The Untold Ranger Tales
Part Ten: A Dream For the Ages
By Indy and Chris Silva


Editor’s Note: A big thank-you to all the fans of this series for all the kind words you’ve had to say about it. We’ve enjoyed bringing it to you, and we think that you’ll appreciate this final installment. This is the most complex story that we’ve written, because it involves two timelines. The timeline that’s been represented in The Untold Ranger Tales uses non-highlighted time markers, while the other one uses blue time markers. The two timelines are not quite synchronous, so pay attention to the time markers to see what’s going on when and where. All time markers are set to the local time of their respective locations.

Chapter 1 – A Royal Wedding, Growing Up and a Landmark Day

       “And do you, Zipper, take Honey to be your lawfully-wedded wife?”
       Truly it was a royal wedding, as every bee community in the park had shown up in their finest fare at the royally-catered event next to the Rangers’ tree. Aliwicious had seen to everything, from the inviting and placement of the guests to the extremely-tasteful decorations of the lacework tent that the ceremony was taking place in.
       It was true that Honey was no longer queen, but her sister Valeria had insisted on her being treated with the same honor. When Aliwicious had escorted Honey down from the Ranger treehouse, she walked through a corridor of bee soldiers, their amber stinger spears finely polished and raised at an angle like swords crossed. The royal guard played an austere tune and there was Zipper, dressed in a white tuxedo created for the occasion by the royal tailor. He bore two medals—one around his neck hung on a tiny ribbon and the other at his lapel—designating him as a knight of the realm.
       When Honey appeared, the crowd stood and gasped in appreciative wonder. She wore a shimmering dress of white silk, with a train that, had it been a human’s, would have stretched fifty feet behind her. Honey carried a bouquet of white baby’s breath, and her presence had a universally positive effect. Zipper was mesmerized as she neared, and almost forgot to keep his wings going. Dale took advantage of the moment to snap a picture and give Zipper a “you da man!” before Chip pulled him down. When the royal band stopped, the assemblage turned its attention to an old and austere drone, the Archbishop of Beeswax.
       It was this ostentatiously-bedecked figure that had put the quintessential question to Honey, and now to Zipper. The crowd shifted its attention as one to the little fellow. He grinned, thinking that finally he had the full attention of everyone around him. He wasn’t being ignored or looked-over. His gambit had paid off, and he not only had a voice but something wonderful to say with it.
       “I do,” Zipper replied.

       They exchanged tiny golden rings, and the Archbishop rapped a scepter of amber on the ground. “Be it known from this day hence that these two have joined as one in the holy state of matrimony. God save the queen!” Honey lifted her veil, and pulled Zipper to her in such a smooch that Dale dropped his camera on Chip’s foot. The scream of pain didn’t spoil the moment, though, and Zipper quickly returned his new wife’s sentiment. “Hello, my wife.”
       “Hello, my husband,” Honey replied. “I love you.”
       “And I love you, Honey, and swear to love you more with every day that passes.”

       May 19 3:21pm New York

       At this point, Dale started crying and Gadget paused the tape. They had been watching the video that Gadget had made of the ceremony with her Ranger-sized camcorder. Three years had passed since that day, and still it brought back memories for all of them. Zipper and Honey had snuggled up to each other quite a while back and enjoyed every moment. For the Rangers’ kids, now at a speaking age, it wasn’t quite the same story.
       “I’m sorry, guys,” Dale said, drying his eyes, “It’s just that it reminded me of the ending of ‘The Flying Mutant Rutabagas From Planet Xeron’ where Captain Daring and Princess Wotsername marry at the end. I’ll never forget that—the rutabagas lying dead around their feet and the wedding feast that came after. It was a classic!”
       Geegaw, Gadget’s son, nodded in agreement. It had been three years since Honey and Zipper’s wedding, but it had been a full six since he and his sister Althea—who practically everyone called Ally—had been born. “I think it was more like ‘Attack of the Fanged Fiend From Phobos, Part Five’,” Geegaw said. Althea shook her head. “No! It was more like ‘The Revenge of the Avenging Defender of Vengeance’!”
       Gadget turned a suspicious eye toward her husband. “Dale, I thought we agreed that they weren’t going to watch the late, late, late show until next year!”
       “It was on during a Saturday afternoon, mom!” Althea protested. The chipmunk girl had Gadget’s hair and eyes, Dale’s nose and disposition, and her own brand of spunk. “There are cheesy old monster movies all the time on cable.” Geegaw glanced toward his mother’s workshop. “Which reminds me—I should really check into modifying our computer equipment for wireless transmission.”
       Gadget was used to her son’s talking tech. The bespectacled mouse was an inventive type like her, but he’d loved computers and particularly the intricacies of computer hardware ever since he’d learned to tell an Ethernet card from a memory chip. He’d inherited Dale’s fur color, which combined with his slightly lighter hair gave one the impression that if he had been a human he’d have been well-tanned.
       “Okay, but take it easy on the technical parts,” Gadget said. “You’re both still young, and I want to supervise whatever you do.”
       “Aw, mom! I can handle it. It’ll work fine with no problems,” Geegaw said, smiling. He also had Dale’s separated teeth, though not as far apart, and at his request Gadget had made some braces to bring them together the rest of the way. Gadget found herself flinching at Geegaw’s comment, which was a new twist. The youngster was every bit as obsessive as she was in her inventing mode, but since he dealt with sensitive equipment she’d had to watch out for his short-circuiting himself—or the workshop.
       Althea tugged on Dale’s arm. “Daddy, wanna take me on in a game of ‘4-D Laser Patrol’? Geegaw just finished it, and I’m ready to beat the bad guys in every era from now until the caveman!” Althea was a different story. She was her father’s daughter and loved to have fun. She did some inventing, but mainly it was to aid her artistic phases. She had Dale’s sense of creativity, and she’d already learned to paint and play two instruments. Her attention could be diverted easily, though, particularly by her fun-loving dad.
       The latest of these diversions was the scaled-down videogame console in front of the television that Gadget had made for the kids. Of course, she didn’t count on them creating their own games when they got tired of the dozen or so she’d made for them. Dale for his part was overjoyed—kids that not only loved games but invented innovative new ones to play. “Cool! Let’s kick some Greco-Roman butt!” Dale picked up his daughter and put her on his shoulders, then stuck his arms out and made airplane noises as he headed out of the room, Althea giggling wildly.
       Geegaw frowned at the display. “Honestly, the kids these days. So easily distracted.”

       Chip and Lahwhinie looked on as Dale and Althea cavorted around the room. It had been a great time for the two of them, once they figured out that all the kids in Ranger Headquarters were as much theirs as anyone’s. Geegaw admired Chip’s deductive skills and constantly talked of further automating the science of detection. Lahwhinie liked both Geegaw and Althea, but it was Althea who had full range over her. Lahwhinie had turned into a doting aunt, of all things, and loved to spoil Althea—then again, Althea loved being spoiled.
       As Dale and his daughter settled down to playing, Chip caught his wife’s hand and they went outside. The veranda looked much as it had when Theo had first come to stay with them, but Theo himself had changed quite a bit in six years. From a boy of twelve, he’d grown in stature and maturity to a strong young munk approaching eighteen. He was a nose taller than Chip now, and enjoyed it no end. He still wore the same style of clothes, but now he filled them out quite well. He was a little broader in the shoulders and more muscular in the upper body than his father had been at that age.
       Theo wasn’t the only one had had changed, either. At the moment, a beautiful female squirrel of seventeen was watching Theo tune up the RangerWing. Bink Chesnutt had grown up as well, and her styles had changed with the years. She still wore a Goslyn shirt, but with the shirttail cut off to reveal her midriff. A long blonde ponytail reached just below her shoulder blades and a pair of faded cutoff blue jeans completed the ensemble.
       Eva’s training had turned the perky youngster into a formidable fighter and an attractive young lady. Her growth spurt had stopped by the time she was fifteen, leaving her a bit short for a squirrel, but she was still half a head taller than Theo. She too was set to graduate from high school, for while she was technically a year younger than Theo, it was only by a few months. The pretty squirrel was leaning over the front of the Wing, lost in watching Theo, and didn’t notice Chip and Lahwhinie’s approach until they got close.
       “Theo, I know you’ve taken over flying the RangerWing now, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend every minute tinkering on it!” Chip said. “Why don’t you come inside? Monty, Eva and Colby will be here from Australia anytime now and I’m sure Colby will want to spend some time with his personal personage.” Theo pulled himself up from the RangerWing’s engine, wiping off some grease from his nose. “Okay, dad. I suppose I could spare a few moments for non-Ranger related work.”
       Bink walked over to the front of the Wing for easier talking distance. “I hope they enjoyed their trip to see Kate and Cheddarhead. I think it would be neat to visit Australia.”
       “Maybe we could talk our folks into a visit,” Theo suggested slyly. “How does that sound, dad? We could visit Grandma and Grandpa Erskine!” Lahwhinie was still Lahwhinie, and knew when she was being put-upon. “Once you two finish your final exams, we’ll talk about it. Remember, son, you’ve got a date with a cap and gown this year and I’m going to make sure you keep it.”

       Theo took Bink in his arms, dancing around for a few moments. The adventurous munk had come to care a great deal about Bink, and the caring was mutual. His eyes softened as they focused on her. “Don’t worry, mom. We’ve already got all our finals but Miss Spelling’s English exam done. And besides, I’ve got an invitation for a different kind of date. Wait’ll you see my tux, Becky, you’ll love it!” Bink for her part had enjoyed having a steady boyfriend through high school. It had created the usual problems with innuendos and such, but both of them had always been honest with their friends after their first snafu with the sleepover.
       “And wait till you see what I’ve come up with for my prom dress!” Bink said, teasingly. “Mom’s still raving about it. She thinks I oughta get a shop of my own once I graduate next year, but I told her I was happy here…very happy.” She gave Theo a quick kiss on the cheek and pulled down his city of New York baseball cap over his eyes.
       “Ack! Don’t touch the cap!” Theo said, pulling it back into position. “The cap is forever off-limits!” Bink giggled with mischievous joy, and Theo’s parents followed suit. Chip put a hand on the young man’s shoulder as Theo fixed his headgear. “I can’t tell you how many nights your mother and I wondered if you could live up to that weird sense of destiny you’ve always talked about, but looking at the two of you I’d say that you’ve come out more than all right.”
       Chip’s smile grew. “Lahwhinie and I discussed it, and we think it’s time that you start thinking about recruiting a team of your own. For now, you can continue to work with us and gain more leadership experience. But when the time comes—”
       “Daaaad,” Theo said, using his “come on, dad” tone. “I’m eighteen now! Can’t I lead the Rangers some of the time?” Chip paused and looked down—he was in his mid-thirties, and while his age hadn’t started to show he had to admit that the level of activity the Rangers demanded had forced him to work harder to remain in condition. He was more patient now than he had been, but that look of hungry determination was evident in his eyes. “You still need experience, son,” Chip said.
       “And how am I going to get it if I never get to lead the team?” Theo countered.
       “You will, when you’re ready,” Chip said. Theo rolled his eyes and pursed his lips, letting out a snort of frustration. Chip knew his son was eager, but despite the strains that the generation gap can put on father and son, they’d remained good friends. Chip grabbed a nearby stick and made like he was very ancient. “For eight hundred years have I trained Rangers,” Chip said, in his best Yoda impression. “My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained!”
       It was so out-of-right-field that it tickled Theo’s funny bone and he shook his head, chuckling. “All right, dad. But when you’re ready to turn over the reins to me, I’ll be ready.”
       “Of that I have no doubt,” Chip said, nodding, knowing that it was his own team’s future he was looking at. “All right, then. If you have questions, you know where we are.”
       “I have one!” Bink said, raising her hand.
       “What’s that, Bink?”
       “Did you know that Uncle Monty’s standing right behind you?”

       Before Chip could turn around, Monty—who had been sneaking up on him—grabbed him from behind and yanked him up in a reverse bear hug. “Gotcha! Gotta watch out, Chip me lad! Yer maneuvers training’s gone rusty again, mate!”
       Monty put him down and Chip turned around. Of all the Rangers, Monty and Eva were showing their age the most. Monty’s sideburns and mustache were graying, and Eva was slightly heavier due to the wonders of Monty’s cooking. Still, they were both active, and while no longer an official part of the Rangers they found time to join in on cases from time to time. It was the young boy with them that caught all the attention. Colby Erskine, now eight years old, was like his father all over again—an adventuresome, fearless, fun-loving redheaded ragamuffin. He also had his father’s love of cheese, and it showed.
       Colby took a flying leap and tackled Chip with a joyous shout. He had an accent that was a mix of his father’s Australian with a bit more of sheer British flair to it. “Blimey, Uncle Chip! That’s the first time I’ve bowled you over. Reminds me of the time me dad and I took on a pack of wild-eyed wombats at the Canberra canning festival! Nice lads those wombats, but a mite skittish you know.”
       Chip picked up the boy—a feat he realized would soon be going by the wayside. “Colby, did you enjoy your trip? I bet you had a lot of great adventures.” Colby smiled, his big bright green eyes showing his enthusiasm. “Too right, I did! Me dad says I’m a regular wedge off the cheddar wheel. Right dad?”
       Monty grabbed his jacket lapels. “You got it, lad.” Lahwhinie greeted her not-so-little brother then hugged her parents, glad to see them as always. “So, how long are you three in town for this time? Your letter didn’t say.” Eva hugged her daughter back, then Chip and the others. “Oh, ve will just stay long enough to be a bother. I vant to see Bianca and Bernard, and of course all the vunderful children. Come out, everyone! We are here now!”

       The rest of the Rangers came out and the kids headed for Eva, their favorite. Monty got his share of attention as well, and of course the kids invited Colby to come play with them. The parents watched as the young trio of Colby, Geegaw and Althea headed down the tree for the park. Monty put his fists on his hips. “It does a bloke good to see a sight like that. So, what’s the adventure this time? Got something ol’ Monterey Jack can sink his teeth into?”
       Chip raised his fedora up a bit. “Not at the moment, Monty. Truth is, it’s been pretty quiet here lately.”
       “Quiet before the storm, most likely,” Monty said, hopefully.
       “I hope so,” Lahwhinie said, agreeing. “The Little Napoleon here’s been chomping at the bit the last few days.” Chip gave her a mock glare—he’d never been able to break her of calling him that. “I haven’t been that bad, now...”
       Lahwhinie gave out a laugh. “No, you’ve been worse! I caught you asking Gadget to build a crime-finding machine. You almost had Geegaw roped into trying before I headed you off. You know that boy worships you.” Chip stuck his nose up in the air, striking a manly pose. “Can I help it if I’m an inspirational paragon of virtue to millions?” Lahwhinie followed Bink’s lead and pulled Chip’s fedora down.
       “No, but I can,” Lahwhinie said. “Come on, paragon, let’s get inside. There’s poi enough for everyone!”

       Chip followed his wife into the kitchen and when they sat he surveyed the trimmings. “This is a lovely dinner and great company. It’s nice to have the whole family here again.” Dale was right there of course, sampling everything. “Yeah, and the whole-family-sized servings! The poi goes here!”
       Lahwhinie chuckled, amused—she was used to giving Dale an extra serving of the Hawaiian dish—and put a big bowl of poi down in front of his place at the table. There were plenty of delicacies to go around, and several cheese-related ones in honor of their visiting guests.
       Everyone was about to settle in when Chip realized some members were missing. “Hey, where’s Noel and Foxy? They should’ve been back from the police station by now. I know Lonestar was looking forward to seeing Colby here. Not to mention Lonestar’s brothers and sisters.” Gadget turned from setting out the silverware. “Foxglove sure is proud of them. Arthur, Rose and Lance are flying some already and Violet’s a regular Amelia Aerheart! But I think Lonestar’s a little too young to be going to the station with Noel and Foxy. I mean, think of the language he’d hear there and the terrible things they talk about at a police station!”
       Chip snapped his fingers. “Well, his dad is a federal marshal, after all. Oh wait, I remember now—Foxy was taking Lonestar to see Dr. Batorious for his annual checkup while Noel went to the station. I guess they must’ve gotten held up at one place or the other. Well, they can join in when they get here. Zipper, Honey? You two going to join us?”
       All this time, Zipper and Honey had been smooching and talking on the sofa. The wedding video had brought back such good memories, they just wanted to treasure them. “Well, we don’t want to appear antisocial,” Zipper said. Honey smiled, accepting her husband’s hand. “It would appear unseemly for royalty to ignore a formal invitation.”
       They buzzed over to the kitchen and took their special tiny seats. Colby loved Zipper, and his antics. “Hi, Uncle Zipper! Do your Richie Cunningham impression! Please?” Zipper knew it was coming, but took it good-naturedly. He squinted, trying to look tough. “All right, bucko!”
       Colby laughed, holding his stomach, until Eva settled him down. They had all just started to eat when Noel, Foxy and Lonestar appeared. The elder bats appeared as they had when they were married, but Lonestar was a brown-vested boy bat with fur a shade darker than his mother’s with the talent for searching out the new and interesting. At the moment, there was plenty of that.
       Lonestar flew into the room like the excited blur he was. “All right, they’re here!” The kids had a separate table of their own, near the kitchen, and that was where Lonestar headed. He landed next to Colby, high-fiving him. “Wow, it’s been a prairie dog’s age since I saw you!”
       “More like a dingo’s age, bloke,” Colby said, then they both laughed at their antics. They enjoyed acting like two old friends, and imitating their elders. Foxy and Noel walked on in. “Hey, everyone!” Foxy said. “We had to leave the other kids with the sitter. It’s so great to see you all again!” Colby looked over at his mom at the big table. “Mum, can we sally out once we’ve finished eating?”
       “Just be sure to stay close to the tree, dahling,” Eva said.

       The room was thick with talk for the next half-hour, then as dinner ended the attention floated toward Monty and his family. Having everyone under the same roof was an occasion, as Noel had decided to move to a tree nearby in the park where he and his bat family could sleep and wake on their own natural schedule. That had allowed their room in the treehouse to be used by Colby when he got older, and now that he was traveling with Monty and Eva it had been turned into a playroom for Geegaw and Althea.
       Late into the night, Monty sat on the sofa and regaled the troops with grand tales they’d heard over the years, mixed with a few new ones. Most of the new fare centered around his boy, and the father’s pride was evident. It was Eva who finally broke in on him. “Dahling, I think it is time the young ones vere getting some rest, and it is also time for the older ones like us.” The kids immediately put up a protest, as they’d been enjoying the evening no end.
       “Mom, couldn’t we stay up just a little longer?” Lonestar pleaded. Foxy smiled, but shook her head. “Now Lonestar, it’s bedtime. Time for little bats to hang from the ceilings in dark places, like all good little children do. There’s time for playing with the others tomorrow.”
       The other kids got similar sentences—well, not about hanging from dark places—so soon the main room emptied out, save for one. Theo had developed something of a loner’s spirit, and found the quiet of night to be a soothing balm to the chaos of Ranger Headquarters during the day. He watched a movie for a little while then headed out onto the veranda. The young munk looked up into the moon-filled night and felt like talking so he spoke to the night sky, a habit he’d fallen into as a boy at the orphanage.
       “I’ve got to admit, I never thought it would be like this. I can still remember the days at the orphanage, all my hopes and dreams pinned on one chipmunk with a fedora and jacket. Now I feel ready to take on the world, but I’m still not sure dad sees that. Eighteen’s old enough to do anything. And what I feel now when I look into Becky’s eyes...I don’t know why it all turned out so good—maybe it really was destiny. I just don’t know if I could ask for any more.”

       May 20 7:07am New York

       The next morning revealed a windy May dawn when Theo Maplewood walked out and breathed in the cool crisp air, stretching his body to its limit. He wanted to let the wonder of the morning just flow over him and soak it all in—the wind, the golden sun and the sense of thrill going through him. Today was Theo’s eighteenth birthday, which was the reason for the team’s regathering. With it came a gift he’d been waiting for since his first day with the Rangers.
       “Hello, son! Happy birthday!” Chip said, walking outside.
       Theo turned to find not just Chip but the entire crew. They knew what a special moment it was for the young man, and they’d all agreed to be up at first light, even Lahwhinie. She came over and hugged him, her motherly pride in full force. “You’ve become quite a man, Theo. Are you ready?”
       “You bet, mom!” Theo said, then anticipated her next question. “Don’t worry, I’ll have my helmet on and the seatbelt too.” Lahwhinie gave a slight grin. “I know you will. Don’t worry, Gadget’s got your six if anything goes wrong.”
       Theo smiled down at his mom, just edging her out in height. He still sported his baseball cap and classic denim vest over his shirt with the Ranger logo, now in larger sizes of course. “I know, mom! We’ve been through the dry runs over a dozen times. Everything will go fine.”
       Gadget patted Theo’s back. “Sure it will! Theo’s a good pilot, and a good student too. Anytime you’re ready.”

       Theo climbed into the Wing and took a moment to feel the sense of being in true control for the first time. He had dreamed of this first solo flight in the RangerWing since he was a small child, and now it was time. He was snapped back to reality by Chip taking his picture.
       “Don’t break it. It’s not insured,” Chip quipped.
       Theo leered at Chip, but there was no malice behind it. “All right, here we go!”‘
       Theo turned the engine over, and the Wing rose in its normal VTOL cycle. Gadget kept contact with Theo via a walkie-talkie, hooked up to a receiver in the Wing’s console. The mouse inventor climbed up to a makeshift conning tower she’d built for just this purpose near the crown of the tree, pulling out her binoculars. “Looking good, Theo. Now, just like we practiced it. Take her out of hover mode, and give me one revolution around the park.”
       Theo switched into flight mode and went full throttle. He tore across the park, and when he got to the Chesnutts’ place he returned to hover mode, floating near Bink’s window. He knew the noise would wake her if she wasn’t already awake.

       She was, of course. Bink had hardly slept a wink, knowing the big day was arriving. The squirrel pushed her window shutters open and stood there, beaming a grand smile. She was one beautiful sight in the morning light, and Theo was the envy of every guy in high school and liked it that way.
       Bink moved her hands to the sides of her face, jubilant. “Oh, Theo! It’s just too much! Hang on a sec...” Bink climbed outside and without the least twinge of fear ran out to the edge of a nearby branch and launched herself into the air. She was a gymnastics whiz, as most squirrels were, and with a triple-flip she landed right in the passenger seat of the Wing. Before Theo could recover from witnessing the stunt, she grabbed him around the neck.
       “Happy birthday, handsome...”
       Bink leaned in and kissed him, then giggled with joy at the effect. Gadget came on again over the radio. “What was that? I didn’t copy.” Theo picked up the microphone. “It was a major smoocherama from Becky, Aunt Gadget.” They could hear Gadget relaying the news to the others matter-of-factly in the background, followed by some laughter.
       “Okay, Theo,” Gadget continued. “Bink, strap yourself in because as soon as Theo finishes his revolution around the park he’s going to test his maneuvering skills through the obstacle course I constructed.” Bink was only too eager to comply. “Cool! Rock and roll, Theo! Let’s show the old people how it’s done!”
       Theo grinned, his concentration returning to his piloting. “You got it, Becky. Hang on to something!” Bink did so, then a question came to her. “Say Theo, just what were you working on with the Wing the other day?”
       “You’ll see.”

       Theo switched the Wing out of hover mode and it shot forward. He pushed a button on the dash and a built-in console that had been hidden opened up. Bink’s eyes went wide with surprise. “A mini-CD player! No way! How’d you swing that!”
       “I went with Gadget on one of her scavenger hunts about two weeks back and found it. I stripped it down to just the player part and found it was still intact and all. I was connecting it up to the Wing’s power supply.”
       “Wow,” Bink said. “I didn’t know you were that smart.”
       Theo grinned. “I’m not. I asked Geegaw how to do it. Reach in the back. I stuck a mini-disk I found with the player back there.” Bink did so, sliding it into the receptacle. In a few moments, the sounds of “Our Time Has Come” from “Cats Don’t Dance” was playing.
       “Totally awesome!” Bink said. “But where are the speakers?”
       “I kept the headphone receptacle and found a set of mini-headphones. You’ve got the volume control over there. Now, let’s rock the park!”

       Soon they’d finished the loop around the park and Theo dove down to where Gadget had built a series of hoops, walls and pop-up obstacles to test Theo’s mettle under fire. Theo had the reflexes of a veteran videogame player, so with confidence he began weaving in and out of the course. He took the Wing through loop-de-loops, spirals and dodged cardboard cutouts of Fat Cat and other villains that sprang up unexpectedly. Bink screamed with pleasure, enjoying the sheer thrill in the moment.
       The final obstacle was a faux brick wall with a hole in it just big enough for the RangerWing to fit through. Theo threaded the needle and Gadget’s voice showed her pleasure as he finished the course. “Golly! Forty-seven point three seconds and no mistakes! Theo, that’s a Ranger record. Bring her on home now, and we’ll get the party started! Say, where’s that music coming from?”
       “I’ll show you when we get back,” Theo said. “I’m bringing her home…and the Wing too.” Bink giggled at the joke, and Theo sped back for the treehouse. The Rangers applauded his effort as he landed, then he helped Bink out of the Wing. Chip was proud and it showed. “I couldn’t have done better myself, and I mean that. Theo, I think you’re ready to become a full-fledged Ranger.”
       Theo hugged his dad. “Dad, everything I am is because of you.”
       “Right back at you, Theo. Morning, Bink! Didn’t think we’d see you this early, but I suppose you two had other plans. Okay everyone, inside for cake, ice cream and presents!”

       The entourage headed in, and it was a crowded but happy room with all of them there. Monty had insisted on handling Theo’s cake himself (a cheesecake of course) and now he wheeled it out, complete with eighteen candles. “Now there’s a sight ta set yer mouth watering! Me triple-cheese upside-down cake! Better hurry up and blow out the candles before she burns a hole through clear to China!”
       “And don’t forget to make a wish!” Foxy added.
       Theo couldn’t prevent himself from making an involuntary glance at Bink with Foxy’s comment. “I have everything I ever dared to wish for—you guys, my life, everything’s great. To ask for anything else would be greedy. But let’s go for something big, like the Cubs winning the World Series!”
       Dale held up his hands in a stopping sign. “Whoa! This is a wish, not a miracle! Why don’t ya wish for something cool, like your very own collection of all the great disco remixes! Star Wars, boogie down!”
       Chip eyed his old friend with a “you’ve got to be kidding” look. “Dale, you remember the seventies as well as I do, and I’m sure we’d both like to pretend we were never there.” Dale stared at him, flabbergasted. “Whattaya mean! The seventies were great! Why, there were bell-bottoms and ‘Sesame Street’ and the ‘Kroft Super Show’ and ‘Scooby Doo’ and ‘Captain Caveman’ and the ‘Chan Clan’ and...”

       At this point, their attention was broken by Theo and Bink, who were just about to smooch again. Chip intercepted them. “Okay, you two, cool it for a little while. I know you’re going out later, but right now it’s time to let the friends and relatives dote on you.” Bink grinned and led Theo to the middle of the sofa, where all assembled began bringing him presents. The next half hour was a series of cute and silly cards, and thoughtful gifts. Theo paused when he got to Gadget’s gift. “It’s not going to blow up, is it?”
       “Of course not, silly!” Gadget said, merriment in her voice. “Go ahead.” Theo ripped open the box and found himself holding his very own pair of flight goggles, the strap made with the same kind of brown leathery material Chip’s jacket sported. “You’ve worked hard to master the RangerWing, so I thought you’d like a pair of those as a reward.”
       Theo strapped them on and looked around. “Neat! I’ll need these with all the hours I’m gonna be putting on the RangerWing and Plane. Thanks, Aunt Gadget!” Next came Lahwhinie, hefting a package that looked suspiciously surfboard-shaped over toward the sofa. “Now if you don’t like it, just say so. We can always turn it into a diving board for the swimming pool that Gadget keeps promising to build.”
       With a knowing smile, Theo held up the gift and looked at it closely. “Let me’s a sweater?” He unwrapped it and was very pleased to find a surfboard with the Rescue Ranger logo on it. “Super Cool, mom! My own Ranger board. It’ll come in handy when I have to hang ten for justice.”
       Bink admired the detailing. “You’ll be the Kahuna the next time we go over to Hawaii. Did Shaka-Baka make it, Aunt Lahwhinie?” Lahwhinie nodded. “Yep, it’s a Shaka original. Once he opened his own surf shop, there was no stopping him. Of course, he forgets to even charge people for his work half the time. He says it doesn’t bother him, though. He does it for the love of the waves.”

       Theo opened a few more presents and then the kids simply couldn’t contain themselves anymore. Monty and Eva, along with Foxy and Noel and Gadget and Dale headed out for CarnivalWorld with the youngsters. That left Zipper and Honey, who’d saved their gift for now. “We weren’t sure just what to get you, but we hope you’ll like this.”
       “I had the royal designers work on it specially,” Honey added.
       Theo opened up a small box to find a class ring. He’d wanted one, but had felt guilty about asking his parents to pay that kind of price when there were so many other needs to fulfill. Now he had his own custom-made ring of pure amber, along with a lighter-colored amber stone etched with his school name and mascot in the middle. He whistled appreciatively, holding it up to the light as the translucent diadem shone brightly.
       “Wow!” Theo said, putting the ring on and looking back to his smiling benefactors. “I don’t know what to say. I’m honored, Aunt Honey, Uncle Zipper. It’s a fantastic ring! I’ll wear it with pride—but not too much pride, of course.” He carefully hugged his insect relatives, and they received his thanks well. “You’re quite welcome, Theo,” Honey said.
       “Yes,” Zipper said. “It’s been great watching you grow up the way you have. You’d have made a great fly if you hadn’t been born a mammal.”

       They left as well, and then Chip asked for a minute alone with Theo. Bink nodded and went outside, and Lahwhinie went into the kitchen. Chip walked into the hall and came back with two boxes, unwrapped. “I think you’re also ready for another change, Theo. I forgot about these until last week, but your Uncle Noel reminded me and said he wanted to see you in them before he left for Hondo with the family.”
       Chip opened the boxes to reveal a carefully-preserved jacket and fedora. Theo was speechless for a few moments. When one Chip had become two, thanks to the accident with the modemizer, it had created a problem until one of them decided to become Noel Maplewood. At the time, Noel had requested that the identical hat and jacket go to Theo when he was ready, and now both Chip and Noel felt the time had come.
       Theo looked at the articles hesitantly, awed. “Dad, are you sure? Do you really feel I’m ready for the real world?” Chip picked them up and held them out, his eyes glistening some. “I’m sure, son. You’ve been patient, and you’ve learned a great deal from all of us. Now that you’re about to graduate and start being a Ranger, it’s time you looked the part. After all, you’re just a little younger now than Dale and I were when we first formed the Rangers.”
       Chip waited while Theo removed his shirt and t-shirt, then helped him into the jacket. In a moment which resembled a scene from a different day and time, Theo watched as Chip reached out and put the fedora on his head. The hat fit perfectly, though the jacket was a little snug in the shoulders. “I expect Donna or Bink can size that for you,” Chip said, looking the fit over.
       “I’ve waited most of my life for this day. I’ve dreamed about it, yearned for it, prayed for it and it’s finally here. How many people can say they’ve found their destiny on their 18th birthday?”
       “I can think of one offhand,” Chip said.

Chapter 2 – A New Problem and A Beautiful Day

       May 26 11:53pm New York

       In a secret location known to a very select few, a meeting of the Latin-speaking Council was underway. Since their last run-in with Detective Drake and the Rangers, the group dedicated to preserving the balance between human and animal had become even more paranoid and no longer met at a single location every time. They had several well-hidden haunts and this one was down by the docks, inside of an old tugboat that was no longer used.
       Quartus, still wearing the hooded brown robe the Rangers had been familiar with, called the meeting to order. “Our efforts to preserve the ordinatio elementum have been fruitful as of late,” the human said, holding a piece of parchment in his hands. “Peace once again reigns over the city, and in answer to councilmember Phajor’s point of order, the few incidents relative to Detective Donald Drake have been addressed.”
       The similarly-clad hooded figures around him clapped approvingly. The one called Phajor, a Yorkie, stood up. “One issue remains yet open, Quartus. What of the tablet?”
       “You are correct, Phajor. The tablet is yet unaccounted for. As you know, when the Siamese Twins were made to stand before this Council, we learned of the duplicity of the one named Donovan. We traced his dealings to a local buyer, but when we pursued the matter all leads mysteriously disappeared.”
       “Perhaps the tablet was lost,” Primus, their leader, said.
       “Perhaps,” Quartus said. “But while its status is unknown, the ordinatio elementum demands we maintain our search.”
       “There will be no need for that.”

       The Council as one started with surprise as an unknown voice reverberated through the meeting hall. Slowly, a glowing hooded figure appeared in the midst of them. Quartus turned in alarm, and he wasn’t alone. “What is this? Who are you and why do you appear before this body!”
       The newcomer spoke, calm and slow. “I have come to warn this body of matters relative to the tablet you were just speaking of.” The councilmembers were in an uproar, and one hooded human member came and stood before the glowing figure. “I am Primus, head of this Council. Identify yourself, please.”
       “My name would mean nothing to you. I am a member of a council similar to this one—a temporal council, to be exact. We know the danger that the tablet represents, and moreover we know how the danger will begin. Be warned, then, that in exactly one week from today that Abari’s Prophecy will come to fruition.”
       Several of the councilmembers stood, seeking to be heard, but Primus quelled them. “You know of the Time of Great Danger? What starts it, then?”
       “Not what, who. The one called Gadget Hackwrench.”
       Primus studied the figure before him, weighing his words. “Gadget Hackwrench-Oakmont, the Rescue Ranger? What dealings does she have with this?”
       “It is she who builds the bridge across time. She will make it possible for what is to come.”
       “Then we should alert her,” Primus said. “If what Abari wrote was true, then the danger is too great a risk.”
       “No, you must allow her to continue unfettered.”
       “But why?” Primus asked. “If you know enough to appear before us now, then you must know we are dedicated to preserving the balance of what is here. Surely you cannot deny us that!”
       The figure floated closer to Primus, his eyes just perceptible under the robe’s hood. “The reason I am here is because I knew you would be here. I am from a different reality than yours, but our technology allows us to peer into other realities, other universes. We know about Abari as well as you, which reality he is in, and the danger he now represents to you as well as to us. You cannot interfere with Gadget, because otherwise there will be no way to stop... him.”
       Primus deliberated with the councilmembers for several minutes. They took an oral vote and Primus returned to the glowing one. “We will hold our peace for now, but we ask that once Gadget has performed the deed that you alert us. We wish to help in any means possible. The ordinatio elementum is everything to us.”
       “And to us. Peace to you, Primus. You will hear from me again.”

       As the glowing figure faded from view, the councilmembers stood dumbfounded. Primus headed over to Quartus. “So, the Time has come after all. Someone must visit Ranger Headquarters. Remember Abari’s first warning.”
       “ ‘And she shall bring time to a halt’,” Quartus said. “Yes, Primus. I agree. I will—”
       “No,” another robed figure said, rodent-sized. “As a senior member, I claim the honor of this visit myself.” Primus nodded, turning his attention to the one who had spoken. “Very well, then. Triginta will go. Sodalitas nam bestia tutamen et fidelitas.” The robed humans and animals stood, saluting, repeating the council’s motto solemnly, then stood and left the premises.

       May 21 7:02am New York

       Colby Erskine had his father’s way of making friends instantly with total strangers, and his manners plus his dignified-sounding speech usually had him as the center of attention. It was that way now, although there was only one other person in attendance. Lahwhinie had finally learned to read well despite her dyslexia, and when it had become apparent that her much younger brother was similarly challenged she’d taken it upon herself to teach him.
       Surprisingly, the Hawaiian mouse had turned out to be a good, patient teacher—most likely because she could sympathize with the husky young mouse sitting next to her. They completed one book and Colby was eager to continue so Lahwhinie indicated he could go after another. Soon they were immersed in it, Colby reading the thin book in his lap and Lahwhinie leaning over next to him as he read.
       “And deep in the Grickle-grass, some people say, if you kool—”
       “…look deep enough you can still see, today, where the Lor-ax once stood just as long as it could before somebody deftly—”
       “…somebody lifted the Lorax away.”
       Lahwhinie clapped her hands. “Wonderful! You’re hardly making any mistakes anymore.” Colby grinned broadly, loving the praise. “Thanks, big sis. It’s ever so nice of you to palaver like this with me.”
       “Oh, I figure it’s my way of paying Gadget, Theo and the others back for helping me.”
       Colby looked back at the book, confused. “Sis, what’s Grickle-grass?” Lahwhinie took another look at the word Colby was pointing at. “That’s a lawn with an attitude. The next time the British Open is on, watch and you’ll see their golf course is covered with the stuff.”
       With a heartfelt hug for his teacher, Colby marked his place in the book and put it back on the shelf. Gadget and Lahwhinie had built the children’s bookcase together, and Dale had supplied the reading material, much of it saved from his own childhood. “You’d better get ready to go, little bro,” Lahwhinie called after him. “Noel and Foxy will be up soon!”

       Almost half an hour later, Theo awakened so that he could see his other parents off. Noel and Foxy were headed southwest for Hondo, Texas, and in addition to Lonestar and the other kids they were taking Colby along so the two friends could enjoy their vacation time together.
       “Goodbye, you two,” Theo said, hugging them both. “Tell Uncle Bedivere I said howdy, and have a great time!” Foxy hugged him back. “You know we will, Theo. Oh, I still can’t believe you’re grown up! He sure looks good in your old outfit, doesn’t he, dear?”
       “Like the former spitting image of me,” Noel said. “Well, we’d better get going. Pete Steadman’s got his plane at the airport for us, since we’ve got so many kids to shuttle around. See y’all soon!”
       A few more hugs and the chiropteran clan and Colby were out the door. Theo was glad he’d been able to let Noel and Foxy see him in his new duds. He had decided to wait until this morning before sporting his new look, what with all the activity from the previous day. He’d put on the hat and jacket in his room and had stood in front of the full-length mirror, play-acting like he was Clint Eastwood and some of his other heroes.
       Now he and the others came into the kitchen for breakfast, and Lahwhinie smiled approvingly. “Theo, that really suits you.”
       He was about to speak when a certain squirrel came in behind him and gave him a wolf whistle. Theo turned and posed dramatically. “Well, how do I look? Do I look like a Jake Stone or Chip Maplewood wannabe?” Bink inspected him from top to bottom. “You look awesome! That outfit’s gonna be the talk of the school tomorrow. Just think, Theo, all we’ve got left is Miss Spelling’s final and then we graduate! Looking forward to the prom, big guy?”
       “Oh yeah! It’s gonna be a day neither of us will ever forget. I’ve been looking forward to the prom since that disastrous sleepover all those years ago.”
       Now it was Bink’s turn to blush. “Oh, not that again! The girls still rib me about that! Thank goodness we still liked each other after that weekend.” Chip shook his head, incredulous. “It was just a sleepover! Honestly, you two still talk about that as if it was some traumatic event that scarred you for life.”
       “Dad,” Theo interrupted, “it was a traumatic event that scarred us for life! We nearly lost all our friends that weekend. And then there was poor Rhett on top of everything! We thought you were going to cut our heads off and mount them on the wall! Of course, if you’d been the one that caught us kissing on the sofa, instead of mom, I expect we’d both be mounted over the television right now.”
       Chip remembered his reaction that night. “I think I would’ve keeled over dead if I’d seen that. After everything else that happened that night, that would’ve simply been too much.” Bink chortled with glee. “I told you that’s what he would’ve done!”

       Lahwhinie had a good laugh at Chip’s expense, then faced the two youngsters. “You two go ahead and have a good time. I’ll keep mister keel-over occupied.” She adjusted Theo’s fedora, feeling some motherly pride in her son. “Happy birthday, Theo. You look great, just like your father.”
       “Thanks mom, and don’t worry about Becky and me. Whoo hoo! Now we can go to R-rated movies without the grownups! I think the first thing I’m gonna do is go see ‘Cannibal Chainsaw Zombie Nightmare, Part XVI’! Ha, just kidding.”
       Bink raised an eyebrow. “I should hope so. The first thing we’re going to do is go roller-skating, and then we’re going to the movies and I want to see what New York looks like in the moonlight from the RangerWing.”
       “Hey, don’t you two get carried away,” Chip said. “You’re still kids yet, so don’t stay out too late and...”
       “Absolutely no funny business,” Lahwhinie said, finishing his thought. “A little smooching, but anything more than that and I’ll start breaking legs.”
       “Yes, ma’am,” Theo said, tipping his new hat. “You know I won’t let this newfound freedom go to my head.” Bink winked at Lahwhinie. “Besides, I can still beat him in martial arts. But don’t worry, I’ll save the legs for you.” Lahwhinie waved a good-natured finger at Bink. “You behave yourself too, young lady. I remember what it was like at your age, so don’t test our limits.”
       Lahwhinie looked them sternly for a moment more, then eased off and hugged them both. “You better go or I’ll spend the whole evening threatening you.” Chip took on a sarcastic grin. Lahwhinie’s tough act was mainly for show nowadays, but it was part of the fun. “Go on, and we’ll just sit here and worry ourselves sick till you get back.”
       “Now when did we ever do that?” Lahwhinie asked.
       “You did, the first ten times they went out,” Chip shot back.
       “And what were you doing, wringing your fedora half the night?”
       Theo cleared his throat, breaking up the argument. “Easy, you guys! We don’t want to have to ask Aunt Gadget to rebuild the treehouse or anything. See ya!” Lahwhinie put an arm around Chip, waving goodbye with the other. “Have fun!”

       The evening they’d planned would be a fun one, but Theo had a big surprise. He’d told Bink he needed something from the clubhouse and when he came out he was dressed in a fine dark suit. “Hey, what gives?” Bink asked. “We can’t go roller-skating in formalwear!”
       “Nope, but can go see ‘Oklahoma!’ in formalwear,” Theo said, holding up two tickets. Bink shrieked in delight. “‘Oklahoma!’? I love that one!” She ran up and hugged Theo tight as a vise, and kissed him with delight. “Oh, you big sneak! Now I don’t have time to get ready!”
       “Sure you do,” Theo said. “The tickets are for the 8:15 show, so you’ve got plenty of time.”
       “Theo, there’s no such thing as ‘plenty of time’ when a girl’s making herself beautiful,” Bink retorted. Theo grinned as they headed for the Chesnutt tree. “Don’t worry, I can wait. And if we miss the play it’ll still be worth it.”

