Title: Laughter Among Friends Author: pronker Era: During the team's assignment at Central Park Zoo Characters: Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, Private, one OC, and Manfredi and Johnson, two canon penguin former team members whom the current team remembers poignantly. If it helps any, they're written to resemble Quirt and Flagg. Summary: George Washington sets some mighty high standards. IOIOIOIOIO "You two make sure it's a cherry pie in honor of the day! And Rico, don't get change but leave all the coins we collected from our pond as a tip for services rendered! Kowalski, don't let him be cheap!" Skipper waited until an Aye! from Rico and an Aye aye, sir! from Kowalski dissolved diminuendo before securing the hatch to their lair. He hopped back down the ladder two rungs at a time. "Awaitin' cherry pie with pleasure, Skippa!" Private jigged in place before his trophy stuffed fish whose plaque bore what Phil swore were words saying Private's 1st Prize. Nobody could comment on fraternization since the private and the commander experienced rare solitude and so Skipper found himself jigging in time with his subordinate. They circled each other, whirling like folk dancers suspended between Irish jigs and Bavarian Zwiefacher until the time signature muddled into something Dali would have trouble recognizing. The two birds laughed as they ran out of breath. Private bent over and slapped his knees, unable to speak as he observed Skipper lean against the stuffed fish who would never swim again, unless the whole Irradiated Mutant Zombie Apocalypse came to pass. The young bird shoved away speculation about whether Skipper's wildest paranoid dream ever would happen as he reveled in the moment. "I just might like pie more than Rico does! Whooeee, is there anythin' better than special eats?" Skipper laughed louder and longer. "Nope, don't think so! Especially on a federal holiday that makes us treasure The American Way all the more." He patted the fish. "Speaking of, young Private, are you ever sorry that we stuffed your first big fish rather than George Foreman-ed it?" Private leaned shoulder to shoulder with his leader against the plaque. He nudged Skipper's rock solid delt. "Wot do you think I'm goin' to say next?" "Guv'na, I couldn't guess. You tell me." By the way the hearty laugh dwindled to a chuckle, Private could tell Skipper reverted to officer space. He decided to jolly him back into fun. "Shall we revisit the memory in question? Good times were had by all, wot?" This might not have been the best idea he'd ever had. "As you wish," Skipper muttered as he crossed his flippers. IOIOIOIOIO IOIOIOIOIO Working backwards from the Trans-Dimensional Toothbrush and the Watch That Stops Time, Kowalski’s first invention of any note he painted red and named the Floribunda. It debuted on Lake Atitlán in a lull of the undercover action when Private asked to go fishing. Since the youngest penguin did a ride-along in the tradition of all commando units, Skipper earnestly wanted to give the tween slack time to digest all he had learned thus far. Of course, Manfredi and Johnson joshed the commander with the sauce of veterans unworried about living long enough to collect their pensions. They’d teased that Skipper coddled the boy, so they’d been left behind in Panajachel along with Rico and Xochi, Rico’s current flame. Skipper didn’t believe Manfredi and Johnson when they said they planned to sightsee at the Maya Traditions Medicine Garden today. They had already enjoyed enough herb on this mission. Xochi and Rico would be doing what they had been doing every free hour since twenty-four hours after they met. Skipper mentally applauded their stamina when they appeared each morning, eager and fresh-eyed for the day. They were awfully cute together even at six a.m. reveille, sort of like Rico’s stuffed bear playing Rico and the latest penguin Beanie Baby playing Xochi. Thinking about their size difference gave him a headache, so he didn’t think about it much. To give the youngest would-be team member a chance to gawk at majestic volcanoes ringing the lake, Skipper and Kowalski had rowed to the middle of the watery expanse. Kowalski muttered something about ‘test driving Floribunda under optimal 1,115.37 feet deep water conditions, no shallows for this baby’. The mission stalled with nothing they could do today to further its success, the sun shone brightly, and life was copacetic. When Private’s head broke water by the bow, Skipper dogpaddled to the present. He tilted his officer’s cover back on his head so it wouldn’t slip into the lake when he bent over the side. “Skippa, oodles of fish down there! Come down for a looksee?” Skipper smiled. “Your exploration, your first time sit rep, it’s all your bag. Report when you’ve done enough eyeballing the Wonders of the Deep. Oh, and don’t eat any of the fish. Kowalski’s not yet done a water quality