, dear brother, where did you think we were?
Ferdie ducked, covering his head from further assault. I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate myself. And hurt.
I just bet it would, his sister growled. Were professionals, remember? Were not allowed to stop off at bars and the like while were on duty. Unlike some people.
Once, okay? Once! Ferdie grumbled, And it was only to ask directions, I swear! No one warned me about the pink taverns!
Pink taverns? Beak asked, looking characteristically puzzled. What about them?
Dont. Ask. Ferdie growled, red-faced and thoroughly humiliated.
I trust our delay hasnt held you up much? Squeaks turned to William, trying to steer the meeting back on-course.
Not at all, William replied, vastly amused. Actually, your brother just received an extremely informative message, he said to Ferdia. Weve just begun going over the data.
Thera took over the thread of the conversation then. Some of it matches information wed already acquired, but I admit its a lot more in-depth then what our experts could locate, she looked directly at Dios, who just shrugged. It also goes a long way towards explaining why Periwinkle wants the formula. Oh, by the way, these are some of our fellow agents - Rami, Xiao, Leah and Dios.
Rami inclined her head in greeting while Xiao bowed formally. Right now we are working on locating the mad scientist, Rami informed them, though with little luck so far.
What about the helicopter? Squeaks queried, We know it was used to contact and probably transport Periwinkle from his previous lab sometime between two and four weeks ago, and we know the exact location of that lab. Why not simply search satellite feed from the area, locate the helicopter as it arrives, and trace its movements from there?
What if they switched him to ground transport at some point? Ferdia pointed out.
H er partner shrugged. So track all vehicles departing from its landing zones as well.
Xiao blinked. Brilliant. Why didnt we think of that?
Can you guys really do that? Ferdie asked, astonished.
Dios nodded. Easily. Ill have the
well need pulled up. Give me ten minutes. Moving at the rate of a hyperactive chibi, he bounced out of the room in seconds, leaving most of the others looking a bit dazed.
Were pretty certain someone spiked his milk while he was growing up, Leah explained. Repeatedly. For several years.
Care to tell us what else you discovered while wandering around the west coast? Thera inquired.
Not really, Ferdia replied. Other than a string of dead bodies, there wasnt much of importance. I would like to see the information Iiwi sent, though.
Here you go. Ferdie pushed a foot-tall mound of paper her way. Happy reading.
Ferdia grimaced. On second thought, bro, maybe youd better just give me the Cliff Notes version.
Ferdie leaned back in his chair, looking smug. Essentially, her good ol pal Oz-
His sister quirked an eyebrow. Pal? She was out to destroy the man!
Yes, but Periwinkle beat her to it, and anyway, thats not important. He was set up as a lab assistant and mole on the project, and according to his notes at least those Beak and I can translate Pufferfish was meant to produce a type of super-efficient fuel that burned cold.
Squeaks ears perked up. Really? How fard they get?
Pretty far, actually. They could freeze the stuff into powder form which is the part of the process that made it burn cold but the powder was far too volatile to use, or even store. Then they came up with a way to refine it back into a liquid phase while retaining the cold-burning attributes but this process resulted in fuel so hugely inefficient in terms of thrust production that it was far too expensive to be of any use. Youd literally need a fuel tanker for a jet burning this stuff to get off the runway, circle around the airport for ten minutes, and then come in for a safe landing. And missiles peh, forget it. You could get a decent javelin thrower to launch a payload further than something burning this could get.
And they never found the way around that? Squeaks frowned.
Not according to the project notes, which is why it was eventually cancelled. But and heres the good part, Ferdie grinned, wagging a finger, Periwinkle was with them up to the freezing process, but left before they started working on converting it back into liquid. That was about the time the military got interested in the powder as an explosive. As a result of their interest, the project switched hands, and the new project managers were a bit tighter with their funds. They didnt see a reason for keeping a biochemist on board anymore, so Periwinkle got the boot. Theres a good chance he doesnt know the fuel doesnt work.
