Discussion in 'Non Star Wars Fan Fiction' started by pronker, Jan 15, 2016.
I've missed so much! Catching up -- and loving it!!
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At the grim sight, Kowalski was mesmerized, dazed, and thirty per cent admiring that this much blood could be lost and his commander still live. "It's like watermelon snow," he murmured.
Rico's resounding slap rocked Kowalski backwards but only kissed Private. "'S bluuudddd!"
"Skippa! Wot do we do about Skippa!"
Why, command was easy, after all. A refresher course wouldn't be necessary. "Rico, shut up that bird, I don't care how. Private, you did well." Kowalski looked closer. "You're hurt, too?"
Private was hyper now that he no longer had to be strong alone. "It's nothin'! Wot do we do, oh wot do we do?"
"First things first. We get him back to HQ --- oh drat our temporary HQ --- but before that" --- Kowalski got a look that Private had never seen before --- "who did this?"
"Sasquatch! She's bleedin' insane!"
Rico came back from discussing matters with the bird. He blew away three speckled feathers that stuck to his beak. "Ah-kwatch?"
"She was odd, but I never thought she'd" --- Kowalski triaged his commander with a look --- "Rico, track her. There's no telling what she's capable of and her mythical abilities alone make the blood run cold --- "
Rico crossed his flippers over his chest, spared Skipper a grieving look and growled, "Nuh uh."
It was time for last ditch tactics. "Skipper would want you to."
"Irty pool, man." The look between the two promised future repercussions. Rico took off in the direction that Private pointed.
Private slid his right flipper all the way into Skipper's pit and looked to Kowalski to do the same. "Righto then, let's yomp."
Kowalski nearly popped his left flipper out of its socket when he rotated it from inside Skipper's opposite pit to support the head as well, but then Private's flipper tip cupped his and they lifted the dead weight jointly. They set off for Åland Zoo.
Rico caught up to them when they took a breather by the deserted lorry. The speed of his sliding approach dazzled Kowalski as did the sense of penguin strength and purpose. "Private, stay with Skipper and let me know if anything changes." Private was nearly swooning with weariness and he made no protest as Kowalski gestured Rico to huddle with him some distance away. Like Superbowl 50 gladiators, the two pushed heads together and shared information in subdued voices as they wrapped flippers around each other's shoulders. "Rico, report."
"Never mind the swearing! No luck tracking her?" Rico put a flipper on his brow and squinted to mime looking hard, sniffed ferociously to show how he had really tried to pick up her scent, produced a masticated pine cone to demonstrate how he'd attempted to taste her trail, and then he shook his head. He looked crushed. At Kowalski's next expression, he looked devastated and his flippers fell to his side.
Kowalski sighed. "It's all right. We've got enough on our hands. She's probably miles away by now. Take Private's place on Skipper's other side. We'll get him back in the zoo, or my name isn't Science Guy." Rico still looked glum. "Come on, big fella. We'll do it together. Private, you're on point. Double time, harch! Hup hup hup hup ---"
Private's exhausted pace dictated their speed until Rico huffed and draped the junior member over one shoulder. With the other flipper, he hauled Skipper and by sliding, waddling and scooting on the icy patches, the four made it back to their habitat.
The doorless entry to the HQ made Kowalski appreciate Scandinavian minimalism as never before when he backed down the ramp carrying his share of Skipper. There was a lot of knowledge crammed into Kowalski's cranium and he didn't always need his abacus. "Symptoms?" he asked Private. The brief rest over Rico's shoulder had revitalized the young penguin.
Private rattled off all he knew in a breathless gabble. "He bounced once in mud oh it were tango uniform and then he fell onto flippin' rocks but they were covered in fluffy white snow that turned red and and and when I tried to move him he s-s-said hurts to breathe ow not the stomach ow not the chest neither don't touch the left side ouch."
"You got to him just in time." They heaved Skipper onto the massage table. "Let's leave him here and not in your bunk so we can all be around him to ease, well, whatever comes next. Um, put his head here and the other end over the face hole, just in case he needs to, you know." Kowalski waxed optimistic. "But there's hope, Private! You say there was pain at deep breaths and in the chest, stomach, and particularly the left side?"
Private nodded because he was beyond words. He placed Skipper's pillow from their bunk underneath his head.
"It's the spleen. It must be. If it's just bruised, he's in luck and so are we. If it's crushed --- then --- then. Eh, onward." He snapped "Medico bag!" to Rico, who obliged. The bag produced tape, bandages, antiseptic ointment, splints and a blue box of Q Tips. Kowalski hurled the Q Tips away with all his strength and the box clattered to the farthest corner of the habitat. "Why are these in here? We don't have ears!"
Rico looked down as if ashamed that he didn't always have control over what came out of his gullet. Skipper's body was soon festooned with Band-Aids covered with pink lunacorns in several collectable poses. "I'll remove the insect jaws since the bleeding has stopped. Brilliant use of survival techniques in the field, Private."
The praise failed to evoke a smile. "He's not movin', K'walski."
"He's totally out of it. It's better this way. Now we wait." Kowalski gestured to Private's soiled front. "Clean yourself, soldier. Don't want him waking up and thinking you're on sick call, too, do you?" After pushing a shiny tube into Private's limp grasp, he ushered him to the wide bunk that was kitty-corner to his and Rico's and made him sit. "Put this antiseptic ointment on those cuts down there, or do you want me to do it?"
Private squeezed out a ribbon of ointment and rubbed. "I can handle it myself. I've got to, now."
The day passed as slowly as one could expect. Few souls traversed the zoo and Kowalski overheard the penguin feeder talking with Imelda's keeper about hardy and hearty Ålanders heading happily to half-frozen harbors for ice skating on a local holiday.
"Hmmph, go away and stay away, humans. I need all my strength for more important things than looking cute and cuddly," grumped Kowalski. He made Rico and Private eat their allotment of fish alongside him despite none of them having appetites. He made them promise that they all would rest tonight and that holding watch was unnecessary. He hoped to the Sky Spirits that he didn't believe in that he was right about Skipper's options in staying alive.
By nightfall Skipper's breathing turned ragged and he was restless. Kowalski directed them to gather around the massage table to say goodbye, or not. He turned the television to an unused channel to provide staticky, flickering light. If their team were to suffer devastation in the next hour, he didn't want even the pixelated images of humans invading their grief.
It might do some good for Skipper to hear his second's analysis. Even if this day were his final one, he'd know before the end that his team did all they could to save him. Both Doctor Phil and Doctor Oz had stated repeatedly that the sense of hearing was the last to go.
Kowalski began, "Skipper's extra layer of abdominal, um, muscle saved him from further internal damage."
"I'm afraid so, Private. We all came very close to losing him at the scene."
Rico whacked his head over and over against their 52-inch television, squawking something even Kowalski couldn't interpret.
Private's beak quivered. "W-Will he recover and be like before?"
"Pssshhh, he's Skipper! He's got to."
"He's sayin' some real words! Yayyy! We're here for you, Skippa!"
Kowalski leaned in. "He says --- "
Rico almost cracked the television screen, as if the tension in their habitat weren't Moho Layer deep already. Kowalski exploded.
"Oh, come on, Rico! Now is not the time! And Great Newton's Apple, Private, get a grip!"
dimmerwort splatfiz hmskl bud nofren bud bee likme hpay wif yhuuu fihive
Kowalski cleared his throat after swallowing hard. "He says that, that homeschooling is bad because you don't have friends. He s-says to be like him and how happy he is with the five of us." He put his flippers over his face and bowed his head. "Oh, no. I can't stand this! He thinks there are six penguins living in Central Park Zoo!"
"Maybe he's not our Skippa any more, K'walski --- "
Rico crossed his eyes, stuck out his tongue, and smacked Private a good one upside the head. "Nvahhhhh. Manf--- Manfr--- "
"Of course! Silly us. He's countin' in Manfredi and Johnson. Poor Skippa, he always took losin' them so hard ... say somethin' nice to him, I can't talk right now ..."
Kowalski blotted his face dry and leaned down further. "Skipper. Skipper. Hear me. Manfredi and Johnson are gone. The tsunami was just too powerful for their pool noodles to be of any use. You did all you could."
Skipper tossed and turned on his hard pillow until his breathing evened out.
nt hlpn kwoskkii
Rico put his two cents in. "Lem be." He swept a flipper around Kowalski and led him away to their bunk.
"Tell me if he opens his eyes," Kowalski added over his shoulder, "but we need to let him rest now."
Private hurried his gaze back to his commander. "Skippa, you're goin' to be right as rainbows. Where you are, there'll be Manfredis and Johnsons and lunacorns and monster trucks for a little while until you're ready to come back to us." He pecked Skipper on the cheek. "Rest well. Feel better soon." He trudged away towards his solitary bunk.
He came back. "Sweet dreams."
He walked away again.
He came back again. "Sleep tight, don't let the --- "
"Private, while Skipper is on medical leave I am in command and I order you to go to --- what's that you say, Rico? Move over?"
Private retraced his steps and slipped in between the two. "Thanks, Rico."
It was a long night, not as long as the night when Manfredi and Johnson vanished forever, but close.
Some references to TV episodes, any questions cheerfully answered!
"Skippa! You're awake!" Private scooted the freshened slop bucket back into place. "He's awake, everyone!"
The morning sun's angle was perfect for ricocheting down the entrance and its ramp to the habitat's interior to illuminate three little penguins' sunbeams of smiles. Skipper said nothing until the babbling died down. "Where is she?"
"You're safe from her, don't worry --- "
"Rico did everythin' he could to track --- "
"Where. Is. She."
The interim leader said what he had to. "We don't know, sir. Rico did his best, but she got away."
"¡Ahhhhhh, dolor! ¡Dolor! ¡Ay Dios mío! ¡Ayúdame, María! --- ugh. Oh. Oh! Umph. Help me up."
"That's contraindicated by the circumstances. You need to rest, sir."
Private's voice trembled. "I thought you were dyin', Skippa. K'walski says you, you must um, rebuild blood volume, see if your spleen, wotever that is, recovers from the squishin' it got, and regrow your right pinkie claw." He pointed. "See?"
Skipper looked down his body. A sparkly Princess Self-Respectra Band-Aid covered the claw area. He yawned and then wiggled his foot. "Ouch. I'm out of the running, but you all --- "
Kowalski had been prepared for this. "We're out of our element, I don't have my lab, we lack backup like Marlene, Mason, or even Julien, not to mention Fred. Intel is sketchy on what a Sasquatch can do, although we know more now. Basic command tenet is to regroup for a few days." He wasn't going to add what he was really thinking, but of course Private did.
"You're in bad shape, Skippa. You need us."
It shocked everyone except Kowalski when they weren't forced to hold Skipper down onto the massage-table-turned-sickbay. "Shupppooooose yr right 'bout thattttt," he slurred. "Caaaan't keeeep awaaaake --- zzz. Zzzzzz."
"Annnnd he's out again." Kowalski touched Skipper's forehead for a moment. "No signs of fever. I'll keep tabs on the general condition, Private, you join Rico topside. Do forty reps each of your favorite exercise and I don't want to hear any gripes." He waited. They froze. "Oh, all right. I'll join you in a few minutes." Private trooped up the ramp, but Rico stayed behind, swinging one foot and looking everywhere but at Kowalski.
"What's on your mind, Rico?"
"The humans! They'll check up on us if there are only three penguins showing for more than a day or so! Gah! I wasn't thinking! They'll squeeze down the ramp or unhinge the top of this place and take him away!"
Rico pulled Kowalski's flippers from the sides of his head. "C'n fix."
"A chainsaw won't fix this! A smoke bomb won't, either!"
Rico turned away to hack something up. He smoothed flat a rolled up plastic object. With a deep sigh, he presented it to Kowalski.
"A blow up lifesize Skipper doll? Where did this come from --- it doesn't have a Zoovenirs label on it --- did you make this?"
Rico got indignant. "Nuh uh! 'iss Perky ordrd --- "
"I don't want to know more. Forget I asked. It's just the thing, Rico. Blow it up down here so nobody else sees."
Rico placed his beak so carefully on the valve at the bottom seam that Kowalski knew this was the result of long practice. He busied himself with tidying their habitat, stealing glances now and then until a matte Skipper got tucked under Rico's flipper. "Gooooood, hah? Hah?"
Kowalski poked tentatively at the doll. "It's good for a while. I calculate that Skipper will be more or less himself again in six and three sixteenths' days. Let's be gentle with the doll so it lasts."
Rico patted the real Skipper's head before he trotted up the ramp. Kowalski centered the pillow underneath the same head as he mumbled, "I just don't know about Rico sometimes, Skipper."
Skipper made no comment.
Two days past the beginning of Operation: Recovery From Private's First March, Rico, Private, and Kowalski got more inventive with their Skipper dolly. Scores of children and sometimes their carers gathered to see penguin volleyball, penguin ice hockey, penguin lacrosse, and penguin synchronized swimming. The faux Skipper withstood a lot of abuse and needed only intermittent blowing up by Rico to refresh his roly-poly shape. If the three were taking out their frustrations by hitting faux Skipper a little too hard when he played goalie at hockey or lacrosse, no human noticed it. Faux Skipper was a dream at synchronized swimming and whenever he 'stood' atop their three-penguin support column, his smile never faltered.
One little boy and his parents cheered especially for the lacrosse scrum when it got out of hand and faux Skipper was trampled almost to the point of popping. Only Imelda ever saw them use faux Skipper as the ball when they played after-hours soccer one night, and she knew how to keep a secret.
"Wot do you think, K'walski, does Skippa's old insomnia problem seem beat, then?" The injured penguin lay insensate for hours on end in the daytime. When he awakened for brief times in the dead flatness of midnight or beyond, bleary eyes saw to his needs, cracked voices mumbled reassurances, and mornings always came too soon.
"He's like a hatchling who mixes up the days and nights. I don't even know if I'm hungry or not." Kowalski poked disconsolately at his mackerel. "I'm wasted, how about you?"
Private downed his portion with gusto. "No, never better."
"Ah, youth." Kowalski nearly nodded off over his meal and when Skipper awakened a little afterwards, he gestured to Rico. "Feeding time at the zoo, big fella."
Rico jumped onto the massage table to stand over Skipper.
"Open wide, sir. Here comes brunch," the second in command said around a yawn.
Rico looked eager as he always did to do his part. His stomach rippled.
"Not happening this time. I'm not being a baby ever again. Twice per existence is enough." Skipper clamped his beak shut.
Kowalski's mood was cranky, too. "Oh, come on. You need food to regain strength. It was all right the times before, why not now? Cooperate here, Skipper."
"No no no!" Skipper's point of not being a baby was blunted by petulance.
Even Kowalski's nurturing instinct had its limits. He was about to order a completely unacceptable display of insubordinate force when inspiration struck. "Oh, Skip-per, Kitka would feed you another way. Don't you want to find out her way? Kit-ka, Skipper, Kittt-kaaa ---"
"Mmmmm, Kitka, I can taste her kisses now --- on third thought, no. I'm not hungry."
Private broke in. "Skippa, deep down you know we're right. Give K'walski's idea a go, wot say?"
Rico saw which way the wind was blowing and re-swallowed his gutful of mashed fish. "Wha ya gonna do," he said to Kowalski, and this time the phrase wasn't accompanied by a shrug. He really wanted to know.
Kowalski's brain went into high gear. He took his own unfinished portion of fish and peeled healthy Omega-3 bits from the unprotesting mackerel, selecting only the choicest portions of rib and back to lay in a row. "You're not ready for full meals, Skipper, just take hatchling steps getting back to normal, that's what Imelda said to do, only she said cub steps. If Kitka had hatchlings, this is the way she would have fed them" --- he stopped, aghast --- "not that I'm suggesting she's your baby mama, er, oh never --- "
"There's that imagination again, Kowalski. We talked about this." Yet Skipper submitted when Kowalski pushed the tenders down his throat and their eyes met in a rare moment of parity between Command and Science Divisions. Skipper fell asleep again after a few bites, but it was better than nothing. The three wouldn't have admitted to needing a break from caregiving as they swam away some tension and chose only one layout spot for them all in the weak sunshine.
"Little meals and often, Imelda says. I'm on it, I'm on it, Imelda." Kowalski rubbed his neck. "Or it's on me."
Rico didn't need prompting to take up the massage. He kneaded until Kowalski yipped. "Sowwy."
"I'm thinkin' he's a challenge to care for any road, gents." Private indulged in a rare criticism.
"Goes without sayin', Rico. I just mean it's so hard."
Kowalski rolled over and motioned to his back. Rico took the right side and Private the left. Karate chops stuttered over muscles until Kowalski felt himself driven into the consistency of overcooked pasta. It was most agreeable. "Back to business," he said after a time.
"I'll check on him, shall I, no, you two old-timers keep layin' about like layabouts, that's all right --- " Private giggled as he slid backwards into the water. There was nothing handy to throw at him.
"Right, Rico. Youth. He was outstanding at Kastelholm, though."
"Aw grown up." Rico massaged some more.
"Not-used-to-think-ing-that-a-bout-him. U-sing pe-triss-age? That's-a-new-tech-nique-for-you-uh-uh-oh-yeah-oh-yeah. Now scissoring. Ahem. Yes. And we finish with effleurage, oh that's superb." Kowalski would have rolled his shoulders, but he didn't want to move. "You ought to have been at the massage station at Hoboken Zoo. You're really awesome at this."
Rico's laugh rumbled against Kowalski's back as he slapped the muscular planes of penguin flesh and stood up. "Lesgo."
Two days later at evening Entertain The Invalid time, Kowalski followed Private's knock-knock joke with a shaggy dog story about a miniature golf foursome. In the wavering light from their 52-inch television set to an unused channel, he wove the tale of glass eyes, wooden legs, bone china doorknockers, antimacassars, and Super Glue into a saga and deliberately made his voice sing-song in a rising and falling wave like a series of breakers caressing Wailea Beach. He evaded the punchline of "For the last five holes, it was hit the ball, drag Ethel, hit the ball, drag Ethel." Routine Number Seven: Bore To Pieces succeeded and Skipper began to nod sleepily when discomfort passed over his face. He blinked as if waking from a disturbing dream.
Rico leaped up from his sprawl on the floor. "Want 'op buckt, 'Kippaahh?"
"No, I'm finished needing that. Just help me in there." Private opened the door to the latrine and Rico steadied Skipper in a slow shuffle forward. "Thanks, men. Group hug?"
There was never seen such a flutter of penguin activity in either the Central Park Zoo or the Åland Zoo, but Kowalski stuck out both flippers like a New York Rangers blueliner and blocked Skipper from the pressure of an embrace from Rico and Private. "Better not. Bad idea." He could have sworn that his commanding officer teared up.
"You're always thinking of my good, soldier." The door to the latrine closed behind Skipper.
Private completed the group hug. "Yaayyyyy, Skippa's better!"
Rico's joyous "FIIIIIIISH!" came from nowhere as it always did when he was extra happy. He scooped Private and Kowalski into the air and squeezed hard.
After a grin that nearly cracked his beak, Kowalski got his feet back on the ground literally and figuratively. He frowned. "Our commander's not himself yet psychologically. It's taking longer than I calculated it would."
"Go with the flow, K'walski, and stop speculatin'," murmured Private. "Be happy he's alive."
"I mean it. Did a group hug sound like Skipper?"
Rico made mountain shapes with his flippers and hooted foghorn noises. The mournful sounds penetrated the latrine to a "What was that?" from Skipper.
"Never mind, practicing a new joke, let us know when you're done," hollered back Kowalski.
"Keep it down, everyone, Rico's right," Private whispered to the others. "It's natural that Skippa be a little changed after nearly divin' into the Eternally Foggy Sea surroundin' the Endless Iceberg." He patted Rico on the shoulder and saw the worried frown turn upside down. "We should not think about it any more." There was a moment of silence as they all thought about it some more.
Private acted as morale officer, as usual. "Hang on, hang on, telly! Everythin's better with telly. Let's see wot's scheduled."
Kowalski took a turn helping Skipper back to the massage-table-turned-sickbed as Private flipped the remote to Rico. Skipper clutched a ratty shawl about his shoulders and allowed his team to plump around him cold-weather nightwear left over from the zoo's Sleepover For Successful Second-Graders lost and found bin. Soon he nestled like a pasha perched on plushy, patterned pillows amid his harem. He smoothed his Snuggie over his belly. "Isn't this downtime nice, team? It's nice. I like it," Skipper said in his new quavery invalid's voice. "Let's watch a nice program on TV."
Rico's worry face returned. He punched the remote. When Skipper got a sublime look at the classical music channel, Kowalski stepped in.
"Give me that."
"Nuh uh." Rico kept punching different channels. One after another program displayed from the British feed flicked by with titles such as Bird Watching Extravaganza, Advanced Basket Weaving, Toddlers Tickle Theatre, and Painting-by-Numbers for Dummies, each to a benign smile from his leader. At last, Nature: Red In Tooth And Claw Hour popped up and he settled in at Skipper's feet to watch. A Cape buffalo cow turned the tables on an attacking lioness with a savage charge of black horns and the screen filled with bellows and roars far over 100 decibels.
Skipper drew one flipper over his eyes and turned away. "Not listening, la dee dee dooo tra la la, find something else."
Kowalski grabbed the remote from Rico. "Hatchling steps, I told you." He surfed the channels like the deft aquatic bird he was. "Here." The BBC News: Polite Version came on in a time-delay. "You can look now, Skipper." Skipper seemed absorbed in the new feathers coming in near his wounds. He rubbed at the tiny white nubs dappling the regrowing skin. "Skipper?"
"I never thought I'd say these words: Skipper, focus. You're drifting."
There was no alarm in the quavery voice, and that in itself was alarming. "That's a bad thing? You all wanted to stop and smell the blåklocka. I am." Again the bland smile. Skipper used to hate smiling. Kowalski wanted the smile back again when it was replaced with a small frown. "I am remembering that right, right? Now and then things get fuzzy." The smile returned. "It probably doesn't matter. Whose turn is it to preen me before bedtime?"
"No! It's mi-um. Eh, I'm on for tomorrow, if you're still not up to the task." Kowalski checked Skipper's forehead for the umpteenth time in five days. "Sure you're not feeling hot?"
"Nah. You worry too much, compadre. Watch TV and relax like me." The group settled in like two sets of Netflix couples: Skipper easing towards sleepy-bye time, Rico likewise, Private alert as if he were taking mental notes on the news, and Kowalski checking Skipper's pulse without letting him know.
The newscaster was nothing like Chuck Charles or Bonnie Chang. She wore spectacles, she dressed her ginger hair in a practical bowl cut, and she was pushing sixty from the wrong direction. "This is Gavina Formes reporting Polite News As It Transpires. Trouble in the Balkans again, trouble in the Mideast again, trouble in the Falklands again. See these and other stories on our main BBC feed. For nearby news that won't give you dyspepsia, let's turn to our European overview. France has placed an escalating tax on cheeses depending on their smelliness. Connoiseurs of fragrant comestibles are concerned. Liechtenstein has entered the competition for hosting future Olympics, although whether in the Summer or Winter Games is unknown. Everyone agrees that Liechtenstein is long overdue for international attention and the BBC wishes the tiny land the very best of luck. Turning northward, this just in: Iceland joins Svalbard in reporting sightings of Antarctic ice worms in Arctic environments."
