By John W. Nowak
FAIR WARNING IS HERE GIVEN What follows is a brawling, rowdy, two-fisted tale of technology, of the mice that love technology, and of the chipmunks that love the mice that love technology. If you are offended by terms such as "angle of attack", "hypersonic regime", and "turbojet" or by the notion that Gadget Hackwrench is an engineer, I encourage you to check it out anyway.
This story is lovingly dedicated to the Bernoulli Effect. We owe you so much.
God forgive his fall from grace
the sea conceals his resting place.
Can we learn to stay behind the line?
If we have the means to fly
Some of us will surely die
Being reckless was his only crime.
-- Too Close to the Sun, by Alan Parsons, Ian Bairnson, & Stuart Elliot, (c) BMG Music Inc., 1996
1. Falling Eagle
The seat was sloped backwards to begin with, so when _Falcon_ was ready for launch, Geegaw's hips were higher than his head. It was uncomfortable, but he had spent hours in this position during centrifuge training and he wasn't about to start complaining now.
"T-180 and counting," came a soft voice through the speaker behind his head. "Final communications check." Nibbles' voice. Nibbles and her husband Peanuts were ferrets, and had done most of the work on the airframe and design of _Falcon._ Nibbles was also the range officer and capsule communicator of Ultra-Flight Laboratories.
"Communications check," Geegaw rattled off. "Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Dog, Echo -"
"-Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India," sounded the speaker.
"Check clear," Geegaw agreed. "Green across the board my end. Sealing cabin," he said, closing a valve.
"T-120," Robert announced. He pushed a finishing nail into a small hole on the board in front of him. The nail closed a circuit and a light winked on. "Ignition system has continuity." Robert was a black squirrel, who had designed and constructed the propulsion system of _Falcon_, both the air breathing turbojets and the solid fuel rocket engines which would give _Falcon_ the boost she needed to take off.
This was the part Geegaw dreaded; waiting while knowing someone else would be pressing the button that ignited the engines. He had argued for putting the controls inside the cockpit, but the added weight and wiring made that too difficult. It wasn't that he lacked faith in Robert's ability to press a button, he just preferred to control his own aircraft.
"Right, Geegaw," Nibbles finally said lightly. "Put your head back or Robert's boosters will do it for you. Tee minus ten. Nine. Eight..."
The pressure on launch wasn't too bad. Both boosters fired - personally, Geegaw had wanted a single, bigger booster but Robert had argued the safety of using commercially available Human thrusters outweighed the risks of clustered rockets - and _Falcon_ smoothly cleared her launch rail. Geegaw had expected a violent lurch at that point, but _Falcon_ was heavier than the ballistic test rockets he had ridden during training. There was some shuddering but he had gone through worse in rehearsal.
Within six seconds, the wedge-shaped _Falcon_ was passing five hundred miles per hour. No mouse had ever traveled so quickly, except when hitching a ride from Humans. The pressure was slackening; the boosters were burning out. The cockpit windows didn't go down as far as Geegaw would have liked, but the canopy over his head was transparent. He could look up and see the horizon. Clear, blue skies and the rich, green hills of upstate New York. It was steady, and then rushed out of view, as the _Falcon_ began its transition to horizontal flight. He lowered his head, and saw the horizon as the craft tilted over.
The horizon was slightly skewed, but nothing to worry about. Then the horizon climbed up too high, and there was a jerk that pushed him straight down into his seat. The horizon vanished, and reappeared.
"Oops," he said out loud, and remembered to add a laugh. Gadget was in the blockhouse. "Bit of a bump in the roller coaster, there."
"Roger that, Geegaw," Nibbles laughed back. "From the side it looked like the letter 'S'. You're looking sweet now, though."
"Smoother than I figured," Geegaw assured them, mostly for his daughter's benefit. "If I close my eyes it's like standing still."
"Manual control can begin in five. And four, and three..."
Chunk. The two booster rockets dropped away. They would deploy a parachute once they slowed down.
Geegaw adjusted the stick fractionally, and the horizon evened out. "The automatics gave me a bit of a roll," he explained. "About ah... ten degrees. Recovery was smooth; my controls are neutral and she's holding steady."
Air rushing through the jet engines spun the turbines. Unlike many other turbojets, the ones on _Falcon_ had no self-starter; air had to be flowing through them at almost 200 mph before they would ignite. Geegaw flipped a switch that injected fuel. "Starting engines," Geegaw said. There was a soft pop from behind him. "Engine start confirmed."
"Roger Geegaw, you have turbojet start at T plus eighteen seconds."
Geegaw's ears hadn't popped. The cabin was holding pressure. There was no oxygen system, since he would not exhaust the air in the cabin before the flight was over. _Falcon_ was climbing at fifty degrees, accelerating. The throttle was barely above idle. Nevertheless, the meter long metal triangle was drawing close to six hundred miles per hour, on a climb. Impressive, even by Human standards; _Falcon_ was already outperforming some low-end fighters. He knew that flattening his flight path and opening the throttle to Military power would send him past Mach 1. Tempting, but the first flight was supposed to be conservative.
"Geegaw, you've broken both speed and altitude records for rodent aircraft," Nibbles said into her mike. "And both in a climb." Conservative for _Falcon_ wasn't very conservative at all.
"Thank you," Geegaw said, grin splitting his face. He frowned as Monty's last words with him came back. _That's a lot of experiments to pack into one airframe, mate._ Good old Monty, probably reacting to the aesthetics of the plane instead of the -
_Stop letting your thoughts wander._ "I'm going to throttle back and shed some speed," he told Nibbles. _Falcon_ would stall - would be moving too slowly to remain airborne - at roughly 80 miles per hour. He idled the engine. Gravity and drag made the glowing numbers on the altimeter slow their increase.
"I'm going to level out," Geegaw informed ground control, and pushed the stick forward. The nose shot downwards. Geegaw had to fight himself to keep from yanking the controls back into the neutral position. Geegaw looked forward, shocked. He had to tilt his head back to see the horizon. He had gone from a steep climb to a steep dive in an instant.
"Geegaw, you're losing altitude."
"I think she overcontrols in pitch," Geegaw said, gently coaxing the nose back up.
"That would explain the bump in the roller coaster," his daughter muttered out loud. "The computer overcontrolled, and overcorrected..."
Geegaw glanced at the digital altimeter. The highest flying rodent aircraft, and he had already lost nearly one third of his altitude. He pulled the stick back firmly. The horizon moved smoothly back to where it was supposed to be.
Then the engines shut down.
"I've got a flameout on both engines," he explained.
_A flameout is not a big deal,_ Geegaw told himself. "I'm going to dive for speed and restart them," he said out loud.
He pushed the stick slightly, and again there was the dizzying overcontrol. He had expected it, but it was still annoying. After a few moments - a few thousand feet - the soft pop behind him made him grin. "Engine restart," he explained. "I'm going to level out and try to slow her down a bit. I think the pitch might be more controllable there."
He pulled the stick back. The horizon dropped. It began to drift too low for him to see, as the nose pulled back too far.
"Geegaw, you're at five thousand feet."
The engines choked and died.
"Flameout," Geegaw said briefly. He tilted the stick forward, to restart the engines another time. "I'm requesting permission to make an emergency landing. Something's not right here."
"Permission granted. Abort the test."
"Someone get her out of here," came Robert's voice, from behind Gadget. Gadget pretended she didn't hear, and of course, everyone else was too busy to obey Robert anyway.
He had lost a lot of altitude, but he reminded himself that he was still well above the operational ceiling of most of the aircraft he had ever flown. He had plenty of time. The altimeter was scrolling down faster than a bomb timer in a spy movie.
Pop. "Engine restart," he said in a flat voice. He began to pull out of the dive. The nose jerked up. "Where's the darned horizon?" he asked, annoyed. Then, a lurch.
"Flameout," he repeated. There was silence from the ground. Geegaw assumed, incorrectly, they were trying not to distract him.
"Geegaw, bail out," Nibbles ordered. Loss of signal. _Falcon_ was too low to hear.
Geegaw pitched forward. Plenty of altitude left for one last try. Pop. "Engine restart." Now the ticklish bit. Each time he had pulled his nose up before, the engines had died on him. So he moved the stick back as gently as he could. Perhaps he had lost the fuel feed to the engines while pulling up. It wasn't unheard of.
He looked up at the hilly landscape rushing close. And he realized he wasn't going to make it. He didn't have time to say goodbye, or even think it.
The design in the blueprints certainly didn't look cutting edge. Long, tapered wings nearly the length of the entire aircraft, a tail section that looked more like a skeleton; _Peregrine_ resembled a typical low-powered, high endurance glider. Looks were deceiving. Nibbles chewed her lip and frowned. _Peregrine_ would need a long runway - would it be more practical as a flying boat?
Clayton stuck his head in through Nibbles' door. "You asked to see me?" he asked.
Nibbles looked up. "No," she said blankly.
Clayton smiled and nodded. "Exactly. And _that's_ what I'd like to talk to you about." The tall black squirrel closed the door behind himself and sat, as though daring her to throw him out.
Nibbles covered her eyes and sighed. "Clayton, you are here to talk to me about that new brand of glue, aren't you?"
"Something even more exciting than that," he assured her.
"This had better not have anything to do with reopening the investigation into the crash of _Falcon,_" she stated.
"Actually, it involves _Peregrine,_" he said to her astonishment.
"Wow, Clayton, you come unannounced into my office to discuss your actual job. I'm impressed."
He ignored the sarcasm. "As you know, the original X-6 never actually flew with a nuclear engine. However, they did fly a reactor in a conventional aircraft as part of the experiments." He waited expectantly.
"Go on," she encouraged him, certain she would regret it.
"I think we should do the same with the Nimnul generator."
"A nuclear reactor entails a lot more risks than flying a Nimnul generator," she objected.
"True, but there's something to be concerned about. The Nimnul generator's reliable, but nobody's ever used one without grounding it before. A buildup of static electricity in the aircraft might attract or even provoke lightning strikes. And the designer mentions the possibility of ripping a hole in the fabric of the space time continuum."
"That's a good point. What are you proposing?"
"First, we send up a Nimnul generator in a tethered and electrically isolated balloon. Then, we send one up in the _Peregrine's_ airframe, but with _Peregrine_ using an alternate power source in case the generator needs to be shut down."
"By alternate power source, you mean-"
"Well," Clayton said slowly, "now that you mention it, Robert's turboprops _would_ be ideal -"
"Robert's turboprops are very similar to the turbojets that failed on _Falcon._" As soon as she said it, she realized she had sprung the trap.
"Nibbles, until the fault in the engines is isolated, that is and will remain nothing more than a rumor."
"Clayton, I appreciate your interest in the _Falcon,_ and your suggestion about balloon experiments for the Nimnul generator are well taken - despite your obvious ulterior motives. _Falcon_ was a dead end. For Geegaw Hackwrench, literally. There's nothing to be gained by opening old wounds."
"Sometimes they need to drain." Clayton mentally gave himself a demerit. He had actually expressed an honest opinion.
"Once you've finished evaluating that new glue, I want you to open discussions with the mouse who designed the Nimnul generator used on _Albacore._"
"Widget Hackwrench." Clayton nodded. "Say, is there any relation?"
"Probably not," Nibbles shrugged. "Geegaw's daughter is named Gadget."
Three people named Geegaw, Widget, and Gadget Hackwrench and they're not all related? There was something familiar about the name "Gadget" ... "Isn't Gadget a Rescue Ranger?" Clayton was impressed.
"Yes, that's right. Geegaw did have a daughter named Widget, but she didn't survive infancy." Nibbles wasn't lying; she was telling the truth as Geegaw had known it three years ago.
"I'm on it, chief." Clayton nodded and ducked his head. Nibbles found herself wishing he weren't an excellent tester and negotiator - and that she had an excuse to get rid of him.
Dale's long and patient wooing of the Cathode Ray God was being rewarded that night, and in spades, with a celebration of Robert Lippert. _Rocket Ship XM, Lost Continent,_ and _Jungle Goddess_ in one evening, followed by a break, and _King Dinosaur_ the next morning.
The crew of the "XM" were flying back to Earth in their spacious ship, and Dale was wondering how the film makers of the 1950s felt when they realized the first vehicle to actually make the flight to the Moon had about as much room as a walk-in closet, when he heard someone coming down the stairs.
That, in itself, was unusual: normally they preferred to use the slide coming down. Dale looked up and saw it was Gadget's long-lost sister, Widget.
She had given him a bad fright a few nights ago. While Dale was under the influence of an actually scary film, for a moment Widget looked like her sister's ghost. She had an albino's white fur, pink eyes, and gray hair. The smile Gadget usually had was only rarely on Widget's solemn face; the closest Widget normally got was something that looked unpleasant and sarcastic. She replaced her sister's open warmth with a guarded watchfulness. What was most unsettling was Dale's odd feeling that they were not so much different people as different aspects of similar personalities. Not so much fire and ice as a cozy hot water bottle ... and ice. Dale considered it a bizarre, cosmic joke that Widget was the first of the two to marry and get pregnant.
"Can I get you anything?" Dale asked, concerned.
"No thanks." She used her arms to lower herself gently onto the couch next to him. The shift in her center of gravity had blown her sense of balance completely.
"Positive, thanks." She gave one of her rare, pleasant smiles. "You've all made me feel very welcome, all things considered."
Dale thought for a moment. "Monterey's so happy you're alive he isn't considering. Gadget's very trusting, and you can discuss thingamabobs somewhere near her level. Zipper's naturally nice, and Chip thinks you've reformed."
"Thinks I've reformed," Widget repeated.
"He does, but you haven't." Dale frowned. "You see, we mostly think in terms of good and evil. You think in terms of friendly and hostile, and now Gadget is someone you want to protect. You don't make moral judgments, so much as you make tactical decisions. Do you disagree?"
Widget looked at Dale with something close to admiration. "And what about you?"
Dale shrugged. "I find it easier to swim with the current."
"You are a chipmunk of Tao."
"Besides, you do treat people on your side well. I appreciate the way you thanked Monty for trying to fish you out of the river when you were a baby. I think that helped him get over dropping you in the first place. I can't deny you have class, when you want to. Popcorn?"
"Thank you," she took a kernel and bit into it. "Do you think Gadget's trust is misplaced?"
"Yes and no," Dale admitted. "Heck, I believe you'd help any of us any way you could and you wouldn't consider the cost."
"I'd consider the cost," she objected.
Dale shook his head. "Only to dismiss it. You underestimate yourself. No, you're an excellent friend. You're only a danger to your enemies and to the general public."
"That's fair," Widget agreed thoughtfully.
"And I think the next time you do something really hideously evil, it'll hurt Gadget's feelings."
Widget nodded and took another kernel. "Gadget's a bit naÔve," Widget agreed.
"Or she's more ethical than you," Dale pointed out.
Widget shook her head, impressed. "Jeepers, you don't believe in mincing words, do you?"
"If you're offended, I'll stop."
"If you say something that isn't true, I'll get offended."
"So, Widget," Dale asked pleasantly, "I think your worst trait is this obsession you have with destroying your enemies. Why do you have that?"
"I dunno. Because it works?"
"It also makes you new enemies."
"And _you_ don't have enemies?" she shrugged. "You can be a wolf or a sheep."
"Or a sheepdog," Dale said, matching her gaze.
"A helpful guardian? Did I tell you about my crime fighting days?" Widget asked.
"You used to be a crime fighter?" Dale asked, amazed.
"I was sort of in Gadget's position here." She wiped her hand delicately on a napkin. "We were going to save the entire lower east side. I stayed in my workshop, and whipped up cool stuff for them to use on their missions. When Rat Capone's gang showed up, it was pneumatic needle guns using carbon dioxide cartridges. The people were behind us, at first. If they couldn't fight, they shared food with us."
"What went wrong?"
"We won, but we didn't stop eating. The line between vigilante and gangster isn't really that thick. I don't know when we crossed it." She fell silent a moment. "If I ever get hauled off for final judgment, that's what I'm going to ask about. Not about why evil is rewarded everywhere you look. Not why the innocent suffer. I want to know why it's possible to have a good intention, act on it, and have it hurt someone else. That's the bit that never made sense to me. Because I believed in what we were doing. For a while."
"What did you do when ... you thought better of it?"
She turned calm pink eyes toward him. "I couldn't just walk out. I had to unbuild what I built." She looked back at the TV. "I can still hear my friends. 'Don't worry - she's bluffing.' I'd like to think they never realized they were wrong, but I doubt it."
"I'm sorry it came to that." If Dale had the slightest suspicion she had taken it as calmly as she was discussing it, he would have been appalled. But he knew what friends meant to her.
"Then," Widget went on, "the locals threw me a celebration. Best block party since we threw out Rat Capone." She shook her head. "Do you believe intentions matter more than results? I'm an engineer. I don't think that way."
Dale was about to reply when he looked at the TV and watched, astonished, as the guy who was in _Sea Quest_ and his love interest crashed their spaceship and died.
"Wow," said Widget. "I never thought Robert Lippert had the nerve to do _that._"
"Neither did I," agreed Dale.
Gadget popped her head out of the bedroom she was sharing temporarily with her sister. "Rocketship XM?" she guessed.
"Good call!" Dale said brightly. "Popcorn?"
"Actually, Dale, I was wondering if we could talk about the popcorn? In the kitchen?" Gadget's voice was a bit tight and it was obvious she was annoyed. Widget pretended not to notice. With some nervousness, Dale went into the kitchen to wait for her.
Gadget wore a pair of stripy pajamas several sizes too big for her. She closed the door to the TV room. Dale was astonished at her first words.
"Dale, hold my hand." She held her hand out.
The chipmunk took the proffered appendage eagerly.
"How does it feel?" she asked.
"Nice," he said honestly.
"Soft?" she asked with a eyebrow raised.
"Well...callused," he admitted.
"Do you know how you get a callus? You start with an injury. Ideally, a blister. Then you drain the blister and hurt yourself in the same place again. Over and over, never letting it heal fully. Eventually you have a thick, hard layer of skin that can't be hurt. In fact, you can't feel anything with it."
"I know that."
"They can heal. Eventually. But it takes a long time."
"We're not talking about a callus. It won't go away on its own."
Dale and Gadget looked at one another steadily for a while. Dale broke the glance first. "I don't know. I don't hold any grudge towards her. But your sister is dangerous on a continental scale."
"I know that," Gadget said softly.
Widget was always at her worst early in the morning. She couldn't face breakfast this day.
Gadget, of course, was a morning person. She stood on the landing branch, bright and cheerful in the new sun. Resting on her and supported with a strap around her neck was an elaborate control panel. Some distance behind her was a device that resembled a plastic peanut standing on a tripod, with two four-bladed propellers parallel to the ground. In the peanut was a rag doll the size of a mouse pup.
"Isn't that th' Personal Helicopter?" Monty asked.
"Well, it used to be," Gadget said brightly. "Widget, I was going to give this to you after the baby was born, but I think you could use some time to practice with this." She flexed her fingers and slowly pushed the throttle forward. The propellers began to kick up to speed, and the device lifted slowly off the tree and into the air. "It's a helicopter stroller. Much easier than pushing some cart around, and it can go as fast as eighty miles per hour."
She sent it twice around the tree, which kept her from seeing the worried expressions on her friends' faces.
Chip was staring at the doll. Because of balance problems in the blades, it was vibrating madly. Wasn't shaking babies a bad idea? "Uh, Gadget, didn't you decide the Personal Helicopter was too dangerous?"
"Well, I added a special safety feature. Watch carefully." She brought the buzzing thing even with the branch, about half a meter away. Her finger hovered over a large red button. "I can demonstrate this part, because almost seventy percent of the airframe will be recoverable afterwards."
That was all the tip-off Monterey and Chip needed. "HIT THE DIRT!" screamed the chipmunk. Widget assumed he knew what he was talking about and threw herself to the branch. Chip had launched himself into a flying tackle to knock Gadget down, but crashed into Monterey who had hurled himself on a similar trajectory. Their stacked bodies became a living barrier between Gadget and the infernal device of her creation. Zipper ducked behind the tree, reasoning someone had to stay intact to pick up the pieces. Dale didn't budge.
The problem with ejector seats in rotorcraft is they have to fly through a large, spinning propeller. Gadget had come up with a typical solution: elegant and to the point, but rife with side effects. She mounted the rotor blades on an explosive bolt and released them before the ejection seat fired. She had reasoned that centrifugal force would toss them clear of the ejector seat.
She was right, as far as it went. She had neglected to consider the momentum which would carry them away from the ejector seat would carry them further. The first to come to rest embedded a quarter of its length into the tree next to Dale. The second went towards its creator. If Monterey had not landed on Chip, it is probable that Monterey's jacket would have escaped intact. The same blade went on to smash the control system Gadget wore, and then to slice off the bottom of a child's ice cream cone (which began to drip), and finally burst another child's balloon. This second blade seemed to possess no small amount of malice. The other six would remain unaccounted for.
Gadget, unperturbed, was watching the rocket climb unsteadily skyward. After a short burst of speed, the ejection charge went off, ejecting the doll and a small parachute. This was the part Gadget was concerned about. To simplify the lanyard arrangement connecting the payload to the parachute, she had set the seat to hang upside down after ejection. She was worried about the descent speed of the parachute, because it would land the passenger on its head.
But her worries soon became moot as the parachute disintegrated in the windstream. The doll continued a parabolic course, hit the statue in the fountain, bounced off, splashed down, and sank like a stone.