And an even better one that hes in it for the explosives, even if this Lords person isnt, Ferdia frowned. Okay, makes sense, I guess. Locke, you guys know Lords better than we do is he in this for the fuel, or the explosives?
Given the potential, most definitely the explosives, Xiao replied. Adrian would care little about non-military applications, especially failed ones. However, considering the connections the family has in the black market arms trade, the powder phase would intrigue them.
What type of potential are we talking here, Squeaks inquired.
Leah was the one to answer. Do you have any idea of the destructive capabilities of a pound of C4?
There were several nods and one or two winces.
One ounce of the powder, with the proper catalyst, can do at least ten times that damage. A single test tube could conceivably take out everything in a twenty-mile radius. Apparently its a chain reaction process - one explosion building on another.
Yeah, that sounds like Newts handiwork, Bob muttered.
Yep. It seems your scientist was the one to develop the freezing process that made it cold-burning and highly unstable. Ours came up a way to refine it back to the liquid stage, making it viable but too inefficient to be truly usable.
But Periwinkle wouldnt know that, Bob added. Or, if he did find out, wouldnt really care. Hes after the powder phase, which is why he kidnapped Newt.
And got our Joseph by accident, Leah concluded. Some evil mad genius.
Hes got the mad part down, its the genius one we question, Ferdie informed her. Periwinkle is completely unhinged.
Which is why we need to find him, and fast. Where is Dios?
As if on cue the squirrel reappeared in the doorway, looking a little rushed. Well, the guys down in Monitoring arent too happy with us, but I have a possible lead on Periwinkle. He spread a variety of satellite photos across the table in the center of the room. We tracked the helicopter to the last known hideout of Periwinkle that you reported, then back up to the rabbits lair in Seattle. But after that, nothing.
What do you mean, nothing? Thera snapped. Do you mean the helicopter never moved?
Not exactly. Actually, we think he had it repainted. A complete overhaul, including a new tail number just as legit as the last one. Then he just let it sit there.
Surely there was some other movement - ground vehicles, perhaps? Xiao queried. I do not believe that Adrian would have only one meeting with Periwinkle; he is the hands on type.
Dios nodded. Thats what I figured, so I had the boys keep looking. They did pick up something really interesting the day after Joseph disappeared. It seems Honey decided to pay her brother a visit, in the middle of the night.
And Honey is
Adrians younger sister, the Burmese explained, and his favorite errand girl. Shes a trained assassin, highly skilled.
As well as one very vicious cheerleader, Thera threw in. But she isnt the type to take a midnight jaunt across several states just to visit her big brother.
Exactly, Dios crowed. So I had her tracked and, after an hour in Seattle, she headed up north into Canada, and doesnt seem to have returned. Adrian has also sent a whole lot of firepower up to her recently.
Where, exactly? Ferdia inquired. Canada is a pretty big place.
The southwestern corner, barely a hundred miles north of the border. Her plane landed in Pinehill, just south of the mountain range. After that she took a ground transport into the wilderness and we lost her in the mountains themselves.
Great, Ferdia muttered, More searching around in the woods.
Maybe not, Squeaks frowned, Can you get a thermal resonance scan of the region, and compare it to what it was a month ago? Theyre not quite as accurate as visual tracking, but it should narrow down our search area.
Youre assuming youll be part of the search, Thera stated.
Of course, the mouse replied. This case started in our jurisdiction, and well see things through to the end. Besides, well make that many more people in the search parties that you dont have to foot the bill for.
And I insist on staying on, Bob chimed in, Were all familiar with Periwinkle and what hes capable of; we need to find Newt as soon as possible. Besides, Beak heres an expert short-range tracker.
I am? the brown kiwi blinked.
You are, Bob growled. Yes, all we need to do is get Beak within a mile or two of their hideout, and hell home right in on Newt.
Well find Periwinkle a lot faster if we continue working together, Ferdia nodded. We wont get underfoot, and itll save both of us from wasting time searching areas thatve already been looked at.