test.” Private’s lower beak quivered. “But I need my fish! I’m a growin’ penguin!” Eh, Private could beg just like Rico, but Skipper held firm. “You heard me. Catch and release only.” Private upended after acing a by-the-regs salute. Skipper glimpsed his black shape sound deeper and deeper and shook off the gollywobbles regarding the young bird’s safety. He caught Kowalski’s affectionate stroke of the enameled gloss of the motor housing out of the corner of his eye. “Kowalski, we’ve not begun to set up your lab in Central Park HQ, so how did you upgrade this motorboat that we rented only ninety minutes ago?” The current eddied around their becalmed vessel as they slewed towards the center of Lake Atitlán. Skipper assessed the streamlined outboard motor that looked like any other outboard motor. Kowalski shipped his oar to lay it by his commander’s on the bottom of the boat. “Sir, wait till we drift to the precise middle of the lake and I’ll show you. The customized parts I added to this rental are ordinary things anyone has around the house: rocket fuel, C-4, five five inch lengths of zinc-coated platinum tubing — ” “Five five inch lengths of — how did you bring them out of the Ewe Ess of Ay? I ordered strict necessities only for baggage. Did you bully Rico into carrying them for you in his wonder gut?” Kowalski bled science, when he wasn’t kicking tail kung-fuing along with his team. “It was simple with my shrink ray. Did I mention I am working on a shrink ray?” “No, you did not. Is it perfected?” “Um, not quite. The C-4 gave me problems.” After fiddling nervously with his dixie cup cap, Kowalski brightened. “I’m sure I know what I did wrong!” “So that’s why you’ve got a featherless left kneecap. I don’t want to hear about a shrink ray until it’s mission ready, soldier.” “Will do, sir. In the meantime, Private wants your attention.” Skipper followed Kowalski’s point to a squirming, laughing youngster bobbing near the stern, one flipper on the gunwale. “What’s so funny, Private?” “Skippa, the minnows are nibblin’ on my toes. It tickles.” Private’s face was open and happy as he giggled and Skipper memorized that expression for when his own nights blackened with dark memories. Kowalski was so deep in science mode he forgot the effect of his words on an imaginative tween. “Not to worry about sharks being in this lake, but if you swam in Lake Nicaragua, boy howdy!” “Sh-Sharks? In a lake? Are you sure none swim in Lake Atittylán?” Private looked like he couldn’t bear to show fear on this, his first ride-along. He drew up his feet to stick them out of the water while his eyes grew round and a wave lapped over his chest. He placed both flippers on the gunwale as if to haul himself over the edge and back into the safety zone. “Really, really, really sure, K’walski?” At a pointed look from his commander, Kowalski glommed onto his misstep. “Yes, one hundred and thirty point nine percent positive! No doubt! None whatsoever! Completely sure!” “Private, we’ll not let anything bad happen to you in Guatemala, Nicaragua or on the planet Venus. Rest easy in your mind and complete your sit rep.” “O-Okay.” Private still looked spooked and then braved the depths with a fierce expression that stabbed any penguin’s heart who had seen him mature from a seconds-old hatchling to now. Skipper shoved Kowalski hard and made their watercraft rock. “Watch the mouth, bucko. He’s young enough to believe every word you say.” “You know I can’t resist over-explaining” — Skipper gave him the stink eye — “but I’ll work on that, aye, sir.” “I expect a progress report when we get back to Central Park Zoo.” “Of course, sir. Uh, in the meantime, we’ve reached the middle of the lake. Check this out.” Kowalski opened the top casing of the Evinrude with a triple tap and showmanlike flourish. A flick to right and left casings bared the interior. A device made of bright red tubing in pentagram form snugged the motor proper and looked secured by neon pink Dubble Bubble chewing gum. It glowed even under the tropical noontime sun. Skipper could have sworn it strobed, too. “What am I looking at?” “The Floribunda is a cutting edge power converter. Isn’t it sweet?” Kowalski patted it fondly. “I named it after the Star Wars power converter because it converts regular outboard motor power into hyperspace power via a positron linear activator composed of gneiss.” “I don’t care how nice the activator is, we don’t risk braving outer space with Private along, much less hyperspace.” Skipper did a double take. “Hyperspace? Will we stay on Mama Earth when we activate it? You’ve watched that movie too many times, compadre.” “Only twenty-four times, sir, and yes. It’ll seem like we fly, but we don’t even though the boat may skim like a flying fish over short distances.” Kowalski stroked his beak as he expanded on the genesis of his precious thingamabob. “I considered constructing the device in ball screw