Gavina leaned forward, tapping her notes against the table. She displayed agitation, although it was hard to tell. "These large ice worms show signs of catastrophic tampering with their genome by global warming, oil spills, or worse. There are no live captures of these iceberg creatures as yet and eyewitness reports lack reliable photographic evidence. One YouTube upload was found to be an ordinary leech filmed against a mockup of a miniaturized human great toe. One moment." She leaned to one side. "Who wrote this?"
Skipper stirred out of his somnolence. "Worms? On icebergs?"
"You remember, Skipper. Ice worms live on ice and humans only discovered them a little over a century ago." Kowalski puffed his feathers out pridefully, thinking that Skipper would do the same. "We've known about them forever, of course." He couldn't figure out Skipper's mood lately and it bothered him when his leader didn't join in with "Stupid mammals!" Could the brush with death have affected the mind as well as the body? He remained uncertain with Skipper's next words.
"I'm --- there's something I'm forgetting --- oh never mind. It's probably not important. I like her style, boys, but she needs someone to banter with, don't you all think so?" Skipper hummed Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime off-key until they shushed him.
Gavina had a bee in her bonnet about the ice worm story or so Private suspected when she threw in Latin names of animals he had never heard of. He perked up when the studio setting changed to a fishing boat in rough seas.
"We shift now to our man in dangerous places, Sven S. C. Formes, no relation. Sven, you are on the hunt for the elusive ice worm otherwise known as Mesenchytraeus solifugus. Is that possibly an invasive species to Svalbard? What are your conditions out there in the land of the Vikings?"
Private knew a flirt when he saw one. The large blond who could have been Rico in human form smoothed his mohawk before replacing his knit cap. "Gavina, my dove, let me illumine you. The water is choppy at first light, the storm is lowr'ing, and the ice worms we search for bear only the slightest resemblance to Mesenchytraeus solifugus. They are said to live on ice like Mesenchytraeus solifugus, but on icebergs and not glaciers. They are ginormous, and you may quote me, in comparison. One report from a crab harvester right before she was lost overboard said that a 30 footer entangled itself around her net and when the net was winched up, the worm attacked her with a spiny barb like a nemertean's."
Kowalski had been paying rapt attention to the scientific discourse, but then he returned to his slouch beside Private as the three lounged on the floor at Skipper's feet. "A ... nemertean. It figures."
"Wot's a --- "
"Later, Private! I want to hear this." Skipper pulled the Snuggie hood off his head. The massage table creaked as he shifted his weight and a maroon pillow fell to the floor. When Rico replaced it at his back, he nodded absently and remained enthralled by the adventure onscreen.
"Sven, Mesenchytraeus solifugus may be affected by global warming, oil spills, or sunspots, and grown to larger size in these algae rich Arctic waters, don't you agree?"
Sven clutched the icy railing and widened his stance to a true mariner's pose. The boat plunged into a trough. "Gavina, I respect your expertise, but no, I don't think so. Mesenchytraeus solifugus feeds on watermelon snow's algae and this beast was after the crab harvester's catch and possibly the harvester, too. The description that the surviving harvester gave second-hand resembled Lineus longissimus and at that, it would be a smaller example of the longest nemertean ever found."
Gavina's gasp was audible to Sven and any viewers. "Over 170 feet long. Sven, that's worth a dunking into the Arctic Ocean."
Private could tell that Gavina was trying to come up with something more tame to chat about but before she could say anything, Sven spouted what sounded to him like a very large excursion into Peanut Butter Winkie Land. "Gavina, I believe this to be a mutant form of the Antarctic species Plectus murrayi. Think about it! The iceberg we're approaching shows noticeable shrinkage from its last measurement from Greenpeace. Plectus murrayi contains natural antifreeze that it uses to slither around inside ice and break it up --- "
Sven disappeared beneath a wave that had just crashed over the bow. He reappeared a second later, clinging to the rail with both hands. The cameraman must have been made of sturdy seaman stock, too, because the camera jiggled wildly but was not dropped or lost overboard. Some settings were jostled, though, and the perspective zoomed onto the far shore directly opposite the iceberg.
Gavina managed some blander material. "Sven, a little background, please. Tell us how far from shore you are and what species of small shrubs we're seeing lining the beach."
"Those are old growth pine trees, Gavina."
"Ahah. I see. And it took how long to reach your current bearing?"
The cameraman pulled back the shot to refocus on the iceberg that was still some distance away. The roar of the ocean made Private a little nostalgic for the freedom of the open seas. He squirmed away from his friends and looked over his shoulder at Skipper.
Their leader looked more himself than since the dreadful defeat by Sasquatch. One flipper clenched over his ravaged chest, true, but the other tapped against Princess Self-Respectra's protective Band-Aid on his pinkie claw. Before Private could stop him, Skipper yanked off the Band-Aid and tossed it behind him. Skipper didn't even glance at the recovering foot but continued to be enthralled by the scenes before him.
Gavina gamely continued the small talk. "Any chance of the storm worsening, Sven?"
The boat shuddered bow to stern. "Keep her headed into the waves, man! You're taking on too much water!" Sven roared. The captain of the boat screamed back something in Norwegian but Sven was too much the professional to change from English. Private recalled that Scandinavian nations tutored their students in English at an early age, anyway. Some naughty words followed that were evident in any language. Sven aimed a free hand back at the captain and the cameraman blurred the gesture.
Another wave doused the science reporter. The cameraman's microphone picked up a frantic communication from the beleaguered captain. "Well, it isn't good enough!" Sven spluttered in reply. "Goose that motor up! We're not making headway into this wind! Rævhål. Sorry, Gavina." The feed returned to the studio.
Gavina pulled her dickey away from her throat to give herself breathing room. She appeared to be having a case of the vapors as she forswore politeness. "No, no, Sven, this is thrilling! Please continue!"
The sketchy transmission frazzled on. "Anything for you and Science, darling, allow me to --- stop fooling around and pay attention to what you're doing!" The knit cap had long since been swept off to leave Sven's mohawk a drenched mess atop his buzz cut. The scene abruptly faded to audio only.
Rico had been mirroring Sven's actions in sympathy. When the location shot finally fizzled for good, he sank back. "Awwwww. Whun els on?"
"Leave it." Skipper's voice sounded stronger. "Let's hear the rest."
Gavina whisked what looked like a shot glass out of camera range. "I apologize to viewers who expected Polite News. Obviously, Sven was under much stress. But to continue his interesting theory, Plectus murrayi is an astounding Antarctic nematode that exudes naturally produced antifreeze. A nematode is a worm in general parlance, gentle viewers, and Plectus murrayi in titanic form in Arctic seas could pose as yet undisclosed dangers to our fragile world." She brightened. "Polite News will keep you informed, or we may hand off the story to BBC Regular News. Let's hope we won't need to. And now the weather --- "
Private seized the remote to mute the sound. "Wot's a nemertean?"
Kowalski's voice got that do-I-have-to-explain-this dry quality that annoyed his teammates. "Nemerteans are marine worms of incredible length, the longest animal in the world. They shoot out a venomous barb to kill prey. The species can stretch up to ten times their resting length, reduce their length by 50 per cent and increase width by 300 per cent. They are awesome!"
Private considered. "Funny name."
"There's something you're not telling us, Kowalski. Spill it." Skipper evinced interest in the subject as he had not in much of anything lately except getting through each day with as little pain as possible. Kowalski felt compelled to continue no matter the cost.
"Nemerteans are named for Nemertes, a sea nymph from Greek mythology."
"And?" Skipper's voice got that tough note that Kowalski hadn't heard in recent days.
"Nemertes was a daughter of an ancient sea deity and Doris, the goddess of the bounty of the sea. I'll say it first: my Doris is generous with her bounty, too, witness to Parker, Joaquin, Sheiji, Ed, Pete, Wayan, me, and the rest. She is just made that way, all right? In one of the family entanglement stories that imply the ancient Greeks had bats in their Ionic columns, Doris' son Nerites became enamored of his boss Poseidon and vice versa and had a baby by him --- Rico, wipe that smile off your beak, this is scientifically impossible --- and Doris' grandson was named Anteros, the spirit of reciprocated love. I am aware of the exquisite irony, thank you."
"I'm sorry I asked, mi amigo."
Private dropped the remote in the silence that followed and the mute button got unclicked.
"--- and now for news about royals."
"Yayyy!" Private chorused. "Royals! I love royals! Smashin' change of subject, BBC!"
Gavina's expression could be termed starry-eyed. "The King of Sweden announced a visit to the Åland Islands Zoo in the next few days to encounter the amazing sasquatch's opening day of display. Despite her eventual transfer to Helsinki, the zoo took advantage of the refurbishing of their moose habitat to place her in an outdoor spot for popular viewing. Take a look at smuggled footage of the fascinating creature as she acquaints herself with the building materials provided for her play."
Sasquatch squatted on scaffolding left behind for her amusement. She tipped over the ladder abutting the scaffolding as if to say she needed no such help to climb up, or out. Then she munched an apple while staring directly at the sneaky observer's cameraphone.
Gavina chattered on. "His Majesty Carl XVI Gustaf will also delight in the zoo's A.A.R.P. transfers, four penguins who have charmed crowds for close to two weeks. Safe travel to you, Your Highness. And we conclude Polite News, good manners to you all."
Later on, Private could have sworn there was a crack of lightning demolishing the quietude of the clear sky that night because he could smell ozone as the command power dynamic switched polarity to what it should always be. Kowalski nodded with the grace that he sometimes displayed and Rico did a backflip. "Right as rainbows," Private said quietly.
"Kowalski, options?" Skipper inquired.
"I may not be 100 per cent yet, but I know we've got to do something about Sasquatch." Authority surged back into its old vessel and three heads turned as one to listen to what Skipper had to say. "The King of Sweden may be in danger. We have a few days to come up with a strategy. I ought to be more down the road to recovery by then."
Kowalski had been thinking without his abacus or his clipboard. "We were so invested in your care that we neglected to follow zoo gossip. My apologies, Skipper."
"Huh? Oh, sure. Prioritizing is part of leadership and we never leave a man down without help ever. Even Rockgut wouldn't have done anything different." Skipper's regained bright edge dimmed and for a moment he reminded Kowalski of the awful time when his own intelligence drained away. He still had nightmares about how hard it had been to follow the line. "There's something --- I --- I --- need to think about the worms, the, the Messy subterfuge and the Longing linus kinds --- it's bugging me --- it's a hazy feeling like when I lost my marbles --- damn that Blowhole and his mind jacker."
Seeing his commander struggle to focus, Kowalski filled his role as lieutenant. "Sir, getting back on track, options are gather more intel on how she got out of the zoo and then back in without the humans interfering. Another option is to build a support system of at least one other animal. A third option is to guard against telepathy. I suggest Rico hack up tinfoil for hats or we could scrounge through the garbage --- "
"What?" Skipper massaged his chest. "Ow. I mean, what? Where is this coming from?"
"Mythologically, she has telepathic communicating abilities with definitely other sasquatches, possibly animals and likely suggestible humans. That part is proven fact."
"Fact or myth, soldier?" Skipper honed in on the conundrum.
"Since she proves the myth truthful by existing, we need to be aware of all her capabilities. Sasquatches are said to move stealthily on big sneaky feet and leave no trace --- "
"Ahuh!" Rico emphasized.
"--- sense humans enough to stay hidden --- "
"Maybe." Skipper looked thoughtful.
"--- and emit tiny pulses of EMR to keep fleas from her fur," Kowalski finished.
"Private, you and I got up close and personal with her. I didn't see fleas, did you?"
"No, Skippa." Private looked unhappy. "Wot I saw was that I gave her plenty of chances to try to kill me and she went straight for you every time. She's a right stinkin' assassin." He turned as steely as when he dared propose a mission to stop Kuchikukan Destroyer of Worlds. "She wants you well she can't bloody have you. You're mine, I mean ours."
Skipper had been drifting once more. "What's that you say, boy ... Hugo ... I'm thinking and it's exhausting ... it must be Hugo who helps her with escapes and reentries." The clouds seemed to part for their leader. "He's got the treachery of an oldster and years of slyness, just like your Uncle Nigel."
"My Uncle Nigel is not a connivin' penguin!" Private looked wounded.
Kowalski coughed and Rico played with the pillows at Skipper's back but Skipper continued anyway. "You're saying that even though he didn't tell his own nephew about being an agent hunting the Red Squirrel for decades at a time?"
Private faced Skipper square on. "He didn't do anythin' wrong to me. Everyone needs private thoughts, Skippa. Private thoughts are, are private."
"Yes, Private. And now we move on. You know who else is moving on?"
Private crossed his flippers over his chest. "I wouldn't know, I'm sure."
"Me. I'm moving off that bleedin' massage table and back into our bunk. I'm tired. We pick this up tomorrow morning. Good start, gentlemen."
"I did what you commissioned me for. I belong to the mountains. I'm waiting for my ticket out of here, Blowhole, and it better come soon. It ought to be easier for you now that I'm free of the suffocating primate house."
"You'll get what I promised you. I have resources. Just wait a little more."
Sasquatch keened, "My kind have waited centuries for proper treatment!" Despite her earlier statement, she stayed within range of the space heater next to the plug for the moose stable's just-installed 52-inch television. She regained a sullen look after her outburst and glared at the two-way communication hub that was supposed to stimulate her mind without being hijacked by a deranged dolphin. Åland zoo officials were as tender with her mental state as they were with the A.A.R.P. transferees.
There was only crackling and hissing from the hacked television. Moments later, a garbled mess of words penetrated the stable that used to shelter Åland moose from extreme weather. "--- Blue Five, cease waving your claws in macho display --- no female minions to fight over, I made sure of that --- push what button, now? --- come here --- "
A clacking sound was followed by a series of ching-wheeps. "Boss, I'm overriding your input --- "
"Nobody is allowed to --- "
"There. And you're welcome."
The screen now showed a glowing red eye pulsing in a gray-on-black image of the dolphin criminal mastermind. "I figured it out, Sasquatch, no thanks to my goons. Continue. I can't wait to hear the whole story."
"He didn't scream as he fell."
"Way to go, Skipper! I always knew you had it in you, but I guess it's splattered over the forest floor now."
Disgust flavored Sasquatch's next words. "You didn't say they never swim alone. The littlest one was with him. He could have tipped the balance in the penguins' favor. It's faulty briefing, Blowhole. You need to watch that."
"Take a number, assassin. Don't forget who made you."
"And who'll unmake me?"
"I will, but it won't be in this lorry. You'll get through with the King of Sweden shenanigans and we'll spring you on the voyage to Helsinki. Wait for my signal. I'll be the one in the water."
Sasquatch's contralto turned sulky. "What if they fly me out?"
"Um, that would be the cost-conscious Finns?"
"Point taken. We agree on something at last."
Eye-rolling was really more effective with two eyes. "Uh-huh, yeah, well, you keep thinking that. Accomplices need to."
Sasquatch bristled every bit of fur on her six-foot tall body. "Only until we get to Nepal and I don't want to be called your accomplice --- "
"You'll get back to your herd. I promised, didn't I? You've done a good job for The Cause."
Sasquatch resembled Hugo more than she knew. Her mood and her fur settled back down and a solemn, wise look came over her. "I'm only part of your big picture, but you need me to keep clear of Helsinki's scientists and their DNA testing."
"It'll happen, it'll happen. Don't get your yoffa hot."
She put her hands on her hips but only her sagittal crest's fur rose angrily. "What does that even mean? Now you're just making words up."
"There's nothing I'd rather do than chat with you, Sasquatch, but I gotta move the lorry. Even Ålander police get the wind up when a vehicle with privacy glass in the cab doesn't move after three days. Nice job painting the crying little human girl on the side, by the way. That wouldn't be you in spirit, would it? Never mind, spare me the sob story. 'Bye, Sasquatch. You've made me ditch my motto of never trust anybody with thumbs by taking out Skipper."
Sasquatch gloated, "It was a hard-won victory. Hugo said so. He's my friend."
"Yeah, whatever. Ciao."
The screen went blank except for that weird little dot that persisted. Sasquatch hunkered down over her monkey chow methodically as the evening wind from the Gulf of Bothnia swept through the stable. She nibbled a fruit dessert, but only got enthused over the moose's hay leftovers in the manger. With a growl, she eased fluidly down into a lotus position.
"Hugo. The plan is working out. I'm available if you want to chat." The heater hummed as its coils sent pulses of heat. "Hugo?"
No one could have overheard their conversation, but any observer could have seen Sasquatch's tension leave her hunched shoulders. She smiled, nodded, and grimaced over what was being communicated. At the end, she grew solemn and made three passes over her forehead. "Goodnight, my friend. Your help saved me from unspeakable contact with the humans." The normally sad expression returned to her deep-set eyes.
She curled around the space heater just far enough away not to singe her fur. The wind whistled around the outside scaffolding as if through an ice cave's dripping stalactites.
"Soon, my own, soon," she crooned to herself and settled into sleep with the imagined vision of the littlest penguin's grief replaying in her tired mind.
"Lean over and let me preen you."
"Ouch. Still hurts to bend."
"That's why you're getting this done by me. Think nothing of it, you'd do the same for any of us. Come on, hurry up, I thought of some more options for the power breakfast meeting when I woke up this morning. Hold still. Penguins have more feathers per square inch than any bird on earth. You need to stay waterproof, sir."
"Thought you said I shouldn't swim for another week." Skipper closed his eyes at the soothing feel of feathers sliding through Kowalski's oiled up beak.
Kowalski moved far forward to start in on the neck next. "Mrf ra --- rain 'n snow stl bud --- sssssslllppp --- tilt your head back --- grpthmbleehh --- "
"You missed a spot, K'walski."
Kowalski spat out a black feather. "Primer coat first, Private, then final coat and touch up."
Skipper was dazed with pleasure after Kowalski declared him preened to his exacting standards and fit for light duty. He slid down a herring or three in a smaller than normal breakfast for him. After Rico stashed the Snuggie and pillows next to Faux Skipper in a far corner, the genuine Skipper returned to sitting on the massage table to conduct the meeting. The relaxed smile disappeared.
"Kowalski, mi viejo amigo, options? And don't say tinfoil hats."
"No, I've recalculated that mammal-to-mammal telepathy is the most logical sort she'd have. Mammal-to-bird is just nuts. Let's start with motivations. Bluntly put, Skipper, Sasquatch wants to kill you and you alone."
"But why, why?" whined Private like a hatchling when he knew he wasn't and the others knew he wasn't.
"Sometimes animals do things and they don't know why themselves. She doesn't have to explain herself to us. We only need to be on guard from her. She could be acting on her own to be perverse or be part of a greater plan." Kowalski straightened up to his full height and for a moment looked stately. "What we do know is that Skipper and all of us would have helped her with any problem and this" --- he pointed to Skipper's Lunacorn Band-Aids --- "is what she did. None of us are to blame. We stand guard and we don't let her hurt any of us ever again."
Private was no longer certain that the her was Sasquatch. Rico seemed to think so, too. "Eh buddy, ledid go."
"What are you talking about? I'm listing options as ordered --- "
Skipper cut in. "So, teambuilding next? Who's able to risk life and limb as our ally?"
"Imelda is the logical choice. She's distracted by her attempts to lose weight, but I think she could be lookout or even muscle."
"She says she's down to almost five hundred."
"Ah, females and their body issues. A spare tire never bothered me." Skipper patted his front gingerly. Rico massaged his own King Crush Monster Truck spare tire.
Private and Kowalski eyed each other and shrugged at the change in Skipper's attitude. "It saved your life, sir."
"Damn skippy. Okay then, a polar bear's good in a fight. She's the only ally we need. You secure that, Kowalski, she's been chitchatting with you all along. We find out ol' King Carl's timetable, mount surveillance and prepare to take down a sasquatch."
"If necessary. First is your protection, sir."
"Patton's fireballs, I'm just a common penguin. He's a king. I've heard good things about him."
The two locked horns. "Mission objective is protect you first, then the king. Of humans."
"Don't make me pull rank after that delightful preening, soldier."
Kowalski sidestepped the bull's follow up charge. "Feel up to making a public appearance for practice, Skipper?"
As answer, Skipper put on his brave face and peeled a Prince Sharesalot Band-Aid from his breastbone. "Well, hey now, the easy-off kind." Soon he sat before his team showing his entire front in varying stages of healing. Short new white feathers studded creamy, healthy looking skin with small islands of recovering pinkish flesh as reminders of near tragedy. Only close observation revealed the left side puffier than the right. "Present for inspection, Mr. Kowalski, sir."
Kowalski sometimes knew when to shut up. He peered, poked, and prodded gently. He looked up the nostrils and down the throat. He sat the recovering foot on his flipper and tapped the knee for a jerk reflex. He moved on from 'mmhmmms' and 'ahhhhhs' to ask embarrassing questions which Skipper answered promptly. "No sliding for another two weeks," Kowalski said at last. "We'll smile and wave today and let Private stage a Slippy-type fall into the water."
"Awwww, nuts. All that walking won't be good for my pinkie toe, right?"
"You can't get away from these options, Skipper. Science won't let you. No sliding."
Skipper shrugged. "Worth a try. My iron-clad constitution wins again, men! Up high!"
Private remembered how blood stains turn to a rusty iron color and didn't join in.
"He got a fighting chance from you, Private," Kowalski said later at topside.
Faux Skipper didn't mind them retiring him whatsoever.
After mild calisthenics that Skipper watched from the sidelines and critiqued unmercifully, the day passed with a Sunday picnic-like atmosphere under humid skies with no wind to chill convalescing penguins. Something was happening on the far side of the zoo past the visual barrier of Imelda's habitat and she supplied commentary hollered throughout the afternoon.
"That'th the THECOND thet of bleacherth, penguinth, LOOKTH LIKE bunting going up --- wait, now there'th a BANNER, I can't read, can YOU?"
"No can do, Imelda!" Kowalski calculated the precise spot to stand for optimal acoustics and backed up three steps. "What is Sasquatch up to?"
There was a big splash as Private distracted any onlookers from noticing one penguin facing a wall and making contact with a predator of seals and by extension penguins, if they lived in the Arctic. Skipper made penguin noises and Rico flapped his flippers in fruitless 'flying' before engaging their leader in a pseudo-battle for beach territory. The two chased one another around the island until Skipper sat down suddenly. Rico backed off and did a buck-and-wing for the crowd followed by tail-waggling at the camera of some news team. Skipper retreated to their inner habitat and mumbled "I'm okay" to Rico's anxious question.
Some moments passed before Kowalski got his reply from Imelda. "I got UP on my ROCKTH but couldn't THEE her. Thtaying outdoorth much LONGER?"
"I think not, Imelda! I'll keep you posted about what we need you for!"
"I'm getting in THAPE for whatever you GUYTH want me to do! THANKTH for the INTHPIRATHION!" The stone barrier between them was two feet thick but Kowalski could hear Imelda sharpening her claws on it. He shivered.