       Bink gave out an amused laugh and pushed him playfully. Theo had been smart, because it took Bink nearly two hours to get ready. She came out, her ponytail gone, and her blonde hair hanging loose over her shoulders. Her ensemble consisted of a sparkling blue evening dress of her own making, with a single mid-sized diagonal strap going from her right shoulder to the left front of the dress. Matching shoes, a few baubles and a linked golden belt completed the look.
       “Your Majesty,” Theo bowed. “I am honored by your presence tonight.”
       “As well you should be,” Bink said, letting none of the effect escape. “You may escort me, young man.”
       Oscar and Donna both watched as Bink took Theo’s arm. “They are such a handsome couple,” Donna said, snapping yet another picture for the photo album. “Oh, wait until cousin Simone sees this one! Bink, have you reconsidered about that dress shop?”
       “Oh mom,” Bink said, “I’m happy doing what I’m doing! I like making clothes with you, but I don’t want to spend my life in a shop. I want to get out and see all that I can!”
       “Like father, like daughter,” Oscar said, hugging her. “My, but you’re an elegant-looking young lady. You remind me of Donna the night I proposed. But don’t you get any ideas from that, young man.”
       “No sir,” Theo said.
       “Good man. Say, you’d better be off. Your show starts in thirty minutes!”

       Waving goodbye, the dapper pair left in the RangerWing. Neither of them normally dressed up, but getting tickets for ‘Oklahoma!’ called for extra effort. When they got to the theater, each tried to act suave, as if they were used to this. Bink couldn’t hold back her enthusiasm though, and when the opening scene started up she let out a “YEE-HAW!” that would’ve done Uncle Bedivere proud.
       She settled down after that, and soon the audience forgot about the overly exuberant squirrel. Both of them enjoyed the songs and the story, and when it was over they toured the Great White Way, just enjoying the marquees for a time. After that, Theo took Bink on a RangerWing tour of the city. The metallic giants shone in the moonlit sky, and the light cast a surreal pallor over everything.
       “Theo, it’s been such a great night,” Bink said. “It’s like something I dreamed of long ago but never actually thought I’d see. Thank you.”
       “You’re welcome, Becky. I’ve made it a point to live my dreams and I want to do all I can to help others live theirs,” Theo said. Bink cuddled up next to him, her wrap keeping her warm in the light cool breeze. “You’re doing a good job so far. I’ve been thinking about the future lately, and what it’ll be like. Your parents and all the Rangers are so well known for all they’ve done. Do you think we can really live up to all that?”
       Theo paused, actually causing Bink to look over at him. Theo smiled back. “I’ve always believed that this is the purpose I was born for. I don’t care about the fame. I just want to do what’s right.”
       “Me too. It’s just that...”
       Theo put the Wing on hover. “What is it, Becky?”
       “It’s just so real now. We’re actually going to be Rangers! I can’t tell you how many nights I dreamed of following in the footsteps of Chip, Dale and the others. Even before you came along, I’d thought about it some. I almost had to, growing up around them. Still, it was when you came that it really started to seem attainable.”
       “Well, they can’t go on forever,” Theo said. “There would have to be new Rangers someday.” Bink took his hand. “Yeah, I know. It’s just that when I was real little the Rangers were like these superheroes in my mind and now I’m going to be one and it’s almost overwhelming. Can you imagine what our first solo case will be like?”
       Theo looked out into the moonlight night, the Statue of Liberty’s torch lit up in front of them in the distance. “I hope it has car chases, fierce battles, dangerous villains and other cool stuff.”
       “I can’t wait.” Bink looked up at the moon, then checked her wristwatch. “Oh, I was afraid of that! We’d better start heading back, or you’ll never have me home by eleven. We’ve got Miss Spelling’s final tomorrow, remember. And this Cinderella doesn’t wear glass slippers.” Theo started the Wing moving again. “Good idea. Aunt Gadget would get upset if we flew back to Headquarters in a pumpkin. Thanks Becky, it’s been a wonderful night.”

       Bink leaned on Theo’s shoulder again as they flew back home. Once they landed, Theo stopped to talk with the Chesnutts for a few minutes, then headed for Ranger Headquarters. Naturally, Chip and Lahwhinie were waiting. They always did, no matter the occasion. “Did you have a good time?” Chip asked.
       “I’ll say he did,” Lahwhinie said, looking over her son in his tux. “So where did you go in that getup? Twenty-One?”
       “Just to see a play,” Theo said nonchalantly. “One of Bink’s favorites.”
       “‘Oklahoma!’,” Chip said. “She always loved the movie as a young girl when we’d watch it.”
       “On the nose,” Theo said, pointing to his own in emphasis. “We had a great time.”
       “Good,” Lahwhinie said, pointing the way to his room. “Now you’d better get some rest, because tomorrow’s your English final. Isn’t that the one with Miss Spelling?” Theo nodded. “She’ll have my head if there’s one misspelling.” Chip laughed, that joke going back even further than his time under Miss Spelling’s tutelage. “You’ll do fine, Theo. See you in the morning!”

Chapter 3 – The Assignment, Old Friends, and Writer’s Block

       May 22 7:33am New York

       Theo made a point of not delaying rest that night. He’d heard the stories about Miss Spelling’s English finals, and knew they could be grueling. When he woke up, he took an extra hour out to review all the basics of sentence formation, vocabulary and grammar. Once he felt prepped, Theo headed for the kitchen. Lahwhinie was there, and she’d fixed him an extra-hearty protein shake complete with pineapple and orange pieces to give it that tropical flavor.
       Theo downed the concoction in one draught. “Thanks, mom! Knew I’d be in a hurry this morning, huh?”
       “I had a feeling. Do good, and tell Bink I wish her luck!”

       Theo washed out his glass and adjusted his fedora as he walked out the door. He thought briefly about flying the RangerWing to class, but it was such a short distance it would’ve been overkill. Instead he met up with Bink halfway there, as was their custom, and together they entered the lioness’ den.
       Miss Spelling was getting up in years, but she still dominated her classes like Genghis Khan dominated the Mongols and everyone else. Her piercing eyes locked on Theo and then Bink as they came in, and followed them until they’d taken seats. The old squirrel waited until the rest of the class was there, then cleared her throat. The din of talk and laughter fell silent—it was serious time.
       “Good morning,” she began, “As I’m sure you’re all aware, my exams have the double reputation for being unorthodox and demanding. I think you will find I have not lost my touch with this group. But before we begin, I want you to know that this is the highest-achieving group I have taught in my thirty-seven years here as instructor in English. You’ve shown yourselves to be much higher than average, so the nature of the exam will reflect that.”
       The students all brought out their pencils and notebooks then paused as if waiting for the first volley of the war. Miss Spelling continued. “Instead of a normal test, your assignment will be to write a story.” Murmurs filled the room, and Miss Spelling signaled for silence. “You will write a story that combines elements of your real life with a fictitious story of your own making. I want to see creativity, originality and of course attention to proper English. Those stories that I find exceptional, I will pass along to a former student of mine who is a literary agent and we will see about getting them published.”
       Now the murmurs were tinged with excitement. “That’s your carrot to give this your best effort,” the teacher warned. “Now scoot, go home, and spend today thinking about what you’ll write. You have until June 1st to finish. I suggest you use the time wisely.”

       With that, Miss Spelling got up and left the room. The students were left speechless at first, then erupted into a torrent of talk. Zooger as always led the conversation. “Whoa, like a meteor coming out of right field! The old lady ain’t lost her touch, eh Theo? So, what literary largeness are you gonna lay on the queen of commas?”
       “That’ll be easy,” Theo said. “I’ll just dazzle her with Ranger adventures. This will be a piece of cake.”
       “I dunno, Theo,” Billy Hangwalter said. “She’s probably gonna expect something like that. I mean, I could write something about football, but she made me rewrite the last paper like that I did. You’ll have to make it really good to pass her muster.” Theo shrugged. “But I don’t know anything else. All the elements of my real life are Rescue Ranger adventures.”
       Rhett Capone flipped a half-gnawed pencil into the air. “I was thinking of just writing about my job, but the title “Casino” is already taken.”
       “Oh, you’ll come up with something, Rhett,” Bink said. “You’re the best creative writer in the bunch! Just grab an idea and let it rip. Hey Theo, maybe you could make yours about an adventure where you’re leading the Rangers. You sure look the part now.”
       “You got that right, Binkaroo,” Zooger said. “The T-Man, looking sharp in those threads!” Theo drank in the attention, and he had developed an ego. “Ah, fantasy. The day when I’m the man with the plan. I think I’ll have my team call me Hannibal. I wonder what I’d look like with a Mohawk and gold chains…”
       Debbie corrected him. “Hannibal? Chip’s more like it!”
       “I thought he was Chip when he walked in!” Denise said. “Theo, that’s so cool on you!” Bink cleared her throat. “Just remember, he’s mine.” Denise sighed. “Yeah, we know. We’ve known ever since sixth grade.”
       “Tell me about it,” Debbie said. “Theo, when’s your dad going to retire and let you take over?” Theo had thoughts of his own on that, but kept them to himself. “Dad’s only in his mid-thirties, Deb. It could be a decade or two till then. I’m just content to learn under the watchful eye of a master.”
       Zooger leaned way back in his chair, balancing. “Well, if you ever need a steady drummer in the group, you know where to call, dude.” Billy closed his notebook. “Not me, though. I’m headed upstate with a football scholarship.”
       “You’re taking it, Billy?” Debbie asked, pleased. “Oh cool! Then we’ll be together up there! What about you, Denise?”
       “M.I.T. on the scholarship. When they learned that Bink and Theo were staying put, I was next in line,” Denise said. “I still say you should’ve taken it, Theo. You’d have made one great computer programmer.” Theo shook his head. “I wouldn’t last one day chained to a desk in front of a computer. Danger and stuff is what I live for.”
       “Danger is what you’ll have if you don’t get to writing, young man.”

       Everyone turned, startled. Theo found his voice first. “Miss Spelling! You came back?”
       “I never left,” she said. “Theo, remember to keep the story original. You of all people will have the toughest challenge, because you have the most material to work with. You can use your illustrious family and team as characters in your story, but the story itself must be new and thought-out. Remember, I know the Rangers as well as you do, and I’ve listened quite well to your retellings of your family’s derring-do.”
       “Don’t worry, Miss Spelling, this story will knock your socks off—well if you wore them, that is.”
       Miss Spelling didn’t crack a smile. “I expect no less of you, Mister Maplewood. I will be eager to read each of your stories.” Miss Spelling walked off, leaving for real this time, and Theo walked home with Bink.
       “What are you going to do for yours, Becky?” Theo asked.
       “Oh, probably something involving a certain chipmunk I know. Don’t worry, I’m sure my idea will be totally different from yours.”
       Theo gestured grandly with his hands. “A romantic adventure in which a handsome chipmunk rescues a fair damsel from Prince John’s castle and carries her off to Sherwood Forest?” Bink grinned mischievously. “ Maaaaaaaaaaaybe. Or maybe the fair damsel will rescue the hot-shot chipmunk when he gets in over his head!”
       “Ha! I am in complete control of everything in my environment. I’m the best of the best!”
       “Oh, really...” Bink pulled down Theo’s fedora over his eyes.
       “Ack! First the cap, now the hat! Okay, maybe I’m just a ‘best-of-the-best in training’, but I’ll get there eventually.”
       Bink laughed and helped him straighten his fedora. “Come on, let’s head for the old clubhouse. I’m sure we can think of something to write after bouncing some ideas around.”

       They spent the remainder of the morning at the clubhouse, which they’d carefully preserved from their childhood days. It was still a place they went to from time to time, though they let Althea and Geegaw play there now as well. When their hunger told on them, Bink headed for home and Theo went for the treehouse. The gang from yesterday was still there, and Dale met him at the door.
       “Hey there, Theo! How’d the English test go?”
       Theo pointed to his notebook. “There wasn’t any written test exactly. We have to write a story.” Gadget turned around, seated on the sofa. “A story? Jeepers, that sounds like a real challenge. I like a good invention, but I was never good at that sort of thing.” Lahwhinie nodded, sitting next to her. “The longest thing I’ve ever written is a grocery list. What’ll you write about?”
       Theo set his books and notebook down. “Adventure, danger, action, excitement and all that other heroic stuff.”
       “Wowie-zowie!” Dale said. “Ya gonna have some neat heroes in it like Kablammo Man and the Human Blowtorch?”
       “Nope,” Theo said, taking his place at the sofa. “It will feature my favorite heroes, my family.” This caught Chip’s attention of course. “What? Theo, that’s flattering and all, but why us? You eat, sleep and think Rangers all the time. I thought you’d have wanted to write about something different.”
       “Actually, Bink gave me an idea. It will be about something different. I’ll be the leader of the Rescue Rangers!” Foxglove was instantly intrigued. “Oh, that sounds wonderful! What will you do, Theo? What kind of big mission will you tackle?”
       “Oh, I don’t know, but it’ll be big and amazing! I haven’t thought much about it yet.”
       “Well, you know what they say,” Gadget said, “inspiration’s all around you.”

       “Hello, everyone!” a voice sounded at the door. Bianca and Bernard had dropped by, along with Rob Roybrush and Tammy, now married. Bianca hugged her sister lovingly. “It is so good to see you again, dear Eva! We have just returned from our yearly R.A.S. meeting in Johannesburg, and this year we were able to take two local initiates.”
       Tammy was a grown woman now, and looked quite the professional in her business suit. She and Rob had been outfitted courtesy of the R.A.S., and Chip had to admit they made an admirable pair. “It’s been, what, six months?” Chip asked.
       “Seven,” Tammy corrected. “Hey, look who’s dressing like his dad!” Tammy had been amused at first at the idea of Chip’s son being Bink’s boyfriend, but now she treated him like a family member. “I bet Bink loves that.”
       “She does,” Theo said, accepting a hug from her. “How’s married life in the spy business been so far?” Tammy pulled Rob over and showed off her diamond ring, something she still enjoyed. “It’s been great! Nearly a year now and we’re still talking to each other.”
       “When she’ll let me get a word in, that is,” Rob said. “Still planning on taking over for your old man?” Theo grinned at someone calling Chip that. “Sometime, when he gets too tired of all this.”
       Lahwhinie stepped up by Chip. “When he is, I’ll have to be hunting my teeth.” Chip showed the foursome to the sofa, and soon the two couples were sharing their recent experiences. Bianca of course made over Althea and Geegaw. “Oh, they are so big now! My, how time does fly.”
       “Speaking of retiring, how about you two?” Monty asked, addressing Bianca and Bernard. “Even gonna give up on being the living legends of the Rescue Aid Society?” Bianca smiled and shook her head. “We do not go on missions anymore, but we can still delegate and advise. I think we can safely say that it is a job for life. Right, Mister Bernard?”
       “R-right,” Bernard said. “Besides, if she quit, she’d probably go stir crazy for want of something to do.” Bianca gave him a coy glance. “And you would be missing it every bit as much, dahling.” Bernard smiled back. “Yeah, you’re right, Miss Bianca. I would.”
       “Just loike me and the Rescue Rangers,” Monty said. “As long as ol’ Monterey Jack can bring one up from the floor, I’ll always be in the thick of things. Why, I remember back in the summer of ‘73…”

       Three stories later, Bianca and Bernard made their excuses and headed out for a R.A.S. meeting, along with Tammy and Rob. Things had almost gotten back to normal when Althea appeared at the main door to Headquarters. She’d gone outside with Geegaw to play, and now she was back. And she was crying.
       Dale rushed up to his daughter, picking her up, “What’s wrong, princess? Why are you crying?” Althea was visibly upset, and just clung to her father’s shirt, burying her face in it. “Daddy, they wouldn’t let me play with them!”
       “Who wouldn’t and why?”
       Geegaw came in on that note, knowing the scene wouldn’t be a happy one. “Some of the boys were getting up a game of stickball. Ally wanted to play, but Tommy Harkness said that she couldn’t.” Althea tugged on her father to reclaim his attention. “And when I asked why, he said, ‘because you’re a girl!’. Daddy, why was he so mean? I wish I was as big as that Tommy! I’d show him!”
       Dale sat on the couch and put Althea on his lap. “Look, it’s kinda hard to explain, Ally. Kids can be really mean to anyone that’s different for any reason. Boys can be mean to girls when they’re young. If I had known your mom when we were your age I probably would’ve acted the same way. Kids don’t realize how special you are.”
       Althea was still shaken from it all. She wasn’t used to being left out of anything, and the hurt was in her eyes. “But what does being a girl have to do with anything? It never mattered before! Dad, why were they leaving me out?” Dale paused, trying to think of a way to answer her. “I can’t really explain it. People sometimes just do dumb things. They sometimes hurt others to make themselves feel powerful, sometimes out of fear. Tommy doesn’t realize how special and wonderful you are yet. But give him about twelve years or so and he’ll probably be begging you to go out on dates with him!”
       Althea crossed her arms, pouting. “Fat lot of good that does right now! I want to play stickball!” The others chuckled at her pat answer. Meanwhile, Geegaw had retrieved Gadget per his father’s helpless look, and she came to the rescue. Gadget picked Althea up, hugging her. “Ally, no one’s rejecting you. You’re at the age now when boys need to do some things just with boys, and girls with girls for that matter.”
       “Really? Why?” Althea asked.
       “Well, from a social standpoint it’s the time where one learns how to establish a role and carry it out into adulthood.”
       Althea grimaced. She hated when Gadget talked that way. “In English, mom?”
       “Oh. It means you’re starting to grow up.”
       Althea gasped. “ It does? Oh, boy! Maybe when I’m grown up a little more, they’ll let me play stickball!” Gadget smiled down at her. “We’ll see. For now, why don’t you come and help me?”
       The young chipmunk left with her mother, and Dale was relieved, like all fathers were. Lahwhinie touched his arm. “She’s getting older, no doubt of that. I think you did a good job there, Dale. Those kinds of things are hard for a kid to understand.”
       “I don’t understand them either,” Dale admitted. “I was just winging it.”

       Dale sat down on the sofa, relieved that the momentary crisis was over. His thoughts returned to Tammy and Rob, and Dale remembered with a grin how uptight Chip had been when he saw them. Not that Chip was skittish about Tammy’s old crush, but he’d become like a second father to her and her happiness meant a lot to him. Dale had also noted with relish the wistful look in Chip’s eyes, and could imagine it being there again when Theo and Bink...but of course, no need to get too far ahead. Those two had all the time in the world.
       Theo got to bed late that night, still working over his story idea. He’d talked a better game than he had, as the wads of paper littering the floor attested to. An idea would come and it would appear good for a time, then it would dead-end. After going through half his notebook, Theo sighed long and hard and headed for bed. “Maybe I just need to relax,” he said to himself, and his eyes closed slowly.

Chapter 4 – Timely Inspiration, The Rat Pack, and a Fresh Mystery

       May 19 8:15am New York

       Gadget was a creature of inventive thought, and at the moment her mind was wandering toward a new project she was building in her “brain workshop”. Many times she’d build something there first, figuring out just how everything would go in order to save her time and mistakes in the real world. Her years of married life had given her perspective on things, and now inventing wasn’t the be-all of things. However, ideas for new inventions still came.
       The current idea had just come about from a statement Theo made as he stood up from the breakfast table. “Aunt Gadget, do you ever wish you could go back and see your dad?” Gadget was startled at the question, but nonetheless it intrigued her and she thought on it as they and the other Rangers entered the main room. “Well yes, there’s been days I’ve thought about it. I had a real urge a few years ago to build a time machine, but considering all the temporal quagmire that could open up, I’m glad I didn’t. Besides, that was the time when my Dale and I finally found out we loved each other. Right, Dale?”
       Dale didn’t answer, because he was curled up on the couch, snoozing. He was still a night owl and loved watching television—well, when he was awake anyway. “Some things never change,” Chip said, a pleased smile on his face. Lahwhinie had one as well. “Yeah, he’s the king of the couch potatoes. As for going back, Theo, I’m more than glad to be where I am right now.”
       “Too roight,” Monty said, his arm around Eva. “Still, might be nice to just look back on a couple o’ times. I can remember me first wedge of cheese like it was yesterday…” Gadget laughed softly. “Oh dad, do you always count the milestones in your life by the cheese you’ve eaten?” Monty grinned and nodded. “No better way, lass. Some things a mouse might forget, but not the cheese he’s enjoyed.”
       “ Look back…” Gadget said, thinking out loud. Chip raised an eyebrow. “Oboy, she’s got that look again.” Bink, who had been in the kitchen, came out and sat next to Theo. “What’re you thinking about, Aunt Gadget? A new invention?” Gadget still got that wild-eyed look when she had a brainstorm, and it was there in full force now. “Well, I was just thinking that maybe a time machine would be impractical but a time viewer might not be.”
       “Time viewer?” Eva asked. “You mean, a device that could allow one to see into yesterday or tomorrow? That is a nice idea, but how vould you go about it?”
       “Well, I have a theory…” Gadget began.
       “She always does,” Chip quipped, then received a plunk in the ribs from his wife.

       Gadget continued. “I think that time—well, what we call time—has the same wave-like structure to it that many other forces do, like light or magnetism. If you could build a device that could tune in on those waves, it should be possible to view what happened in the past or even the future by altering the frequency you tune to.”
       “Sort of like running the frequencies on a radio dial,” Eva mused. “Yes, I suppose it could be possible. The problem vould be in determining the nature of these theoretical waves and building something capable of detecting them.”
       “Oh, I think I know the nature of them,” Gadget said.
       “How’s that, Gadget luv?” Monty asked.
       “Well, remember the accidents we had with Nimnul’s modemizer?” Gadget asked. “The time that Chip split into both Chip and Noel got me to thinking, because essentially it created two timelines for one being. Then I remembered the Rangerizer mom and I built and I ran a few tests and found that the big overload that did all those weird things to us gave me the clue I needed. From there, I was able to determine what I think is the wave signature of time itself.”
       “So you already know you can build this time-viewer?” Theo asked.
       “Not exactly,” Gadget said. “I know about the waves, but if you remember, the modemizer only gave out those waves when it overloaded in that huge explosion. It would take a machine with the capacity to handle quite a bit of power to keep from blowing up.”
       “Um, you ain’t really thinking of building this then, are ya, Gadget luv?” Monty asked, some hope in his voice. Gadget smiled and shook her head. “Oh no, dad.”
       “That’s good ta know.”
       “Not until I’ve worked out the theoretical problems, that is.”
       Monty sunk into his seat. “Shoulda known.”

       May 26 7:47pm New York

       It took Gadget six days to do just that, with Eva helping and advising. Geegaw joined in as well, eager to see a new technological marvel of her mom’s being made. At the end of a week’s work they had what Gadget believed was a working prototype, and the Rangers had all gathered in her workshop to see just what would happen. “Boy, oh boy, I hope it works!” Dale said. “I’d love to get to see if there really was a Loch Ness Monster, and Dracula and the Wolfman and Frankenstein, and aliens in Roswell, and…”
       “Dale, give it a rest!” Chip said. “I want to see if Sherlock Holmes really lived at 221B.”
       Gadget came out from a little side room she’d built into the workshop a few years back, wearing protective clothing, as no one knew just what this thing would do. “Golly, this could answer so many questions! It could be the greatest single contribution to the collective knowledge of mankind or mousekind or any kind!”
       “I don’t know, luv,” Monty said. “Seems like to me that time’s one of those things that’s best left alone. Why, think of all the trouble some bloke could cause if there were time machines! He could wipe all of us out, just by making us do something different in the past or something like that.”
       “Oh Monty,” Gadget said, taking on that tone of voice she always did when Monty questioned one of her inventions, “it’s not a time machine! It’s just a way to look backwards or forwards.”
       “Don’t know if a bloke should be able to see into the future, either,” Monty said. “Smacks of danger.” Dale looked concerned. “Is it dangerous?” Chip waived off the concern. “Only if Gadget finds out you didn’t clean your side of the lair next week.” Dale blew him a raspberry and Gadget had to focus the group’s attention again.
       “Okay. I’m not sure how the viewer might affect things, so you might want to take a step or two back,” Gadget said. They did so, knowing the unpredictability of Gadget’s inventions, and Gadget approached the viewer. It was a rather simple-looking mechanism, with an oval-shaped metallic aperture about Gadget’s height catching one’s attention initially. The oval was attached by a pole at the bottom to the machine’s foundation, giving the impression of someone having cut off the end of a very large needle just beneath its eye. To the left of the oval, on a tall thin pedestal that was also connected to the machine’s foundation, was a metallic representation of the Earth. It allowed one to pinpoint the exact location one was viewing in time.
       On the oval’s right was a lever similar to the speed selection lever on a large ships that, when moved forward or back, would control the time period one saw. The trapezoidal base under it all supported the machine well, and to Chip at least it looked somewhat like an artifact one might find in an ancient Egyptian pyramid.
       “…so you see,” Gadget said, after explaining the mechanism to them the best she could, “if the viewer works, the oval will spin really fast and the photoelectric effect will recreate a scene from the past or future.”
       “And if it doesn’t work?” Chip asked.
       “Then I’ll see if there’s any demand for a Neo-Egyptian paperweight on e-bay.”

       Gadget pressed a button on the side of the viewer and the oval began to glow. A light humming filled the room, which steadily grew louder until everyone had to cover their ears. “ Turn it off, Gadget!” Chip said. “ It’s gonna blow!” Gadget tried, but the humming kept growing louder and louder and the viewer brighter and brighter. It was no use—the onslaught knocked them all out, and then, in a giant flash of power, it disappeared.
       A few minutes later, the Rangers came to, woozy and confused. “Is everyone okay?” Gadget asked. Seeing nods all around, she looked back to where her time viewer had stood and said that famous line all her fans loved to hear. “Golly, it wasn’t supposed to do that.”

       May 23 7:28am New York

       At that moment Theo’s eyes opened. “What…what’s going on?” It took a moment for the feelings of dislocation to ease off, and he sat up in bed. A moment later a light tapping came at the door and Lahwhinie poked her head in. “You okay, son?” Theo blinked again and nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. I just had a really vivid dream is all. I could’ve sworn that…well, never mind.”
       “Okay, Theo. Breakfast is on in a few minutes, so don’t take long.”
       Lahwhinie closed the door, and Theo got up and dressed. The images had been so real, they were still clear in his mind. He looked to his notebook and immediately dashed to it, beginning to write as fast as he could. “Oh man, I hope I can remember all this. This’ll make a great story!”

       Theo wrote feverishly for about half an hour, then, his creative juices spent, he went in to breakfast. He tried to get back to his writing afterward but it was a rainy day, which meant Althea and Geegaw were playing inside. Children of a genius they might be, but they made noise just like other kids did. Ranger Headquarters clearly wasn’t the best place for quiet study and thinking this day, so Theo packed up his things and retired to his old clubhouse in the park.
       With solitude regained, inspiration came easily enough and soon Theo was writing as fast as his thoughts would let him. He’d been at it for over an hour when he heard a knock at the door. He knew who was there, and let Bink in. “Hi. Come to see the best story for Miss Spelling’s final?”
       “No thanks,” Bink said. “I’ve already finished and proof-read it, but I’ll take a look at yours.” Theo studied her face. “You’ve finished? Already? I just got going good!” Bink took off the raincoat and rain hat she’d been wearing. “I didn’t say what ‘it’ was. I’ve got the first chapter done.”
       Theo hung up Bink’s wet raingear for her on a nail by the door. “Very funny. Well, you can take a gander at mine, then. It’s going to be the ultimate Ranger story, on as big a scale as you could imagine! And of course, yours truly plays a prominent role.” Theo directed Bink to the growing pile and she began to peruse the results. Bink had to reread a few parts to decipher Theo’s scribbling. “Does this somehow involve your having to destroy the ring of power in a volcano or something?”
       “Nah. Remember, she said we had to be original with this one. Anyhow, I’ve taken several things that have happened to the Rangers in the past plus some new ideas I’ve just come up with and I’m putting them all together in one big story!”

       Theo spread his arms out. “Imagine it—mysterious villains, a threat to our life as we know it, an unlikely hero, unique team-ups, exotic locales! The film rights alone should have me on easy street.” Bink flipped through the pages he’d already written, counting them. “How long do you expect this story to be? And wouldn’t Miss Spelling have to know the background of a lot of this stuff for her to understand it?”
       Theo made a few notes. “So I’ll include some continuity in the story to fill in the gaps. Don’t worry—the start goes a little slow at first, but it really picks up after that. Besides, it’s still in its rough stage. I’ll go back and polish it and make it flow better once I’m a little farther along and know what’s needed there.”
       Bink batted her lashes at Theo and smiled sweetly. “Does the brave and handsome hero meet his lady fair in the story?” Theo smirked at her playfulness, then his smile grew. “Of course, but then he has to bail her out because she cut corners to get her own story done so she could go outside!”
       That earned him a light punch to the shoulder. “Ha!” Bink retorted. “Just wait till she sees my story.” Theo’s eyelids narrowed. He sensed a challenge, and for all their years they’d loved competing with each other. “Oh yeah? I bet I get a better grade on mine than you do.” Bink leaned him toward him, her eyelids lowering. “Well, I accept your challenge, Mister Lou Zer.”
       “Okay, Miss Second Best! Now, when I win, I think I’d like to see the RangerWing shining—for the next year. Wash and wax.”
       “And when I win, you have to attend a night at the opera with me. And I’m not talking about the Marx Brothers’ movie,” Bink said. Theo sensed the stakes had just been upped. “The opera! I’m taking mine back then. If I win, you have to go with me to—wait, you like everything I do. If I win—you have to sew me a new shirt. I want it to look like a baseball shirt, complete with an embroidered Ranger logo on the front the way the Atlanta Braves have theirs done so it comes together perfect when you button it up.”
       Bink spit in her hand and held it out to Theo. Theo did the same, and they shook on it solemnly. “Now, what else did you come over here for?” Theo said, taking up his pencil again. “I assume it wasn’t just to challenge me to a contest you can’t possibly win.”
       “I can’t believe you’ve forgotten!” Bink said, taking up her raingear again. “Rhett invited us for dinner at the restaurant at his casino tonight.” Theo thumped himself on the head. “Oh, that’s right! Guess I was lost in thought with the writing. Well, it’ll wait for now.”

       Theo locked up the clubhouse with three padlocks—he took personal satisfaction in being able to unlock them all in less in thirty seconds—and the two of them headed for the warehouse district. They stopped at a particularly run-down looking human-sized warehouse, and entered by a side door. The interior was a splendid ornately-decorated house of chance, a real contrast to the exterior surroundings. A weasel guard challenged them, but once they’d given their names he immediately let them pass.
       The Rat Pack, for so the casino had come to be known, was busy with clientele. It was strange to see well-dressed people in the modified office shack, but Rhett had managed to bring in some of the up-and-coming “yuppies” of the town and convince them that the casino atmosphere was conducive to business. In one move, the casino had doubled its regular foot traffic and gained the reputation of a place where the future financial barons could hobnob. It was into this atmosphere that Bink and Theo came, and Rhett was there to welcome them.
       Rhett Capone still had his boyish grin, but the boy was long since gone. He was dressed in a fine handmade Italian suit, decorated with two beautiful female mice one each side of him. They wore fancy Parisian evening gowns and served as the casino’s roulette girls. He nodded to them and they walked off, one of them kissing him lightly on his left cheek. Rhett rushed up to his friends and shook Theo’s hand, then kissed Bink’s hand.
       “It’s been ages, you two!” Rhett said. “I’m glad you could make it.” Bink took hold of Rhett’s jacket sleeve. “Wow, pure silk! Don’t you look spiffy! How much did those custom threads set you back?”
       “About one percent of one night’s take here at the casino,” Rhett said, matter-of-fact. “But we’re here to eat. Come on, I have the best seats in the house set aside for us.” Theo pointed towards the girls at the roulette wheel. “Who’re they?”
       “Oh, that’s something I added recently,” Rhett said, ducking and smiling a little. “Bonnie and Phoebe were out-of-work actresses trying to make it on Broadway. I told them they could work the tables for me and give the gentlemen something nice to look at, and I’d pay them well for it. So far, profits have increased ten percent since they’ve been here. I’m thinking of taking on a few more, what with the labor strikes at the theaters. Maybe I’ll even let them put on shows here, if it pays.”
       “Wow, your own theater, maybe?” Bink asked.
       “Could be,” Rhett said, smiling. “I treat them well, and make sure everyone else does. Once the word gets around, I could even add on a permanent stage. I want the Rat Pack to be the classiest joint in town.”

       Rhett wasn’t kidding on that point. The table he brought Theo and Bink to was set with the best the city could offer, with Rhett’s personal waiter to take care of their needs. After the third course of their meal, Theo resumed the conversation. “This place sure is jumping tonight. Rhett, you still thinking about college now, or do you plan to stay where the elite meet to eat?”
       The kind-faced rat shook his head. “I couldn’t get away from here now, even if I wanted to. I’ve got my hands full running this place. We’ve made some changes that are bringing in big shots and that’s good for business.”
       “Yeah, I’ve noticed,” Bink said, looking around. “You must have half of Wall Street in here! What does your dad think about the change in patronage?” Rhett rolled his eyes. “I think he throws the money in a big pile on the floor of his office and rolls around in it every night in a euphoric stupor. He’s still amazed that there was so much money to be made legit.”
       Theo laughed. “Sounds like him! What does Vera think about it all?”
       Rhett got a little quieter. Vera had been his one true friend and confidant before Theo and Bink, and now she had married his father. It was a good match all around. “Well, it’s strange for her. She grew up poor as a church mouse. Since things have gone well here, we’ve employed most of her family and they’re living better than they ever have in their entire life.”
       “That’s cool!” Theo said. “So what’s your next step? Think you’ll open another place all your own, or maybe take advantage of being around so many investment brokers and play the market?”
       “Or maybe take the plunge with that cute girl that gave you some sugar?” Bink asked, smiling mischievously. Rhett blushed, showing that his line of work hadn’t hardened him. “Oh, Phoebe just does that to be nice.”
       “Why don’t you ask her out sometime?”
       “Oh, I wouldn’t want her to think I was taking advantage,” Rhett said. “Besides, well….”
       “You like her, don’t you?” Theo asked. Rhett paused, then nodded. “Ever since I saw her. I know I’m a coward, but I don’t have the nerve.”

       Theo decided to let Rhett off the hook. “So, what about that next step?”
       “I don’t know. I didn’t really think I had any path in life and now my plate’s full to overloading! I don’t know what I want to do. Dad wants me to stay here and run the casino.”
       “Well, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Bink said. “You’re running it honest, anyway, and everyone knows it.”
       Rhett nodded. “Yeah, I know it’s technically legit, but it still doesn’t sit just right with me, even after all these years.” Bink knew there was something more, but she couldn’t tell what. “Mom warns me about easy money and all that. I’m glad you’re rich and all, but it wouldn’t make a difference to me either way. You’re still my friend.”
       “And mine,” Theo said. “And you’ll always be that, Rhett. Always.”
       Rhett smiled gratefully. “Thanks. It’s nice to know that there are some people who you can always rely on. I’ve met so many fakers and bottom-feeders since I’ve been here that just suck up to you because you have the dough.”
       Theo could understand that. “I’ve seen the same thing, because of who I am and who my family is. Now to more serious business—who are you taking to the prom?” Rhett gulped, shooting a quick glance over at Phoebe. “I don’t know. There’s a girl that my dad’s trying to fix me up with. She’s the daughter of some big shot banker.”
       Bink smiled, her eyes filling with delight. “Oh, so that’s why you’re shy about it! Rhett, your dad doesn’t run your life. You’re doing him a favor by hanging around here! Go ask Phoebe—I bet she’d be flattered to go with you.”
       Rhett began to perspire. “I know, but I don’t know if we’re right.”
       “Well, at least talk to her, Rhett. Come on, I’ll go with you.”

       Before Rhett could protest, Bink was walking him over to the roulette table. Theo watched as Bink and Phoebe talked for a minute and then she looked at Rhett, seeming to expect something. He could see Rhett stammering, and then Phoebe squealed with delight and hugged his neck, Rhett looking amazed. Bink came back, purely delighted.
       “She’s had a crush on him from day one,” Bink said. “She thought he wasn’t interested, but when I explained it she was happy to go with him. The Binkmeister strikes again!”
       Theo looked back over to Rhett, who now was into a lively conversation with Phoebe. Rhett did pause to wave to them, and Theo and Bink waved back. It was time to be going, and Theo led the way. “If there’s one person on earth I wanted to see happy, it was Rhett. He sure had it hard growing up.”
       “I’m glad too,” Bink said. “You know, maybe I’ll offer to make some custom-made gowns for his casino girls. At cut rates, of course.”

       Theo was glad he’d been able to talk to his old friend. Rhett had finally made the transition to being independent from his father, but he still needed to be pushed to pursue his goals. With a sense of satisfaction, Theo had let Bink out at her house and headed for his clubhouse, turning on the small portable kerosene lamp he kept there. He rifled through the notes he’d written down that morning, picking up his train of thought. They were barely legible, but Theo took the time to recopy them. It helped him to remember, but when he started to write a new sentence he just couldn’t seem to get anywhere with it.
       After a half-hour, Theo got up and turned off the lamp, heading for headquarters. The lights were off, but Theo had a spare key to the front door. Once inside, he quietly entered the kitchen and poured himself a glass of milk. He’d always loved milk with a half-sized peanut-butter sandwich and now he absconded with them and his papers back to his room. The milk had the usual effect of relaxing him, and soon his eyes started to droop, and a smile slowly formed on his lips.

       May 23 9:38pm New York

       In the Smithsonian’s archeological department, Dr. Lyle Weynard was unique among all the scientists there. For the last several years, he’d had one project only to work on, but it was a unique project indeed. When the first of the small sandstone tablets had come to light, everyone in the archaeology and paleontology departments had assumed it was a fake. However, the evidence and additional stone tablets led them to realize that what were now called the Abari Tablets were completely authentic.
       It was only natural that the scientists were skeptical, because the seemingly ancient tablets told in detail of events that were happening in the recent past, the present and beyond. Five hundred and twenty-seven of the sandwich-sized tablets had been unearthed so far and Dr. Weynard was the one who had first translated them.
       Even with the knowledge of how to translate the tablets, it was a slow process due to the difficulty of the ancient language they were written in, namely Cuneiform. He knew that someone named Abari had done the writing because he had left his “signature” on one of the tablets. The descriptions were crude in places, but obviously referred to such things as airplanes, automobiles, and men on the moon.
       Now Dr. Weynard’s interest was up, because a new set of tablets had just been delivered to the Institute. It was late, but his enthusiasm was such that he set into the first of the twelve right off. Moving a large magnifying glass on an armature, he made the tiny scrawl large enough to see and began writing down the translation in his notebook, speaking as he wrote. “In a Sphinx of gold, he will search out Abari’s secret. He seeks the key which will open the door to…” Dr. Weynard stopped, wanting to be sure he’d read it right. “to the place where time was left behind….”
       For a minute, the archaeologist just sat there, thinking about what the tablet said. He drank some cold coffee, but it didn’t register with him. Quickly, he grabbed another tablet and began reading again.

Chapter 5 – A Writer’s Dreams

       May 26 2:17pm New York

       Gadget was very disappointed, having invested all that time in the time-viewer. Dale tried everything he could to cheer her up, but not even his Robin Williams impersonations could bring her around. Dejected, he sat down next to her on the sofa. “Gadget, you want some time alone?” Gadget’s only response was to rest her head on his chest. There was a time when Gadget would have shut herself off from the world when things went wrong. Now, she went to Dale.
       Chip and Lahwhinie were about to go in when they saw how things were. “Gadget, just wanted you to know that we’re going to take in a movie tonight. Take your time,” Chip said. Gadget looked her thanks to him. “I appreciate that, Chip. Have a good time.”
       After they left, Dale returned his attention to his wife. “Gadget, do you think that time-viewer of yours could cause any trouble?”
       “I don’t think so,” Gadget said. “The batteries can only power it for a few hours at the most. It’ll likely end up as a relic in some museum, where no one has any idea of what it’s for. They’ll probably assume it was a totem in some form of strange idol worship.”
       Dale had to agree with Gadget’s reasoning. It was a good thing that the device wouldn’t pose a danger. There was no telling the trouble such a thing could cause in another time period. “You’ll make something even better, and impress us all!” She smiled back slightly. “I’ll be okay. After all, that’s the way the superconductor bounces—well, it doesn’t actually bounce, it floats.”

       May 24 4:16am New York

       Theo tossed and turned in his sleep. He had been a witness to everything that had transpired between Gadget and Dale, and knew this was the same thing he’d dreamed about before. He was about to walk over to them and ask a question when the scene before him suddenly changed. Theo looked about, and all he could see was sand to every horizon. He looked up—it was just after noon by the position of the sun.
       The burning heat of that Arabian sun beat down with the impact of a sledgehammer on anyone foolish enough to be traveling the desert wastes this day. Only the Bedouins who knew and understood the ways of this arid sea of sand would brave it today. Through the low humidity it was possible to see for miles from the vantage of the sand dune’s peak, and at the moment there was no movement—no birds, no reptiles; just the stinging sun straight overhead.
       Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, a disturbance shone on the hazy horizon. It was white, so it was difficult to discern from its surroundings. A half-hour passed, then an hour. The disturbance moved left, then right, zigzagging. As it came closer, it was evident that the form was traveling from waterhole to waterhole. Two hours more, and the white speck had shown itself to be a mouse clothed in the white garments so familiar to these surroundings.
       Two large scarab beetles pulled a makeshift wooden sled on runners that held several trinkets on it. Even from a casual glance, it was obvious the mouse was a dealer in scrap items. Slowly he proceeded up the sand dune, the wind lashing the sand at him and causing the various metal trinkets tied to the vertical poles holding up a portable shade to clang and clatter.