Dale reached out to the blade near him. He slapped the end with his finger, producing a loud and not unpleasing twang.
"There, you see?" Gadget nodded, satisfied. "This is a fine example of the design process in action. I used an A3-2T engine in the ejection system when I should have used an A3-4T to give it more time to slow down before deploying the chute."
Dale found that by moving one hand up and down the blade while it vibrated, he could change its pitch.
Monterey slowly got up. "You okay, Chipper?"
"No problemo," Chip assured him. "It's sort of like having a feather mattress land on you."
Dale was improvising a surprisingly good rendition of _For a Few Dollars More_ by twanging the broken propeller blade and whistling.
"You okay, Widget?" Chip asked. "No symptoms of stress induced labor?"
"Don't think so," she said briefly.
"Which question were you answering?"
"The second one."
"Aw, shoot," Gadget said, disappointed. "It may be a while before I can get the remote control working again. I might not have it ready by the time you give birth."
"Shucks," Widget said, concealing her relief.
"God works in mysterious ways," Monty said piously.
Foxglove's sonar, if one could hear it, sounded rather like the crackling of a plastic bag. She was operating in Search mode, transmitting slow, relatively low pitched pulses when something odd happened.
She picked up a strange signal from around the Ranger tree, something which by the Doppler shift seemed to be moving at a very high speed, but without moving. She had picked up the rotor blades of the helicopter stroller and experienced the same confusion felt by certain computerized targeting systems of the early 1980s. Curious, she shifted her sonar into Tracking mode. Instead of wide, slow pings, she raised the sound and pulse frequency, and focused the sound into a narrow cone centered on the odd signal. Since this returned a more continuous and distinct signal, it could be used to give better course data on a target than could her Search mode. Certain moths could tell the difference between the two sonar modes and would go into an evasive course when Search mode converted to Tracking mode - the nasty, deceptive things!
Then Gadget pressed the Eject button to demonstrate how safe her stroller was.
The target split apart. Foxglove couldn't sense exactly how many pieces it fell into - since she could only eat one bug at a time, she could only track one target at a time. Foxglove gave a gasp of horror.
"Oh no!" she cried out. "I broke it!"
A target started rising rapidly from the ruin. Foxglove heard the hiss of a venturi nozzle and realized it was a rocket of some sort. About two seconds later, the ejection charge went off, momentarily deafening her. Once that cleared up, she was able to detect a tiny bundle strapped to a chair.
Foxy folded her wings, going into a zero lift dive with a speed that would turn any fighter pilot green with envy. Her tracking radar chattered and hardwired circuits in her brain calculated target course and intercept course with a speed and precision matched only by recent developments in antiaircraft missiles. And she realized, with hideous certainty, that she was not going to make it.
Still, she tried; breaking off only when the baby bounced off the statue. Her eyes filled with tears, which barely affected her ability to sense the world. Like most bats, her ability to maneuver at low speeds was superior to that of most birds. She climbed and stalled to kill her speed, flipped over, and homed in on the concentric rings that marked where the baby had hit the water.
Foxglove was badly adapted to water. Her body was too lightly constructed to deal with a medium so viscous, thermally conductive, and heavy. Nevertheless, with heroic effort she was able to force herself down under almost eight inches of water to grab what she thought was a baby in one of her rear claws and flutter, sputtering, to the warm sun baked concrete of the fountain.
At first, she trembled uncontrollably. Water carries heat away from a body eighty times faster than air will, and Foxglove's body had lost a lot of energy in the last few minutes. Then, weeping, she turned to the pathetic body in her rear claw, which was better adapted to holding things than her wing was. It had felt soft, and Foxglove realized its little skeleton must have been pulverized. She reached down to pick it up. Like all bats, Foxglove's "hands" were the framework her wings were spread on. Her "fingers" were longer than the bone connecting her shoulder and elbow. She did, however, have an unwebbed thumb with a claw that could fold against her wing which enabled her to hold some things. She used it to lift the pathetic little baby to eye level, summoned her courage, opened her eyes, and immediately felt like a prize idiot.
She forgot or ignored the genuine - albeit misplaced - heroic nature of her rescue attempt while staring at the dripping rag doll. She sighed, shook her head, and flopped backwards onto the concrete to dry off. She would bring it back, of course, but flying over would take less energy than hopping over.
"It's a nice idea," Widget explained, safe indoors, "but the point behind a stroller is to keep the baby with you. I can't fly around at eighty miles per hour and hover, so there's really no need for my stroller to."
"Good observation," Chip agreed, his voice slightly elevated because he was in the next room. "And Widget lives in a submarine."
"Oh yeah," Gadget realized. "I guess you really can't use a helicopter inside a sub. But it would have been so cool," she said wistfully.
Widget's face contorted, and she nearly doubled over. It took a moment for Chip to realize Widget was actually experiencing a physical pain and not reacting to her sister.
"Did it move again?" Gadget asked eagerly. Seeing her sister's weak, nauseated nod, she put her hand on Widget's belly. Widget felt a kick like she had swallowed an angry mule and flinched. Gadget cooed with pleasure.
"Aw," said Chip with a wide smile, coming in from the kitchen with some slices of cheesecake on a tray. "May I?" he asked politely.
Widget nodded, and soon the chipmunk had his hand next to her sister's. Widget felt a moment of suspicion, but it was clear Chip wasn't taking the opportunity to close fingers with Gadget. The baby kicked, and Gadget and Chip yelped and tittered. Widget occasionally wondered why this sort of behavior wasn't annoying her. She attributed it to hormones flooding her brain. The possibility that it was expected from family didn't occur to her.
She put her half-finished thimble of Monty's Tasmanian Tea carefully down on the table. A metal container for hot drinks seems impractical unless you realize a thimbleful of boiling water cools to room temperature within a minute or two.
The older mouse was right; it did seem to settle her nausea. Still, she felt a sudden need to stir. "Pardon me," said, rising. Then, to avoid hurting their feelings, she explained. "Bathroom."
Chip and Gadget felt the same weird, glowy sensation of bliss and calm. They inhaled deeply, and released two perfectly synchronized sighs.
"You know, Chip said, trying to express this odd contended feeling, "I don't want to imply I feel anything for your sister but a respectful regard, but..."
"She's _sooo_ cute I could eat her up," Gadget agreed with a large grin.
"Exactly," Chip agreed.
A moment passed, and they heaved another two perfectly synchronized sighs. There is nothing as pacifying and serenity-inducing as someone else's pregnancy.
"Hey, Gadget," Chip said thoughtfully. "I was reading the book Monty bought on mice and pregnancy, and I noticed that Widget doesn't seem to be very, uh, big considering how far along she is."
"Ah," said Gadget, and her expression changed to a slightly worried one. "Doctor Skinner's concerned about her, so she's only carrying one pup. That's a new technique."
Chip mentally bonked himself. "I didn't know Widget's condition was that, uh, risky."
"Oh, Chip," Gadget sighed. "Didn't you wonder why Widget moved in with us so far before the due date? Why she's in town with a hotline to the hospital instead of on her submarine with a midwife? Why J¸rgen's going to join her such a long time before she's due?"
"I knew _Widget_ was nervous," Chip pointed out with some justice. "I didn't know for sure her _doctor_ was nervous." He hesitated. "I can't believe J¸rgen's not here. I would be."
Gadget grinned at him. "Even if you had to abandon a few cases to do it?"
"Not the same," Chip claimed. "The _Albacore's_ shuttling archaeologists to the middle of the ocean. I agree it's important, but the rats of Atlantis can wait. Cases can't."
"There really aren't any other research subs able to support a continuous midocean project like that. Widget said they had enough trouble rescheduling dry-dock maintenance to bracket her due date. As it is, I'm amazed that Widget's willing to take time off."
"Me too," Chip agreed reluctantly. He remembered how frustrated she had been when Dr. Skinner persuaded her that one day off was unrealistic. He changed the subject. "I'm glad they can help Widget."
"They couldn't do that when Widget and I were born," Gadget explained. "Maybe that's why mom died."
Chip nodded with a firmness and confidence he didn't feel. "Well, that was a while ago. They can handle things like that now."
"You bet," Gadget agreed, nodding with a firmness and confidence she didn't feel either. "Widget's got nothing to worry about."
Widget looked at the image in the mirror. Its pink eyes flashed back at her.
She and J¸rgen had agreed there wouldn't be any children before their marriage. She was too frightened over what had happened to her mother, and Dr. Skinner had confirmed her opinion. J¸rgen had agreed, despite his disappointment. He had been a U-boat commander when his son of an earlier marriage was born; now a widower, he had been looking forward to a chance to help raise a baby. So, when this had happened, Widget didn't have the heart to end it altogether.
Widget put her hands on the mirror. The right was covered with snow-white albino fur, the left a steel framework holding a watchmaker's dream of cogs and springs and push rods. When she was young she had stuffed her left sleeve with rags and stuck the end in her pocket so nobody would laugh at her. After years of refinement her artificial arm had become so perfect that with a long sleeve and glove she could work with people for months and they wouldn't suspect. It was useful, but she knew it was mostly there to fool others. Sitting inside herself, she knew how little the frightened and friendless little girl had changed; she didn't see the genius and confidence others could.
She folded her arms over herself, watching the mechanisms in her left arm flick and slide to accomplish the motion. She already loved her baby more than she could say, but she dreaded the possibility its life would be like hers. She didn't fully realize that her miserable childhood had been more due to the people around her than her handicap; all she could think of was what parts her baby might be missing.
Staring at the mirror, Widget saw something nobody else did: a genetic mistake, something that shouldn't breed. Assuming incorrectly that this was as obvious to everyone else as it was to her, she couldn't comprehend why everyone seemed so happy for her.
Foxglove was about to knock on the door when Gadget threw it open. "Oh, Foxglove!" she cried out. "You brought back Floppy."
"Yes, I found him in the fountain."
Gadget snatched the doll and gave it a quick hug. Wrung out water cascaded over the floor. "Despite everything, the recovery system brought him safely back," she proclaimed. "I guess that's a lesson to Certain People who are too skeptical," Gadget said in a slightly elevated tone, for the benefit of Monty, who stared back without a trace of shame.
"Actually, Gadget," Foxglove said slowly, blushing but determined to express her opinion, "I don't think an actual baby would have survived -"
"Foxglove," Gadget interrupted. "I'm almost done with ... Your Thing."
Foxglove gasped and smiled. "Really?"
"Moight thet thing be as nifty as th' helicopter stroller?" Monterey asked, a tightness in his voice.
"Even cooler," Gadget assured him, since she didn't want the old friend of her family to worry. She turned before she could see the look of horror on his face. Gadget put an arm around her bat friend and ushered her out of the room. "You know," Gadget told her, "I think we were wrong. A helicopter stroller might not be such a good idea after all."
"Really?" asked Foxglove, confused. "But what good is a stroller that can't follow you around?"
As they went into the staircase Monty nodded slowly. Now it made a crude kind of sense.
"You didn't break it," Gadget assured her. "I was testing the ejection system. By coincidence, that was when you went into tracking mode. There's no way your going into tracking mode could have made it explode."
"That's a relief," Foxglove smiled.
Foxglove wore a harness not unlike that of a parachute. She spread her right wing, revealing a complicated stainless steel device parallel to her body and attached at the front of her shoulder. It unfolded outwards, a simple three fingered hand emerging from its protective sheath in the forearm.
Widget's arm was supported within a metal framework made to match the contours of an actual arm, with a complicated set of springs to store and release energy to make the fingers move quickly, and even had elliptical gears to keep the motion from looking too machine perfect. Reasoning that there was no way or particular reason to make arms on a bat look "natural," Gadget had opted for a more simple and durable approach for Foxglove's new limbs.
Slowly and carefully, Foxglove reached her hand out to grasp the largest of five rings on the table. Teeth gritted in concentration, she lifted the ring up, threaded it onto the vertical rod of the "stacking rings" baby toy Gadget had made for her future niece or nephew, and released it. It dropped down into place with a clack.
"It's ... great," Foxglove said, eyes filled with wonder.
Gadget was enormously pleased and had to fight to keep from showing it. "It'll need some adjusting," she assured her friend. "And it'll be a little hard to use. Widget said it took her months of practice to use one to drink with, but she's more concerned with making her arm look natural than -"
Gadget realized she had blundered badly. Foxglove looked astonished. "Widget has an artificial arm?"
"Yes," Gadget admitted slowly. "But she's very sensitive about it, so please don't tell her I told you."
"I won't," Foxglove promised, and leaned forward to give Gadget a little kiss. "Thanks! I'll practice with them every day."
On her way out, Foxglove walked through the TV room, hoping to find Dale to give him a quick hug and spend a few minutes in shy contemplation of the perfection of his sonar profile. She wasn't disappointed.
"Hi, Foxy," Dale called out, and stood to return the inevitable hug. Foxglove paused only a moment, basking in his return signal. Then she squeezed him against the new arms. He yelped, more from surprise than pain.
"Sorry, honey," Foxglove apologized. She lifted a wing to show them to him.
"Wow. What are they?" Dale asked.
Foxglove felt a blush creep over her. She folded her wings back. She didn't want to show them off until she could use them well. "It's a little ... secret. Gadget built them for me." She kissed his nose. "Bye, cuddles."
"G'bye, Foxy. Maybe you can come back for dinner?"
"Nuh-uh. I've got an appointment. Bye!"
Dale smiled and turned his attention back to _King Dinosaur._ "Rockets used to assist the launch of our giant bombers are tested," intoned the narrator. The stock footage showed a heavy cargo aircraft of the late 1940s with attached Rocket Assisted Take Off, or RATO, pods. As the propellers spun, the rockets fired, kicking the massive plane off a short runway.
"No," gasped Dale. "NO!"
Incredibly, Dale left the actors and their narrator to reach Planet Nova alone so he could sprint after Foxglove. But she was already gone.
"This is the Rescue Rangers?" asked the tall black squirrel politely.
"You got it," Monty said cheerfully. "Wha' can we do for ya?"
Black squirrels were unusual in this part of the continent, but not entirely unknown. There was something odd in the way Monty was feeling, and Monty trusted his feelings. Otherwise, he would have invited the squirrel in.
"Then this is the residence of Miss Hackwrench?"
Monty folded his arms. Every instinct for trouble was firing. "It moight be."
"My name is Clayton. I work for Ultra-Flight Laboratories. I'd like to speak with her if I could."
Monterey had always liked aircraft; the smell of balsa and glue and dope and the way the fabric stretched on the wings. In contrast, _Falcon_ was a monster, a black wedge of aluminum, nearly a meter long. It was like a nuclear sub when he expected a sail frigate.
The wing and body of the aircraft were blended, but could still be distinguished from one another. The fuselage sat on top of the wing, instead of having a wing on the centerline. The bottom of the wing was nearly flat, with a pronounced dihedral - they formed a shallow V when viewed from the front. Below the wing was a bulge that held the landing gear. Monty had never seen a rodent design with retractable landing gear before. Monty guessed it would also hold a payload.
The engines were mounted over the wing, next to the fuselage. Monty was used to comparing small animal aircraft to Human planes of the First and perhaps the Second World Wars. _Falcon_ was in a completely different league; not like a typical Human jet. More like spaceplane experiments; the USAF's X-20 Dyna Soar, the German Snger, ESA's Hermes. Experiments on paper which had never flown powered. Even the Space Shuttle had a more conventional layout.
"That's a pretty radical airframe," Monty said slowly, unwilling to dampen his friend's obvious enthusiasm. "No tail plane, an' wingtip rudders. Rounded leading edges, 'stead of sharp. Looks more like a waverider than a lifting wing."
"If you scale down a supersonic Human plane, it'll melt too fast. So, we had to go with a more heat resistant design. So yeah, she's cutting edge," Geegaw said fondly. "Digital cockpit system, fly-by-wire controls."
"There's nothin' that looks like it flyin' routinely," Monty said dubiously, "'Less the rumors about Aurora are true."
"Well, maybe we can steal a march from the Humans for once." Geegaw's voice was a bit harsh.
"She's all metal construction? Never saw that before on one a' ours."
"Monty, you can't break Mach 1 with balsa wood."
"There's that," Monty agreed amiably. Despite anything else Geegaw said, Monterey knew and understood the appeal. Geegaw was a pilot who liked hot planes. This bird was so hot it would land at speeds faster than some rodent aircraft could make in a dive. It would break rodent records just by leaving the ground. Still...
"That's a lot of experiments to pack into one airframe, mate."
Monty would have taken those words back, especially when he was proven right. Three years later, they still hurt when he remembered them.
_Oh, Joy_, Monty thought with disgust. "You're the blokes who killed her father." _This is all she needs. First 'er sister's goin' through with a high-risk pregnancy, and now ..._
There was a slight pause. "Personally," Clayton said carefully, "I'm not convinced of that. As you know, there never was a proper investigation."
"Miss Hackwrench," Monty informed him, "is not available at this time. I'll be happy to take a business card from -"
Clayton looked past Monty and brightened. "Miss Hackwrench?" he asked cheerfully, ducking past Monty. Monty turned to see Widget coming down the staircase.
"Ms. Hackwrench," Widget corrected. "I kept my maiden name."
"My name is Clayton, ma'am," he shook her hand. There was no way for Monty to interfere without being rude. "I'm investigating the death of your father."
"Fine with me," Widget shrugged. "Go ahead."
Clayton took out a micro recorder. "Did he seem to behave oddly on the day of the accident?"
Widget pretended to consider. "After he died, he became sullen and uncommunicative."
"Widget Hackwrench," Monty interrupted, "was not living with 'er father." Monty felt it unfair to inflict Widget's morbid sense of humor onto someone. No matter how much he probably deserved it.
"Are you the Widget Hackwrench who made the Nimnul effect generator practical?" He shook her hand. "What a pleasure!"
"I wasn't aware there was any mystery," came Gadget's voice from an unexpected direction. "two XTJ-1 engines flamed out three times on _Falcon's_ only flight." She paused and frowned. "For it to happen to both engines, it had to be a design feature shared by them..."
"Except," Clayton pointed out, "that this engine failure was never replicated during ground testing, under accelerations four times greater than any experienced by the _Falcon_ in flight."
"So you have a different working theory?" Gadget asked softly.
Instinctively, Widget and Gadget each grabbed one of Monterey's arms. Feeling the weight, Monty stopped after one step forward.
"Pilot error means the idiot engineers can't explain wha' went wrong," Monty said in a surprisingly calm voice. He glanced at Widget and Gadget, embarrassed. "No offense."
"None taken," Clayton cluelessly assured him. Widget looked at the large Australian mouse with real interest. She didn't know mice could growl.
Clayton tapped a switch on the recorder. It squeaked for a few moments.
"I'm requesting permission to make an emergency landing. Something's not right here."
"Permission granted. Abort the test."
"Engine restart... Where's the darned horizon? Flameout."
"Geegaw, bail out."
"To me, that sounds like a disoriented and confused pilot."
"Lessee 'ow disoriented an' confused _you_ are as you bounce across -" Monterey began in a gentle voice.
Gadget's grip on Monterey Jack's arm was the only thing holding her up.
She had heard her father's last seconds hundreds of times. Usually while asleep. More than the meaning, the mere sounds and inflection were tied in her mind with screaming helplessly in a nightmare.
"Gadget?" Nibbles called out. She was dressed in her best, her black dress. For funerals. She waited a minute and called her name again.
"Up here, Nibbles," she called back. Her voice was amiable enough. Still, the ferret knew she was only responding to shut her up. Nibbles had a short conversation in low tones. The others coughed, shifted nervously from foot to foot. It was agreed she'd go up alone.
She found the mouse halfway inside one of the turboprop engines of _Screaming Eagle,_ coveralls and forearms filthy with machine oil. She didn't look up when she came in. "How was the party?" she asked brightly.
Nibbles coughed. "You should have come, Gadget."
Gadget slipped into the engine nacelle. Her face appeared, upside down, as she looked at her with an expression so befuddled that for a moment, she thought perhaps Gadget was the one behaving rationally. "To watch them bury a box?" she asked. "Why?"
"Sometimes that's all there is," Nibbles heard herself say.
Gadget looked at her with her blank expression and slid away. "I can't believe I'm hearing this from you, Nibbles." Her voice was muffled by the engine. "They didn't find him."
"His seat was in the plane when it hit," Nibbles said carefully. "If he jumped, it was without a parachute."
Gadget pulled herself out of the engine and looked at her again. "He told me about Mexico. How he and Monty were presumed dead -"
"Did he tell you about the other three mice who were?"
"-But they were able to make their way back-"
"They were picked up by a search party. The search party was there because there was a chance."
"Then they're lucky you weren't in charge there."
Nibbles had to take several deep breaths before responding.
"Your father hasn't used any of his emergency gear."
"Maybe he's lying somewhere." The image was fresh from last night's dreams. "Too hurt to do anything."
"Then he died of thirst last week." Nibbles' voice was getting firmer. "Gadget, face it. Ospreys didn't see him. Dogs didn't smell him. He's -"
"Nibbles, you buried a smear on a seat cushion. I think you had better go."
Nibbles stood for a moment, trying to guess just how angry, or how irrational, Gadget actually was. Finally, she nodded.
Gadget grunted in reply to her last words. She was on a ticklish bit and she didn't need the distraction.
A few hours later, she was pacing in frustration. Why was she the only one who saw what was so obvious? Even his friends, or alleged friends, didn't understand. Her mind was racing in circles. She knew everything that could be done to find him had been done. Therefore, he was outside the search perimeter. Perhaps a freak wind blew his parachute away.