"Bye now!" Leaving Rico and Private to entertain the crowd that was slowly making its way towards the exits, Kowalski hurried down the ramp to find Skipper sitting on the floor watching TV. He was shushed from any fussing when Skipper pointed to the set.
"New York City live feed. It's morning commute time there. Watch."
Chuck Charles chivied Bonnie Chang about her new 'do until she came up with something likely unscripted and inquired who did his eye tuck. The two leaned away from each other until a commercial cut in. Skipper muted the spiel on cheaper renters' insurance.
"I won't say I told you so."
"Shut up, Kowalski. I didn't slide. I needed a breather."
"I'd like to give you a time out."
"Not in this lifetime, bucko. No, seriously, I rested better after getting back into my own bunk last night. Private sleeps like a log."
Kowalski made a face. "Rico doesn't. We've come to an agreement, though. I don't tell him who he's talked about in his sleep and he stays as far from me as possible. Works for us."
Rico and Private raced each other down the ramp but before they could mother hen him, Skipper unmuted the TV. "Intel incoming."
"Bonnie, what's up with Central Park Zoo's guest residents? Are they acclimating to the Big Apple?"
"Chuck, arctic foxes are known for their versatile diet and winning ways. They're performing like troupers, fluffing out those adorable tails and play-biting and scrambling for snacks. I've visited many times off-duty to take Apple Live Photos."
"You tech-head, you." Their squabble forgotten, they erupted in genuine-sounding TV reporter chuckles, never a full-out belly laugh or guffaw but implying amusement sincerely enough. There followed footage of white fluffy mammals bouncing around the penguins' familiar home island, leaping with all four paws together and landing the same way as if to capture non-existent mice in the snow.
"No explosions? No escapes? No unexpected meteor strikes?" Skipper mourned. "I'm unimpressed. Somehow I expected more from foxes."
"Chuck, let's peek in on our beloved penguins all the way up in Åland Zoo." The row of penguins sitting on the floor alternately admired, decried, and hooted at their own images on footage taken that very afternoon, Åland time.
"Bonnie, does one of the penguins look peaked to you?" Chuck frowned. "What are the zoo keepers thinking? This calls for investigation right away. We New Yorkers won't sit still for any mistreatment. I have connections ---"
All four penguins gasped.
"Kowalski, getting me up topside was your idea --- "
"Heebletteejibber --- " Kowalski hyperventilated.
"Oh, Chuck, what a worrywart, my heavens. One of them is just moulting early, that's all. Remember last moulting season when the tallest one showed a birthmark on his neck and you swore it was a tattoo of a dolphin? You ought to write funny animal stories professionally, I swear to goodness."
"Ha ha ha, Bonnie. You know me too well. What's it been, seven years?"
"Coming up on it. I don't have a seven-year itch yet, though, do you?"
"Never. You're my one true co-anchor."
"Yes. Well. Getting back to human interest news, the King of Sweden plans to visit our little wanderers during day after tomorrow's Lutfisk Festival. All of the island, which is Finnish, by the way, will turn out to greet him and we'll view their sasquatch for the first time, too."
"I'm amazed and you viewers can be sure we'll cover every bit of the festival, the visit, and the unveiling of a fascinating new animal. And we're done. Bonnie, wait up! I've got some Rangers tickets!"
Kowalski unclamped his flipper from his neck. Skipper leaned into him companionably after turning off the set. "Problem solved, mi terroncito de azúcar. Your romantic soul can go on and your inked secret lies safe with us."
"He --- She --- almost --- I --- "
"Breathe. Now again. One more time. Good. Continue with options."
"Need --- another --- there. Ahem. We have a timetable, we have an objective. Option number one is we gather more intel on Sasquatch."
"I'm thinking a midnight surveillance."
"Right this evenin'?"
"Yah." Kowalski and Private turned to Rico. "Whaaaayalookinat? Sounz gooooood t'me."
"Yes, my friend, me too. We scoot over there --- oh all right, Grandma Kowalski, we waddle over there --- to check out the entry points to her habitat. We confront her. She's on our turf now. We know zoos, she doesn't. Rico, you fully stocked?"
Rico opened wide and Skipper took inventory. "What's with the confetti?"
"That was last month. Get rid of it."
There were no northern lights that night, which ought to have been an omen.
Tried out a challenge from here: http://boards.theforce.net/threads/the-nswff-prompt-thread-new-prompt-up-3-04.50017923/page-13 with this chapter.
"I caught a colossal cold, Gavina, my angel, but that was all I caught on the expedition. Our Svalbard ships, Iceland fishing boats, and Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior are on the grid to report any more sightings of the worm or worms." Sven's corn tassel mohawk was back to shellacked splendor. He favored plaid shirts, Skipper saw, even in the formality of a Svalbard newsroom. Along with a fervor for Science as strong as Kowalski's, the Norwegian exuded manly warrior might and Skipper warmed to him.
Gavina was Sven's fellow congregant at the altar of Science on the split screen presentation. "Sven, I've rethought the conclusions you put forth. Nemerteans are carnivorous and have puncturing snouts as the crab harvester reported his lost comrade said, while snow algae-eating Plectus murrayi leaks antifreeze to enable movement in solid ice. What if a hybrid of the two species swims in Arctic seas to icebergs and congregates in enough numbers to partially melt an iceberg? What if your theory of a titanic Plectus murrayi needs tweaking to consider a giant hybrid of the two species?"
"I'll consider it as a hypothesis, Gavina. There is still the issue of how Plectus murrayi and Lineus longissimus um, got together to produce this creature or creatures, and how it got to Arctic seas in the first place." Sven sneezed into a plaid handkerchief.
Gavina simpered. "Love conquers all, Sven."
Skipper clicked the mute button and rubbed his beak. "This bothers me and I'm damned if I know why," he muttered aloud. When Private made rustling noises, he shushed himself and returned to silence. He leaned his back against the massage table's leg as he sat stiffly upright to avoid the twinges that bending brought.
I have the best team going, thought Skipper as a commercial flashed its loud colors mutely behind him on their 52-inch television screen. He sipped a reviving mug of joe as he contemplated his enemies in the still of the night.
There had been few animals in Skipper's life who had actually wanted him dead, not counting Blowhole, and that maniac wasn't in the picture this time. The cobra who had envenomated him with enough poison to kill five Central Park carriage horses had wanted him dead. Skipper rubbed his left buttock reminiscently and glanced at Rico's snoring form. Good soldier, that, always going above and beyond the call of duty.
He couldn't see Kowalski beyond Rico's bulk. Kowalski's arch enemy, The Blue Hen, hadn't particularly wanted Skipper dead, just out of the way of her schemes to rule Delaware as Senator. He snorted. Fat chance there. Delawareans were bodacious and you couldn't fool them long enough to get her past the primary. He moved on to consider fish along with reptiles and amphibians whose names he knew. The snakehead trout wanted him dead and digested, as did Savio, he supposed. Barry was an insignificant twerp who didn't care if his toxic touch killed or merely made deathly ill.
At last he regarded Private, looking cute and cuddly especially in sleep. Skipper's heartstrings twanged like Willie Nelson's guitar during the final riffs in Blue Eyes Cryin' In The Rain. Eh, onward and into the night, he thought. He commanded a great team and if only Manfredi and Johnson were here, it would be a perfect team. It was a shame to have to wake everyone, but the time was now to confront Sasquatch. He had no worries that he'd be triumphant this time. After all, his team presented a united front against her obsession with killing him and he'd never need to swim alone. This sojourn in Åland had firmed up their united purpose as nothing else had. He gave a last swirl of the sardine stir stick before swallowing it whole. Onward it was.
"Roll out! Off your dead tails and on your dying feet! Up up up!"
Private did that yawning and rubbing the eyes thing that made his commander look away. Rico exploded into action and Kowalski tumbled out of their bunk right behind him. The news feed of whatever time of day it originated from supplied motivation and action music in the wee hours of a Monday morning.
Leave it to Private to be as thorough in the middle of the night as he was when signaling all his turns while driving their souped-up penguin-sized dune buggy. He fussed about doing something until Skipper barked, "Move it move it move it! I want intel and I want it tonight! We march!"
Private looked up as he fluffed the two pillows in their shared bunk. "But Skippa, are you sure you're strong enough?"
The others whistled or got busy with nothing in particular as Skipper leveled an unbelieving stare at Private. He didn't blink for a full quarter minute.
Private looked down as he fluffed and fluffed and fluffed. "Never mind, silly question, you're always up for somethin' --- "
"Or up to something, and don't you forget it." But his commander's look was kind.
Kowalski started to place his flipper over Rico's eyes and then turned the movement into an idle wave. "No, don't bother with BlackBerries, Rico. We're not leaving Skipper alone tonight."
Skipper made an impatient noise. "Wait until we get there to supply binoculars, Rico," he said finally. "Kowalski, I'm on point, you're second."
"Of course, sir."
Private, Rico, and Kowalski boosted Skipper one-two-three over the barrier of their habitat like the covert operatives they were. Waddling to the moose enclosure two habitats away down the wide path, Kowalski pointed out Imelda giving her latest cub a midnight swimming lesson. The gigantic polar bear appeared a living ice floe as she stuck out a massive limb on which the cub rested his chin while he paddled to build strength. She didn't notice them until they had nearly passed by. It was good practice for them all to waddle quietly when they usually slid along as smooth as Barry did in the moss of his frog habitat. Kowalski waved a flipper to attract Imelda's attention as Skipper motioned a halt to gather intel from her, but she called out loudly before the second in command could stop her.
"HI, GUYTH! Nothing exthiting happening over there THO FAR TONIGHT!"
"Imelda! Quiet! We're in stealth mode!" Kowalski warned. "She's not used to this," he murmured to his team.
"THORRY!" Imelda pushed her cub's tail out of the water and pointed back to their den. He looked grumpy at being left out of adult matters, but he obeyed. She lumbered to the steel fence that prevailed throughout the zoo, water streaming off her. She rose to her full height then, standing on her hind legs as if to show them her worthiness in battle. To four little penguins in the moonless night, she loomed up over them to black out the few stars that twinkled through the ice haze. She dropped to all fours after her demonstration and stuck her muzzle through the bars, speaking in a stage whisper. "Thurveillanth ongoing, resultth nada. Kinda boring, Kowalthki."
Skipper presented himself. "I'm Skipper, this is Private and this is Rico. Thank you, ma'am, for your help."
Imelda looked him over with a mother's assessing eye. "You thtill look daunthy. Thtick with the group, Thkipper."
"My plan exactly." Private shrank from her flesh-shearing teeth and even Rico looked taken aback, but to Skipper or anyone else who had sprung alive from the slavering jaws of both a Snakehead Trout and his own soldier Rico in gator form, this was a literal walk in the park. "Any zoo gossip about her?"
"She'th an unthocial one, Thkipper. A real thnail in her thell." Imelda curled her lip. "I'm okay with her moving on thoon."
"She has layers like a Spanish onion, I'll give her that." Skipper didn't have the right look of fear on his face and Private's heart sank. Was his leader going to try to understand his own assassin?
Private forgot his timidity. "Imelda, beggin' your pardon, but how will you get out of your habitat if we need you right quick?"
"Like thith." Imelda withdrew her muzzle from between the bars and shoved her paws into the space. She didn't appear to strain as the bars opened from the weld on the top rail but stayed affixed at the bottom. The bars parted to form a vee shape to squeeze through. Imelda replaced them upright just as easily. She grinned and her incisors flashed even without moonlight. "Don't meth with the mama bear."
The two alphas nodded to each other, top predator mammal to top commando penguin. "I'm satisfied, Imelda. Keep things on the down low and stay sharp." Skipper motioned for his squad to move out.
From the primate house entry portico west of the moose habitat, the four set up watch on a sasquatch. After twenty minutes of surveillance, Private squeaked, "There's a badger watchin' us, I'm tellin' you!"
My own fault for jumping in at a later chapter, but took me a while to understand what was going on.
I did like the colour television going on behind Skipper in mute, and after that point, the piece and my understanding picked up.
Good descriptions and visualisations of the team, how they manifested waking up, and the polar bear giving midnight swimming lessons.
Thanks for reading, Sith-I-5!
Skipper had never more appreciated Rico's innate talent for producing just what was needed on a mission. The night vision binoculars proved outstanding. "Private, where away?"
"Three o'clock! Between the Porta Pottis and the third bleacher!"
It took a great deal to make Skipper lose his poise. "That's either a raccoon or the second biggest rat I've ever seen! It might even be a badger!"
"Oh no! I can't get away from the bleedin' things even up here!"
"No raccoons around here and no badgers this far north, Skipper. What's it doing?" Kowalski panned the area for any additional unexpected creatures. Where there was one rat, there were usually others. From the underside of the portico's roof, the hibernating bats rustled in their sleep. It would have been expedient to use them as air recon, but they would dream batty dreams for yet another month.
"It's got a telescope aimin' straight up now, K'walski, but it was watchin' us."
Kowalski sounded suspicious. "I've spotted it now. Stargazing? Only the Ploughman and the Bears can shine through the ice haze. It'll be lucky if it can spot Arcturus tonight, even."
"Hold off, men. Give it some time. It might be a nature lover out for the evening." Thirty more minutes passed with nothing alarming happening. The group settled in for a long wait with Skipper unashamedly resting against the low brick planter just inside the portico overhang. The watermelon snow slush inside the planter showed an odd color in night vision binoculars.
Kowalski surreptitiously gauged the time by calculating the movement of what faint stars he could see. Sasquatch's habitat appeared a play yard from one hundred feet away. Next to the darkened stable, the scaffolding awaited an exhibition of brachiation and the lone pine tree in an extremely small grassy area sported a tire swing similar to Bada and Bing's. Kowalski supposed it had been added for Sasquatch to exercise on for the crowds and the king due in a little over one full day, unless moose used it for head-butting practice. He frowned. The humans were treating her as if she were a common ape when she was so much more. He didn't have a solution for what to do with her and that bothered the commando in him, although the scientist part said experiment, hypothesize, and theorize. The scientist and commando spoke together with then kick her where the sun doesn't shine if she threatens any of us.
After vibrating like a subwoofer in Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall with the urge to act, Rico stepped forward to investigate the rat-like creature even without direct orders, but Kowalski pulled him aside. "Otect-pray Ipper-skay."
"Aw yeah ah-huh." Rico pointed to the inoffensive astronomer and mimed using a chain saw coupled with an overkilling batch of TNT. "Brzzzzzhmmmmzmmzmmzapkaboom."
"Rico, I realize that Skipper's compromised condition has you on edge, but you just can't go around kaboom!ing everything and everyone. Leave some room for doubt, okay, buddy?"
"Routine Two, gentlemen. Routine Two." Rico and Kowalski jumped. If Skipper could appear behind them without them noticing, he must be almost back to his old self.
Routine Two: Peace Out came from Skipper's hero, Buck Rockgut. Skipper had lectured them numerous times mimicking Buck's over-the-top gruff manner. "Listen up, cupcakes. In any unit there'll be someone you want to kick in the face. That's damaging to personnel, counterproductive to the mission, and demoralizing to your fellow soldiers. What you do, is" --- and Skipper had managed to stride right up each of their fronts to get tight in their faces --- "waddle a mile through the woods with someone you don't like." He'd backed off then and they returned to parade rest.
He'd clasped his flippers behind him to offer a rare philosophical tenet with Rockgut's raspy voice. "This teaches nancy cats like you two things: one, that you'll not like everyone you have to be around, and two, the possibility of peace is doable." At that point, Skipper always returned to his usual voice to add, "This isn't my entire viewpoint, but it's close. For instance, I like all of you but I don't want to give you a pebble or nothing." Kowalski sometimes wanted to ask who do you want to give a pebble to, Skipper but then Private generally chirped hold on hold on go over that part again are you puttin' this on the test and the moment passed. He jolted back to the present when the astronomer closed up his telescope, stashed it under a saltspray rose bush, and approached them in the usual calm step of a large rodent.
"Stand fast, men. We have a right to be here."
"Dot's vun fine instrument you haff dere, mind if I take a look?" Kowalski shuttled through options: hairless tail, large twitching whiskers, solid color coat thinning a little on the skull. A rat of middle years. Next to the Rat King, the biggest rat he'd seen.
"It's a decent night for observing. Kowalski, give him yours." Kowalski handed over the field glasses and the rat bowed in a Continental fashion before taking them. He looked upwards first.
"Arcturus iss shy tonight, ja? Ve can see de stars best if de aurora iss gone und de moon obscured. Doze big gaudy dings black out de stars vhich are our guiding lights. Ve only haff vun life to live und de stars are best to guide it. Und den dere iss dis gray haze tonight for de hell of it, pfah."
"Kowalski, take over. I don't speak scientist."
"Yes. It's a night for staying inside, really. What are you doing out here?"
The rat handed the glasses back. "Call me Ole. I'm a Norvegian rat on my vay to spread peace in Stockholm."
Kowalski introduced Ole to his team. Skipper was letting him run with the ball this time. Confidence in his lieutenant's ability, or temporary weakness? He shoved the worry to a far corner of his overactive mind and continued. "Stockholm is fairly peaceful, Ole. Don't you think you'll be unnecessary?"
Ole smoothed his whiskers. "Nei. In de animal kingdom, peace iss hard to come by. I vork vith animals in de cities. Vhich is vhere you are vrom, ja?"
"A big city, Ole. How did you know?" Skipper straightened from where he was leaning against the brick planter and grunted. He brushed off Rico's eagerness to help. "I'm all right, stop fussing."
Kowalski remembered that rat vision was secondary to their scenting ability when Ole leaned close to Skipper and sniffed. "I smell pain und I see vounds. Vot happened to you, my boy? For de qvestion, I vigured you for de night life of cities und out tonight like me, since you are day birds, not like de owls."
Skipper crossed his flippers over his sore chest. He jerked his head in the moose habitat's direction. "Sasquatch happened."
There was no shock in Ole's voice. "So. She iss fiolent. I am not surprised dot she vouldn't talk vit me." He appeared to reach a conclusion. "I see I must move along to Stockholm right avay." He looked over his shoulder at Sasquatch's large habitat. "She iss contained und scheduled for deportation, ja? Den vhy are you here?"
"We ... help animals. Humans, too, on the QT." Skipper pushed for intel. "Did she look like she was planning to do harm to the King of Sweden? Or anyone Swedish, Finnish, or even Danish? Anyone?"
Ole said calmly, "Nei. She looked like she vas harmed. She iss missing teeth und vur und she tried to hide it vrom me, but her pinkie vas broken on her left hand." He peered at Skipper's toes. "Like dat owwie you haff down dere, but vorse."
The team erupted in muted cheers.
"Oh yeah, baby, I mean sir!"
Skipper puffed out his chest, said "Ouch," and stopped. "Yeah, that would be us."
Ole's whiskers drooped. "My vork goes on. Stop und look at her. She suffers an inside owwie like I'fe neffer seen. Don't push back dis time, young penguin," he said and Private looked confused, but Ole was looking at Skipper. "Leaf dings be."
"Ole, I just can't do that. I have a mission --- "
"Stuff de mission. Vork for peace." He placed a paw on Skipper's shoulder. "Don't be like de humans. Do you know vhat dey call me when dey see me, vell, right before I run avay? Ratzilla. Do I look like a monster to you?"
Private spoke up. "Anythin' but, Ole. Spread the peace."
Ole nodded in farewell. "I go now."
"Good luck, Ole." Skipper had nothing more to add as Ole departed, leaving his telescope behind.
They waited another half hour before acting.
"Tough shiitake mushrooms, Ole. Move out, squad." Skipper led the way.
I've spent time the last few days catching up on this one, and I've had an inordinate amount of fun doing so. I love your voices for all of the penguins, as well as your fun and fast use of language. It's really been a treat to read.
I especially liked getting to meet Ole in this update. This:
"That's either a raccoon or the second biggest rat I've ever seen! It might even be a badger!"
- probably had me chuckling the most with second biggest rat, but I loved Ole's true nature and this in particular:
"Stuff de mission. Vork for peace." He placed a paw on Skipper's shoulder. "Don't be like de humans. Do you know vhat dey call me when dey see me, vell, right before I run avay? Ratzilla. Do I look like a monster to you?"
Sometimes it takes the rat to say so. Truer words were never spoken.
(I also liked your use of the prompt in the last chapter; I look forward to you tackling more of them. )
Mira_Jade Thank you for the r/r. I'm glad you enjoyed the main characters' voices, too, as they are fun to watch interact on the TV program as well as in the film. Just finished catching the last of the 200+ eps last Thursday and so new canon is available to play with! It'll be fun to glomp onto more prompts to mess around with. .
Hugo untangled himself from the space heater long enough to wave a finger in Sasquatch's face from behind. She sat on the floor in front of him, facing the 52 inch television screen with the mysterious blinking white dot in its middle. "You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Take me with you to Helsinki. I'm bored here."
Sasquatch winced as she massaged her left hand with her right. "And how would I do that, my friend? I would take you if I could." She brooded on something deeper each time they met, Hugo felt, something mysterious that apes in general did not think about. He needed an interesting friend like her to stimulate his aging mind. He broke off scratching her back as he put words to observations gleaned through the long years.
"Zoos often place smaller animals in with larger ones to form unlikely friendships. The smaller animals are like their pets and stabilize them. It's shown all the time on Animal Planet."
"I don't like television."
Hugo swung happily onward into his arboreal heaven. "Pigs with racehorses, donkeys with hippos, I've even seen a kitten with a gorilla. Why not an orangutan with a Pendek Orang? Look lonely, like this" --- Sasquatch twisted around to see and Hugo pulled down the corners of his generous mouth, sighed like an Arctic blast, and made puppy-dog eyes --- "and your keeper will try anything to make you not lose appetite and be happy in your stay on Åland to impress the Swedish king and the keeper's own bosses. I'm your nearest relation and they'll remember how you perked up when you saw me as they trundled you into the back store room." He thumped his chest. "We great apes have got to stick together."
Sasquatch stretched her lips in a broken-toothed smile before she twisted back to face the TV again and he resumed scratching. "You keep saying that. I don't think it means what you think it means. I'll do what I can." She returned to solemnity. "He'll be contacting me soon. I'd rather you not get mixed up with him."
Hugo resumed venerating the space heater and smoothed her pelt into rough order. He never would ask her about the ripples in her fur that did not appear curried despite all his grooming. The bald patches from her fight proved simple enough to weave the longer fur over. "I'll talk to him if it'll help me get out of here. I won't miss this place."
"I'm good now, thank you." She scooted around and the two friends sat tailor fashion with their knees touching. Sasquatch cocked her head. "How do you know Helsinki will be better? I hear it's the same climate as this place. And if you go with me where I hope to return with his help, it's still cold in wintertime in my beautiful mountains."
"I need change before I get too old to do anything about it. I don't want to die in a zoo." Hugo drew his fingers three times in front of his face. "I'll show you how much I need you."
Sasquatch put out her good hand. "No head talk now, Hugo. He's the smartest animal I know and it's better if he doesn't realize you and I can speak without words." She might have trembled, but Hugo wasn't sure. "He's got an implant for an eye and scars around it. He can see using echoes in blackest water, but he couldn't have done what I did to his enemy. I'm using him and he's using me. The sooner we don't need each other anymore, the better."