We are supposed to be cooperating, William reminded his partner, and theyve certainly been pulling their weight. I doubt wed have discovered the Periwinkle angle quite so quickly without their assistance.
What assistance? Thera replied. We were searching their office.
We could use their assistance, and they do have good ideas, Xiao put in. I do believe you are outvoted. Now, about those thermal scans.
Dios shrugged. Yeah, actually I thought of that too. We should get something back soon, but it may not be too promising the area apparently has some heavy geo-thermal activity.
Still, any recent changes could give us a lead on Periwinkles hideout, Squeaks responded.
There was a quick knock on the door as a nondescript sparrow let himself into the conference room and made his way over to Dios, handing the squirrel a manila folder before departing wordlessly. All eyes turned to Dios as he paged briefly through the thermal scan results.
Good news, he informed them, Monitoring was able to detect a slight change in thermal readings for this area here, he tapped a brightly-colored region on a thermal printout. Its not much, and it spans about seven square miles, but it gives us a place to start. Should I get some squads geared up?
William frowned. No. Too many people and theyre bound to see us coming. Four small teams ought to be enough to do the job quickly without attracting too much attention.
Well take the southwestern quadrant, Ferdia volunteered, It looks like mostly forests and hills, so we ought to be able to cover it on the motorcycle.
William nodded. Very well. Xiao, you and Rami take southeast. Theres an old access road not too far from there, in case we need to call in the cavalry. Thera and I can take the northeast, leaving you detectives with the northwest.
What about me? Dios frowned.
I need you to stay behind on this one, William informed him. In case anything happens, well need a backup team waiting in the wings.
The squirrel huffed, looking thoroughly disappointed.
Um, Ferdie piped up, waving meekly, Well need to bum a ride up there, what with our ride being treed and all.
Treed? Ferdia blinked.
I never want to hear a word about our driving again, she smirked.
Fine, fine. Just as long as we get a ride out there.
No problem, William grinned, Leah will drive you.
Ill just, uh, let our other member know the plan, Ferdie said, reaching for his laptop as he cringed away from the scarlet-feathered bird currently seething at the mouse.
Why do I have to be the baby-sitter, Leah demanded hotly.
Its not babysitting, was the calm reply. Youll be assisting our civilian associates in their portion of the investigation. Besides, well go ahead and sign out the vehicle in your name, just as a precaution.
You know, Normandy, you are seriously beginning to push your luck, Thera informed her partner as Leah stormed out the room, determined to find someone to torment. One of these days youre going to get yourself shot.
Not really, guns arent really Leahs style. Plus I can run faster then her.
Before Lockes mouth gets him into any more trouble, why dont we get going, Squeaks suggested dryly.
Periwinkle glared down at the two new banes of his existence. You know what, thats it, Im just going to shoot you both.
Sitting off in a corner filing her nails, Honey sighed. Technically you cant shoot them both, she pointed out. You need one of them to make the formula.
I dont care. Theyre driving me insane and at least itll make me feel better, the peacock said, tone that of a petulant child.
Well, if you must. However, I would suggest just shooting them in the kneecaps. Maybe theyll be more cooperative.
Periwinkle rolled his eyes. Sure, ruin my fun. Besides, your last idea didnt work. Honestly, who uses car batteries anymore?
Fine, the rabbit snapped back. Do what you want. Just remember you cant kill them.
Its amazing what someone can live through, Periwinkle muttered as he pulled out a gun.
Joseph cleared his throat. Ahem, that wont be necessary. If you truly want us to cooperate, well be more than happy to assist you.
Newt blinked. We will? An elbow was thrust into his side quite firmly.
Yes we will.
Fine, Periwinkle snarled. So tell me which one if you is Newt so I can kill the other one.
Actually youll be needing the both of us if you want the formula to work properly, Joseph hurried to reply. He nudged his cousin again.
Oh, yes, yes, Newt wheezed. Joseph was instrumental in helping me stabilize the formula after it had undergone the freezing process.