With that as her working theory, there wasn't much she could do to find him. But what she could do was keep his home safe for him.
Because he'd be coming back any day now.
Eyes glittering, Gadget went to work.
"Where's the darned horizon? Flameout." The tape player stopped.
"Excuse me," Widget said politely and turned away.
"You all right?" Monty asked, concern overcoming anger.
"No problem." Widget mouthed the word "bathroom". She noticed Chip leaning against the wall, listening but not certain if he was intruding or not.
Zipper was sorry to see Widget go. She had never known her father, so in a certain sense, she was the most emotionally detached of any there. Chip's face was clouding over. He had never met Geegaw either, but he knew Gadget's feelings about him, so he was experiencing second hand anger, fueling on Gadget's.
"Geegaw was equipped with an ejection system and parachute. It's possible he didn't hear the order to eject, but he should have ejected by then anyway. Miss Hackwrench," Clayton said formally, "as a matter of public record, did your father seem distracted on the day of the flight?"
"No," Gadget croaked. She cleared her throat. "No."
Widget nodded at Dale, who was going down the spiral slide as she went up the stairs.
"And again as a matter of public record, were you aware he was having an affair with a married woman?"
"That's it," Chip snapped. "Monty, please show him out."
"Thank you," Monterey said sincerely.
"Yes," Gadget nodded, responding to Clayton's question.
6. Concerning Ferrets
Chip and Monterey stared at Gadget, unable to believe what they had heard. Clayton nodded to himself quietly.
"Gadget!" Chip cried out, shocked.
"Where do you think they would rendezvous?" Gadget asked the room. "In Nibbles' place, with her husband Peanuts?"
"What are you saying about your father?" Monterey Jack asked in neutral tones.
"It wasn't sordid, Monty. You knew him better than that. Nibbles is a ferret." Despite her words, Gadget was still obviously uncomfortable.
"Oh," Monty heaved a sigh of relief. That changed things considerably. "So she 'ad an unhappy marriage?"
"Are ferrets known for that?" Dale asked casually, walking onto the scene.
"Somewhat," Gadget gulped and took a deep breath. "You see, girl ferrets, as they turn into women ferrets, that is, the female ones, not that there's male women ferrets of course, but the female women ones that used to be girls-"
"Gadget, luv," Monty began, patting her hand condescendingly, "Let a mouse of the world explain. You see, Dale, female ferrets, as they _grow into_ being women- well, you see, it's different for them. Not that it isn't different for a mouse or a chipmunk, but it's different from that."
"Excuse me, mouse of the world," Chip interrupted. "Women ferrets have to marry very young. Otherwise, they die. If Tammy were a ferret, she'd be married by now. For one partner to go from adolescence to adulthood can put a lot of stress on a relationship. It's pretty common for female ferrets to have second thoughts as they get older."
"Thank you, chipmunk of the park," Dale said sincerely. The thought of the coltish mass of raging glands named Tammy forced into a marriage by the uncaring hand of biology made him shudder.
"Nibbles' parents arranged a marriage with Peanuts," Gadget went on smoothly, now that the largest hump was over. "He was an engineer at Ultra-Flight, she started picking it up, and pretty soon she was his boss on the _Falcon_ project."
Chip's expression turned thoughtful with this information. The nasty part of his mind he liked to call his Suspicion Meter clicked on, registering 20%, which was fairly high for an initial reading.
"I'm back," Widget said brightly. "Did I miss anything?"
"Your father was having an affair with the ferret who designed _Falcon,_" Dale explained.
Widget was about to chuckle, noticed how uncomfortable her sister was, and turned it into a serious cough.
"There's nothin' in your tape what sounds like panic," Monty insisted, rapping the table. "'E doesn't say goodbye to Gadget, 'e's not screaming, 'e's not even whistling. Geegaw was busy, keepin' an aircraft in the air, despite itself."
Zipper watched the chipmunks. Dale was observing the conversation like a worried spectator at a tennis match, but Chip's face looked like his thoughts were on something else. Zipper knew him better than that. The black nosed chipmunk was onto something.
"He _didn't_ keep an aircraft in the air. Why wasn't he pulling out?" Clayton asked. "Radar shows it quite clearly. He was losing altitude during his last flameout. Why didn't he eject?"
"Geegaw was trying to save your precious aircraft," Monty said dryly.
Widget was looking at a printout of _Falcon's_ altitude against time. "Apart from the last time, it looks like he was pulling out of a dive whenever he flamed out," she said quietly. "I'd guess it's a fuel flow problem. The fuel pump burps whenever the plane's jerked upwards. Like the MiG-21."
"Except the last time," Clayton repeated.
"Except the last time," she agreed, frowning.
Gadget sighed. "I can prove Geegaw was pulling out of his dive during the flameout."
Everyone looked at her. "How?" Clayton asked.
"If I remember properly, there was a second _Falcon_ airframe constructed, complete except for engines. Am I right?"
"Yes," Clayton agreed immediately. "It's still in storage in the facility at Camelot Airport."
"Let's take a look," Gadget said, standing. "We can take the Ranger Wing."
"I brought my car," Clayton suggested. "I'll be happy to drive."
"Let me make a pit stop," Widget said, then hesitated. "On second thought, perhaps I should stay here instead."
"Tasmanian Tea doesn't care to stay inside a body," Monty admitted. "On top of being pregnant -"
"Say, Zipper, Dale," Chip said slowly, "could you two stay behind as well? In case there's an emergency ... and someone comes to us for help?"
"I'd appreciate that," Gadget smiled, hoping the Big Eyes routine would overwhelm Dale's usual desire to sit next to her.
Zipper nodded seriously; unusually for Dale, the chipmunk got it immediately. "Sure. We'll stay here just in case SOMEBODY needs our help." He winked elaborately and Chip suppressed an urge to bonk him. Widget lifted one eyebrow and regarded Dale dubiously.
Gadget gave Dale a quick hug. "Thanks, guys."
Widget forced a confident smile.
7. Blind Spot
Clayton's car was built from an electric remote controlled dune buggy.
There was a crack in the hood. It was the only flaw on the vehicle apart from dirty tires. "This looks like recent damage," Chip observed.
Clayton shrugged angrily. "It happened on the way over. This thing that looked like a propeller blade came flying out of nowhere -"
"Five to go."
"I beg your pardon?"
Chip coughed. "There's room in your car for five to go. It's a good thing there's only four of us."
It was flashier than Monty had expected, and had what Monty regarded as the most important features any motor vehicle could have: safety belts on every seat. Unusually, Chip grabbed the front seat, leaving Gadget and Monty together in back. Monty had expected him to maneuver things so he could sit with Gadget.
Clayton had barely started it before Chip struck up a conversation.
"So," he asked, "You said Nibbles worked on the _Falcon_?"
"That's right," Clayton agreed, sending the car driving across the park. The suspension was much better than that on a roller skate, handling the gentle folds in the earth like a magic carpet. "She was Chief Designer, and worked primarily on the airframe. Peanuts worked under her, mostly on the control system and testing."
"How about the engines?" Chip asked. "It seems that's what failed."
Clayton hesitated a moment. "Those were done by another engineer named Robert."
Chip nodded. For some reason, he had assumed that Nibbles had done all the design work; he realized he was probably extending from Gadget's one-mouse aeronautics factory. _Falcon_ had been substantially more complex than anything Gadget had developed. In fact, it sounded to him a bit more like something Widget would have come up with. Gadget worked with blinding speed out of whatever she had laying around; Widget worked carefully for months, out of steel. There is a subtle distinction between an inventor and an engineering project manager.
"Nibbles is about Geegaw's age?" Chip guessed.
Clayton drove up to a Human yellow cab stopped at a light. Clayton threw a switch and an electromagnetic dart on a line shot out of his car. He threw the wheels into neutral. The light turned green and they were soon moving at forty miles an hour or so. The suspension was good, but not that good; they were skipping six inches or more off the road with each bump. Since Clayton had picked a cab, it would be an interesting ride.
"So Peanuts must be quite a bit older," Chip supposed at a red light which the cab had elected to honor.
Clayton nodded. "Peanuts died a few months ago. Tract infection."
"Sorry to hear that," Chip said sincerely, for the wrong reasons. Clayton grunted. "And _Falcon_ crashed three years ago?" Chip asked, to convince himself he had the chronology right.
The cab took off again. After another ten blocks and four nearly deadly encounters with pedestrians, the cab turned the wrong way. Clayton detached the dart, and threw his car back into gear. The next target was a bus. Chip recognized it as a line that visited the Opulent Central Train Station, Camelot and LaGioconda airports, and hit a few major hotels; sometimes literally.
Monty looked at Gadget, worried. She was taking notes and smiling.
The bus was enormously less maneuverable than that of the cab, so the ride was more predictable. Not safer per se, but the bus was able to move from lane to lane, confident its incredible mass would either intimidate drivers of lesser vehicles away, or assure that its speed and heading would be only minimally affected in the event of an impact.
"Any kids, Peanuts and Nibbles?" Chip asked as they crossed the bridge to the borough of Creeklyn.
Chip's Suspicion Meter bumped up to 25%.
Clayton detached the electromagnet and took the next right, stopping in front of a battered, aged two-meter long warehouse with peeling paint. Ultra-Flight's logo, the winged paw print, faded by years in the sun, was on the entrance. Clayton fiddled with a combination lock, and cracked the door open.
The lights still worked. The air was stale, stale, and a patina of dust covered every surface. The massive, solid bulk of _Falcon 02_ filled most of the room. The canopy was down, and a tarp was over the windscreen.
When Chip heard about high performance rodent aircraft, he imagined something more like a Spitfire. When told _Falcon_ was a jet, he had pictured trim rakish wings, pointy nose, and a slender fuselage - maybe an X-3. He hadn't expected a bluff delta with thick, blunt leading edges. Despite the name, _Falcon_ was squat and ugly.
"After the crash," Clayton explained, "the _Falcon_ project was abandoned. They stopped development of the turbojet engine, and concentrated on gas turbine development. But Widget Hackwrench's work on making Nimnul's static electricity generator practical has pretty much put an end to that. Just about the only thing a gas turbine engine can do that a Nimnul generator can't is run a high performance aircraft. And with _Falcon_ dead, so are the engines. So they shoved everything in here."
Monty looked at the bitterly familiar aircraft, and felt overwhelming dread. Apart from the empty engine nacelles and the "02" painted on the wingtip rudders, this was the same plane Geegaw had ridden to his death three years ago. Geegaw's daughter stood next to him, and Monty tried to throw off his morbid thoughts.
"More dragon than dragonfly, eh?" she asked.
Clayton smiled at that - the first grin Monty had seen from him which looked spontaneous and real.
"What are these?" Chip asked, rattling the drawer on one of a long line of filing cabinets.
Clayton looked over. "Design blueprints, meeting minutes, test results. A plane isn't fit to fly until all the paperwork exceeds the takeoff weight."
"Monty, help me up." Monterey boosted Gadget onto the wing. She pulled the tarpaulin off the canopy, and stared down into the cockpit.
Chip walked slowly past small models worked in stainless steel. _Falcon_ with a tall vertical tail. _Falcon_ riding two large cylinders, one under each wing and protruding forwards. Finally, and most startling, _Falcon_ on the end of a long, slender tower with wide fins.
"What are these?"
Clayton turned to face the chipmunk. "Wind tunnel models," he explained. "For transonic work, they would toss them out of high flying aircraft and let them break the sound barrier on the way down. We don't have a supersonic wind tunnel."
Slowly, reverently, Gadget lowered herself into the cockpit, and rested her weight into the acceleration seat. The displays and controls about her had been her father's last experience in life.
Chip let his eyes drift across the models. He had never thought of an aircraft project as a living thing before, with a birth, death, and growing pains. Geegaw hadn't died alone. _Falcon_ had died leaving the nest. _Airborne, stillborn..._ the conjunction made him shudder. He stared at the last one, the biggest. It had to be a spacecraft.
"Help me close the canopy," Gadget said.
"Careful with that!" Clayton jerked around. His reaction made Chip stare at Monty and Gadget on the black airframe. "It's an airtight seal."
"I'll only have it closed a few minutes," Gadget assured him.
"Still, it might jam." Clayton scrambled on top. "Are you sure you need to close the canopy?"
"I said I was going to prove Geegaw had his nose up. I need this lowered."
"Okay. One moment." Clayton pointed at a valve in the cockpit. "Open that. It'll let air in from outside. During prelaunch they used it to feed in pressurized air so the pilot could launch with fresh air in the cockpit. If the canopy jams shut, it'll give you time to work the emergency release."
Gadget fiddled with the valve. "Got it. Chip, can you give me a hand?"
Understandably, the cockpit was designed to give her the best downwards view from the front. "I want you to stand over there," she pointed. "When this is closed, start walking slowly towards me. Monty, when I hold up my hand like this," she made a stop gesture - "tell Chip to stop. Chip, mark where you stand when Monty tells you to stop."
"Right," Monty and Chip nodded.
"Close me in."
The canopy lowered with a soft thud, and latched. Chip started walking towards her. She watched carefully. The moment his feet were blocked by the edge of the cockpit, she held up her hand.
It was good they had arranged hand signals. Gadget could barely hear Monty talk, and couldn't distinguish words at all. She soon unlatched the canopy and opened it.
"I think my head's about sixteen centimeters off the ground," she said.
"Looks about roight," Monty confirmed. Clayton nodded.
"And Chip's forty five centimeters away. Or so."
Chip lay his fedora on the ground and carefully paced it off. He nodded.
"When my father asked where the horizon was, he couldn't see it."
"Obviously," Clayton agreed.
"Sixteen over forty five is darned close to the tangent of twenty degrees."
"I'll take your word for it," Chip shrugged.
"That means the nose of the plane was twenty degrees up, at least, when he said he couldn't see the horizon." Gadget grinned, satisfied.
"That follows," Clayton admitted reluctantly.
"That sounds like a pretty high angle of attack," Monty said slowly.
"Attack what?" Chip asked, suspiciously.
"Angle of attack means the angle air is flowing past an airplane," Gadget explained. "The plane is pointed one way while moving another. Twenty degrees is pretty high, but this is one tough airframe here." She rapped the metal with her knuckles. "It's a waverider, Monty."
"Of course," Monty nodded.
"Translation for the benefit of the aeronautically challenged?" Chip asked politely.
Gadget looked over at him, and held her arm out stiffly, folded in front of her. "An airfoil is shaped to produce low air pressure above it. The difference in pressure generates lift." She tilted her arm, hand upwards at an angle. "A waverider is designed for speeds above Mach 5. Not just supersonic, but hypersonic."
"Like a spaceplane returning from orbit," Chip nodded.
"Exactly. The only hypersonic waverider in operational use is the Space Shuttle - unless there's something else that's still classified. On its way down, it skips across the air, riding its own shockwave, like a surfer or a spinning rock being bounced across water. This airplane can handle a high angle of attack because that's how it's designed to fly. You'll notice it's thick and heavy - that's to absorb heat."
"Crikey. So you wasn't jest buildin' a supersonic airplane 'ere," Monty finally said out loud. "You was workin' onna space shuttle."
Clayton hesitated, and nodded.
"He did pull out," agreed Clayton slowly. "But by that point, the plane was dropping so quickly it continued to lose altitude."
Gadget smiled, happy with success. Then the fact they were discussing her father's death washed over her again and her jaw dropped. She scanned the controls again.
"These displays are all digital," she accused. "They're hard to read accurately. We need to replace them with analog displays."
Chip, Monty, and Clayton all looked at her in horror. "Why?" they asked simultaneously.
The Rangers would have pursued this, but they were distracted by something they had been dreading: an agitated Zipper flew in, rushed to Monty, and started buzzing.
Widget's first reflex was to get a mop and clean up. Then she realized it was probably a better idea to get help.
She found Dale in his room, hanging by his heels from the upper bunk and reading _Wolverpunisher # 112_ . He politely put the comic down. The sight was so unexpected she actually forgot what she was going to say.
"Why are you hanging upside down?" she asked politely.
"Practicing," he explained. As though this reminded him, he lifted a rodent-sized graphic novel off the floor and offered it to her. "I got you a present. I had it autographed at a CBLDF fund-raiser."
"_Mr. Punch_?" she asked delightedly. "How did you know I liked Neil Gaiman?"
"It was a wild guess. I've never seen a black maternity dress worn with a black blouse before."
"I make all my clothes out of a SWAT vest," she explained.
"Even your wedding dress?"
"If I wear white, I look like this British spy I know."
"I think we met him at Penfold's last birthday party." Dale frowned. "Now that I think of it, he mentioned an albino mouse woman, who was a threat to the security of the Free World -"
"I was just wondering," Widget interrupted hastily, "Can you fly the Ranger Wing or drive the Ranger Skate?"
"I can't fly the Wing, and they don't let me drive the Ranger Skate after what happened last time."
"I'm sorry to hear that because I kind of need to get to the hospital."
Dale let three seconds pass without comment. "Uhm, please don't tell me you mean, like, right away. Do you mean like right away?"
"Could I ask you to stand up before I answer that?" she asked. "I'd hate for you to fall down and hurt yourself."
Dale obeyed, and waited expectantly.
"I mean right away," she said apologetically.
"Oh, shoot," Dale gasped, wobbling on his legs. They hadn't felt like this since he was Rubber Bando. The weakness passed. He stood calmly. "You have a packed overnight bag, right?"
"In Gadget's room."
"I'll get it. You go down to the Ranger Skate. I'll meet you there."
"I thought you said they didn't let you drive," she asked suspiciously.
"I was only kidding you," he said with a forced laugh. He was out of the room. "ZIPPER!" he hollered.
Widget tried to feel comforted, and failed miserably.
In a surprisingly short time, Zipper was dispatched to Ultra-Flight, an answering machine message was recorded for J¸rgen in case he called, Widget's overnighter was collected, and Dale was opening the garage door in the bottom of the tree.
Widget sat on a roller skate, wearing a helmet cut from a tennis ball. She was looking at the attached fan, and 12v battery. She knew her sister was a brilliant inventor. She also knew her inventions had a nasty habit of disintegrating. Although she had never mentioned this to her sister, Widget considered leftover parts and random disintegration symptoms of unprofessional work.
"Could you please hit the switch?" Dale asked.
Widget looked around, flipped the first switch she saw, turning the fan on. In a short time, they were rolling across the grass and picking up speed. Rapidly. Dale was doing his best to steer, but a steering wheel will only work while the wheels are on the ground. And this wasn't often.
Soon they made it to the asphalt road. First, their lives were saved when a contentious driver slammed her brakes, reasoning that a toy bouncing onto the street might be closely followed by a child.
"You don't think about avoiding the cars," he explained over his shoulder. "You just have to avoid the tires. That way, the trip goes faster. Let's get dangerous!"
Widget held him a little closer and buried her face between his shoulders. She didn't see him zip under the hanson cab, which is probably just as well.
"Feeling nervous?" he asked sympathetically.
"Why don't you sing me a song? That'll cheer you up."
Dale had forgotten the taste in music Widget had shown at her wedding. Soon she launched into _Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914)_ composed by Chris White of the Zombies. The name of the group was about the most cheerful part.
"I have seen a friend of mine / hang on the wire, like some rag toy," she sang in a bright and pleasant voice which might have been quite enjoyable with a bit of training and a song that didn't conjure images of madness and death. She stopped then, realizing that the next line (which involved flies) might offend a friend of Zipper's. Dale breathed a sigh of relief; while singing had relaxed her, it hadn't done him much good.
"There's the hospital!" he cried. "Turn off the fan!"
She flicked the switch with her tail.
"We're not slowing down," she observed.
"Uh oh," said Dale.
They hit a bump, and continued to gain altitude. She looked at the window they were heading for and pulled off her dress. "Put this on," she ordered, tugging it over him. "Use it to cover your face." Then she ducked behind him and held on for dear life.
The Ranger Skate exploded through the second story window. They hit the corridor floor, bounced once, and came to a stop against the floor nurse's desk, covered with carefully stacked charts.
Dale poked his head and arms out through Widget's dress. He tossed away a particularly nasty sliver which had embedded itself into the Kevlar.
"Admissions?" Widget asked politely.
The nurse pointed to the elevator with a trembling hand.
"Thank you," Dale said with a smile. Widget flicked the fan back on, and the Ranger Skate moved sedately towards the elevator. As it passed the nurse's desk, the backwash made charts dance down the hall like leaves in an autumn hurricane.
Widget was on her back on a gurney. Two orderlies wheeled her along the corridor while Dale trotted alongside, holding her right hand.
"I'm sorry about the mess I made in the kitchen," Widget apologized.
"I'll clean it up when we go home," Dale promised.
"And I'm sorry I called you 'El Tubbo' back when I was feeding you into a deathtrap."
"Don't give it a second thought," Dale assured her.
"And I'm sorry I called you 'Butterball'."
"Forgotten," Dale snapped his fingers.
"And I'm sorry I tried to kill you." Dale wondered if drugs were beginning to kick in.
"That moment is lost like tears in the rain."
"And I'm sorry I made that crack about rifle bullets bouncing off your skull."
"Tish - tosh," Dale said through clenched teeth. Truth be told, that one still bothered him a little.
"Be careful of the door."
"Water under the bridge," said Dale, trapped in the pattern. The doorjamb caught him completely by surprise. Widget winced sympathetically but they were gone before Dale crashed to the floor.
He was helped up by the touch of familiar wings.