As good friends do, they tabled a troublesome subject. To Hugo's eyes, she seemed dreading the communiqué. He'd learned that she did her duty to her employer without much complaint but without joy in her work, either. He'd never had to work in a circus and so he didn't really understand needing to please others to get food or what it was like to perform in front of an audience. It was enough for him to live in his tree and think about the passage of time. He was grateful that his long-ago captors placed him in a zoo and not a research lab. No orangutan baby should have to face a shortened life in a lab. He rose sedately to his feet to stretch stiff joints with pop-pop-pops.
Hugo presented his bottom to the space heater as he placed his hands on his knees. "Ahhhh. Old bones, old soul, old everything. I'll break if I don't bend."
"Hugo, age makes us ripen. I'm no longer young and I'm content with that." Sasquatch remained seated, eyes glued to the television screen.
"My body is content, it's my mind that needs a reboot."
"Be careful for what you wish for."
Hugo gave a gift he'd given last to his mother and thought never to give again to anyone. He hugged Sasquatch so hard she nearly rolled onto her back. "Cheer up, ayam."
"Great Brahe's Elizabethan ruff, they are not attempting --- "
"They're too blinkin' old!"
"Options, Kowalski, quick, man!"
From across the moat four little penguins put down their night vision binoculars. They hunkered down further into the ornamental rye grass poking out of the watermelon snow in the moose habitat's planting strip. This habitat's steel fence was constructed of widely spaced bars which they could slip through but a moose or sasquatch could not. Skipper was relieved that he wouldn't need to be boosted like a hatchling yet again.
Kowalski dredged up some simian courtship knowledge. "Male orangutans hoot long, lonely calls throughout the forest when they're in a romantic mood to which females swarm. Or don't." His face fell until Rico poked him. "And we didn't hear any calls," he resumed, "unless Sasquatch initiated a love fest through telepathy --- "
"Ah bup bup bup! I don't want to go there. Besides, she's hurting. Even mammals know when to take a break, sheesh."
"Skipper, it's been one full week today. You are feeling better and she may be more like us birds than we think. Fast healing, you know?" It was a darker night than usual, but Kowalski could still make out his commander's scowl. "Like us in that way only, I mean."
Skipper snorted. "Keep it real, Kowalski. Rico, verify visuals. Now. We'll have the advantage if we catch the two of them unawares while they're occupied with each other. Hugo's presence may not be the speedbump I thought it was." Just like that, Skipper's battle mind formed a new plan. When he'd first spotted the orangutan schmoozing with Sasquatch, he'd ditched his original action scenario and replaced it with me and Rico on Sasquatch, Private and Kowalski on Hugo.
Hugo was an unknown factor in combat with his aged cunning and still prominent yellow incisors a force to be reckoned with. Add long arms that could reach like nobody's business and couple them with strong grasping hands with opposable thumbs and you had menace times two. Dammit, I'm not up to snuff yet after a whole week goldbricking around, thought Skipper, so I'll have to run Routine Thirty-Two: Confuse And Distract while Rico engages her. He looked to Rico expectantly.
Rico swallowed hard and obeyed. He observed for one full minute without commenting.
"No details! I don't want details I'd need brain bleach for! Just tell me what they're up to but no details!"
Rico shrugged. He mimed warming his flippers before a fire and gave Skipper the gentlest hug he'd ever bestowed on his brothers in black and white, Miss Perky, a stick of dynamite, or his stuffed bear.
"Hugging and staying warm? That's it?"
"From this observation, we may conclude they're friends and likely nothing more." Kowalski scanned the sky as he calculated star movement. "Still quite some time before sunup. Orders, sir?"
Skipper thought fast. "You all investigate the terrain surrounding this moose habitat. I want full disclosure on what each new structure the Finns placed here does before we confront Sasquatch and her pal." Paranoia seeped back after a week-long hiatus. "Finns are related to Danes, and you know what they're capable of."
Kowalski felt obliged to fill in for Skipper's weakness in political matters and as usual went too far. "The Finnish language is in a completely different linguistic group from Danish and the Suomi government stresses fitting well into the structural system unlike the more individualistic Danes. Åland currently is under Finnish administration but its humans speak Swedish. Finland was the eastern part of the Swedish Kingdom for 800 years. The Danes have ginormous ties with Norway because Norway was a Danish dominion for 400 years and don't get me started on Karelia --- "
Skipper growled and Kowalski shut up. Private either was braver tonight than usual or he wanted to change the subject from confronting Sasquatch.
"Actually, Skippa, you've never shared why the Danes are after you --- "
"And I won't start tonight! Head out. I need time to think. Report in ten." He sulled up, tapping his beak and frowning.
Like the Central Park Zoo's chameleons, the team faded from sight. Ten minutes later, they found Skipper still in the same mood. Kowalski poked the bear first. "Um, the Porta Pottis are for --- "
"Aaaand Captain Obvious strikes again. Rico?"
Rico pointed to the triad of bleachers and sat in the watermelon snow.
"The banner has words on it. Also a blue and gold flag."
"Outstanding. Can any of you geniuses tell me what this does?" Skipper pointed to a metal rectangle two penguins long and half a penguin deep that was affixed to the fence at half a human high.
Kowalski scurried to bring his field glasses into play without showing himself in the open. "It doesn't look new," he stated defensively. "Same metal as the fence. Electrical shock feature to deter escapes? That doesn't seem like the kindly Scandinavians. Holder for moose treats? Possibly."
"Don't give me possibly. Take Rico and recon. I need answers before I put any of us at risk without good intel."
Kowalski and Rico saluted. Skipper sketched a returning salute and watched as Kowalski and Rico slid over the snow, peered around before exiting the grassy cover and formed a two-penguin tower with Kowalski up top. Kowalski squinted at a logo of a moose. "It's just a nameplate for the habitat. Why isn't it the same as the one for ours?" he muttered so only Rico could hear. There was a simple lock next to the logo. He inched his flipper tip inside and turned. Instead of the rectangle opening, a booming voice broke the night quietude. "DET ÅR ÅLGEN BRUCE. DET ÅR ÅLGEN BRUCE. DET ÅR ÅLGEN BRUCE ..." He turned the lock back again as he gasped and toppled off Rico while echoes reverberated.
Facing Skipper would not be easy.
Kowalski took a deep breath. "Sitrep: rectangle is audio moose nameplate operated by keys given to kiddies." He deflated. "Which I activated. Prepared for disciplinary slap, sir."
"Stow apologies and go go go! We'll surprise them while they're still mobilizing!" Skipper charged through the fence and instead of sliding, he tobogganed on his bottom down the snow slicked outer slope of the moat. He seemed determined to waddle across the expanse even though the moat's ice was not much more than rime and clear water ribboned in the middle.
Kowalski dove in front of him with Rico and Private right behind before Skipper could step out past the wintry sad pussywillows. No sounds came from the moose stable.
"Get out ... of my way. I'm ... going to kung fu her plan ... against the king if it's the last thing I ... do." The burst of activity had winded him.
Kowalski formed a blockade with Rico and Private. "The ice is too thin. We didn't save you from the Eternally Foggy Sea to see you throw it all away by falling into the water and catching pneumonia."
"Pshaw. Launch me, then."
"You too, Rico?" Skipper bent as if to gather himself for a leap but then gasped as he straightened back up.
"It's too far for you to jump in the shape you're in now, sir." Rather than argue further, Kowalski gestured to the others. Rico formed the sturdy base of the tower as usual and Private clambered onto his shoulders. Kowalski backflipped onto the top and deliberately overbalanced towards the jutting rock in the middle of the moat to topple the tower. Flippers outstretched and honed muscles taut in triple linked support, the penguin pontoon felt Skipper's feet patter on their backs. He huffed impatiently while they repositioned so he could complete the crossing.
Skipper paused after rushing to the lip of the inner slope. He still had enough breath for a few familiar stingers. "All right ... fine ... I'm compromised and I know it ... you mollycoddling mother-loving mall walkers ... soft pretzel nibbling widdle nancy kittens ..."
"And we love you too, Skippa."
Skipper made a rude noise, poked his head over the skyline and pointed. "To the scaffolding." He put action to words and soon they took battle stances just outside the stable. Silence pervaded the entire area. If Hugo and Sasquatch had gotten up to something, they were engaged in complete silence and darkness, unlike Mason and Phil's cavalier ways. The night's increased gray haze provided diffuse light now and formed nary a shadow underneath the six-foot scaffolding walkway.
The leader changed his battle plan on the spot. "Private and I insert from the south door. Rico and Kowalski, you are reserve just outside the north door. She's faced off against the Private and me already and you two will be a nasty surprise. Wait for my signal." He ground out the rest of his scenario. "She's compromised like me so I think we four can take her. Hugo, well, we'll just have to wing it with him."
Private spoke up. "I'll pop him like a grape if he tries anythin'."
"You'll obey orders if neither of them wants to talk first."
"Talkin' first? You didn't mention that." Time for this penguin to up his game, Private thought, because his commander's goin' to figure out an assassin. Crikey.
"Yeah. I thought it over. Ole has a point. Didn't I bring that up before well I am now. I'll try to ne-ne-negotiate first." He moved to smack one flipper against the other and stopped himself. "Everyone quiet like a shadow's shadow of a shadow. We roll."
"Aye." Rico and Kowalski glided around the back of the stable and disappeared.
"What the heck was that?"
Sasquatch continued to stare at the television screen. "I don't know. Keep watch, Hugo. He'll appear any moment."
Minutes passed while Hugo alternated peeking out the north and south doors. He squinted at the scaffolding, then shook his head. He scented the air. "I smell something, something I've not smelled since --- "
Two penguins appeared as if by magic before him. "От всей души поздравляю, Снегурочка," Skipper said to Sasquatch's back.
"Sasquatch, look over here --- "
"Wait, Hugo, wait, I've got to take this call --- " The pulsing white dot flared. Sasquatch zeroed in on the screen to the exclusion of all else after a quick glance at the newcomers. She pressed herself even closer to her caller as she twisted the television a fraction outwards.
"We-e-e-e-lll, right on time. I like that in a minion."
"Blowhole?" Private squeaked. Skipper wrapped both flippers around the young penguin and lifted him bodily away from the television's range. Hugo seemed anxious not to be seen by the dolphin mad scientist, too, and scuttled with them far to Sasquatch's right. They scrambled behind the manger where Skipper slipped to the ground.
"She said you're dead, no no no, you can't be here --- " Except for covering his ears, Hugo resembled the classic see no evil hear no evil speak no evil simian trio. He blotted out the troubling part of his world and moaned behind one broad palm.
"Skippa, say somethin'!" Private chafed his leader's flipper and smacked his cheek. Skipper fluttered his eyelids but then he swam where Private could not follow.
cause its ukiuk annits cold outside
"Wot was that? Wake up all the way, I need you!" All sound in the stable hit Private's earholes in waves as if engineered by the geniuses responsible for Shirtless Ninja Action Theater. Time distorted in the same fashion that it did during his fall from Kastelholm and it was as if everything hit his senses at once.
i changed my monkfish surprise recipe for you private the pepperoncinis are crucial
" --- look, Sasquatch, I had nothing to do with it --- "
"Blowhole, you gave your word --- "
Time roared back to its normal state when Hugo dropped his hands from his face. "Is he finally dead?" He reached over to poke the fallen penguin, but Private karate chopped the finger down as he regained focus on the situation. Skipper would want him to.
"Keep your bloody hands off him! We'll give you wot for in a minute! Skippa, come back!"
"Uhhn. Stop, Private. Don't touch me any more." Skipper raised his flipper to his head. "Dizzy."
Blowhole broke off some nattering boast as his next words filtered through to the group slinking behind the manger. "What's that noise in the background? Are you entertaining?"
"Nobody has ever accused me of being entertaining."
Skipper said in a pained sotto voce, "Private, we run Routine Six." Private obeyed.
Hugo was all ears. "What is Routine Six?" he whispered.
"Play Statue." Hugo followed suit.
Suspicion laced the dolphin's next statement. "You're picking a fu-u-u-unny time to be funny, old lady. It's not like you."
"I picked up new habits in stir, Blowhole."
Blowhole was not put off. "Well, what is it then?"
Sasquatch shot a glance at the manger with its dribs and drabs of leftover moose hay. Through the slats, she met Skipper's hostile stare. She didn't falter.
"Blue Two, initiate rodent repellent sonics. Oh, don't crab about having to work! Even though you are a ... crab." Sounds must have emitted from the television although nobody in Skipper's vicinity reacted. "There. Don't say I never gave you anything, Sasquatch. Now where were we?"
Sasquatch passed her hand in front of her face three times as Skipper noted the first signs of real emotion he'd seen in her, not counting battle rage. She appeared to be at the end of her rope. Maybe business meetings were not her forte.
Then came that voice that sounded the same in Seaville, Shanghai, the Arctic, New York City and the hottest reaches of cactus-strewn desert. "What are you doing? Don't go all fema-a-a-ale on me and faint, Sasquatch. Get hold of yourself." Blowhole sounded flustered. Skipper thought his laser eye was strobing from the way that red light pulsed on Sasquatch's face. He wanted to see more of the transmission and maybe get clues to its place of origin, but no way was he going to out himself to Blowhole at this point. He needed to gain strength before any up close and personal dealings with that nutcase. If all went well, maybe he wouldn't need to do anything. Sasquatch seemed disenchanted with the whole mysterious deal and might wreak hideous Sasquatch-y revenge like what happened on Death Mountain, solving both his villain-y problems. One could only hope, but if all went pear-shaped in the next few minutes, he had the best team available to him. He couldn't see Rico or Kowalski, yet their presence felt like money in the bank gathering ten per cent interest.
Private remained staunchly at his side in statue mode with outstretched flippers to catch him if he needed it. The spots before Skipper's eyes faded right before a wave of weakness engulfed him. Like any good penguin, he surfed up to the crest before feeling more or less improved. He ignored the quivering of his knees and maintained Routine Six.
There were unshed tears in Sasquatch's voice. "I was looking forward to going home to my herd and being myself again. Will that happen? I don't know now. I trusted you."
"You trusted me to keep my end of the deal when you did. What did you think when you picked me up in that bar in Nepal? Did I sound reasonable to you?"
"I thought you were just enthusiastic! And smarter than me! You had a fantastic plan that I could be part of and get my agenda done in one."
Blowhole's tones appeared contrite to anyone else's perception, but Skipper figured he was playing her like the proverbial nose flute. "That mi-i-i-ight have been the raksi talking in both of us, but I told you I'll fix this. Transport by artic to Copenhagen rather than by ship to Helsinki took us both by surprise. Curse those inter-related science departments in universities and museums! I mean, how peaceful can you get when you cave to another country's superior genetic research lab! Didn't Helsinki want the glory of taking you apart for itself? Um, forget that last part."
Hugo growled. "The beast." He went back to furrowing his brow as he waved his hand repeatedly over it. He mumbled words under his breath as his cheek flanges wobbled. Skipper overheard one of them. "Go backer."
"Go backer," Sasquatch spat.
"Insult fight? Oooh, I am so on it. Twit."
Sasquatch blew up. She stamped her foot like a charging bull as she shook the television with her good hand. "Deformed."
"Tell me about it when you've lost an eye."
Sasquatch dialed back her rage and Skipper was relieved. He didn't want to witness anything like what similar simians Mason and Phil did when they lost control. She gnashed her broken teeth. "What? You told me at Hetauda Happy Hour that you gouged out the eye when you took a header into some rose bush thorns on the segway."
"I admitted that? I must have been drunker than I thought. Listen, Sasquatch, enough. You're mad at me but I've got things on you and you've got to stay away from DNA testing or my operation is blown. And I need to make my plan fly for me and then you can go back to whatever you want in Nepal after your procedure. Wait for my signal. I'll be the one driving the lorry. One little fenderbender and --- no, wait, then the lorry will be out of business --- never mind then. I've got two more weeks to come up with a brand new plan. Don't call me, I'll call you, same dolphin time, same dolphin station. Laters."
"It's less than two weeks, Blowhole!" Sasquatch shrieked, but he frazzled away.
Copenhagen. It figured. Skipper thrust aside the unwelcome news and stepped boldly out from cover. Sasquatch gathered herself in admirable control. "He told me he saw your corpse being corteged back to the zoo by your friends," she said.
"He was wrong."
"My body is a living weapon."
Sasquatch gestured to the television screen. "Living. How am I going to explain that to him?"
Hugo ambled over to the space heater. He was full of gripes. "Crabs. Dolphins. Penguins. I'm disgusted with your whole bunch. Boredom is better than this. Sasquatch, explain to me why I am friends with you." He withdrew into the immediate comfort of warmth as he turned his back to the lot of them and rubbed his hands.
Private couldn't keep still. His blood boiled at finally having the object of his hate before him. "You ... enablin' old geezer! She and you and Blowhole deserve each other! She's a right bloody assassin! Pile on, everyone!" He flung himself forward and then through the north door swooped Rico and Kowalski in deadly earnest. The outraged members of Skipper's command threw themselves upon Sasquatch. She swung arms the size of tabletop Christmas trees as the penguins dangled from them like Hallmark ornaments. Her snarls echoed as they had at Kastelholm and Private lost it.
"Get up top! Go for the throat!" Private roared. "Rico, shove a bomb down it!"
"Arrrghyeahhehheh! Prtect 'Kippaaaah!"
Skipper cursed his uncooperative body. He would need to verbalize rather than jump on his insubordinate troops to clout them off her. He bellowed over the commotion even though it hurt his chest. "Stand down! That's an order! I'll use my angry words in a second!"
The three dropped off one by one. Private was last. "I'm not apologizin', court martial me if you want." He blocked one deserved slap from his leader. "She earned that."
Skipper connected on the backswing. "I'm still in command. Stand down."
Sasquatch faced them all with arms outstretched. "Hugo's out of it. He's old. Come and get me yourselves." She lowered her head as if to charge. Her fur stuck out at all angles and she looked as feral as Marlene used to look when outside the safe confines of the zoo.
Skipper took a philosophical tone. "You know, someone recently told me not to push back. For the moment, that advice stands." Then the storm clouds gathered with undertones of thunder. "I'm here to protect the King of Sweden. He sounds like a right guy. We'll take you out of the game if we have to."
Sasquatch eased out of battle readiness to mirror her adversary's mood. "You've got stamina and your herd has gumption." She regarded Private's chastened demeanor as he rubbed his cheek. "And you discipline your calves when they go too far. That's a good sign in a lead bull."
Kowalski catalogued what he'd just heard. Sasquatches called their groups 'herds' and their young ones 'calves' and their leaders 'bulls,' not what he expected, but then he'd never been as chatty with anthropoids like Bada and Bing as he was with prosimians such as Julien and the other lemurs. He joined Rico where he stood shoulder to shoulder with Private as he waited to see how this played out. Not for the first time since coming to Åland, he wished for his lab with equipment such as the DNA tester. Anything that Blowhole feared could only be a good thing.
Hugo made to leave. "Ayam, this is your territory, not mine. When you want to talk, I'll be there, but don't call me too early tomorrow."
"Tomorrow is today."
Hugo tore himself away from the space heater. "Too early is noonish. Penguins, remember what I said about Pendek Orang. She and I are on our way out of this world." He fist walked out the south door.
"Selamat Malam," Sasquatch called after him.
"What was that all about? Are you sick? Is that what Blowhole meant about 'procedure'?" Skipper gathered the border pieces of this picture puzzle. The inside could wait until he knew more about Blowhole's part in it. "What the hell's wrong with you?"
Sasquatch rubbed her hand. "Except for a broken finger and other souvenirs of our fight, I'm as healthy as a yak in spring pastures. Anything more you can find out from Blowhole."
"We've beaten him before, so we just might."
That jolted her. "You're just four penguins."
"We're the rockingest penguins you'll ever meet. Now lay off the king or we'll be up in your fur."
Sasquatch pursed her lips for a raspberry. "I could not care less about him and neither could Blowhole. It's just a photo op tomorrow while we eat something called lutfisk."
Kowalski broke out of his observations of her and his commander's changing dynamic. "What humans do to make lutfisk out of innocent fish I wouldn't do to a leopard seal or a leopard."
The words got in front of Private's beak before he could stop them. "Give me one good reason why we should believe an assassin about the king or anythin' else, Skippa." He crossed his flippers over his chest and did a fantastic imitation of the sulky teen penguin that he had been until recently.
Skipper's reply came by rote from not so very long ago. "Because I say so." No, no, he deserved more than that. "We came here to gather intel tonight, so let's do that thing." He dismissed rumbling from the ranks as he had had to do throughout his career and addressed Sasquatch. "You tried to kill me. Why?" The direct approach was always best.
"Answer a few of my questions first and I might tell you." Sasquatch stood as tall as the obelisk in Central Park and as cryptically inscribed. "What did you mean when you said you help animals?"
Ahah, an easy one. "It's what we do. We're trained in commando skills and we stay razor sharp in physical condition." He caught her giving him the once over and straightened up. "Our team operates like a ghostly wind in the shadows in covert operations out of sight of humans except in dire necessity. Rico produces any materiel or ordnance we need to solve an animal's problem" --- okay, technically this was stretching things, but just one look at Rico's beaming beak made Skipper charge ahead --- "Kowalski can outthink anyone I've ever met" --- am I going to regret these words, he wondered --- "and Private is the nice, cute, and cuddly one" --- he caught himself --- "who is a valued member of our team. An extra special valued member." Time to shift focus onto her. "Your turn." He saw Kowalski produce his clipboard to take notes.
Sasquatch was uncooperative. She folded her arms and leaned against the stable's unpeeled cedar log wall. "What's it get you, doing things for others?"
A not so easy one. "Honor, pride in a job well done, and character up to our eyeballs, sister." Skipper really needed to sit down and disguised it by high-oneing Rico as he muttered, "Chair me." Rico hawked up a mini red, white, and blue beanbag chair and pushed Skipper down on it. "Okay, sing, primate."
Sasquatch drummed her right fingers along her left bicep. She extended one hairy ankle and crossed it over the other one. She sucked in a cheek and chewed on it as she thoughtfully considered the ground. Skipper couldn't remember if looking to the right mean a lie or the truth. As usual, he went with his gut. "Was it because you're friends with Blowhole and he asked a favor?"
"Not friends. He's got the resources to do what is vital to my kind and he has this bigger plan that I don't understand. Getting you out of the way permanently is only part of it." She hardened. "And you're alive unless I end you here tonight."
Rico, Private, and Kowalski closed in behind the chair. Private gripped the back of it so hard it crackled, Kowalski raised his clipboard as he would a shuriken, and Rico glowered as only he could. "Any time you're ready." Skipper almost didn't recognize Private's voice.
"As if." Sasquatch straightened. Her shoulders dropped. She planted both feet and looked nearly placid.
Negotiating was muy, muy difícil. "So, Sasquatch, the king. Not gonna dethrone him, huh?"
"Pblblblblbl. It's business as usual if I had to." She kept a wary eye on the team behind him. "There's nothing in it for me."