Funny, I thought the formula was supposed to be unstable, Honey pointed out as she got up and strolled over to the group. Isnt that what makes it so explosive?
Newt covered his wince. Well, I mean
granted, thats true. But, you see, theres unstable, and then theres unstable. He carefully did *not* look at Periwinkle as he spoke. If the explosive is too volatile, then the catalyst wont work properly and its not usable. No practicality, you see. Thats w-why the military left us to find other funding. We showed them that the practical applications werent possible if the substance could be ignited just by someone sneezing nearby. But Joseph, he found a way to fix that so it could be refined. Of course, then it was totally useless.
Oh sure, blame me, the other kiwi said with a glare. I was just trying to fix your mistake. Who knew it would turn out to be inefficient?
The re-liquefaction process should not have affected the inherent properties of the substance!
Oh horse-pucky. If you hadnt made the blasted thing so unstable in the first place, there would have been no need to alter its physical state.
The blasted stuff went off like C4 left in the sun too long!
At least mine ignited; yours couldnt catch fire if you poured liquid oxygen on it and lit a match!
Suddenly they both noticed Periwinkle standing above the, twitching uncontrollably. But anyway, Joseph muttered. You were saying something about needing our help?
Honey wisely took the gun out of his hand and motioned towards the lab. Run while you can.
Well, that went surprisingly well, Ferdia remarked as the pair sped along the dirt path the small Canadian road had dwindled to a mile or two ago.
Indeed, Squeaks nodded, eyes on the path as the motorbike bounced along the uneven surface. But then, thats the idea behind cooperation.
Bah, Ferdia huffed. So anyway, where should we start? Woods or mountains?
Id like to get a feel for the territory first, and see where this path leads. Its seen some use recently, or it wouldnt be as bare as it is. The undergrowths been flattened all along here.
Maybe the teenagers of Pinehill like to go off-roading, Ferdia shrugged.
Theyre not bike tracks.
Or maybe not, she sighed. Still, I dont see anything out of the ordinary off the road.
All the more reason to see where it leads.
I still dont understand why I cant drive, Bob whined from the backseat.
Because I *saw* what happened to the Cadillac, Leah calmly informed him as she steered the SUV onto a side road.
Ferdie, sitting in the passenger seat with the road map, shook his head. Technically, those were pretty exceptional circumstances. Beak was navigating and Bob hadnt had coffee for quite some time.
Fifteen hours, twelve minutes, and forty-seven seconds, Bob supplied.
See? He was incoherent.
Then why didnt you drive? the tanager snapped.
It wasnt mine, it was already pretty beat up by then, and I didnt want anyone to be able to blame me for the damages, Ferdie shrugged, Besides, Im not complaining here. I like being a passenger. It gives me the ability to dedicate my full attention to things like our surroundings and full-fledged panic. And I could hide from view in case anyone I knew drove by. Being a professional coward is one thing; being caught behind the wheel of a pink, velvet-trimmed Cadillac is quite another. I have standards.
Are you insulting my fiancées taste in cars? Bob fumed.
Not at all, Ferdie waved his hands nervously, Not at all.
So, what are we looking for? Beak interrupted, Ive gotten all turned around; are we in the search zone yet?
Almost. Though well get there faster if you keep quiet.
Oh? Bob asked, How so?
Because if you pester me, Ill abandon you on a roadside somewhere.
You know, William remarked as the Tracker cornered another turn at about 85, I think Canada does have speed limits.
Clam it, Thera replied. Just keep reading the map. Im still miffed at you.
Why? I let you drive this time. Take the turn up ahead, we need to leave the main road.
I still say letting them help was a bad idea.
Objection duly noted; now pay attention to the road. Weve reached the base of the mountain and I dont like the look of these cliffs. Its too easy to ambush someone from the high ground.
Yeah, yeah. Just make sure you dont get us lost. These roads all look the same.
So do the trees. Anyway, were almost to the first thermal hot spot. There should be someone sort of access road coming up on the left.
I think I see it, theres a break in the trees.