The bat smiled gently. Her eyes shone. "Uh-huh. Are you okay, sweetie?"
"Never felt better." Dale looked at the bat curiously for a moment. "How do you get your body to shift in and out of focus like that?"
"Why don't we sit down for a little while?" she coaxed, tugging him over to a bench. He complied. She kept a wing wrapped around him. To hold him up.
"So Dale," she asked casually, "is there something you want to tell me?"
"Well, you're wearing a maternity dress." Black was supposed to go with everything, but Foxglove wasn't sure if Hawaiian shirts went with anything.
"Oh. Gadget's sister made me put it on."
"Well, it's bulletproof cloth and we were about to go through a glass window."
"Oh." Foxglove heaved a sigh of relief. "That's good, sweetums."
"Why... are you in the Obstetrics ward?"
"I do sonograms, cute stuff."
"Oh." Dale heaved a sigh of relief. "That's good."
"Dale, why are _you_ in the Obstetrics ward?"
Dale was taking Widget's dress off, and he had to think a moment. "Well, everyone else went to look at a plane and Widget went into labor, so I took her here."
"Through a window?"
"Just one. It was an accident." Dale's voice was a bit huffy. All things considered, he felt he had done rather well.
"It's an improvement over last time," Foxglove said loyally.
"You know, I really ought to be with her," Dale turned to the door he had crashed into. "Nobody else she knows is here."
Foxglove bit her lip worriedly. Dale was right. He seemed a little groggy and disoriented - but he usually did anyway. "Let's go, honey."
They passed two orderlies engaged in conversation.
"One hour," said the first.
"Nah, she won't be begging for a C-section for at least six," said the second.
The birthing room was set up to let expectant mothers walk around and keep busy instead of sitting in a bed and waiting. Widget had opened her overnighter and was busily at work on a diagram of something.
"Dale," Widget said with surprise. "You're all right!"
"Of course. Whatcha working on there?"
She turned the diagram so Dale could see. "It's an underwater habitat. It's the next phase of the excavations at Atlantis. Instead of using _Albacore_ as a base, it might be more efficient to have _Albacore_ support a set of bases like this."
"What's this jaggy bit here?" Dale asked, pointing.
"Ouch. You've met Foxglove, haven't you?"
"I did your sonograms," Foxy reminded Widget politely.
"Of course." Widget shook Foxy's wing digit. "You caught the bouquet, didn't you?"
"Are you engaged?"
"Well," Foxglove said slowly, looking at Dale sideways, "There's _someone_ I like, but I don't know if he knows yet." Foxglove chuckled. "Besides, working here, I've heard and seen so many horror stories about having kids -" she cut herself off and coughed delicately. The albino mouse grew paler.
"Anyway," Dale said cheerfully, "I sent Zipper for the others. They should be showing up any time now to take over."
Widget regarded Dale for a moment and broke into a grin. "You did fine," she leaned forward and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Thanks."
Dale blushed and Foxglove grinned.
He was _so_ neat!
"I'll take you to the hospital," Clayton said immediately.
"Thanks, mate," Monterey was starting to wonder about Clayton again. He had been so utterly non-jerk since they arrived at Ultra-Flight that Monty was having a lot of trouble reconciling his behavior with what he had shown back in the tree. Chip had a binder tucked under his coat. Monty decided not to mention it.
There was another issue he wanted to deal with first anyway.
"What's this about changin' the displays?" he asked Gadget as she strapped herself in next to him.
Gadget shrugged. "Well, I just think we should make it more ergonomic before I take it up. Maybe correct that overcontrol in pitch, while we're at it."
"Your father couldn't 'andle that deathtrap. What makes you think you can?"
"Once we figure out how it crashed the first time, we can take steps to avoid it the second. It'll be perfectly safe. Maybe even safer than flying one of mine!"
Monterey felt the usual twitch. "Let someone else do it."
"Monty, I can't ask anyone else to do something this risky! Don't be silly." She patted his arm. Traffic stopped the conversation.
Submersible Research Vessel _Albacore_ visited the surface three times a day, for a half hour each time. While on the surface, the submarine would replenish her air supply and use the onboard link to the Iridium satellite constellation to get in touch with the rest of the world. The trip up took about twenty minutes, and the trip back about forty. This ran to around four and a half hours a day, leaving nineteen and one half hours of bottom time. In twenty four days, _Albacore_ would be returning to port. It would have been fifty six days but the owner of the sub had gotten herself pregnant by the captain, and the exploration and excavation of the most extensive Classical era rat colony ever discovered would have to be scheduled around one woman's childbirth. It was absurd.
Dr. "Ontario" Brown, a chipmunk, banged away at the keyboard of a data wristwatch, in his cabin, trying to summarize the finds of the last few hours in an email. The entire situation was infuriating. There was no guarantee that _Albacore_ would be available after she returned for dry-dock maintenance. The extent of the ruins were such that exploring them thoroughly would take years. Ontario felt like a blind astronomer given ten minutes to look at the stars. Grateful enough for the glance, but...
"I've finished with the tunnel assessment," said Andy, a mole. He was part of _Albacore's_ crew, not one of the eight archaeologists they were carrying. On any exploration mission, there was usually a sharp cultural divide between the crew - generally young military types, primarily focused on the vessel - and the scientific staff - generally older academics, more interested in the mission. Andy had gone out of his way to bridge that gap, using mole instincts to judge the submerged tunnels in addition to his task of maintaining the shellsuits which made it possible to work outside the submarine at these depths. "I've already keyed it into the email queue."
"Thanks, Andy." Ontario looked up and grinned. "You've been a big help."
Andy smiled shyly and looked away.
The annunciator in the room hissed. Ontario looked up. _Bad news,_ he realized with unerring logic.
"This is the Captain," said J¸rgen in a tightly controlled voice. "Owing to a family emergency _Albacore_ will be remaining on the surface to rendezvous with a rescue aircraft. In my absence, Mr. Calvert will take command, and our annual dry-dock maintenance will revert to begin in fifty six days."
A broad smile crossed Ontario's face. "All right!" he cheered.
Andy turned bleak eyes to him. Ontario realized what he had said. "Uh - sorry. I was just-"
"You'll need to finish this," Andy snapped. He tossed his clipboard, clattering, onto Ontario's desk, turned on a heel, and walked briskly away.
They parked their car behind a dumpster. Since it was only half full, it wasn't likely the dumpster would be disturbed by Humans for a while. They piled out of the car and walked towards the entrance. Chip took the binder out of his jacket, and held it as though he hadn't been hiding it.
"May I borrow this?" he asked.
Clayton looked at it and frowned. The cover read _Project Summary: Falcon_. "Just be careful with it. It might be the only copy."
"But it's a photocopy," Chip observed, leafing through the binder.
"There was a fire. A lot of the original documents were lost."
Chip's suspicion meter went up to 40%.
"If they're not here," Gadget said, her mind elsewhere, "could we ask you to drive us back to headquarters?"
"Of course," Clayton agreed. "As long as I'm here, there's someone I'd like to visit, though. I'll cut it short."
"Go now," Monty suggested. "We'll find you once we've made plans."
"Okay. I'll be in room 1214. Hope she's okay." He pushed the entrance open. The black squirrel nodded at the rangers and steered himself towards an elevator.
Dale gently helped Widget sit back down. By their expressions, it was obvious they were having a heated discussion.
"Okay, okay," Widget snapped. "_Maybe_ I was threatening the security of the United Kingdom, a little. But that's a stretch."
"And Western Europe," Dale insisted. "That would follow."
"Dale!" Chip snapped, shocked. "Don't _argue_ with her now."
Dale looked up, and pointed an accusing finger. "She was going to sabotage the NATO submarine sensor network in the Atlantic."
"It was only a feasibility study," Widget muttered. "We stopped the moment we realized it might trigger World War III."
Chip gulped. "Nevertheless, Dale, there's a time and a place for everything." He put a comforting arm around Widget. "And you shouldn't argue with someone who is half crazy with hormones, discomfort, and worry."
"I beg your pardon?" Widget asked him, expression blank.
"Dale," Gadget hastily interrupted, "did you leave a message for J¸rgen?"
"Widget, do you think this is, uhm, what I mean is to ask, that is this most likely not a false alarm?"
Widget flinched with another contraction. She looked up at the clock. Two and a half minutes. "Yup."
"Then we'd better get your husband," Gadget decided. "How long do you think we have?"
Widget, Monty, and Foxglove all looked at Gadget as though waiting for a punchline. "It's really hard to say," Foxglove finally said gently.
"Where's the Ranger Skate?" Chip asked Dale.
"Lot B," Dale and Widget said simultaneously.
"Monty, Gadget, you get the Wing. I'll call J¸rgen and tell him you're coming. Dale, Zipper and I can stay here with Widget."
"Roight," Monterey nodded.
"Monty," Gadget suggested. "You get the Wing and pick me up here. Remember to switch to the alkaline batteries. I'll want to talk to Clayton and J¸rgen. Then I'll be back." She patted Widget's hand.
"You got it, Gadget luv." Monterey turned and hustled out of the room. He was glad to leave; the place made him feel uncomfortable.
"Monterey," Widget looked up, anxious. "I made kind of a mess in the kitchen."
Clayton opened the door to room 1214. This was the first time he had done so without flowers. The last batch was still there, and someone had been watering it.
"Hi," he said with a grin. As usual, he waited for a response that never came. He sat down in the guest chair. "Well," he said to the black squirrel in the bed, "You're looking good today." Again he paused, and again, as expected, there was no reply, except for a soft gurgle from the patient's glucose bottle.
"I'm sorry I didn't bring flowers, but I didn't really plan this visit. It just sort of happened. I've been kind of busy. I ... think I've been able to open up an investigation into the _Falcon_ crash." He coughed. "I know I haven't been much of a son, but... but I'm going to prove they're all wrong about your engines, dad. Promise."
A sound from the door made him turn around. Gadget was standing there, looking at him steadily.
"How's your sister?" Clayton asked.
"Way too soon to tell. I didn't know Robert had a son."
"He never talked much about me."
"I don't know you very well, Robert." She raised her voice slightly and looked over at the inert form in the bed. "I'm Gadget, Geegaw's daughter. I know my father respected your work. He always called it the most important part of the project. My sister and I are going to figure out what went wrong."
Clayton grunted and turned away.
"Clayton," Gadget said mildly. "I just want to know how my father died."
"And if you decide it was the engines?" Clayton asked, his voice hard.
"Then we fix them, and move on. That's what people do, unless you want us all to go back into the mouse holes." Gadget's eyes didn't leave Clayton's face. "My father died for those engines. They're too important for the scrap heap." She put out a hand. "Deal?"
Clayton regarded her for a moment, and shook her hand silently.
Widget bent forward at the waist, her breath coming in short gasps. She tried to support herself leaning on the table; Chip took most of her weight onto himself. Dale shifted uncomfortably.
"Okay?" Chip asked, concerned.
"Spiffy," Widget gasped. She blinked tears out of her eyes. "Where were we?"
"You were saying the first configuration was unstable in the transonic regime," Chip repeated promptly.
"That's right." She tapped a plan view. "When you approach and go past the speed of sound, there's a shift in the center of aerodynamic pressure. That's because you start to outrun your own shock wave. That's why supersonic aircraft tend to have such large tail - OW!"
It was the first time she had actually cried out. She doubled over again. "Are you sure you don't want to lie down?" Dale asked her. Chip's expression showed he was beginning to regret showing her the binder. _At least it's keeping her distracted._
"No, no, I'm on a roll," she assured them. "I was saying, large tail sections or full delta wings. The early design for _Falcon_ had a relatively simple delta wing, starting about halfway down the fuselage. It was unstable, so they gave it a dihedral and added chines - they blended the wing with the fuselage, and extended the chines all the way up the nose. Like the SR-71. Then they bypassed this entirely and settled on a full waverider configuration. It hurts!"
"Contraction?" Chip asked, worried.
"No! The way the design evolved! They went too fast. I mean, the difference between subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic is more than the prefixes. They tried to compress what took Humans decades and hundreds of billions of dollars into thirty seconds!"
Chip blinked. "Thirty seconds?"
"My contractions. Sorry. I was distracted."
"Perfectly understandable," Chip pointed out. "Dale," he said slowly, "this might take a long time."
Dale nodded. "I know."
"I think maybe we should take shifts."
Dale started to protest, but Foxglove put a wing around him. "I think that's a good idea, Chip. Dale, they have a lounge where we can sit down. Let's go."
Dale didn't want to put up an argument in front of Widget, so he waited until the door was closed. "Foxy, I don't need a rest -"
"Dale," Foxglove said firmly. "You won't help her by knocking yourself out. Her husband's not here, her sister can't be here. She needs you two to keep her spirits up. And that's exhausting."
Dale felt something gnawing at him. He realized he had been thinking they could simply take her to the hospital and everything would be fine - which, he thought now, was pretty naÔve.
"What are you saying, Foxy?" he asked slowly.
The bat looked at him quietly. "I'm saying this is going to be a tough one." She leaned forward and nuzzled him briefly. "I'm going outside to wait for Monty."
"I'll come with you."
She spread her wings dramatically and gave an impish grin. "Not possible. Just relax."
"Uhm, those things aren't supposed to make you fly faster, are they?"
"No," she said, confused. "They carry things."
He gave her a grin and a thumbs up. She went out an open window. His expression changed. "Relax," he repeated. "Sure."
Monterey slipped the last coppertop alkaline AA battery into the back of the Ranger Wing. Gadget preferred to use rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries most of the time, but Atlantis was nearly two thousand kilometers distant. Disposable alkaline batteries are more expensive and less environmentally friendly, but they do pack more energy.
He got in and opened her up. He wasn't prepared for the raw power alkalines provided; the Wing shot up and nearly clipped a branch before he adjusted the throttle downwards. He tapped a switch and looked at the readout on a digital watch. N 40.777, W 73.970, which he knew was right. The GPS they had "borrowed" weighed less than he did but it would make finding a sub at sea much simpler.
He pushed a single control forward. The pontoons swiveled up to nestle against the fuselage. The electric motors on the wings pitched backwards, turning from vertical rotor blades to counterrotating pusher propellers. While doing this, the individual blades feathered to reverse the direction of airflow they created. It was complicated, but it was the only way to build a tiltrotor that didn't need to fly through its own prop vortex.
A short time later, he was within sight of the hospital. Foxglove was in the air; she swooped the moment she was sure it was him. _Goin' to get Gadget,_ Monty realized. _Smart girl._
By the time he had set down, Gadget was tossing a large canteen into the back seat and settling down next to Monty. Being mice, they needed more food and water in relation to their size than Humans.
"How does it handle with the alkalines?" Gadget asked after she buckled up.
"Frisky. You gotta watch the throttle." Monty took them up and turned the nose east. "Six hours there and back," he said. "Hope Widget's okay when ..."
He trailed off. Gadget was looking forward. She nodded agreement. "There's a storm in our path." She shook her head. "Going around it would add an hour each time."
"Think we can go over it?"
"If you remembered parkas."
Monty nodded. "You'll want to carry the canteen inside your coat," he suggested. "Keep it from freezin'."
Normally, when the Rangers flew to another country, they hitched a ride inside the landing gear of a Human commercial flight. Since no flights were scheduled to land in the middle of the Atlantic, this approach was impractical. Unlike _Screaming Eagle,_ the Wing couldn't be attached to the outside of a jetliner, because the Wing could never survive a 500+ mph wind. They were stuck with rodent technology, with a cruising speed of 200 mph and eight hours of juice in the batteries..
"What are ya thinkin', luv?" Monterey asked.
Gadget shook her head. "How we need a long range transport."
"Like your father's _Screaming Eagle,_" Monty agreed. "Somethin' with a turboprop."
"But Ultra-Flight doesn't build gas turbines any more. Not since _Falcon_ crashed."
"Are you tryin' t' talk me inta helpin' you fly _Falcon?_"
"No. Okay, yes. Well, maybe a little. Make that no. Or somewhat."
"Ye mind rephrasin' that?"
"I'm looking into dad's death. This might mean my flying _Falcon,_ Monty. But it would be safer if you flew a chase plane."
"You know, luv, I told your father they were puttin' too many experiments into one plane."
"That was three years ago. Golly, we're flying in a plane with retractable landing gear and a fly-by-wire system. What's more, the Wing doesn't even have a rudder."
"The Wing uses fly-by-wire?"
"Sure! Remember that time we crashed it?"
"Which time?" Monty was not being sarcastic.
"The time we went into a dive and Chip couldn't pull out, so Foxglove pushed our nose up? Well, there was an electrical fault in fly-by-wire so Chip lost all the controls at once."
"Well, as long as it's a proven system, now." Monty was being sarcastic.
"And the turboprop in _Screaming Eagle_ was very similar, mechanically, to the turbojets in _Falcon._ And when I crashed _Screaming Eagle,_ it had nothing to do with the turboprop."
"Gee, that makes me feel better," Monty agreed. "Still, even th' landin' gear on _Falcon_--"
Gadget was warming to her subject. "The landing gear on _Falcon_ is a lot less complex than the landing gear on the Ranger Plane. _Falcon's_ landing gear can't even retract. And the Ranger Plane's landing gear never had anything to do with any of the times it crashed. Why, after some of those crashes, the landing gear was the only part that still worked!"
"Okay, 'ow about problems controllin' a liftin' body at low speeds?"
"You've got me there," she admitted. "There have been a lot of Human experiments with _Falcon's_ configuration, and now a lot of that is declassified so we can draw on it. In fact, many of the experiments were carried out with robot aircraft not a lot bigger than _Falcon._"
"Really?" Monterey found this heartening. The aerodynamics of a rodent-sized aircraft were slightly different from that of larger, Human-sized planes. Human experiments with smaller aircraft tended to give results more applicable to rodent aircraft.
"Sure! Like the Hypersonic Glide Vehicle project in the 1980s. They were working on robot gliders to carry nuclear weapons to their targets, evading defenses on the way down."
Monterey sighed. "Since they was carryin' atom bombs, I assume that landing safely for reuse wasn't in the plan."
"Uhm, idunno. And before that," Gadget went on cheerfully, "There were subscale experiments in preparation for the X-24, like the M2-F2. They used film of an M2-F2 flight in the opening credits of _The Six Million Dollar Man._"
"That would be the crash?" Monty asked, tight lipped.
"Uhm, yeah. Look, bad example -"
"You're a good pilot, luv," Monty said reluctantly. "An' we've all crashed once or twice. But it's been at maybe thirty or forty miles per hour. The wings come off, you skid, you bounce, but unless you're thrown out of the fuselage you'll survive. _Falcon_ stalls at eighty. Your father left a long, shallow crater."
She was tight lipped, and her arms were crossed. Monterey sighed. He had to do something radical to knock the idea out of her head, but he hated to poke at that wound.
"Gadget, I'd really rather not talk about this now."
"Sure. But why?"
"Because you're forcin' me to select between sins of omission and commission. It's kinda puttin' Uncle Monty through an ethical crisis."
"Oh. I didn't mean to."
"I'll bet," he muttered darkly.
"Monty... what was it like for mom? What Widget is doing now."
"Well." Monty cleared his throat. "You know, luv, back then it wasn't like it is now. They made _Geegaw_ wait outside, let alone 'is bachelor friends. I wasn't there for it anyway. I didn't arrive for a few days after your birth."
"Do you know how long it took?"
He performed a mental calculation. "'Bout fourteen hours, if I remember the times correct."
"Do you think she's better off getting it over with quickly, or waiting until J¸rgen can get to her?" Gadget asked in subdued tones.
"I was frettin' 'bout that on the way to hospital," Monterey said, nodding firmly. "You know what I decided on?"
He grinned at her. "That it made no difference to what I was doin', so I shouldn't fret on it." She laughed. He patted her leg. "You'll be flyin' the way back. Try to get some rest."
Gadget nodded, but secretly she agreed with Dale.
J¸rgen paced the cabin he shared with his wife. The deck rocked; they were being rolled by the waves on the surface. He had packed, unpacked, and repacked, and the Ranger Wing was still at least two hours away. Someone knocked.
"Come in," J¸rgen said automatically.
It was Mr. Calvert. The squirrel closed the door and stood, almost at attention. "Sir, the landing crew is on standby. Hot soup and thermoses will be ready within an hour. Thirty minutes prior to their ETA, Mr. Fenton will start looking for them."
"Thank you, Mister Calvert."
"Sir, if you don't mind my asking..."
He didn't need to finish. J¸rgen smiled softly, to cover up his concern. "Labor came on unexpectedly. Early, but not dangerously so. She is in the hospital. I spoke with her briefly. She's with friends and is tired but in good spirits." He frowned. "She said something about how they should have used a double delta wing like the Saab Draken. I'm not sure who 'they' are, or who she was talking to."
Tears came to Mr. Calvert's eyes. He blinked them away. "What an engineer," he said simply. "Sir," he repeated. "Thank you. Permission to speak?"
"Of course," J¸rgen was completely confused.
"Sir, I think you should tell the crew."
J¸rgen blinked. The behavior expected by the new generation was something he was still getting used to. "You think I should give the crew a play by play commentary on my wife's pregnancy?"
"Sir, begging your pardon, sir, but I'm thinking of rumor control. I know it's presumptuous. Widget's your wife but she designed this boat and we've all worked with her, sir. The crew's worried about her."
J¸rgen considered for a moment, and nodded. "You're right. I'll make the announcement from the bridge."