"Time out. There's a lot in it for you if you keep Blowhole as partner and report on him to us. We'll make it worth your while." There. Plan B. Actually, it was Plan F in this night's ever-changing sitch. He was dealing.
She didn't hesitate. "I need him. You can't do for me what he can."
"We might be Option Number Two to you, but we'll try harder."
Sasquatch measured them. "No deal. When he calls tomorrow night, oh harreram I mean tonight, I won't mention you lived but I'm not on your side. Not telling my fail keeps you out of the line of fire, too, Skipper." She bared her broken teeth at him in a gruesome grimace too shocking to be called a smile. Skipper admitted to feeling justified in seeing the damage that he and Private had wrought.
"We'll be in touch because we can. Count on it."
Kowalski's scientific curiosity got the better of him. "How can you know when he'll call? There's no clock."
She pointed out the north door. "He calls when Arcturus shines over the lightning rod on the admin building."
Kowalski noticed something about the television screen. "The white dot stays on as a carrier signal. The humans haven't noticed your TV doesn't work right?"
She made a dismissive noise. "They're too wrapped up in His Royal Snootiness' visit. There's the door, what's your hurry?"
Skipper sat as still as the northern lights never were. "Think it over. Blowhole is only out for Blowhole. You sound like a team player."
"Whatever." She likely picked up that jaded expression from Blowhole. Skipper rose and his team flanked him as they made their way through the south door along the path that humans took. Private produced a very dirty look backwards at their exit and did not wave and smile at Imelda and her cub as they passed the polar bear habitat. Their habitat vibrated with a mood of furious thinking as they settled into nighttime routines to soothe themselves back into sleep for the rest of the dark hours.
"No TV," Skipper ordered as Kowalski picked up the remote to switch away from the flickering unused channel that provided their light. "No shower." Private took off his shower cap. "No hobby time." Rico secured his stamp collection album out of the walkway. They looked askance at each other and then at Skipper. He spread open his flippers. "Preen me, penguins."
They sectioned him off like a picnic potluck plan and finished in record time. They shared a relaxed grin when they were done, except for Private. "Hey, what do you know? This does maintain social order," declared Skipper. "Now grab some z's. We've got things to do tomorrow, I mean today, and tomorrow, too. You know what I mean." Rico slid silently into the bunk and patted the space beside him.
"I'm going topside to calculate where Arcturus will be tonight from our habitat in relation to the admin building's coordinates, Rico. Don't wait up." Rico rumbled a reply and turned over.
Skipper shook off the tension of the night and by the time Kowalski came back he was ready to sack out. He was about to signal Private to get into bed when he saw what the little pipsqueak planned to do all along.
Cripes with a clutch purse, there was Private whispering to Kowalski. Kowalski sidled towards him and Skipper held up both flippers. "I didn't slide, I didn't!"
"We could only hear big fat hairy bigmouths Blowhole and Sasquatch after he got on the blower. What happened to you to worry Private, Skipper?" Private moved out of earholeshot to place the remote exaggeratedly back in position on top of the TV. He brushed a flipper over it to clear off dust. He flicked away fish scales from the massage table. He placed Faux Skipper atop the pile of patterned pillows in the corner after dressing him in the unused Snuggie.
Skipper couldn't lie to one of his men. "The whole damn world drained back and forth like the tide. I circled the drain. I came to after --- um."
"After I lifted Private to safety, but I didn't slide! I swear it by General Lee's dual carburetors! I had to do it. Blowhole could have spotted him and he froze. I thought he had upped his game lately, too. He's still a boy in many ways."
"Let me see." Kowalski riffled the sparse new feathers to peek underneath at the still swollen left side. Skipper remained impassive as his lieutenant prodded his breastbone, pressed his head to the chest to listen to the heart and then stepped back. "It's only a dizzy spell."
"You're still a quart low on blood."
"So I can't lead. Splendid."
"Granted things are changed now that Dr. Blowhole looms on the horizon, but I won't bench you. We'll run interference for you if necessary. Give it until the solstice. You'll be fit enough for anything then. Even Dr. Oz would agree."
"Anything?" Skipper's gaze considered Private, flitting about as he did this and the other thing.
Kowalski followed Skipper's line of sight. "Yes. That, too." Skipper questioned him with a look. "I meant for protecting our youngest member, what did you mean?"
"Same thing," Skipper grunted. "Why would you think otherwise?"
"No reason. Good night, sir." They both turned in. Skipper thought 'lying in wait' was the appropriate legal term for what he was doing to Private. He knew right what he was going to say to him. Two snores in sync emerged soon from the opposite bunk. Private turned off the set directly afterward and settled in but not before bringing up what Skipper was unprepared for.
"I know you're awake. You said when Dale The Snail became my arch that I shouldn't try to understand him, but go on thinkin' of him as the enemy so's not to lose my edge. Wot's different with Sasquatch?"
It took a moment to come up with a reasonable reply. "Dale's reasons for wanting you dead were for revenge. Sasquatch didn't know me at all and it's necessary on any mission to figure motivations otherwise you don't have a clue as to how to defeat the enemy. It was the impersonal versus the personal aspect for Sasquatch. Impersonal is like she, she thinks beyond the petty. What I think is that impersonal is more dangerous because a wrong-headed cause can go on after the individual enemy is deader than I, or you, could ever make him or her if things come to life or death, Rockgut forbid."
"I'll need to sleep on that one, Skippa."
"You do that. Buenas noches."
For the crowd's entertainment on a sunny Monday afternoon, Rico decided that Åland was remote enough from their Central Park Zoo friends to employ the Bavarian slap dance routine that the North Wind had forced them to learn to distract minions of Dave The Octopus. Private had been a terrified prisoner at the time, but proved an apt dance pupil because he said the whole blinkin' Dave experience ought to come to some use and Skipper agreed. The commander and Kowalski improvised playing a pump organ as they tootled penguin equivalent sounds in all octaves. Kowalski did the deep bending required for the play while Skipper stayed upright to imitate pulling out stops along with appropriate keyboard flourishes.
Rico worked with Private to incorporate the thrilling jetpack hijinks of the episode's aftermath into the routine. After slapping Private's rump a final wallop for the dance, he thrust one flipper between his legs and hoisted him in a fireman's carry. He twirled and jumped while they both made very rude sounds to imitate the jetpack's engine. From the squeals of the crowd, the performance was a hit. Except for Skipper who settled down on the sunny bank of their moat, the team finished with spontaneous coordinated dives. Kowalski got out after a minute to pass along their new intel to Imelda.
"Per, such much silliness!"
"Ja, Mummy! I hope our king sees this!"
"We come tomorrow and discover!"
One team of reporters stood by themselves far from the biggest gathering of techs and vendors prepping for the Lutfisk Festival's royal visit. Dozens of workers passed around them and even between them, but they swayed back together in a heartbeat and anyone could discern they were partners of long standing.
Bonnie Chang didn't know whether to scowl or wind her watch. "I had plans for the next few days. You finagled this assignment of ours, didn't you, Chuck." It wasn't a question.
"I told you I had connections." Newscaster Chuck Charles of Channel 1 New York City didn't dare run a hand through his coiffure. Styling product might be scarce up here in the Finnish or Swedish or whatever they were wilds. As much as he feared unicorns, he loved penguins, however, and had been delighted to pluck such a prestigious plum project from platitudinous presidents of networks. "Look, Bonnie! What does that remind you of?"
Bonnie's jeans were too tight to bend over far. "In the water? Where the two penguins are floating on their backs?"
"One looks sleepy. It's the littlest."
"What's the moulting one doing running back and forth on the bank? It sounds like it's honking out commands to the plump one swimming next to the littlest one. Why doesn't it come into the water?"
Bonnie put on her authoritative voice. "It can't until the new feathers come in completely. It could get sick from a chill. Now what's the plump one doing?"
Chuck leaned closer to the action aquatic. "It's using its flipper to guide the sleepy little one so it doesn't smack into the coaming around the drainage grate. Awwwww." He placed his hand over Bonnie's on the habitat railing. "That's sweet."
An unladylike belly laugh erupted from Bonnie and she jerked both hands up to cover her mouth. "Haw haw haw snort, no it's not! The plump one slapped the little one to wake it up!"
"Here comes the tall one waddling up to the beach. It's pushing the aquaphobic one onto its fluffy little butt! It's braying fit to beat the band."
"I recognize that one. It's the penguin who gets tattoos." Chuck pulled his turtleneck up higher in the stiff breeze.
"You and your delusions, Chuck." Bonnie pointed a perfectly manicured index finger. "Now the two are beaching themselves and the moulting one is belting all three of them."
"What did the tall one do?"
Bonnie leaned away from her co-anchor. "Probably talked too much. Come on, let's see the polar bears."
The little penguins spread a twilight picnic on their habitat's beach for their evening meal. Water gurgled through the drainage grate of the moat, but the sound was a bajillion times more pleasant than the obnoxious plumbing noises of Roger's former domain. They sat in a row and were wise enough to take pleasure in the breezy but cloud-free day as the sun threw a last party for them before the night's shadows brought a round of duty. Even with Åland's unexpected complexities, there was time for camaraderie.
"Smashin' routine, Rico. I had fun."
Rico slapped Private's tail feathers one more time for good measure. "Ganz recht."
"Ha ha ... ha. I think." Private matched the blank stare of the final mackerel he was about to wolf down before he slurped it away. "So, wot's lutfisk?"
Kowalski waved his last bit of herring like a pointer as he assumed a mock professorial tone. "You'll grow big boy feathers, Private, when you sample lutfisk. Lutfisk is dried whitefish soaked in water for five days and then marinated another two in water and lye. It swells, the protein leaches right out of it and it tastes like soap if not soaked another five days in water. It's a monstrous mess of mucilaginous mush when served to the brave."
Skipper made a face. "It tastes worse than one of Julien's fruit smoothies mixed with Roy's hay topped with that yuck the Red Rhodesian Slasher eats. I would have no problemo giving it up for Lent."
"So the humans have been preparin' for two weeks?"
"The king timed his visit right, or wrong, however you want to look at it." Skipper fought off Kowalski's pushing him to eat just one more smelt. He got nostalgic. "Lutfisk falls under the soul food category, I guess. There was nothing like Mimsy's and Poppop's dinner table of half-digested Antarctic toothfish."
Private shifted the subject. "A sustainin' memory, I'm sure. Rico, I'm thinkin' a natural gig for us would be playin' like Siamese fightin' fish, wot do you think?"
"Ooawoawoawahhhfiiiish." Rico got dreamy-eyed. He smacked his own Skipper's butt in a fishy rapture induced bout of recklessness. The able-bodied penguins took him down with dual Routine Twelve maneuvers until he came to his senses. Skipper was equanimical about it.
"Back to the barracks, men."
"Rico, time for you to shine some more."
Rico snapped to attention. "Aye."
"I want you to surveille Sasquatch tonight when Kowalski says it's good to go. One penguin has the best chance of not being noticed. When Blowhole contacts her, listen and report what goes on."
Rico studied the floor. "Meee? D'nt tlk gud --- "
"Anyone as artistic as you are will find a way to pass along what's important. I mean, I've watched you paint with watercolors. The rest of us will be getting our beauty sleep for meeting the king tomorrow and you, you knucklehead, look good for two days and more without rest. Don't say you don't, because I've seen you do it."
"Aye aye." Rico looked like he yearned for Miss Perky to confide in.
"I'll set my internal alarm for when Rico needs to leave." Kowalski said once the curtains of night were pinned back by the stars. He tapped his head. "It's all mental discipline."
"Good, because I'm pooped after our surveillance mission last night." Private giggled. "And so are you, Private."
"I'm not --- crikey, you're right, Skippa." He giggled again after a giant yawn. "Good luck, Rico."
"Rico, wake me when you get back if it's urgent. I trust your judgment, compadre." Skipper flung a flipper around Rico's neck and pulled him down for a noogie. "Vaya con Dios. Leave the set on for light."
Everyone dropped off to sleep shortly and when Kowalski poked him in the midst of a dream featuring Jackson Pollock and the color puce, Private leaned over Skipper's exhausted form to wave goodbye. Kowalski arose to offer a muffled high-one in farewell before returning to his lonely bunk.
Rico took a deep breath at the top of the ramp. It was only a few hours' solitary surveillance. Against a proven enemy. In the dark. He slipped out of the habitat to waddle purposefully past the polar bear habitat. He shushed Imelda's cub who tried to introduce himself.
"Whatcha doing, mister? I'm Marcus. My mom's asleep. I betcha you're top secret tonight, huh? Can I come along? I'm super quiet. I'm a Scout! I know Morse code! I can do semaphore!" The frantic motions that Rico used to communicate with his penguin brothers had no effect. "What's that mean? Lemme come, pleeeease?" Rico looked up at the wheeling stars where Kowalski had told him to look and groaned at the waning of his safety margin. The edge of the polar bear enclosure lay only twenty feet from the edge of the moose habitat. The cub needed quieting. He slithered through the fence, dove into their moat and met Marcus halfway. The cub rolled onto his back and Rico straddled him like a surfboard.
"You know semaphore? Cool!" Rico waggled his flippers and Marcus studied him in the bright moon that had just risen. "That doesn't spell anything." Rico switched to charades since the kid didn't seem to recognize universal penguin code for 'shut up.' He got to his feet on the thickly furred chest to mime tiptoeing, plastered a flipper to his beak to indicate zipping the cub's lips, and added a pleading look complete with begging clasped flippers. "I said I could be quiet, whyncha say so in the first place?"
"MARCUTH! Where ARE you, thon?"
Marcus stuck up a single claw to high-one Rico just like a penguin. "Mum's the word, bird." He butterfly-stroked his way back to his mother and Rico made like a torpedo for the moose habitat. Like a squirted watermelon seed, he shot through the fence and stopped short before he showed himself beyond the ornamental rye grass.
There was a ladder pointed nearly vertically up to the icy clear night sky. It had been secured somehow to the scaffolding and Sasquatch clung to the tiptoppiest rung with both large feet. From twenty feet over the ground, she offered her bared throat to the moon while her outspread arms wavered to keep her in perfect balance.
Tried another prompt from this thread. http://boards.theforce.net/threads/the-nswff-prompt-thread-new-prompt-up-3-18.50017923/page-13 w00t!
A wail threaded through the sleepy zoo's pathways and then rose to the waning quarter moon. In the quietude, Rico felt his mood plummet at the grief inherent in the mournful sounds ripping from Sasquatch's throat. She paused in a snapshot photo of solemnity and then toppled stiff-legged straight forward from the ladder as if struck by a bullet. Rico's heartbeat roared in his head and his beak dropped open, but she turned the relaxed drop into a graceful somersault halfway down and stuck the landing with feet together. She clenched a fist at the sky before entering the stable.
Rico scoped out the position of Arcturus. Yes, it was time for Blowhole to call, if he bothered tonight. Rico wouldn't be surprised if this surveillance turned out to be the opposite of last night's. Such startling new intel couldn't happen two nights in a row. Though the day had been sunny, night's chill brought slick new ice over the ground and he slid as if on an inverted luge to skirt the rim of the moat. Pausing to reconnoiter underneath the scaffolding, through the south door he spotted Sasquatch frozen in place before the television, her stance at what he would term parade rest. He slid around the back of the structure to his former position to the left of the north door and waited.
"Sasquatch, I've been thinking," came Blowhole's message without the nicety of a greeting. "If you're going by artic, Blue One and Blue Two can lay a spike strip across the road to bring it to a screeching halt and then the lorry won't be crashed --- "
"I've been thinking, too. I want Hugo to come along."
"Yes. If you want me to go with you and not be tested by them, you'll have to take him."
"Have to is what my trainers used to order about jumping through hoops of fire. Don't use those words to me."
To Rico's earholes, she sounded empowered by whatever she'd been doing on the ladder. She seemed calmer than last night, at any rate. Of course, she wasn't confronted by four commandos at the moment. Well, three and a third. Skipper's praise ringing in his head, he shunted aside any worries about his leader's state of health and listened with all his might. "I'm trusting that your big scheme is more important to you than my little piece in it."
'You beat everything, you know that? First the genetic splicer troubles getting the ice worms just right, making you just right on Dave's admittedly fabulous surgical table with the built-in circular bonesaw, and now you want a friend to ride along so you won't be bored?"
She wasn't throwing a hissy fit because Rico heard no knuckle cracking or fist pounding. "Take some time to think it over. I'm reasonable."
"What'll we feed him? And you, come to think of it? It's a long way to Nepal."
Her voice got that tone that Kowalski's got when he knew in his gut that Skipper was half-convinced of the worth of some wild invention. "Hugo eats fruit. As for me, the same as when we met. I hiked mountain paths with my herd while we ate grass and lichen, lichen is particularly tasty." Pique crept into her next words. "No more monkey chow."
Rico pictured a herd of grazing sasquatches in mountain meadows ambling along wide open paths without forest cover. Something didn't jibe here.
"Being cha-a-a-anged doesn't seem to have altered your cravings. At this late date, I'm surprised. If I bothered to keep data, I'd record it. No meat? No fish?"
Oh yes, Blowhole was sold or pushed into a corner, it didn't matter which. Sasquatch's reply was smug. "No meat unless I accidentally eat bugs or a lizard. I'm easy to cook for."
"Being born a yak has something going for it. All right, Sasquatch. I'll send Blue Three out for apples and stock up on grass growing on the verge where we're parked. The timing is what we discussed before. Have fun rubbing elbows with humans and royalty in the next week. Be alert for any calls at this time and call me if you louse up my plan. You'd better not. You owe me." Blowhole ended the discussion without a farewell. Rico barely heard Sasquatch's next words. His heart beat too loudly beneath his snowy breast upon learning the flabbergasting intel.
"No, I don't, baulaha," she said firmly.
Rico counted 4,200 heartbeats to calculate half an hour's passage until Sasquatch snored and he bugged out. He sped away at orca speed until he got so worked up that he tripped and rolled down the ramp into the penguin habitat. He tumbled up to Skipper's bunk and stopped, breathing hard. On his knees, he peered at his commander.
Skipper didn't stir. Neither did Private. Kowalski snuffled in the darkness and Rico heard him turn over.
He stopped at the sight of Skipper's features soft in sleep. His commander was exhausted and needed rest. Was this new intel life threatening? No. Could any of them accomplish anything with it tonight? Maybe Kowalski could analyze it faster with his awesome brain but not do anything about it, if there was anything to be done. Rico's bunkmate mumbled kawoozle and turned over again, seemingly restless without someone next to him. Was the intel weird like Chinese fireworks that showered American water balloons filled with Norwegian akvavit? Yes. Could he convey the intel to his team?
Rico thought hard, his flippers drumming his sides. Yes. In daylight. Topside. There, thinking finished. He turned off the television and snuggled himself into his bunk to wait for dawn. He'd succeeded in judging the intel's importance and the right way to bring it to light. He'd needed to figure this out for himself because there was no Miss Perky pressed close to his heartbeat as he shared his thoughts. Unlike Miss Perky, Kowalski needed downtime.
At first light, Rico drew a comic in the virgin watermelon snow hugging the rock feature on the north side of their habitat. In panel one, Blowhole drove an artic with Sasquatch and Hugo beside it. In panel two, a spike strip pierced an outsized tire. In panel three, an undecipherable zigzag filled the panel.
"Yes, Rico, kaboom. I get it." Skipper cocked his head. "What's in the fourth panel?"
"A bunny such as Commodore Fluffington?" Kowalski hazarded. "No, I don't think so. Are those ears or horns?"
Rico gave him a dirty look, lowered his head with flippers protruding upwards and charged. Kowalski executed a smooth pase de pecho. "Horns it is."
Rico pointed once more to the fourth panel and said "Ah-kwatch's a yak."
"Sayak. Ah-kwatch's, I mean Sasquatch's, full name is Sasquatch Sayak?"
Rico shook his head hard enough to snap a tendon as he got more excited. "Ahuhahuhah-kwatch'sayak."
"Slow down, Rico, take your time. Sasquatch's sayak? Wot's a sayak?"
Skipper pieced the words together like constructing a ship in a bottle. "Sasquatch. Is. Sayak."
Rico shook his head. "Yak yak yak!"
"Hell yes, I'm yakking at you, Rico! I need this intel."
Kowalski rubbed his beak at the desperation in his buddy's pleading gaze. "Oh! Sasquatch is a ... yak?"
Rico high-oned Kowalski and scraped a fifth panel in the time it takes to gobble a vintage herring. His team stared at peaks complete with a snowline and a rising --- or setting --- sun. "Mntns."
Skipper pushed for more. "Yaks live in the Himalaya mountains. Right. Any idea which country she's originally from?"
Rico rolled his eyes and added a sixth panel. In the beginning, it resembled a nude study of a generously endowed human female torso.
Kowalski began, "Bhu-" and then Rico finished by centering two dots on the bountiful curves. "Nepal! She's from Nepal!"
"Boom shakala! Blowhole said she picked him up in a bar in Hetauda. Ew." The others grimaced. "Any more intel, mi amigo?"
"Outstanding report and snow comic. I'm going to erase it so the humans won't sneak you away to an atelier." Skipper rubbed the sixth panel's image absently until he noticed what he was doing and jerked his flipper back. "Um, the rest of you scratch out the whole thing."
Kowalski made Skipper sit between Rico and Private to shelter him from the brisk dawn breeze chilling another sunny day. He assumed the morning meeting march back and forth in front of the team that his commander usually paced. "How could this happen? Talk to me, penguins. I need input to hypothesize."
Private spoke up. "Well, it would account for her bloomin' solid carcase. She took Skippa's best punches and all she did was stagger" --- he amended his words --- "I mean, she nearly got knocked off Kastelholm, I mean, a yak is a great bloody fat cow, innit?"
"I'm confused, Kowalski. Although," Skipper added, "I'm relieved that she isn't a true sasquatch or a yeti or a bigfoot. You've got to admit she has big feet, though." He trembled as the breeze rose and Kowalski gestured to Rico and Private. They moved closer to their leader, but Skipper shook his head. "I'm okay. Just remembered the Перевал Дятлова incident. Rumor has it that a yeti messed up nine hikers bad in '59, real extreme prejudice kind of sitch."
"Yeah, he or she tore out their tongues and smashed their brains without breaking their skulls and --- "
Private gagged. "Enough, Skippa, please."
Skipper ruffled Private's head feathers. "Sure, chico." He waxed sentimental. "The king is going to want to take you home with him, but he can't. You're mine, I mean ours. I'd never cave and give you up --- "
Rico jumped and slapped himself. "Awww, maaaaaan."
"What, Rico? Did you forget something? Tell me, soldier."
Once again, your dialogue and character voices are super fun to read in these chapters, and I enjoyed catching up! I am really, really liking Sasquach - her banter with Rico was just the best! I also liked the way you incorporated the prompt - very nicely done.
Mira_Jade Thanks for the r/r. Sasquatch sometimes shines with her comebacks when she's not bluntly putting others In Their Place.