       As the mouse topped the sand dune, he stopped. There, in front of him at the bottom of the opposite side of the dune, was—well, he didn’t know just what it is. “Could it be an unknown temple for Amon-Ra? Stay, Chari. Stay, Homor.”
       The beetles obeyed, giving each other looks of confusion as they watched the peddler slide down the dune. The object was mouse-sized, large and metal—that was obvious enough. It was leaning slightly backwards against the next dune and the mouse thought briefly that it could have been part of a larger buried object but a quick dig beneath it revealed he had seen all.
       “Well, perhaps I shall take it to one of the sheiks. If they are interested, perhaps they will pay me enough for a new wagon. Ah, what is this?”
       Theo had recognized the object at once, and felt a sense of alarm about the mouse’s actions. He wanted to slide down and warn him, but he was seemingly stuck in place. The mouse looked closer at a small red circle embedded into what appeared to him to be an altar of some kind. To the left of the oval altar was a large round object that defied his ability to comprehend, and to the right was what appeared to be some kind of metal stick—probably a decoration. Possibly the thing did have a religious meaning.
       Tentatively, the mouse removed a gold-handled dagger from under his outer protective clothing. “I think it will be easier to sell such a valuable object in pieces. But first, this appears to be a ruby of some kind.” Placing the dagger’s blade between the red circle and the receptacle that held it, he tried to lever it out. His feet slipped, and he ended up losing his grip on the knife and banging his elbow right on the circle.

       It gave way, and to the mouse’s horror the thing came to life. The trickle of blood he received from the knife cutting his forearm couldn’t shake him out of the certainty that he’d stumbled onto something that he shouldn’t have. The knife was still where it was, and despite his desire to run, the knife was valuable. The mouse gripped it, then wished he hadn’t.
       Something had happened to the time viewer that caused it to glow as bright as it had in Gadget’s workshop. The mouse tried to let go of the dagger, but he couldn’t. Then an explosion of electricity knocked him backwards and he passed out. It was nightfall before he regained consciousness, but when he awoke a sickly feeling of fear caught hold in his stomach—not to mention Theo’s.
       The object was still there, but now it looked different. It was glowing and appeared to be only half there, like a mirage. The mouse stood and found his legs were weak from his ordeal. He was about to try to climb back up when he took a good look at himself and screamed in mortal terror. He too was only half-there, and glowing. What had happened?
       “Am I…a god?” the mouse wondered.
       “Abari, are you okay?” It was Chari, calling down to him. “I’ve been calling for hours. What happened to you?”
       “I…do not know,” Abari said, looking at himself. “I am not sure I wish to know.”
       Moments later, the object began to glow again. It gained in intensity and in a flash of brilliance was gone.
       And so was Abari.

       May 24 7:16am New York

       Early next morning at Ranger Headquarters, two small forms were moving stealthily so as not to be heard. Althea and Geegaw slept now in what had been Dale’s private gym and at times they would fence with their father, Dale taking it easy on them of course.
       Althea was the ringleader of all mischief between the Oakmont twins, but fortunately for their parents the kids had both inherited Gadget’s kindheartedness. Thus, their military objective of the moment was simply to pounce on their father and get the day’s game-play off to a quick start.
       “Maneuvers, just like grandpa Monty taught us. Keep it slow and steady,” Althea whispered, crawling on the floor. The blonde-haired and light-furred chipmunk wore her father’s colors, with a top of red and shorts of striped red and yellow. Geegaw was close behind, but unlike Gadget he’d chosen to wear a regular shirt and jeans. The shirt was the same kind Theo wore as a boy, as Geegaw thought he was the greatest thing since the transistor.
       “Okay, okay. But you know that the odds of our success are 783.3 to—”
       “Never tell me the odds,” Althea said, shushing him. Slowly they crept up on their father’s side of the bed and were almost there when Dale suddenly sat up, a Nerf bazooka coming up from under the covers. Gadget had made several kinds of Nerf artillery for the kids and for Dale, and even Gadget would join in from time to time. This time, it was all Dale.
       “So, you thought you’d infiltrate the headquarters of the mighty Nerf, did you!” Dale said. Althea squealed, “Run!” and the chase was on. Gadget laughed while Geegaw and Althea ran for their Nerf weapons. Soon the room was full of soft projectiles going in every direction, the kids shouting and giggling with the fun. Dale was too, because he drank this sort of thing up.
       “Frontal assault!” Althea commanded, and she and Geegaw bounded out from their cover and tackled Dale. He let them bowl him over and they sat up top of him, tickling him. Dale laughed and cried for laughing, enjoying every moment. He always let the kids win, and once Gadget felt they’d had their victory she took over.
       “Okay, downstairs for breakfast,” Gadget said.
       “Aw mom, it was just getting good!” Althea said. “Can’t we play some more?”

       Gadget had found her role as mother. She’d learned to be kind but firm with the children, and truly she was the boss when it came to getting things done. “Now Ally, you know that we’ve got an outing planned and it takes quite a while to get everyone ready.”
       “That’s true,” Geegaw said. “On average, it takes Ally approximately fifty-four minutes to get through breakfast, and she spends seventy-three percent of that time talking. And when it comes to staying in her seat—”
       “Geegaw!” Althea said, punching his shoulder.
       Gadget’s eyelids narrowed. “ Al-the-a…”
       Althea knew it was serious now. “Mom, he’s always quoting numbers and percentages and stuff! Make him stop.” Dale knelt down by his girl. “Ally, Geegaw’s just learning and likes to use what he’s learned. You do too, you know.”
       “Well, yeah,” Althea said. “So can we paint some more when we get back?”
       “Surely!” Dale said. “Today we’ll start working on highlights.”

       Althea clapped her hands, content with that idea. She ran downstairs, racing Dale to the bottom. Gadget checked on Geegaw’s arm. “You okay, dear?” Geegaw nodded. “I didn’t mean to make her mad, mom. I just seem to say everything in terms of mathematics since I read that series of books you gave me.”
       Gadget had been amazed at the children’s progress. They had thought about sending Geegaw and Althea to a regular school, but they were already reading beyond a sixth-grade level and progressing faster each day. Althea was even more adept at learning than Geegaw, because Geegaw, like her mother and aunt, had dyslexia. However, it was Geegaw who had the patience, dedication and concentration, while Althea wanted to try everything at once and could easily be distracted by anything that even remotely appeared to be fun. Once Althea was interested, though, she had Gadget’s obsessiveness about exploring whatever it was to the nth degree.
       “I know you didn’t mean to, Geegaw, but you know that Althea’s behind you in math right now and she might think you meant to put her down,” Gadget said. Geegaw thought a moment. “Maybe I should help tutor her some, then. Well, if I can keep her looking in one direction long enough.” Gadget grinned. “That’s the spirit. Now come on, we’ve got a long day ahead of us.”

       They went downstairs, and Althea promptly apologized to Geegaw for punching him. Peace was restored and the Ranger kids gathered around their own table while the older ones sat at theirs. Monty insisted on taking over the cooking duties for the day, as all the Rangers had returned to taking turns when Monty and Eva had left. Even Theo and Bink got their turns, and what Theo didn’t know about cooking Bink had taught him.
       Today, Bink and Theo were pleased to be sitting at the grown-ups’ table with the other Rangers when Monty brought in the fixings. However, as soon as they’d been served they left and headed with their food to join the kids. Chip watched them, perplexed. “What are you doing? I thought you’d enjoy eating at the big table with us now.”
       “Well, we’re used to eating over here more,” Bink said. “We just agreed to sit over there for the principle of the thing.” Theo and Bink settled in with Lonestar, Arthur, Rose, Lance, Violet, Geegaw, Althea and Colby, and the lunch talk was on. The afternoon was one big playtime with the kids, and everyone save the kids was pooped after it. Theo found refuge in the pilot’s seat of the RangerWing, and quickly his fatigue took over.

       May 26 7:45pm New York

       A few minutes later, he awoke from someone pushing his arm. “Wake up, pally!” Monty said. “Looks like we got a visitor coming up the tree.” Theo shook off his tiredness in time to see a mysterious robed figure push open the door to Ranger Headquarters. Monty and Theo followed, finding the newcomer looking around.
       “Whattaya mean barging in here like ya own the place?” Monty said, staring him down. The interloper was rodent-sized and his brown robe hid his features. Chip and the other entered the room and Chip came forward, assuming the role of leader. “Are you from the Council?”
       “Correct, Mister Maplewood,” the newcomer replied, taking down his hood. It was a brown-furred mouse, taller than Monty but much thinner. “I am Legatus Triginta. I have come to speak to you on behalf of Primus, Quartus and the Council on a matter of utmost importance.”
       “Golly, what could get the attention of the entire Council?” Gadget asked.
       “You,” Triginta said.
       “ Me!” Gadget exclaimed.
       Dale came in front of his wife. “You…you aren’t here to take her away, are you?” Triginta shook his head. “No, Mister Oakmont. I am here simply to pass along a warning. All of you are in great danger.”
       “Danger?” Chip asked, taking charge. “What kind of danger?”
       “It will take some time to explain,” Triginta said, and the Rangers showed him into the main room. Gadget had taken out the old tube television to allow for more room and had replaced it with a color five-inch LED screen from a human’s portable television, embedding it and its components into the wall. Now the seating was in a larger horseshoe pattern and Triginta took a central position with the parents on one side and the youngsters on the other.
       “To begin with, do you recall the events of six years ago between yourselves and the criminals known as the Siamese Twins?” Triginta asked.
       “Sure,” Theo said. “That was the first case Bink and I handled together. What about it?”
       Triginta folded his hands in his lap. “The difficulty in that case as you will recall concerned a certain tablet of sandstone that both the Twins and the criminal known as Rat Capone desired.”
       “Yeah, that was the last caper Rat tried before he decided to try going straight,” Theo said.
       “Yes, we know,” Triginta said. “The information on that tablet was never meant to get into the hands of humans. From that time until now, the location of that tablet has been a mystery.” Chip stopped him, confused. “But we heard Nimnul say that it was worthless.”
       “True, to the uninitiated it could seem worthless. However, it is part of a mathematical equation that in combination with a few other tablets…well, I am getting ahead of myself. First, I must ask each of you to take an oath of secrecy about what I will reveal. The ordinatio elementum must be preserved.”
       “That means prime directive, right?” Colby asked, now next to his father.
       “I see your studies have been fruitful, young one. Essentially you are correct—the ordinatio elementum is the first and primary rule that governs our actions. We must preserve the division between humans and animals, and deal with those who would reveal the secret of human-animal communication,” Triginta said.
       “What’s this oath about?” Dale asked.
       “I’m going to tell you some things that have been known solely to the Council. Swear that you will never repeat what I tell you.”

       They all swore, and the robed mouse went and closed the door, looking outside first, then sat back down and continued. “As you all know, Gadget created a time viewer.” Gadget started. “But how could you know that?”
       “Let me continue. That viewer traveled through the temporal barrier to ancient Egypt, where it was found by a mouse named Abari. He learned the use of the viewer, but through an accident the nature of which we do not comprehend he and the viewer were—shifted.”
       “Shifted? Golly!” Gadget exclaimed. “What does that mean?”
       “We are not quite sure,” Triginta said. “However, he said that from the day of the accident he never aged another day. He also recorded that the viewer and he would disappear on regular intervals.”
       “And you know all this? This is true?” Chip asked. Triginta nodded. “The Council has most of his annals, because he was the founder of the Council. You see, Abari kept appearing and disappearing until finally he appeared in Ancient Greece. While there, he sought help from their best minds. To his surprise, he discovered a human named Pythagoras, who could understand him. Pythagoras and Abari worked on the problem of Abari’s disappearing and reappearing for years, but never solved it. However, it did provide a benefit of establishing much of what we consider modern mathematics.”
       Chip blinked in wonder. “You mean the Pythagorean Theorem and the basics of geometry and algebra came from Abari?”
       “Not quite,” Triginta said. “Pythagoras developed the theories, but Abari did concentrate his attention. The same thing happened with some of the other thinkers, such as Da Vinci and Pascal. It wasn’t until 1917, however, that Abari learned the true nature of his plight. He appeared in Berlin, and found another communicating ally in the human Albert Einstein. Einstein was working on his Theory of Relativity, and when Abari presented his problem to the scientist the truth finally came out.”
       “And what was it?” Gadget asked.
       “Einstein theorized that the original accident had ‘shifted’ Abari into an extratemporal state. He and the time viewer were no longer directly affected by the established laws of space-time or physics, but he was also linked with the time viewer because he and it were shifted into the same unique state. What we did not realize was that at the times he was disappearing with the viewer, the unique condition of them both was sending them not only through temporal barriers but through universal ones as well.”
       Gadget’s mouth dropped. “You mean…he traveled to parallel universes?”
       Triginta nodded. “Abari began to notice differences in the people and places he’d seen that couldn’t be explained simply by the passage of time. And we have direct confirmation of this, because we have been contacted by a representative of one of these parallel realities.”
       “Wowie-zowie!” Dale said. “Sounds like about half of the Star Trek episodes. What do all these tablet thingies look like, anyway?”

       Triginta unfolded a square of paper he brought out from under his robe. “This is a rubbing I took from Abari’s annals. As you can see, the size of the tablet is relative to that of a human’s sandwich.” Dale perused the markings Triginta had copied. “Looks like a bunch of squiggles to me. What language is that?”
       “Cuneiform,” Gadget said, beating Abari to the answer. “It’s an ancient and somewhat difficult-to-translate language, originating about 3000 years ago.”
       “They could’ve rewritten it when they learned good ol’ English,” Dale said. “Why’d this Atari guy go to the trouble of writing something on that old rock in the first place?”
       “Abari, Dale, not Atari!” Chip said. “Get your head out of those videogames you’re always playing and concentrate on the case!”
       “It is history, Dale,” Eva said, interrupting before a full-scale argument could break out. “I know something of that time, and language was slowly progressing from an oral to a written tradition. Languages like Sanskrit, Cuneiform and Hieroglyphics were new ways to represent old ideas. It was much later that the Romance Languages help standardize communication around the world.”
       “Romance languages?” Dale said, eyeing his wife. “I’d like to know one of those.”
       “You already do,” Chip said. “French, Spanish, Portugese and Italian are known as the Romance Languages. All of them were derived from Latin. A lot of the English language is based of them.” Dale grinned. “Ah, oui, oui! And you mean I’ve been talking romantic all this time and Gadget’s the first girl to notice?”
       Gadget laughed, and Chip brought the group back to the issue at hand. “Pardon me, Triginta, but all this sounds like a warmed-over plotline from one of Dale’s comic books. Do you mean to say that whatever’s happening concerns another whole universe?”
       “Several, in fact. But now you have a mission before you, and what will likely be the most important of your lives. Someone has gained access to the information on those tablets, and even now is preparing to…”

       A flash of light burst through the room, temporarily blinding everyone’s eyes. Gadget recovered, found Lahwhinie next to her, and helped her up. Only it wasn’t Lahwhinie—it was herself. Or rather someone that looked like herself, though more like she did when she first joined the Rangers. The newcomer was dressed exactly the same as her startled companion, the only major difference being the silver bracelet on her arm.
       “Oh uh, we got a problem,” Gadget said, studying her twin. Lahwhinie walked over. “Oh man, as if there wasn’t enough people who looked like us. Who are you?” The bracelet-clad mouse recovered in a moment and addressed the two of them. “Hi, I’m Gadget.”

Chapter 6 – If Dreams Were Horses…

       May 25 3:57am New York

       Gasping, Theo awakened. A glance at the alarm clock on his nightstand told him it was the middle of the night. He’d been certain that he was in the main room of Ranger Headquarters with Triginta and the rest of them. What had happened? Slowly, the memories came back. Earlier that night he had written down what had happened in his previous dream, and then decided to call it a night. He felt an intense sense of dislocation, and needed to do something to shake it off.
       Theo got up and sat down at his desk, again writing out what he had seen. Now, the images were starting to disturb him. He’d never dreamed this way before, and why about the same thing several times in a row? Then he remembered about his dad, and how Chip had told him of the unusual dreams he and Lahwhinie had experienced, as well as Gadget and Dale and Foxglove. “Maybe it comes with being a Ranger,” Theo thought out loud, but somehow that didn’t console him. “Still, it is a good story. Maybe it really is my imagination on overdrive. After all, I’ve got to have this story done in a few days.”
       As he finished writing his last sentence, Theo stood up and headed for bed again. “Okay, dreams, let’s get some more work done.” He settled back in, and soon all was quiet. And the dreams obliged him.

       May 26 8:07pm New York

       Gadget blinked in surprise at the newcomer in front of her—the voice was identical to hers. “How can you be Gadget? I’m Gadget!” The newcomer grinned. “Well, call me Gadget-2 if you need to. I’m not from your world.” Dale sighed in relief, wiping his brow. “That’s a relief! I was afraid I’d just committed bigamy!”
       The newcomer Gadget looked at him curiously. “What do you mean?”
       Dale grinned. “Well, I thought you were a copy of Gadget like what happened to Chip once. I thought I had two wives!” The mouse inventor appeared amazed. “Your…wife? You mean here, I married you?” Dale nodded. “Yep! She’s Gadget Oakmont. What, we aren’t married where you are?” The Gadget in question shook her head. “Golly, no. I’m still Gadget Hackwrench. Chip and I dated for a while, but I found I preferred the status quo. Not that the status quo was necessarily better or anything; it’s just that—”
       “Sounds like my Gadget, all right,” Monty said. “Lass, do you know that I’m yer father and Eva here’s your ma?” Gadget Hackwrench’s eyes bulged. “You…but you’re not my dad! My real dad’s Basil Hackwrench—the mouse known as Basil of Baker Street.” Monty scratched his head. “I don’t mean to disagree with ya, lass, but I was there when the events were put in motion.”
       Gadget Oakmont thought about it. “Well, I suppose it could be possible, given that she’s from a different reality.” Eva chimed in, “But vould even a parallel reality explain such a thing? She appears the same as you. The chance that genetic factors that could lead to an exact copy on a different familial combination are astronomical.” Her daughter shrugged back in reply. “I don’t know, mom. But nothing’s impossible.”

       Gadget Hackwrench turned to Eva. “Mom? I’ve never met you, or heard of you.”
       “Pardon me, dahling. My name is Eva Erskine, formerly Eva Râboga. I vhas a member of the espionage organization called R.O.D.E.N.T.S., and I met Monty in Africa during a brief period I spent away from the Institute,” Eva said. Gadget Hackwrench shook her head. “R.O.D.E.N.T.S.? I’ve never heard of any organization called that.” Eva paused, caught in thought herself. “The RODent ExterminatioN and Terrorism Squad, as we vere charmingly called. Ironically, my sister Bianca belonged to our rival organization, the Rescue Aid Society, which also housed their clandestine agents league, the R.A.S.C.A.L.S. Vell, if R.O.D.E.N.T.S. does not exist in your universe, that could explain it.”
       Eva thought on it more deeply. “There is a theory of parallel existence called the Necessity Theory. The theory states that there are certain people necessary to any universe’s well-being. If that is so, then Gadget could be one of those people. That vould mean that random chance could be thrown out in her case, because she would have to be born.”
       “Parallel existence theory?” Gadget Hackwrench asked. “Who came up with that?”
       “I did,” Eva said, smiling. “I had much time to theorize at the Institute, and it vhas a notion I toyed with one day. However, I did not have any evidence of it until today. But we are straying—if you are from another universe, you are here for a purpose. Vhat is it?”

       “I’ve come to help,” Gadget Hackwrench said, addressing the assemblage. “The Temporal Council in my reality decided I’d be the best person to speak with the rest of you, since all of you are familiar with me—well, with the alternate me anyway. We don’t have much time, though. Soon, he’ll activate the device and I won’t be the only one here.”
       “Not the only one? And who’ll activate what device?” Chip asked.
       “I guess you haven’t been told that part yet. You see, in our universe we have a Temporal Council that sends criminals convicted of crimes related to time-travel and such into Limbo,” Gadget Hackwrench said. Eva raised an eyebrow. “Limbo? Then you mean it isn’t a myth?”
       “Not at all,” Gadget Hackwrench said. “However, we thought it was a permanent means of incarceration. Now, we think there may be a way to use this universe’s time viewer that your Gadget built to create a means of escape. And someone’s helping one of our prisoners to do it.”

       Six years ago…

       The Rescue Rangers had tried to thwart Fat Cat from using the modemizer to commit crimes around the world. Their efforts had paid off, but the price had been high. Three Rangers had disappeared, and only later would they learn of the unique effect the modemizer’s energies had wrought on Chip Maplewood.
       But first those energies had seized their mortal enemy and swept him seemingly into oblivion. In fact, he had ended up in Russia, in the middle of a backyard full of Siberian Huskies. Despite his rotund girth, the crime kitty still knew how to climb and adrenalin does wonders for the body.
       Huffing and puffing, Fat Cat had nearly cleared the fence in a single leap. He had escaped certain death, but now he had a new problem. There was snow everywhere, which was par for the course in Siberia. “I’ll get those rotten Rangers if it’s the last thing I do! They’ll all pay for thwarting my glorious scheme. But first, I’ve got to find shelter before I freeze to death!”
       One thing was in Fat Cat’s favor—he had appeared near the railroad. The Trans-Siberian Railway was the longest single train ride on earth, and the rotund rodent-hater hoped to catch a ride. He looked east then west, but the only thing to greet him was snow, and the angry overcast skies showed that more of the white stuff was on the way.
       Fat Cat drew his designer coat around him for all the good it did and started west. He found a small uninhabited cave and managed to get a fire going. It wasn’t much, but it was at least warmer than the sub-freezing night outside the cave’s protection. Soon, the weight of the ordeal with the Rangers plus the exertion told on him, and he feel asleep.
       “So, my pet, you have decided to join me.”

       Fat Cat stirred in utter surprise. It was no longer cold and he was no longer in a cave. He looked all around, and found that he was inside of—something. A pinkish-gray barrier of energy surrounded him and seemed to stretch nearly to infinity in every direction. The cat was floating, and there was no up or down or any sense of orientation. The only thing that was familiar was that voice he’d heard. Fat Cat managed to turn himself around, and saw why it was familiar.
       A human stood there, suspended in space. He wore a dark suit and his red hair stood out along with his piercing eyes—no, that wasn’t right. It should have been red, but instead his hair was gray. In fact, all of him was gray, and transparent at that. Then Fat Cat looked down to find himself sporting the same gray monotone and transparent existence. “I don’t often get visitors here, you know,” Klordane said, or rather thought, since his mouth didn’t move. “This place is sort of out of the way, you might say.”
       Fat Cat was surprised at hearing the human’s thoughts, but that was nothing compared to the shock of what was to come. “Klordane? What is all this? Where am I? Oh yes, I forgot. You humans can’t understand us.”
       “On the contrary, I understand you perfectly.”
       Klordane got a fiendish grin. “If only I’d known of your existence, I might’ve been able to avoid this little entanglement I got myself into. You see, I’m not the Klordane you know.” Fat Cat tilted his head in mild curiosity. “Oh? And who are you then?”
       “I’m not from your universe; your reality if you will. I’m from what you would call a parallel universe,” Klordane explained. “In my universe, the mouse named Gadget Hackwrench developed time travel technology that I managed to exploit. After numerous attempts, I gained technology from the future and took over New York and eventually the world! But their blasted Temporal Council found me out and allied themselves with the Rangers to send me here!”
       Fat Cat felt he was going to be sick—not from the explanation, but from the feeling of weightlessness. “And where is here, pray tell?”
       “Why, don’t you know?” Klordane asked. “This is Limbo.”
       “Limbo?” Fat Cat said. “Limbo’s a myth!”

       Klordane laughed. “I used to think so too, before I joined the long line of residents here. You see, the Temporal Council sends anyone who tries to tamper with the timeline for their own gain to this netherspace. However, they made a critical mistake because they don’t know the nature of Limbo at all.”
       “And I suppose you’re going to tell me,” Fat Cat said, feigning boredom.
       “All in good time,” Klordane said. “But first, I think you’ll want to know why I summoned you here.” Now Fat Cat was suspicious. “Summoned me? No one summons Fat Cat anywhere!” Klordane assumed a seated position, even though there was no chair. “Except me. I wouldn’t have been able to summon you if it were not for that little accident of yours. You see, with effort we can see what is going on outside on the planet. Any planet, in fact.”
       Klordane led Fat Cat to a central area—if it could be fair to call anything central in Limbo—where a mass of internees had gathered. “We found that if we concentrate our abilities that we can alter this outer field enough to let us see any planet in any universe. However, we don’t have the ability to leave. And that’s where you come in.”
       “I figured we’d get around to me sooner or later,” Fat Cat quipped.
       The prisoners of limbo concentrated, and an image of a scientific facility came into view. “This is your goal,” Klordane said. “Treblinka Labs has most of the equipment you’ll need.” Fat Cat raised his eyebrows. “Need for what?”
       Klordane got in his face. “ To get us out of here!”
       Fat Cat floated back a bit. “But why would I want to do that?”
       Klordane smiled. “Because I want the same thing you want—the destruction of the Rescue Rangers! And I know how to go about the best destruction there is. When you get me out, we will obtain the weapon that sent me here and then we will send every single one of them into Limbo, forever!”

       With a start, Fat Cat awoke. The dream had been so vivid, so real. But why Klordane? He’d never dreamed of his old master before. Could it be possible that—no, it was simply too ridiculous. He started to go back to sleep, but the image of Klordane’s face was planted firmly in his mind. Maybe he’d check to see if that lab existed. Then at least he’d know.

       May 26 8:13pm New York

       The Rangers sat in silence, spellbound by the tale that Gadget Hackwrench had told them over the last few minutes. Monty shook his head at the wonder of if. “Crikey, if I wasn’t hearing it meself, I’d say it was loony!” Zipper agreed with his old friend. “Limbo’s real? It’s almost too much to take in.”
       At this, Gadget Hackwrench gasped in total surprise. “Zipper, you can talk!”
       “Of course I can. You were there when…oh, no you weren’t. Well, in this universe I had surgery that allowed me to talk. I’ve also married. Meet my wife, Honey,” Zipper said, flying toward her with Honey on his arm. Gadget Hackwrench smiled and nodded. “I remember you from the case we had with that human who stole your swarm.”
       “I suppose some things are meant to happen, no matter what the universe,” Honey said. “However, others are not. I am fortunate in my case to have found Zipper, it seems.”
       “Enough universal comparisons,” Chip said. “If what you’ve related to us is true…er, Gadget, then we’ve got to locate those other tablets and in a hurry.” Gadget Hackwrench nodded. “You’re right. There are four tablets we need to find to determine where the time viewer will reappear.”

       Theo stood up. “All right then, we’ll go. I’m not about to let anyone from another universe get out and wreak who-knows-what kind of havoc on ours! But out of curiosity, what kind of havoc could this Klordane wreak?”
       Gadget Hackwrench frowned. “There’s no telling, but he had access to futuristic weaponry and technology, including a ray gun that can transport anyone into Limbo.” Colby tapped on Gadget Oakmont’s arm, getting her attention. “Just what is Limbo?”
       “It’ll take some explaining,” she said, turning to Geegaw. “Limbo’s a place that was imagined in ancient times to be between Heaven and Hell; a place where those who couldn’t go to either one would be sent. It’s said to be a place where time doesn’t exist and its inhabitants wait throughout the ages for the end of time in the linear universe, when according to legend they will be released.”
       “Limbo does exist, though,” Gadget Hackwrench added. “The Temporal Council’s scientists proved its existence and discovered a means to transport anyone and anything to it. They couldn’t retrieve anyone from it, though, so they assumed that meant that Limbo couldn’t be escaped from. But Klordane appears to have found a possible way.”

       Gadget Oakmont showed her duplicate to the sofa where the newcomer continued her explanation. “During regular intervals, Limbo will come close to a given universe but the barrier separating Limbo from normal space-time keeps anyone from taking advantage of it. However, if someone from the outside were to build a bridge of temporal energy and use the time viewer as an anchor, when Limbo passes near to this universe, it could—”
       “Create a stable threshold and allow Klordane and anyone else there to escape!” Gadget said, understanding. “But how many people are there?”
       “Thousands,” Gadget Hackwrench said. “Millions, maybe. And the worst criminals our world has ever known. There may be others there, but we’d have no way of knowing that.” Triginta caught their attention again. “Now you see the urgency of our mission. Soon the time viewer will reappear, and if Klordane gains access to your world, he and the others with him will be free to conquer this planet and who knows how many other worlds. We must gain the secret of the contact point between this universe and Limbo and be there to stop him. It’s a race against time now.”
       “We’ll win,” Theo said, turning his attention to Gadget. “Say, we’d better do something about your kids. Where are Ally and Geegaw, anyway?” Gadget appeared confused, and it was Dale who answered. “They’re with my parents. Mom and dad said they’d like to have them over for a day or two. We can just have them stay a little while longer.”
       “Oh, that’s right,” Gadget said. “Sorry, I forgot about that.”

       At that moment, a slight tremor went through Headquarters. “What was that?” Chip asked. “We never have sizeable earthquakes here! I’d better check the news.” Chip flipped on the television, and Stan Blather was on. “…and reports are coming in from around the world as we speak. The tremors are being felt in every country, though they were first reported over an hour ago in Asia. The quakes are minor, and no serious damage has been reported thus far. There appears to be no true epicenter to these quakes, and the seismologists I just spoke with appear baffled. More updates will come in as we learn more on this unique seismic phenomenon.”
       “Golly, that’s strange,” Gadget Oakmont said. “I wonder what it could mean?”
       Triginta grimaced. “It’s beginning.”

Chapter 7 – Flying High, Innocent Fun and Sinister Plans

       May 25 9:27am New York

       “ Theo!”
       There was no answer, so Chip knocked on his son’s door again. “Come on, Theo, we’ve got morning patrol! You going to sleep in all day?” A muttered reply came back, and Chip walked off to the main room. He knew that Theo had been keeping some late hours the past few nights, but with his English final on the line it was understandable. Chip had also had to experience this rite of passage with Miss Spelling, as had every student under her tutelage. It was nearly thirty minutes later when Theo emerged, and he looked somewhat worse for wear.
       “Did you get any sleep last night, baggy eyes?” Chip asked.
       “Doesn’t feel like it,” Theo said. “I’ve been having the weirdest dreams lately. So real, they’re actually helping me with my story. It’s really strange—Klordane’s in Limbo and he’s trying to get Fat Cat to release him and—”
       “We can talk about that later,” Chip interrupted. “We’re already late for the patrol. You did want to fly the patrol today, right?”
       That shook Theo out of the odd feelings he’d had and he rushed out to the RangerWing. Bink was there of course, the master of good timing. When she saw Theo, her excited look went to one of mild concern.
       “Hey, what’s wrong?” Theo asked. “Did I put my hat on backwards?”
       “No,” Bink said, still studying him. “I don’t know. You look…well, different somehow. In your eyes, maybe.” Theo climbed into the pilot’s seat. “Good different, or bad different?” Bink shrugged. “I’m not sure. Did you do anything to yourself?”
       “Not that I know of,” Theo said, powering up the Wing. “I did have a strange dream last night. You didn’t happen to have one too, did you?”
       “Nope, not that I remember,” Bink said. “Why?”
       “Oh, no reason.”

       As the RangerWing ascended vertically, Theo checked to make sure everyone was strapped in. He flipped the switch from ‘hover’ to ‘fly’ and gave the Wing full throttle, grinning as he did so. Bink saw the look in his eyes and she grinned too, holding onto the superstructure around her. The next moment, Theo sent the Wing into a barrel roll, shouting and laughing with glee as he did.
       “YAAAAAAAAA—HOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Theo shouted, living it up.
       Chip held on to his fedora. “Theo, stop that!”
       “No, do it again!” Dale shouted, laughing. “That was great!”
       “Not for my breakfast it wasn’t!” Lahwhinie said. Monty held his belly. “I think that curdled the cheese in me stomach.” Chip watched to see if Theo would do it again, then straightened his hat. “How many years have you waited to do that?”
       Theo smiled widely, looking back at Chip. “Ever since I knew the Wing existed!” Eva poked Monty in fun. “Oh now, a little excitement is good for you. I think you are growing sedentary on me.”
       “Yeah!” Dale said. “We need more excitement! Do it again!”
       Gadget gave Dale a warning look. “I don’t think he needs... whooooa!”
       Gadget was right—he didn’t need egging on. Theo dipped nose of the Wing and in a moment they were upside-down at the top of a loop-de-loop. Down they came, Dale screaming with joy and Lahwhinie screaming...well, we won’t go into that. Theo righted the Wing, and they continued on with the morning patrol. Things were quiet, and when Theo landed them back at the treehouse he asked for permission to fly some more with Bink, which they agreed to. A minute later, it was just the two of them, soaring into the clouds

       “Okay Becky, anyplace you want, we’ll go there,” Theo offered. “Want to fly to the White Mountains and take in the view, or head for the country or maybe see how high we can go?”
       “Well, not too far. We do have that project to finish,” Bink said.
       That brought Theo back to reality. “Oh yeah, that’s right. Speaking of which, that’s why I asked about dreaming. I’ve been having the craziest dreams lately about Fat Cat trying to free that Klordane guy that my folks fought all those years ago! It’s weird, because there’s all these people in it from different universes and all, and some mouse that’s out in the middle of the desert. I don’t remember it all right now, but I’ve written most of it down because it’s going to make one smash of a story!”
       Bink listened, not understanding one word of it. “Why would Fat Cat try to get Klordane out of prison? There’s been no love between them since the whole ruby thing.” Theo shrugged, turning back to concentrate on the sky ahead. “I dunno. Anyway it’s just a dream. But it’s not prison he’s trying to get out of; it’s Limbo. I figure Miss Spelling will eat it up. All right, if you don’t want to go too far we could just head over to CarnivalWorld. I hear they’ve just opened up a new section, the Maze of Mirrors.”
       Bink took Theo’s hand and smiled. “That sounds nice. A chance to have a little fun after being overwhelmed with tackling that story for Miss Spelling again.”

       Theo smiled back and guided the plane to the west of the city. CarnivalWorld had moved and changed its name from the time it had been known as CarnivaLand, and now it was a bigger attraction than ever. It was part of a human tourist attraction, as most animal ones were, and it had everything from white-water rafting to an old 19th-Century frontier section called Pioneer Town. There, Bink talked Theo into getting their picture taken at an antique camera shop. They had a period setup, with an ornate background and they even had some period costumes they let the youngsters wear.
       There was Theo, wearing a buckskin coat and holding a flintlock rifle, while Bink came out in a becoming red satin dress that the mistress of a gambling hall might’ve worn. Just as the photographer took the picture, she leaned over and kissed his cheek. Theo was a wise boy, and bought a copy of the photo for each of them. When they’d reassumed their regular clothes, the two of them headed out onto the main street.
       “I’m glad we came,” Theo said, studying his photo. “I’d forgotten how much fun having fun is! Want to try that Maze of Mirrors next?” Bink led the way. “Yeah, let’s test your mental powers as you try to make it a close second to me.”
       “Oh, do I sense a contest? How about the first one to get through the maze buys the ice cream for both?”
       Bink spit on her hand and Theo did likewise. “Okay, Sure-lose, you have a bet,” Bink said, shaking hands with him.

       There were few things Theo enjoyed more than the thrill of competition. The two of them bought their tickets for the Maze of Mirrors and went in. Inside, they found a huge indoor complex, with the start of the mirrored maze facing them. From their size and perspective, the place was nearly the area of a football field.
       Theo surveyed the twisty road ahead of them. “Mmm, I can taste that triple chocolate now...”
       “In your dreams, flyboy,” Bink retorted.
       The two of them waited until the way was clear of children and other tourists so they could get a running start. They took up their marks, trying to snarl at each other, but Bink could barely keep from laughing. Theo raised his hand as a starting signal. “Ready? Then let’s GO!”
       The two of them ran through the start of the maze, then split up at the first T-junction. Theo was determined to solve the maze first, and tried his best to anticipate where dead ends might be. Bink’s strategy was much simpler—she just used her pure speed, and ran down each branch that offered itself, and ran back if it ended. Each of them reached the midpoint of the maze—a “Maze of Mirrors” giant logo placed on the floor in a large square open area—at about the same time.
       “So, you’re still with me, huh?” Theo asked, confident. “Then why don’t you—”

       Theo stopped in mid-sentence, because he had just noticed something. He had been too occupied with working through the maze to take a look at his reflection, but now he did and for some reason it disturbed him. Bink thought at first he was baiting her and he’d run off, but she saw that something wasn’t right and came over.
       “What’s wrong, Theo?” she asked. Theo motioned for her to look in the mirror with him. “Before, you mentioned that something about me didn’t look right. Something in the eyes. Well, I caught a look at my face out of the corner of my eye, and I could see it too. I mean, it’s my face, but there was like...I don’t know, something extra there in the eyes.”
       “Sort of like the feeling you get when you know you’ve seen something before, but can’t place it?”
       Theo nodded. “Exactly! Weird, huh?”
       Bink looked back to him. “Not as weird as you’re going to feel when you buy the ice cream!” Bink pulled Theo’s fedora over his eyes and ran off giggling.
       “Hey, no fair!” Theo shouted.
       The young fedora-clad munk ran after her, and the maze mischief was on again. Theo could hear Bink continuing to giggle and laugh, and it made him all the more resolute. He forgot about that strange look in his eyes and got back to figuring his way through the maze. After only one dead-end, he rounded a corner and saw the exit ahead. But, just as he started to run for it, Bink emerged from a junction ahead of him. She saw him and ran for it too, and her height and speed advantage were too much for the teenage munk to make up. Bink and Theo collapsed outside the maze’s exit, desperately trying to get their breath back.
       Bink tapped him on the nose, overjoyed. “Lou-Zer! Paging Mister Lou-Zer! You owe me some rocky road, dude.” Theo helped her up, Bink still laughing. He was laughing some now too, enjoying the sport of it all. “Okay, okay. But next time, no pulling the hat down!”

       Theo treated for the ice cream, and the two of them settled into enjoying a leisurely remainder of the afternoon. They played just about every game in the CarnivalWorld arcade, and even tried the white-water rafting. As the sun was going down, two tired but happy teens headed for the RangerWing. Theo put all the prizes they’d won—most of them Bink’s—in the back and headed for the pilot’s seat, only to find Bink sitting there.
       “Can I try it, Theo?” Bink asked, hope highlighting her features. “I’ve only flown that one time as a kid, and that didn’t last all that long!” Theo appeared noncommittal. “Well, I dunno...”
       Theo had been playing. She knew he’d say yes, but it was all part of the game. “Well, when you put it that way...” Bink was thrilled, and Theo got into the co-pilot’s seat. He showed her how to take off and Bink did so. Soon they were in the air
       “Okay now,” Theo said, “Flip the switch by your right hand and we’ll head for home.” Bink did so, a look of utter satisfaction on her face. “Ah, back in the pilot’s seat. So is your paper almost ready? I’d hate to see Miss Spelling use you for a blackboard eraser.” Theo took over, using the auxiliary controls. “It will be. I figure another dream or two, and I’ll be home free. Besides, there’s still several days before it’s due.”
       “That’s strange that your dreams seem to be all running together like you’re watching a movie or something,” Bink said. Theo chuckled, “Not when you grow up with Dale, the master of the late, late, late show. I’ll have that paper done before you know it, and then we can think about other things. Like how dazzling you’re going to look in that prom dress that you’re keeping a secret from everyone.”
       Bink loved being admired, and did nothing to hide it. “Huh. I’ll have to bring a jar to keep your eyes in when they pop out of your head.” Theo for his part loved being the admirer. “Can’t wait. Becky, I want to ask you a serious question.”
       “What’s that, Theo?”

       Theo had been meaning to have a talk with Bink about their future, but kept putting it off. Now that they were both about to graduate it seemed he couldn’t delay any longer. That was why he’d taken her to CarnivalWorld, to make sure she was in a good mood. “I know we’ve made plans and all, and we’ve talked about what we want to do, but I want to be sure that you’re sure. Are you certain you want to be a Ranger? I know you’ve talked about being interested in fashion design. If you want to pursue it for a while, I’d understand.”
       Bink didn’t bat an eyelash. “Mom’s been pushing for the fashion job. I want to be a Rescue Ranger.”
       “Well, maybe you could do some of both,” Theo offered. “I mean, you know how cases go. We sometimes go weeks without anything. I know you enjoy making clothes, and above all I want you to be happy.”
       Bink shrugged at the notion. “I could design Ranger uniforms, I guess. That’s the sort of thing Tammy does for the R.A.S. We could each have our own unique outfits, like superheroes.” Theo got a vision in his head that had him instantly laughing. “I could just see Uncle Monty in tights—Mighty Mouse would’ve met his match when Mighty Monty has one of those cheese attacks!”
       They came within sight of the Rangers’ tree and Theo look a sharp left, flying Bink back to her home. The Wing landed at the base of the Chesnutt tree, and Theo helped Bink with her share of the loot. “It’s been a great day, Becky. I’m glad you still want to be a Ranger, because I think it’s all I’m ever going to be.”
       Bink hugged him gently. “Theo, you were born to follow in Chip’s footsteps.” Theo set down Bink’s prizes just outside her front door as they reached her home. “Yep, and now I’ve got the threads to prove it.” Theo drew Bink close to him. “No matter what happens with me and the Rangers, you’re what’s most important. I couldn’t imagine a life without you.”
       Bink enjoyed the intimacy of the moment, nestling herself in his arms. “Well, maybe when we’re done with school we’ll talk more about the future.” Theo knew that she’d talked to her parents and this was part of the agreement she’d made with them, so he didn’t argue the point. Instead, he opened the door for her.
       Donna and Oscar were there in the living room, and waved hello to Theo. He had been long since accepted at the Chesnutt home, and was like a family member. He paid his respects to them and kissed Bink good night. The ride back to Ranger Headquarters was a happy one, and Theo Maplewood felt that he’d reached the high point of his life.