The Ranger Wing touched down lightly on the back of _Albacore._ Monty cut the throttle, and almost immediately crewmice were replacing the batteries, letting the old ones roll into the ocean one by one. Widget's planning of the transfer had even extended to specifying the brands of batteries to be used, in order to insure there was no chance a dead battery would be mistakenly swapped back in for a fresh one.
J¸rgen trotted out of the bridge, feet unsteady on the heaving deck. "Gadget, Monterey," he shouted. "Welcome aboard! Come below for some soup."
There was absolutely nothing Gadget wanted more than to stretch out and sleep. Incredible how exhausting a 1200 mile flight in an open cockpit was, even just as a passenger. "You go, Monty," she shouted. "I'll stay up here and do the preflight."
"I can rest on th' way back," Monty protested.
"Cheese soup," J¸rgen said.
"If you're sure, Gadget luv... you'll need arctic gear, mate," Monty told J¸rgen on their way back down.
In the middle of the city was a park. In the middle of the park was a reservoir. In the middle of the reservoir there was an island. And on that island, carefully concealed from the outside world, was the secret headquarters of the International Rescue Rangers.
Chip puffed his cigar and tapped the ash off into a tray. A low beeping sounded from the portrait of Monterey hanging on the wall.
"Go ahead, Rangerbird 5," Chip said with authority.
The portrait was replaced with a projection of Monty in the orbiting space station. The ashtray rotated up to reveal a speaker and microphone. The ashes were dumped onto the floor in front of the desk. "There's a high risk birth taking place mid-ocean," Monty explained.
"Right!" snapped Chip. He turned to the others, waiting expectantly for his orders. "Well, Gadget, your incredible body - uh, _mind_ -- has made this all possible. The International Rescue Rangers are ready for their first mission. Zipper! Get going on those snare drums. Dale! Back him up on trombone. Gadget! Load the neonatology pod on Rangerbird 2 and follow me. I'll lead the way in Rangerbird 1."
They stood stiffly. "Gee are oh oh vee why!" they chanted.
Chip's chair lifted him straight up trough a hinged hatch on the roof, and dumped him backwards onto the steeply angled shingles. He rolled uncontrollably down into the gutter then down the drainpipe, emerging battered and bruised in the cockpit of Rangerbird 1, deep underground. An ornamental birdbath slipped to the left, uncovering Rangerbird 1's launch silo.
Quickly changing into a uniform that made him look like a third world dictator, Chip launched the sleek aircraft. He was quickly followed by Gadget, in Rangerbird 2, a flat, triangular black aircraft with "02" painted on the wingtip rudders.
"Rangerbird 2, are you having trouble?" he asked, suddenly filled with dread.
"Well, golly, Chip, where's the darned horizon?"
"Chip, wake up." Foxglove was shaking him roughly.
Without a word, Chip pulled Foxglove into a hug and gave her a warm, grateful, yet somehow chaste kiss.
"Uh." Said Foxglove, shaking slightly once it was over. "Why did you -"
"That was for waking me up," he said sincerely. "Your timing was perfect. What can I do for you?"
"Gadget and Monterey are taking off from the _Albacore._"
"She's having a very rough time. Dr. Skinner is thinking of an emergency Cesarean."
Chip shook his head, angrily, but who he was angry at couldn't be said. "How's Dale?"
"He's scrubbed up to stay with her."
"Metal bars, parallel with her spine, and they carry something," Widget said thoughtfully. While she had discussed artificial limbs with Gadget, she had assumed her sister was thinking of replacement limbs. The idea of giving arms to a bat had never occurred to Widget. "They could be racks, like on a fighter."
"Bombs and missiles?" Dale asked, horrified. He had a mental image of Foxglove as an attack plane. Such aircraft were usually well armored. This led to uncomfortable concerns.
"Or electronic warfare pods," Widget said hastily. "Fuel tanks - but I guess a bat doesn't run on liquid - ow!"
Dr. Skinner considered a moment, and put the scalpel down. "Hold the gas," she ordered. She walked up even with Widget's left shoulder. "Widget, we're going to try this one more time. Can you kneel? Dale, help me get her up."
"I spy," said J¸rgen, "with my little eye, something beginning with 'c'."
"Cloud," suggested Monty.
"This is kind of a stupid game, Monty," J¸rgen pointed out.
"Well, it's better than the alternative. I spy, with my little eye something beginning with 'o'."
Widget's meticulous planning had overlooked one essential point: J¸rgen had nothing to do but stew over his wife's condition. Monterey was doing his best to smooth over that little oversight.
"Ocean. Monty," J¸rgen said seriously, "what if my marrying her kills her?"
_This conversation's the alternative,_ Monterey thought dolefully. _Too late now to start up a conversation about U-boats and hunting them from the air._
"She cries because she misses you almost every night," Gadget cut in from the pilot's seat. She looked around. "She loves you more than anything. If she were here, I think she'd say we're all born with a death sentence and you made hers easier to take."
"That does sound like her," Monty agreed.
"How did Geegaw handle it?" J¸rgen asked.
"He 'ad Gadget," Monty stated.
_How did dad handle it?_ Gadget wondered. _You know, in some ways, I don't think he ever did._ But she knew better than to say it.
They were flying north and west, so the sun wasn't in her eyes. They were watering anyway. She couldn't - somehow - imagine Widget actually dying. But she could imagine J¸rgen becoming a widower with a baby.
Dale met them. He was wearing hospital scrubs. Behind him Chip stood with a weak smile, in his bomber jacket. Dale was holding a bundle in a blue blanket.
It actually took a moment for J¸rgen to realize there was something - someone in it. He couldn't see anyone or anything else in the room as he half stumbled, half floated across to stare down, awestruck, into the little face with its screwed-shut eyes and toothless mouth. Dark brown fur, slightly paler across the face and throat. Like Widget's father.
J¸rgen wasn't sure how long he stood there, staring before he lifted a tentative finger, touched the palm of his son's hand, and felt his fingers curl around his.
"They need a name, J¸rgen," Chip gently reminded him.
"Gimcrack," J¸rgen said automatically. "Gimcrack Hackwrench. We agreed on that. My family name's safe, so-" He looked up abruptly. "Where's Widget?"
J¸rgen looked to Chip and Dale. They glanced at one another uncomfortably. Dale looked away. He could sit through the birth to hold Widget's hand, but he couldn't do this. Chip met J¸rgen's eyes steadily. J¸rgen braced himself. "The odds are with her, but not by much. I'm sorry."
11. To Sleep...
Widget was standing on a rock, looking out over a sunlit valley. The trees were just turning; brilliant breathtaking colors heralded the autumn. Her first thought was that she was just coming back to consciousness after a rough stay in the hospital, but then she realized that even if they had discharged her comatose they wouldn't have simply dumped her on the side of a hill somewhere. Her thoughts shifted track when she noticed the lichen she was standing on. She kneeled down and touched it, fascinated. She scraped at it lightly with her metal hand, tugging to see it better, careful not to damage it. She understood the lichen. Somehow intuitively, she knew how it worked, how the pieces fit together. In its own way, it was as engrossing as any fine design work.
She was suddenly struck by the fact she knew more about the ecology of the ocean than about the plants native to the place she was raised. She had always been a city girl, and her interest in marine life had grown out of her love of the ocean. She still couldn't identify an oak tree. But this lichen was endlessly fascinating.
Someone cleared his throat behind her. "Pardon me," he said. "I don't mean to interrupt, but I'm under a time constraint."
She knew who it was before she even turned around. But she couldn't admit it.
"I didn't see you. Where did you come from?" she asked.
He lifted one eyebrow. "Wapakoneta, Ohio." He half-smiled.
"D - Dad?"
He was wearing a bomber jacket, no scarf, and a hard plastic helmet with a rotating visor instead of the leather aviator's helmet she had always pictured him wearing. She wanted to run to him, to feel him hold her - part of her knew he would, but another part told her differently, so she didn't. He gave her a twisted smile, almost a smirk, as though knowing how close she came to expressing actual affection.
"It's good to see you," she said. "If you can visit us, I wish you'd visit Gadget too. She misses you terribly."
Geegaw walked up to her and sat down. He patted the stone next to him, inviting her to sit as well. She sat, knees up, arms around her shins.
"Well, I'd like to," he admitted. "Unfortunately, there are rules. Right now, you're much closer to me than either of you have ever been before."
"Oh." She considered. "By 'close,' I take it that you don't mean in a warm, fuzzy father / daughter relationship sense."
He shook his head with a sad chuckle.
"How's my baby?" she asked with a dry voice.
His smile lit his face. "My grandson's strong and healthy, for all that he's a bit premature."
"We had a boy? He's all right?" Relief filled her, and she found herself smiling. "Thanks for letting me know." She hesitated "Is, he, er... missing anything?" she asked, tapping her metal arm.
Geegaw looked at her. "Does it matter?"
"What is he missing?" she asked flatly, and started to think of designs for legs. _When should we fit him with it?_ she asked herself. _How long do I have to get it working?_
"Nothing, actually," Geegaw frowned. "Does it matter?" he repeated.
"To me, it doesn't. Not to J¸rgen, either. Well, apart from the obvious questions of how best to deal with it. It was always a big problem for me."
Geegaw shook his head and sighed. "Your problem wasn't your arm. Your problem was growing up somewhere everyone hated you. Your son won't have that." He paused, and looked sad. "And I can't tell you how sorry I am you did."
"Dad," Widget hugged him. "It wasn't your fault. It was an accident."
He hugged her back, closing his eyes, rocking her gently for a moment. "Widget, why do you do that?"
"Hug me when I need it when you can't hug me when you need it?"
She shrugged and disentangled herself.
"I was scared for you, Widget."
"And Gadget? I'm sorry."
Geegaw coughed delicately. "Well, actually, there's ramifications to our actions. You were risking more than you could threaten her with. Trust me on this."
"Oh. Still, I wouldn't blame you. I mean, you knew her."
"You're awfully jealous of her."
"Jealous?" Widget frowned.
"Yes, jealous." He seemed tired. "You weren't going for revenge. If you were, you would have been trying to kill Monterey."
"Okay, fine. I'm a spiteful, hateful little troll, destined for aitch ee double hockey sticks. I've known that for years."
"Don't joke about it. That's still very possible. It would be almost certain if that death trap had been designed to work." Widget stared at him, shocked. He snorted. "An engineer who built her own submarine didn't notice that Monterey Jack would make a better counterweight than Dale? Pfft. So tell me, what have you got to be jealous of?"
"I don't know. Her innocence." Widget sighed. "Dad, I've done questionable things."
"I know," he said sadly.
She stood up and started to pace. She was starting to feel a little drowsy. "I'm not talking about playing hooky or swiping day-old bread from the bakery."
"Widget, I know."
"Then why are you asking me?" she exploded. "Can you imagine, can you _possibly_ understand how ... _defiled_ I am? It feels like everyone I touch, I corrupt."
"Even J¸rgen," she admitted. She started crying. "I'm sorry, dad. I know I'm no good for him. But I need him so much."
He cupped her chin and forced her to look at him. "He needs you, too. You know he does." He stroked her face. "Widget, innocence doesn't come back. You'll live with the things you did forever. But you can make up for them."
His voice was soft and mild, and his fingers gentle as he stroked her brow and pushed her ear back against her head. "What you did when you were young and desperate was stupid, dangerous, and wrong. What you tried to do to your sister was evil. I'm glad you had enough decency to admit you were wrong about me. But you didn't have enough to realize what you were doing was wrong, regardless. You never even _suspected_ her of hurting you."
"I know that," Widget said reluctantly.
"Then don't do things you're ashamed of." His voice hardened. "Widget, a good engineer's a lot like a wolf. If they're convinced they have to do something, they'll do it - no matter what it is or what gets in their way, even if the goal is stupid or hurtful. Please think more about what you're doing."
She looked at him for a while. "I will."
He smiled. "Good. I never noticed how tattered your ears are. Ever fight Mike Tyson?"
Widget laughed, yawned and shook her head. "Do you have a message for Gadget?"
"Yes, thanks. Tell her I love her and that I said goodbye. Also tell her I'm glad about Icarus."
"Glad about Icarus?" she frowned. "Dad, that's not a happy story."
"Nevertheless. I'm glad I saw you and not her."
"Why?" Widget was feeling so tired she had to sit down. She stumbled slightly, but Geegaw caught her and lowered her gently.
"I've never spoken to you before. Gadget knows I love her. You have your doubts." Geegaw shook his head impatiently. "You're my daughter. I love you. You're a mother. Can't you understand?"
Widget felt a chill. She shivered. Geegaw put his bomber jacket over her shoulders.
"Thanks, dad. It's getting cold."
"Not really. You've lost a lot of blood."
"I'm okay now."
"Not by a long shot. But you will be waking up soon."
"Oh." She yawned, and snuggled into his arms. She was feeling drowsy. "Uh, dad, can I stay here with you?"
"Yes, but..." he said slowly. "J¸rgen wouldn't appreciate that. Take my word for it. Neither will your son. Ask Gadget."
"Then I better go," Widget made herself say. Pink eyes regarded him steadily. "Dad, I love you."
"I love you. Can you do me a little favor? I left something undone."
"Is this where you finger a name from beyond the grave for horrible, crunchy revenge?" Widget asked. "I've got eight months left on my parole -"
Geegaw looked surprised. "Goodness no. I'm not angry at anyone living. I just want you to say goodbye for me. To Monterey, to Gadget."
"Sure. Dad, what went wrong on _Falcon?_ How did you die?"
"Well basically, there wasn't enough air-" Her eyes closed and Geegaw didn't finish explaining. As far as he was concerned, it was more important to hold his daughter until she drifted entirely away from him.
12. Opus 27 # 2
The nurse stepped into the waiting room. "She's starting to come around," she explained. "I can let relatives-"
J¸rgen trotted past her. "Husband," he stated brusquely.
Gadget was on his heels. "Sister."
"Unofficial uncle," Monty explained.
Zipper was hiding under his coat.
Dale pointed officially at the baby he was holding. "Son," he said with a nod.
Chip touched the brim of his fedora. "Best friend of the guy carrying the kid," which was hopelessly inadequate, but he seemed so confident when he said it the nurse let him by anyway.
The mattress was uncomfortable; her hips seemed to be higher than her head. The smell of blood in the room was almost intolerable. Her eyes were open. She had tunnel vision, and could only see in black and white. Low blood pressure? J¸rgen was coming in. She put out her hand - her other arm, she noticed, had been removed - and he took it.
She looked at his face and she so desperately wanted to talk to him. But she had made a commitment. First things first.
"Gadget?" she asked. She licked her lips.
"Right here." Her sister's voice was firm.
"I saw daddy, Gadget."
"Did you?" Gadget asked, slightly distracted. "Nurse, can she have water?"
"Just a little, for her mouth. She has a fluid IV," came the reply.
Chip splashed some water into a thimble and held it to Gadget, who took it with an automatic thank-you.
"Daddy said goodbye, to you and Monty." Widget was working hard to talk, that much was obvious. She had her hand clamped around her husband's and didn't seem to notice her baby.
Zipper hovered at the other end of the room. The strong smell of blood and the sight of Widget flickering between life and death both distressed him terribly and made him hungry. _Being a scavenger really bites,_ he said to himself, and not for the first time.
Gadget glanced at J¸rgen. She didn't want to monopolize her sister's scattered attention, but J¸rgen gave her an encouraging smile.
"That's good, Widget," Gadget said, nodding her head.
"Yes, Widget, thank you." Monterey had to look away. Yes, Widget was a virago, and a potential danger to the public welfare, and he hoped marriage and a kid would settle her down - but seeing her like this was actually painful. Like a muzzled lioness.
"He crashed because there wasn't enough air."
_Well,_ Monterey thought, _in a sense every pilot crashes when there ain't enough air twixt 'im an' the ground._
"And he said he was happy about Icarus, Gadget."
The thimble flipped out of Gadget's hand.
He was dead, he was dead. There was no point in fooling herself any longer.
The pain she had shut out successfully for months battered her. The same words, over and over.
She banged the radio on in sheer frustration. She knew what she had to do, and she had prepared for it, but before she did it she wanted some other words in her mind.
The song was about Icarus, and she laughed at first, because it seemed so appropriate. Then she let the words enter her.
How strange, she thought, how strange that the earliest story about someone flying without magic - or one of the earliest, anyway - was the story of a test pilot who pushed the envelope just a little too far, and died because of it.
Raw, undigested data flipped through her mind. Air Force test pilots in the 1960s had a better than even chance of widowing their wives before retirement. The first death in space was a Soviet cosmonaut named Komorov. _Challenger._
Every inch on the path to the stars was paid for with blood. And still - and still - people volunteered for the next flight. People like her father, who had left others behind, like herself.
She was alone, but in a sense she was part of a large and growing family who had lost their own to chance, to cost cutting, to design mistakes, to a moment of fatigue, and to break through the next wall and bring us all a little closer to whatever ultimate destiny waited out there. She'd never be alone. She had thousands of sisters and brothers.
The mask she was holding looked like an oxygen mask. Actually, it was the opposite. Incorporating a carbon dioxide absorbing filter, a few minutes wearing it would have suffocated her without any particular discomfort. Gadget flipped the thing away with the contempt it deserved, stood up, and in fits and starts started living again. Anything else would have been a desecration.
The thimble bounced across the floor. Monty ducked for it. Chip caught Gadget before she actually hit. Her weight pulled them both over.
Widget didn't notice. Duty out of the way, she was free to do what she wanted to do. She squeezed her husband's hand. "Love you," she whispered.
"I love you," he repeated back.
"Our son's all right," she stated, and started looking for him. Dale immediately handed him to J¸rgen, who held so she could see. She closed her eyes after a moment.
"I've got to sleep," she said. A smile tugged at her mouth. "I be bock."
J¸rgen laughed. "Promise?" he asked tentatively.
Pink eyes locked on his, steady and calm. "Promise," she stated firmly, leaving no possible question.
This exhausted her so much, she fell asleep without asking if she could moved to a room that didn't smell so terribly of blood.
Chip walked though the lounge set aside for relatives of women in labor, knowing this would be the last time he would be here for the foreseeable future, and somehow unable to walk away from the place he had spent so many nerve-shredding hours without saying goodbye. Most mice preferred home deliveries with midwives; only emergencies came to the hospital. It must be a quiet night. The lights were out and it was dark, but a full moon glowed and sent its light directly into the room through a window.
Widget would make it. It was incredible how rapidly her condition changed from Critical to Serious. The bleeding had finally stopped, and the doctors agreed she was in a deep sleep, not a coma. She wouldn't be able to sit up without losing consciousness for a day or two, but she was on the mend.
The moon illuminated a battered piano against the wall, which for some reason he had missed before. He stepped over to it to see if it was in tune, and to his astonishment, it seemed to be. Touching keys at random, three familiar notes sounded in sequence, and he felt a sudden urge to keep playing.
He took off his fedora and lay it gently on the seat next to him. It didn't feel like he was playing the Piano Sonata # 14 in C sharp minor; it was more like it was being drawn out of him. He had the odd sense that each key called his finger down, that every stroke was preordained and that there was no chance of his striking the wrong key, or spending too long between the notes.
The first movement takes about six minutes to play, and after two or three minutes he was so into the groove that he didn't look up or pause when a slender mouse, smelling delicately of machine oil and superglue, moved his fedora gently aside and sat next to him, her back to the piano.
Oddly enough, he wasn't even thinking about the music as such. Instead, he was pondering how strange it was that something written by a German Human who died in 1827 could be played by an American chipmunk over a century and a half later. That he could, in effect, be taught a piano piece directly from the greatest of all time. If you had told Beethoven that in the last part of the 20th Century the very chipmunks in Manhattan would play his music, even that cocky soul would have split a gut laughing. Yet here he was. Thanks to the medium of ink on paper, music could live forever, cross the boundaries of language and culture and species.
Humans, he thought. Mousetraps, domesticated cats, deforestation, poison gas, those feeders only birds could get into, and the precious, precious ability to learn from the dead.
He drew out the last notes of the first movement for as long as he could, unwilling to release this feeling of transcendence and return to being Chip of the Rescue Rangers.
"I didn't know you could play," Gadget said, a hint of awe in her voice.
Chip was too full of emotion to speak. Instead, he gave her a half grin and winked.
"That was Beethoven, wasn't it?" she asked.
"The Moonlight Sonata," Chip nodded, suddenly struck by how she seemed to glow in the delicate, gentle light, as though she gave off a radiance of her own. "It's been a while."
_So are you._ "Gadget, may I ... ask you a personal question?"
They were seated, facing one another. Slowly, hardly daring to breathe, the blonde mouse nodded. Their lips were very close.
Chip gulped. "What does Icarus mean to you?"
She seemed to gather strength before replying. "It means... it means that losing a test pilot you love is nothing new, and that it's important to go on with the work they left unfinished, so you can build on what they did. It's one thing to decide, formally, that a project was a bad idea, to cut your losses, and cancel it. It's something else to just walk away, because you're afraid. There's caution, and there's cowardice."
If you played Moonlight Sonata wrong, it wouldn't explode and take your life. But if it did...
"Is _Falcon_ that important to you?" he asked.
Slowly, she nodded.
"I think ... I understand, Gadget. I'll help you any way I can."
The smile that began to spread over her face was reflected on his, own, parting her lips ever so gently...
Light from the hall flashed into the room "Oh, _there_ you are!" came the boisterous voice of Monty. "We're just on our way to take J¸rgen to dinner."