"Private, memorize this entry. Skipper's Log, Hiatus Version 2.1. Sasquatch isn't really a sasquatch, Blowhole is either on Åaland or nearby spouting a bigger plan than offing little old me, and since these things come in threes, Denmark is involved. Another set of three is that I'm not quite 100 per cent fit and frosty --- Private, code that 'eyes only' and then forget you ever heard it --- and we meet the King of Sweden today and a little bird told me that Dave arrived to squirt ink onto the overall picture. Cheese and crackers, it's riddles inside a mystery covered in triple strength Saranwrap. A.A.R.P., your mission statement needs revision as much as Windows 10. Relaxation, my left ... pinkie toe. Endit."
Private nodded. "Righto, Skippa."
The breeze brought burgeoning blasts of crowd noises including a calliope playing what must be the universal rollicking circus theme. Cries of kippis sille reached their earholes. Skipper mulled over the correct penguin protocol for receiving a king of a friendly nation. "Rico, give me a few laps, your choice as to quantity. The king will be by any minute." Rico tried to touch his toes, did three deep knee bends and eight side stretches before waddling off, making Skipper jealous of his limber subordinate. He was making himself simmer down semi-successfully when Kowalski returned from bellowing at Imelda through the barrier between their habitats.
"She SAYS that --- ahem. She says that Sasquatch and the king exchanged a dignified wave and that His Majesty apparently gained special dispensation to toss lutfisk at her in defiance of zoo rules. She ate it by the Imperial gallon and everyone said she was söt and toasted her with sahti while shrieking kippis sille. We can gather she made a hit with both the Finns and the Swedes. Chuck Charles and Bonnie Chang are covering the event for Channel 1." He chuckled. "Imelda says she can smell something off about the two of them."
"It's probably their hair product fumes." Skipper looked like he did when describing lutfisk. "Puke and double puke. So Sasquatch knows how to be social when she wants to. Interesting."
Private slid from obedient secretary to smart mouth young penguin in an instant. "She can bloody well do the minuet with Hugo on a tightrope for all I care. I don't trust her, Skippa."
"I don't, either, but she sounded honest enough about not being a threat to the king, so there's that. We might need her to snitch on Blowhole if she changes her mind about how we can do her some good. It's Tricky Dicky territory, I'll grant you, but think about Routine Two, Private, or have you forgotten Buck Rockgut's lesson about how we aren't put in life to love everybody? It's enough to tolerate --- "
Private pushed his luck as he narrowed his eyes. "She ought to sit on the business end of K'walski's Revolvin' Creditizer. She'd wind up a blinkin' trilobite simmerin' in pottage."
Skipper pulled back his slap at the hideous memory and shoved his lieutenant into the fray. "That wasn't its name. Kowalski? Some help here?"
Kowalski drew his dignity around him. "It was a De-Evolutionizer." He drooped. "I was lucky to change you back after you became a Suzhousaurus. I couldn't have done it without Rico's flamethrower."
Skipper snorted. "Yeah, you'd think your gizmo would have made me into something boss like a T-rex. Instead, I got a girly name and furry feathers."
"My invention worked in reverse, didn't it?" Kowalski folded his flippers and glowered. "So it made you un-de-evolutionized. Un-evolutionized." He thought some more. "Un-oh whatever, let's get back to Dave. What do we remember about him? Octopus, crazy with penguin envy, lonely, mad genome morphing skills, possible land-based laboratory where he next planned to take the cuteness factor from sweet little adorable pandas, which live near Nepal ... "
As Kowalski trailed off in hypothesis mode, Skipper turned pensive. "Funny thing is, my memory has glitches from around the time of being squashed --- "
"Please, Skippa, no flashbacks today." Private forced himself to smile. "We're meetin' a king!"
" --- yet I'm on track remembering Dave's name after having trouble with it when we first met him. Weird thing, memory." Skipper shook himself out of the past and turned to the future with a twinkle in his eye. "Private, someday you might be a Commander and then you'll make a humorous entry in your log about me bouncing onto those rocks and you believing I was dying."
Private became angry. "Now you're teasin' me. Maybe ages from now I'll come up with a funny entry, but that whole braapin' day added years to your life and took years off mine."
"Private! Language, soldier!" Private made a sound of upset, took a graceless jump into their moat and dove to its bottom.
Skipper fumed. "Aaaand I can't follow him into the water to wash his beak out --- oh wait. There's something I can discipline him with." He rubbed his flippers gleefully. "Bucko, you won't know what hit you."
As he did most times, Kowalski glided over emotional nuances like Charlie White. He tapped his temples with both flippers. "You'd think that if a miniaturized octopus escaped from a little girl's New York City snow globe Channel 1 would be all over it. No, Skipper, I'm convinced that Blowhole couldn't share any lab. He's not a team player like we are or like regular dolphins in a pod. He's taken over Dave's backup lab and committed horrendous deeds. Where Dave is we can only guess." He returned to deep thought.
Rico popped out of the moat where he'd been doing 40 laps underwater. "Whunup wif 'Rivate?"
"He's working off a pout. Let him be."
The sounds of happy human feet approached as a cameraman edged his way into their view, his steadicam aimed at the commotion outside Imelda's residence. Murmuring human voices grew to average volume while Skipper took stock of his team for the royal presentation. Rico preened his pits after his swim, Private still sulked underwater and Kowalski wandered in hypothesizing heaven, but he himself felt pretty darn good for a walking wounded penguin. He looked down his chest. The pink islands of skin not covered by black or white feathers had shrunk in recent days to isolated islets as small as Bouvet Island. The newer feathers slightly overlapped the newest nubs and shrouded his form almost as completely as any ninja would want. When the king and his party rounded the stone habitat wall and one dozen royals crowded the railing followed by newscasters including Chuck and Bonnie, Skipper stood straight and tall.
The king was immediately recognizable from Channel 1's coverage of him passing out the Nobels each year. A regal, kindly expression was on his face as he balanced what appeared to be a newborn human on one arm while linking his other with his queen's. The newborn seemed to be as solemn as Private had been at that age and made no sound. Three little preschoolers ran around their grandparents' and parents' feet, balanced on the habitat railing and shrieked when Private made a stellar appearance.
The junior member of the team automatically earned four demerits taken away from Skipper's punishment when he porpoised out of the water in front of the royal party. He gained momentum after hugging the moat's bottom at the curve of the western end and then paralleled his sleek body six feet above the water for half the length of the habitat island. Skipper held his breath when the team's youngest looked like he was going to overshoot and smack into the stone barrier, but Private fulfilled his precise training to reenter the water without a splash at the last possible moment. He circled the island to perform five more leaps to cheers from both human and penguin audiences.
One young human female leaned heavily on her male escort as she bent over the newborn nestled on her king's arm. Skipper assumed it was the child's mother who had recently birthed the baby and shook his head. Penguin ways were much better in this situation. The father penguin shared nesting, foraging, and all other aspects of natal care. From Randy The Sheep's table of human child age estimation gained from vast experience in Central Park's petting zoo, Skipper placed the two royal girls at four years and the lone boy at one year. As the kids scampered about, the camera crew zoomed and panned the royal parents as they behaved as parents do worldwide and shook warning fingers, gave pointed looks, and grabbed royal ears to use as handles. Now this aspect of shepherding the young Skipper could relate to.
The king continued his role as grandparenting baby buggy as he studied the habitat and made remarks to the newscasters while switching flawlessly from whatever tongue he was speaking to English. Chuck Charles and Bonnie Chang appeared the ultimate professionals as they captured the king's attention and directed their crew's camera work. All eyes wheeled from human interest to penguin interest ten minutes after the penguin coverage began.
The commander jolted from his observations when Kowalski zoned out of his own mind and back into the world shared with his penguin brothers. "Hawking's singularity! I just put the pieces together --- Blowhole carved Sasquatch --- what he did to her hooves and horns was the scheme of a madman!" the scientist exclaimed before he buried his face in Rico's chest. After some murmurs that Skipper couldn't make out, they sprang apart.
Skipper ignored the king's steady regard. It wasn't as if ol' King Carl could understand their words. "Kowalski, elucidate."
Kowalski blinked at Skipper's new command. "He altered the spine, rearranged the uvula, warped the tibia and the fibula and did horrendous trimming on her pelvic region." He dredged up a watery smile. "He left her fur intact. It was stitched back on her unevenly, but it was her original pelt."
Skipper exploded. "The monster! To do all that to a female! Yak's wool is naturally odor resistant. That's why Rico couldn't track her at Kastelholm. And the Kármán vortex street through the pines couldn't have helped!" At Kowalski's shocked double take, Skipper erupted again. "What! I watched a lot of nature documentaries while I was laid up and you all were topside performing, all right?" He left Kowalski to Rico's comforting as he added to Sasquatch's unsettling dossier. The wind rose to snatch the king's hat and Skipper watched as the man passed the infant back to its mother so he could participate freely in the next portion of the photo op. Majesty restored and returned hat firmly pulled down, Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden did his duty, as must Skipper.
The king's party milled in front of the habitat when a vendor wearing a fish-shaped top hat distributed white chunks of something to the group as Private broke into a sixth porpoising stunt. "Get up here," Skipper snapped when Private was airborne close enough to hear him. Private avoided Skipper's exasperated look, made a last defiant circuit of the island and leaped onto the beach with perfect placement to stand with a scowl by his leader. The king tossed a chunk of the white substance towards Skipper with exact aim and Skipper caught it in the way of penguins that humans expected to see. "Eat this," he mumbled with his beak full.
Private's eyes watered as Skipper shoved a blob of lutfisk down his throat. He gulped it and turned away. "Tastes like soap, no more, Skippa."
"That's the point. Don't you dare upchuck it and don't cuss anymore." Kowalski and Rico acted like the sorry stuff was delightful. The two of them capered before the crowd while gobbling lutfisk, the steadicams whirred, and Private offered no more guff as Skipper matched him swallow for swallow.
The king's retinue moved along after a few more sound bites. Before leaving, Carl's eyes met Skipper's and their exchange of rueful looks soared above the boundary of species and circumstances as the two alphas contemplated leadership's trials and rewards. Skipper proferred a final dab of lutfisk to Private as he slid a sidelong glance at the king. The royal grandbaby must have awakened because there was an infant-sized squall and the king hurried out of sight. Skipper's last impression of the king was overhearing a string of Swedish endearments cooed to a grandchild.
Skipper withdrew from his team to sit on the beach and enjoy the sunshine. Two of New York's Finest Newscasters consulted their notes with a local technician's aid as the three lagged behind the royal party.
"Chuck, the assignment was to scoop the other networks by showing the king and the sasquatch and the penguins all together in one shot. There's no time now to go back to arrange that." Bonnie flicked her bangs from her eyes, but the wind was fierce and blew them down again.
"Ei, Bonnie," the tech struggled. "Too myöhästynyt."
Chuck turned to the tech. "Miten sanotaan Photoshop suomeksi?"
"Fine, we'll Photoshop them all together." Bonnie raised plucked eyebrows at her co-anchor's linguistic expertise.
"Kyllä, Chuck." The tech scurried away to rejoin the king's group while chattering on his iPhone.
"Well done, Chuck. Can you read Finnish, too?"
Chuck had given up keeping his perfectly moussed hair smooth in the breeze. He shrugged before crossing his arms. "I just speak it a little. Twelve years anchoring Channel 1 has taught me to go with the flow, Bonnie, like our friend on the beach. See him just sitting in the sun and not worrying? That's Central Park Zoo's penguin leader, according to the discredited CD I discovered showing him and his group in outrageous commando stunts."
Without preamble, Bonnie pressed her Vera Wang suit's back pleats against Chuck's Armani front. "Block the wind for me, would you? Thanks. Yeah, about that CD. I, um, missed you when you were let go for awhile. Pete Peters knows bupkis about banter."
Chuck crisscrossed his arms over Bonnie's collarbone and pulled her in tighter. "Bupkis? Yksi kieli ei ikinä riitä."
She twisted to face him within the ring of his grip but didn't escape it. "That last bit sounded Finnish. What did you say?"
"'One language is never enough.'" He leaned forward to shelter her even more and she tilted against him in response but just then a little boy ran towards them and they swayed apart. The boy hid behind Chuck after spotting his American flag tie clip.
"Save me from the eating of the lutfisk! Mummy and Fadder comes this way!"
The penguin on the beach made a raucous sound when Chuck and Bonnie turned him over promptly to his parents in the timeless conspiracy of the old against the young.
Your update on March 30th was very good.
Excellent characterisations, though since I have only seen the kiddie friendly films and vids, the use of the word "bloody" immediately had me wondering if one of the penguins would say that.
Also, unlike Mira, I did not get the impression that Sasquatch was talking to Rico; to me it read as if he was spying on her and whomever she was talking to.
Great work thinking up the sort of schemes that these characters would use, and the actions around the snow comic, though it escaped my understanding as to what disturbed Skipper about rubbing out the sixth image of the snow comic.
Sith-I-5 Thank you for the r/r.
have only seen the kiddie friendly films and vids The rating is PG for the fic so there are hells, damns, and bloody's. The film's the thing that provoked interest in the TV show during a Christmas '15 viewing.
to me it read as if he was spying on her You are correct.
what disturbed Skipper about rubbing out the sixth image He was rubbing Rico's "nude study of a generously endowed human female torso." He were bashful.
Scooter Alvarez's punchy commentary on the last Rangers game that Skipper had cheered on to victory echoed in his mind. FORCE, POSITION, ANGLE drove the commander's attack into the box as he caromed the metaphorical puck straight through Kowalski's five hole to make goal.
"It wouldn't take Commodore Danger long to figure out where Blowhole is and what he's up to. He could sort out why the Viking homeschooling menace is real, too."
Kowalski's look was priceless as he iced the puck back to his opponent's half of the rink. "Skipper, Commodore Danger has the dedicated resources of his own section in the British Navy's Special Boat Service, not to mention faboo Agent Fiona ffolkes whom we've seen uncover rogue nations' secrets by uncovering her pneumatic charms to seduce their agents when she isn't seducing the Commodore --- "
"A-hem, Private is present, Kowalski! I won't let you destroy his innocence more than it already is after his 'special briefing.' "
"He can't hear me from the corner, and he's more adult than you realize." Kowalski eyed Private as he finished his penance. "He's really getting too old for a timeout, sir. Cousteau's Zodiac, cursing isn't that heinous."
"I'll be the judge of that." But Skipper raised his voice as he hadn't been able to lately without pain to address the young penguin who mumbled into a sympathetic earhole. "You can take your beak out of the corner now and join in strategizing, Private."
Private approached sheepishly. "I was just tellin' Faux Skippa that I would give lutfisk up for Lent straightaway, too."
There was muttering from this part of the peanut gallery from a certain Science Guy as well. "Plus there's the salient fact that Commodore Danger is a movie character and, you know, not real." Skipper shot a quelling look at his other troublesome squad member and Kowalski took the hint. "Just saying. Sir."
Forgiveness bloomed in the staticky grow light glittering from the 52 inch television set as the time for nocturnal noodle nudging began. Skipper seated himself on the floor away from his team and tossed the remote to the one soldier who hadn't tangled with him in the last hour. "Rico, find the news."
The commander began isometrics with his recovering right pinkie toe as his mind whirled. It was frustrating to see only the tip of the iceberg. Blowhole morphed a yak into a sasquatch to eliminate his arch nemesis and that was only part of an even worse unknown plan percolating in the dolphin's fevered brain. Skipper hoped the electronic hearth of a television set would lead to new directions and ideas for action from his think tank.
He counted down their remaining sojourn on Åland. Fourteen days to foil the scheme of what must be a diabolical design diametrically opposed to all that his team stood for. Was it a natural disaster like Bad Tidings? Was it a mecha monstrosity like the Chrome Claw? And how did the crazoid get established, get power so quickly after his Florida base blew up? How did he survive? Did he finagle Doris' sisterly attachment into letting him crash with her? Was another Kowalski and Doris run-in on the horizon and would he himself get roped into Kowalski's species-hopping mess? A headache threatened if heartburn didn't beat it to the punch. The glow left from the king's visit dimmed as Skipper plucked out a loose feather to twiddle.
Rico tuned directly to BBC News: Polite Version. Gavina Formes' concerned look marred her professionalism as she continued reporting on the elusive Antarctic worms in Arctic waters issue.
"The island of Skorpa in northern Norway joins Iceland and Svalbard by insisting that giant ice worms rise from the deep fjord to venture onto the deserted island. Across the fjord in the little town of Kvænangen, wary villagers train keen Scandinavian eyes accustomed to sharp contrasts between sea and sky to observe the happenings on Skorpa's deserted three square miles. As with Iceland and Svalbard, I am forced to report rumors and half-seen loops of vermiform shapes writhing in the waters of a Norway steeped in legends of krakens. I am on the verge of being impolite." After the initial jolt of mishearing 'Skorpa' as 'Skorca,' four little penguins listened to Gavina interview Sven once more.
Gavina's neat appearance belied her profound worry. "Sven, there's little chance that an iceberg will drift into Skorpa's fjord this time of year. Why do you think Plectus murrayi would venture into the fjord and onto Skorpa? If it isn't Plectus murrayi mutated beyond belief into an ocean dweller adept on land as well as icebergs, what could it be? We don't want to bring up the word kraken and panic people. My dear colleague, this is surpassing Polite News' territory. It might be time to hand off the story to the regular BBC. They don't mind panicking people." Gavina removed her spectacles to dab her eyes.
"Darling, you brought up kraken twice, I didn't. Let's not get dithery, shall we?" Sven's heavy features turned speculative as he rubbed his jowls. "In the past three days, I've reworked my hypothesis. Since sightings are no longer on icebergs and in the ocean alone, if Plectus murrayi was somehow, according to your idea," --- he broke his mood to shine a dazzling grin on Gavina across hundreds of miles --- "affected by sunspots or other phenomena to meld its DNA with the nemertean Linus longissimus, then we have a problem. I'm thinking a Greenpeace issue on the same level as dolphins snared in drift nets or narwhals' tusks sawn off for cosplay among misguided Lunacorn fans."
Private gasped. "I'd --- We'd never --- not even Bada or Bing would --- "
"Outrage later, Private. Your brothers know you'd never." Skipper pointed to Gavina. "Look, she's clutching her pearls! I've heard of it, but this is the first time seeing it!"
Gavina hyperventilated as she ran her nacreous necklace nervously through her fingers. She got herself back together in fifteen seconds. "Sven, Linus longissimus is the most common nemertean along the British coast. If one is blended with Plectus murrayi, then Plectus murrayi's ability to subsist on bacteria found everywhere combined with Linus longissimus' poisonous barb makes it a formidable specimen indeed. One might even exude the nemertean's toxic mucus." She quaked. "I could spot the creature whilst driving along the M4. Cor lummy!"
"If it's a giant beastie, get away fast, lovey." Sven steepled his large hands that were unafraid of hard work. "I'm surmising that it's a hybrid and the Linus attributes allow it to slither onto any environment while spearing the unwary. Add Plectus murrayi to the mix, and a hybrid could survive through anhydrobiosis."
Gavina remembered her audience. "Anhydrobiosis, cherished viewers, means that worms of this sort survive dessication as well as extreme cold in the parched valleys of Antarctica. They literally stop metabolic activity until conditions are ripe once more."
"Plectus murrayi can lose up to 99% of their body water content and survive. Tough little buggers, aren't they?"
"Please, Sven, language. We'll keep you viewers posted regarding noxious nematodes in any locale. Trust us." Gavina smiled weakly for her farewell. "On the fluffy side of polite news, we end with a montage showing the King of Sweden's visit with the sasquatch on Åland. See how playful she is on her tire swing! Watch how she joins in a staring contest with Princesses Estelle and Leonore! Gentlemen and ladies, do not be alarmed at her fur's rough appearance because she seems to be a lovable klutz like Bella Swan, I just adore that series, don't you? The sasquatch will continue to delight one and all until her departure for Copenhagen's Natural History Museum Centre for GeoGenetics. One moment, I'm getting an update." Gavina cupped her earpiece. "Oh, right. Look quick, here are some penguins, too. Goodbye and good manners from Polite News."
Rico found an old episode of Bob Ross to watch. Skipper allowed him ten minutes and then sliced his flipper across his throat. Rico only muted the set with a hopeful look back at Skipper, who nodded as he got to his feet. The team rose as one.
The alpha brain wave state brought on by watching TV proved beneficial. Kowalski produced his abacus and thought hard. "Triangulation is the key by tracking Blowhole's smartphone. I'll need a computer in the admin building for plotting purposes."
"Easy peasy to insert with our expertise, but how will you log on?" It was Skipper's job to bring up difficulties.
Kowalski waved his flipper airily. "Pishtosh, some lazy clerk always leaves a computer on overnight. When Sasquatch engages Blowhole --- that sounds gross --- at the usual time, we'll use the lightning rod as antenna. No, wait. It's only a one story building with no cell tower and the tree line might block the signal. I'm not really sure. Even if he's at least 24 miles away on the Swedish mainland, the land here is flat enough with only low hills, but the trees --- no, on second thought, we need a lofted antenna." He played with his abacus and frowned. "If we were in Central Park Zoo, we could ask Pinkie to take it up."
"Now, there's an outstanding mission candidate." Skipper rolled his eyes. "Nope, Kitka both would and could do it. You've all seen her bravery. I've seen her strength and suppleness and strength and endurance and power and daring up close and extremely personal --- "
Kowalski erased something on his abacus. "You said strength twice."
" --- Kowalski, be nice, memory glitch, okay? --- and before you know it, viola, we'd have a liftoff with the antenna. Pinkie might do it for us or she might doublecross us like she did switching the fishcakes." He scowled. "She's shortsighted."
Private put his flippers on his hips. "Who's Viola, then? Another of your girlfriends?"
Rico slapped his knees laughing as Kowalski chuckled and said, "Ah, Private, I think Skipper means --- "
Skipper had had enough of this blah blahity blah. "I've had enough of this blah blahity blah. If we were in New York, Shelly can't fly and Pinkie is too flighty to trust, yes Private I realize what I said so stifle. Kitka would be the right a rooney choice of bird, hmmmm? Am I right? I am. I'm deliberately leaving out Frankie because it's a falcon for the win. So where can we get a Kitka up here in Swedish and/or Finnish territory?" He left out the part where he'd tried to rendezvous with Kitka outside both Central Park and the zoo after he broke up with her and found out she'd moved her nest. She'd help him --- she would. There was always a certain tie with any ex with benefits and he'd persuade her in the way she liked --- meh. The point was moot anyhow.
Rico advanced with Faux Skipper held tenderly in his flippers. "Blooon." He removed the Snuggie from its form and tossed the garment back into the corner. He upended Faux Skipper and puffed on his valve to plump him out after his use as a soccer ball. Skipper turned away swiftly to face the others.
"See? See? This is what I'm talking about. Rico makes his own rules, thinks outside the box, and I'll come up with a third thing later. Good job, Rico. We won't need a Frankie, Kitka, or Pinkie. I could see Pinkie biting and popping me just to be mean."
"Faux You, sir."
"What? Those are court martial words, soldier!"
"Faux You." Kowalski waited a beat as Rico hefted the namesake dolly.
"Oh. That's what you meant."