        May 26 8:20pm New York

       Fat Cat chuckled with glee. This project had been years in the making. Ever since he’d formed a link with the other-worldly Klordane, the conniving human had guided his planning in what he had grudgingly admitted was an ingenious scheme. When Klordane explained the power that he would have under his rule, Fat Cat’s grudge melted in an all-out lust for world domination. No obstacle, no amount of time would dissuade him. And now, the feline’s patience had finally paid off.
        “It works!” Fat Cat exclaimed, starting to dance around to a tune only he heard. “It works, and soon the Rescue Rangers and the rest of the world will bow their knees in submission to me!” He checked the machine’s indicators—for all the trouble he’d gone to, it was comparatively small.
        It was box-shaped and metallic, with glowing telltales that showed the hookup the criminal had made to the local power supply was doing fine. The advanced electronics involved in channeling the admittedly titanic power needed to open the dimensional doorway had rendered the device portable enough to be carried under Fat Cat’s arm.
       “Excellent, my friend,” Klordane’s voice echoed in Fat Cat’s mind. “The quakes confirm that the device is set up in the right place. I was concerned that the location might not provide us with a suitable power source, but fate is on our side. How nice of this planet’s residents to provide us with such a convenient method to bring me into their world!”
       “And then,” Fat Cat said, avarice springing up in him, “gold, jewels, diamonds, power! All the things I’ve ever wanted—and then those rodents!”
       “Yes, we must do something special where they’re concerned,” Klordane mused. “They stopped me three times from reaching my goals, but in this case the fourth one’s the charm! And then, they’ll all be in for a big surprise!”

Chapter 8 – Three Gadgets Are Better Than One, A Little Legwork and Random Speculations

       May 26 8:26pm New York

       Chip pulled down on his fedora in determination. “All right, let’s get to work. Triginta, give us the locations of these tablets and we’ll track them down. How long do we have?”
       “I believe I can answer that.”
       Gadget Oakmont turned around, gasped in horrified amazement, and promptly fainted. Geegaw ran over to her—and we’re not talking about her son. The aviator mouse checked her vital signs. “She seems to be okay,” Geegaw Hackwrench said, “but why’d she faint like that? You’d think I’d died or something.”
       Then the other Gadget put a hand on his shoulder. “Because you probably did die in her universe.”
       Geegaw Hackwrench instantly understood and when Gadget Oakmont opened her eyes and the apparition was still there, she grabbed him tightly in a hug. “You…you’re real! I thought you were gone forever!” The old pilot smiled, and even though this wasn’t his Gadget, he allowed her to cry her tears of joy and relief. “I’m glad you’re okay, princess, but…I’m not the Geegaw Hackwrench you grew up with.”
       Gadget opened her eyes and pulled back a bit, looking him over. “Then, you’re from the other universe? The one that the other ‘me’ is from?” Geegaw nodded. “Yes, but whatever the case I’m glad to provide you some comfort. It must have been very hard for you.”
       “Yeah, it was,” Gadget said. “That is, until I found out who my real father was.” Gadget went over and took Monty’s hand, then turned back to Geegaw. “Why didn’t you ever tell me that Monty was my father? Oh right, I forgot you’re not from here. But if you were from here, why wouldn’t you have told me?”
       “I couldn’t tell you that, child, because he’s not your father.”
       Monty and Eva blinked in shock. “WHAT!?” Monty said. “Geegaw, I’ve got the DNA tests ta prove it, and me and Eva here ARE the parents o’ Gadget and her twin sister there.” Geegaw shook his head. “I don’t mean to contradict you, but Gadget’s real father is… twin sister?” Geegaw turned and saw Lahwhinie wave at him. “YOU!”
       Lahwhinie felt alarmed at the look in Geegaw’s face. “Uh, hello?”
       “But you’re not Gadget’s sister! You are Gadget, or rather a version of Gadget in another reality from which I rescued you,” Geegaw said, pointing an accusing finger her way. Lahwhinie in turn pointed at Gadget Hackwrench. “I am not her either! I’m Lahwhinie and always have been!” Eva stepped forward. “Begging your pardon, Mister Geegaw, but I am their mother and I can assure you I vhas pregnant with them both. You must be mistaken.”
       Another voice spoke up. “Mistaken, no. Confused, yes.”

       The group turned again, and a mouse bedecked in a deerstalker hat and Inverness cape strode into Ranger Headquarters through the door. Chip looked on with awe. “Sureluck Jones!” The mouse grimaced. “Certainly not! I am Basil; Basil of Baker Street to be precise, and the greatest detective in all mousedom.”
       “And my father!” Gadget Hackwrench said, rushing over to him. The Rangers were quite confused now. Chip threw down his fedora. “What’s going on here!”

       But before the newcomer could answer, more people appeared, this time from the Ranger’s private rooms. A third Gadget, along with another Chip and a red-haired green-eyed female chipmunk came into the room. The first Chip shook his head, feeling a headache coming on. “Oh no, not more…”
       The newest Gadget on the block took one look around and echoed what the other two said, all in unison: “Uh, oh. We got a problem here.”
       “Calm down, everyone!” Basil said. “I’m sure if we just stop and think things through, the matter will become plain enough. Now, it’s likely a result of the device Fat Cat is using to attempt to open a crack in Limbo.”
       “You know about that?” Chip asked.
       “Yes,” Basil said, pulling back his sleeve and exposing a bracelet. “I am a member of the Temporal Council, after all, and we’ve been observing events up to this point. Now, we felt we had to intervene and they managed to send me here from my time. Geegaw, what are you doing here?”
       “Well, granddad, you didn’t expect to leave me out of this one, did you? My daughter…uh, daughters…well anyway, I had to join in!” Geegaw said.
       “Granddad!” Gadget Oakmont exclaimed. “But if Gadget Hackwrench here is Basil’s daughter, how could Geegaw be his grandson?” Basil drew in a long breath. “It will take time to explain, more time than we have right now. In any case, we have a deadly mission before us.”
       That’s why we’re here, too,” Gadget the third said, standing next to the newly-arrived Chip. “We started experiencing earthquakes and we traced the problem to this dimension.” The Chip next to Lahwhinie knotted his brow. “Then you mean it’s not just limited to this Earth?”
       “Apparently not,” Basil said, instantly delving into thought and pacing the floor. “If that’s the case, then stopping Klordane becomes even more of a priority, for who knows what kind of terrible dimensional aberrations and permutations this could have?”
       Gadget Oakmont rubbed her chin. “Offhand, I’d say that it would at the least create an imbalance in the barriers between universes and dimensions, possibly altering the laws of physics down to the quantum level.”
       “Good or bad, lass…” Monty asked, trying to be patient.
       “It could be very bad.”

       Dale took his wife’s hand. “We’ll beat him! No one messes around with the laws of the universe while the Rescue Rangers are on duty!” Chip-2 watched as Gadget Oakmont kissed Dale in return. “Say, what’s going on here? Chip, why aren’t you over there comforting her?”
       That caused Dale to look back at the other Chip, confused. “Why would he do that? She’s my wife!”
       “YOUR wife!” Chip-2 said, then indicated the Gadget standing next to him. “But I thought that since Gadget here is my wife, that at least would be the same.” It was Lahwhinie’s turn now. “No, sweets. Here, I’m Chip’s wife. You should be so lucky.”
       Gadget-3, or rather Gadget Maplewood, blinked in wonder. “ You are? But in our world, you tried to kill us all!”
       “I did here too, but Chip helped me to reform. He’s the best.”
       “Well, we can sure agree there.”
       Dale turned to Gadget Hackwrench, who was next to Geegaw Hackwrench now. “And what about you?” Gadget Hackwrench shrugged. “Well, I’m very good friends with Chip and Dale both. I dated Chip for a while after the incident with Klordane, but it never went further than that. I just liked things the way they were better.”
       Dale thought about all this, and could barely contain all the twists and turns. “Wow, so that means that in every universe, people can make all sorts of different choices. Maybe that explains why Gadget has different dads in different universes. Uh, by the way, Gadget-that’s-married-to-Chip, who’s your father?”
       “Geegaw is,” Gadget Maplewood said, shrugging. “He’s a senior member of the Rangers and still helps me with inventing every now and again. Why do you ask?”
       Dale grinned. “Oh, just wondering.”

       Basil caught the group’s attention. “Okay, I think we can see that there are plenty of temporal differences here. Now, we need to get organized and quickly. If you’ll pardon the liberty, Chip—er Chips, I think since there is only one incarnation of myself here it will make it easier if I do the delegating.” Both Chips nodded and Basil continued. “Now, according to the Temporal Council’s findings we have approximately….” Basil checked a small device on his ring finger, “Exactly ninety-one hours, one minute and fifty-two seconds before the dimensional merging happens. The first thing we’ll need to do is protect everyone here that doesn’t have one of these bracelets.”
       “Why?” Gadget Maplewood asked. “What are they?”
       Gadget Hackwrench showed hers to her comrade. “They’re temporal bracelets I designed for time traveling. I came to realize that the various factors of existing in another time and place would eventually overcome one’s system and cause death in a matter of hours without proper protection. Along the same theory, it would also apply for alternate universes. The bracelet creates an artificial pocket of time around the wearer, allowing them to continue indefinitely. Will you two other Gadgets help me? I assume there’s a workshop here.”
       Gadget Oakmont nodded. “Sure! What’s a Gadget without her workshop?”

       The two other Gadgets laughed and Gadget Oakmont motioned to her mother and son. “Eva can help us out also. Come along, Gadgets.” As the Gadgets and Eva left, Basil turned his attention to the one person that no one had spoken to yet. Indeed, she hadn’t spoken herself, seemingly sizing up the situation. “And who might you be, my dear?” The female redheaded chipmunk stepped forward. She was near Eva’s age, alluring in her attractiveness. For some reason, both Chips blushed when she caught them looking at her. “I’m Agnes. Agnes Oakmont.”
       “ Aunt Agnes?” Dale asked. “But you died years ago in Africa! Oh, I mean, the Agnes here did. Do uh, I know you in your world?”
       “Yes, my little nez cerise. I am also known as Agnes Oakmont-Erskine there.”
       Monty drew in a breath. “You’re…me wife there?”
       Agnes nodded. “As one of the Gadgets just said, the story is long in the telling. I said nothing at first, for I was confused when I saw you with another woman. But now I know that you are not my Monzy, so that makes it easier.”
       “But who brought you here, then?” Chip asked, turning to the other Chip. “Did she come with you?” Chip-2 shook his head. “No, but she is from our universe. What happened, Aunt Agnes?” Agnes shrugged. “ Je ne suis pas certaine, guilleret. I was in Headquarters as I am now, and now I am no longer there but here.”
       “You couldn’t have been,” Gadget Maplewood said. “You and Monty were off on a trip to Rome.” Agnes came to the conclusion the others did. “Oh, I see. Then I am not your Agnes. Monzy and I were at Headquarters, taking care of Mercy and Alex, Chip and Gadget’s adopted children.” Gadget Maplewood and her husband exchanged looks. “We don’t have any kids, adopted or otherwise.”
       “Then there must be more going on than meets the eye,” Basil said. Chip agreed. “It would seem all this corresponds with Fat Cat’s first test of his device. Maybe it pulled her across the barrier unwittingly like it was meant to do with Klordane.”
       “Certainly a working theory,” Basil said. “If that is true, then it’s possible that more people have been pulled across into this reality or will be pulled across. We must be ready for that.”

       May 26 7:35am New York

       Theo was about to speak up and agree with Basil’s last statement when suddenly the lights went out in Ranger Headquarters. No, that wasn’t quite it. More than thatwent out, because now he couldn’t see or hear anyone. Everything was blackness, and he tried to call out but no one seemed to hear him. Then it was as if consciousness hit him like a piledriver and the night-light he still used by his bedside was nearly blinding. He shut his eyes and sat up, trying to deal with the suddenness of what had just occurred.
       Now the room was looking better, but the vibrant images of where he had been and what he had seen were still with him. Again, he had been dreaming. Or had he? It seemed so real, as if he were almost jerked away from it.
       “That’s ridiculous. Dreams aren’t real.”
       He said it once more, trying his best to sound convincing. His concentration shifted to his notebook, since he realized he had plenty of new story material to write down. It was breakfast time and he was tempted to leave the writing until later, but despite the power of the images he knew it could all be lost if he waited, so with resolve he began. It took nearly an hour to write it all down, but at the end of it he closed the notebook with satisfaction.
       “Hmm, what’s this...”

       Theo had noticed a corner of a piece of paper that was stuck into his notebook near the back. This notebook was new, as he’d already used up his last one. **There shouldn’t be anything back there. Maybe it was Ally, doodling** he mused, pulling the paper out. What he found shook him out of the sleepy mood he’d fallen into. It was a detailed floor plan of a large building, combined with a series of names and dates. The dates were for later in the week, but none of the names were familiar to him. Nor was the building. However, one thing was undeniable.
        The handwriting was his own.
       Theo jogged his memory, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember creating either the words or the drawing on the page. “Everything happens for a reason, so let’s see if we can find yours.” He examined the paper more closely and put his mind to work, trying to make sense of the conundrum before him.
       The floor plan appeared to be that of a large warehouse, with one room circled in emphasis. The names appeared to be those of machine and electronics parts companies, but as to what those companies’ products could be for and what they could be combined into, he had no clue.

       After a quick breakfast, he headed out in search of Bink. Whenever Theo had something personal he needed to talk about, he went to his best friend. Bink was always willing to listen, though she was free with her opinions. He found her outside, jogging in a tank top and running shorts. The sight allowed Theo to put aside the disturbing feelings of the night before and he waved to her. She waved back and quickly they met up on one of the park’s grassy knolls.
       “Ready for adventure?” Bink asked, running in place. “Miss Spelling’s final kept me up most of the night last night.” Theo held up the paper in his hand. “Funny you should mention that, because I’ve got something of a mystery on my hands. I found this paper last night, and it looks like I wrote it but I know I didn’t. Take a look at the list of names and the building—looks like to me it’s about someone who’s up to no good.”
       Bink took the paper, perusing the diagram and the list. “Have you talked to your dad about it? Remember what happened the last time we tried crimefighting on our own.” Theo took the paper back. “Becky, we were kids then! I think we can handle a little investigating. I do wonder if this has anything to do with the dreams I’m having, though. I had another one last night—this time, a whole lot of people starting popping up at Headquarters. There was an extra Chip and two extra Gadgets and Dale’s Aunt Agnes and a mouse dressed sort of strange who said he was Basil something-or-other. It was weird, but it all seemed so real.”
       Bink gave him a curious look. “What have you been eating before going to sleep? Maybe it’s stress or something. Well, I’d rather do anything than work one more minute on that English paper today, so let’s look for your mystery building.”
       “Okay. Let’s start with the names on the list. Maybe we can figure out where the building is by seeing if any of those companies deliver stuff to common locations. Maybe one of the people at these companies would recognize the floor plan.”

       Bink was agreeable, so off they went. The first company was Yshiri Electronics, a small-time supplier of semiconductor components. All they found was an empty office and a stack of phone messages, so it didn’t look like they’d get anywhere with this bunch. Empire Moldings didn’t have any answers either, but Theo did notice one thing—they were dealing exclusively with human companies, not animal ones. Whatever this was, it seemed like a fairly big project.
       They spent the rest of the morning tracking down the next two suppliers, and when they reached Pierside Industrial they found a deliveryman and a uniformed dock patrol officer arguing. “I don’t care what your orders say,” the officer said. “You can’t leave unsigned-for crates on the dock!”
       The deliveryman, his grease-stained shirt rolled up at the elbows, shifted his weight, annoyed. “Hey, I’ve got a dozen more of these in my big-rig over there! Do you know how long it takes to make these deliveries?”
       “Not my problem,” the officer said, pulling out his ticket-book.
       “Well, it takes half my day! There’s only two parts warehouses on this side of Jersey, and they had to make ‘em as far apart as possible. Now, if you ain’t gonna help—”
       At that point, a man ran out of the big warehouse by the docks and broke up the argument. He signed for the papers and all was well. Things weren’t too bad where a certain munk and squirrel stood, either. “This building must be the place!” Theo said. “It’s pretty near all the names we’ve seen so far, and if the other warehouse is as far away as he’s saying then we’ve found it. Come on, let’s take a look.”
       Theo and Bink waited while a forklift rumbled by, then ran on into the huge warehouse. It was a maze of wooden boxes and crates, and Theo could see why someone would need to make a map of the place. After numerous twists and turns, they arrived at the room circled on the map. Theo didn’t know what to expect, but whatever his thoughts were the room didn’t match them. From the floor to the ceiling, it was empty.
       Bink’s voice echoed throughout the big room. “Well, this is either the hiding place of the invisible man or we’re too late.” Theo checked the map again to be sure they hadn’t taken a wrong turn. He looked around, making sure nothing was hidden, even going so far as to climb a chain hanging from the ceiling and checking the ceiling out. He came down and stomped his foot.
       “Blast!” Theo said. “I’d hoped we’d find something to put an end to this little mystery. Now all we have is an empty room. Still, this could be the place. The dates on the paper are for later in the week.”
       “So says the master detective Sureluck Jones,” Bink kidded. “We’ll be back and do a stakeout later in the week then.”

       Theo was reluctant to go. He detested an unsolved mystery, but there was no reason to stay so he headed off with Bink and ended up at the Chesnutts for lunch. They talked with Donna and Oscar, the discussion eventually settling on the strange paper. Oscar took some interest in it, having some former ties to industry. “Hmm...looks like an inventory parts list for some kind of industrial-grade machine. Probably some form of hydraulic device from the look of the companies. That circled room could mean a dispatch point from where the parts will be collected and then sent off to whoever ordered them.”
       “I really think we should bring your dad in on this, Theo,” Bink said. “In case this really is something big.” Donna turned to Theo. “You really think this could be a major crime?” Theo received the paper back from Oscar. “No way to be sure, really. I’ll run it by dad when I get home. He’ll probably want to go along with us when we return there.”
       “Return where?”
       Donna looked behind her toward the front door. “Tammy!”
       Bink’s older sister had come in unnoticed, and she wasn’t alone. Tammy and Rob had promised to drop by when their duties allowed, just as they had with Chip and the Rangers. Rob was now a programmer with the organization and Tammy was in charge of field outfitting, or in other words making sure the agents dressed well and had the best disguises. She’d been a big influence on Bink in that respect, who wanted to bring that role to the Rangers. For the moment though, all thoughts turned to Tammy and Rob.
       Tammy hugged her parents. “Sorry we didn’t call first, but I figured we’d rather spend as much time together as we could, since we only had a few minutes when we got home on Monday. Six months on assignment with Bianca and Bernard in Zaire’s a long time, but what stories we have to tell! Well, the unclassified ones anyway.”
       Bink hugged her sister and brother-in-law. “Theo’s got a hunch something’s going to happen a couple of days from now and we can’t quite decide what to do about it.” Rob took a seat at the table by Theo. “Still finding crimes to solve, huh? Well, I must say that outfit suits you. Thought you were Chip Maplewood at first.”
       Tammy ran her hand along Theo’s jacket sleeve. “Hey Theo, want me to individualize this for you? I could add something like a big Ranger logo on the back, or maybe a monogrammed flying scarf. Some ornamental gold piping around the collar might not look bad...”
       “No thanks,” Theo said. “Thanks for offering, but I want to be seen as a Chip off the old block.”
       Bink grinned at the pun. “Besides, if you did that, he’d end up looking like Custer or something. Say, speaking of Chip, how about we head back with Theo, Tammy? I know Chipper would love to see you and Roy again. The whole group would!”
       “We were heading there now in the Wing,” Theo said. “Hop aboard and I’ll fly you back.” Tammy was always ready for action. “Sure, let’s go! We’ll be back for supper and a long talk, mom!”

       Tammy and Rob got in the Wing with Theo and Bink and soon they landed at Ranger Headquarters. The young Rangers were giddy when they came in, because they knew what would happen. “Hey daa-aaaad! Someone to seeeee you!” Theo shouted.
       They could hear Chip moving around in the kitchen, then he emerged, carrying a sandwich. “This had better not be about another slumber party or something. We went through that once already.” Bink was snickering, and it was all she could do not to burst out laughing. Theo for his part was having trouble keeping a straight face. “Not quite, but there is someone here that’s a good friend of mine. In fact two someones.”
       “Well, who is it, and why is Bink acting that way?” Chip demanded. Bink waved Chip forward. “Go to the door and find out!”
       Chip didn’t trust them for a moment, but if there were people here he’d better not keep them outside. He walked to the door and opened it, jumping aside as he did in case it was a prank. Bink lost control at this, rolling on the floor and laughing. Chip peeked around the corner of the door and came nose-to-nose with a female squirrel of more than familiar acquaintance.
       “Peek-a-boo, Chipper! I see you!” Tammy said.
       “AAAAAH!” Chip shouted, jumping back. Tammy laughed and Chip blushed. “Sorry,” Chip said, “reflex.”
       “It’s okay, Chip,” Tammy said. “Rob and I wanted to drop by and talk some more. Can you believe how much Theo and my sister have grown?” Chip shook his head. “Amazes me, still. Seems like yesterday they were just two kids I had to keep out of trouble.”
       “Now they’re two teenagers that I’m keeping out of trouble,” Lahwhinie said, then greeted Tammy and Rob. “You’ve been quiet, Rob. How are you?” Rob Roybrush was now a large male squirrel of 25, and had the look of experience in his eyes. “Oh, I’m fine, ma’am. I was just thinking about how a few pieces of equipment I’m familiar with would make this place even better.”
       “Equipment?” That was Gadget, coming in from the kitchen. “What kind of equipment?”
       “Oh brother,” Lahwhinie moaned, “there goes the rest of the day.”

       Lahwhinie was all too right. Rob was a systems programmer for R.A.S.C.A.L.S., and his experience allowed Gadget and Rob to spend hours talking over technical issues. Rob actually got in most of the conversation, as he’d become an expert in computer hardware. Young Geegaw hung around as well, his interest in all things electronic making the talk interesting. The others split off in a group of their own, catching up with Tammy on her life.
       Chiefly though, it was Tammy who was catching up on Bink’s life. “So, when are you two going to get married?” Tammy teased. Bink blushed and ducked her head. “Tam- my!” Her audience laughed and Monty bailed her out. “Don’t let it bother you, lass. She is a spy, after all.” Bink gave her sister a look. “That may be, but if a certain snoopy sister doesn’t stop asking embarrassing questions, I know where she’s hidden her collection of mini-CD’s!”
       “You wouldn’t!” Tammy said.
       Bink grinned. “Wanna bet?”
       “Okay, okay. No more teasing,” Tammy said. “Rob, it’s about time we get going! Mom’s sure to have a three-course meal ready by now.”
       “That’s right!” Rob said, having long since lost track of time. “Thanks for the talk, Gadget. Geegaw, if you want a tour of the electronic surveillance room at R.A.S. Headquarters, let me know and I’ll arrange a guest pass.”
       “Wow, thanks!” Geegaw said. “Maybe in a few years, I’ll be able to work there.”
       “I bet you will,” Rob replied. “Good evening, everyone!”

       Roy and Tammy left, leaving the evening open for a family night. Theo got to pick the movie, and strangely enough it wasn’t a gory one. It was “Krull”, an average yet decent sci-fi romantic fantasy. The kids loved it in particular, and Althea especially for the fire mares—horses that had fire coming from their hooves that could run ultra-fast and fly.
       “Man, wouldn’t it be neat to have flying horses for real?” Althea asked. “You could ride around the whole planet in a matter of hours!”
       “But then you’d have to feed and care for them,” Geegaw countered. “Anything that moved that fast would have to burn up a lot of calories.” Althea turned up her nose at him. “I think they’re neat!”
       “Reminds me of the time I was in Kenya, riding a Thompson’s gazelle. Those blokes can move like greased lightning,” Monty said. As time passed, Althea and Geegaw began to nod off and Gadget and Dale took them to their room. At the end of the movie, Theo and Bink went outside.
       “That was a neat movie, Theo,” Bink said. “I’ve never seen that one.”
       “It’s not exactly ‘Star Wars’, but it’s pretty good,” Theo said. “I used to detest it, though.”
       “Why’s that?”
       Theo raised an eyebrow. “The kissing and all. Seemed like a lot of sissy stuff. Of course, now that’s one of the reasons I like it. Uh, Becky, I hope you didn’t feel pressured by Tammy’s comment or anything.”
       “No, not really,” Bink replied. “Besides, we’ve got all the time in the world for decisions like that.”
       “Okay, just so you know.” Theo got quiet then, and a wistful smile developed on his features. Bink tickled his ear. “What thoughts are going on under that fedora?” Theo snapped out of it. “Oh, I was just thinking. If we have a kid one day…”
       “Theo!” Bink said, giving him a light push.
       “I just wonder that if we did, if he’d have that sense of destiny I have. Maybe he’d grow up to become an even greater hero and leader than me. I think I’d like that.”
       Bink laughed and put her hands on her hips. “There’s just one thing you haven’t thought of.” Theo grinned up at her. “Oh, and what’s that?”
       “How you’d feel if she was so famous that everyone forgot about the legend of Theo Maplewood.”

Chapter 10 – Down and Out of Africa, Strange Allies and Ominous Words

       Bink kissed him good night and Theo headed for slumberland. He wasn’t quite sure what he’d face this time, but he was pretty sure of who it would involve. Within minutes he was back in the other Ranger Headquarters with the multiple Gadgets and Chips. Everyone was hard at work and the place was abuzz with excited talk.

       May 26 9:40pm New York

       The three Gadgets, with the help of Eva, had constructed temporal bracelets for everyone and Theo found one already on his arm. “Very good,” Basil said, looking the large assembly over. “I believe the best method is to split up into teams. Certainly it will help with handling this confusing duplication we’re all dealing with. Once we each have reached our objectives and gained the information, we will return here and compare notes.”
       The Victorian-clad mouse looked around and saw nothing but agreement. “I think that settles it then. Is there anything else?”
       “Just one thing more,” Chip said, stealing a glance at his counterpart. “Ready?”
       “Ready,” Chip-2 said. “Everyone together now.”
       The large battalion of do-gooders came together and as one said those legendary words that crossed all universes and dimensions. “Rescue Rangers, away!”

       Once Basil had informed them on where to look for the various tablets, several phone calls were made and plans cemented. Since time was a factor, they decided to use the Rangerizer—an improved variant of Nimnul’s modemizer—to transport each group to each destination.
       “Just remember,” Eva said, “the Rangerizer only works to send you to your destination, so ve cannot retrieve you once you are there. You vill have to find your own way back. The priority, though, is to relay the information. Once you have seen the tablet, you should head for the nearest R.A.S. station and report in.”
       “And once we know where the point of conjunction is, we’ll all head straight for it,” Chip said. “Now, who’s for Africa?” Theo marched up. “I’m ready, dad. Just throw the switch, and Bink and I will get to that tablet in record time!”
       “Now hold on!” Chip-2 said. “Isn’t he a little young to be leading a team?”
       “He may be young in years, but not in experience,” Chip said. “My son can lead as well as any of us.”
       “Hear, hear,” Basil said. “To show my trust, I will accompany these two.”
       “Me too, mate,” Monty said. “After all, we’re meeting up with me old pal Gabarah there.”
       “I’ll go too,” Agnes said, walking up. “I’m ready to see some action, and Africa’s an old haunt of mine. On my world, anyway.”
       “Jolly good!” Basil said, turning to Theo. “I’d say your team’s complete, then. Let’s all synchronize timepieces. Currently, we have 3 days, 14 hours, 13 minutes and…12 twelve seconds until the portal to Limbo can be opened.” Everyone checked their watches, then Theo looked at his father, somewhat confused. “Dad, I thought you said I wouldn’t get to lead the Rangers until I was older.”
       Chip paused and everyone looked at him. “Well, that was a bit hasty on my part. I know you’re capable, and besides this is an emergency. You are up to it, aren’t you?”
       “Sure thing, dad,” Theo said, still perplexed. “Just didn’t expect to be leading this soon.”
       “Don’t worry. I have complete confidence in you. You’ll do fine.”

       Theo nodded to his father and led his team to the Rangerizer. Something about all of this didn’t seem quite right, but there would be time to think on it later. After all, it was a dream. Gadget Oakmont checked the machine and its passengers out, then opened the door to the Rangerizer’s transport chamber. “Okay, get in and close your eyes. The effect can be a little disorienting in mid-transport.”
       Bink rushed right in. “Beam me up, Scotty!”
       Basil appeared confused. “There are no Scots here, miss.”
       Bink giggled. “It’d take too long to explain.”
       Theo was last in and closed the door on the mechanism. The Gadgets worked the controls and soon the room was filled with the humming of power. A whine that went up steadily in pitch caused the others to cover their ears and then, with a cascade of light and sound, it subsided.
       Chip checked the chamber, finding it empty. “Did they get there okay, Gadget?”
       “Yes,” the blonde trio replied as one, then Gadget Oakmont took over. “The readings were consistent with a successful transport. It’ll take ten minutes for the power levels to recover, then group two can go.”

       May 27 10:00am New York

       Theo woke up, Bink pushing on the back of his shoulders to wake him. “Hey you, you’re harder to wake up than Tammy after one of her all-night roller-skating parties!” Theo found to his utter surprise he was in his clubhouse, using his notebook for a pillow. The clock on the wall showed it was ten in the morning. **How did I get here? I went to bed at home!** Theo didn’t want to worry her, so he decided to play it by ear for the moment. “Sorry Bink. I seem to drop off more often these days. Must be the stress of getting this story done.”
       Theo quickly made some notes of what he’d seen, all the time the feeling of strangeness growing in him more. He had to talk to someone about it—what he felt comfortable mentioning anyway—and Bink seemed the likeliest choice. “Becky, these dreams are getting weirder by the day. Now I’m heading to Africa to find a tablet that tells part of the coordinates where Klordane’s going to show! I’ve heard of overactive imaginations, but this is ridiculous!”
       Bink had already been worried about Theo, but this only made it worse. “Theo, this ongoing dream you’ve been having can’t be normal. Maybe it’s time you talked to someone about this. You should tell Chip.” Theo shook his head, thinking. “No, not dad. He’s good at some things, but interpreting dreams isn’t one of them. I remember the fiasco he had when he was dreaming all those kooky dreams of his.”
       “Yeah, but he said that he really was in another person’s dream. What if…what if you’re somehow in someone else’s dream?”
       Theo’s brows knotted. “Whose!” Theo stood up and began pacing, frustrated. “I mean, with dad it was mom. With Dale it was Gadget and with Noel it was Foxy—well, sort of anyway. I’ve got girls galore in my dream—three Gadgets, mom, Aunt Agnes, and you. You said you’re not having any dreams like that, and I’m sure not going to go ask Aunt Gadget or mom. So unless it’s Dale’s aunt, I don’t think that holds water.”
       Bink listened, not having anything to add, and Theo gave out a frustrated laugh. “As far as dad goes, he’d probably want to send me to Dr. Batorious or some silly thing.” Bink touched his arm. “So what if he sends you? If something’s wrong, you should try to make it right!”
       “Because I don’t like the whole idea! Once a doctor gets hold of you, they’ll find out who-knows-what’s wrong with you. I’m not crazy, Becky, and I’m not going to let some doctor ‘get in touch with my feelings’. Not even Dr. Batorious.”
       “Theo, something weird’s going on in your head! Either it’s something fantastic or something’s really out of whack. Either way, ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away.”
       Theo reached out for her hand, and guided Bink to a chair. It was evident that he was conflicted over this. “All right, Becky. Maybe I’ll talk to dad. But just listen to what all’s been happening in my dreams first. I want to hear the thoughts of someone I trust.”

       Bink was all-attention as Theo started in. He told her from the beginning all he’d seen and witnessed, and now how he’d been chosen to lead one of the expeditions with the unusual group under his leadership. She listened to his concerns about the mission, about Klordane, and about whether all of it was just a dream or something he wished would or wouldn’t happen. When Theo was done, Bink took a moment to let him collect himself before she spoke.
       “Theo, you really need to talk to your father,” Bink said. “Call it squirrel’s intuition, but I don’t think this is all just a dream.” Theo shook his head. “Then what is it? You tell me, because I’m starting to get tired of it!”
       “You’re the detective around here. I’m just the muscle. You indicated that they all knew you as Theo, so maybe you and some other Theo are getting in each other’s dreams somehow.”
       Theo paused, reining in his emotions. “Becky, I’m sorry, I...I don’t know what to do.” Bink took his hand, her voice more imploring. “Talk to your dad, talk to Gadget. See if she can monitor your brainwaves while you sleep. Just… do something!” Bink hugged Theo, to emphasize her statement. Theo knew he couldn’t say no to her, plus he wanted to calm her mounting fears—not to mention his own. “I’ll see what dad says, Becky. Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out.”

       Theo hugged Bink back and headed for Headquarters. It was suppertime when he came in, so he decided to wait until he could talk with Chip alone. The opportunity came later that night, but when the moment was upon him Theo hesitated. It was just too silly a thing to talk about. Besides, maybe the dreams were just a sign of stress. He was about to become a team leader, after all, and the dreams did in a way reflect his uncertainty over that.
       Turning about, Theo left his father in the main room and headed for bed. He decided to get a better handle on the nature of these dreams first, and see if he could determine what they were. Theo checked the clock—it was ten-thirty. It was early for him to be turning in, but the more dreamtime, the better. Theo ended up staying awake another half-hour, his mind racing over the day’s events and the dreams he’d had. Then slumber slowly overtook him

       May 27 6:07pm (local time), Lake Nakuru Park in Kenya, Africa

       After a few disorienting moments, Theo found himself with the team he’d entered the Rangerizer with. They were in Africa—Kenya to be specific—and near a national park some two hundred miles to the west of Nairobi. The only real civilization here was the small airstrip to fly in tourists and the Lake Nakuru Park headquarters. The group headed for the headquarters, which was also the headquarters for Gabarah’s safari service.
       The African tribemouse had done well since his adventurous days as a safari guide with Monty, and the large modern building where he worked showed it. From here, he ran seven different safari outfits to all parts of Kenya. When the Rangers went in, a secretary quickly informed Gabarah who was there and a minute later the tall and pleasant mouse came out in an extravagant dashiki shirt and Kuffi hat. His arms opened wide as he spied Monty, and he grabbed his arms at the elbows in the traditional welcome.
       “Monty Jack!” Gabarah cried, showing his perfect teeth in a pleased smile. “I am much pleased to receive you and your friends here. You are most welcome!” Monty clapped his friend on the back. “Sorry to drop in on ya sudden-like, mate, but we got an emergency on our hands.”
       Gabarah was at attention immediately. “I am here to help. Where are the others? And this is not Chip as I first thought.” Theo came forward. “No, that’s my dad. I’m Theo Maplewood, and pleased to meet you, Gabarah.” Gabarah took the young man’s forearms in greeting. “Ah yes, more powerful than your father and pleased to be so. And who is the honorable young lady here?”
       Bink came forward. “I’m new too. Bink Chesnutt, sir.” Gabarah greeted her the same, then his smile grew. “You and he, yes. A strong love, but not at peace about it.” Bink blushed. “Well…yeah. How did you know?” Monty thumbed at Gabarah. “The bloke’s always had a way of spottin’ what others overlook. Gabarah, we need to get into the jungle, quick. There’s a right precious tablet we’ve gotta get a gander at. We know an exact location, but we need ta move!”

       Basil showed Gabarah the coordinates that the Temporal Council had provided for them and Gabarah led them over to a wall-sized map. “Good thing you come here first. That is in the middle of Lake Nakuru Park. That part of the park is wetland country, protected. Any craft spotted there without permission be shot on sight for poachers. I know the head of Nakuru Park. I will get permission, and go with you.”
       Gabarah left for a few minutes, returning with a full pack of gear. A few moments later, a group of his employees brought packs for the others. “Come, we take my personal charter plane. We will fly over to Naishi airstrip and on to the wetlands. Once we call in at Naishi, they will tell spotters what we look like and they will not shoot.” Bink grabbed up a pack and slung it on her back. “What’re we waiting for? Let’s boogie to Nakuru!”
       “We’ll need to contact the authorities also,” Theo said, taking the lead. “We need to know if there’s been anything suspicious around that area. We don’t know how many people Klordane might have working for him and what he’s planning to do next.”
       Gabarah was surprised to see everyone deferring to the young chipmunk, but it was clear that he was the leader of the group. “I will check with my friend, Theo. Perhaps you would like to check in with yours? I have my radiotelephone here, and there is no direct contact once we leave for Nakuru.”
       “We have our own means,” Basil said, holding up a portable phone. “Gadget and…well, the others constructed these satellite phones for us. They use a special frequency that will allow us to keep in contact, no matter where we are in the world.”

       “In case something goes wrong, it’ll be good to call now,” Theo said, hurrying to the radiotelephone and calling Ranger Headquarters. When the phone rang in New York, four faces immediately turned to the noise. Lahwhinie bolted from the sofa where she’d been talking with one of the Gadgets and picked up. “Hello? Is this Theo?”
       “Yeah, it’s me, mom. Is everyone safe?” Theo asked.
       “Everyone’s doing good so far, sport. Group two’s off to China and Gadget—that is, the unmarried Gadget—is about to beam group three to someplace up in Canada. I don’t suppose you’ve found that tablet already?”
       “We’ll be heading out for it soon, then we’ll deal with these goons. Mom, tell dad…well, you know,” Theo said. Lahwhinie knew, of course. “I’ll tell him. Hurry son, and remember to treat that girlfriend of yours well.” Theo grinned. Even here he could feel his mom’s narrowing eyelids. “Don’t worry, mom. You raised a gentleman.”
       “That I did. Be careful, and get back home safe.”

       Theo hung up the radiotelephone and relayed his mom’s message to the others. Gabarah outfitted them and with their packs on their backs the group entered the jungle. There were established paths at the journey’s start, but soon they had to start making their own with machetes. “Will be dark soon,” Gabarah said, leading the way. “We will travel as far as we can, then camp. Too many predators at night to travel then.”
       The group kept up a fast pace, contending with the sun peeking through the canopy overhead. After an hour, they took a break. Bink reached gratefully for a canteen. “It’s a good thing I’m in shape. I wasn’t expecting an African safari this week.”
       “Look at it this way,” Theo said, snacking on some trail mix, “you’ll have something to tell your folks about when you get back.”
       “Look out below!”

       From above, two large rodents with jungle vines tied around their waists came swinging overhead. They went swinging back and forth, the Rangers and Gabarah watching them like a tennis tournament. Then the vines broke and they went sailing into the vegetation below, right next to Bink.
       “Look out! Ambush!” Bink shouted, taking up a defensive pose. “All right, neither of you try anything! Who are you, killers for hire? Did Klordane hire you to knock us off!” One of the creatures poked his head up. “Killers? Where killers? Where? Where?”
       Theo addressed the rodent that spoke. “Who are you and who are you working for?” Monty shook his head. “You two are the third and fourth most inept assassins I ever met. Start talkin’ or I start hurtin’ ya!”
       Gabarah held his ribs and laughed, bringing all attention to him. “They are not killers, they Ug and Oog! Local hyraxes. They get into trouble a lot but harmless.” Ug nodded in a hyper manner. “Yeah, harmless! Very harmless! Right, Oog?”
       “Oh yes,” Oog said. “Wouldn’t hurt a fly’s feelings.”
       “Not even a tsetse fly!” Ug added.

       The rock hyrax is a curious creature, a rodent that looks like a big guinea pig with four toes on its front feet and three toes on each rear foot. These two particular specimens made that mystique even more curious. Theo called them to attention, looking them over. “Have you seen anyone suspicious around here within the last few days?” Ug scratched his head—we hope in thought. “Suspicious? Nope, no one suspicious or even close to suspicious! Right, Oog?”
       “Nope, not seen anything or anyone looking suspicious anywhere, ever!” Oog said, nodding emphatically. Theo looked at them suspiciously. “You don’t have the first clue what that word means, do you?”
       Ug and Oog looked at each other then back at Theo. “Nope!”
       Theo tried to be patient. “Have you knuck…hyraxes seen anyone strange around here?”
       “Oh, strange!” Ug said. “Yes, straaange. We see strange animal about two weeks ago, right Oog?” Oog nodded, trying to look serious. “Yeah, very strange. Oog think he was strange too. He yelled at us.”
       “Oh, and he was strange, very strange!” Ug said.
       Both of them nodded and grinned, attesting to the fact this animal they’d seen was indeed strange. Theo felt he was making progress. “Okay. What did he look like?” Ug and Oog huddled and talked very fast for a few moments, then separated. “He was tall, very tall. Taller than your big friend there,” Ug said, pointing to Monty. “But he wasn’t big. No, he wasn’t big. He was thin, very thin like thin mouse with double-brim hat. Oh, and his eyes were narrow, narrow and mean. They were mean, right Oog?”
       Oog tried to imitate the mean and narrow look, coming off with a comical Clint Eastwood impression. “Yeah, he look at you and you burst into flames...well...yeah, they were mean.”
       “Well, that’s kinda vague,” Theo said, wondering if Ug had spent any time watching Andy Griffith reruns. “But maybe a weasel, mink or something like that from the description. Dangerous when cornered.”
       “Oh, he looked dangerous!” Ug agreed. “With those eyes, they were mean. And when he saw Oog following he yelled. He yelled real loud! You remember what he yelled, right Oog?”
       “I was too scared to remember him yelling at me not to go near him or he’d pull my lungs out through my nose. That sounded like it might hurt, so I left him be.”
       “Sounds like a good thing not to remember to me!” Bink said, giggling.
       Monty rolled up his sleeves. “Then I guess he won’t mind that I’ll be playing rough too. But I won’t be making threats; I’ll be carryin’ them out.” Ug sensed conflict. “Oog and me go now. We don’t like to talk about the strange one. Oh, he was mean!” Ug and Oog scrambled up into some nearby rocks and began trying to figure out how to tie knots again.