Chip and Gadget looked over with large grins, both suddenly aware of how hungry the other must be.
"Where to, Monty?" Gadget asked.
"Well, like I was sayin'," Monterey boomed, "this here island's got some of th' best restaurants on th' planet, with some of the best dumpsters to root through."
"Except on the upper east side," Gadget pointed out.
Chip smiled as Monty gave him a quick, comradely hug. There was no doubt that they all needed to let off some steam, but Chip couldn't entirely suppress the strangely pleasurable fantasy of sending this beloved Falstafian mass of conviviality on a one way flight to the planet Neptune.
Clayton stuck his head in the door. "You asked for me, Nibbles?"
"No," she replied out of habit.
He frowned. "I think you did," he said, hesitantly.
Nibbles blinked. He was right; she had. "Come in and close the door."
It was with some worry he did so. She looked at him, and held out a copy of the latest issue of the _Compost._ It was a paper of the small animal press, and not one of the better ones. "Did you read the story on page eight?" she asked quietly.
Clayton frowned and took the paper. "No," he admitted. "I get most of my news from reading _The Economouse._"
"Well, please lower yourself to do so."
He was visibly nervous as he flipped pages. His face fell. "'Make With the Squeaks: Rescue Ranger's Father in Passion Triangle With Designer of Mystery Crash Airplane.'" He gritted his teeth, shook his head, and gave a long hiss of pain and sympathy. "Not one for the old scrapbook, I guess."
"I wouldn't say so."
"Does it read sordid to you?" he asked before skimming the article.
"They use the word eight times."
He shook his head again. "Look at this. Why do they have a picture of Gadget surfing?"
"Because she's wearing a two-piece," Nibbles said, her voice clipped. "Why do you think?"
"This is really terrible, Nibbles. I don't know what to say." He shook his head again. "It looks to me like they wrote the story around Peanuts' old divorce deposition."
"Can you imagine it? Basing a news story on one half of an old court case?" Nibbles started pacing. "I mean, just because the _New York Times_ does it -"
"And they get a lot of mileage out of the way the _Falcon_ crash was investigated," Clayton couldn't help but point out.
"I noticed that."
Clayton rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a long time. "I think," he slowly said, "I might have an idea."
"What?" Nibbles looked up, surprised, and happy to have some way to get back at the paper.
"As you asked me to yesterday, I met Widget Hackwrench briefly. It turns out she is a daughter of Geegaw's. She's staying with her sister, Gadget."
"Really?" Nibbles looked confused. It flatly contradicted what Geegaw had told her.
"Really," Clayton confirmed with a nod. "Now, I don't want to promise anything, but suppose I could get them to agree that we had reopened the investigation into _Falcon's_ crash _before_ this story was printed?"
"You think they'd do that?" Nibbles asked, amazed.
"It's possible," Clayton assured her. "I mean, their father did think a lot of you, and I think this story will upset them."
There was a long silence. "Clayton," she said in hushed tones, "I don't know what to say."
"Forget it," he dismissed with a wave of his hand. He tossed the paper back onto her desk. "This," he said through tightly compressed lips, "is trash. The people who published this need to be taught a lesson about sleaze and deception. And I'm the squirrel to do it."
He left the room, angrily. Nibbles shook her head in amazement.
To think she had ever considered firing him!
When Widget's visit had been arranged, work began on a "guest suite" if she needed to stay with her husband. For the interim, Gadget had assembled a tinkertoy bunk bed frame around her own bed and added a second mattress. At first, she had assumed Widget would take the top bunk, but it soon became clear the weight gain made her too awkward.
Gadget had never had a roommate before, and she assumed the experience would be slightly short of Gehenna. To her astonishment, they had long, late night conversations about grades of balsa wood, the best landfills, nightmares, and other subjects. Although they were twins, Widget's experiences in life had enabled her to answer certain questions in her sister's mind, usually asked of older women relatives. Gadget knew those conversations would make her a better cook.
They'd talk about nightmares. Gadget's were mostly about the death of her father. Widget's were about the woman who raised her _not_ dying.
Gadget lay in the top bunk she had clambered into last night, even though she knew Widget was staying in the hospital, with her husband. She stared at the ceiling, its closeness now strangely familiar.
Mental checklist. New bed, queen sized at least, for the new room. Crib. J¸rgen might need some fresh clothes - he hadn't brought much with him, and there was no way anything worn by the guys would fit. And had anyone cleaned up the mess in the kitchen?
She looked at the clock. It was almost noon. Leaving bed was agony.
She'd miss those chats.
She opened the door to the rest of the tree. Monty was walking past, towards the unfinished guest room. His arms were filled with clothes.
"Morning, Monty," she said brightly. "What are those?"
"I figgered J¸rgen would need some clothes, so I went and borrowed these from Chip's Uncle Phineas."
"Chip's uncle is a chipmunk," Gadget explained. "His clothes won't -"
"No, 'is won't, but 'e 'elps run a shelter for aged rodents. Trust Uncle Monty," he said, patting her head. "Oh, an' try t' keep it down. Dale was up late, cleaning up the kitchen."
Somehow, the day seemed brighter already.
"So anyway," Dale explained, "they took Widget into the operating room, and started to prep her, when suddenly it started to happen."
"So Dr. Skinner didn't perform a Cesarean?" Chip asked.
"Nope," Dale confirmed with a shake of his head. "So Dr. Skinner had me help Widget into a squatting position, and I held her up."
"Wow. What was it like?"
Dale considered for a while. "It was sort of like that scene in _Alien._ Except you had to tell John Hurt what a wonderful job he was doing, and smile a lot."
J¸rgen broke the kiss and speared another oatmeal flake with a toothpick. "Just three to go," he assured her. "Open wide."
Widget's hips were no longer elevated, and the room had been ventilated. The head of the bed was up by almost fifteen degrees. She felt slightly dizzy, but lowering her head would be an admission of weakness.
"J¸rgen, I'm really sorry."
J¸rgen looked at her. "Three more, and I'll let you see the ducky on the plate. Come on."
"J¸rgen, I'm serious."
"Ah. What are you sorry about?"
"Last night. You came all that way, and I started talking about a stupid dream. J¸rgen, it was so real -"
J¸rgen looked at her seriously and started laughing. He had to put the plate down.
"Widget," he gasped, "We were so happy to hear you talk, you could have started reciting from _Ringlenatz_ for all it mattered. Three to go."
"_Ringlenatz?_" She took the offered flake and chewed.
"A very old collection of untranslatable poems and wordplay. Two left."
"They're untranslatable, and I only remember one."
"Tell it to me."
"One more and I will." She took the flake. "A long time ago there was a onephant, then a twophant. Now we have the el'phant. That's evolution."
She swallowed. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Like I said, untranslatable. One more, and I show you the ducky." He concealed it well, but he really felt Widget had enough German to get the joke.
14. Life Support
Gadget was sitting in the sealed cockpit of _Falcon 02._ The life support system consisted of crystals to absorb carbon dioxide. In principle, it was similar to the mask she had designed to smother herself.
"Okay," came Clayton's voice. "Gadget, we're at T + thirty eight minutes. I think we should stop now."
"That's ridiculous. We agreed I'd stay here until I started showing problems. I feel fine."
"Gadget, what's five times three?"
Gadget concentrated. "What does that have to do with flying, anyway?"
"It's one of the tests we agreed on. Now come on, Gadget, that's five and five and five. What's the answer?"
"It's a stupid question. It's too hard!"
"How do you feel?"
"I feel fine. I want to see how much air there is in here."
"We're at T plus 39 minutes. Gadget, please open the canopy."
She sighed, getting angry. "Chip, can you talk some sense into him? Tell him I'm all right."
"Gadget, _nobody_ talks to you except for the capsule communicator. You will address all your comments exclusively to CapCom. This is CapCom and I want you to tell me what is eighty three minus seven, or open the canopy."
"Seventy four. And it's not fair, because there's a seven in it and sevens are hard."
"Did you use your fingers?"
"No," Gadget lied.
"Gadget, please open the canopy."
"Not until we find out when oxygen deprivation starts to impair my ability to think. We have to know for sure."
"We can rerun the experiment later. I am going to count to ten. If you don't open the canopy, I am going to ask Chip to break the windows. I don't know if they can be replaced - and if they can't be, you'll never fly _Falcon._ One. Two..."
Furious, Gadget popped the release on the canopy. Before she could say anything, a terrified Chip slapped an oxygen mask on her face.
Clayton turned the tape recorder off.
Gadget's eyes were wide open with astonishment. "That was me?"
"Welcome to the wonderful world of hypoxia," Clayton shrugged. "Nobody believes it can happen to them until they hear the tapes."
"That is incredible. I swear, I felt fine through the whole thing."
"There's nothing more insidious. It's hard to believe, but your body doesn't know when it's running out of oxygen. When you hold your breath, you feel uncomfortable, but that's because carbon dioxide is building up in your system. With low air pressure or an atmosphere scrubbed free of carbon dioxide, you have no way of knowing your brain is starting to shut down."
"Judgment goes," Gadget agreed reluctantly.
Chip was rewinding the tape to a time he had noted down. He hit play.
Gadget's voice. "Sixty five minus eight is, um, fifty seven."
He hit stop. "I think that was when you first started having problems."
"T+ twenty seven minutes, eighteen seconds," Gadget agreed.
"Even granted that you don't use oxygen as quickly as your father, and that you were calmer than he was, there's no way he was suffering from hypoxidosis only three minutes into the flight." Clayton's shoulders slumped. "They did this experiment on him prior to the flight. He got a multiplication problem wrong at T + 20 minutes."
"You said there was a compressed air feed into the cockpit?" Chip asked.
"That's right," Clayton agreed. "The canopy was sealed at T - 15 minutes. Compressed air was fed into the cockpit through this valve." He reached over and opened a small hatch next to the canopy. "This let us make sure the cockpit was holding pressure, and it provided a flow of air through the cockpit. See how the connection's angled? On launch, the hose just pulls free."
"So the air had to leave the cockpit, too," Gadget pointed out.
"That's right. This valve," he pointed, "was an exhaust. Geegaw closed the valve manually before launch."
"What if he forgot?" Chip asked.
Clayton shook his head. "Good scenario. If he had left the exhaust valve open, the air would rush out of the cockpit during the climb. He'd develop hypoxia. But that was anticipated. There's a barometer inside the cockpit. We needed that to make sure there weren't any leaks before launch. That barometer would sound an alarm, both inside the cockpit and on the ground, if the cabin lost pressure. We'd know it happened. Even if that failed, his ears would have popped. He would have known what was happening, and he would at least mention it."
"Who handled the air feed?"
"That was Peanuts."
"Sixty percent," Chip said.
"What?" Gadget asked, blinking.
"Just thinking out loud. Sorry."
15. Permanent Solutions
They insisted on keeping Widget in a wheelchair, but at least they let her hold her baby. The sun was on her left, and the heat was making her sleepy in a pleasant way. Gimcrack had finished his meal, and she felt perfectly content to sit and let the time drift by, mind in idle.
"Good afternoon, ma'am."
"Hi Widget! You're looking better."
Widget opened her eyes. Chip and Gadget. They had the slightly overenergetic attitude people had when visiting in the hospital. Widget smiled. She could imagine Dr. Skinner. "Keep it short and upbeat. Don't wear her out."
"Ma'am," Chip asked politely, taking off his fedora, "I don't want to bother you, but I guess you must have pressurized air on _Albacore._"
"Yes, quite a bit," she agreed.
"I find it's a surprisingly complicated subject. Who would I talk to if I had some questions about it?" he asked.
Widget was in a quandary. On one level, she was wondering why Chip felt the need to discuss pressurized air with an expert. On another level, she was afraid she was Missing Something Obvious and would look like an idiot if she asked. Normally she wouldn't have minded but she wasn't feeling her best, and it made her defensive.
"You want to talk to Mr. Shiro. If you send him email, he'll see it when _Albacore_ comes to the surface for air. He'll probably respond within a day or two. Anything I could help you with?"
"No - no," Chip said, too quickly. "You've got a lot on your mind, and I'd rather not trouble you." He looked down at Gimcrack and smiled. There comes a point in the life of a chipmunk where the sight of a newborn brings a single thought: _I've got to get me one of those._ He shook it out of his head. "I'll go compose that message. May I say you referred me to him?"
Chip nodded again and bolted.
Widget watched him go. "What's that about?" she asked.
Gadget followed her glance. "I think he's chasing a long shot," she said. "He does that from time to time. How are you doing?"
Widget looked at her son. "I don't know if it's because I'm getting better after a close call, or because I've just had a baby, but I've never felt this ... content before. At least, not while sitting upright." She cracked a half smile and her sister blushed.
"I remember when you were married you said you didn't want to have children. What made you change your mind?"
Widget laughed. "Well, we underestimated how much birth control we needed on a cruise, took a chance one night, and beat the odds. Gimcrack here is probably the most unplanned project I've embarked on since I read Demming."
"Are you thinking of, uh, any more?"
Widget shook her head firmly. "No. I'm taking some permanent measures before leaving. This one took a lot out of me."
"I understand the surgery is less ... complicated for the male," Gadget said slowly. She was afraid too much trauma in too short a time would be dangerous for her sister.
"I want him to stay lean and energetic," Widget joked, watching her sister carefully. It was amazing. Gadget could actually blush through fur. Widget could do the same, but she didn't know because she never had. "Besides, there's a big difference in our ages."
"J¸rgen's not that much older than you."
"Gadget, his son is two years older than I am."
"Really? Did you tell him to call you 'mom?'"
"Yes, he was annoying me."
"I've been giving some thought to permanent solutions as well," Gadget admitted.
Widget lifted an eyebrow.
"Widget, you almost died."
Widget looked down again. "And what if I said it was worth it?"
"I'd say you didn't see your husband when he was wondering if he killed you." She touched her sister's hand.
"Gadget, I think it's awfully premature on your part. You've never even - have you met the mouse you want to marry?"
Widget shrugged. "A chipmunk - for example - won't give you children. That's the definition of the word 'species.' I'm having this done because the next one would kill me. Dr. Skinner's made that absolutely clear. You shouldn't do anything permanent."
"I really don't think I want kids." Silently, Widget handed Gimcrack to her sister. Gadget hesitated for a moment. "Golly, he's cute."
"If you're so afraid of dying," Widget asked, "why are you taking up _Falcon?_"
Gadget looked at her sister uncertainly. "I'll only do it if there's no other way, and if I'm convinced it's safe."
"You'll think of a reason," Widget stated. "There's this big question mark out there that killed your father. Now that you've decided, you won't rest until it's buried. And that won't be until you've brought _Falcon_ in for a safe landing. Until you've tamed the beast dad couldn't."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because if I were a pilot, I would."
"Do you think you really talked to him?"
Widget sighed. "Gadget, when brains start to shut down, they do odd things. You told me a lot about him, so I guess he was on my mind. He told me it was a boy, but that was a fifty-fifty chance. Even the fact he was all right... there's nothing that couldn't have been a dream."
"That's not what I asked."
Widget stared off into the distance. "Yes," she said reluctantly. "I believe I talked to him."
People really did treat you differently when you were formally in command. Still, Mr. Calvert felt odd when Shiro walked onto the bridge and respectfully asked to speak with him in private.
"Mister Calvert," Shiro began, and hesitated. "The people that the captain and the Gray Mouse are staying with - do we trust them?"
"Since our bosses are staying with them, I certainly hope so. Why, Shiro-san?"
"A chipmunk named Chip sent me email asking how I'd sabotage a life support system to murder someone." He looked apologetic. "If it were about gear ratios or something I wouldn't bring it up with you, but I feel a bit odd answering a question like this from a stranger..."
"I don't blame you." Mr. Calvert rubbed his chin. "Compose a response to his question, but don't send it yet. I'll talk to the Captain about it and see what he wants us to do."
When Gadget said Chip was chasing a longshot, she underestimated him. Chip didn't feel comfortable unless he was chasing at least two or three at once. Otherwise he felt he was missing something.
Trackball adjusted her glasses and moved her wheelchair closer to the table. She bit her tongue and fell silent for a moment. The muted hum of many NT servers was the only sound as Chip waited for an answer.
Trackball was one of the few rodents who actually held a Human job; she ran an ISP and was a consultant who worked through email. The money went to pay for the equipment lining the walls.
"How many documents are we talking about?" she finally asked.
"Close to two thousand," Chip answered.
"That comes to around four million pairs."
"Two million," Chip corrected.
"Of course, combinations and not permutations." Trackball chortled at her own foolishness. "So what you have is a set of two thousand complex Bezier curves and you need me to find sets of similar pairs."
"Not really similar," Chip said slowly.
"Similar in the geometrical sense," Trackball explained. "Identical except for size."
"Yes, similar, then."
"The problem's got obvious applications elsewhere... I think I can help you. Might take a few weeks, though."
"Thanks, Trackball." Chip rose and took his hat.
"Afternoon, Chip." J¸rgen was frying something in a pan. "Try a potato pancake?"
It tasted like hash browns, and Chip nodded appreciatively over a mouthful. J¸rgen flipped another pancake onto a growing stack.
"I don't think I ever thanked you for that detective work you did on how Widget was separated from her father," J¸rgen said casually. "I mean, finding the cat who chased them off the bridge..."
Chip shrugged. "Cats like to tell stories. They even write about their best hunts on the sides of buildings. It's called the Catter Wall."
"I think you saved Widget's soul," J¸rgen said, so quietly there was no doubt he meant it literally.
Chip smiled. "I was glad to do it."
"You gave my chief engineer a bit of a startle today," J¸rgen said conversationally.
"Yes," Chip agreed. "I can understand why."
"He asked me to confirm your intentions were honorable. Care to discuss them?"
J¸rgen's voice was light and casual; obviously more curious than concerned. Chip knew it was a sham.
"Before I say anything, J¸rgen, I want to emphasize I'm just guessing. I'd rather not let Gadget or Widget know I suspect something."
"Any reason why not?"
"Because there's no reason to upset them yet."
"You think you know something that will upset them?"
"That's exactly what I don't think. Gadget's working theory about her father's crash is the failure of technology. That's her area of expertise."
"But you think he was murdered?" It came out quietly.
Chip shrugged. "That's _my_ area of expertise."
J¸rgen smiled, grimly. "I can appreciate why you'd rather play your cards close to your chest. I'll keep it a secret. Try some sour cream with the next."
"Thank you. It gets worse." Chip looked at J¸rgen sadly. "If I'm right, I don't see any way to prove how it happened."
"The perfect crime?"
"And the perfect getaway. My number one suspect has been dead for months."
"So why bother to pursue it?"
"My contribution to the never ending quest for truth, I suppose."
"Even if it never amounts to anything more than suspicions about a dead man."
Chip shrugged. "You can't always pick your battles. Can I have another pancake?"
16. Rules of Engagement
Gadget scratched her head and looked dolefully at the two loose wires she had left over. Her first impulse was to connect them to one another, but she was pretty sure she had detached them from something. She knew that if she did that, or stuffed them back into the control panel, Widget had a better than even chance of spotting it when she checked it out later. Widget had the two personality traits most necessary for a tester: diligence and sadism. Then Widget would give her another lecture about Demming. And Gadget was developing a fear of the word "process."
Rather than risk that, she sighed and started to extract herself from the cockpit, to look for the wiring diagram.
Someone was laughing.
Gadget pulled herself out of the cockpit. Nibbles was standing in the door.
"I didn't mean to laugh," Nibbles said immediately. "I just thought that I've never seen you working right-side up."
Gadget smiled, and wiped her hands on a rag. They weren't dirty, but it was part of her ritual when putting down tools. "It's good to see you," Gadget said.
Nibbles' face turned serious. "You too."
"Nibbles, I said some terrible things to you last time we met."
"Gadget, neither of us were at our best. I tried to check on you later, but you had these traps-"
Gadget preferred not to be reminded of her brush with a total crackup. "Before that, I don't think I was as nice to you as I should have been."
_You bet, you rotten little..._ Nibbles shrugged. "Well, you were alone with him, his little prin - girl for so long. It's hard on a child when a single parent starts seeing someone else." Despite what she had just said, Nibbles still felt some left-over resentment.
While Nibbles was seeing Geegaw, Gadget's behavior had always been correct, without a single word that implied or stated disapproval. The young mouse had relied on body language and inflection. Since it was unthinkable the father she virtually worshipped was involved in something questionable, Nibbles had found herself cast in the role of Jezebel. During one breakfast, Geegaw had actually taken his daughter into the kitchen "for a little chat." Twice. The second chat was probably audible in New Jersey.
The chats had some effect, for all that Nibbles thought Gadget was a bit old for a time out. Or a spanking. She needed imprisonment, or the rack. At one point, Nibbles had actually suspected Gadget of trying to poison her. But Geegaw assured her Gadget's cooking usually tasted like that.
After Geegaw died, Nibbles had made some attempts to ensure Gadget was all right. But those were primarily for the sake of Geegaw. Nibbles hadn't associated Geegaw's annoying albeit brilliant kid with Gadget the Rescue Ranger until a young engineer had asked her about it.
That had been three years ago. This Gadget seemed somehow steadier, more confident. Going toe to toe with Fat Cat and coming out on top probably had a lot to do with that. And the late teens to early twenties was a big jump. Nibbles wondered if she herself had changed either. With hindsight, she realized that getting involved with a coworker, a dashing widower test pilot with a clever teenaged daughter, while still working with her own estranged husband was not high on anyone's list of Smart Things to Do.