Thera steered them onto what was essentially a dirt road leading through the forest. The ground was heavily packed down, indicating frequent use. Wait a minute, I think Im seeing some sort of fence up ahead. The dirt path abruptly curved, bringing them alongside the high chainlike fence. William read the sign as they passed.
Government property, keep out. Interesting. That wasnt marked on any of the maps we have. He ducked down and began rummaging through the papers on the floorboard.
Thera continued along the path for a while until they rounded another bend and almost ran into a low wooden gate. Ah, William, I think weve found something. There appears to be a colony out here.
Really, William replied, distracted. Maybe that was the source of the thermal reading. Some sort of agricultural farm?
Hn. Survivalist camp? Artists commune, maybe? he suggested while he scanned another map.
Nope. Nudist colony.
William slowly looked up. Youre joking.
Nope, she said cheerfully. Read the sign.
He did so, blinking as he finished. Now that was interesting. A naturalist nudist colony? To each their own, I suppose.
Im going to try to turn around.
Why? William asked with an evil smile. Maybe theyve seen something.
Thera turned to look at him in astonishment. Please tell me you arent saying we should go in there.
Come on Thera, live a little.
Only if it involves large explosives.
Laughing, he leaned over and turned off the engine, taking the keys with him before she could react. While Thera squawked indignantly, the mouse slid out the passenger side and began to walk up the path leading to the main structure. Think of what Drew would say if you let me go in there alone.
Growling something very vicious (and possibly anatomically impossible), Thera got out and followed him.
This is the middle of nowhere, Bob said in disgust as they trudged along the trail through the woods.
Im not sensing anything, Beak quietly informed him.
Of course you arent, because theres nothing out here, was the scathing reply. Not even a bike path. Obviously no one comes out this way, so why were wandering around out here in the woods makes no sense to me.
Because this is the only way to get to several of the thermal anomalies in our section, Ferdie responded patiently. He kept one eye on Leah, who looked ready to strangle something. Theres no way to reach them with the car, so we have to walk, okay?
If theres no road leading to them then theyre clearly not important, Bob snapped, secure in his logic. Next to him, Beak was searching for the source of the hostile feelings he was suddenly picking up.
Meanwhile, Ferdie resisted the urge to shove the printout in Bobs face and point out the cluster of hot spots they were looking for. The irregular way the thermal bursts were grouped together strongly indicated they werent natural occurrences. I hope the others are having better luck then we are, he muttered as they hiked further up the path on the mountain.
How close are we to the hotspots? Squeaks asked.
This entire area is a hotspot, Ferdia sighed, peering at the map. Just keep following the path; its got to go somewhere.
Thats a common misconception.
You want a kidney punch, Mr. Philosopher?
The path wound its way up the pine trees growing along the mountain slopes, weaving this way and that until it abruptly delivered them into a clearing lined with decaying wood-frame buildings.
Hey, hold up, Ferdia called, tapping her partners shoulder as the motorcycle rode along the long-abandoned dirt strip of Main Street, Come on, stop.
The mouse obliged, letting the bike roll to a stop near what was probably once the town square. The pair took in the warped, sun-bleached wood peeling from the buildings, rotting in fallen heaps and covered in dust, traces of ancient paint hardly visible with age. The forest had tried reclaiming some of the clearing, but given up after seeding a few sparse colonies of weeds and crabgrass.
Ghost town, Ferdia breathed, scanning the silent structures. Probably an old mining town. They were all over these mountains a century ago; when the mines ran out, people just packed up and abandoned the towns.
And this is one of our hotspots? Squeaks queried.
Shouldnt be, the bluebird frowned, Most of these places never bothered with electricity.
Better take a look around anyway. Someone might be trying to make it look abandoned. Some of the more intact buildings are large enough that they could probably hide a vehicle or two, or even a helicopter.
Or a bunch of barn owls and some forest newts, Ferdia commented, climbing down off the cycle to poke through the rubble of the late saloon.