       Theo watched as the clueless hyraxes returned to the rocks and he shook his head. “Come on, everyone. We can get a few hours in before dark.” The group stayed close together, always on the lookout for any signs of a trap. Theo’s mind was mainly on his mission, but always in the back of it there was Bink.
       He had been amused at Gabarah sensing the relationship between them. They didn’t talk about love often, although they both knew. What had he meant about her not being at peace about it? At least he assumed it was her. Theo thought about Bink now, even as he heard her walking behind him. Everything about her—her scent, her laugh, even her acerbic humor made him care about her. To lose those—but no, he’d not even entertain that idea. They would succeed and Klordane would be defeated once again.

       Limbo – no time reference available

       Fat Cat settled into his bed, mentally preparing himself for the task ahead. Klordane had instructed him in how to train his mind to contact Limbo, and now Fat Cat shut his systems down and he was asleep and dreaming within a minute.
       “Well, are we on schedule?” Klordane asked, floating in front of him in the grey nothingness.
       “Everything’s going just as you said,” Fat Cat said. “They’re starting to hunt for the tablets. But I don’t understand.” Klordane’s look didn’t change. “You don’t understand what?” Fat Cat couldn’t believe that this human was so naïve. “Look, they’ve got enough people to get a look at all the tablets and get to the rendezvous site with time to spare. What’s to prevent them?”
       “Well…” Klordane began, a nasty smile coming to his face, “do you remember those little gizmos I had you build?” Fat Cat nodded, confused. “Of course. You said they would help me defeat the Rangers, but all they look like are ball bearings.”
       “Oh, ye of little faith, Fat Cat!” Klordane said. “I indeed meant what I said. You see, those little ball bearings are far more deadly than you might suspect. I’ve also learned a few things during my stay here and through your mind, and now I’ve put a very nice distraction for our dear Rangers in their path. I assure you, they’ll be quite busy and hampered, because the matter will be one of life and death!”

Chapter 11 – Choices, A Quiet Night and A Not-So-Quiet Morning

       May 28 6:25am Beijing, China

       Gadget Hackwrench had agreed to stay behind and monitor things at Ranger Headquarters, so the two married Gadgets had joined their respective husbands for the trip to China, while Chip and Lahwhinie proceeded to Canada with Zipper and Honey. In China, the Rangers found that the tablet they were after was in part of the old Forbidden City palace. Being rodents, it wasn’t much of a problem for them to work their way in.
       Once they were over the disorientation of going from early evening to what was in essence the next morning, Chip-2 and Dale scouted ahead for signs of trouble and the two Gadgets began to talk. “So tell me, what’s it like being married to Dale?” Gadget Maplewood asked. Her counterpart smiled back. “He’s the kindest husband anyone could ask for. It’s amazing, but I never realized just how strong and resilient he was until I saw his secret lair.”
       “Secret lair? What secret lair?” Gadget Maplewood asked. In her roundabout way, Gadget Oakmont explained how she had discovered Dale’s secret rooms and how it had brought them together. The other-dimensional Gadget stood there, spellbound. “Golly, so he can paint and draw and sew and fence? My world’s Dale never showed those tendencies.”
       “Well, maybe that’s because you never discovered them,” Gadget Oakmont said. “If it hadn’t been for that happy accident, I sure never would’ve. And I guarantee he’d never tell you. But now it’s your turn. How do you like being married to Chip?”
       Gadget Maplewood grinned in return. “It was…challenging at first. I had to learn to speak up for myself, and to help Chip deal with his need to control. But it’s been a good marriage, and a good life. Chip makes me feel special every day.”
       “So does Dale. Hmm…I wonder how that third Gadget who never married feels about seeing us married?” Gadget pondered.
       “She’s probably second-guessing herself somewhat, but I think that she’s happy the way she is. Wouldn’t you have been happy if things had stayed the same?” Gadget Maplewood asked. Gadget thought about it. “Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, I love Dale and I wouldn’t trade what I have with him and my children for anything, but I was also happy just working on my inventions. Is that how you feel, too?”
       “Oh, of course! I’m you, after all. Well, another you. Wait, not another you because I’m me but I’m you in another reality but I’m also me and so I guess in a way you’re me also…”
       “And the third Gadget’s us as well. Yeah, it’s all a little confusing. But it is nice, knowing you’re loved and appreciated, though, isn’t it?”
       “Sure,” Gadget Maplewood said. “Chip helps me to feel good about myself.”
       “That’s the way Dale is. I guess we were both lucky.”

       Dale came around the corner, breaking up their tête-à-tête. “C’mon, Gadget…er, Gadgets. Chip says he’s found the thingy.” The mice inventors followed, and soon they were in a part of the palace’s antiquities collection. There, they found an alcove, and in the alcove they found a section of the wall that had obviously been gouged out to accommodate something. In this case, it was a glowing piece of tablet.
       Chip wondered at there being no protection for this artifact, but he soon found out why as he tried to pick it up off the ground and found that his hand passed right through it. “What? But how can that be?”
       “Simple,” Gadget Oakmont said. “When the time viewer was blown out of the timeline, it must’ve been able to promulgate that extratemporal nature to other objects, like this tablet.”
       “Of course!” Gadget Maplewood said. “All that would be required is some kind of direct linkage to establish a sympathetic temporal gateway.”
       “And then the object would be outside our temporal reality and thus be unable to be affected,” Gadget said. Chip-2 realized that he was glad there was only one Gadget in his universe. With two, it was nearly impossible to get a word in. “Excuse me, but if what you’re saying is true, then why doesn’t that tablet piece simply go floating through space?”
       “Hmm…” Gadget Oakmont hmmed. “Well, offhand I’d say it shows that objects in an extratemporal state are still affected by something in our reality. Most likely the presence of the earth’s magnetic field.”
       Gadget Maplewood agreed. “While the tablet piece isn’t technically in our reality, we can see it so it’s being affected at least partially by the electromagnetic spectrum. After all, our vision is based simply on being able to interpret part of that spectrum.”
       “I see,” Chip said. “So you don’t really know.”
       “Nope,” the Gadgets said.
       “Well, for not knowing you sure know how to make it sound interesting!” Dale said. “But uh, aren’t we supposed to be copying down what the tablet says?”
       “Oh, right,” Gadget Oakmont said. “Dale, bring me that little book in the pack I brought. It’s got the translation matrix in it.” Dale squeezed her hand. “Sure thing, Gadget!” Dale went to get the book, and Gadget found Chip-2 looking at her. “What?”
       “Oh nothing,” Chip said. “I just never realized that you…that is she…could’ve ended up Dale’s wife.” Gadget grinned as Dale returned and she hugged her husband. “Well, let’s just say that we had our reasons for marrying each of you, both of them good.”
       “I’ll second that,” Gadget Maplewood said, hugging Chip. “Now, let’s see what we have.”

       May 27 11:44pm Nakuru Jungle

       Meanwhile, a similar conversation was going on a continent way. Theo’s group had camped for the night, and Eva and Agnes were discussing Monty over the long-range cell phones Eva and the Gadgets had supplied each group with. The big Aussie was in on it as well and looking uncomfortable, not quite sure how he should take the conversation he was hearing.
       “And you say that in your vorld his cheese attacks were due to a latent memory of you?” Eva asked. Agnes nodded, responding in her French accent. “That is right, Eva. And I had the latent memory as well. I would go into a trance of sorts, and dance the tango whenever I smelled roses like the one he brought me there at Brie.”
       Eva laughed then joked at Monty teasingly. “You are such a romantic, no matter vhat the universe!” Monty rubbed the back of his neck. “Oy, that sounds like me, all right. But Agnes, you said that you and the other me were apart for a long time. That’s like it was here with me and Eva. Guess that part of me life was meant to be, then.”
       “Who can say, Monzy?” Agnes said. “Mais I think that it is safe to say that you ended up with the person you were meant to be with in both worlds.” Back at Headquarters, Eva smiled. “I would like to think so. And you are also the expert in martial arts, Agnes?”
       “Oh yes. I’m an instructor now for R.A.S.C.A.L.S.”
       “And I instruct the young ones at Headquarters. My, we do seem to have much in common.”
       “Including good taste in men, it seems,” Agnes said. “I miss my Monzy, and I know he misses me. I hope all is back to normal when I get home.”

       A short distance away, Theo was scouting about. He found they were actually on a high promontory overlooking the valley and Lake Nakuru. The flamingoes were down there even now, sleeping and reflecting some of the African moonlight, along with the water. Theo thought about how majestic the scene was, and then a hand lightly touched his shoulder.
       “Romantic, isn’t it,” Bink said, speaking softly, in keeping with the lateness of the hour and the scene in front of them. “It looks like something out of a fairy tale.”
       “Like something you’d see at the dawn of time,” Theo said. “We made it, Becky. Our first real mission.” Bink continued to look down into the valley. “Yes, and it’s just as awesome as I imagined it. I just hope it all works out okay.”
       “It will, I know,” Theo said. “I’ve always known that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I even feel like I’ve stood here before, breathed this air. Looked into…this face.” Theo touched Bink’s face. “I’m glad you decided to be a Ranger, Becky.”
       “Me too,” she said, then appeared uncomfortable. “Theo?”
       “You’re standing on my tail.”

       Theo looked down, and sure enough he had her pinned. “Oops, sorry. Guess I got lost there for a moment. We’ve got lots more important things to think about at the moment than flamingoes and the moonlight. Bink, do you know why Gabarah said we weren’t at peace?”
       Bink paused, appearing to be deliberating about something. “Theo, there’s something I need to tell you…” Someone cleared a throat behind them, and they found Gabarah smiling at them. “I cannot blame you, young ones. This is one of the best views of Lake Nakuru. Theo, we must talk.”
       Bink gave Theo a “later” look and excused herself, and Theo waved to her when she waved back. The two men settled down to talk. “The path ahead is rough, but we should reach the location you seek in the afternoon. I am concerned, though,” Gabarah said.
       Theo’s brow knotted. “About what?”
       “We are not alone,” Gabarah said, “and I do not mean Ug and Oog. I scouted ahead and saw someone camped in the jungle. I did not call out, for here it could be anyone. We must prepare for an ambush.”
       “All right then,” Theo said. “We’ll set a watch and—”
       “They will not attack tonight,” Gabarah interrupted. “They would not risk the dangers of the jungle. But I will be up with first light to check.” The Kenyan paused, but he had to ask the question. “I am surprised that Monty Jack is not leading. Why were you chosen?”
       “Hey, I’ve proven myself in the eyes of all the Rangers!” Theo retorted. Gabarah held up his hands. “I meant no judgment on you, young Ranger. I could see how all have accepted you. I just wondered why you were chosen to be leader.”
       “Oh. Well, it’s because of my dad, mostly. I expect to take over from him as leader of the Rangers someday, and I’ve always been a leader type. It’s what I do.”
       “I see,” Gabarah said. “You have the quick mind, and that will save you many times. Be not hasty in judgment, though. A leader must go into each situation with an open mind.”
       “Giving out advice?” Basil asked, appearing through the foliage. “I think our young friend’s done quite well, don’t you?”
       “Certainly,” Gabarah said. “But experience is a leader’s best teacher.”
       “That’s true, but he’s fortunate to have three experienced men to draw upon. As I always told Dawson, ‘experience will lead you, but wisdom will guide you’. Our young leader has his share of wisdom,” Basil said.
       “Thanks Basil, but you don’t have to stick up for me,” Theo said. “I know I’m young yet and have a lot to learn. I’m grateful for all the advice either of you will give me.”
       “Wise, yes,” Gabarah said. “Then hear this advice. When you are on your own, for that time will come, never make your decision based on emotion. Be patient, and think.”
       “Yes, quite. There’s always a chance, as long as one can think,” Basil said, tapping Theo on the shoulder. “Never take anyone or anything at face value. And once you’ve made up your mind, go with your decision and never second-guess yourself. Remember to notice the little things—often they can tell you much more than the obvious.”

       May 29 7:15am New York

       Theo awoke early the next morning. His clock read 7:15, which surprised him because his internal clock usually didn’t wake him before 7:30. Still, considering his early start last night, he’d slept a lot longer than normal. As he thought over all he had seen he realized that despite the persistence of these dreams they were fascinating. He’d never been to Africa, but the experience had been so real that he felt like he had stood there himself. The young chipmunk stretched and dressed quickly, then set down all he’d gained in his notebook.
       Then he remembered the map of the shipping warehouse. They’d have to check that out when the time came. Theo had it on his mind when he ran into a brick wall in the hall named Lahwhinie. Theo had seen several of her moods, but he’d never seen her livid—or at least not livid at him. She appeared to be peering right through him, so hard was her stare.
       “All right, I’m waiting,” she said, with the intimation that she wouldn’t wait long.
       Theo blinked twice, taken aback. “Uh, what’s the problem, mom?”
       Lahwhinie grabbed his arm, not gently. “What’s the problem! How dare you act innocent with me, young man! Come on...”

       Before Theo could get a word in edgewise, Lahwhinie had dragged him into the main room. The Rangers and Bink were all sitting there, giving Theo suspicious looks. Bink in particular looked putout, using an icy stare on him. The whole atmosphere had the feel of a Spanish inquisition—or at least as close as Theo’s imagination could come to it. Chip motioned for him to sit down.
       “So what did he say?” Chip asked.
       Theo started to answer. “I—”
       “He clammed up, that’s what,” Lahwhinie interrupted. She pushed him toward a chair, then stood over him. “C’mon Theo, we saw you! Fess up! What were you doing in town last night?”
       Theo thought back to waking up in the clubhouse and decided that now was confession time. “Okay, I’ll let the proverbial cat out of the bag. Something really weird’s been going on.”
       Bink let out a snort. “Oh, there’s a news flash...”
       Chip thumbed toward Bink. “She told us about the dreams you’ve been having. Why didn’t you come to me with this?” Theo felt the heat of the spotlight, and didn’t like it. “Because it was just silly! I mean dreams aren’t real—well, not usually. But I wasn’t in town last night.”
       Lahwhinie pointed her finger in his face. “Are you calling your mother a liar? I saw you leave Headquarters and sneak off! I was just lucky that Zipper was around to help track you, because you were as slippery as a wet eel. Tell him, Zip!”
       “She’s right,” Zipper said, looking half-apologetic at Theo. “I flew above and followed you into town. You must’ve spotted me along the way because you ducked into an old building. I followed you in, but lost you somewhere in there.”
       Lahwhinie put her hands on the arms of the chair, leaning in so that her nose almost touched Theo’s. “What were you up to! And don’t tell me you were tracking down information on that warehouse mystery! You were on the opposite side of town. You’d better not be doing something I’ll regret.”
       Theo felt like he was caught in an episode of “The Fugitive”, and looked to Bink in appeal. She didn’t budge an inch, but the pain in her voice said volumes. “Theo Maplewood, I thought you were trustworthy but if you’re sneaking out at night to go to the...the dingy side of town, then I think you can just be a Ranger on your own!”
       Theo pushed back in his chair, getting room to stand up. “I’m telling you all, something strange is going on! Bink had even suggested the possibility that I’m switching places with a Theo from an alternate reality. Somehow I’m involved in a complex mystery in some other time and place.”
       The onlookers appeared dubious, and Theo walked up to his father. “When I’m in that other world, that Theo must be taking my place here!” Chip crossed his arms. “Start talking, mister. Let’s hear it from the top.”

       Theo proceeded to take the next hour and detailed everything that had happened to him since he’d started dreaming. The audience was pretty skeptical at first, but Theo’s recounting was far too detail-laden to be made up on the spot.
       “So then we were sent to Africa in the Rangerizer and now we’re near Lake Nakuru to locate one of the tablets. What’s not to believe?”
       “Plenty,” Lahwhinie said. “But even I couldn’t have come up with something that far-fetched on my best day. So let’s say for the moment that you’re telling the truth and you’re switching with this other Theo. Why would he want to go into town and hang around the low-rent district?”
       “How should I know? I’ve never met him! I’ve met three Gadgets, two Chips, more alternative reality people than I can count, but never him.”
       Gadget’s mind was whirling with the story Theo had recounted. “It’s certainly intriguing.” Chip had to agree there. “Yep, it’s a real mystery. We’ve got to look into this.”
       “No, I mean the idea that I could’ve married you or not married at all. That never occurred to me before. Still, I suppose in a multiverse of infinite varieties of combinations anything’s theoretically possible.”
       Dale pointed at Chip, getting a big grin on his face. “You mean in one universe, Tammy might’ve married Chip? Whooooooooo! I’d love to see how that one came out!” Chip gave his old friend the cold shoulder. “Cool it, Dale. Right now, we’ve got Theo to think about. Does this ‘switch’ or whatever you call it happen any time other than when you’re asleep?”
       “Not that I’m aware of,” Theo said.
       Chip nodded, his mind made up. “I think we still need to have you checked out. Let’s go see if Dr. Batorious is free this afternoon.”

       Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on one’s perspective—Dr. Batorious was in surgery that afternoon and couldn’t be disturbed. Chip made an appointment for Theo for the next day, and they went home. Theo was resentful, but Chip was implacable. It was Lahwhinie who smoothed things over between them.
       “Look, this is getting us nowhere,” the Hawaiian said. “I want the two of you to act like grown munks and shake hands.” Chip and Theo had practically been in a staredown, but Chip relented at his wife’s demand. “Oh all right.”
       Chip held out his hand, but his son didn’t shake it right away. “Dad, did you really think that I’d betrayed you?” Theo asked. “Betrayed Bink? I thought you knew me better than that.” Chip wanted to retort, but he knew Lahwhinie was watching. “You’re right, I should’ve known better.”
       “Okay dad,” Theo said, shaking his hand. “And I should’ve been more patient, too.”
       Lahwhinie stood there, looking them both over. “You’re both a couple of rogues, you know that. But I love you both for it.” Chip laughed and pulled Lahwhinie to him. “It was the only way I could think of to win you.” Lahwhinie looked over at Theo. “Don’t try that line on Bink. She’ll never buy it.”
       “I wasn’t going to,” Theo said.

       That night, Theo reflected on how he was grateful to have escaped the attentions of Dr. Batorious, at least for the moment. He’d never liked doctors that much, as they reminded him of his days at the orphanage. There had been the long days when he was recovering from his burns, and the pain of the skin grafts. He’d been subjected to the less-than-delicate ministrations of the on-duty nurse, who he now realized probably had little choice considering everything hurt him at first. Now, whenever he was around doctors he recalled the white-hot pain of survival. Those thoughts consumed him as he fell asleep.

Chapter 12 – The Black Spot and a Rude Awakening

       May 28 7:33pm Near Whitehorse, the Yukon Territory

       Chip and Lahwhinie had drawn the cold spot of the mission. The Yukon had long ago been the stomping grounds of the trappers, prospectors and claim jumpers. Now civilization had come to the wilderness somewhat, but there was still plenty of wilderness to be found. At the moment, four small forms trekked across part of it, on their way to one of the tablets. About halfway to their destination, they found shelter in a prospector’s cabin that had been abandoned. Chip got a fire going, and soon the interior was to everyone’s liking. Well, almost everyone.
       “It’s so cold!” Lahwhinie said, folding her arms around herself. “This mouse wasn’t made for snow and ice! I think I should’ve gone with Theo. At least it’s warm in Africa.” Chip walked over and wrapped his arms around her. “Now you know that you’d have just raised his suspicions. Besides, that’s what you’ve got me for, right?”
       Lahwhinie smiled and hugged him tightly. “I knew you were good for something. Come on, let’s roll out the sleeping bags and you can be my electric blanket.” Chip took her hand again. “Always glad to be of service.” Lahwhinie winced as Chip rubbed his thumb across the back of her right hand. “What is it?” Chip asked.
       “I don’t know,” Lahwhinie said, rubbing her hand herself. “Maybe it’s the sudden change in temperature or going through that Rangerizer. It looks like it’s just a bruise.” Meanwhile, Zipper and Honey were over at the window, watching the snowfall. “It’s so lovely,” Honey said. “I have never seen so much snow before. It is like another world here.”
       “Yes, and a very cold one,” Zipper said. “Come on, we’d better get some rest.”
       Chip’s cell phone crackled to life. “Hello? How are of all of you there?” It was Eva on the other end. Chip took the phone out of his jacket pocket. “Hello, Eva! All’s well on this end. How are the rest of the groups doing?”
       “Theo checked in an hour ago, and said they were setting camp for the night. Gadget—that is, our Gadget—said that everything was going according to schedule in China. If you are also on schedule we should have access to all the pieces of the tablet well ahead of Klordane’s arrival,” Eva said.
       “Why does that worry me…” Lahwhinie said, asking for the phone next. “Mom, does the Rangerizer cause bruising in mid-transport?”
       “Uh, no,” Eva said, surprised. “You have a bruise you didn’t have before?”
       “Looks like a bruise,” Lahwhinie said. “It’s on the back of my right hand, pretty black.”

       There was noticeable silence on the other end. “Lahwhinie…is the bruise…round?” Lahwhinie traded looks with Chip. “It probably was at first, but now a little bit of it’s missing. I figured it was starting to heal up. Mom? Mom, are you there?”
       But Eva didn’t answer. Her face had gone blank in shock and she dropped her phone, which Chip could hear since the “send” button was apparently locked down. Now he knew something was bad. “Hello? What’s going on, Eva? Eva!”

       Monterey Jack was a brave mouse at heart, and there were very few things that could truly scare him. There is a difference between being afraid and being scared. He was afraid of Cat Street, but scared of the cats in it. He had always thought that particular feeling of being scared was the worst one he’d ever experience. He was wrong.
       They had all been asleep in the African jungle, and hadn’t heard the first of the conversation. But now from the cell phone—for they’d set it to activate when anyone called—came a gut-wrenching, blood-curdling scream the likes of which none of them had ever heard in their lives. To make it worse for Monty, it had come from his wife. Monty’s adrenalin kicked in as he jumped up and grabbed the phone just in time to hear Eva hit the floor.
       “Eva!” Monty said, worry all in his voice. “Glory be, what’s happenin’ there!” The whole camp was awake now and listening. They could hear muffled sounds from Ranger Headquarters, but it was Gadget Oakmont’s voice from China that came over next. “Mom? Mom, what’s wrong!”
       “We don’t know, lass. She just seemed ta scream an’ keel over from the sound of it. Chip mate, you there?” Monty asked.
       “Sure am,” Chip said, his own voice shaken. “It all happened when Lahwhinie told Eva about a black bruise on the back of her hand.” Monty didn’t know what to make of that. “Got to be something serious ta make Eva overload. She’s so cool under fire an’ all.”
       “Mom, are you all right?” Theo asked. Lahwhinie answered a moment later, trying to hide the uncertainty in her voice. “I think so, son. I feel okay and all, but—” They all stopped when they heard a splash of water and Eva starting to cough and gasp. Gadget Hackwrench’s voice came over the phone. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
       “We’re all here!” Chip said. “What happened?”
       “I don’t know!” Gadget Hackwrench said. “I heard Eva’s shout from the workshop, and I ran out here. She was out cold and now Tammy and her mom just came in from outside and they’re going to help me look after her. What’s this all about?”

       But before Chip could reply, Eva’s rasping voice came over the phone. “Lahwhinie! Get back here as fast as you can! Run, now!” Lahwhinie got a sick feeling in her gut, and she wasn’t the only one. “Mom, what is it?” Now Eva was crying. “Child, don’t ask, just get here! If there’s to be any chance at all, come home now! If we don’t do something, you’ll be dead in 48 hours!”
       A collective gasp went through the group. Chip shouted into the phone, “Eva, tell us now! What do you mean!” Eva was sobbing and Monty knew it was bad. “Luv, calm down. Ya gotta tell us what it is so we kin save our lass!” It took a few moments, but Eva’s voice returned. “You are right, but it was tears of guilt I was crying. Oh, it is too horrible to talk about...I can’t believe they did that! The fools! The sadistic-minded fools!”
       “Who did what!” Lahwhinie demanded, feeling panic coming on. “C’mon mom, now’s not the time to break down on us!”
       Eva gathered her strength and resolve, but her voice was small and bitter when it came over the phones again. “It is going to cause each one of you some pain to hear this, and especially young Theo. Back vhen I was working at R.O.D.E.N.T.S., I created some horrible things—things that I have never told any of you about. They are best left unknown to the vorld. One day, high command asked me to design something to ensure loyalty in agents that might consider leaving our organization.”
       Eva had to stop a moment, and Monty spoke softly to her. She regained her composure and continued. “I...I created the perfect mechanism—a tiny electronic device that attaches itself to the base of the brain stem. The device was programmed at R.O.D.E.N.T. headquarters with a certain amount of time before it activated. If the agent did not report in after the established deadline, the device vould activate. At first, the only indication would be a black spot on the back of the right hand to indicate the agent had 48 hours to report in. When that time was up and the spot was gone, it would... it would inject the agent with a deadly poison!”

       The Rangers were all too horrified to respond at first, but then Gadget Oakmont’s voice came over the line. “Surely there has to be a way to deactivate it or remove it?” Eva shook her head as she replied. “I designed it to be tamper-proof! Any attempt to pry it loose vould cause it to immediately release the poison! The only way to be rid of it is with a special remote control I also designed. Each device vould have an individual control, to prevent an agent from making one and deactivating their device. But I never built it! It vhas too horrible, and I meant to destroy those plans. I thought I had destroyed them, but obviously Project Phoenix got hold of them. Now, my beautiful baby’s going to die and it’s my fault! Mine!”
       Eva went into another round of tears, but Chip knew they had to act fast. “All right, we’re coming home. Gadget, get your group and meet us at Headquarters.” Gadget Oakmont blinked on her end. “But Chip, we haven’t been to see the artifact in Tibet yet, and—”
       “Forget the artifact!” Chip shouted. “This is Lahwhinie’s life we’re talking about! Theo, I want you to take over for us. You’ve got to get to the remaining tablets while we find a cure for your mother.”
       “Dad, no!” Theo shouted back. “Mom, I wanna come help! I can’t lose another parent like I lost my other mom and dad! I won’t have it!” Bink put her hands on Theo’s shoulders. “Theo, calm down! They need you to be strong now.”
       “She’s right, son,” Chip said. “You’re ready to lead now, and we’ve never needed you like we need you now. Please, just keep going and finish the search!” Theo didn’t respond at first. His mind was reeling with the thought of a death clock hanging over his mother’s life. He knew he was born to lead—everything that had happened up until now confirmed it for him. Only now the heavy mantle was thrust upon him, and it was the last thing he wanted.
       “All right, dad, save mom. Mom, can you hear me?” Theo asked.
       “I’m here, son,” Lahwhinie said, the emotion starting to creep into her voice.
       “Mom, don’t worry. They’ll save you. And I’ll handle the rest.”
       “I know you will, sport. I know it.”

       May 30 6:37am New York

       Theo’s brow was thick with sweat when he woke up, nearly jerking himself out of bed. He didn’t know what time it was, and he didn’t care. “Mooooom!” he shouted, hurtling out of his room through Headquarters. He found Monty in the kitchen, warming up the oven for breakfast. “Hey mate!” Monty said. “What’s up this—”
       Theo hit his shoulder against the doorframe, so great was the momentum he was scrambling against to get out of the kitchen. Panic had worked its way in and, driven more by instinct than thought, he ran out on the veranda and then back inside to the main room and was halfway up the stairs to Gadget and Dale’s room to ask them if they’d seen his mom when he heard Lahwhinie’s voice.
       His heart was racing now as he flew down the stairs and burst through the kitchen door. Lahwhinie looked at him, eyes wide and aghast as if she’d been prey, surprised by the hunter.
       “Theo! What are you—”
       He said nothing but rushed to where his eyes led him. Theo grabbed her right hand, turning it over to inspect it. The black spot wasn’t there, and immediately the panic left him, replaced with a gush of relief and happiness that left him feeling like a munk of a hundred. He hugged Lahwhinie hard, crying on her neck, nearly convulsing with the effort. Chip had come in during the middle of this, and traded perplexed looks with his wife. Lahwhinie waited a minute then gently pried him off of her. “Son, what’s the matter? Why are you so upset?”
       He looked at her with a stare of such blind terror that it unsettled her just as much as his plaintive cry, “ I thought you were dying!”

       This brought the attention of everyone, and in a few moments Gadget and Dale ran into the kitchen. They’d heard Theo on the steps near the door to their room, and had hurried down to see what was up. “Dying!” Gadget said. “Jeepers Theo, what are you talking about?”
       “I saw, that is I heard…” Theo stammered, words coming faster than he could handle them. “I had another dream and mom had this black spot on her hand and I heard Aunt Eva scream over the phone and then she said that it was a sign of some implant she’d developed at R.O.D.E.N.T.S. that would inject poison into its victim and kill them and all…”
       “What!” Chip said. “Theo, these dreams are starting to get out of hand! That settles it, we’re getting you to a doctor today. If Dr. Batorious is busy, we’ll find one that isn’t!” Theo shook his head. “I’m telling you, dad, it was real!”
       “Well, I don’t have a spot on my hand,” Lahwhinie said, showing her hand to everyone for emphasis. “You’ve been acting very strange lately. Besides, I’ve never even heard of an implant that could do that and I was in R.O.D.E.N.T.S., don’t forget.”

       “You may not, but I have.” The group turned as one to face Eva, who had been listening to the fast-paced conversation from outside the door. “Theo, did I say that it was a device I had invented?”
       “Yes,” Theo said, curious at her question. “You said it was something you came up with, but never actually made. Then you went on a tirade about how your old comrades could’ve made the thing.”
       “I did develop the idea for such a thing, but it was such an insidious device I never revealed the plans for it to my superiors, for fear just such a thing would happen,” Eva said, touching Theo’s face. “Dahling, you may not be dreaming.”
       That revelation left them all searching for something to say, but Dale as usual came to the rescue. “So what’ll we do about it?” Lahwhinie took Theo’s left hand to lead him. “For one thing, we get him some help. Whatever’s happening can’t be good for him.” Chip grabbed his son’s other hand. “Let’s go see Doctor Batorious, and see what he says.”

       May 30 9:47am New York

       “My apologies for not being able to receive you yesterday, Theo,” Dr. Batorious said. The chiropteran doctor had a busy morning shift as usual, but for a family member of the Rangers he’d made time. He was older now, and had that appearance of long experience that many patients found comfortable. His deep voice was even a notch deeper now, and his eyes were a little sunken. At the moment, that might have been more from the previous day’s efforts than the effects of age.
       “Tony, the hamster boy I was telling you about, he’d fallen from the back of an old truck that he and some of his friends were playing on. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but he fell right onto a piece of glass. It punctured his right lung and just missed nicking his spinal cord.”
       “Oh, that poor boy!” Gadget said, always sympathetic. “Did he pull through okay?”
       “Yes, he’s fine,” Batorious said. “They got him to me quickly and with the help of that new trauma room you designed a couple years back we were prepared. It was just fortunate that we’re in our new facilities and fully staffed, or we’d have never made it.”
       “It was about time,” Chip said. “You’ve needed better facilities for years.”
       Lahwhinie nodded. “It was just that bunch of old quacks that wouldn’t accept your ideas. And now you’re the senior surgeon, head of the entire rodent division here at New York Presbyterian Hospital. How’s it feel?”
       “Tiring, to be honest,” Batorious said, pushing aside a pile of papers on his desk. “I couldn’t handle what the interns do, but five classes and surgery is a long day. Still, it’s rewarding. Now, let me see if I understand this: Theo’s having dreams of being in another reality, only they aren’t dreams. And you’ve witnessed atypical behavioral patterns in him that he doesn’t remember and none of you can explain.”
       “That’s about the size of it,” Chip said.

       Batorious pushed a call button on his desk and had a quick talk with his secretary. In about five minutes the secretary walked in, and so did someone else. She was a middle-sized female mouse wearing a lab coat and doctor’s uniform, with light-gray fur and graying hair as well. She had a full and kindly face, and perceptive brown eyes behind a pair of thin-rimmed spectacles.
       Dr. Batorious stood up and shook the lady’s hand. “Theo, I’d like you to meet Dr. Sandra Burkhart. She’s the head of psychiatric medicine here at NYPH.” Theo looked back at the doctor, and despite her pleasant smile he didn’t like the idea of this. “Hello, Dr. Burkhart.”
       “Hello, Theo,” she said, her voice warm and smooth. “I hear you’re having a problem with dreams. Would you object to my feeling your head?” Theo thought the request a little strange, but assented and took off his hat. Dr. Burkhart began a systematic check of Theo’s cranium, running her fingers through his head fur. “Tell me if it hurts when I apply pressure, Theo.”
       Dr. Burkhart pushed against his skull in several places, but Theo felt no pain. “Okay, I’m done, Theo.” Theo put his hat back on and the doctor took a step back. “I was checking for any sign of head trauma that might explain the problems that Dr. Batorious’ secretary outlined to me. Could the rest of you give us a few minutes to talk?”

       Doctor Batorious and the Rangers left, and now it was just Theo and Dr. Burkhart. “Now, I would like to hear the details of what you’ve been experiencing,” the doctor said. “This will be just between us, so don’t be afraid that I’ll repeat it to anyone.”
       Theo sighed, and recanted the entire thing, front to back. Dr. Burkhart took notes throughout and at the end the amazement on her face showed. “I don’t believe I’ve ever run across anything quite like this before. I agree that this does not sound like a dream. Theo, have you ever heard of a disorder called disassociative fugue?”
       “No, not really. What’s that?” Theo asked.
       “It’s a psychogenic state wherein one in essence ‘becomes’ someone else,” Dr. Burkhart explained. “It can be brought on by a traumatic experience or by great psychological pressure; pressure one wishes to escape. There have been many cases where a person simply left home and created a new life for themselves, totally separate from their normal natures. Then if they come back, they may remember nothing whatsoever of what happened while in that fugue condition.”
       “I’m not crazy, doctor,” Theo said.
       “I didn’t say you were, Theo,” Dr. Burkhart said. “Experiencing a fugue does not mean you’re crazy. But it could mean that you’re having difficulty facing something in your life right now. Can you think of anything that might be putting you under unusual pressure?”
       Theo didn’t want to answer, but he knew she was only trying to help. “Well, when I graduate I’ll be going into Ranger duty full time and then there’s Bink, my girlfriend. We’re pretty close and we’ll probably get married pretty soon. Other than that, I can’t really think of anything.”
       “Do you feel ready to be a leader, Theo?”
       Theo nodded. “Sure. Dad and the others have trained me well. I know that I may have to face things I’m not ready for, but I’ll live and learn.” The doctor wrote down a few words on her notepad. “And do you feel you’re ready to be a husband and father?”
       At that, Theo crossed his arms. “I’d rather not talk about that.”
       “Theo, I apologize if it feels like I’m prying.”
       “I don’t want to air things about my relationship with Becky, that’s all,” Theo said. The doctor nodded. “Okay, I understand. But let me ask you this—if you do marry her and you have to choose between being a Ranger or a husband and father, which would it be?”

       Theo remained silent for longer than seemed natural, so the doctor prompted him again. “Is it such a hard choice?” Theo paused, then nodded. “I love Becky more than anything, but I know I’m meant to be a Ranger and a leader. We’re both going to do this together. I know dad’s made it work with mom, but—”
       “But you’re concerned that you might not be able to juggle it all.”
       Theo paused, then nodded. “Yeah.”
       Dr. Burkhart smiled reassuringly. “That’s nothing to be worried about, young man. In fact, it’s a common reaction. I think you need to sit down with your family and your girlfriend and talk about your concerns.”
       Theo grimaced. “But what if they don’t understand?”
       “I think they will. Theo, while you’re here I would like to monitor you during a sleep cycle as a precautionary measure. We have equipment here that can measure your brain functions during REM sleep. I’m leaning away from fugue being the explanation, but whatever the case it’s a wise precaution. If you’re free now I can give you a sedative and have you home by suppertime.”

Chapter 13 – Evil Intentions, Tough Confessions and a Switch in Time

       Limbo - No time reference available

       In Limbo, an evil grin spread over the plotting face of one Aldrin Armstrong Klordane. He was close enough to the dimensional plane of Earth now that he could witness things going on for himself. With disciplines he’d learned over the years in this netherworld, he was able to listen in on Eva’s conversation with the rest of the Rangers. If they had known how gleeful this man was, they would have wanted him boiled in oil. As it was, that was one of the fates he was considering for them.
       “Perfect! All is going exactly on schedule,” Klordane said, floating in the grayish-pink non-existence that was Limbo. “Now I will live again, and when I do I’ll make them rue the day they heard my name!”
       “Oh, will you give it a rest already?”

       Klordane turned to find several floating inhabitants of Limbo facing him. Through crimes, tricks of fate or unhappy accidents these souls had ended up here, locked between space and time. Their names filled the rogue’s list of myriad planets: Space Specter, NegaDuck, Kru-El, Rumplestilskin, Captain Bluebeard, and a host of others. It was Rumplestilskin, the dwarf who once threatened whole kingdoms, who spoke.
       “We know about your ‘glorious’ plan, Klordane,” the dwarf said. “We’ve all had them!”
       “Don’t you remember what happened when we tried to leave?” Kru-El asked. “Sure, my comrades and I escaped from the Zone for a time, but we were defeated and returned.” Klordane grinned at the conniving Kryptonian. “That’s simply because you didn’t know how to plan. Now, not only will I be leaving this pestilential prison, but I’m bringing with me the greatest collection of villainy the world has ever known!”
       “And then I’ll be free to create some major mayhem!” NegaDuck said, grinning evilly.
       “You speak prematurely, Klordane,” a calm voice sounded nearby. A human dressed in Egyptian attire floated near. “The Rescue Rangers and their allies are more resourceful than you give them credit for.”
       “Oh, you believe so, Wiz-Ra?” Klordane said, a note of challenge in his voice. “Well, I assure you that every contingency has been accounted for.” Wiz-Ra, an ancient champion of good from the Thundercats’ universe, mistakenly banished into the seventh dimension—actually Limbo, smiled back at Klordane. “I may not have my powers here, evil one, but unlike Mumm-Ra and yourself I can see past the end of my nose. You cannot account for everything.”
       “Really? Then watch as you’re proved wrong,” Klordane said, the group of prisoners gathering around a section of Limbo that allowed them to see any part of Earth they wished. The image changed, and now they watched the Rangers’ camp in Africa. “Soon, they will be all be neutralized, and with the other two groups out of the way the world will be mine at last!”

       May 30 10:30am New York

       In a private room, Dr. Burkhart and the Rangers gathered around the hospital bed where Theo was lying down. “The sedative will only be strong enough to help you sleep,” the doctor said. “It won’t knock you unconscious, so you should be fine when you wake up.”
       “Thanks, doc,” Theo said. “Too bad I didn’t have a doctor like you back at the orphanage. Nurse Haggly used us for target practice with that old square needle of hers.”
       Dr. Burkhart laughed. “Things have changed, and medicine’s gotten a lot friendlier. Now, just go ahead and lie back. A nurse will be in every hour or so to check your progress. You’ll wake up in about five hours.”

       With that, the doctor started for the door. Theo motioned to his parents. “Would you guys stay for a minute? There’s something I need to say.” They did so, the others leaving, and in a few moments Theo had their full attention. He told them about his talk with Dr. Burkhart and his concerns about the future and Bink.
       Chip for one was surprised. “Theo, we wouldn’t have thought any less of you. You should’ve told us you felt this way.” Theo let a little emotion creep into his voice. “But dad, you’re so good at handling those things! You always know what to do, and I have to keep up that image.”
       “Fiddlesticks!” Chip retorted. “I don’t know what to do half the time. That’s why I’m glad to have Lahwhinie and the others to help me. It’s simply that I have to make confident choices. If they’re wrong, I’ll learn. And so will you.”
       This surprised Theo. “You mean when you act confident you really aren’t?”
       “Some of the time. It’s necessary as a leader to instill confidence in the people around you, even when you’re not.”
       Lahwhinie sat by him. “Son, if you have any more questions or problems, please come to us. I know that we’re not the model father and mother, but we’ll do our best.” Theo hugged his mother. “Thanks,” Theo said. “Call Dr. Burkhart and Aunt Eva back in now.”

       They did so, and the doctor looked at the group, sensing there was something going on. “Are you ready to begin now, Theo?”
       “Almost,” Theo said. “But there’s still a problem.”
       “What’s that?” Dr. Burkhart asked.
       “Tell her, Aunt Eva.”
       Eva commenced to tell the doctor about the details of Theo’s last dream and its links to reality. “…and there is no vhay he could have known the details of that device I designed, or even that it existed. I never revealed that to anyone.” Dr. Burkhart grimaced, thinking. “That is certainly strange...”
       Theo watched as Dr. Burkhart attached the electrodes to him. “This won’t hurt, will it?”
       Dr. Burkhart laughed. “Not at all. I’ll call the nurse to help you get ready.” Then the psychiatrist looked to the others. “You’re free to stay if you like, but it’s not really necessary.” Chip looked at the others and saw they shared his thoughts. “We’ll stay for an hour or so if you don’t mind. Is there a convenient place we can sit down?”

       May 29 8:22am Nakuru Jungle

       A few minutes before the nurse in Theo’s room would give him his sedative, in the African jungle another Theo had taken the news about Lahwhinie hard, and for a time everyone just let him be. Bink held out as long as she could, then she’d gone in search of him. She found him at the cliffside, staring off into space.
       “Theo, Lahwhinie’s going to be okay,” Bink said. “Chip’ll see to that.”
       “You don’t know that!” Theo shouted, feeling the pressure of the moment. “No one knows that!”
       Bink allowed him to calm down. “Theo, you can’t let fear control you. You’ve got to believe that she’s going to be okay.” Theo stared her down. “How can I!” Bink started to move to take his hands, but held back. “Whatever you’re afraid of losing, that’s your weakest point. I know my folks will die someday, and as much as I love you, you’re going to die too. But I’m not going to let that paralyze me.”
       “But this is different!” Theo protested. “Lahwhinie’s got a death sentence hanging over her like some Sword of Damocles! It’s not fair!”
       Bink did take his hands now. “Theo! Theo, look at me.” Theo didn’t want to, but he did. Her voice was strong and sure. “Theo, she’s not going to die.”
       “How do you know?”
       “I choose to know it. That’s going to have to be good enough for you. Now you say it.”
       Theo looked down, then glanced back at her somberly. “Lahwhinie’s not going to die.” Bink sighed internally. She knew he didn’t believe it, but it was a start. “Say it again.”
       “Lahwhinie’s not going to die.”
        “Good, now whenever you think about her, you say that. Don’t let those ugly thoughts take over, because you have a mission to do in that other world and we don’t have a lot of time to do it in,” Bink said, then pointed to her watch. “In fact, the switchback time is almost here.”
       Theo nodded. “Thanks, Bink. You’re my oldest and best friend. Don’t worry, I’ll be back.” Bink had grimaced slightly when he’d used the word “friend” but she quickly covered it. “But should we be talking about this now? Klordane could—”
       “No, his ability to view us ended about a half-hour ago,” Theo said. “Remember the rotational factor.” Then Theo stopped and seemed to look far off. “It’s nearly time. Bink...Bink, I—” He appeared to want to say more, but something held him back.
       Bink bailed him out. “You’d better get going. It’s almost time.”