She was kidding herself. If Geegaw were back, she'd do it all again.
With a slight shock, she looked back on what she had just been thinking.
"I don't blame you," Nibbles said slowly. "I think ... I resented your competition too."
Gadget looked taken aback for a moment, and smiled ruefully. _We're like two dogs fighting over a bone. The bone gets taken away, and there's nothing left to do but talk about how good it smelled._
"I even blamed you for blowing out my speakers," Nibbles said, and shook her head.
"I don't remember."
"You developed that sound sensor, so the volume on my speakers would go up when a plane passed overhead. A Concorde flew over and they exploded."
"Oh. Uh, actually, I meant for that to happen. Sorry."
"So," Nibbles asked brightly. _You little..._ She jumped up onto the _Falcon._ "What have you been up to?"
Gadget edged herself between Nibbles and the cockpit. "Oh, Rescue Rangering, mostly." Her eyes were wide and innocent. The ferret thrust her head past Gadget to look into the cockpit.
"You've replaced the digital..." her voice trailed off. "Gadget, you're getting this thing airworthy?"
"Oh look!" Gadget yelled. "There's my sister and nephew!"
Widget and Gimcrack were tooling up in a skateboard powered by a model airplane motor. On the back of the skateboard, lashed down as cargo, was an XTJ-1 turbojet.
"Gadget, you're not planning on _flying_ this-"
"Hi, Widget!" Gadget yelled, leaping off the plane. "Hi, Gimcrack!" She turned to Nibbles, with a broad grin. "My sister, Widget. That's her son, Gimcrack. Dad thought she was dead, but she's not. But I guess you knew that."
Widget wasn't sure what was going on, but followed her sister's lead. "Hi, Gadget!" Widget waved back. She wiggled Gimcrack's arm in a failed attempt to make it look like he was waving. He looked seriously at his mother, wondering if this had something to do with getting fed.
"Widget, this is Nibbles. You remember, I told you about her?"
"The one who kept hinting to dad about that military boarding school?"
"The Stockade. That's her."
"Did that school even accept women?" Widget took her baby in her left arm and jumped lightly down.
"Her plan was for me to go disguised."
Widget ran an eye down her sister's form dubiously. "In what? A barrel?"
"Back then, the joke was f'(Gadget)=k. Get it?"
Widget thought a moment. "A straight line with no curves."
"I was told you were doing an inquiry into the crash of _Falcon 01,_" Nibbles interrupted. "But you're preparing to fly _Falcon 02,_ aren't you?"
She was facing Widget, who reverted momentarily to her youthful relations with authority figures, and instinctively lied. "Of course not."
"Then why are you putting in an engine?"
Widget turned around in the driver's seat and stared at the long steel cylinder, as though just noticing it for the first time. She scratched her head in perplexity. Gimcrack sneezed.
"The investigation might require that we fly the aircraft," Gadget interrupted. "I don't think it's particularly dangerous."
"Gadget, you're not the pilot your father was."
Gadget clouded. "I've gotten better in the past few years."
"Fine. You've gotten better. But this plane has already killed the best living rodent pilot once. It's not going to kill another. You want to go through the files, run some tests, fine. You're not going to take this plane up."
"We're going to take every possible-"
"Gadget, I know what you're doing here. Do you really think it's worth risking a life to find out what went wrong on a project that was canceled three years ago?"
"It's my life," Gadget muttered, like a petulant teenager.
"It's my plane. And it's not leaving the ground."
"I don't think you can stop me."
"Gadget, do you think your behavior after your father's funeral was healthy and normal?"
Gadget had to rest her hand on the cool aluminum of _Falcon_ to keep it from visibly trembling. "No."
"I miss your father," Nibbles' voice faltered. "And the fact I had a hand in his death cracked my heart a long time ago. Gadget, you're not going to get yourself killed in my airplane. Promise you won't take it up."
There was a long pause. "I'm sorry, Nibbles. I can't do that."
"Fine." Nibbles' demeanor changed. "I'm going to have the other XTJ-1 engines in storage dismantled."
"One moment," Widget interrupted. "Ma'am, I'm the designer of the Nimnul generator. I can shut down the _Peregrine._ And I'll do it if you interfere with this inves-"
"Go right ahead," Nibbles said amiably. "You're right. You can kill _Peregrine._ Do it. You know how badly we need that plane operational. More than we need _Falcon._ But if you're willing to throw that away, I'll let you."
Widget's eyes met Nibbles' for a long moment. The mouse looked away.
"But if you do decide to fly this thing with one engine," Nibbles said brightly, "be sure to add a second cockpit seat and a carrier for that pretty baby of yours."
"That way," Nibbles explained, "This thing can take the entire family back to daddy. And that's what Gadget really wants, isn't it?"
17. Threats & Promises
Gadget was driving the skateboard. There were a lot of bumps, and it seemed Gadget was trying to take them all at the highest possible speed.
"She's right, you know," Widget said quietly.
Her sister turned on her, ears back, eyes narrow. "What do you mean?"
Pink eyes looked steadily into her own for a moment before Widget answered. "_Peregrine's_ too important. A long ranged air transport ... it could help open trade, move disaster relief supplies. There's too much potential benefit for me to back out of it."
Gadget softened immediately. "I know," she sighed. "I wouldn't want you to."
"How are you going to fly it without engines?"
"Glide tests. They were considered before they went with the powered tests. Without engines or fuel, _Falcon's_ weight is cut by about 65%. It'll be safer."
"You're going to do a dead stick landing with an unproved airframe?"
"It's been done before. The Shuttle was glide tested."
"Well, if NASA astronauts can do it, I guess you can."
"Is this sarcasm?" Gadget asked.
"Of course not. After all, it's not like astronaut-pilots are some kind of elite."
"And isn't the Shuttle landed by an autopilot?"
"Good afternoon, Clayton."
Nibbles was looking rather expressionless, which wasn't a good sign. Clayton nodded. "Good afternoon. I know why you asked me here."
"Yes, and I have wonderful news. That new wood glue is so good the test rig broke before it did."
Nibbles sighed. "Clayton, Gadget is readying _Falcon 02_ for launch."
"Is she on about that again?" Clayton asked, surprised. "I thought I talked her out of it."
"Was this before or after you had the launch facility at Pine Plains inspected and refurbished?"
Clayton blinked. "No, that's for _Peregrine._ If we're going to accidentally open up a hole to another dimension, it's probably best to do it away from Manhattan."
"And the concrete landing strip?"
"_Peregrine's_ thrust to weight ratio is pretty low, and it'll need a long takeoff strip. _Falcon's_ old landing strip is perfect. I thought you'd appreciate the savings."
"And _Falcon's_ solid rocket boosters?"
He put a file on her desk. "By changing the nozzles, we can make them burn more slowly. They'll be perfect if _Peregrine_ needs a little extra boost to get into the air."
"Thank you." He shrugged. "Look, I don't blame you for the confusion - I didn't discuss the possibility with you."
"And why is the launch gantry for _Falcon_ being set up?"
Clayton frowned. "Oh, is it?"
Clayton laughed. "You see, I told them to set up the launch facilities. I guess they misunderstood and took that to mean _all_ the launch-"
"Clayton, has it occurred to you that aircraft is nearly impossible to control, and that it's extremely dangerous?"
"Well, have you considered the dramatic aspects of sending it up?" he asked rhetorically. "The Compost will eat it up. The beautiful daughter of-"
Nibbles didn't seem to hear him. She was staring at him, her face frozen. Finally, she asked a horrified question.
"Clayton, you don't care, do you?"
Clayton paused. "About what?"
"About killing pilots. All you want to do is prove the engines work."
"Nibbles, you sent that plane up the first time-"
"That was before we knew better."
"Then there was something very wrong with the evaluation, don't you think?"
"Clean out your desk and go home."
Clayton was visibly shaken. He leaned against her desk.
"You can't do that," he said quietly.
"Unless you give me a resignation by Monday morning, I'm going to ask you be dismissed at the next board meeting."
"On what grounds?"
"You're letting your emotions interfere with your judgment. You're taking excessive risks with the life of a pilot and with Ultra-Flight's valuable and expensive equipment."
"It's been locked up for three years."
"You canceled the _Falcon_ project for no good reason."
"Killing the best pilot in the world isn't a good reason?"
"You can't make _Falcon_ your personal offering to the ghost of Geegaw Hackwrench."
Nibbles was actually too angry to speak. She slowly got up from behind her desk.
"You say _Falcon_ killed Geegaw," Clayton snapped. "Fine. You tell me how, and I'll resign right here and right now. I'll even keep Gadget from flying it."
"It doesn't matter how it happened. The project is canceled."
Clayton was leaning on the desk, all caution, all diplomacy gone. "It matters because people _guess_ about reasons. It matters because our work is _important._ And, finally, it matters because Geegaw _died_ for it!"
Their faces were close. Nibbles was bigger, and she was a predator to boot. She managed two words.
Clayton wheeled, and slammed the door. They must have gotten louder than he had thought, because everyone in the office was either looking at him or obviously not looking at him. But whether they were looks of sympathy or satisfaction, he couldn't say.
18. Converging Approaches
Many thanks for the added information about the life support system used on Falcon. As per your request, I attempted to develop a strategy to sabotage the system in such a way as to cause the death or incapacitation of the pilot.
During the pre launch phase, air was fed under pressure into the sealed cockpit. This was done to find leaks in the cockpit seal as well as to give the pilot fresh air prior to launch.
At first, I considered the possibility that air pressure inside the cockpit increased too quickly, which can produce an hypoxia-like condition called nitrogen narcosis, or rapture of the deep. This could have happened as the result of sabotage or even accidentally.
However, a one way release valve in the cockpit, set to open at 1.1 atmospheres, was provided to permit air flow and to prevent the accident just described. The barometer inside the cockpit was set to trigger an alarm when an air pressure of 1.2 atmospheres was exceeded. Even if this was sabotaged, the pilot would have been aware of the dangerous pressure buildup long before he showed any effects.
This strategy therefore seems untenable.
The next possibility I examined was contaminating the air within the cockpit with an odorless gas such as carbon monoxide. It would have been simple to introduce such a gas, and the pilot would not have been aware he was being poisoned.
However, the estimated total flight time was no more than five minutes. The effect of gas or any other drugs on a specific person is difficult to predict with any precision. Respiration rate can vary as much as 10% based entirely on an individual's emotional state and even what and how much they ate at their last meal. Anesthesiologists require a very tightly controlled environment, constantly monitoring the patient's vital signs and adjusting the flow of gas in order to successfully predict the results. Slightly too much carbon monoxide would cause the pilot to fall asleep during the flight -- which, while fatal, would have been so suspicious that murder would be obvious. Worse, a slight delay during launch (very common in such flights) would have caused the pilot to lose consciousness on the pad, which would have resulted in an immediate investigation. Slightly too little gas would have allowed the pilot to land safely.
In conclusion, I regret to say that in my opinion it is extremely unlikely this method would have been chosen to kill the pilot, especially since there were a number of more certain methods (blocked control surface, collapsing landing gear) available.
I hope this answers your questions, and please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any more.
Chip sighed with frustration. His suspicion meter dropped to 45%. He decided to visit Trackball to see if she had come up with anything.
"Okay, kid, you're almost three weeks old now and it's about time you got exposed to what mommy does for a living." Widget hefted a pencil and waved it. Gimcrack's eyes followed it seriously. "This is a pencil, graphite, a Ticonderoga Number Two. It is your friend. Treat it as such. You'll need a lot of them. It's traditional.
"On this end, there's a pink rubber eraser. Notice it is intact and clean. You never use a pink rubber eraser. They're for the weak and feeble and marketers. Instead, you use a white plastic eraser. That is how you prove to the world you know your pencil.
"Your mom and your aunt are going to spend the next few hours trying to make sense out of someone else's work. This occupies about 45% of any project. We will doubtless use words which are not used in this family. You might want to take notes. Another 45% goes towards convincing yourself you're running down a blind alley. The last 10% is where the work gets done. Exciting, huh? Feel free to jump in with observations any time."
Gimcrack yawned and went to sleep.
Gadget had a broad smile as she riffled through notes taken the previous day.
"So we agreed that there's no proof Geegaw was suffering from hypoxia."
"Right," Widget confirmed with a nod.
"And that there's no flaw we can find in the engine designs."
"And that the tests run and signed cover every eventuality we can think of."
"I've got my suspicions about turbine disintegration under sustained Military power," Widget objected.
"Me too. That would be an issue if they were running triplesonic - but it's not one for this accident."
"I think it was the fuel pump."
"Not with the tests it went through."
"Ignoring the fuel pump, there's two possibilities," Widget sighed. "First, the accident never happened."
"We can reject that one out of hand. The second is it was just an anomaly."
Dale and Monterey were gathering walnuts for a batch of Monty's Walnut Walleroos, which really were excellent if taken in moderation. Suddenly, the large mouse stiffened, and his face assumed an expression of utmost horror.
Monty grasped the smaller chipmunk firmly by the shoulders. "Dale, lad," he choked. "You may laugh, but we've got to get back to the tree - right away!"
"What's wrong, Monty?" Dale asked, concerned.
"I dunno how - p'raps a message from beyond the veil what separates the livin' from the dead - but some'ow I know -- _I know_ -- that Gadget just used th' a-word."
"Anomaly?!" Dale gasped, face a mask of terror.
"_Don't say it out loud!_" Monty roared. "That gives The Word power!"
Without another sound, the two frightened rodents dropped their walnuts and dashed back.
In all fairness to the a-word, it should be observed that it has a perfectly legitimate meaning in the context of problem finding. "Anomaly" refers to a duly observed and recorded problem which cannot be duplicated, despite painstaking effort and analysis. It was Gadget's unfortunate habit of considering thirty or more seconds of thought to be "painstaking effort and analysis" which made it, when coming from her soft lips, the harbinger of the Fourth Horseman. Despite her brilliance, it cannot be denied that if Gadget worked on nuclear generators or airliners, flocks of vultures would wax fat on the harvest of her slain.
Gadget generally used the term as an excuse to ignore problems. If her father died in an anomaly, there was nothing to do but fly _Falcon_ again.
Monterey threw the front door open. "There are dangerous thoughts taking place 'ere," he proclaimed. "Stop them at once."
"Modulate your tone," Widget said immediately. "Behold; a mother who has not slept in stretches longer than three hours for nearly a month, and a sleeping baby."
Monty's jaw fell as he realized the enormity of his crime. Fortunately, the door slammed shut on Dale's foot instead of banging against the frame, and the chipmunk was able to stifle a scream.
"If your raucous voice causes him to stir," Widget whispered, "then your blood will stain a mother's hands, and the angels will look down and say 'Lo, it is good.'"
"So be it," Monty agreed, a single manly tear running down his face. "For your cause is just and my sin is great."
Dale and Gadget gasped in horror and covered their mouths.
Gimcrack stirred slightly, yawned mightily, opened his eyes, and started to cry.
"Crikey, I'm sorry," Monty apologized.
"No big deal," Widget sighed. "It was getting close to his dinner time anyway." She started to undo her blouse when she look up, startled. "Uh - do you want us to leave?" she asked.
Naturally, neither Monty nor Dale wanted to admit how uncomfortable it would make them, so they adopted the personae of Rodents of the '90s by making noncommittal sounds and fixing their eyes on things far away from Widget's chest.
Widget's left arm was capable of delicate manipulation - but not quite delicate enough to undo buttons. She could, however, lift Gimcrack up with her left arm while steadying him with her right. Gadget held her breath through the operation. With any luck, Monty would forget what had brought them here.
"Anyway," Widget said, dashing her hopes, "I can see a quality failure in one engine producing this problem. But an identical quality failure in two separately tested engines? An anomalous engine failure in both engines only holds water if the failure is in something used by both. I think my first hunch was right. The fuel flow was interrupted by the shock of pulling out of a dive."
"But he didn't actually pull out of the dive the third time," Gadget pointed out.
"Still, his rate of descent must have been dropping, and dropping pretty fast. We keep coming back to the same problem."
"Wait, wait," Monty interjected. "'Ow do ya figger three flameouts on each of two engines to be anomalous? Sounds pretty repeatable to me."
"Besides, they tested the fuel flow system as a series of parts," Widget explained. "They couldn't fit the entire assembly into the centrifuge."
"That shouldn't have been a problem," Monty argued.
"You said 'should,'" Gadget couldn't help but point out.
"Besides," Widget went on, "while they could duplicate acceleration, there's something they couldn't have duplicated in a centrifuge."
"What?" asked Dale.
"Hey." Dale frowned.
"Sorry! 'Jerk' is actually a technical term. It means the rate of change of acceleration. As in a violent tug."
"Did she make that up?" Dale asked Gadget suspiciously.
"No, Dale. 'Jerk' is the derivative of acceleration against time."
"Does that mean it was not an insult?"
"Even there," Gadget argued, "testing showed no interruption in fuel flow up to twenty Gs. I just don't buy your scenario. It was an anomalous failure. A bad pump, maybe, but there's no way a pump working to spec failed during the flight."
"Sorry," Monty repeated firmly. "You ain't gonna wave the magic anomaly wand over this one. You give me a solid, repeatable theory based on something they overlooked, an' I'll give ya my blessin' on flyin' that monster again."
Exactly what Monty's blessing would consist of, and whether it would have any effect on the launch date was left unspoken. Gadget wanted to have it, anyway.
"What did your father say in your dream?" Dale asked. "Something about running out of air?"
Gadget shook her head. "No, we checked the life support system pretty thoroughly."
"Oh," said Dale, disappointed. "I guess the only other thing that needed air was the jets."
Dale had meant it as a light, throwaway comment to ease the tension. But Widget and Gadget slowly looked at one another. He had never seen telepathy before. In a sense, he wasn't seeing it now - two engineers on the same problem given the same input chewed on it and came out with the same answer.
Gadget spoke first. "Tupolev-144."
Widget replied. "Paris, 1973."
Dale nodded, grimly. "86 Hike!"
"You'd 'ave to turn th' plane upside down," Monterey said slowly. Their clues had been enough for the old pilot. "But that could be it."
"Don't encourage them, Monty," Dale pleaded.
"Where's the document index?" Gadget asked, as she started to shuffle through stacks of papers.
The door swung open, and a tired looking Chip walked in, carrying Dale's abandoned bag of walnuts. "I brought your walnuts, Dale," he said. He looked at Gadget, rummaging through binders and Widget, looking impatiently at her baby, as though asking him to hurry up.
"I think we figured out why dad crashed," Gadget explained.
"Would it involve," Chip asked, taking out a paper and reading it carefully, obviously reading the title as a series of words with no notion of what they meant when combined, "'Internal Aerodynamics at Positive Angles of Attack and Subsonic Speed'?"
Gadget stumbled slightly, and fell heavily into a chair. Widget's expression became guarded, and the nasty part of her mind issued a strident warning. Under no pretext should she maneuver herself into a position where she had to fool the chipmunk in the bomber jacket. Monterey's jaw dropped.
"How," Monty asked softly, his voice filled with awe, "How in th' name of -"
Chip put down the sack of walnuts, and threw himself into a chair across from Gadget. He rubbed his eyes, and sighed deeply. He had hoped he was wrong.
"Guys," he said. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. In a way, I was hoping I'd find out Geegaw was murdered."
"But you..." Dale swallowed. "You found something worse?"
"I'm sorry, Gadget. What does 'internal aerodynamics' mean?" Chip asked.
"The way air flows through a jet engine's intake duct," Gadget said softly. "This can be very complicated, especially with a supersonic aircraft. In fact, it's not unusual for half the wind tunnel tests to be dedicated to internal aerodynamics."
"Chipper, lad," Monty said distinctly. "_What do you know?_"
"Well..." Chip started. He rubbed his neck. "Have you ever photocopied a ruler and compared the photocopy to the original?"
"The toughest part of makin' a Walnut Walleroo is crackin' open enough walnuts," Monty told J¸rgen as J¸rgen held the chisel. Monty swung the hammer fast, splitting the walnut with the skill of a diamond cutter. Monterey smiled with pride. "Mind ya, that part ain't hard if someone's holdin' a chisel."
Although Gimcrack wasn't old enough for solid food, he was obviously enjoying the hammer and chisel. Monty grinned at him and he managed a half smile in return. "Take after your mum, you do," Monterey told him.
As though Gimcrack reminded him, Monterey looked at J¸rgen to ask a question. "Don't you have another son?"
J¸rgen looked slightly uncomfortable. "Yes, from my first marriage. Karl's not handling the marriage well, I'm afraid."
"Uh oh." Monty was sorry he asked.
"You see, his mother died during the war. The only thing I know is the sea. So I couldn't be there for him. He was raised by my parents. Wonderful people, but I have to admit that my marrying Widget would probably have killed them if they were still alive."
Monty forced a chuckle. "Really? Why?"
"Oh, she's American, her mother was a domestic mouse, she's a career woman, she's younger than my son, she has a ... uhm..."
"Colorful," Monty suggested.
"Widget said she's been gettin' up every three hours. Can't you use a bottle?"
J¸rgen sighed. "Gimcrack won't take a bottle. We've tried several times, but he just starts screaming."
"Strange," Monty mused. "'Ow did ya arrange that, mate?"
"I promised him a sports car when he's sixteen," J¸rgen explained.
Gimcrack grinned from ear to ear.
The Walleroos were on the table, but even their delicious aroma didn't seem to lift the despondency of Widget and Gadget. Dale was being a little more energetic than usual, to cheer them up.