Scoff if you want. I hear a hum, Squeaks stated, ears swiveling this way and that as he wandered down the dusty street.
A hum? Ferdia paused, listening. I dont hear anything.
Maybe not, but my ears are better than yours.
All right, then, the bluebird shrugged, The great mouse detective hears a hum. Lets go find it.
Absolutely, positively, no freaking way youre getting me up there, Ferdie stated, arms folded defiantly as he scowled up at the birds scaling the sheer rock face above him. Im sick and tired of all this hiking-through-the wilderness stuff, and rock-climbing that thing is just suicide. I wont do it.
I swear, Leah snarled to herself, I am so close to finding a pine cone and cramming it up the next whiners-
Friend Ferdie, Beak interrupted her, It may be faint, but this is the first time Ive sensed Newts presence at all on this trip. We may be getting close to where he is; we cant waste time looking for easier ways to where he is.
I dont care. Im not-
Ack! Bob yelled, a look of terror on his face as he pointed behind Ferdie, Dont move! Theres a poisonous snake right by your-
With a high-pitched squawk of terror, Ferdie bolted, streaking straight up the rock face with a woosh!
Well? he called down to the others, Come on, then, hurry up! Weve got to find Newt!
That is truly amazing, Leah commented.
Works every time, Bob chuckled. You should see him when hes actually in danger. He sets land speed records.
Guys, Im waiting
came the impatient grumble from atop the rocks.
The director of the colony turned out to be a far too friendly badger named Herman and his assistant, a ferret named Chipper.
Chipper, Thera carefully repeated as introductions were made. A pleasure. We were surprised to discover this place.
Actually, were becoming quite famous, Herman responded as he waved them towards the sofas. Everyone is eager to experience the naturalist way of life. Chipper bounced enthusiastically in agreement. What brings you folks up our way?
My partner and I are scouting locations for a magazine shoot, William smoothly replied while Thera sort of gaped at the ferret. Were from the nature magazine Open Trails. Perhaps youve heard of it.
Chipper let out a squeal of delight. Yes, yes, I love your magazine. It always has the neatest pictures.
The mouse leaned over and calmly pounded his partner on the back while she desperately tried to turn her laughter into a cough and choked.
Thank you, Thera finally managed to get out. Weve been looking over some of the back trails for the past few days, just getting a feel for the area. Are either of you familiar with it?
The badger nodded. Oh absolutely, I grew up around here. Some of the nature trails are just fabulous. Chipper here is an expert guide and would gladly take you both on some tours.
Thera looked a little frightened as the ferret let out another squeal of glee and skipped around the table to scoop up some guide maps. I made these myself. Herman taught me all about drawing and using a compass and telling time on a quartz watch. I almost never get lost now.
Even William sank back into his seat a little. Thank you for the offer, well keep it in mind. Actually, we were wondering if we could ask you a few questions. Herman. Has anyone in the colony noticed anything strange in the woods recently? We heard some rumors while Thera and I were in town.
Chipper came around to curl up beside the badger on the other sofa as he snorted and rolled his eyes. Superstitious local ninnies. Ask most of them and theyll tell you this area has a reputation for ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. You see, just west of us, theres an old ghost town that the locals like to make up stories about. It was a mining town, only semi-prosperous during the mid-1800s, and some of the miners reinvested their wealth and opened a logging mill. But the gold dried up, the mill went out of business, and the whole town was abandoned before the turn of the century. Used to be a popular place for teenagers until the area was declared unstable. Sinkholes due to the mining shafts. Government fenced the land off and no one goes there now. Some folks still claim to see strange shapes moving in the dark or lights coming from the town, but its all nonsense.
Fascinating, William remarked in the subtle dry tone of a fellow skeptic. Amazing how silly the natives can be.
You have no idea. You should have seen the reaction when I first opened the colony. They made such a fuss. But weve been successful despite their small-minded attitude, havent we Chipper?
Oh, way beyond, Hermie, he replied, tone supportive. Hermie has the best ideas, he said to the agents.