       Theo and Bink walked back to camp, where Theo laid down and closed his eyes, seeming almost to go into a trance. In a few moments, he jerked awake again. “I’m back here!” Theo said, now entirely disoriented as he tried to stand. “Bink, what’s going on?”
       “No time to explain that right now,” Bink said, helping him up. “I think Gabarah has something to say to us.” Theo took a moment to collect himself, then faced the African tribemouse. “But I want to know…oh, well. Yes, Gabarah, what is it?” Gabarah indicated the jungle ahead. “I and Basil talk to Eva, and we must go now and have the tablet piece seen and copied in three hours or less.”
       “But I thought you said it wasn’t safe,” Bink said.
       “It is not,” Basil said, “but we can no longer maintain a safety factor. Theo, are you up to this?” Theo pulled down his fedora. He had lots of questions, but sensed the urgency of the moment. “Whether I am or not doesn’t matter. We have it to do, so we’ll get it done.”
       “Now that’s the guy I remember,” Bink said. “Let’s win both battles, your mom’s and this one. Okay?”
       “Okay,” Theo said, putting his arm around Bink. “On to the first piece!”

Chapter 14 – A Simple Request, The Doppelganger, and Up in the Air

       May 30 6:35am New York

       “Ki-ids!” Gadget shouted. “It’s time for your baths. Oh, honestly…”
       Just before the trouble with Theo, Gadget had run into a bit of trouble of her own. One thing Gadget knew that Geegaw and Althea had in common—they both hated being clean. At times, this disliking could result in an extended game of hide-and-seek, so Gadget just sighed and had set in to look for them.
       That was when Theo’s yell had come. Twenty minutes later, the other Rangers were heading out to see Dr. Batorious and Gadget resumed her search. The kids were nowhere to be found and now there was a note of warning in her voice. “If you two don’t get out here in the next ten seconds, there’s going to be trouble!”
       “Looking for the kids?” Dale asked, sticking his head around a corner. He’d been checking the Rangers’ inventory of food, to see what needed to be handled in the weekly shopping, which was now a more demanding task with so many mouths to feed. “I saw them this morning. They hiding from you again?”
       “Yes, and frankly I’m getting tired of it,” Gadget said, crossing her arms. “We need to teach those kids the value of proper hygiene! Of course, their father could use a refresher course too...” Dale knew she was out of sorts, and it was time for him to take over. “Go ahead to your workshop. I’ll find them.”
       Gadget started to shake her head, but she did need a break. “Okay, if you’re sure.”
       “Sure I’m sure!” Dale said. “Now you go on and have fun. I’ll have them sudzing up in minutes!”

       May 29 6:30pm New York

       Back at Ranger Headquarters, Eva was already racking her brain on how to solve her own dilemma with Lahwhinie. Discovering the deadly implant had brought back all the dark memories she’d so carefully tried to bury and leave behind. She’d been a different person then, able to rationalize almost any action “for the good of the organization”. The things she’d done under that banner made her shudder now and she returned to her work in Gadget’s workshop, copying out all the information she knew about the implant.
       It was several hours before a knock came at the door. Eva spoke into her cell phone. “They are back. Oh Monty, you must help me be strong…”
       “Don’t worry, lass. We’ll beat this thing. Erskines don’t give up—it’s in our family motto, ya know.”
       Eva put the phone down, pushing her fears aside, and walked through the main room toward the front door even as the sound of the RangerWing stilled. Before Eva could open the door, Lahwhinie pushed through and the two females found themselves thrust face-to-face. For several indecisive moments, they simply stared.
       “My dahling...”
       Lahwhinie gave her a quick hug of encouragement. “Mom, don’t worry about it. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to look death in the face. Let’s just cut the chit-chat and figure out a way to get this thing outta me.”
       Eva was glad that her daughter was so resolute, but she knew her bravado was a mask. Still, a mask can be helpful, she reminded herself. “Very well. Gadget and I here have a few ideas that may help. Your sister and the Gadget that is married to the other Chip are returning soon, so vith all of us working I am sure we will find something!”

       Eva showed Lahwhinie the way, and Gadget Hackwrench caught Chip before he could follow. The mouse inventor waited until the door had shut to Gadget’s workshop. “It’ll be best to let them work, Chip. I saw some of the ideas Eva’s worked up and it looks promising. How’re you holding up?”
       “Not as good as I’d like,” Chip said. “This is hitting too close to home. If I lose her, I’m using that time viewer and I’m going to go back and save her!”
       “If it really does come back into our reality, I’ll join you on that quest. We Rescue Rangers have to stick together.”
       Gadget went into the kitchen to fix herself a quick lunch and Chip started to head for the sofa and wait. Two faces peeped around the corner, from the hallway that led to Gadget’s workshop. “Uncle Chip?” Geegaw said.
       “Chipper!” Althea had the privilege of calling him that, and now she did as she ran and hugged him. “Chipper, why won’t they let us in the workshop? What’s wrong with Aunt Lahwhinie?”
       Chip looked at them, totally confused. “Hey, what is this! Who are you kids?” Althea let go of Chip and stared up at him. “What do you mean? You know us as good as anyone!” Chip didn’t have time for this. “Okay kids, let’s go. Why don’t you tell me who your parents are, and we’ll get you home.”
       Geegaw adjusted his glasses. “Gadget and Dale Oakmont, of course.”
       Chip took a step back. “What? Come on, quit fooling and tell me the truth.”
       Althea was already on the verge of tears. “But we are telling the truth! Why don’t you remember us, Uncle Chipper?” Chip was about to reprove them again when he stopped, realizing that there was another explanation. “Um, kids, did anything strange happen to you this morning?”
       “Well,” Geegaw said, “we woke up and went looking for mom. She wasn’t in her workshop, so we decided to try somewhere else. Just before we left, there was this big flash of light in there. I thought it was mom’s xenon camera or something, and we came in here.”

       Chip rubbed his chin, looking at the two of them. There was some resemblance to both Dale and Gadget in them. He took off his fedora, showing them to seats at the sofa. “Okay, let’s say for the moment you are who you say you are. I think that flash of light happened when you were shifted into an alternate universe. This universe.”
       “Another universe!” Althea exclaimed. “You mean Theo was right? He said he thought he was switching back and forth or something.” Chip nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Only there’s no one like you here. That could explain how Agnes got here, though.”
       At that moment, Gadget Hackwrench came into the room. “I didn’t know we had visitors. Who are they?” Chip didn’t know quite how to put it. “Um, would you believe your children?” Gadget stopped in her tracks, staring blankly. “My…children? But I don’t have any children! I’ve never even been married!”
       “You did both in our universe,” Geegaw said. “I’m Geegaw, your son there. And she’s Althea, but everyone calls her Ally. Dale’s our dad.” Gadget walked over slowly, mesmerized. “Golly…”

       Over the next hour, Gadget exchanged information with the kids, and Geegaw and Althea confirmed that this was indeed the reality that Theo had told them about. Althea had cried some at first, but Gadget had comforted her and that helped. Now she was thinking about what had happened and a slight smile crossed her lips.
       “What’s got you smiling?” Gadget asked.
       Althea grinned up at her. “I just realized, this got us out of a bath!”

       Chip and Gadget helped the kids settle into their room—or rather the room they called their own at home—for the evening, then returned to the kitchen for some coffee. It was going to be a long night. Once he’d taken a few sips, Chip realized that the door to the workshop wasn’t locked and he’d best make sure the kids weren’t sneaking around. He took a peek back into their room to find Geegaw already asleep, a book he’d been reading covering his chest.
       Althea was awake, kneeling beside her bunk. “...and don’t let mom worry that we’re gone. And please, let Aunt Lahwhinie here be okay. It would make Chipper too sad if she went away, and me too.”
       Chip watched silently as the little girl munk climbed into her bed and gradually faded off to sleep. After he closed the door, he wiped away the tears so as not to show Eva or anyone else how much his feelings had been stirred by that simple request. Of course, Gadget could see the marks when he came back but chose to keep her own counsel. There would be time for that later, but hopefully not a need.

       May 30 11:00am New York

       In room 217 of the rodent annex of New York Presbyterian Hospital, a young brunette female chipmunk nurse came in, dressed in the traditional whites and nurse’s cap. She smiled when she saw Theo’s handsome face, placid in sleep. Making sure not to wake him, she checked to be sure the monitoring equipment was running okay. Assured that it was, she took another look at her charge. “I bet the girls go wild over you.”
       She left then, closing the door silently. The moment she did the chipmunk’s eyes popped open. He waited a few more seconds then silently slipped out of his bed. Finding his fedora and jacket in the closet, he dressed and creaked the door open with the greatest of care. There was no one in the hall, so he slipped out and closed the door as silently as the nurse had.
       He had no idea of which way he should go, never having been to this particular hospital. He took a left at the next hallway and saw a stairwell sign at the end of the long hall in front of him. Walking casually, the chipmunk headed down the hall as if he were a visitor, getting back to whatever business called for his attention.
       Just past the halfway point he passed a large waiting room. He saw them only too late, and muttered something under his breath. One of them called after him, but he didn’t stop. He didn’t dare to. Then the Rangers came out into the hall.
       “Theo, where do you think you’re going!” Chip shouted. “Theo?”
       But the chipmunk in the fedora and jacket didn’t respond. Or rather he did, by starting to run. Lahwhinie began running too. “Come on, it must be the other Theo! We can’t let him get away!”

       May 29 9:12am Nakuru Jungle

       In the jungle, Theo checked his party over. He knew there was more to this experience than a dream now, but he wasn’t ready to show his hand yet. These people could be anything from androids to clones to who-knew-what and could be simply waiting for him to accuse them before taking him out. For now, he’d play the role they would have him play.
       “Okay, let’s get moving,” Theo said, taking up his pack. “And remember, stick close because we’ll need to get into action fast if there’s an ambush.” Agnes crouched low as they continued. “Actually, I’d say ‘when’ if what Gabarah said was right.”
       “Don’t worry, I’m ready for anything!” Bink said, then freed herself from the arm that Theo had put around her. Theo wondered if he’d done something wrong. “Hey, you all right?”
       “Sure,” Bink said, an apology in her eyes. “I’m fine.”
       “Good, because I am not,” Agnes replied, coming up next to her. “Keep your eyes open, young one. We have a long way to go.”

       The path they followed described a clockwise circuit around Lake Nakuru. They soon left the heights they had enjoyed and walked down by the lake’s edge. Every now and again they disturbed nesting birds that let their displeasure be known. Basil kept an eye out for trouble, but couldn’t help noticing how Theo jumped and twitched at every sound and movement. The aquiline-nosed mouse silently tread up to where he was even with the young leader.
       “You must be in complete control of yourself, Theo. Your outward fear can become infectious.” Theo thought about all the contributors to that fear at the moment, and decided not to list them. “How do you control it? You look like you’re out on a stroll in the park.”
       “Face it by accepting that the danger is there and not worrying about it until it materializes. If it’s not there you’ve wasted time and energy worrying about it. If it is there, worrying won’t help you deal with it when it does come.”
       Theo took a long breath. “You’re right, of course. Tell me, do you feel a certain exhilaration about this? I mean, not knowing exactly what’s coming, but knowing that soon you could be fighting the forces of evil to save who knows how many people. Does it make you feel, well, larger than life?”
       Basil grinned, his bared teeth showing in his anticipation. “I live for the thrill, for the hunt. At times like this I feel more alive than ever. Doing good makes it even better.”
       “Yes, that’s it. The hunt. Now I know why dad doesn’t want to give this up.”
       Agnes stole up next to them. “I saw something in the trees ahead. Look sharp.”

       They crouched down, and in an instant the area was silent. That was a sign of danger in itself, for a quiet jungle meant that the resident animals sensed something nearby. Now that they were in a more open area, it was easier to navigate. That troubled them, though, because more open meant they were easier to spot. Still, there was only one way to go and they were fighting the clock. Theo motioned them forward.
       The net had been covered expertly, so even Basil didn’t notice it until the trap was sprung. The low light of early morning combined with the jungle canopy had also worked in the trapper’s favor, and now a mouse in a safari outfit emerged with a trio of rodent helpers to view their prize, suspended several inches above the path.
       It was Donovan, the mouse-for-hire. “Well, looks like quite a haul we got here. Guess ol’ Fat Cat was right, and the booty he paid was worth a cold night.” The mouse sported an Australian accent and bowed, gentlemanlike. “Welcome your highnesses. I’m Russel Donovan, but you can call me Donovan. I’m pleased to be your host for what’s sure to be an interesting stay. I can’t guarantee you’ll like the tour, but it’s got a great finish—just ask those blokes over yonder.”
       The group turned as one in the net to see two crocodiles emerging from the water, their eyes gleaming. The nefarious criminals laughed heartily. “Yep, looks like mighty good tucker for me mates tonight.”

Chapter 15 – The Chase Is On, An Intimate Talk and a New Problem

       May 30 11:10am New York

       Car horns screamed in anger as Theo bolted out of the hospital and ran across the street. He’d hoped the Rangers of this universe wouldn’t have guessed about the switchover, but evidently they had. The munk took a look back over his shoulder, and it made him redouble his efforts. Bink was back there, and she looked to be just as fast here.
       Taking a shortcut through a parking garage, he attempted to lose his pursuers, but there were simply too many of them. He scurried on, determined to get to this goal. As for the group following them, they had no idea where Theo was headed but they were just as determined to stop him.
       “Why is he running?” Lahwhinie asked, running next to Chip. “If he’s…another Theo, then surely he knows us!”
       “Maybe we’re…enemies in his world,” Chip said, talking between breaths. “In any case, he doesn’t…seem to want to have anything to do…with us. I hope this chase doesn’t go on too much longer. We’ve already lost…Monty and Eva and he’s got…twenty years on both of us!”
       “Maybe so,” Lahwhinie said, pointing. “But he doesn’t have…twenty years on her!”

       Bink was out in front of the others, using her natural speed to try to run Theo down. He had a half-block lead on her, but she was gaining. As she ran after him, all sorts of thoughts ran through her mind. What was this Theo like? Would he fight her? Soon, she recognized that they were headed in the direction of the human warehouse they’d investigated a few days ago.
       Theo ran inside the building at full tilt, disappearing into the superstructure. Bink and Chip and Lahwhinie were close behind, then Zipper and Honey flew down a few moments later. “None of us saw him leave,” Zipper said. “He must be in there.”
       “All right, let’s split up. Bink, you’re with Lahwhinie and me. We’ll check that room that was marked on the map you found. Zipper, you and Honey take the southeast corner of the building. If Monty and Eva catch up, they can check out the northeast part with you.”
       “Will do, mate!” Monty shouted from above. Eva and Monty had gone back to the hospital and now were flying the RangerWing above the scene. Chip nodded, waving up to them, and each group proceeded to their designated place.
       Chip moved slowly as he and his group entered the building. This Theo seemed to be more experienced than his son at working on his own, and since they didn’t know his loyalties it was best to use stealth. They kept to the shadows, working their way around stacks of crates, keeping between them and the manufactured aluminum walls where possible.
       As they approached the room Theo and Bink had found empty during their last visit, Chip motioned for the others to stop. The room was no longer empty, though there were some movers in uniform trying to make it so, taking several large wooden crates to a nearby flatbed truck. Chip could see Theo in there, also in the shadows, watching the humans with single-minded interest. Again Chip motioned, indicating they should fan out.
       They crawled, doing their best to keep out of Theo’s line of sight. When they were close enough, Chip hollered “Charge!” and the trio dashed forward. Theo had allowed his attention to go to the humans in front of him and was caught off-guard. Bink dove and grabbed his legs as he started to handspring away from them, tackling him.
       “Hold it right there, you pretender boyfriend!” Bink shouted. “Now, how about telling us who you really are and where you’re from?”
       Theo looked up to see Chip and Lahwhinie standing in front of him, preventing his escape. He craned his neck to see around them—the humans still loading crates. “Okay, okay. But we don’t have long. You’ve probably already guessed most of it, but you don’t know the full scope. I’m from another reality and those men behind you are unknowingly part of one of the most dastardly plots ever conceived.”

       May 29 6:57pm New York

       Back in the alternate universe, Chip’s coffee had long since gone cold. He didn’t much care, though. Gadget and Dale’s group had returned from China within the last hour, so now all three Gadgets and Eva were working on the problem at hand. They’d given him one update, which through the technobabble did give him some hope. Apparently they’d found a possible way to at least block the final fatal signal for the implant to do its dirty work, but removing it still eluded them.
       As he reached for his cup on the veranda, a fresh hot cup appeared in front of him. It was Lahwhinie and she looked as haggard as he did. “A couple of them wanted a break, so I thought I’d come see how you were doing. Need anything?”
       “A happy ending.”
       He slid his arms around his wife and held her close. Lahwhinie closed her eyes, enjoying the strength and warmth she’d come to trust and rely upon. “Sounds good to me, loverboy. But know, I just want you to know that the past six years with you have been the happiest of my life.”
       Lahwhinie touched his face, caressing it. “I never knew there were guys like you. I don’t think I would’ve believed it back then even if I had trusted anyone enough to listen. You’ve given me more joy than I deserve...than any woman deserves.” Chip’s answer was almost a whisper. “You deserved every bit of it and I’m happier now than I ever thought possible. I didn’t know what ‘soul mate’ meant until I met you.”

       Lahwhinie suddenly grabbed Chip’s jacket lapels, gritting her teeth. “I’m not ready to go yet! I’ve got too much to live for now. I won’t go! I can’t!” She relaxed and dried her eyes. “I want to see Theo grow into a man. I want to see when my husband finally decides he’s had enough and calls it a day. I want to see us both old and having to wonder if we took our medicine to remember where the rest of our medicine is. I want to retire to that old house of Sean’s and watch the sun come up over that lake in the mornings and listen to you play the piano even if it’s out of tune. That’s what I want.”
       “And I swear that you’ll see all those things and more,” Chip said. “I’ve never let you down before, have I?” Lahwhinie looked him in the eyes. “Promise me that you’ll retire when the time comes. Promise me that right now, Chip Maplewood.” Chip thought it odd that his retirement was what was most pressing on her mind at the moment. “I promise. Why does that bother you so?”
       “It doesn’t. I just want to think about a time after now. I have to live, and thinking about the future’s a way to keep my hope going. But whatever happens to me now, I don’t want you to do anything out of a sense of guilt. I chose this life, and I’d choose it again in a flat second.”
       “Okay, since you want to think about the future, then you get to decide where we’re taking a vacation as soon as this situation’s wrapped up.”
       Lahwhinie gave a very small laugh. “That’s a no-brainer. Can’t beat paradise, loverboy. We’ll take all three Gadgets with us and let them fight it out to see which one gets to use the stilts to tour the city with. And maybe Theo will finally ask Bink to come with us. Assuming he…comes home.”
       “He’ll come home,” Chip said. “I’d never believe otherwise. Paradise it is then. Maybe while we’re there we can have Hubba-Hubba renew our vows.” Lahwhinie put her arms around him, batting her eyes. “Oh, you are clever! I knew I kept you around for a reason.”

       They kissed, sharing that unique brand of love they’d come to cherish. After a few more quiet moments, Lahwhinie had another thought. “How do you think Theo’s doing, in that other universe?”
       “He’s got plenty of help, I suspect. Once the other Rangers understand why he’s there, they’ll be sure to help him out. Right now though, he’s probably got a lot more on his mind at the moment than two worried parents.”

       May 30 11:13am New York

       “I don’t believe a word of it!” Chip said, once he’d heard Theo’s story. “Alternate universes, Klordane escaping from Limbo? Theo—if you really are Theo in there—this is ludicrous!” Theo, at the moment held back by Bink and Lahwhinie, stared back at Chip. “I’m telling you the truth! I’m a Theo from another universe, and your son’s switched places with me.”
       “But vhy would he do that?” Eva asked, now present along with Monty and the other Rangers. “And if you are who you claim to be, why didn’t you just ask for our help to begin with and avoid all this trouble?” .
       “It wasn’t by choice,” Theo said. “It was necessary to give me a chance to stop Fat Cat in this universe. You see—”
       A collective gasp from the Rangers stopped him before he could continue. “FAT CAT!” Chip exclaimed. “But he’s been gone for years! You mean he’s alive?"
       “Very much so, unfortunately. The device that opens the pathway to Limbo has to be activated in two nearly-congruent universes simultaneously. Klordane could’ve chosen any two, but he chose yours because he was able to easily contact your world’s Fat Cat due to the effects of the modemizer accident. That’s also why he chose Fat Cat in our world, incidentally.”
       Bink stared at Theo, her eyelids narrowing. “If you’re another Theo, prove it!” Theo appeared to be deep in thought for a moment, then looked at the rest of them, alarmed. “Gadget’s children—what’s their names…”
       “Geegaw and Althea,” Chip said.
       “They’re not in your reality anymore. They’re in mine,” Theo said. “Go and call Gadget and Dale. You’ll see that they’re missing.” Chip motioned for the others to bring him along. “Okay, we’ll check it out.”

       Not for a moment did Chip buy it, but when he flipped on the radio to Ranger Headquarters it was a different story. Gadget was on the verge of panic. “Chip! Oh, thank goodness! Dale and I have looked everywhere for the kids and they’re not here!” Chip looked over at Theo, then back to the radio. “I think I know where they are, Gadget. I’m going to let Theo explain.”
       “Theo?” Gadget asked. “What does he know about it?”
       Chip stuck the mike up to Theo’s face. “Gadget,” Theo said, “your kids are okay. However, they’re no longer in this reality. They’re in the same place that this universe’s Theo is, probably at Ranger Headquarters with the Rangers that are there.”
       There was a noticeable pause on the radio. “WHAT! How could you know that?”
       “Because I’m not the Theo from this world. I’m from that other universe, and I have a means of contacting one of the people there. Your children are safe, but for now they’re beyond your reach.”
       “Chip, is this true?” Gadget asked.
       “I’m not sure, Gadget,” Chip said, turning to his friends. “What do you guys think?”

       Bink motioned for Monty to take over holding Theo and looked into his eyes. She remembered what both she and Theo had noticed before, and now she played back the memory of seeing Theo’s face in the maze of mirrors. She looked at the munk in front of her again.
       “You do look different, but as the song says there’s only one way to know.” Bink came closer, then put her right hand behind his head and kissed him. Chip and Lahwhinie looked on, dumbfounded. Bink stopped suddenly. Her eyes opened and she drew back.
       “You are from another world,” Bink said, realization setting in. “But then my Theo is…”
       “Leading a very unique group of people to stop Klordane in my universe,” Theo said, nodding. Chip motioned for Monty and Lahwhinie to let Theo go. Theo brushed himself off, and the leader of the Rangers stood fedora-to-fedora with him. “Then go back and let my son come back here, and get Dale and Gadget’s kids home!”
       “I’m afraid it’s not that simple anymore,” Theo said.
       “It is for me!” Chip said. “I want my son back, now!”
       “And my children!” Gadget shouted over the radio.
       Theo put a hand on Chip’s shoulder. “I know you do, Chip. I know you both do, but your Theo can’t do the things I could here. I’m tracking those machine parts that the humans are loading, because they’re parts that Fat Cat needs to finish assembling the interdimensional device. We had to switch, so neither Fat Cat nor Klordane would suspect. And right now I need your Theo to be there to cover for me. I also need for all of you to treat me as your Theo, because soon Klordane will be able to view events here. As for Theo, he’s doing fine. There’s only one thing.”
       Monty crossed his arms. “Oh, joy.”
       “What is it?” Gadget asked.
       “There was just another earthquake in my universe. Fat Cat’s already assembled his version of the device there and he’s used it to weaken the dimensional gateways. Then he used it a second time, which increased the power of all the other gateways except between the affected realities and Limbo. When he uses it the third time, when Limbo is closest to his reality, it will open a direct gateway. So until this is settled we’re stuck in each other’s universes for the interim, and so are the kids. However, that isn’t the worst of it.”
       Chip shook his head. “First Fat Cat and now this. I just knew today wasn’t going to be rosy.”

Chapter 16 – The Rescue Rodents, Gadget Talk and a Disappearing Act

       May 29 9:21am Nakuru Jungle

       Chip didn’t know how right he was. Back in Africa, Donovan and his men were luring the crocs on shore, preparing to give them a nice early morning treat. The sun was clearing the lower foliage now, and Theo didn’t like what he saw coming. Then he noticed Gabarah. The tribemouse had a knife, and he’d already weakened several ropes without being seen from below, thanks to Agnes and Basil hiding his efforts. Theo traded a look with Bink and then she saw it too. If they timed it right, things were about to turn in their favor.
       “Hey, you!”
       Theo turned his head to find Donovan looking at him. “What do you want? Pleas for mercy?” Donovan poked a stick at him, touching his nose. “Nothing like that, your highness. Just wondering what plot you’re hatching.”
       Theo stared him down. “And what makes you think I am?”
       Donovan grinned, dusting himself off with his free hand. “Oh, you hero types are all alike. I bet you’ve got something cooking, but it ain’t gonna save you from the crocs.”
       Theo shifted his vision slightly. “No, but they are.”
       Donovan smirked at the bluff. “You’ve got a lot to learn, boy.”
       “So do you, meany-meany!”

       From the rocks above, Ug and Oog appeared, throwing a veritable fruit salad at the bad guys. “You let friends go!” Oog shouted.
       “Stop that, you morons!” Donovan shouted back, dodging.

       That slight only spurred the hyraxes on, and needless to say the bad guys were thoroughly distracted. Gabarah cut the team loose, and they were into action within seconds. Basil had thought to keep the ladies back, but they both charged forward. Agnes and Bink each chose a man, and with their advanced martial arts skills it wasn’t much of a challenge. A front kick took one out and a series of punches did the same for the other. The men took care of the others, and soon the bad guys were trussed up like turkeys on Thanksgiving morning.
       Ug and Oog came down from their place in the rocks. “We win! We win!” Oog shouted, dancing in place, then stopped. “We did win, right?”
       “Sure we win!” Ug said. “We standing, aren’t we?”
       Theo shook the hyraxes’ four-toed paws. “Thank you, both of you! You came along at just the right time.” Ug came to attention and saluted. “We glad to help! You nice. Not like mister ‘pull our lungs out’ right there.”
       Oog splashed sand in Donovan’s face. “Yeah! Now whose lungs tied up?”

       The rest of the group added their thanks and continued along the path. The entry to the map piece location was not hard to find. Primitives had found it centuries ago and had marked the stone outside the map chamber with ceremonial pictograms. They stepped inside to find what they’d come so far to see—a piece of sand-colored stone the length of a chipmunk’s outstretched arms and able to be seen through. Bink pulled out a camera Gadget had given them and after loading the film she took several pictures of the piece to be safe
       “That’s one down. Only one to go,” Theo said. “By the way, how long do we have now before the portal to Limbo opens?” Basil checked a timepiece he’d brought along. “Forty-nine hours, sixteen minutes. I’d say we’re making good time so far.”

       Once they were outside, to their surprise they found Triginta waiting for them. He seemed agitated, but welcomed his friends. “I saw your handiwork on the path behind you. Good work, my friends. I have spoken to my brethren in the Orient, and all is prepared for you. However, we must go to Nepal first.”
       “Nepal? That’s where the next tablet is?” Theo asked. Triginta stared up into the sky, thinking a moment. “Yes, and now I must take my leave of you.”
       “But why? Surely you must—”
       “NO!” That retort brought the entire group to a halt, and Triginta relaxed a bit. “No. I have...things to do to ensure your safe conduct. I will see you once you have acquired the next piece of the tablet.” Triginta looked up once more and ran off into the jungle.
       Bink stared after him. “What was that all about?”
       “You got me,” Theo said. “He sure is an eccentric guy—wait, forget I said that. After all, he’s in with a group that quotes Latin all the time and wears robes to avoid being recognized.” Basil chuckled. “Reminds me of my brother Pycroft and his Disingenuous Club. They never could come straight out with the truth.”

       They were about to continue when the entire jungle began to shake. “Earthquake!” Theo shouted. “It must be Fat Cat again!” The group got away from the trees, retreating the shoreline. The crocs had swam off as the tremblers had started, so that danger was no longer there. When the shaking stopped, Theo stood up. “All right, let’s get going. Nepal’s waiting.”

       May 29 7:34pm New York

       Althea and Geegaw had retired to their room in the lair—or rather what would have been their room. Here, it was still a gymnasium, but the practice dummies were diverting for some mock swordplay. They’d promised Gadget Hackwrench not to run off, and indeed there wasn’t anyplace to run off to. All they wanted was something familiar. Every few minutes, one of the Rangers would come and check on them. When it was Eva’s turn, she brought them a late supper. “Now remember to clean up, and get lots of rest. Hopefully once we have cured Lahwhinie we can find a way to get your home to your mother and father.”
       The kids spoke their thanks and settled down to eat as Eva left. Geegaw was writing in a notebook he’d borrowed when a glop of something cold hit him on his back. “That had better not be part of your supper, Ally. I’m trying to write that report on crustaceans.” Althea giggled behind him. “I guess I shouldn’t say you’re in a ‘pickle’ then. How can you be doing homework at a time like this?”
       Geegaw turned around, flipping the dill pickle chip off his shoulder that his sister had thrown, and swiveled the chair he was sitting on to face her. The bespectacled mouse tried his best to ignore Althea when he was working, which only had the effect of making her work all the harder to disrupt him. “Homework relaxes me. A disciplined mind is a healthy mind. Just because you make straight A’s like me doesn’t mean you should slack off, you know.”
       “For pity’s sake, Gee, we’re in another universe! They’re not going to want your science report here!”

       Geegaw knew it was useless. It was next week’s assignment anyway. “Being around you is adventure and excitement enough for anyone. So, what do you want to do, and please tell me this doesn’t involve gravy and the pond’s snapping turtles!” Althea did have a reputation, not all of it sterling. “Naw, the turtles are almost as boring as you are. I’m just annoyed that all this stuff is happening and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
       Despite his disdain for his sister’s habits, Geegaw did like her. He came over and sat next to her on a bench by the wall. “Ally, it’ll turn out okay. Mom’s not going to let anything bad happen to Aunt Lahwhinie. You’ll see.” Althea rested her head on her fists. “But she’s not our mom! She is nice, though. Now I know how Uncle Theo feels. I hate just moping around, waiting for stuff to happen!”
       At that moment, the same earthquake that Theo and his friends had felt, and Theo had reported on in the other universe, struck New York. The treehouse shook, and the kids were thrown off-balance. “What’s going on!” Althea shouted. Geegaw righted himself as the shaking stopped. “Seismic activity, strange. Let's see how the others are.”
       Althea was at the lair’s door long before Geegaw. She was scared and wanted someone to tell her things would be okay. Fortunately, Geegaw was an island of serenity. He exited, and Althea waved him on from several steps down on the spiral staircase that led to the main room. “Come on, Geegaw!” Althea shouted. “I want to see what they’re doing!”

       A few minutes earlier, a knock had come at the main door downstairs. Dale rushed up to answer it, and found Gary, the mail pigeon, standing there. “Whew, it’s you, Dale,” Gary said. “I saw the RangerWing was back and figured it would be Lahwhinie. Everything going okay?”
       Dale shrugged—Lahwhinie had incapacitated Gary once when she thought he was an interloper, and ever since that there had been a friendly game of cat-and-mouse between them. “I guess so. She’s... a bit under the weather at the moment.” Gary looked about, still not sure that he wasn’t about to be ambushed. “She—you mean Lahwhinie? Oh, sorry to hear that. Anyway, got a package for you. No return address, but from the stamps looks like it’s from Trampleonya.”
       Dale took the package, his smile returning. “Uh, thanks...Chip!!! You better take a look at this!” Chip walked over and studied the brown paper package, tied up with string. “Hmm... maybe it’s from Don Quijole, that old friend of Monty’s we helped save that time.”
       Chip started to open it, when Dale stopped him. “Wait! What if it’s from that Lemon Pie-o?”
       “You mean, El Emenopio? Oh come on, Dale! That old bully bull couldn’t think his way out of a sandbox. Now come on—let’s see how the girls are doing.”

       The munks headed inside. Tammy was already in there, spectating. Chip and Dale sat down, watching as Eva and the Gadgets talked mile-a-minute in technobabble about what they were doing to Lahwhinie. Already they had strapped the reluctant Hawaiian to a chair and made sure she couldn’t move for when they used the negative energy device on her. One Gadget was checking the device’s connections while another was checking the firing pattern calculations and the third was using a handheld device to make sure that there were no additional booby traps implanted in Lahwhinie.
       “Okay, we’re all set!” Gadget Maplewood said.
       Gadget Hackwrench appeared worried at the prospect. “Oh gosh, I sure hope this works.”
       Eva patted that Gadget’s shoulder. “Now dahlings, we have been over the calculations five times. I am sure it will work to neutralize the chip.” Gadget Oakmont faced the other two Gadgets. “Jeepers, it sure has been great working with the two of you—I mean, the two of me.”
       “Oh golly, yes!” Gadget Maplewood said. “I never thought I’d be able to explain things this way to anyone, but myself is another matter.”
       “You got that right!” Gadget Hackwrench said. “Gosh, think of all the good we could do if we stayed together.”
       “Not to mention all the time we could save on making inventions,” Gadget Maplewood added. “I’ve thought it out, and with the three of us the productivity’s gone up...”

       The Gadgets turned around to the now-irate Lahwhinie. “Oh. Oops. We do tend to run on.” Eva threw the switch, and the machine emitted a very fine beam of green-colored energy that touched the back of Lahwhinie’s head in a pre-programmed semicircular pattern. Ten seconds later, they helped her out the chair.
       “Well? Am I gonna make it?” Lahwhinie asked. “Don’t keep me in suspenders!”
       Eva borrowed the handheld device Gadget Maplewood had been using and pointed it at Lahwhinie’s head. “Yes...yes...YES! Ve have severed the device from the transmission receptor. It vill not activate, and will remain dormant inside of you. There is no more danger.”
       “Great!” Lahwhinie said, hugging Eva and the Gadgets. Then she became self-conscious at her emotional display and tried to cover. “Say, I’m hungry. Who’s up for some Chinese?” Chip ran over and picked her up in his arms, swinging her around. “You’re okay! Oh, thank goodness!” Chip kissed her, and then proceeded to profusely thank the Gadgets and Eva. In all the fuss, Chip had forgotten the package, but Dale’s attention soon wandered from the victory celebration and he picked up the box.
       “Hmm...maybe it’s chocolate-covered tacos or something...” Dale pulled the string off and unwrapped the paper to reveal an ordinary-looking cardboard box. He quickly opened it and removed some packaging, then stopped and stared. “Uh, Chip? Who would’ve sent us a metal thingamajigger?”
       Chip stopped celebrating at once. “You’d better put that down and the let the Gadgets take a look at that, Dale. Getting unexpected metal thingamajiggers in the mail is rarely a good thing.” Then the shaking started, and Dale fell off-balance, dropping the sphere as he did.

       A few moments later, Geegaw bounded down the stairs, doing his best to keep up with Althea, but as usual it was fruitless. “I’m coming!” Geegaw said, turning the corner and passing the kitchen. They went through the hall and neared the door to Gadget’s workshop. Althea reached to turn the knob when a brilliant green flash from inside came through the keyhole and the door’s periphery, reflecting off their eyes. It had appeared to be similar in intensity to Gadget’s xenon camera going off—only ten times brighter.
       “What was that!” Geegaw said, facing his sister.
       “I don’t know!” Althea said, worry entering her voice. “Let’s go!”
       The two Oakmont children pulled open the door. They called out, but only their voices echoed in the workshop’s interior. Quickly they searched, but there was no one—no Chip, no Lahwhinie, no Gadgets—no one. Everything else was right; everything else was in place.
        They were totally alone.

Chapter 17 – The Plan Explained, A Long Night’s Journey Into Day, and a Blown Cover

       May 30 11:18am New York

       “What do you mean, ‘that isn’t the worst’?” Chip asked. Theo looked toward the humans he’d had under surveillance, then back to Chip. “Simply that when that gateway opens, it’ll be open to a bunch of universes at once, including this one. And Klordane won’t be the only one escaping. There’s some of the worst criminals in existence residing there, banished by hundreds of worlds.”
       Dale gasped. “You mean… The Legion of Doom?!”
       The others turned around to find Dale and Gadget in the RangerPlane, the vehicle having just landed. Everyone spoke their words to sympathy to the parents, but quickly they turned their attention back to the business at hand. Theo took up the conversation anew. “As to what Dale there said, it might as well be the Legion of Doom we’re facing considering the numbers, but we don’t have the Super Friends here to help us.”
       Chip tugged on his jacket lapels. “We’ll just have to make do with what we have.”
       “I don’t think you understand, dad…uh, Chip,” Theo dad. “We’re talking about hundreds, maybe thousands of evildoers.”
       “Jeepers!” Gadget exclaimed. “You mean it’s an invasion?”
       “Precisely,” Theo said. “If we don’t stop Fat Cat in both universes, then we’re in for some real trouble.” Dale paced back and forth. “Zowie, this is just like that series of comic books I read a while back! They had all these different Earths and this Anti-Monitor guy pulled ‘em all into one universe and they killed my favorite hero!”
       “The Red Badger?” Gadget asked.
       “Well okay, second-favorite,” Dale said. “But anyway, maybe that’s what Klordane’s gonna do! He’s gonna pull all the universes into one so he’s only got one to conquer! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” Chip was about to bonk him when Lahwhinie stopped him. “Allow me.” Lahwhinie put her middle finger behind her thumb and thumped Dale behind the ear.
       “Yeowch!” Dale said, coming back to his senses. “Sorry. It’s just murder, not knowing how the kids are.” That caused Lahwhinie to look and feel guilty. “I didn’t think about that stressing you out. I’m not exactly thrilled with my boy being in that other universe either. Sorry, Dale.”
       “That’s all right. I needed something right then to keep me from going to panic mode. Still, what’re we gonna do? We haven’t heard from Fat Cat in years! Not since that whatchamadoodle sent him off to who-knows-where.” Eva chimed in now. “According to my calculations, he ended up in Siberia. It vould appear he is back now to make the reacquaintances.”

       Monty rolled up his sleeves. “If that flabby feline wants another go-around, I say we give it to ‘im! Right, Chipper?”
       “We’re a bit outta practice when it comes to dealing with Big Fat Daddy C,” Dale said. “Chip, what’s the plan?” Chip pulled on his jacket lapels, a sure sign he was thinking. “All right. He’s probably been in town for a while and may even have his old team back together. That means we’ll likely be facing a trap.”
       Theo gestured to the large entourage around him. “Yeah, but our side’s got a lot of punch on it!”
       “Maybe his side does, too,” Chip countered. “We’ll have to be careful. It’s been six years since that day of the jewelry heist, and I’m sure he’s not here to talk over old times.”
       “Roger that, Chip,” Gadget said, her voice now steadier, but also resolved. “I want a piece of that oversized furball for whoever’s messing with my babies! Just give the word, and we’ll go into action!”
       Chip had to admit, it felt good to be on a real case again, even if it did involve Fat Cat. “All right, then. I want to set up a perimeter first. Zipper, you and Honey are on scouting duty. I want you two to go in there first and see what’s up.”
       “What do you want me to do?” Theo asked.

       Chip was about to say ‘you’re with me’ like he usually did, but then caught himself. This wasn’t his son, and he seemed to be more experienced at leading than his son. “All right, you take the back. Make sure no one’s guarding the rear entrance and then find your way up to the top floor. I’m sure that’s where he’ll be, up in his office. Who do you want with you?”
       Theo looked the choices over. “I’ll take Monty and Eva.”
       “I vill return to Headquarters and monitor things from there, if you do not mind,” Eva said. Theo could understand that. “Good idea. I’ll just pick—”
       “Me, of course.” Theo swung around to find Bink, standing behind him. “How do you do that?” Theo asked. Bink raised her head, giving a superior look. “Aunt Eva’s training and squirrel instinct. Ready to go, fearless other-worldly leader?”
       “Ready as a cactus under a rain cloud. Shall we?”
       Chip smiled and shook Bink’s hand. “Okay, Bink, you’re in. You’re now officially a Rescue Ranger.” Bink bit her lower lip, a habit she’d picked up as a child when her mother had told her to try to control her often-fiery emotions. It was too much for her to handle this time and she simply squealed with delight, hugging everyone in sight.
       “Oh, thankyouthankyouthankyou! I made it! Oh, this is so righteous! Wait’ll I tell Debbie and the gang, and mom and dad, and...oh uh, guess we’d better be going first.”
       “Yeah!” Dale said. “Let’s make the big furball sorry he ever came back!”
       “Right,” Chip said, pointing to the truck, which the humans were now finished loading. “Let’s hitch a ride, because we’ve got an invasion to stop! Rescue Rangers, away!”