"Great cookies, Monty," he proclaimed. "But they'd really go good with a tall glass of cold milk."
"Yes, but I used up all the milk makin' the cookies," Monterey apologized.
"Nonsense. I'm sure I saw a pitcher in there." Dale got up to get it.
"In a blue pitcher?" Widget asked, suddenly worried.
"Uh huh. Why?"
"Dale, that's mine."
Widget was the only one looking directly at Dale, so she was the only one to see the comprehension and shock flicker over his face, only to be replaced immediately by mock cheerfulness.
"Well, heck," he said. "I'm sure you won't mind if we borrow a little and replace it in the morning." He smiled, just slightly.
"Heh heh heh," Widget started, very much against her will.
"Dale," Gadget tried to explain patiently, "she doesn't mean it's milk she got from the store, she means it's ..."
"But if she didn't get it from the store," Dale said slowly, "did she get it from a farm?" Dale's expression was focused entirely on Gadget, serious and intent, combining dimwitted incomprehension with a game desire to overcome his own limitations.
"Uh, no," her sister tried to explain.
"Well where ever she got it, I don't think she'd mind."
This was entirely too much. "Hee hee hee." Eight people in the room and only she and Dale knew who the joke was on. Gadget shot a look at her.
"Widget, you're not being very nice."
Widget was suffocating with giggles, face on the table, pounding it with her right hand. Someone started knocking on the door.
Monty threw it open. It was Clayton. Widget took a deep breath and turned partway around.
"Didja bring milk?" Dale asked brightly, sending Widget off on another paroxysm.
Clayton ignored him. "Everything's off," he said. "I'm getting fired on Monday."
"Nibbles?" Chip asked sadly. Clayton looked at the chipmunk, amazed.
"How did you-" Clayton began.
"So we have a drop-dead date?" Gadget asked quietly.
"Could you maybe rephrase that?" Monty pleaded.
Gadget got up. "Today's Tuesday," she said. "We've got six days."
Gadget stepped out of the dressing room. The first plastic helmet they had made for her father was a bit small for him, but it fit her fine. Across the brow was lettered their name: HACKWRENCH.
Monterey cleared his throat. "Gadget, luv. A funny thing happened t' me roight after yer father died. I actually forgot what happened to 'im, an' I bought 'im a present. I dunno - maybe it was, well, not an accident." He shrugged.
He handed her a Human-sized plastic toothpick, the type usually found in jackknives. To her, it was about the size of a shortsword.
"I've never seen a commemorative toothpick before," she said.
"Read it an' you'll understand why it's a toothpick."
A Human with weak vision would have needed a hand lens to read it. On one side was etched "SCOTT * WORDEN * IRWIN." Her jaw dropped when she realized what it was. She turned it over and was not surprised to read "APOLLO XV - ENDEAVOR * FALCON."
"They couldn't carry anything big with 'em, you see." Monty explained.
"Monty," she said, amazed and a little awed. "I can't take this from you."
He put his hands on his hips and pretended to be annoyed. "Well, young lady, I guess you'll jest 'ave to be extra careful t' bring it back, now woncha?"
She jumped up to give him a hug, burying her face in his shoulder. He gave her a moment, before letting her down gently. "Careful, luv. Th' ground crew's comin' any second."
A moment later, the door down the hall opened with a boom and at least twenty animals in hard-hats and protective clothes rushed in. They had put in twelve hour days over the past week to make the deadline. Many of them had been there for Geegaw's flight, and remembered her from back when f'(Gadget)=k. She had prepared for this moment carefully, remembering names and faces and scents and little victories each had during the past month, and not surprisingly, forgot everything as she walked down the hall, shaking hands and thanking them one by one.
Chip was standing quietly at the end. She shook his hand warmly and suddenly - and she wasn't sure how - found herself in the first open lipped, mouth-to-mouth kiss of her young life. The cheering seemed about to lift the roof.
In the blockhouse, Widget frowned, and talked into a phone. "Monty, from here it looks like her EKG's gone off the scale. I think something's gone wrong with her heart monitor."
Monterey pressed his lips together and considered deeply. "Well ... no, I doubt that," he told the phone.
And, woozy and shaky, Gadget broke the kiss and staggered out the door to the Ranger Skate which would take her to the launch site. Her back was turned on the others, or they would have seen her awed and shaken expression.
It felt great. Widget was right.
"T-180 and counting," came a soft voice through the speaker behind her head. "Final communications check." Widget's voice.
"Communications check," Gadget rattled off. The toothpick was strapped securely to her left thigh. "Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Dog, Echo -"
"-Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, Icarus," sounded the speaker.
"Roger, CapCom. Sealing cabin."
"T-120," Clayton said. "We have continuity in the launch system."
"T-60. Pressure in the cabin," J¸rgen confirmed.
The Ranger Wing was running fresh alkaline batteries again, this time for their power. The GPS had been pulled and replaced with a small radio.
"Chase One an' only 'ere," Monterey confirmed. "At eight thousand feet, orbitin' landin' strip."
"Tee minus ten. Nine. Eight..."
The pressure was rough, but what amazed Gadget was how smooth the launch was. Instead of fighting for altitude, it seemed _Falcon_ was simply going home.
The pressure slackened. _Falcon_ began to tip over. There was a violent jolt that lasted a moment. The horizon came into view and steadied. "I think we beat the pitch overcontrol." she told the ground.
"Gadget, can you give me a machmeter reading?"
"Zero nine eight," Gadget called out. "Hey, that can't be right."
"Radar's confirming it down here. Mach zero point nine eight at ten thousand. You peaked at one zero six. Did you notice any shocks?"
"Yes, while I was going lateral."
"She wasn't supposed to go supersonic," Chip hissed at Clayton.
Clayton shrugged. "The plane's lighter, but we didn't think it would have that big an effect...maybe because the air's thinner and we didn't compensate enough for that."
"I think the shock was from the transonic transition down. You've broken the rodent speed records."
"Glad to hear." Curiously, Gadget didn't think of it as "beating" her father; she felt more like they had simply added to the tower he was building.
"Gadget, you'll have booster separation and manual control in ... five."
There was a jerk as the boosters dropped free. Palms wet, Gadget put _Falcon_ into a slight roll, and corrected back. She was flying.
"_Falcon,_ your altitude is two one point eight thousand, and your speed is five hundred ninety and dropping."
"Climbing to lose speed," Gadget stated. She pulled the nose back, and _Falcon_ gently and obediently tilted backwards. Gadget believed they were climbing at about forty five degrees, but she couldn't see the horizon, so she wasn't certain.
"So far, so good. I'm not seeing any control problems. Widget, this is going to blow the flight plan." By starting off at a higher altitude and speed than they had anticipated, their carefully devised flight plan was out the window. It might be difficult to compensate for the change, especially since a glider had less control over its speed and altitude than a jet.
Clayton looked over at Widget and held up a single finger. "Clayton's working on that. For now, maintain the climb and bleed off some of that speed."
Clayton slapped a sheet of paper in front of Widget. Widget looked at it, nodded briefly, and turned back to the mike. "Gadget, how do you feel about giving us a wide orbit while gradually descending? It looks like that'll put you back on track."
"Sounds good to me."
"You're at two hundred miles per hour and your altitude is..." Widget gulped. "Twenty eight thousand five hundred." They had planned on twenty thousand.
Gadget froze for a moment. That was nearly double the altitude reached on Geegaw's flight. The analog altitude display maxed out at 20,000 feet. What sort of winds were blowing up this high? Could she compensate for them?
Monty listened without comment. The danger of corkscrewing down to lose altitude was that she might be unable to control the aircraft in yaw - Geegaw had barely changed direction by more than ten degrees, but Gadget was being asked to turn complete circles. It was possible she'd end up pointing in the wrong direction. Then he'd have to chase after her, and might not reach her before she landed - or, more likely, hit the ground. There was only one runway.
"I'm going into a bank, to my left."
The horizon tilted slightly and stopped the moment she willed it to. The bright, warm sun started to appear to her left. Did it seem brighter than it had on the ground? She flipped her sun visor down.
After two large circles, _Falcon_ was in position. She returned the controls to neutral, and then pulled up to bleed off some speed.
"I'm ready to begin the first dive."
"Starting pump." She flipped the switch that turned on the fuel pump. Although this _Falcon_ had no engines, she was carrying a small amount of fuel and the system that fed the engines. The fuel would be sprayed overboard while sensors recorded the rate they delivered fuel.
Gadget pushed the stick forward, gently, then more firmly once she realized she wasn't losing control.
The ungainly flying flat iron responded like a dancer. _Falcon_ obediently lowered its nose, the horizon swept upwards, Gadget's weight dropped, and they started the long rush down.
There is something in a pilot that does not love a loss of altitude. Despite that, the very sturdiness of the aircraft around her was comforting. She could hear the wind whistling through the empty engine nacelles of her glider. The noise must have been very loud to be audible at all.
"Rotate," she called out and pulled back the stick. _Falcon_ swung up, and the horizon settled back into position.
"Looking good. Whenever you're ready."
The first dive had been for practice, more or less. She was now ready to reproduce her father's last flight. Her mouth was dry and she wished she had brought water. She hadn't thought she'd need it on a five minute flight.
"Here we go."
She pushed the stick forward, hard, to simulate Geegaw's original loss of control. The whistle was louder, maybe because the air was getting thicker. She felt genuinely grateful when she pulled the stick back and felt the airplane respond. The altimeter read ten thousand. She was breathing hard.
"Okay, Gadget. Once more for luck and I'll let you come home."
Gadget grinned and went into another dive. She knew the altimeter was calibrated differently from others she had used, but it was still nerve-wracking to watch it spiral down. At five thousand feet, she pulled out. The fuel for the pump test was all gone. She wasn't sure if that had happened before or after the last climb.
"_Falcon_ requesting permission to land."
"Take her in on Strip One."
She was running a bit fast, so she dropped the wide mid-fuselage beaver tail and raised _Falcon's_ huge elevons. The lift they generated canceled out, but the drag didn't, slowing the plane down.
"If you can spare a glance, you should see Chase One over your right shoulder and high."
Gadget turned her head and waved at the Ranger Wing, and then turned back to her controls. "Hey, Monty. Nice to see you. Feeling envious?"
Monty, in the delicate, long winged Ranger Wing, had his eyes on _Falcon._ Not only was the plane gliding at a speed the Ranger Wing was having trouble maintaining on power, but the black wedge had its drag brakes out. Monty was also struck by the sheer size of the thing. Humans built much bigger aircraft, of course, but rodents didn't. Looking at it airborne, he realized he had never really imagined it could actually fly.
"Not a bit of it," he answered her question. "My plane 'ad a better designer."
Widget relayed this to the designer of the Ranger Wing in the cockpit of _Falcon._ Gadget chuckled. "I can see the landing strip. I'm putting down the gear."
The landing gear on _Falcon_ could be extended but not retracted. Instead of the many small wheels normally seen on large Human aircraft, _Falcon_ had one oversized steel wheel on each of the three struts. Small wheels wouldn't handle a 100 mile per hour landing speed very well, even on smooth concrete.
Monty lost some altitude to do a visual inspection. Satisfied the wheels were down and locked, he informed the blockhouse.
"Monty says the landing gear is down," Widget told Gadget.
This part made Gadget nervous. Nobody had actually landed _Falcon_ before. At least not on a runway. She expected a ground effect from the wide wing, which would give her some extra lift at the end. But how much? All she knew was she would probably overshoot her touchdown line by a bit.
Monty was moving back into position above _Falcon._ Most of Gadget's flying experience had been in vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. She had landed a couple of runway planes in the past week, but what was the last plane she had landed horizontally before that...?
Two years ago. Her father's _Screaming Eagle._ When she had wrecked it.
Monterey gulped and did the only thing he could do, based on his long experience in aviation. He crossed his fingers and hoped the good luck of the Apollo XV toothpick would overcome the bad luck of his thoughts.
_Falcon_ was over the runway. Gadget had the nose pulled pack. She probably couldn't see the landing strip. She was keeping the plane level, watching the horizon. She didn't seem to be losing altitude at all. The line that marked her target for touchdown flashed behind them.
"Gadget," Monty finally said, "You're too high."
"_Falcon,_" Widget immediately said, "You're too high."
This was crazy. Gadget had lost speed, and kept loosing speed, but the plane refused to touch down. It was the first bit of bad behavior she had seen _Falcon_ give; a stubborn refusal to land.
"I'm trying," Gadget said briefly. If she lost lift, she was afraid she'd lose it all at once, and fall too quickly.
"Line eight," Monty said. "Gadget, you've got to shed more speed."
Widget touched the cough button. Gadget knew she needed to shed altitude, so she saw little reason to remind her. "Chip," Widget said quietly, "she's going to overshoot. Get out there and don't turn your back on _Falcon._"
Chip stared at her for a moment, and rushed out of the blockhouse.
"Line six," said Chase One.
"You're at line six," came Widget's voice. Gadget's heart was starting to pound. If she were in a powered aircraft, she would have broken off and tried again.
The rear wheels hit at line five. Immediately, even before the nose gear touched, Gadget pumped the brakes. The shock slammed _Falcon_ down on the nose. The nose gear held.
Trailing sparks, _Falcon_ shot down the runway.
"_Falcon,_ you're skidding. Release your brakes."
"They're locked," Gadget said.
The right rear wheel split off first. The strut dragged and _Falcon turned violently to the right. The left gear caught, and _Falcon_ went into a roll. It sprang off the left wing, flipped halfway over in mid air, left the runway, and came down on its belly in the grass.
There had been a heavy rain the previous day. This turned topsoil to mud. _Falcon_ skidded a few meters and stopped. Her helmet cracked hard against the canopy to her left.
"That's why they make these things out of plastic," she said, dazed.
"Are you okay?" The radio.
"Never better," Gadget assured them. She popped the canopy, which flew open because of the air pressure inside. By the time Chip braked the emergency vehicle to a halt, and Monterey landed the Ranger Wing, it was obvious they wouldn't have anything more to do but give her a lift back.
Gadget glanced over her shoulder, back at _Falcon._ It is common to see faces in head-on views of aircraft. Gadget had never spotted one in _Falcon's_ before, but now she did; a face with a mustache, and a gentle, proud smile.
"T+310 seconds," Widget said calmly for the benefit of the log. "Pilot has walked out of the _Falcon._" She took a deep breath. Cheers started to ring out as the launch crew applauded, screamed and otherwise released their tension. Widget and J¸rgen silently left the blockhouse in search for a place where Widget could bawl like a baby without blowing her reputation.
"Thanks for watching Gimcrack, Foxglove," Widget said, taking her son back. He smiled at her and she smiled back. "I hope he wasn't any trouble."
"My pleasure," Foxglove assured her. She looked at the newborn fondly. _I've got to get me one of those._
"He doesn't seem hungry," Widget said with a confused frown.
"Oh, I gave him a bottle."
"He took a bottle from you?"
"Uh huh. Why?"
"Well, it's just that he doesn't usually take bottles. Not from his father, not from his aunt..."
"Maybe he was really hungry?" Foxglove suggested.
Gimcrack nestled against the hard steel of Widget's left arm, knowing by the way it felt he was with his mother. He sighed and went to sleep.
21. Board Meeting
Gadget felt distinctly uncomfortable, as though she was taking credit for the work she and her sister had both done. But Widget had insisted on staying in the background as much a possible; with some merit, Widget felt her presence might make things degenerate into a string of time wasting accusations about sinking cruise ships and endangering the NATO alliance and other such irrelevancies. Besides, Gadget could trade on the image of being a Rescue Ranger and currently the fastest mouse alive.
Gadget was in a business suit, and was telling herself that she didn't enjoy dressing up once in a while. She stood in front of a room of Ultra Flight's top management; Agenda Item # 2 was the dismissal of Clayton.
She pointed to a set of three top views of various configurations considered for _Falcon_ over time.
"As you can see in this slide, _Falcon_ started life with the intake nozzles flush with the forward edge of the wing. You can also see the wing root gradually crept closer to the nose of the aircraft. However, the engine intakes remained in the aft position while the wing moved forward. Next slide, please."
The second slide showed a profile of _Falcon_ at a high angle of attack. Air flow around the body was shown in a series of arrows.
"When _Falcon_ lifts its nose, airflow to the engines is blocked by the wing. Onboard measuring equipment shows a sharp drop in air speed and air pressure when flying at high angles of attack. The air flow drops below the minimum specified to keep the engines working when the angle of attack exceeds ten degrees. This reaction to angle of attack is not unknown in jet aircraft. The DTG-21 reconnaissance drone was so sensitive it would actually flame out and restart during turns. A better known example is the Tupolev-144, which crashed at the Paris Airshow in 1973 when its four engines flamed out after a violent avoidance maneuver. In that case, the engines were below the wing and the maneuver was downwards, but otherwise the effect was identical to the flight of _Falcon 01._"
Gadget paused for a sip of water. She needed it badly before the next part.
"On the flight of _Falcon 01,_ Geegaw Hackwrench experienced control difficulties which put him into a steep dive. When he pulled up, both engines lost the airflow they needed to sustain combustion, and flamed out. He then had to go into a dive to restart the engines, which again flamed out when he pulled his aircraft's nose up. Furthermore, I found flying _Falcon_ to be very disorienting. Losing five thousand feet in a single dive in a few seconds goes against the reflexes you develop flying slower aircraft. I believe he underestimated the altitude he was losing in each dive and made a last attempt to restart the engines at too low an altitude."
"Why wasn't this found during testing?" someone asked.
It was too much to go on. She handed her pointer wordlessly to Chip and sat. Across the table, Monterey gave her a quick smile.
Chip stood up. "Next slide, please," he ordered. The shot showed two rulers, side by side. They were in slightly different scales; although they each showed ten centimeters, one was a bit shorter than the other. The millimeter marks didn't line up.
"Even when it's set to 100% size, a photocopier does not make a copy at the same size as the original. I'm told some copiers will enlarge the image, but the one I tried made the image smaller. Next slide please."
Two signatures appeared. One was slightly larger than the other, but they were otherwise indistinguishable. It read "Peanuts."
"The larger signature was found on a document titled 'Airframe Test Strategy: Falcon.' The smaller was found on one entitled 'Internal Aerodynamics at Positive Angles of Attack and Subsonic Speed.' Gadget has stated this latter test should have found the airflow problem, but didn't. Note the two signatures are identical except for size. This can be taken as evidence the latter signature, and presumably the entire document, was forged by using a photocopier to lift the signature from the previous document."
"You're saying..." Nibbles said slowly, "Peanuts forged the test results?"
"Ma'am," Chip said calmly, "Peanuts wouldn't need to forge his own signature."
"We..." Nibbles said slowly. "The project was running late. We thought we could..."
There was a shocked, horrified silence. Nibbles sat, stricken, completely silent. Gadget got up. Chip offered her the pointer but she walked past him.
Gadget walked up to Nibbles, and slapped her once, hard, across the face.
The meeting did not reach agenda item # 2.
"Thank you for seeing me," Widget said quietly. She shifted Gimcrack's carrier around to her front and sat down in front of Clayton's new desk.
"Widget, I'd have to be pretty stupid to close the door to you," the squirrel assured her.
"Nevertheless, I'm sure you'll be busy for the next few months. Taking over Nibbles' job is quite a change."
"Yes, well," he shrugged. "Are you interested in a permanent position?"
"Thank you, but not really. I like what I'm doing now."
"That's what your sister said. Well, at any rate, you'll always be welcome if you change your mind, or if you need help on a project."
"Thank you. Clayton, did you know what Nibbles did?"
Clayton looked shocked. "How can you ask that?"
"Because you're utterly ruthless, same as me."
They watched one another for a moment. Gimcrack nestled against his mother.
"No," Clayton finally said. "All I wanted to do was prove it wasn't my father's engines. I didn't know, I didn't suspect. I thought she was just overly emotional over a plane crash that killed a lover. I certainly didn't think they'd put me in her office."
"I believe you," Widget said slowly. "What are your plans now?"
"Up in the air." He flashed a grin. "_Peregrine_ will continue, and I'd appreciate some input on that."
"I'll help you all I can."
"Thank you. _Falcon_ will probably go into development again. If nothing else, we need a good supersonic research aircraft. And your sister was quite enthusiastic about the way the airplane flew."
"And a space shuttle?"
"Perhaps. Ultimately." He shrugged. "Naturally, we need to extend the inlets to the leading edge of the wing."
"And that's what your father died for?" Chip asked.
He was sitting next to a melancholy Gadget, sitting on a branch with their feet dangling over the edge.
"That's the sort of information test pilots die for," Gadget agreed sadly. "That and a need for an extended test cycle." She started crying. "Chip, I don't know if I can stand this. Did you see how crushed Nibbles was?"
"Nibbles did something terrible," he reminded her.
"I know, I know... but it's like you said. Murder I could deal with. Something genuinely unexpected, I could understand that. But to die because of negligence on the part of someone who loves you..."
It would have been so easy to bury herself into his bomber jacket and release all her horror and sorrow in a single long cry. If he had taken her into her arms, she would have.
"Chip," she sniffled, "it's so frightening. I mean, maybe under the right circumstances, I would have done what Nibbles did."
"I don't think so."
"Or something similar. But killing someone you love that way. I don't think she'll ever really get over it. Chip, loving someone has to be the most frightening thing in the world. How do you know something like that won't happen? How do you know you won't just ruin what you already have?"
Chip inched slightly away from her.
"I don't know," he admitted.
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