William stood and Thera practically leapt to her feet after him. Well, youve been very helpful. Thank you, well just let ourselves out.
As they were walking back to the car Thera finally gave into the urge to double over with laughter. That was truly frightening, she said when she could breathe again.
I didnt think they were that bad, William replied with a lofty tone. You should have been nicer, Thera. Anyway, they were useful and they did make such a lovely couple, he added as she walked into a tree.
Okay, Ferdia murmured as the pair wandered down the abandoned streets and alleys of the town, Now Im hearing a hum.
Squeaks nodded towards a cluster of buildings built along the banks of a small creek. Its coming from over there, by the mill.
The mill? Ferdia puzzled, It cant still be operational?
The mouse shook his head. The wheels spinning much too freely to be hooked up to anything.
Well, that was disappointing, the bluebird frowned, following her partner towards the buildings, Here I was starting to think wed finally found-
Ferdia paused. What?
The mouse motioned her to the open door of the nearest building. A mass of pipes laced across the floor, feeding water to a large metal engine whose pistons pumped up and down as it churned out electric current. A thick bundle of cable wound its way from the machine to a host of metallic containers, and from there into the dusty dirt floor. The two cops cautiously stepped inside.
Theres whats spiking the thermal readings, Squeaks intoned, glancing around the dilapidated wooden structure for signs of life, Looks like theyve got a backup and a direct line. The cables probably buried all the way from here to Periwinkles base.
Im not digging up miles of buried cable just to see where it leads, Ferdia grumbled. Theres got to be an easier-
Quiet, her partner hissed, freezing in place, ears twitching this way and that.
Ferdia tensed as a low rumbling reached her ears, its volume increasing as the source grew nearer. Somethings coming.
Several somethings, Squeaks corrected, grabbing her wrist as the pair bolted for the door, Jeeps, probably, and heavy enough that theyre probably military surplus.
Oh, well, thats reassuring! Ferdia yelled, sprinting for the motorbike as the sound of crashing underbrush grew dangerously close behind them. The pair vaulted onto the cycle, Squeaks barely getting the engine started before a trio of armored carriers burst through the forest at the far end of town, gun turrets manned and swiftly swinging in their direction. The mouse gunned the engine, sending dirt and dust flying as the bikes wheels spun, launching the cops back down the dirt path at breakneck speeds.
We mustve tripped a perimeter alarm, Squeaks shouted over the roar of the engine as a burst of gunfire split the air behind them. That means the labs probably nearby.
Small comfort *that*, Ferdia yelled back, toggling the mike on her shoulder, Shots fired! Shots fired! This is Officer Birdie, were under attack out by an old mine town, and holy- she swore, as the low thup! of helicopter blades rose over the cacophony of the pursuit, Thats a gunship! The hell are they doing wi- she lost her grip on the toggle switch as the bike swung sharply, skidding along grass and gravel as Squeaks made for the steep mountain passes too narrow for the jeeps to follow.
Hang on! Squeaks yelled, banking the bike so deeply around another swerve that Ferdia felt blades of grass brushing her cheek.
Squeaks, if I hang on any tighter, youre not gonna be able to breathe!
Duly noted, the mouse gasped, ducking a low branch only to have the ground vanish beneath the bike as they crested a hill in the forest, the shocks objecting loudly as they landed on the steep, rock-strewn slope.
They half-bounced, half-skid down the slope, crashing through the underbrush onto an old logging access road and picking up speed as the wheels raced over the cracked pavement.
We cant stay on the road! Ferdia yelled, as bullets rained down around them, Even if the jeeps dont catch up to us, were an easy target for the helicopter!
Thats all right, her partner replied, Ive got a plan.
Oh yeah? Id love to hear it!
See the line of rocky mountain caves just through those trees ahead? Squeaks called back.
By the bend in the road?
Right. Theyre at the bottom of another slope. Just follow my lead. But youll have to trust me on this.