form and instead of using gneiss, using the less-compressed schist — ” “Kowalski! Language! Private might hear!” Kowalski joined Skipper as the commander peered over the starboard side of the boat. “Skipper, Private could not possibly be corrupted by ball screw and schist because they’re mechanical and geologic terms respectively — ” Skipper switched to squinting over the boat’s port side. “Doesn’t matter!” There was a pppppt sound that Skipper ignored. “Yeah, see, he’s still submerged and it’s only been eight and one third minutes, so lighten up. Pay attention to my accomplishment because it’ll come in handy for high speed escapes.” Skipper barely noticed when Kowalski activated his admittedly poor sense of personal power leverage. “We may need to escape with Private if danger arises, sheesh.” After a moment, Skipper came off high alert and straightened his spine. “Just, just watch it. It’s his first ride-along and all of us need to protect him, not only me.” Kowalski looked disgusted as he secured the motor casings once more. He snorted and then stared at the gap between Volcán Tolimán and Volcán Atitlán. “My invention can aid chases, too, you know.” Uh oh, Kowalski’s sensitivity rivaled Private’s sometimes. “Hmm, point taken. If Hans The Puffin sticks to swimming rather than cheating by flying and if uh, what’s his name, that dolphin, help me out here, Kowalski — ” “Dr. Blowhole.” Kowalski tightened his flippers over his chest and regarded Volcán San Pedro miles away. ” — yeah, Blowhole, that we slammed last year shows up again, we could scoot right after them. Damn, we have a natural chance to overtake Hans in the water but Blowhole’s twenty-five miles per hour drowns us in his wake if he vamooses.” Skipper removed his cover to rub its scrambled eggs absently. “When and if you get your lab mojo, the first order of the day is to brainstorm construction of a sub for us or, or a subskimmer.” It didn’t take much to set Kowalski’s mind humming as he stood down from his pout and Skipper relaxed a trifle. “A subskimmer for the four of us? By Yablonski’s ideals, I’ve got a precedent, the Fantastic Four uses a vehicle they call the Flying Bathtub, teehee, also known as the Fantasti-Car, I’ll design similar subskimmer blueprints — ” “You know I don’t sanction looking at comic books.” Skipper replaced his cover and stepped firmly into officer space. “Since we’re focusing on your current gimcrack today, you can explain your forbidden comic book knowledge at the same time you update that other issue’s progress back at New York HQ. Fair enough?” Kowalski’s voice was calm but Skipper knew better. “As you wish.” Skipper twitched as he tried to think where he’d heard that phrase before. “Uh, all right. I, I do appreciate your brainpower on behalf of our team.” Kowalski went back to viewing the volcanoes as the pout resurfaced. “Really.” Kowalski’s face worked as he appeared to wrestle with something as difficult as Hulk Hogan Atomic Leg Dropping André The Giant. Oh crap, he wasn’t going to go emo, was he? Not out here in the middle of nowhere without a retreat for his commander except to jump overboard? Time for damage control. Skipper channeled Officer’s Mentoring Manual Statute Three Sixteen: Treat Those Under You As Over You Because Without Them What Are You. He took a deep breath. “I believe in you.” Kowalski’s feathers fluffed and he trembled as if he needed that extra bit of insulation from the cold, only this was the tropics. The only other time penguins did this was in abject agitation in the presence of something overwhelming, such as a bloodthirsty leopard seal. Skipper could see it took an act of will to subdue the automatic reaction, whatever the hell caused it. “Th-Thanks, sir. I try.” “You’re welcome okay let’s get with the program — hey, where’s Private?” The two birds leaned over far enough to unbalance the boat and slosh the gunwales. They peered into the lake but the waters weren’t very clear. It was likely the towns surrounding the lake dumped effluence into it. “It’s been fifteen point two minutes, sir. Judging by the time of day, my research into our bodies' capabilities and in my duly considered opinion after careful consideration, we need to — ” ” — move out! I’ll search portside, you take starboard!” Skipper and Kowalski dove in and began a circular search pattern automatically, spiraling like a two-pointed shuriken fifty feet apart, moving down the water column to a depth of fifty feet as they each scouted a semicircle. After their expert breath control ended eighteen minutes later, they surfaced for a gulp and then went back down. Another eighteen minutes later, they rose to catch their breath one hundred feet apart. “It’s impossible he — not so young — ” Skipper forced himself to shout when his guts tried to crawl up into his lungs to squeeze his voice to nothing. “Skipper, look!” Skipper spun in the water, not believing his eyes.