Kowalski pulled his inspiration out of the stratosphere. "We'll raid the zoo's balloon stand for helium to make it stay aloft. Since March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, the wind likely will be steady. If it's not, the helium will lift Faux You despite everything." He was already onto the next problem. "We'll need wire." Skipper could see the lightbulb go on behind his lieutenant's eyes. "The lightning rod! Copper wire runs down the building into the ground. We'll use it and replace it that same night."
"Triangulation means three points so we're set, right? Faux Me antenna, Sasquatch's TV receiver and Blowhole's --- what if he doesn't have a smartphone? "
Kowalski folded his flippers over his chest. "Honestly, do you think Blowhole would go one second without a fancy iPhone?"
"Why so sure?"
"The name, duh! iPhone. As in me first. He's the most selfish dolphin I know. He's not kind or generous like Doris. How they came from the same parents is beyond me."
It hit home once again that Doris was never far from Kowalski's thoughts. "Good work and I stand corrected, jefe."
Private was happy. "We won't need a Kitka, yayyy!" Some petulance crept in. "So we got a teensy-weensy mention on Polite News. La dee dah."
Kowalski spun a bead on his abacus. "It would be nice to think that our covert efforts will be archived for posterity, but if we do our job right, humans will never know or care."
"Wot? Do you think the ice worm story is any better than our overt visit with the king? Worms are bleedin' trivial, if you ask me."
Skipper made an indescribable sound as he placed both flippers to his temples.
''Catch him, quick!" Private braced his commander from one side and Kowalski from the other.
"Whoa, room tilt. A-Arctic ice worms?" Skipper's sharp gaze clouded over. He shrugged off his support as his voice rose. "I saw small ice worms on the Kastelholm rooftop! They distracted me and Sasquatch won! But the documentary I watched when we first got here said that ice worms aren't on Åaland or anywhere near here -- they're in Alaska! And Washington The State! And maybe Nunavut! But not around here! I couldn't remember until now." He slapped himself with both flippers, hard, and then bent double, massaging his midsection.
Private couldn't contain himself. "I knew it! She wouldn't have got the upper hand if you weren't distracted. Nobody ever could!"
"You go on thinking that, young Private. The team needs you to." Skipper gave the young penguin a look filled with so many things that Kowalski and Rico couldn't keep track. He swayed on his feet.
Rico wanted to forget the sight of his commander blaming himself for something that wasn't his fault. "D'nt kaboom! self, 'Kippaaah." He horked up a gold and blue mini-beanbag chair which Skipper sank into. Rico grinned in relief and then his eyes got round as dismay rumpled his face. He dropped to the floor at his leader's feet. "'Kippaaaah."
"I'll be okay in a minute, don't fuss and whatnot, I hate it --- "
Rico took a deep breath and spoke slowly. "'Kippaaaah. Blowhole. Mentioned. Wrms." He ducked his head. "Frgot. Sowwy."
"Another piece of the puzzle. What the hell can he be up to?"
Private wrung his flippers. "You said somethin' about worms when you were dyin', Skippa, and I didn't bring it up it later because it was just too awful --- I-I couldn't talk about it --- "
Skipper looked somewhere between exasperated and puzzled. "How did I know then that I wasn't dying? I never died before, Private." The mini-beanbag chair crackled as he smacked one flipper into the other. "So we can speculate that Blowhole has something to do with the ice worms that I saw and the ones Gavina and Sven report on. Hoo brother. We know what he might be doing but not why."
The three penguins plopped down to form a circle with their leader as if around a real fiery hearth instead of an electronic one. "Tomorrow night Operation: Plug A Blowhole begins, men. We've been coasting up until now."
Dawn always brought renewed focus to any mission and Skipper continued to place Blowhole's downfall topmost, but it wouldn't be a penguin commando mission without other considerations muddying the waters. "Men, until tonight we need to stay on our toes. There's entertaining the visitors to get through and then we move out. Operation: Stay Frosty is a go for today."
Kowalski played with his abacus while muttering and Private sent off vibes of concentration as he licked the outlines of his morning sardine. Rico gestured to him to come over. In the two weeks on the island, he'd added some comfort zone material to his duffel as he had not needed to before Skipper's rough time. "Akdjskvtlajlkicojijjjkkjo." Rico yanked a striped nightcap from his duffel, followed by three separate travel brochures for fjordphiliacs and a framed and glazed charcoal sketch of Miss Perky. He kissed the sketch before replacing everything to root around some more. His face lit up.
"Found wot you were lookin' for then, Rico?"
Rico pulled his stamp album from the slim duffel. "Ahuh." He flipped through meticulous pages that only he knew the organization for. "Homminahomminahommina ... ta-dahhh!" He pointed to a fighting fish stamp in a group with four bright others.
"Smashin' colors. So many all blend like they're strobin', sort of makes me dizzy. I'm gettin' ideas for a routine, I am. Oooh, there's one fish with just two colors, orange and white."
Rico patted Private's white chest and then his black back. "Neatr."
Kowalski put down his abacus to peer at the page. "Didn't the reptile house back home have bettas for a while? Pretty creatures. I'd never have eaten one of them on a Ritz cracker." He looked closer. "This simpler coloration is called dalmatian."
"Woof woof woof!"
"Yes, Rico, the dog." Kowalski grew cosmic. "Purity like that is um, pure. I like it. Pristine white, all colors together, contrasting with black, the absence of colors. White as the driven snow, black like Hans' heart, white as dolphin spray, black like the Eternally Foggy Sea --- "
"Earth to Kowalski, come in for a landing on Runway 404. Your party is waiting." Skipper chugalugged his coffee and downed his sardine with a hearty slurp. "Topside, team."
Rico tossed his stamp album atop his bunk until Kowalski frowned and then he replaced it in his duffel to stack with the others in the far corner where Faux Skipper presided. The wind whistled across the mouth of the ramp and when they breached the surface of their island, Skipper remembered Ma's insistence on wearing hats and thick warm mufflers during cold mornings. Well, he'd just need to stay active to counter the exposed areas of dimpled penguin skin.
"We need a new routine to jumpstart the day. Private, you mentioned Siamese fighting fish at one point?"
The young penguin studied his leader head to healing toe. "Righto, Skippa. Hmmm, K'walski, black and white aren't the only colors we show. We have orange feet and orange beaks and pink tongues."
"And bright blue eyes like yours, young Private."
"Yours, too, Skippa."
"Er, yes. Right enough. Well, then, onward. Hooha!" Their leader jumped one fifth his height to deliver a pulled karate chop at the youngest penguin's neck. "Do they fight like -- ugh --- this?" He landed with a wince. "Dammit. Ouch."
Kowalski assumed Routine Eight: Now I Will Teach And You Will Learn pose. "Easy, sir, you don't want a relapse. Siamese fighting fish don't pounce so much as posture and pretend they're not noticing each other when they're really sizing each other up. You know, like humans do at a bar." He half turned his back to them all. "Skipper, you can help me demonstrate. Fluff out all your feathers."
"That's not fair. My coat isn't complete!"
"Psssht, call it a handicap for a sandbagger. Everyone in this habitat knows that in a real fight you'd have the advantage over me in usual conditions."
Skipper fought down his fear that here near the top of the world he'd be at less than his best to confront Blowhole's plan. "Maybe." He fluffed what he had.
"We stare straight ahead while standing at angles and make like we're thinking about how to take down Burt when he's not looking."
"A full-grown pachyderm? All right. I'll stare ominously at one o'clock, you stink-eye at four." With a whisper between their flippers, commander and lieutenant hunched their shoulders and narrowed their eyes, calculating so hard that Rico swore he could hear their thoughts.
"Sir, snap little glances at me as we move to two o'clock and three o'clock." Skipper threw in a dirty look to make it seem like Burt was deadlier than Hans at his worst as he shuffled into position. He tapped into his fight might.
Kowalski arched his back and pointed his flippers down. "Then comes the attack posture."
"Like sharks do before they come at you ricing, slicing, and dicing? I like it!" Skipper arched to a small bow towards his toes. "Umph. That's all I've got."
Kowalski adjusted his near-circle to match. "We face each other for the final stare off." They stood nearly beak to beak as Kowalski used his greater height to advantage and fluffed his feathers in a fighting rage. Despite the mock nature of the combat, the atmosphere crackled with healthy competition.
Skipper squared his shoulders, as relaxed and simultaneously tense as he ever got in this familiar territory. He could do this. Kowalski was his second. Kowalski would not hurt him.
Kowalski mirrored the mood. His eyes were glittery. "Then pounce, like this." With a hi-yaaa! he aimed a softened sweep kick while Skipper pivoted out of the way on his uninjured foot on the thin skin of ice left over from last night's freeze. Like a dervish, the taller penguin spun around behind his leader, gently grasping the ankle of the extended foot and supporting the flipper that Skipper extended to balance himself. As in pairs skating, he initiated a limitations-cautious camel spin for Skipper and joined in one of his own to parallel as gracefully as Yukari Nakano's signature move.
Skipper landed from the camel spin to offer the full pecking and squawking maneuver which constituted Routine Number Two. He mouthed Kowalski's flipper tip as if scoring it savagely. He made a lot of noise about it. The two curled around each other in a bizarre whirlwind. Kowalski spun to Skipper's rear to secure a half nelson while deliberately forcing his opponent only to his knees to enable him to employ the half nelson countermeasure impossible in a full stomach-to-ground pin. At this stalemate, they caught sight of what Rico and Private improvised.
Going directly to ground work, Rico tripped Private the same time that Private tripped him. Rico set Private on his lap unexpectedly as he would to control a hatchling, but Private proved once again that he was no hatchling and the two had at it hammer and tongs. Each strained for a quick win as they rolled around a central axis until Private lay top Rico. In a split second, Rico flipped him until he hooked a solid right leg around Private's roly poly midsection. Next, he rolled Private on top of him back to chest and hooked the ankle of his crushing left leg behind the knee of his own bent right leg. He squeezed and Private grunted as he relaxed in surprise at the bold move. Rico used the brief window to slip his left foot between Private's legs from the back. At the same time, Rico's muscled left flipper captured Private's head in a choke hold. He braced his right flipper tip on the ground for balance and squeezed harder.
Private had time to consider Rico's bent for excess as he fought the hold in vain. He slapped the ground. "Give!"
At Kowalski's admiring "Wowza!" to his bunkmate's full throttle assault, Skipper used the break in concentration to clamp down on Kowalski's pinning right flipper with Skipper's own pinned right flipper. He squeezed as hard as he could and at his muted "Ow!", Kowalski disengaged. They both panted as they rolled backwards to prop themselves up with their flippers to see that Rico and Private did the same. After catching his breath, Skipper had a question.
"So male Siamese fighting fish kill each other?"
"Sometimes injuries are that serious, yes. A rare one may submit to the other's aggression and back off peacefully. Mainly, they rip each others fins and tails to shreds."
Rico had a question, too. "Ahgromtzgrrrrlz?"
Kowalski had to think a moment. "Male and female relations are even rougher and the body placement resembles what you and I just did, Skipper."
"The hell you say."
Once on a train of thought, Kowalski rode it into the terminal and up to the lunch counter. "In fact, Skipper, if you were female like we thought you were that time, I would build a bubble nest for our eggs. I wonder if our hatchlings would resemble you or me?"
"Hatchlings? Can't say I've ever given it much think melon time."
Kowalski continued into the lounge of the terminal, heedless of the ramifications of his words because it was all dispassionate science, of course. "I'd have to kill you now in the afterglow of our lovemaking if we were Siamese fighting fish. The females are not good parents like males are."
"Because females aren't er, um, uh, faithful to the team?" Skipper waved away a passing gnat.
"It's not that, sir."
"Crrrzy FIIIIIISSSSHHH!" postulated Rico.
"Fish aren't birds, Rico. Macaroni penguins are monogamous," threw in Kowalski.
"Fish or bird, I might not be able to pull monogamy off, either," Skipper said thoughtfully.
Private sounded wistful. "I'd like to think someone might make you want to try."
"It's not any of these things -- oh I'll just come right out and say it. Siamese fighting fish females sometimes eat their own eggs. Yeah. I know."
"Filter, Kowalski, filter! We talked about this!" Skipper gagged.
"It's not my imagination, it's pure science -- okay. All right." Kowalski tented his flippers. "What do you all think of the Rangers' chances to win the Stanley Cup this year?"
Private's train of thought still spun on the turntable at the roundhouse. He sat up to swivel his feet back and forth as he cast down his gaze. "I don't think I want to do this routine, Skippa. Siamese fightin' fish need to listen to Ole."
"Oh, relax. You only live once and if you work it right, once is enough."
Private looked askance at his commander. "That's wot you said when you pushed me into Escape Tunnel Number Four to test the new Animal DNA Specific Defense Shield. I didn't fancy that at all."
"Aw, I was only teasing. You'll like this, I promise. Buck up, I'll take you on with what Kowalski and I started while Rico and Kowalski practice what you and Rico just did. All I ask is that you modify the rough stuff because of my stupid condition."
"Will it hurt?"
"Maybe a little in the beginning until your muscles get used to it, like any new routine. Hey now, where's your Siamese fighting spirit?"
"Drinkin' a nice cuppa in a peaceful Buddhist temple?"
Skipper sobered. "We could forget the whole routine. Your call because you started it."
From somewhere deep inside, Private forged a forceful attitude. "No. I can keep up with you, Skippa. And K'walski and Rico, too. Let's dance all together." He put action to words as he leaped into a plié to surprise them while they scrambled to their feet. He dodged their mock attacks, he parried pulled punches as if he were fencing with two lightning fast epées, and he ended by dropping into a floor routine. They laughed and joined in by tussling and rolling except for Skipper, who dropped out after two minutes wheezing like Casey Jones' Cannonball Express whistle. Skipper cheered raucously as Private fell to with a passion while laughing like a loon. The youngest penguin staggered upright briefly for the win, and then he plopped himself down to sprawl backwards like his friends.
Skipper tiptoed between Rico and Kowalski's flippers as he clapped in slow motion. The action swerved from sarcasm to acute admiration at Skipper's broad smile.
By chance or design, all three noggins lay close together. Skipper leaned over them to mime taking a quick cameraphone shot and then he joined them on the ground. They gasped "Click!" together as their leader took an imaginary selfie of four redoubtable penguins ready for whatever the world could throw at them.
Sasquatch settled into lotus position as the evening wind whirled a candy wrapper from the western part of her habitat towards the east. The stone wall section caught it to join several more stuck there. She scowled. If it had sailed only a few more feet to the south, it would have disappeared through the fencing. Maybe it would have bothered Imelda's sense of order or better yet, the obnoxious penguins'.
From her perch atop the scaffolding, she closed her eyes to the pretty sunset to shut out an otherwise troublesome world. Images played behind her eyelids of irritating aquatic birds clawing at her and pulling her fur as they threatened to explode her from within. Ha, fat chance of that happening. She murmured her mantra and the images faded. She smiled and installed a more pleasant memory. Although it now felt normal to walk upright, she treasured vivid sensations of cattle egrets parading on her back as they picked off her parasites. Blowhole's change to her outside appearance may have initiated EMR parasite-repellent pulses, but there was nothing like the sense of providing nourishment to a fellow creature even if it did wear feathers and could fly. It was almost as good as nursing a calf.
She smiled again. Ahh, the thought of relief in itch-free skin under clear Nepali spring skies soothed almost any worry. Yes, her happy place was within reach. Perhaps a bit over one month or at most two, and she would see Nepal once more. A few snips from Blowhole's restoring procedure, a few days of recovery time, and she'd frolic with her herd on the warming Maytime meadows. Her individual future shone even brighter when she considered what she was accomplishing for her kind. Life was good for once.
Sasquatch passed her hand three times in front of her forehead. ::Hugo, the fix is in. You're coming with me.::
He must have been awaiting her mental call. ::Sasquatch, I'll believe it when I see it.::
::You'll be free from this place along with me. Blowhole said so.::
::You're trusting him again.::
::What choice do I have?::
::None, I suppose. When are we leaving?::
::The schedule isn't firm yet. It's less than two weeks if the artic comes through and we're loaded onto it. He'll hijack the artic and we're off.::
::Have you practiced looking pitiful? Like you're just dying for an animal friend?::
::I'm not much of an actor.::
::Try. Draw down your lips and then wibble them, avoid eye contact with your keepers and refuse food. Trust me.::
::All right. How about at your end?::
::I'm an expert at refusing food. I'm looking at where you used to be and sighing right now. My keeper is tidying my habitat.:
::And she doesn't see anything strange about you sitting and waving your hands around your face?::
::She just thinks I'm going senile. Oops, I'd better not push it too far or I'll be at the clinic before you know it and that will bollix our plans.::
::Break off with me and interact with her a little. Show affection.::
::Not my thing.::
::It will be. It must be.::
::There. I hugged her and looked winsome.::
::I have my moments. Now she's hugging me back. Urk.::
::I'm having trouble picturing this.::
::It's just as well. There won't be any orangutans in Nepal and I'll never need to hug again.::
::That's the word, ayam.::
::Hold the wire. The penguins are up to something near the admin building.::
::They are a wily bunch. Too much like busybodies for my taste.::
::The chief harami bull wants me to report on Blowhole to him. He says he'll make it worth my while. He claims helping animals is what his herd does.::
::Ayam, don't listen to him.::
::I'm not. I wonder what he meant, though.::
::I don't wonder about anything. What does it get you?::
::No time for debate, they're really making me curious. Talk to you later. Selamat Malam.::
Sasquatch clicked the metaphorical button to disconnect and stood tall on her vantage point. It wasn't tall enough. She jumped off the scaffolding to reach the ladder placed by the foot of the stone wall. It was only a six foot ladder. Sasquatch smiled grimly as she extended it to eighteen feet, locked the connectors and strung it between the scaffolding and the top of the stone barrier. Stupid humans thought she didn't know how to do this. She walked on the ladder as if on a tightrope and stood atop the capstones of the barrier.
There they were. Should she just watch or should she interfere? Would this affect her in any way? They might be all into helping animals and even people, but she wasn't. It was better to observe. The linden trees behind her habitat could offer no cover in their denuded winter state, but she jumped into the nearest one anyway. After climbing to about the same height as Kastelholm's frigid metal roof, she pressed herself to the trunk to diminish her silhouette. Peace descended upon her as she attained altitude. There was a great deal to be said for the satisfaction of being higher than others. It made feeling superior to them so much easier.
As usual, peace was shortlived. "Taile ke gareko saale?" Sasquatch muttered. One bird logrolled a cylinder next to the building. In the sputtering northern lights of early evening, the cylinder shot muted pastels from its matte metal. The other birds played around with a bucket dangling from a beam jutting from the admin building's ridge. There was a rope depending from the beam and Sasquatched supposed it was used to haul the bucket up and down. Workers had been on the roof repairing something earlier that apparently needed more than one day to complete. Were penguins on the roof yet? No, now one was on the ground. No, now one was halfway up. Was it the same one? It fell to the ground, got tangled in something, and shot up again. The others ran in circles. One stopped and put his flippers on his hips. He appeared to let this situation play out. At last the action stopped. The fallen one stumbled towards the calm one and offered long loops of something as if in tribute before collapsing.
Sasquatch blinked. Were there five penguins? One stood unnaturally still after swaying in the breeze. She recounted. Yes, five. What could this mean? She hadn't heard zoo gossip about another penguin's admittance, but then she was not chatty and the moose habitat was too large to overhear things easily. Maybe another had transferred in?
A scraping sound from far below attracted her attention. A white shape at the foot of the tree scratched the linden's bark rhythmically. When the white shape looked up, Sasquatch made out two dark eyes and a gaping mouth that might have been smiling, but wasn't. It was Imelda. The polar bear posed a watchful threat as she said nothing but continued to sharpen her claws. This could be bad. Could polar bears climb trees? Sasquatch could understand that her spying on Imelda's friends might bother Imelda. It was better to disarm the threat. As an alpha in her herd back home, she knew how to do this.
Sasquatch descended to a branch eight feet above the ground, contemplated the length of Imelda's front feet, and climbed back up to twelve feet. With good warning, she could clamber up to the next branch and go high enough to evade those claws and teeth on the bear's heavier body in the smaller branches way up top. She estimated that Imelda was too fat to climb fast or far. She hoped she was right.
"What are you DOING?" asked Imelda in a voice neither threatening nor friendly.
Now that she could see Imelda up close, Sasquatch thought a neutral reply was wise. She might be faster than a polar bear, but one stumble and she'd be hard put to evade three-inch eyeteeth and those freshly-sharpened claws. She tightened her grip on the tree branch. "Out for a bit of free air."
Imelda wasn't fooled. "I THINK you're thpying on the GUYTH."
Counterattack. "I think you're spying on me."
"Right ath rain, THISTER." Imelda strained upwards on the tree trunk, claws gaining purchase. If her paws were two feet longer, she could scrabble to the lower branch. She still could jump to it with some effort. "I don't like you."
Fair enough. Sasquatch dropped to a taunting squat on the branch. "Where I don't know you at all."
Imelda swiveled her head. "MARCUTH!" She backed down the trunk to drop to all fours, blocking her cub from approaching and all the while snapping wary looks back at Sasquatch. "Bad boy! BAD!" She cuffed him and he spun in a circle. "Not a GAME, THON!"
"Aw, Mom. I just want to help. I could, I know it! I'm a Cub Scout!" He glared at Sasquatch. "What's she done?"
Charge. "Yes, Mom, what have I done?" Sasquatch returned the glare at both of them. "Innocent until proven guilty, or don't you believe in that?"
Imelda placed her bulk between Marcus and the tree. "You nearly MURDERED a friend of mine. You don't get a THECOND chanth." Imelda growled low and Marcus backed away. "Thtand far from her, thon. Bad NEWTH."
Sasquatch rolled her eyes although she knew Imelda couldn't see it in the growing darkness. "I'm a mother, too, bear. Don't think I'd hurt any calf, rambunctious or not. I never have. What I want to do is secure the future of my kind. You polar bears have a stake in that notion, or so I hear."
Imelda lowered her head and swung it back and forth. "Thay WHAT?"
"Look, I'm just observing. Don't go ballistic on me. I'm curious about your guys. What's the crime?"
"Penguins smell fishy like we do. You smell" --- Marcus tipped his head back for a good long sniff --- "weird. Sort of like Bruce but different."
"Marcuth, no THWIMMING for a week if you don't go home right NOW." Imelda kicked backwards with one furred hind foot. Marcus sidestepped the push.
"But --- "
"Now." Imelda's voice softened. "There'th nothing here to thee. Mom will be back thoon. Now, thon."
"Awwwww --- okay."
"Kowalski, what the hell happened?"
Kowalski still couldn't focus his eyes. He put out a flipper and Skipper steadied him. "Horseradish. Brambleberries. Iceberg lettuce. Romaine hands. Russian fingers."
"Awwww, Rico, take him." Skipper pushed gently and Kowalski stumbled backwards into Rico's strong flippers. Private rolled the copper wire into handy loops before placing it on top of Faux Skipper's flat plastic feet to act as ballast in the brisk breeze.
"Skippa, I was closest and saw the whole thing."