       May 29 11:37am Naishi Airfield

       Theo and his team loaded up one of Gabarah’s cargo planes with any equipment they thought they would need and signaled the pilot they were ready to go. The pilot turned around, pushing his headphones off his ears. “I am receiving a message from the airport. It seems someone wants us to wait.”
       “Someone?” Bink asked. “Gabarah?”
       “No,” the pilot said. “But according to the control tower he should be landing any moment.”
       The plane’s passengers scanned the sky and then Basil pointed. “There!” An old blue two-seater biplane came into view, skirting the horizon. The plane did a loop in the air as it came over the airport, then settled into a standard landing procedure. After a smooth landing, the biplane came to a halt next to the large cargo plane. A mouse wearing goggles, a flight jacket and a white scarf jumped out.
       “Geegaw!” Theo said, running up as the veteran pilot exited the plane.
       “Top o’ the morning to you!” Geegaw said, shaking Theo’s hand. “When the others returned home from China, I volunteered to stay behind and work my way here. Figured you might need an experienced pilot to help out.”
       “We are most glad you came,” Agnes said. “It is un plaisir to have you with us.” Geegaw kissed her hand, spreading on the charm. “The pleasure’s mine, miss. Now, if your other pilot doesn’t mind, I’ll see you safely to Tibet.”
       “I am sure you would have it no other way, monsieur.”

       The cargo plane was similar in size and construction to the old Screaming Eagle, and for Geegaw Hackwrench it brought back good memories. Within minutes, he had taken the controls and the cargo plane was airborne. They stopped over briefly in Oman to refuel, and Monty took over piloting a leg of the journey before turning it back over to Geegaw as they reached the coast of India.
       The sun was low in the sky, the local time having just passed eight in the evening when Geegaw awakened his companions via the pilot’s loudspeaker to let them know they were over the snow-clad mountains of Nepal. Deftly, the flyer weaved the plane through the Himalayan peaks. “Okay, we’ve got clearance from the Katmandu airport. We’re going in!”

       Slowly the plane descended through the tall mountains, and Geegaw touched her down light as a feather at the rodent-sized airport. He followed the directions of the ground crew, and soon brought the plane to a stop at a nearby terminal. A robe-clad mouse was there, waiting for them at the bottom of the steps. Theo stepped up to shake hands with him, and the mouse simply bowed, speaking with an Oriental accent.
       “I am Niveus, of the Eastern Order. Triginta informed me of your coming. Welcome.”
       Theo bowed in return, feeling some kind of ceremonial greeting was in order. “Thanks, sir. I don’t mean to be impolite, but we’re in an awfully big hurry. Can you show us where the next tablet is?”
       “Unfortunately not.”
       This did not bode well with the group, and immediately Bink strode up beside Theo. “You mean we froze our buns off in this plane for seven hours just to hear that we can’t find the tablet?”
       Niveus shook his head. “Not at all, fair one. You asked if I could show you where it was, and in truth I cannot. We of the Eastern Order are not allowed to travel beyond the bounds of the town, and it is some distance from here. However, I have contacted a friend who will help you. And I understand he is an old friend of the Rescue Rangers.” Basil was all for that. “Okay then, let us cut the small talk and sally forth!”
       Niveus bowed again and led them into town.

       Katmandu was a city rich in tradition and ritual. The Buddhist monks and temples were everywhere, and Theo watched with interest as several human and squirrel monks spun what appeared to be small tin cans attached in the middle of their temple’s columns around and around.
       Niveus noticed Theo’s interest. “That is a method of prayer for them, young one. Prayers are written on the inside, and by spinning them they hope to have their prayers granted.” On they walked, curious townspeople in grass hats and native robes pointing and watching. Some of the little children came up, laughing and wanting to touch their strange-looking clothes. The group replied in kind, exchanging a few small trinkets for some native beads and necklaces.
       Soon they came to an ornately-designed large building in the middle of town, built pagoda-style. In a minute a bird came out of the building and flew over to them. He was a nightingale, and although he had not met him in person Theo felt for sure he knew who this had to be.
       The bird addressed him first. “Friend Chip? Is it you?” Secretly, Theo was thrilled to be mistaken for his father and shook his head. “No. I’m Theo Maplewood, Chip’s son.” Chirp-Sing brightened at once. “Oh, of course! I thought you had aged quite well to be the same person.”
       Chirp-Sing gestured to the town around them. “Welcome, friend Theo, to Katmandu! I owe your father and his friends a thousand years of blessings for solving the mystery of my friend the Emperor Dim Sun’s supposed madness. Friend Niveus contacted me yesterday and I have left my valley to help you. I know of the tablet you seek. An ancient Buddhist temple was built to house it many centuries ago.”

       The group began walking through town, and Chirp-Sing continued his explanation. “The local people thought it a gift from Buddha, and made the area sacred and forbidden to outsiders. However, it has recently been made available for viewing to the public, so we should not have any troubles. It is on a high mountain, however, several hours’ travel. And I am afraid that there is no nearby landing area. The only way in is to walk. We will begin early tomorrow.”
       Theo shook his head. “I’m sorry, but it can’t wait.”
       “You do not understand, Theo,” Chip-Sing said. “The mountains are dangerous at night.”
       “I know they are, but we have no choice,” Theo said. “We’re in a race against the clock, and danger or not we have to press on. If you don’t want to go with us, I understand. Just tell us how to get there and we’ll make do.”
       “No,” the nightingale said, considering it briefly. “I will go with you if the need is so great.”
       Theo was pleased and shook the bird’s wing. “You honor us with your presence.” Then the team leader faced the others. “I know he’s right, and it’d be safer to rest first. Are you up to it, Geegaw?” Geegaw slapped his newfound friend on the back. “When I’m not able to handle it, I’ll be pushing up daisies.”
       Bink was all-excitement, and shook Theo’s shoulders. “Wow, Buddhist temples, secret tablet pieces, and the world’s fate in the balance! We’re having our first real adventure as Rescue Rangers! Isn’t it great?” Theo hadn’t forgotten for a moment the feelings of suspicion he’d had, and did his best to not let them show. “Yes, it is. Honestly, I’ll be enjoying this a whole lot more when it becomes a long rambling story like the kind that Uncle Monty tells.”
       “Well yeah, I guess so. I mean, I’m assuming we’ll win and all.”
       “Guess?” Monty said. “Of course, we’ll win! Why, you’ve got the Backwater Boys here with ya, now! No way you could lose.”
       “Backwater Boys?” Theo asked.
       Geegaw pointed to Monty and himself. “That’s what they used to call us in the old days. Monty, do you remember the time we went ice fishing in Ottawa?” Monty paused, then shook his head. “Can’t say as I do, pally.”
       “Must have been an adventure my universe had, but yours didn’t. No problem, I’ll tell you about the doings we had. It all started—” Basil pushed them forward, interrupting. “We won’t be doing anything unless we repair to the temple, and fast!” Agnes was right there with Basil, eager for the search. “Mais oui, do not forget we only have so much time!”
       Geegaw checked his watch. “That’s bringing things back down to reality. Twenty-eight hours and fifty minutes until this Klordane fella can strike. Well, let’s get there first and pull the plug on his little scheme! Don’t worry, Monty. I’ll tell you on the way.”

       After they bought some mountain gear, lamps, and supplies, Chirp-Sing led them out of the town. It was slow going, even in snowshoes, and everywhere there was snow. It was a totally white world, and Theo was glad to have an experienced guide along, for he could see how easy it would be to get lost at night. Soon they were traveling high into the mountains, taking craggy paths hewn out by hand in years past. The cold air grew thinner, and they had to stop and rest every twenty minutes or so to keep up their energy. Then Chirp-Sing stopped and pointed across the huge deep chasm in front of them to a facing mountainside. An old building was just visible to their animal eyes in the pale moonlight.
       “There it is, the Temple of Itsalota Botha. Come, we are through the worst of our journey.”
       Bink looked down at the bottom of the icy chasm, which appeared to end several thousand feet in the blackness below, then back to the temple a few hundred feet above their level across the long expanse. A snow-covered but clear path wriggled around the mountains here in the shape of a horseshoe. It was an hour or more trek to their final destination.
       “Says you,” Bink retorted to the bird. “One bad step and whoosh! You’re lost for good.”
       “Quite true,” Chirp-Sing replied. “Many a monk has become a victim to a sudden windstorm up here. Fortunately, the winds are light at this time of year. Now come, and soon we will be there.”

       The walking from this point in their journey was far easier so it indeed seemed shorter than the rest of the journey. Theo thought on Bink and Chirp Sing’s comments about the chasm as they navigated the cliffside. **Are they just waiting for the right moment to push me off the cliff?** It seemed ridiculous to think these faces, so familiar to him, could possibly belong to enemies. He decided to wait until he could talk one-on-one with one of them before revealing that he knew anything.
       As they approached the end of their horseshoe journey, it was near midnight when they spotted a thick, long and very old bell rope hung down from the mountainside to the temple, which jutted out on stone and wood supports, directly above them. A crescent moon was visible, half-covered by the extended superstructure. At Chirp-Sing’s direction, Monty, Theo and Geegaw pulled the rope. The large and ancient bell rope was only visible part of the way up due to the lamps’ altering their night vision. It took the combined effort and weight of all three of them to move it, but when it did they were rewarded with the reverberations of a deep-toned bell at the landing far above. A few particles of ice and snow came down in reply, dropping onto their fur-lined parkas.
       “Now, we must wait,” Chirp-Sing said, sitting down.
       Geegaw scratched his head. “For what? Morning?”
       The bird pointed to the high monastery above them. “There are some monks always on duty, but they are currently at prayers. It may indeed be morning before they respond.” Agnes yawned and stretched. “Well, if it is all the same to the rest of you, this adventurer is going to get some rest. It has been a long day.”
       “Sounds like a capital idea,” Basil said. “We’ve been going nonstop for nearly 24 hours now. Dash it all! I didn’t buy any tea in town. Just doesn’t seem civilized without tea.”
       “You mean like this?” Bink handed him a couple of tea bags. “I noticed you forgot, so I packed a few.” Basil kissed her hand. “Miss, I am forever in your debt.” Bink smiled back, and joined the others in setting up camp. After a hastily-prepared supper, they brought out their sleeping bags. Soon the lamps were out and the only sound was the whistle of the wind gently brushing up against the snow-laden mountainside.

       Theo was glad for the chance to rest. He’d been stuck here in this strange world for longer than any other time he could remember, and he was ready to get home. Besides, as Agnes had said, it had been a very long day. Slowly his eyes closed and he began to forget about the cold and the wind. When he opened his eyes again, he was groggy and the first thing he saw was Bink’s smiling face over him.
       “Thank goodness,” Theo said, relieved to be back. He pulled Bink to him, kissing her lovingly. To his surprise, she pulled away from him. To his great surprise, she slapped him. Immediately the grogginess was gone and Theo sat up, finding he was still on the cliffside, now in the twilight of dawn. He could see well enough to know that Bink was angry and embarrassed.
       “What do you think you’re doing!” Bink shouted. “We’re not even da...ting…uh oh.” Bink’s eyes got as big as his when she recognized the alarm in Theo’s face. “Oh no! You didn’t switch back. Oh Theo, I’m sorry!”
       “Sorry about what!” Theo said, standing up. “I’ve gone along with this charade long enough, now fess up! You’re not my Bink, and this isn’t my world. What is all this?”

       Bink stood up and the others, now awake, joined her. “Uh, you’ve probably guessed some of it,” the squirrel said. “This is an alternate universe to your own—very similar to your own in fact—but here we’re just friends.” Theo had guessed that was the case, and now their encounter in Africa made sense. “Okay, Bink. So this other Theo, the one you’re friends with. He’s—”
       “In your world right now,” Bink said. “He knows more of what’s going on than you do, and it’s our hope that he can stop Fat Cat from implementing part of Klordane’s plan in your reality.”
       “Fat Cat!” Theo said. “What’s he up to?”
       “He’s part of this nefarious plot,” Basil explained. “And yes, we all are aware of this switch that’s taken place. This world’s Theo explained it to us on one of his return visits from your world and the need for us to maintain secrecy around you. He also explained that for the dimensional door to Limbo to be opened, the ‘key’ as it were must be activated in two similar universes simultaneously.”
       “And Fat Cat would be less likely to suspect me being the one to try to stop him,” Theo concluded. “Okay, I can see that. But why the secrecy?”
       “Because,” Bink said, “Klordane can see into our realities part of the time. He can’t right now, which is a relief. The dimensional plane of Limbo intersects with our world during the night.”
       Theo didn’t like this. “You mean, he can spy on us? And what if he gets out?”
       “Total disaster,” Geegaw said. “He’ll bring every criminal in the place with him, and it’ll be more than any one reality could handle. That’s why we have to find where he’s planning on coming through and stop him! The other Theo and hopefully your Rangers will be trying to do the same thing in their reality.”

Chapter 18 – Moving In, The Second Piece, A Confession and Moving Out

       May 30 12:05pm New York

       The delivery truck pulled up at the front of the Happy Tom Cat Food Factory and stopped. The Rangers disembarked, watching as the truck went in. Gadget and Dale had joined them outside, and Gadget had fervently pressed Theo for all the information he could provide about her children. Only once he had convinced her several times that they were reasonably safe did she relax at all.
       “Okay,” Chip said, “back to the mission. We need to plot out our next move carefully. Theo, what’s our priority here?”
       “To destroy the interdimensional device, that’s tops,” Theo said. “By the way, from here on you’ve got to treat me as your son. In a few minutes, Klordane will be able to see into this universe, so don’t let on that the switchover’s happened. As for Fat Cat, we can count on him being prepared for something like this. Perhaps you all should go in first, and then I can find my own entry.”
       “Then we’d serve as the distraction,” Chip said. “All right, wait here five minutes after we’re in, then it’s all yours. We’ll do our best to keep Fat Cat’s attention.”
       “Do you know how to stop that machine?” Gadget asked.
       “Not precisely,” Theo said, then patted his inner jacket pocket. “However, I had my own world’s Gadget whip me up a little something to help.” He reached in and pulled up a large vial in a specially sealed container. Gadget took a look, impressed. “Nitric acid, right?”
       “Exactly,” Theo said. “Even a small amount like this delivered in the right place should cause a good deal of damage. Now, the rest of you go ahead. I’ll be in position in fifteen minutes…mark.”

       May 30 5:15am The Himalayas, Near Katmandu

       With the golden smile of dawn now in full force, the creaking of a large wooden wheel turning announced that the monks of Itslota Botha had indeed received the travelers’ initial message. A wooden platform lowered the several hundred feet needed and came to rest on the mountain path in front of them. Bink was much more relaxed, now that the secret was out. “Neato! This reminds me of those kung-fu movies we always used to watch for some reason.”
       “Very observant, grasshopper,” Theo said in a kung-fu master voice. “But seriously, we gotta be on our guard. No telling whether anyone got here before us.”
       “Good thinking, Theo,” Geegaw said. “One of us should probably keep watch outside once we’re up there. I’ll volunteer for that job.”

       The group, save the three bell-ringers, assembled on the wooden platform. They rang the bell again and ran to join the others. Soon, they were being lifted slowly upwards. It took about ten creaky minutes, but they reached the landing safely and walked out. The Temple of Itsalota Botha was an impressive old edifice of stone and wood, painstakingly built in the side of the mountain. Two Oriental-looking lions guarded its front, and four squirrel monks approached between these.
       “I will explain our presence here,” Chirp-Sing said. “Once we have access to the temple, I will remain outside with friend Geegaw. I trust you five can handle the journey inside.” Chirp-Sing approached the monks to secure their safe passage, and the rest of the group came together for a meeting.
       Agnes was first to speak. “It is almost certaine that there is someone here waiting inside for us, just like in Africa. They know we are fighting the clock and are desperate to get what is on that tablet.”
       “Agreed,” Basil said. “I think it best that the five of us split up, and make it that much harder for our adversaries to deal with us. What say you, Theo? Still up to leading?”
       “Yes, I can handle it. Good idea, Basil. You and Agnes, and me and Bink. Monty, I trust you can handle one way in on your own.”
       “Too right I can,” Monty said. “This mouse might not have all the bounce he used ta, but I’m still game for a jolly punch-up!” Theo knew he would be. “The tablet’s top priority, so get to it no matter what.” Basil shook Theo’s hand. “Good luck, Theo Maplewood. Remember, there’s always a chance—”
       “As long as you can think,” Theo said. “That’s one I won’t forget.”

       A squirrel monk came over and escorted them to the door. He did not speak English, but through pantomime he was able to explain the layout of the interior. The place was built with concentric rooms, similar to a rat’s maze. There was no opening leading immediately to the interior as the foursome entered, so Basil and Agnes went left and the young Rangers went right. Basil grinned as he walked along, now alone with the female spy.
       “I must admit, it’s been a thrilling escapade so far. Victorian London has its moments, but a worldwide emergency takes danger to a whole new level. Most exhilarating, don’t you think?”
       “Mais oui, Monsieur Basil. Though one rarely explores the Himalayas with time travelers. I shall have to write a feature for the International Mouse-O-Graphic when I return, though I think even with my reputation they will not believe it!”
       “Quite right, quite right. In our day, a lady such as yourself would never think of undertaking such a thing as espionage or journalism. Well, I take that back—the love of my life, Miss Arianna Ideler, was a spy. And then there was the precocious Nellie Fly, who did her best to shake things up in the journalism world. I’ve noticed that behavior, clothing and mannerisms are all much more common in this era than my own. Tell me, do you miss the social pleasantries of my time?”
       “Well, I do not think it fair to compare one time to another, monsieur. Both had their strengths and weaknesses. Each should be judged on its own merits.”
       “Yes, I could see the wisdom in that.” Basil checked around the next corner for danger, then they proceeded. “I bet they don’t dress up for evenings at the opera anymore, either. A pity if they don’t—the ugliest mouse in Christendom looks good in a white tie and tails.”
       “Not many people even go to see opera anymore,” Agnes said. “ C’est dommage.” Basil sighed. “Yes, it is sad. It seems all the light pleasantries are gone in this age, even that of offering a lady an arm out of courtesy. I suppose you must think me simple and backward for my outmoded ways of thinking.”
       “I find it a refreshing reminder of a time long past.”

       The great mouse detective looked over at the beautiful red-haired chipmunk and grinned, offering her his arm. She chuckled lightly and took it, and together they proceeded down the long hallway where they found a door leading inward and back around to the next long hallway. Theo and Bink meanwhile had found the same thing—hallways that led to a door at the end, only to start back in the other direction once they were inside. After what seemed like more walking than it was worth, the two of them emerged into a large room.
       This was a traditional Buddhist altar room, with statues of various huge intricately carved wooden figures adorning the sides. In the middle was a big golden Buddha statue, seemingly looking down at something in front of him in great interest. In a moment, Theo was interested as well, as he saw Basil and Agnes standing in front of the statue. Just a few feet in front of them was the tablet in question.
       As with the first tablet, it was partially phased so removal was not an option. Theo could see Basil quickly copying down the inscription on a small notepad he carried. “We made it, Theo!” Basil exclaimed. “It appears we’ve beaten the blaggards here after all and with this piece of the puzzle, we’re ahead—”

       Agnes had just leaned forward to get a better look at the tablet when her movements seemed to trigger a change in the room’s lighting. Theo thought it might be a motion detector, put there to protect the sacred tablet, but that seemed ludicrous since it couldn’t be touched. In another moment, a small spherical object dropped from one of the hands of the Buddha and fell at the feet of Basil and Agnes.
       In one motion, Basil threw his notebook and something else in Theo’s direction and pushed Agnes forward. “RUN, THEO! TAKE COVER!”

       Theo and Bink quickly hid, but for Basil and Agnes it was too late. The device activated, and a sensor of some kind quickly tracked them. A blinding light hit first one and then the other in rapid-fire fashion and both of them vanished to horrified looks from the two Rangers. The sensor shut down and returned inside the sphere.
       All was quiet.
       “They’re gone!” Bink shouted, her voice echoing through the temple. Just then, Monty appeared through one of the doors opposite them. “What happened, mates? Where’s Agnes and Basil?” Theo rushed to the spot where they had stood, but not a trace of them remained. “They vanished! There’s not an atom of them here.”
       “Vanished? Crikey!” Monty shouted.
       All that was left was the notebook, which Theo quickly picked up. They backed away from the metallic spheroid, unsure if it would activate again. Theo felt something under his foot and pulled it up fast, unsure of what danger it could represent. He found it was the ring-shaped timepiece that Basil had looked at in Africa, and he slipped it on his finger. The readout was digital, and a countdown timer showed they had just over twenty hours left before the Limbo portal opened.

       Once they were out of the room and back into the initial hallway they had to stop. It took a few moments more for it to sink in, but then Bink’s tears began welling up.
       “Theo, they’re dead. Basil, Agnes...they’re both dead! It killed them!” Bink said. Theo wanted to hold her, but didn’t feel quite right doing that. “We can’t be certain. There’s no bodies or anything. Come on, hold it together! If they’re alive we’ll find them, if they’re...they’re dead, whoever did it is gonna pay.”
       Bink covered her mouth with her hands, trying to get a grip. “Oh Theo, I hope you’re right and they’re not dead. But whatever it was, we can’t let it get us. It was probably meant to stop us, and Klordane’s people didn’t count on there being this many of us. What’ll we do now?”
       “We keep going. That’s what Basil and Agnes would want us to do, and it’s what we have to do. C’mon, let’s meet up with Geegaw and Chirp-Sing and we’ll plan from there.”
       “I’m with you, mate,” Monty said. “This ‘ere business is getting right deadly.”

       Theo didn’t want to admit it, but he was as shocked as Bink was about what he’d just seen. He couldn’t let it get to him, though. Not now. There was far too much to do yet, but still the image of it all haunted his mind. Basil had become an advisor of sorts to him, a mouse he could respect. And Agnes was a more-than-capable chipmunk when it came to holding her own in a fight or figuring out sound strategy. Death and loss were always risks, but this was his first command as leader and already they’d lost two of the group. What next?
       Bink and Theo emerged from the temple along with Monty to find Geegaw and Chirp-Sing waiting eagerly. The looks on their faces showed that they didn’t have good news, either. “Oh, friend Theo!” Chirp-Sing said, running up. “We have something we must tell you and friend Bink, but it will not be easy to hear.”
       “Basil and Agnes are gone,” Theo said, before he could continue. “We don’t know what happened. They may be dead. We can’t be certain of anything.” Geegaw’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “ What! They are gone too? How did it happen, a flash of light?”
       “Exactly. We have no idea what that device was and we don’t have the time or resources to find out.”
       A feeling of dread came over Monty, as he caught the rest of Geegaw’s meaning. “What do ya mean, ‘they’re gone too’? Who else is gone?” Geegaw pointed to the cell phone Theo had left him. “I managed to raise Ranger Headquarters. The only people there anymore are a couple of children that claim to be the kids of the Gadget from your universe, Theo, Althea and Geegaw.”
       “What!” Theo shouted. “They’re here? How?”
       “I don’t know,” Geegaw said. “They were pretty hysterical when I talked to them, but from what I gather a flash of light went through Ranger Headquarters and made everyone in there disappear! Theo, I’m sorry, but Chip and Lahwhinie…excuse me, the other Chip and Lahwhinie were in there along with all the rest of the adults. And Eva.”
       “Eva?” Monty said, his voice starting to tremble. “Me Eva’s gone? No! It can’t be!”

       Theo steeled himself. Even though these weren’t his parents, he knew this Chip and Lahwhinie and had felt their suffering. There were times and places to fall apart and here and now wasn’t one of those times. “Who’s looking after the kids? We have to make sure they’re safe.”
       “Donna Chesnutt and her husband are looking after them,” Geegaw said, then looked apologetically toward Theo’s companion. “Bink, your sister was also in there when it happened.” Bink’s eyes grew wide. “Tammy? Tammy’s gone too? NO!” Theo grabbed Bink by the shoulders and shook her. “Bink, get a grip!” Bink tried to pull loose. “My sister may be dead! I want to get a grip all right. Get a grip on those filthy butchers and…”
       “Not if I get them first!” Monty said, a look of wild anger coming to him. “Those rotten bloody dingoes have made it personal now. I ain’t gonna stop ‘til I make ‘em pay!”
       “Now’s not the time for it!” Theo said. “Monty, Bink, I’m just as scared as you both are but we have to stay focused or it’s all over! We’re dealing with non-linear time here—no matter what’s happened to them, maybe there’s some way to go back and change all this. We’ve got to keep moving forward!”

       Bink started crying. “You don’t know that! You’re just guessing! Tammy’s gone, Chipper’s gone—all them are GONE! I may never see my Theo again!” She grabbed on to Theo tight, crying for all she was worth. Theo held her this time, realizing that it was right to comfort her. He rocked Bink back and forth in his arms, allowing her pent-up fears to play their course.
       Geegaw took Monty aside as well and spoke some words of comfort to his old friend. Once Bink quieted down, Theo put his hand under her chin and raised her face so that their eyes met. “Bink, I promise you that we’ll get them all back, somehow. Trust me.”
       Bink managed to choke back some of her despair. “I...I do trust you. We have to try, even if they are...oh, Theo, I love you.” Theo drew back, not sure just how to take that. Bink saw the look, and started shaking her head. “Oh, I’m sorry! I mean that I love the other Theo. It’s so confusing, but I think I’ve always loved you—him—but he’s never said anything to me.”
       Theo wondered how his other self couldn’t, but that was the subject of a longer talk than they had time for. “If he’s anything like me, he will in time. I love my Becky more than anyone else, and I’m going to ask her to marry me.”
       “You are!” Bink said, the very idea seeming to cheer her. “Oh, that’s wonderful! When are you going to ask her?”
       “At the prom,” Theo said. “I have a feeling what she’ll say, but I’m still a little nervous about it.”
       “Oh, I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” Bink said. “Other than the current world crisis, that is. Thanks for talking to me, Theo. We really do need to be heading out, don’t we?”

       “Indeed you do, my friends.” The group turned to find their old companion Triginta there, still hidden by his robes. “I waited to speak out of respect. I overheard your conversation and you have my sympathies, but young Bink is right. There is still work to be done. Theo, I have contacted your counterpart in your world, and he has informed your people about Althea and Geegaw. It was about the last message I could communicate, what with the barriers between universes closing.”
       “I’d better call them,” Theo said, getting the cell phone from Geegaw. The kids were all too eager to talk. “Uncle Theo!” Althea shouted. “It was horrible and we didn’t know what had happened and now Donna’s over here watching us only it’s the Donna from this world and we don’t know if we’re going to get back and I didn’t really mind getting a bath that much and if it’s my fault I’m sorry—”
       Theo listened to her ramble on, thinking that this was indeed Gadget’s girl. “Ally, it’s not your fault and it’s going to be okay. Stay with Mrs. Chesnutt, and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
       “When will that be?”
       “I’m not sure,” Theo confessed. “We have to find the rest of the tablets and beat Klordane. It could be a while, but we’ll all get home. Rest easy on that one.”
       “Don’t worry, Uncle Theo.” It was young Geegaw now. “You just get the job done. Sure wish I could be with you.”
       “I know you do, but I need you to keep an eye on your sister. See you later.”

       Theo hung up, realizing that his burden had just increased. Triginta pulled him back to the present. “Time to be going, Theo. Your next destination is Beijing. I have the—”
       “Wait, Beijing?” Theo asked, confused. “Didn’t Gadget and the others already get the information from the piece at Beijing?” Triginta shook his head. “They thought they had, but Klordane was crafty. He had his minions plant a false piece of the tablet there, using an advanced hologram projector. The true piece is in a hidden room, far beneath the city and far less accessible.”
       Bink dried the last of her tears, taking in the words Triginta had said. “Then even if we’d determined the arrival site, the false piece would’ve—”
       “Led you to the wrong place, yes,” Triginta said. “I have a map of the old city that will lead you most of the way. However, no one knows precisely what traps or dangers await in the underground caverns. And you are likely to have competition.”
       “Donovan,” Theo said. “Okay, we’d better get going.”
       Triginta continued to talk as they began the ride down the makeshift elevator. “I have the arrangements prepared, but now you must be all the more cautious. Trust no one there, save my contact for whom I will give you a password and countersign to ensure his identity.”
       Theo approached the robed rodent. “I know the truth now, Triginta. I know what’s going on. What role do you have to play in all this?” Triginta studied Theo for a moment. “You will discover that soon enough. For the moment, the less you know the better. You must consent to be the Theo Maplewood of this world, and keep Klordane guessing. It is imperative to the plan’s success. Now, you must hurry, my friends. Time is slipping away from us.”

       As if to accentuate the thought, an earth tremor shook the area, loosing an avalanche of snow on the mountain across from them. The pass they had taken to the temple was now blocked. “Oh great! Now how do we get back?” Bink asked.
       “There is another way, but we will need help,” Chirp-Sing said. The nightingale leaped off the platform, flying up to speak with the monks. One of them walked up a stone stairway to the roof of the temple and blew an ancient-looking horn, quickly receiving a reply. A mountain goat came into view from below the lowering platform and waited for them to finish their journey. Chirp-Sing joined them at the mountain cliff, addressing the large white goat. “Revered sir, my friends are in desperate need of a speedy way down the mountain.”
       “Then they could just jump!” The goat laughed, but no one joined him in it. “Oh, very well. Hop aboard.”
       Securely aboard the shaggy goat’s back, the team held on as the nimble fellow jumped and picked his path down the mountain. It was much faster than the way they had come, and soon they were back at the head of the path they had used to enter the mountains. “I think you can take it from here,” the goat said.
       Chirp-Sing bowed low. “A thousand thanks for your timely service, sir.” The goat left, and the group headed back for town and the plane. All was as they had left it, and Triginta stood at the base of the stairs as Theo prepared to leave. “I will try to meet you there, as I did here. If I cannot, I will leave a message with my contact where you can find me. Securus calceata, my friend. Safe road.”
       “Be on your guard, man,” Theo said. “Things are getting very dangerous. We’ll meet you there. Count on it.”
       “You must meet me again at all costs. With your allies at Headquarters gone, I am the only one left who can translate the completed tablet for you. And I will try to determine what has happened to your family and friends.”
       Chirp-Sing came up and hugged Theo and Bink goodbye. “I wish above all things that they are safe somewhere.”
       “Me too. Thanks for helping us like you did,” Bink said.
       “It was a high honor.” Chirp-Sing bowed, and then he and Triginta stepped back as Theo and Bink entered the plane along with Monty. Geegaw started it up and in minutes they were headed east to their next destination.

Chapter 19 – The Best-Laid Plans of Cats and Men, If This is Tuesday It Must Be Limbo, and Some Plane Talk

       May 30 12:10pm New York

       Chip led the way toward the Happy Tom Cat Food Factory, and the team split up. Theo gave Chip a thumbs-up as he headed for the rear of the building. Zipper and Honey flew just ahead of Theo and the rest of his team, keeping a lookout. When they reached the back wall, they found it unguarded so they began shimmying up a human ladder. Bink’s natural climbing skills plus her conditioning allowed her to easily jump from one rung to the next, while Theo and Monty had a slower go of it.
       “Hoo!” Monty said, breathing hard. “I’m gettin’ too old fer this sort ‘o thing. Next time, remind me to stick with the elevator!”
       Reaching the roof, Theo took the lead and stealthily crept up toward the entrance to Fat Cat’s casino. Again, no sign of anyone. **Where’s that cat hiding? You’d think he’d want a direct fight.** The door creaked open under the pressure of his touch, and the group went in. A flick of a light switch revealed that the casino was much as they’d remembered it, save that all the gaming tables and slot machines were gone. There had obviously been some derelicts living in here, for they found the usual trademarks of winos and vagabonds.
       Ignoring the unsightly redecorations to the floor, they headed for the elevator. To Theo’s surprise, it was working. **So he is expecting us** “Okay, there’s no telling what’s waiting for us. We’ll have to expect heavy resistance.”
       “Maybe we should attack from the back, since we know he’s in the head of the cat,” Bink suggested. “I wouldn’t trust that elevator.” Theo gave that a moment’s thought. “He could be expecting that, though. We need a distraction.”
       Theo looked around and centered on Zipper. After a few whispered words, the group broke ranks, and Theo pressed the button for the elevator. Thirty seconds later, the doors of the elevator opened and an arrow fired into the elevator chamber, hitting—nothing. Moments later, Theo, Bink and Monty burst in through the side door.

       “All right, freeze it, Fat Cat!” Theo shouted.
       “Oh, right on time!” Fat Cat’s voice echoed. “I should’ve known you hadn’t lost your touch, Chip. Then again, I haven’t lost mine either.” Theo looked all around, but there was no sign of the crime kitty.
       “Wondering where I am?” the feline’s voice returned. “Well, come closer to the desk and I’ll tell you!” Theo hesitantly approached the desk, muscles tense, expecting a trap. Fat Cat spoke again. “That’s right...closer now. Closer...right there!”
       The whole group jumped back, expecting a snare. Nothing happened, though, and now Zipper appeared. He’d perched himself on the elevator’s ceiling, out of sight for the purposes of surprise. “What kind of game are you playing this time, Fat Cat?”
       “Oh, it’s a lovely little game!” From behind the desk a jack-in-the box type mechanism popped up, again causing everyone to go for cover. Where the head would normally be was an audio speaker, clearly the source of the terrible tabby’s voice. “See? I call this game, ‘Find the Fat Cat’! Now, where could I be? I might be right under this desk, but I’m not. I could be in the building, but maybe not. Or I could even be right here in this room, invisible!”
       Bink crossed her arms. “You couldn’t even fit under your desk. You’re almost too fat to fit in the elevator, so you’re probably not in the building or you’re at least in a different part. Just get to the point and stop wasting our time.”
       “The point?” Fat Cat asked, his voice smooth as honey. “The point is, I’m back, and I want to see how my old friends the Rescue Rangers are doing! My, but I see we have a new member here! And quite a cute little squirrel, too.”
       Bink looked around for any clue as to his location. “You nearly killed me as a child, so I’m here to repay the favor.” Zipper was tiring of this cat-and-mouse game. “Yeah. Come on, Blubber Butt. We’re gonna put a whuppin’ on you and tan your hide and use it for a doormat.”
       “Oh, such language!” Fat Cat said. “Hey, I don’t remember you as a speaking member of the team! My, how time changes things. Well, if you want to find me, then all you have to do is follow your nose. Or should I say, one particular nose...”

       Theo began sniffing and realized just what Fat Cat was getting at. “Oboy, limburger. Zipper, see if you can find him.” The other Rangers had now reached them and Gadget quickly handed Monty a set of nose clips. “Quick, Monty, put them on!” Monty did so before the cheese attack could occur. “Good, thinkin’, luv.”
       “And what’s this!” Fat Cat exclaimed. “Two Chips and a miss! Well, what they won’t think of next. If I can’t guide you by smell, then I’ll just have to give you another guide...” Zipper had flown out into the main cannery, along with Honey, and looked for any sign of the terrible tabby. That didn’t last long as sounds of metal banging on metal rang everyone’s noggins.
       “MAKE IT STOP!” Honey shouted.
       Back in Fat Cat’s office, Bink gritted her teeth, covering her ears. “Where’s it coming from?”
       “I don’t know!” Theo said. “It’s echoing everywhere and it’s so loud I can’t think!”

       The Rangers put their hands over their ears and headed out the door to join Zipper and Honey. The banging sounds were louder when they stepped out into the main cannery, which made it torture on their eardrums. They looked from the metal catwalk they were on in every direction, but still no Fat Cat. Then, for seemingly no reason, the banging stopped and he emerged. The felonious furball was on the main floor, a level below them, on top of one of the large machines that prepared the raw food for processing, and looking quite pleased with himself.
       “Ah, wonderful!” Fat Cat said, attired in his traditional garb. “I see I was able to get your attention after all. And again, I am proved mistaken! Two Chips, two Gadgets—you Rangers taking up cloning?”
       “Why don’t ya come on up here so we can clobber you, you oversized alley-cat!” Monty challenged. Zipper picked up the taunting. “Flappin’ yer gums won’t get you anywhere.”
       “You better hurry, Fat Cat, or I’ll miss Spongebob Squarepants!” Dale added.
       Fat Cat ignored their retorts, and still seemed quite pleased. “Oh, perish the thought! I’ll make this brief, then. I returned to help out a friend of mine. Of course, I couldn’t just leave town without saying hello. After all, it has been six years, and that’s a long time to wait for a reunion!”
       Fat Cat pressed a button on a remote he grabbed, and the far ends of the catwalk the Rangers were standing on gave way, stranding them in the middle. “Now, I think I should warn you that, like the ever-intrepid Gadget, I like making modifications. I’ve made that catwalk fully retractable, and with a press of another button, you’ll all fall to your deaths. But before that, I just want to savor it a moment—you know what they say, it’s very bad manners to beat and run! Nyah hah hah!”

       Limbo - No Time Reference Available

       At the moment the device in the alternate universe’s Ranger Headquarters had activated and made all the Rangers therein disappear, none of its occupants had any inkling of what was about to happen. They had heard Geegaw and Althea coming, and Gadget Hackwrench had started for the door to warn them off, but never had the opportunity. In rapid-fire order, the metallic device sought them out and struck them with its light-greenish ultra-bright energy beam.
       Instantly, they found themselves being thrown through a long tunnel crackling with titanic energies. At the end they were deposited into a large open space and the tunnel closed behind them. However, once they saw where they were they all wished the tunnel had been longer.
       Before them stretched an immense pinkish gray expanse, filled with transparent, floating creatures of every type. Some were human, some animal, and some none of them had ever seen before. The expanse itself was formed by an energy field that seemed to have no end, but when Chip tried to move toward the edge of it he found he was repelled back by whatever power emanated from the field wall. Then he looked at himself and the others, who also were looking. They too were transparent and floating.
       “I can’t believe this happened to us,” Chip thought. “One minute we’re sitting there and the next...hey wait, I’m not saying anything!” Lahwhinie floated over toward him. She moved her mouth, but no sound came out. “Oh great, we can’t talk here—huh?”

       Chip took on a pondering look, and his thoughts were transmitted to the others. “Apparently, thinking is speaking here. Only where is here? Are we dead?”
       “I don’t know,” Tammy said/thought. “I don’t remember anyone describing going here before. It sure isn’t Heaven, though.”
       Dale looked around, not liking the idea of that thought. “But we’re the good guys! We shouldn’t be in he—in the other place.” Gadget Oakmont was surveying things, too. “Offhand, I’d say we’re contained in some kind of energy field. I don’t think the afterlife has those, Dale.” Gadget Maplewood nodded. “Most likely we’re in some sort of alternate reality that none of us has experienced before”
       “I think that is most apparent,” Eva agreed. “The question is, what reality is this?”

       A deep cackling came from behind them and they turned—finding they could at least maneuver—and faced a sinisterly-smiling balding human behind them dressed in a business suit. “So, you’ve come at last. Allow me to welcome you...”
       With that, several dozen unpleasant-looking characters joined Klordane, surrounding the newcomers. Chip’s eyes grew large. “Aldrin Klordane! But it’s been years since we’ve seen you. Waitaminit, you’re supposed to be in prison!”
       The master criminal chuckled. “In your reality, I likely am. However, I am from another reality, one where I once took over the world. That is until your counterparts there and that blasted Temporal Council banished me! But now—now, the tables are turned. Ah, I sense one of you knows these things.”
       Klordane looked over to Gadget Hackwrench, who cringed at the attention. “Yes, you and your allies intended to seal me in here forever! But now I’ll at least have revenge on one of you, and these compatriots of yours for good measure. You’ll be staying here for eternity! Ah, hah ha ha ha!”
       Dale gulped and dared to ask the question that they all felt they knew. “And where”
       “Why, don’t you know? You’re in Limbo, my dear chipmunk!” Klordane replied. Chip stared back. “Limbo! Limbo doesn’t exist!”
       “Precisely, Chip. And at this moment, neither doyou.”

       Lahwhinie flew forward, her anger overcoming her reason. “You sicko! How about I deal out some pain!” Lahwhinie tried to strike him, but it was useless. Her blows went right through him, and all the nefarious characters laughed her to scorn. Then the wall behind them began to glow more brightly.
       Klordane took on the manner of a polite host. “I’m sorry to keep our conversation so brief, but when I leave this little paradise I don’t wish to be followed. So you all will spend your time in private!”
       The glowing increased and suddenly a new smaller room formed that started pulling the Rangers inside. They tried to fight it, but it was the combined mental energies of their adversaries that sucked them into the new space. Then their attention was diverted by another presence, a human dressed like an Egyptian.
       “Klordane, let them be!” the newcomer warned. Klordane pointed at him. “I have a better idea. I’ll let you be with them!”

       The human’s mental discipline could not prevent him from being tossed in with the Rangers. With laughter that echoed in their minds, the evil ones sealed them in. Now they were all in a spherically-shaped room, barely larger than the human was taller. Chip wondered at this fellow’s attempt to protect them and studied his appearance, which certainly was unique. He was reminiscent of an Egyptian pharaoh, replete with ancient costuming.
       The human sensed his curiosity. “My apologies for not being able to prevent our current situation, small one. Were we not in the seventh dimension, my powers would be sufficient to rectify all our problems.”
       Lahwhinie crossed her arms. “Well, you better get your ancient Egyptian backside in gear and rectify our way out of here, King Tut.”
       “I am afraid it is not that simple,” the human replied. “And you may refer to me as Wiz-Ra, once the mightiest wizard on Third Earth. That is, before the ancient devil priest Mumm-Ra used an evil trick to send me here.” Chip floated up to Wiz-Ra’s eye-level. “Where is here, and what ways can one get here and how can the process be reversed? Every door entered can be used as an exit.”

       Wiz-Ra gestured to the energy wall around them. “What I call the seventh dimension and Klordane knows as Limbo is actually a netherspace that has many methods of entry and escape. However, most of the methods of escape are difficult or imperfect. I for instance can only return to my realm for one day every 500 years. If I do not return here at the end of that day, I would die due to the drastic differences between this plane of existence and my own. You, however, should be able to return. But the only method would be to create a bridge of charged energy, which is what I sense Klordane is attempting.”
       Lahwhinie joined Chip at face-level. “Well, let’s wait till he’s using his bridge and destroy it while he’s using it. Then let’s use it to go home!”
       “That’d never work,” Chip said.
       “And why not?” Lahwhinie challenged.
       “Oh,” Chip said. “I didn’t mean for you to hear that. I was just thinking out loud. I always do when I’m thinking over a problem situation. Perhaps a better approach would be for Wiz-Ra to explain to us how Klordane is making this bridge.”
       Wiz-Ra waited until he had their attention again. “As you have seen, thought is the essence of where we are now. At certain areas in this dimension, it is possible to interact with the realities outside this one. That is what Klordane has been doing—he reached out with his mind and found a willing helper. In this case, a criminal in your reality known as Fat Cat. For the past several years, the two of them have been working on the plan that has brought you here and will shortly bring him into your world, so that he can conquer it.”
       “Conquer it?” Dale said. “Klordane is just a fancy pants cheap hood. How can he conquer the world? He couldn’t even steal a jewel and get away with it.”
       “Recall that this is not the Klordane you know. And with the technology at his command, he can send anyone to this realm. I believe that is what he has in mind,” Wiz-Ra said. Eva caught his attention next. “Vhat is the council of time that he spoke of and vhy aren’t they doing something about this?”
       “The Temporal Council is a group that protects the temporal timeline against those who would—wait a moment...”