The mouse gunned the engine as they bore down on the curve, cutting the wheel sharply and sending them spinning sideways into their turn, burning rubber as the wheels scraped lengthwise across blacktop, shots hailing down all around them. The bikes back tire burst under the strain, fishtailing them off the road and into the dense forest undergrowth, sliding sideways down the hill, desperately trying to keep from toppling. Ferdia felt an arm circle round her back as Squeaks leapt from the bike, pulling her after him as the bike, now missing its counterweight, yielded to physics and toppled over, tumbling end-over-end down the slope. The cops hit the ground with a painful thud, tumbling down the slippery underbrush-laden slope several feet before their efforts to halt their slide slowed them enough for them to latch onto the sturdier trees in their path.
Below them, the motorcycle, still tumbling full-speed down the hill, reached the end of its plummet, slamming into the rock face of the mountainside with a reverberating crash and eardrum-blasting explosion as the gas tank ignited. They heard the helicopter circle the fireball once, twice, before the heavy whine of its blades retreated back the way theyd come.
Squeaks? Ferdia groaned, scraping dirt and sticks from her feathers and taking stock of aches and pains as the adrenaline rush began wearing off.
Good. Never do that again.
Im king of the world! Ferdie shouted giddily as he leaned into the wind blowing across the peak. Fortunately for the bluebird, Beak grabbed Bob before he could boot the cowardly one of the cliff.
What did you give him? Bob demanded, glaring at Leah.
The scarlet bird just shrugged. You told me to calm him down. Its not my fault he took the whole bottle. Good thing he only swallowed three pills.
As Ferdie began to yodel, Leah walked up, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hauled him down off the pile of rocks he stood on. With my luck, youd bounce, she muttered as she dragged him back to the rest of the group. Now sit there and be a good boy.
Bob snorted. Looks like this one was a bust too. Theres nothing on this mountain but rocks, lots of *cold* hard rocks.
Leah turned to glare at him as well. You know, there are so many places I could hide your body out here, and the space cadets would never know what happened.
Beak, dangling halfway over the side of the cliff as he examined a fascinating banana-shaped rock, looked up. But Im not a cadet.
Shut up, Beak, Bob growled. Thats it. Were getting down off this mountain and finding the others. I mean look at my poor cute feet theyre being horribly abused. Bob, lamenting over the state of his feet, had glanced down and thus missed the lunging dive in his direction. However, Leah miscalculated slightly and tripped over Ferdie instead, sending the bluebird tumbling sideways over the edge.
Im flying, he shouted happily before slamming into the outcropping below. Dont worry. Im okay.
Rats, Leah muttered while Bob, images of what Ferdia would do to him if Ferdie was wrong, rushed to the edge.
Ferdie, just stay there, well come get you, he yelled down right before something bumped into him from behind and sent him tumbling down as well. Fortunately for him, he landed on Ferdie.
Hi, Bob, Ferdie said cheerfully. Could you move your foot?
Sorry, Beak shouted, looking remorsefully as he leaned over the edge that Bob had just plummeted off of. I slipped.
*You* slipped, Bob snarled, slowly, painfully climbing to his feet. Beak, when I get back up there
Just stay down there, Leah snapped, well be down in a sec. She grabbed Beak around the waist and leaped.
Bob screamed. Beak screamed. Ferdie laughed, and then winced. Leah, dropping Beak the last few feet, bounced for a second on the rope around her waist before slipping loose and landing gracefully.
I think I just saw the Great BaNAna, Beak muttered, dazed. Bob, once his heart returned to his chest, booted him as hard as possible.
Meanwhile Leah, watching their antics, just rolled her eyes. If the lunatic society is finished with their daily worship of the stupid, lets get moving. Grab the rope and start climbing down.
Grudgingly Bob, followed by Beak, carefully began climbing down. Ferdie had just taken a hold of the rope to begin his descent when familiar sounds reached their ears: automatic gunfire, eventually followed by a loud explosion that sent them all tumbling to their knees. Looking off into the distance as the cloud of smoke rose into the air, Ferdie did a credible job of going white.
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