Skipper had been optimistic at commencing Operation: Plug A Blowhole, but his mood had soured. He grumped, "All this because I'm not fit for full duty and couldn't stand support in our penguin tower to get up to the roof. Cheese and --- and --- "
"Nasty, soggy crackers?"
"Report, Private. Don't be cute or cuddly about it."
Private slapped his flippers to his side, their tips pointing to the outside of each ankle as per regs. "Reportin' in full, sir. Since we need copper wire stringin' from the computer to Faux You, K'walski figured to borrow the lightnin' rod's wire. He unfastened it from the groundin' part stickin' out of the um, ground, but we needed to go roofside to undo it from the rod. Rico pointed out the bucket hangin' from a roof ridge beam holdin' somethin' heavy with a pulley and rope to haul it up and K'walski said, "'Let's do physics and let the counterweight carry me up.'" Private paused. "Bad call lookin' back, sir."
"Well, then he undid the rope from its tie to the side of the buildin' and found out suddenly that the bucket was way heavier than he was. He got tangled in the rope and it pulled him up and then halfway up the bucket bonked his head a fair good one as it headed down. He still hung on to the top and I heard him say, 'The pulley's grabbed the tips of my braapin' flippers!' --- his very words, sir, sorry --- but even then, even then, Skippa, he broke one free to snap the copper wire from the lightnin' rod and on the way back down he pulled the wire from its fastenin's to the wall of the buildin'. Oh wait, I'm gettin' ahead of myself. Then the blinkin' bucket hit the ground so hard that it bursted its bum and the heavy tools fell out so now the bucket was lighter than poor K'walski. He dropped like a heavy Christmas puddin' and when he was halfway down and the bucket halfway up the br---bleedin' bucket whomped him another go at the head. He fell onto the sharp tools and got some right nasty cuts on his shins. 'Oh heck,' he said then and he must have lost his presence of mind because he let go the rope. The bucket dropped and --- "
"--- conked him again. Yes. Good report, Private, way to go. Why do these things happen only to us? And it's 'burst,' not 'bursted,' ain't that right, Kowalski?"
Kowalski approached, attentively supported by Rico. He rubbed his head and still looked dazed. "'Busted' is proper, too, Skipper."
"You okay, compadre?"
"I'm fairly decent. The headache will pass in two point seven five hours. I'm up for computer work, just like always."
"Rico, some TNT, if you please?"
Skipper tried to ignore Kowalski's muttering as the four clustered outside the admin building. "Plot Arcturus location from flagpole at the zoo entrance --- won't be able to see the lightning rod from inside the building --- azimuth --- circumpolar --- Ploughman --- red shift --- time is of the essence --- "
The admin building was fairly secluded from the animal areas and no humans remained in the zoo after dusk, so Skipper indulged Rico's need for noise and glitz. He'd used small amounts of plastic explosive rather than TNT. BANG BANG SPLOOP WHOOOZZZZLLLLLL went the C-4. At Rico's excited hop and high-one with Kowalski, the commander was reminded of how little, really, it took to make the demo expert happy. Not that it was his job to make his soldiers happy, he reminded himself, when survival and accomplishing the mission were paramount goals. He was about to approach the undone window with his team when Kowalski concluded calculating and paused. "Remember, no sliding, sir."
"Cripes with a clutch purse, yeah yeah yeah, all right already."
Kowalski noted the little grin. "No rolling, either."
The grin vanished as Rico spiked Faux Skipper through the window like a volleyball. "Okay, okay. Baby boost, activate!"
Skipper placed one foot into Private's cupped flippers and admitted surprise at the boost showing mature penguin strength. He forced himself to halt on the sill while the rest of the team leaped onto the good hardwood floor, slick and clean and absolutely perfect for sliding. He stepped out in faith without looking, and Kowalski and Rico eased him onto the floor as Private walked in worried circles under the window. The breeze swirled the sheers around the young penguin and he batted them away.
"We broke into the primate house and now we're breakin' into the admin buildin'. Won't somebody suspect? And we're the new animals on the block, we're obvious perps!"
Skipper brushed away a small tear. "You make me proud, young Private. Your righteous paranoia is flowering just like you are." He brought himself back from the brink of a head feathers ruffling. "I don't care what the humans or animals think. There's no Alice or Leonard here to suspect everything we do from breathing oxygen to stifling Ringtail whenever he gets on my, I mean our nerves."
"What did I tell you? Here's a computer left on!" Kowalski jumped onto the keyboard and hopped furiously for several minutes. Rico, Skipper, and Private gathered around to marvel at Kowalski's brain power. "Search for a Find iPhone app? No, he'd notice when it kicked in. Hmmm hmmm hmmm, think, Kowalski!" He focused on the copper wire at his side for a split second. "Do separate the wire, someone. It needs to be triple that length. Undo the three strands and twist the ends together."
"I'm on it, K'walski!" Private turned to and so did Rico and Skipper. Ten minutes later, a shiny length of wire was ready for duty.
"Done and done, mi amigo."
"Eh, got it? Good. Tie an end to Faux You, er, on the valve, I guess. Now I hook the other end to the port, yes like that, Kowalski, you're awesome. Skipper, push the balloon out the window and go take a running jump."
"Er, what the hamsteak?"
"To launch it, to launch it oh I forgot you can't Private take over for Skipper." Kowalski alternated between tapping on the keyboard and rubbing his head until his feathers resembled Rico's wild top.
"Righto, K'walski!" Private manhandled Faux Skipper through the window while Rico and Skipper reeled the wire out smoothly from near the computer. Through the window, Skipper saw the young penguin slide on the snow as fast as a Red Rhodesian Slasher could skedaddle while holding the balloon in front of himself. He let loose and Faux Skipper popped skyward adroitly. Private hustled back to the window to hold the wire and keep the wind from sawing it back and forth on the window's edge and possibly wear through its new thin gauge. "I'll handle it from here, Skippa."
Skipper turned to Rico and they high-oned. "Aw grown up," Rico said.
"Right a rooney."
Kowalski ignored them and got back to his task after he jumped down to scope Arcturus' position through the far window and hopped back up again. "Five more minutes to spy time." While he paused in thought, Rico whisked open the medico bag he'd produced in the usual way. He dabbed the cuts on his friend's shins with antiseptic ointment on a pledget and Kowalski didn't even notice. Another minute passed as he rubbed his aching head and then he shot bolt upright. His friends didn't dare interrupt his self talk as he walked himself through triangulation.
"I'm on Waze and it's free tracking and Blowhole's initiated the call. Now the signal is zinging to its nearest radio tower --- kazap kazing! --- and it shoots to Faux Skipper's antenna and into this computer, you sweet darling, I love you honey, and then it kites to Sasquatch's TV. Now we wait." He danced on the keyboard as he'd done in the past while stabbing his flippers at the numeric input pad several times. He hit Enter. "Wait for it -- wait for it --- little more --- signal strength wavering --- Blowhole please don't be on the mainland please please please --- tower receiving strongest signal draw its coverage radius now that's one point and the iPhone is somewhere in that ring --- now plot Sasquatch's TV radius and location overlap the two spheres narrower and narrower the location choices ha ha ha --- enter the signal strength from this computer next and where the three orbits intersect you have --- keep talking Sasquatch yammer at him some more don't quit now --- "
Sasquatch and Imelda observed the penguins vanishing into the jimmied window. "So they're doing who knows what in the admin building. Aren't you curious, bear?"
Imelda shrugged. "I trutht Kowalthki and if I know anything about them, he'th the one mething around human thtuff for thome reathon. He'll tell me if it'th important."
"Trutht but VERIFY," countered Imelda smugly. "Getth you THOMEPLACE in life, Thathquatch. Thay, why don't you have a REAL name?"
"It's enough to get by on. I have a real name in my herd." Gah, she hadn't meant to reveal so much and now Arcturus approached its rendezvous with the lightning rod. "I've got to get back to the stable. Is this going to be a problem with you?" Imelda had seated herself on the snow ringing the linden's trunk, so the dynamic between them was more relaxed and if not comradely at least in stasis. She placed her paws into her lap and Sasquatch breathed easier not seeing the claws that could haul a 400 pound harp seal from protecting ice cover.
Imelda tilted her head towards Sasquatch's branch and bared her teeth. "Doeth it need to be?"
"Whatever." Imelda could make noise to alert the penguins, she could get through the bars of the moose habitat fencing in the same way she'd gotten through the bars of her own habitat, she could ... It didn't matter now. Blowhole would call and his menace and capacity for helping her cause came first. "I'm leaving. Do what you want."
"Let them BE. Latht WARNING." Imelda glanced towards the admin building. "What the --- "
"Penguins can fly?" Astonishment pinged back and forth between the two alphas.
"I never heard they could! Kowalthki, what THECRETTH did you keep from me? Thomething'th THTRUNG behind him --- attached to hith --- it CAN'T be, that would hurt too much --- unleth they're even TOUGHER than I thought --- "
Sasquatch climbed swift as thought to the topmost branch she felt safe on. She took a good look at what bobbed in the breeze high above the building. Chortling, she felt she had to share this with Imelda, and it had been a long time since she'd felt the need to share with another female. She brachiated down to the branch only eight feet up from the white earth.
"You're not going to believe --- I mean, it's not what we thought --- oh harreram, it's a balloon of the head harami bull with a wire tied onto his, um, blow-up valve." Even this wasn't amusing enough to make her laugh full out, but Imelda was different. The aurora seemed to flare in sync with the polar bear's enjoyment of the sight, although Sasquatch thought gravely that it was probably her imagination.
"HOOO hooo ha ha! GUYTH, what are you up to? Do I WANT to know?"
No more time for ... fun, was this fun? She wasn't sure. Arcturus lay within minutes of its proper position. "Imelda, I'm leaving."
"Yeah, YEAH. Remember what I thaid, Thathquatch. Hoo me, hooooo, haha. GUYTH guyth guyth, what exthplanathion can THERE BE? Go for it, kidth! Whatever IT ith!"
"They're younger than me. Habit."
Shaking her head, Sasquatch made her connection just in time.
The conversation with Blowhole consisted of his explaining how Blue One and Two scouted around for a police supply store to steal a spike strip from, discovered there were no such stores on the peaceful island and wound up making do with a pilfered garden hose studded with something called two-penny nails. The exasperated dolphin insisted on explaining that two-penny nails would not be long enough to puncture an artic's tough tires and so seven-penny nails were needed. Sasquatch listened impassively to the long-winded explanation and thought of how this would all be a bad dream by the end of May.
"I made them go back for the right size and redo the whole hose." Blowhole cleared his blowhole and Sasquatch flinched at the bubbly squelch. "So how's things by you?"
There was a first time for everything. Sasquatch kicked the mini-beanbag chair that one of the noxious penguins had spewed and then left behind. "You've never asked that before."
"Keep minions deluded that I care about them, that's my new motto. No, really."
"I'm all right. Hugo is all right. We're doing hard time here, what do you expect me to say?"
"You get three squares and a roof over your head, old lady."
"So do you."
"I have to work for them. Those worms don't make themselves, you know. My other enterprises take work, too. I, um, appreciate that Skipper is out of the picture. That's all I wanted to say. Was there a weepy funeral for me to gloat over?"
Uh oh. Gratitude from him was not expected in the least. She kicked the mini-beanbag chair again to hear it crackle and rubbed the broken finger that had gotten sore with all the climbing. "I appreciate your appreciation and no funeral that I heard of."
"It's not like them. They loved him, I could tell. Why else would they haul his carcase all the way back to the zoo? My lorry didn't pick up audio, but its fish eye door peeker showed me two of them huddling while the littlest one held vigil or some rot. I assumed they were planning what to do with the body."
Shift, shift, shift the subject, subject, subject. "So what? Who besides his team would come to it? They're strangers here like me. The humans probably disposed of the body and he's on the dissection table or burnt up in the incinerator as we speak. By the way, Blowhole, Hugo doesn't know about me being a yak. Can you keep it that way?" Push for concessions while someone displays partial vulnerability. It always used to work in her herd.
"Would it do me any good if he knew? It's your business." Blowhole did the dolphin equivalent of shrugging. "Why would he think you are hot to trot back to Nepal, though?"
Sasquatch sighed. "He believes me to be a true sasquatch and related to him somehow. He'll probably try to convince me to travel with him to Sumatra after we stay awhile in Nepal. Just keep quiet about the whole issue."
"A please would be nice."
The word set her disgruntlement sense tingling. "Please." This conversation had gone on long enough. "So it's settled."
"Whatever. Blowhole out."
Kowalski slumped back. "Got it. Holla!"
Thanks again to the lurkers -- you know who you are!
Kowalski strutted his stuff. "Blowhole is approximately six miles away from us, to the north of the Mariehamn Airport. Waze showed location as the main road and he may be on a smaller offshoot, but all of the island is so near any stretch of water that he might have a base of operations in the water itself, too. Triangulation the way I did it is less accurate than other methods. I couldn't risk anything else or chance alerting him." He prodded his head under the ruffled feathers and winced. "Our zoo, I mean Åland Zoo, is on the eastern edge of the island's peninsula and we'll need to trek six miles somehow without us stressing over stressing your health, sir."
"Too late," Private piped up.
Kowalski hit Delete and hopped down to handle the sitch known as Optimal Way To Proceed Without Sending Skipper Into The Stratosphere. "Face facts." He chose the blunt approach. "You can't waddle that far and you're off the sliding scale of um, sliding, so we need transport. I don't think the Q32 bus or Lexington Avenue #6 train goes in this direction."
Private tittered and Rico humphed, yet Skipper's expression remained sour. He slapped the desk similar to the one he would be stuck at now if the Inflatium had not popped to its unexpected end. Naturally he would have been relieved to be alive and he could have avoided battling Sasquatch, but the tedium of a desk job --- no. It was a call made for him and he was glad. What felony was Hans up to these days? He was jerked back to the present when his troops shuffled out of the way of his pacing.
"Damn. Sasquatch, you have a lot to answer for." Skipper paused to stare out the window as the sheers riffled and the view showed the aurora gaining strength. "The sooner we get her to spill her guts about her boss, the better. I'm going to roust her out on the way back. I refuse to risk this unit with insufficient intel about giant worms." He crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. "Rommel's desert peach, do you ever hear the words that come out of your beak sometimes?"
"K'walski, I'll be gettin' the wire back into place on the roof. You stay put and mind the headache."
"Thanks, Private. I'll reconnect it to the grounding." Kowalski leaned against the computer desk leg and kicked back to enjoy being sidewalk supervisor. "Retwist the wire counterclockwise, if you please. Rico, return the helium tank to the balloon stand without trying to make your voice sound funny."
Kowalski waddled to the window and pointed. "Skipper, see the willow tree overhanging the fountain by the main entrance flagpole?"
In the aurora, the flagpole's finial changed colors and the fountain's bubbling spray looked more exotic than anything Skipper had seen on his many travels excluding Atlantis. He became poetic thinking of that magical place and his spirits lifted. "The weeping willow tree brushing its sorrowing osiers over the limpid frost-rimed pool?"
"Yes. I need some of its bark."
"Bwahaha! Oh. Um, you don't know that willow bark contains a natural painkiller. If I chew it, the headache will go quicker. I'm only sorry it wasn't available when you needed it most, sir. We were trucked into our habitat using the service entrance and I didn't realize the tree was there."
"Pshht, I'm alive, right? Sure, I'll peel you off some." Skipper faced the window. "Boost me." Kowalski obliged and Private and Rico caught him on the outside before turning to their own tasks. In the deserted office, Kowalski sneaked a look around and then kissed the computer goodbye before leaving.
The roof access proved a small obstacle. Holding the wire's end in his beak, Private hopped from brad to brad on the building's wall, using the wire's original fastenings as he would rocks on a rockclimbing wall. By keeping up swift momentum, he powered through the climb as he deployed toes and flipper tips until he reached the overhanging beam with the depending pulley. Giving it a dirty look, he backflipped atop the beam with ninja grace. It was the work of a few seconds to twist the end back tightly onto the lightning rod's stub of snapped wire. He descended and by the time he reached bottom, Rico had returned.
"Fireinnahole! A-a-a-a-a-a-a!" Like a tommygun, Rico spat new brads to secure the wire again onto the wall. "Bingo!"
"Bingo!" Kowalski tied off the other end to the grounding. He high-oned Rico and Private.
Rico smoothed down his friend's head feathers gently. "My fing."
"I wouldn't have it any other way, bunkie."
"Wot's that you got, Skippa?"
Skipper proffered the willow bark. "Class Six supplies for Kowalski. He's gone organic hippie on us." Kowalski chewed as Private thought hard.
"Class Six? Aren't there only five classes of military supplies here in NATO country?"
"I hold to the Ewe Ess of Ay ten classes even in Atlantis, soldier. FYI, Finland and Sweden do not belong to NATO, but Denmark and Norway do. Go figure."
Private looked confused. "I'm thinkin' politics is over my head, Skippa. Ole comes from Norway and he's such a peaceful chap. I wonder where he is now."
Kowalski spat out the bark. "Oops, sorry, Rico. Dratted wind. Sir, I suggest we head for the moose habitat if you're set on poking the sasquatch."
Faux Skipper bobbed a Romanian tangler maneuver in the breeze as Skipper shivered. The wind got to the small bare bits of skin he still displayed. "Yeah, keep on the move. Form up."
Rico held tightly onto the balloon-dolly-soccer ball-antenna as they set out.
Private trod along at the rear of the column nursing his grudge. Sasquatch was an assassin and why his commander thought she could be of any use except as a Bad Example he could not fathom. He fought down the anger he felt at the whole upcoming meeting into a tiny ball and swallowed it like he swallowed the lutfisk: with resentment and dyspepsia. As they slipped through the bars of her habitat and paused to reconnoiter under the tire swing, he could not keep his face disciplined and Rico noticed.
"'Rivate." Rico patted his belly with his one free flipper as Faux Skipper fought to regain the skies. "Clss Five."
Yes, right as rainbows, Rico contained ammo enough to do in a sasquatch if she tried anything against the team. Private would have been happier if Rico could contain Class Seven supplies, but a tank was out of the question at least from Rico's gut. It must have put a severe strain on him to belch out the medico bag whenever the team needed it. He nodded and poked Rico's belly with a smile.
Skipper noted the byplay. "We get violent on my mark only." All was dark and quiet within the stable. "Move out."
The commandos caught Sasquatch asleep as she curled by the space heater. Skipper edged nearer to the warmth himself to stop his beak from chattering before he spoke. "Wake up, Sasquatch." He gave the signal for light and instead of Rico's usual upchucked Maglite, Kowalski remembered that she kept the remote to the 52-inch television set on its top and turned the channel to the unused station they claimed in their own habitat.
She did that yawning and stretching thing that reminded him of Private and the similarity took him off guard. "Whuh? What do you harami want now?" She didn't bother getting up. "Brrrr."
He was within grabbing distance of the long arms and put up his guard again. "Never mind that. Has Blowhole convinced you yet that he's out only for him?"
She pressed closer to the heater. "Pblblblblbl. I knew that."
He threw her a curve. "We know where he is."
She batted to midfield and ran to first. "Good on you."
He switched positions and threw her out with a clothesline. "We're going to stop him."
Now she got out of bed. "He's important to me and my kind and now Hugo. Don't." She was tall and strong and a proven danger. The three little able-bodied penguins in an attack stack would barely reach her waist. They didn't waver as their leader continued.
"Tell me what you know about his worms and when we stop whatever on earth he plans to do with them, we might not need to go ballistic on his shiny hide that feels surprisingly pleasant to the touch. We know part of the story already." Hybrid giant venomous worms stank of an unholy alliance between Dave's and Blowhole's capabilities and bent for mind-blowing egotism. Blowhole was the more dangerous foe because he, like Dave, had no qualms about warping Mother Nature's goals by using her own processes against her, but unlike Dave, he showed broader vision than a grudge against penguins and other cute creatures. Maybe it was because he was a mammal rather than a shape-altering cephalopod. He waited for Sasquatch's reply as his shivers disappeared.
"Oh, that. The worm thing." Her sagittal crest's fur flattened and she waved in their general direction. "All this gidi over worms?"
"Huge. Poisonous. Dangerous. Worms."
"That are capable of living on land or sea, on icebergs or off." Kowalski preyed on her mountain loving sensibilities. "On glaciers. On mountains. They don't even need much water to survive."
Skipper pushed for any sense of decency. "One human crab harvester may have been killed already. She was lost overboard in mysterious circumstances after describing a giant worm to her co-worker." This was exaggerating things. Life on fishing boats was hazardous in the extreme and Sven's theory of Messy subterfuge and the Longing linus kinds of worms hybridizing their individual abilities didn't emphasize danger to humans. He looked closely for some sign of empathy.
She was a slick customer. One corner of her mouth lifted suspiciously. "Did this jibberjabber about worms come about after you did who knows what in the humans' habitat?" She seemed to want to level the field by giving tit for tat with intel. "I saw you tonight." She jerked her head towards where Rico had secured Faux Skipper in the manger.
Well played. "We did what was necessary. It's our job to help animals and sometimes humans, I told you that already." There was no sense in letting slip that they knew she was actually a blend of two animals. Mentions of Dave's lab would also be unwise.
"Do you know about Blowhole's Agent 12?" Her smirk caught on one of her broken teeth and she rubbed her lip quickly.
Damn. A changeup. "We might." They didn't. Grant's Special Blend, they didn't.
She put her hands on her hips and leaned down close enough so that they could see the fur on her head sticking out the way that fur did in windy static electricity-ish weather. Private broke protocol and placed himself in front of his leader. "Here now, don't you try anythin'."
It was important to present a united front and so Skipper did not slap although he wanted to. "Private."
"I --- she --- you ---"
Rico pulled back the young penguin as Kowalski redirected attention to Operation: How To Grill A Sasquatch On An Apartment Balcony Hibachi. "Sasquatch, I suspect Doctor Blowhole was actually Mad Doctor Blowhole to you. Care to elaborate?"
She was rocked as she surveyed four determined penguins, three of them in combat ready stance. "Not your business."
Skipper followed up to his lieutenant's carefully phrased question. "We can play this game all night. We'll leave if you give us something we can use." He hammered hard. "What the hell would Blowhole do with giant worms?"
Sasquatch trembled and despite everything, Skipper felt like a bully. "I don't know. He made them somehow. I don't understand any part of his plans except how he wanted to use me to murder you. He's going to pay me for that." She sat in a heap suddenly. "But he never will now, will he. You'll be after him and he'll know I failed to squash you like a, a worm." She looked inward. "I don't want to kill anymore for any reason. What will be, will be."
Rico burst forth for the first time. "Ah-kwatchgrbbystnkykillrfrmny?"
"Rico! Stand down!" But it took Kowalski's firm flippers on his beak and Private's tackling his ankles to stop the spew of violent content from him. He shrugged them both off to cross his flippers over his chest and glare daggers at the breaker of his usual happy-go-lucky mood.
Sasquatch regained some composure. "Whatever." She drew up her knees and locked her arms around them. She rested her head on her knees before looking straight at them with dry eyes. "You harami. You've done me in."