       Wiz-Ra placed his fingers to his temples, concentrating. “I sense your friends now have two pieces of the ancient puzzle they need, and are on their way to reach a third. Unlike the others, my abilities do at least give me one great advantage: I can sense other realities anywhere in this netherspace and I can shield my thoughts when I wish. I will shield yours from them as well, so we can speak freely. To answer your question, Eva—yes I know all your names now—the Temporal Council is trying to help us, but there is someone else upon whom all our hopes rest. His name is Triginta, whom I believe you already know, Chip.”
       “Why didn’t they just kill Klordane rather than banishing him?” Lahwhinie asked. “It just goes to show that I was right all along. Kill your enemies when you have the chance.” Chip tapped her on the shoulder. “But then we’d have had to kill you in Hawaii after we met the first time.”
       “With a few notable exceptions of course.”
       Wiz-Ra turned toward the wall of energy they had passed through. “I sense more of your friends have joined us.” In a few moments, the wall to the larger expanse opened and Basil and Agnes were forced through. Basil was in a rotten mood. “Dash it all, just as we had the tablet in our grasp! Chip, Theo is a most capable young man, but I fear for his safety and those of the others. I believe he escaped our fate.”
       “He did, Basil,” Wiz-Ra said. “He and his allies are on their way to the city you call Beijing as we speak.”
       “Well, at least they got away,” Agnes said. “What about us?”
       Lahwhinie floated over to her. “We’re stuck here until time stops, unless someone busts us out. What about Triginta, pharaoh boy? What can he do?” Wiz-Ra concentrated again. “I have been in contact with him mentally, and he has a plan. However, I do not wish to think of it in this manner, for even with my shielding there is a chance our adversaries could determine that plan and countermand it.”
       Gadget Hackwrench floated to the Egyptian now. “Wiz-Ra, what about the children from that other universe?”
       “Yeah, are Geegaw and Althea okay?” Dale added. Wiz-Ra smiled and grinned. “They are quite safe, in the hands of your neighbors. Now, we must do even as they and be patient and wait.”

       May 30 7:22am En Route From Katmandu

       Theo watched with loving patience as Bink dropped off to sleep. She had been uptight ever since takeoff, and now that they had left the mountains of Tibet behind he was grateful that exhaustion had finally forced her to rest. But now Theo had to face reality again—his team was down to four, and it was up to them to find where Klordane would try to enter their world and stop him. It was a heavy responsibility, and even though he felt he was ready he wasn’t sure he wanted it. The price of failure was so high that it would be devastating to know he’d let the whole world down. These were the thoughts of the fedora-clad chipmunk as he walked to the front of the plane where Monty and Geegaw occupied the front seats.
       At the moment, Geegaw was listening to Monty recount the history of the Rangers in their present reality. “So she forgot to use skis? If I’d told that girl once, I’d told her a thousand times...” Geegaw started in. Theo interrupted him, knowing the tale as well as anyone. “Well, it was Gadget’s first time out of her old home in years, Geegaw. Give her some slack.”
       “Well, I suppose. Still, I thought I’d trained her better than that.”

       Geegaw put the plane on autopilot and stood up, stretching. “Nothing like a good adventure to get the kinks out. She’s finally asleep, eh? Well, that’ll help her for now at least. How are you holding up?”
       “I’m too afraid to be afraid right now,” Theo said. “The world feels like it’s sitting on my shoulders.”
       “That’s because it probably is,” Geegaw said. “I won’t snow you, son. The situation’s bad and it’s probably going to get worse. Monty and I were in some tough spots in our early rambling days, but nothing like this. We’re fighting the clock and who knows how many henchmen to get the info and find out where this Klordane fellow’s going to pop up. You can bet they’ll be all over that area like bandits on a bomber.”
       “Let them come,” Theo said. “They’ll learn what happens when Theo Maplewood embraces the destiny he was put on this Earth for.” Monty grinned. “That’s the spirit, lad! We’re gonna make ol’ Klordane wish he’d never been born at all. Right, Geegaw?”
       “If we have anything to say about it,” Geegaw said. “We’re all just going to have to grit our teeth and beat this gauntlet. Say, how’s Bink doing anyway? I gather you and she are mighty close in that other universe.”
       Theo took a seat in a auxiliary seat behind Monty. “Very much so. We’ve been the best of friends for years.” Geegaw looked back into the passenger area. “By the way she looks at you, she sees more than a friend. Have you thought about taking the next step with your own Bink?”
       “Since the dance we went to when I was twelve years old.”

       Geegaw’s eyebrows rose up and he laughed, nearly falling backwards in the seat he was sitting sideways on. “Since you were twelve? Faith lad, sounds like you two were star-crossed lovers from the get-go! I remember when I met Gadget’s mother. She was the most glorious creature to walk this Earth—well, not this Earth, but mine anyway.
       “I didn’t feel worthy of her, but how I loved her! She made my life such a joy while she was alive. My only regret was the time I wasted waiting for the right time to ask her. If you’ll take an old pilot’s advice, the right time never really comes. Just pick a good time, and pop the question.”
       Theo sighed. “When the fate of the world isn’t on my shoulders. But I already have the ring and everything.” Monty had turned around too, and gave him a friendly poke in the shoulder. “First things first, right? I think you two’ll be mighty happy, mate.”
       Then Geegaw got his attention again. “Tell me, Theo, happy is the Gadget of your world? My daughter never chose to marry, and she tells me she’s happy. Yours is married to Dale, as is this world’s, and another was married to Chip. And your Gadget’s a mother on top of it all! I never thought about grandchildren. It’s rare that a father gets to see the result of so many alternatives. So, is she truly happy?”
       “Very much so,” Theo said. “I didn’t get to know her until after she was married, so I don’t know how she compares to before that time, but everyone seems to think it was for the best.”
       Geegaw nodded. “It was always hard to tell with my princess. She’s so happy just fixing things that she rarely takes time to think of anything else. But it was good to see that she could’ve been happy as a wife and mother too. I suppose she’s that rare kind of person that’s happy no matter what she’s doing or what choices she makes. I must admit though there were many days when I wish I’d had her mother to consult—I never knew if I was encouraging her right. Still, things turned out pretty well, at least until you think they’re all dead?”

       Theo looked first at Geegaw, then to Monty. “No. I can’t explain it really and I never really wanted to understand it, but...let’s say that death and I have an understanding. It’s not something I talk about, but I have a way of feeling if something is deadly or not. I’ve seen death.”
       “You’ve seen someone die?” Monty asked.
       “Yes,” Theo said. “I saw my parents die in a fire, but that’s not what I mean. I mean that I saw death—death itself.” Theo locked eyes with the old pilot. “I saw death take my folks from me, and since then I’ve always had a sense of when it was near. Death reached out for me that day too, but just before it touched me another hand grabbed me and pulled me out of the flames. That hand belonged to Chip Maplewood.
       “He saved my life and that debt will be repaid, one way or another. That’s why I’m willing to take risks sometimes, because I just have a sense of what can and can’t be done and right now that sense tells me that they’re not dead.”
       Geegaw pondered the young munk’s statement. “Yes, I’ve known people with that kind of sense about them. There was this old pilot I used to know named Freewheeler. Well, his real name was Ignatius Rathescou, but just try to get attention with a name like that. Freewheeler would try things that none of the rest of us would. There was times that *my* knuckles would turn white when I was flying with him.”
       “So what happened to him?” Theo asked.
       “Oh, he retired a few years back. He owns a stunt plane show and his kids star in it. ‘Freewheeler’s Flying Circus’, still a big pull with the kiddies. Well, I’d better let you get some rest. Beijing’s still several hours ahead.”
       Theo shook Geegaw’s hand, then held it an extra beat. “Even if I’m wrong and have to go to the next world to bring Chip back, I’ll do it.” Geegaw saw the determined look in his companion’s eyes and knew he’d do just that. “I’m glad to know you, Theo Maplewood. When all this goes back to normal, you tell your Gadget I said so, and that her father loves her. And her kids.”

       Theo shook hands with Geegaw and patted Monty on the shoulder. Then he went to find rest in the seat next to Bink. Geegaw made a minor course correction, humming an old tune he knew, as the peace of the engines melded with his soul. Even now, with all the danger they were facing, it gave him that sense of calm it always did. **I hope you’re okay, princess. Wherever you are**

Chapter 20 – Theo Maplewood and the Enigmatic Room, the Final Destination Revealed

       May 30 2:26pm Beijing

       The sun was high over Beijing when they landed. Geegaw was ready for a nap after the long flight, so he agreed to meet up with Bink and Theo later on. The two Rangers exchanged looks, each feeling the pride and the burden of responsibility, and when Triginta’s contact met them and Monty they both tried to act as professional as possible. The robed capuchin monkey that waved them over seemed pleasant enough, but he did take the precaution of summoning them away from the airport’s open area and into a private alcove
       “I am Pilosus Proditor of the Far Eastern order,” the monkey said. “You may call me Pilosus. Welcome to Beijing, young friends.” Monty shook the monkey’s hand in a tight grip. “Pleased ta meet you, mate! Sure are a lot of you Latin types around. Why ain’t we heard about all these groups of you before?”
       “We like to keep a low profile,” Pilosus said. “Now, we must hurry.”
       “One moment,” Theo said. “First, I have to say that the east wind is treacherous.”
       “Yes,” Pilosus said, “but it’s calmed by the rising sun.”
       Theo recognized the countersign Triginta had given him and they started walking with the monkey toward the airport. “Thanks, Pilosus. Sorry to chat and run but we are racing the clock. We need to know where the third tablet is.” The monkey’s voice altered somewhat and his voice lowered to almost a whisper. “All in good time, young ones. Several obstacles you must face. The dark side is aware of our presence.”
       Bink raised an eyebrow. “Tell me something I don’t know. They’ve been on our tails for a while now, always one step ahead of us.” Pilosus stopped them from heading to the terminal. “Use caution, we must. I know the secret ancient pathways through the city. Follow me, and we will try to avoid their detection.” Bink chuckled at the monkey’s speech patterns. “We can always use the Force on them if they resist.” The monkey grinned and shrugged. “It helps me cope when I am under stress. Now come, we have much to do.”

       In the streets, several rodents milled about as if they were looking for something—or someone. Most of them were locals, but a familiar Australian black hat revealed the presence of Donovan. He hadn’t been pleased when the hyraxes had spoiled his trap in Africa, and now he was determined to make amends. Russel Donovan was a mouse that appreciated precision and timing. As a youngster, he’d served in the Royal Mouse Brigade in Brisbane, and had become a master of sharpshooting. Then came the night he’d been caught by his company exec moonlighting on the side. Moonlighting as an assassin had made it worse, and he was summarily drummed out and sentenced to death. That was when Fat Cat had caught up with him.
       The portly feline had arranged his pardon by some means that to this day Donovan didn’t understand. What he did know was that he owed his loyalty to the cat, and he was going to carry out his orders to the best of his ability. Right now, that meant stopping Theo and his companions at any cost. So far, that was proving to be difficult. Donovan was never one to let hopes drive his thinking, but he was hopeful when he saw one of his hirelings, a mongoose, zoom around a local market and rush up to him.
       “What’s the word, Speedy?” Donovan asked.
       The mongoose grimaced. “Don’t call me that. My name’s Eddie, Eddie Wu. And the plane you were looking for just landed.”
       “And the people?”
       “One’s in the plane, and the other three met with a monkey and are headed for the Forbidden City. Shall I send the Black Dragon Triad after them?”
       “No,” Donovan said. “This has to be discreet and untraceable. I’ve never known them to be either when it comes to handling trouble. I’ll supervise it myself.” Eddie bowed to him. “As you wish, Donovan-san.” Donovan slapped him across the face. “Don’t ever use that name here, you fool! Here I’m known as Trajan.”
       “Oh right. Sorry. I’ll have them followed and when they’re in position—”
       “Don’t bother. I have something else in mind.”

       Pilosus led the team through a winding and twisting maze of backstreets, alleys and backyards, hoping to avoid attention. Monty meanwhile was recounting one of his stories from the last time he’d been here. “So there I was, right in the middle of a gang o’ cats from Canton! They were rough as a cheese grater, but I was ready for ‘em. Earlier that day I’d spied me this big oil slick down by the docks and led ‘em right into it! ‘Course, I’d grabbed me a pair o’ popsicle sticks so I just slid right through it like a knife through butter. Those blokes came out of there darker than midnight and I scored me a hunk of Feta and off I went!”
       “And left on a ship full of longhorn cheese for America, right?” Bink said, grinning. Monty grinned back. “Sure you weren’t there, lass?”
       The Rangers and their guide had just turned up a narrow winding cobblestone street. The buildings were close on each side, giving the impression of a narrow canyon. In a moment, it gave Theo the impression of something else.
       “Ambush!” Theo shouted, pushing Bink into a doorway. Donovan and his cronies had caught up with them, and they were armed to the teeth. “G’day, again,” Donovan said. “Seemed right impolite of you blokes to run out on us in Africa, so we thought we’d come here and renew old acquaintances.”
       Monty rolled up his sleeves. “Makes me right ashamed to see a fellow Aussie turn turncoat!” Donovan appeared shocked. “Me, turncoat? Not at all, mate. Just know the best place to make a buck. By the way, Theo, they’re not dead.”
       “They’re not?” Theo asked, confused as to why he’d tell them that. “If they’re not, then where are they?” Donovan pulled out a marble-sized metallic sphere. “Where the lot of you are going, to Limbo!”
       “Scatter!” Bink shouted.

       Donovan and his bunch threw five of the devices in their direction. Pilosus jumped for a nearby fire escape and clambered out of danger. Theo jumped in the door they were next to, via a dog door. Bink meant to follow, but tripped. She looked up, and saw one of the spheres coming right in her direction. Then someone picked her up from behind—it was Monty, and he stuffed her through the small door.
       “Come on!” Theo shouted. But it was already too late. The sphere activated and the beam sought Monty out before he could heft his body halfway up to the swinging door. “Keep going, an’ don’t stop til’ y—”
       And then he was gone.

       Donovan frowned at the results. He’d hoped to take them all cleanly, but now they would have to do it the hard way. “Let’s finish the job.” Theo and Bink for their parts weren’t hanging around. They’d already run through the old apartment they had entered, exiting through the open ventilation system. As they emerged at the building’s rear, a familiar face was there to greet them.
       “Come!” Pilosus shouted. “Pursuing us, they are! We must stay ahead of them!” Pilosus led Bink and Theo into the sewers, and then into some ancient catacombs under the city. At one point they stopped where an iron door blocked one half of a T-junction. Theo looked through a small slit in the door and could see a large black pearl sitting on a pedestal.
       “Is that thing dangerous?” Theo asked.
       “Not from here,” Pilosus said. “That is the mystic Heart of the Dragon. Some seventy years ago, a human adventurer acquired it for the Chinese government before the agents of Nazi Germany could claim it. It was rumored to have belonged to the first emperor of China, and to have the power to control minds. However, that is only legend. Now it remains here, safely hidden. Come, we have some distance to go yet.”

       Leaving the locked room behind, the trio turned left at the T-junction and entered a maze of ancient and broken-down tunnels. Alternately running and jumping over obstacles, they soon came to a large open area that looked like an ancient temple site. Splendid columns decorated the big room on all sides, though a couple of them had fallen and shattered in the middle of the room. A large octagonal pool dominated the center of the room and large stone doors on the opposite side marked the way out. All was quiet as they entered, and the echoes of their footsteps were ominous in the huge chamber.
       The monkey gestured to the expanse ahead of them. “This is an ancient secret gathering place for priests from the Ch’in Dynasty. Their worship rites were done here, and it is said that no outsider ever reached here and lived to tell about it.” Theo whistled, impressed. “Well, security must not have been a problem. Is it much farther?”
       “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that any longer.”
       From above and behind them, Donovan and his cohorts appeared. They were standing on a second floor stone terrace, each of them with various ninja weapons, while Donovan carried a scoped rifle. “You’ve done well. Anyone who gets away from me once is right lucky. Twice is legendary, but I don’t intend to give you a shot at a third. Now, you can surrender and live a while longer or you can die right now. Your choice, mates.”
       Theo knew Donovan was playing with them, and decided to keep him playing. “You can’t kill me Donovan, and you never will!” Theo paused a moment then bolted and leaped into the pool, the others following his lead. The act caught Donovan off-guard and he only managed to get one shot off at them that missed badly.
       “Should’ve known they’d make me work for it,” the Aussie mumbled. “Oh well, I like it that way better anyhow.” He looked at his cohorts, still standing there. “Well, don’t wait for a bloomin’ engraved invitation! GET DOWN THERE!”

       The cutthroats headed down, and encircled the pool. Eddie the mongoose waved up to Donovan. “They ain’t here! There’s a door of some kind down there, and they must’ve swum through!” Donovan gave out a frustrated laugh. “Well, aren’t you the lucky one, Theo. All right, that water’s gotta come out somewhere further in! Split up and find them!”
       Once they were through the stone doors, the cutthroats found several possible paths available to them. They quickly split up into three groups of three, each group taking a different passage out of the large room. Donovan started climbing down toward the room’s floor and secured his rifle on his back when he got there. “Wherever you went, I’m coming too.”

       Donovan dived in and headed down for the underwater door. Several minutes earlier, Theo, Bink and Pilosus had finished their swim through the dark underwater tunnel the door led into and emerged. They all breathed hard, thankful for the air coming into their lungs, and more thankful that they were still alive after the threat that Donovan had posed. Of course, they all knew that this was just the beginning.
       Getting out of the pool, identical-looking to the octagonal one they had just left, they found themselves in an ancient library. Pilosus explained in hushed tones that this too was from the Ch’in Dynasty and only select academicians were allowed to come and consult the writings. There were a dozen raised stone platforms in this room with shallow V-angled tops, obviously made to hold the large scrolls that lined the many stone shelves in this room. Quickly, Theo led the way and they ducked down behind one of the platforms
       “How long do you think before they find us, Theo?” Bink asked.
       “A couple of minutes, probably. We need to get that tablet and get out of here. How much farther is it, Pilosus?” Theo asked.
       Pilosus pointed to an exit across the room. “Still a few rooms to go. Once we can leave this room, we need to head right for the statue room. There is a crude elevator there that will take us inside a secret room of the palace of the Forbidden City. It is the only way to reach the tablet. The palace’s builders made it that way intentionally so that only the emperor or someone he shared the knowledge with would be able to view the tablet. When we—”

       The monkey shut up, as they could hear multiple footfalls from the hall outside. One of them carried a torch, because they could easily make out a trio of flickering shadows on the stone wall as the cutthroats came in. Theo and his team waited patiently and quietly moved so that they were behind the interlopers. At his signal, they sped out and pounced. Pilosus’ size was a great advantage, and he was able to disarm two of them at once. Bink sailed into the third, using her martial arts expertise to deliver a solid kick that separated a mouse from his bo staff.
       Theo knew he couldn’t kill these rodents, but he remembered a trick his Aunt Eva had showed him and he delivered a quick and decisive chop at the junction of their neck and shoulders, rendering them unconscious instantly. Quickly they tied and gagged them, using their shirts for material, and now they had weapons. Pilosus took one bo staff, while Bink got another and Theo brandished nunchuks. They left the room, and just in time, for Donovan saw the movement of them going as he emerged. He got his rifle into action, but a moment too late.
       “Busy bees,” Donovan commented, surveying his fallen minions. “Well, you’ll find this bee has a pretty big sting.”

       With Pilosus leading the way, the three of them ran into the statue room. They also ran into something else that none of them could have suspected.
       “Tomb robbers!” the robed monkey shouted.
       Indeed, they had come upon a bunch of masked rodents desecrating the ancient statues, which were jewel-encrusted. Two guard-mice had been incapacitated, and now the robbers turned their attentions to the newcomers. And they were dressed as ninja.
       Theo stepped forward, nunchuks in hand, spinning one end of it. One of the ninja drew out a katana and slowly they circled. A few moments later, Donovan slipped around the corner. He could see that Theo and his friends had more trouble than they had bargained for. **Very well. Let them fight it out. If they live, I’ll finish them**
       The ninja shouted and leaped to the attack. Theo simply rolled forward, letting him pass over. The other two ninja stood back to observe, as did Theo’s allies. It was clearly a match of champions. Theo came forward, working the nunchuks around his body, trying to size his opponent up. He could remember Eva’s lessons so clearly—do not engage an opponent until you are sure of their experience and abilities. A patient fighter is a survivor.
       Evidently, the ninja had been taught the same lesson, because he held back as well. Each one would feint as if to attack, then hold back. When Theo felt he knew the ninja’s limits he advanced, using the nunchucks as a distraction for his real attack. He held on to one end of them and whipped the other end through the air as if to strike his opponent, then turned his motion into a cartwheel. The ninja dodged, which was exactly what Theo wanted. He stopped at a handstand and, balancing on one hand, he flipped the nunchuks around the ninja’s legs and pulled.

       Down came the black-clad warrior and Theo was on top of him fast. He bonked him with the wooden end of the nunchucks, knocking him out. The other ninja pulled their swords at this and Bink and Pilosus rushed to meet them. Theo was about to do the same when he caught sight of something else out of the corner of his eye. Just in time, he rolled to avoid the shot from the rifle, then came up and dove for cover. He saw Donovan trying to retarget him, but he also saw someone else. Another ninja that must have been keeping watch in the hallway outside the room came up behind the Aussie and was ready to stab him with a dagger.
       Theo hesitated a moment, then shouted, “Behind you!”
       Donovan turned, and found the turn kept him alive. He clouted the ninja with the butt of his rifle, then took away the mouse’s blade and tied him up. The others were doing the same to their opponents and hadn’t seen Donovan’s plight. Donovan proceeded over to where Theo was, holding his rifle at waist-height. “Why’d you do that, lad? You could’ve let me die, you know, and you’d have been rid of me right there.”
       Theo finished tying up his ninja and stood up. “I wasn’t going to, but it didn’t seem right letting a man get stabbed in the back. Even if he was trying to kill me.” Donovan hesitated a moment longer, then lowered his rifle. “You saved my life, so I’ll make us even. I’ll tell the others you got away, and you can leave here. But next time I won’t stand aside. G’day, Theo.”

       Donovan tipped his hat and backed out of the room, letting them know he’d not entertain an attack. Pilosus caught Theo’s attention when he was gone, “Come on, Theo. We have to get to the elevator now.” Theo checked the room for anything else that looked dangerous, then allowed himself to relax. “That was too close for comfort. We have to be more careful next time. Is it much farther, Pilosus?”
       “Straight ahead.”
       They approached a shaft with two large elaborately-decorated stone statues in front of it. Pilosus bade them to go forward and stand on a wooden platform at the bottom of the shaft, then he pulled on a rope. Instantly a big stone started slowly coming down from the ceiling toward the arms of the statue to their right. Pilosus grabbed a nearby torch, ran and jumped for the platform. When the stone fit into the arms, the arms lowered and triggered the release of a huge counterweight.

       Quickly, the trio shot up over a hundred feet through the shaft and came to an abrupt stop in a small windowless rectangular room. They stepped forward from one end of the rectangle and Pilosus’ torch soon illuminated the piece of the tablet at the other end. “Behold, the greatest secret of the Forbidden City!”
       Bink rushed forward to grab at the tablet. “Thanks a bunch, but we gotta split!” Her hands passed through it, and she blinked in momentary surprise then grimaced. “Oh, I forgot about it being phased and all. Theo, did you bring the camera?”
       Theo reached into his map case and brought out the rodent-sized Polaroid that Gadget had made for them. “Smile pretty, now!”
       Bink smiled coquettishly, and Theo snapped the picture. Pilosus led them back to the platform, where he pushed a particular spot on the wall. The platform lowered, but only about twenty feet this time, revealing a long dark tunnel when they all turned around. “This tunnel leads out into the palace,” Pilosus explained. “We must hurry, because the way only stays open for about a minute.”

       Quickly, they rushed through the tunnel and emerged through partly-rusted iron doors to squint at the sunlight outside the palace walls. In a few moments they heard a thud behind them and when Theo looked he found a stone block now prevented them from returning. Pilosus led them back to the airfield, but Geegaw was no longer at the plane. A nearby mechanic told them he’d gone to a nearby club to eat and when they got there they found him coming out holding two bags.
       “Hello, folks!” Geegaw said. “I got tired of waiting so I ate and ordered some extra for you. Got to admit, they still serve great food.” Bink looked up at the name. “COW? That’s a strange name for a restaurant.”
       “Oh, that. All the small letters broke off, leaving just the big ones. Well, did you get it? And say, where’s Monty?” Theo looked away, and Geegaw guessed the truth. “My old friend. Well, not exactly since he’s another Monty, but a friend nonetheless. He sure did love a good adventure.”
       “He’s not dead, though,” Theo said. “Donovan told us that all of our friends were zapped into Limbo by those spheres—Limbo bombs.” Geegaw perked up some at that news. “Well, at least he’s not gone for good. We’ve still got a chance at rescuing them!”
       Theo brought out the Polaroid from his map case. “We got a picture of the tablet piece, but that should be good enough.”
       “Enough indeed.” They turned and found their old friend had once again caught up with them. Pilosus and Triginta bowed to each other respectfully, then the monkey scampered off. Theo handed the picture to Triginta. “Yes, yes,” Triginta said, “This will do nicely. Let me see the other two pictures you have.”
       Theo handed over all his materials to Triginta. “This had better be good enough, because we’re probably never going to be able to get that close to all three of them ever again. Hey wait! Isn’t there a tablet in Canada, too? Mom and Dad…the ones here, never made it there!”
       “That’s all right,” Triginta said. “I took the liberty of completing that part of the mission for you myself. We should have all we need. Oh, here. You may want this.” He handed Theo a brochure, which Theo found was from Tokyo. The munk shook his head, offering it back.
       “Keep it,” Triginta said, “in case you need another way home.”

       Triginta led them to a nearby building, where he had a world map on a table. Slowly, he read each tablet piece, his mouth muttering a language that none his audience knew, and his finger traced a path that started in Antarctica and slowly moved north. The finger’s path zigzagged a couple of times, then came to rest in the United States. Immediately, he pulled out a larger United States map and retraced the path. With a flourish, he marked a spot on the map along the Arizona-Nevada border.
       “There,” Triginta said. “That is where the portal’s point of entry will be. Hoover Dam.”
       Theo was greatly relieved. “Well, we’re in your debt, Triginta. I hope we can repay you somehow for your help.” Theo started to leave when Triginta caught him by the arm. “I do not think you understand, young one. I am the only one who can solve this crisis, and the only one who can save those trapped in Limbo.”
       “Why is that?” Bink asked.
       “I’ll explain that to you on the way,” Triginta said. Theo rolled up the maps on the table. “Then pack your jammies, ‘cause we’re heading for Hoover dam!” Geegaw nodded, happy to be going. “Great, I’m ready to get this over with. The plane’s fueled up and—uh oh.”

       A clinking sound announced the arrival of a Limbo bomb rolling into the room. “Scoot!” Geegaw shouted.
       They did so, but Geegaw in his haste bumped into the table and fell. The bomb activated and just as he leaped for the door it struck and the old pilot disappeared. Theo and Bink were still running, but Theo had seen Geegaw’s fate. They ran for the plane and found to their surprise that no one was there to stop them.
       Theo climbed into the pilot’s seat, Bink next to him. Bink watched as Theo feverishly worked the controls. “Think you can do it?”
       “I can fly the RangerWing, and this isn’t too different. Plus I watched Geegaw work the controls just in case this came up. Okay, here we go!”
       Theo gave the plane full throttle, and when he felt the time was right he pulled back on the stick. The plane’s tail hit the ground and sparks flew, but all that was lost was some paint and a little of Theo’s pride as a pilot. In moments they were up, and once Theo had received directions he headed the plane for North America.
       Back on the ground, Donovan watched as the plane took off. “I said it’d be different when we met next, Theo. I didn’t say when, after all.” It was the Aussie who’d dropped the Limbo-bomb on them. Now at least he could tell his boss that he’d gotten one more of them, and could honestly say the others had escaped. “Time I was getting home.” In a few moments, another plane emerged from a hangar and Donovan climbed on board.

Chapter 21 – The Ancient One and Some Straight Talk

       May 30 5:15pm En Route From Beijing

       Once Theo had them at cruising altitude, he set the autopilot and faced Triginta. “You said you could save the Rangers. You know where they are, then?”
       “Yes, in Limbo with Klordane,” Triginta said. Theo smiled at this bit of confirmation. He’d known they weren’t dead. “Then let’s get them back. We have some evil to stomp.”
       Triginta took the seat behind the co-pilot’s seat, currently occupied by Bink. “It’s not going to be that easy, young one. It will require a great deal of planning. Fortunately, we have some time. First though, I think it is time that I told you who I really am.”

       Bink and Theo watched as Triginta removed his robes to reveal a mouse wearing simple clothing, yet adorned with ancient jewelry and wrist bracelets. They also noticed that the jewelry he wore bore writing similar to that on the tablet. “My true name is Abari, which tells you little. However, I am truly a member of this eccentric group. In fact, I founded it—or rather I founded it in its current traditions.”
       Bink couldn’t believe he’d be joking at a time like this. “Yeah, right. Look, we don’t have time for this. If you want to play games, we’ll drop you at the nearest CarnivalWorld.”
       Abari took on the most serious demeanor. “If only it were a game, child. Then none of this would be happening. I was so foolhardy to think that no one would ever discover a means of a controlled escape from Limbo. But now together we can stop them. You see, it was no great problem for me to read that tablet because I was the one who inscribed it.”
       Theo set the autopilot and turned to face him. “You…I’ve seen you before! You were the mouse that found Gadget’s time viewer in my dream. Are you a time traveler, then?” Abari smiled and shook his head. “Not really. Being a time traveler implies being able to control one’s trip through time. I have no such control. You see, I was born several millennia ago. I was a simple merchant then, trading in whatever goods I could scrape up. Then I discovered a strange object in the desert and had the misfortune to touch it, thinking it might be salvage. I was transformed, just as those tablet pieces were later.”
       Abari held out his hands. “You see me solid as you are now, but in a few hours I will disappear entirely. I am in a personal Limbo of my own, a prisoner trapped outside of time itself. I haven’t aged a day in over three thousand years.”
       “Then it was you I saw!” Theo said. “None of it was a dream, then.”

       “No,” Abari said. “I have developed several abilities in this state, including being able to project my thoughts. The recounting of my experiences was a way to prepare you for the switch with the Theo from this universe.” Bink meanwhile had been studying Abari closely. “So you mean you’re like an immortal? That must be really, really boring. Isn’t there any way to release you?”
       Abari shook his head. “Sadly not. But boring? On the contrary, young Bink. On the contrary.” The mouse looked off toward the watery horizon ahead of them, remembering. “I have seen civilizations rise and fall. I saw the dawn of mankind and mousekind and met the greatest minds of all of them. I’ve been to places that no modern historian knows of, and I have lived a thousand lives.
       “Bored, no. Tired, yes—I am tired of immortality. I wish to live again, to be a whole person once more and enjoy one last lifetime before time claims me as it should have done long ago. As for releasing me, there is one way. When the portal appears, the infernal machine that made me this way will appear as well. If we can destroy or disable it while it is phased into our reality, then their link to Limbo will be destroyed as well and I will finally be free. That is what will call for a plan, and fortunately I have had quite some time to develop one.”
       Theo had a dozen questions to ask this person, but realized that they could wait. “I’ve never been one to turn his nose up at another person’s plan. What do you have in mind?”
       “It will take time to explain, and my time is limited so listen well. To use the interdimensional device to open a bridge to Limbo will require a great deal of power concentrated at one point. That is why I mentioned Hoover Dam, for while the point of entry would allow an opening in an area of several square miles, they’ll want to tap the dam’s hydroelectric power. So, here is how it will play out...”

       Abari began to explain to them the workings of the device in question and how he thought their adversaries would open the portal to Limbo. Slowly, in detail he laid out his plans for stopping Klordane, freeing the prisoners in Limbo and destroying the machine that had made him a prisoner outside of time. Just as he was wrapping up, he began to fade.
       “This happens every twelve hours,” Abari said, his voice beginning to fade as well. “So I will see you again twelve hours from now. Do not try to win the day without me, because you would have no chance. Wait until I reappear and rejoin you, and we will work together to bring time and reality itself back into balance. And remember to act as friends, because Klordane will be able to look in on you in about an hour.
       “Okay, and we’ll wait,” Theo said. “We’re counting on you, man.”
       “And I youuuu....

       Abari faded from view and then it was Bink and Theo in the plane alone. The female squirrel scooted over, putting her arm around Theo’s shoulder and watching the sunset’s shimmer on the ocean ahead. “Thank goodness they’re all alive. Theo, not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be doing something like this. If I live to be Abari’s age, I’ll never be able to forget all we’ve been through! I know we’ll win now, Theo. We have to!”
       “I told you we’d win,” Theo said. “I can feel it. And we’ll get your Theo home, too.”
       Theo watched the far horizon ahead and suddenly realized that for the first time he was really alone with this other Bink. His mind went back to the talk he’d had with Dr. Burkhart and he realized what an opportunity fate had given him. “Becky, do I mind if I ask you a few things?”
       “Not at all. What’s on your mind?” Bink asked.
       “When I mentioned asking my Becky to marry me, you seemed happy at the idea. If your Theo ever asked you, would you have any problems with it?”
       Bink was surprised by the question, and it showed. “Problems? Well, I suppose there could be a few things. Theo’s parents are kind of protective of him, and they’ve never encouraged him or me.”
       Theo nodded. “I figured it was something like that. But you told me that you love him. Why not tell him?” Bink looked down. “I don’t know if I should. I mean, he’s not like you when it comes to relationships and all. He’s really good on missions, but I’m not sure if he’d be willing to stand up to his parents that way.”

       This confused Theo, as he couldn’t imagine himself unwilling to speak up to Chip and Lahwhinie on such an important part of his life. He decided to change the topic. “I plan to propose to Becky at our prom like Dale did with Gadget. I know what she’ll say, but it’s not that or the wedding that’s bothering me. I’m just concerned if I can handle everything and still be a Ranger.”
       “I think you can,” Bink said. “You’ve sure proved to me that you can handle a lot. I mean, here we are about to take on some screwball who’s bent on taking over the planet and we’ve already been through more pure adventure than I’ll probably see for the rest of my life. Wow, this really a weird conversation to be having!”
       “Tell me about it,” Theo said. “It’s like talking to a past version of my girlfriend in a way. And are you happy, Becky? Was this life what you really wanted?” Bink smiled back. “For as long as I could remember. The last year’s been the happiest of my life, working with Theo and the other Rangers, but I think that you and your Bink will be happier yet.”

       Then Bink pointed at Theo’s timepiece. “How long do we have now?” Theo checked the countdown timer. “Ten hours, twelve minutes.” Bink took on a look of fear. “Ten hours! Theo, we’re not going to have enough time to get there!” Bink hastily grabbed a nearby notepad and began writing out some figures. “We’re flying at around, what, four hundred miles an hour?”
       “Something like that,” Theo said. He put the plane on autopilot while Bink showed him her calculations. “Theo, it’s going to take at least 16 hours to reach the U.S. coast, and then there’s getting to Hoover Dam too!” Theo was shaken, thinking that they’d come so far only to fail now. He started to take the plane off of autopilot when he remembered something and stuck his hand into one of his jacket pockets, pulling out a brochure.
       “What’s that?” Bink asked.
       Theo looked it over quickly and smiled. “Our answer! Here, look.”
       Bink leaned in, and Theo showed her a section of the brochure that Abari had circled. “See? It says here that there’s a 777 flight from Tokyo to San Francisco that’s nonstop and can get us there in six hours!”
       “Theo, that’s it!” Bink shouted. “But what if we miss the flight?”
       “Hey, we’re the good guys! Of course we’ll be on time,” Theo said, grinning. Bink gave out a chuckle. “Okay, okay. We’ll make the flight.” Bink leaned her head on Theo’s shoulder as the munk piloted the plane pointed east. “Don’t mind me. I’m just resting my eyes.” There was still much to be done and an uncertain future ahead. But they both knew they’d face it together, and for now that was all that mattered.

Chapter 22 – Cannery Showdown, Going First Class, and Zero Hour

       May 30 12:23pm New York, Primary Universe

       Inside the cat food factory, all was quiet save for the echoing voice of the felonius feline, now combined with the scattered laughter of his comrades, the goon squad. He'd managed to bring his old gang together, not that they had any pressing business elsewhere. The terrible tabby looked up at the Rangers, trapped on the section of catwalk, and spoke like a villian who knew he had the upper hand. “I’m in quite a rush, with lots to get done. And frankly, I don’t need a lot of suspicious rodents snooping around right now!”
       “That’s a real shame,” Chip said, with mock sarcasm. “But we’re here to put a damper on your little scheme, and Klordane’s!”
       They could hear Fat Cat give out a quick gasp. “So, you know about our little ploy, eh? I told him you’d probably find out. But it won’t do you any good, Rangers. This time, we’ve thought of everything! Say, there were two of you Chips a second ago...”
       “Make that almost everything!” When the offensive noise had forced the others out of Fat Cat’s office, Theo had gone for the ventilation duct. Using the loud distraction to hide his movements, he’d worked his way to the main floor. Now he ran across the floor, having maneuvered his way behind Fat Cat, and taking the stopper off the vial of acid he threw it at the device. It splattered widely on contact—only it did not contact the machine.
       “Blast, a force field!” Theo shouted. “But how did you know?”
       Fat Cat laughed derisively. “We knew you’d try something, so my benefactor shared with me the knowledge of how to build a protective shield around this beauty. And since you tried so hard to destroy it, now you can watch as it opens the way to Limbo!”

       “Not so fast, bucko!” Zipper shouted, buzzing down toward him. “You’ve got the super fly to deal with!” Before Fat Cat could come up with a derisive comeback, the diminutive dynamo popped him in the eye.
       “YEOWCH!” Fat Cat wailed, dropping the remote that controlled the fallaway catwalk. Zipper and Honey grabbed it up, flying the small device up to Gadget.
       Gadget studied the device. “Hmm. It appears to work on a basic RF frequency, just like a garage—”
       “Push the button, quick!” Chip shouted.
       “Oh, right,” Gadget said, doing so.

       The catwalk was restored and the fight was on. Fat Cat turned to the goon squad, murder in his eyes. “Get them or get lost!” Mole had a bazooka-like device, which fired a net at Zipper and Honey. He was as near-sighted as ever, though, and missed them completely. He did however manage to snag a mechanical claw that was sliding its way across the factory ceiling.
       “Whoooa!” Mole shouted, the claw pulling the net and him through the air. Mepps watched for a moment, then his peripheral vision caught sight of Lahwhinie and Chip. “I’ll get them!”
       “Oh really,” Lahwhinie said. “You and what army?”
       “I’m an army of one!” Mepps retorted back, running at them. Lahwhinie tipped over a can of ball bearings, covering the catwalk they were on. Mepps slipped on them and fell, conking his head in the process. Lahwhinie tsked at him. “An army of one—one moron, that is.”
       “All right,” Monty challenged. “Who wants a wallopin’!”
       “I’ll do the walloping!” Wart said, stepping out of the shadows. Monty may have been older, but he was still game for a jolly punch-up. The Aussie yelled and ran in Wart’s direction, and the lizard likewise ran at Monty. However, to Wart’s surprise, Monty halted all of a sudden and Wart stopped as well, about a foot in front of him.
       “What’s the matter, mousey?” Wart challenged. “Lose your courage?”
       “Not quite, ya green-skinned clod,” Monty said. “But I always say it’s best to use your brains for more than a hat rack. Now, Gadget!”
       Gadget, who was stationed nearby, pressed the button on the remote. The section of catwalk Wart was standing on swung down and away. “Nooooo!” Wart screamed, falling into a vat of water below. That left Snout to deal with, and Chip was ready. “Give it you best shot, rat!” Instead, Snout ran away. Chip didn’t like it. Something had to be up now. “Come on out and face us!”
       “If you insist!” Fat Cat said, snapping his fingers. Suddenly there were a lot more goons, alley cats obviously hired on for this particular occasion. “Now, my ridiculous Rangers, this time there’s no way out and you’re hopelessly outnumbered. Know what that means?”
       “It means it’s time fer the cavalry to show!”
       “What! Who said that?” Fat Cat said, looking around.

       From out of the shadows came the sound of wingbeats—lots of them. “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE—HAAAAAAAAAAAAW!!!” came the reply. “You mangy old fleabitten polecat, you’ve got the Fairmonts to deal with now! Let’s give ‘em a old fashioned Texas lynching!”
       Bats came from every direction, for in addition to Bedivere the group included Galahad and Daisy, Foxy and Noel, and Lonestar and his siblings.
       The reaction from the goon squad was predictable. “Yaaaaah!” Mole shouted. “They’ll turn us into their vampire slaves!” Dropping their weapons, the goons ran for it, but the hired guns held steady. That is, they held steady until the bats began bombing them with everything they could get their claws on.
       “I didn’t hire on for this!” one of the hired felines said. “I’m outta here!” One departure led to another, and soon it was just Fat Cat and the good guys. He bared his claws and prepared to fight, when a shadowy form moved up from behind the furious feline.
       “Fat Cat!” a female voice shouted. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

       Fat Cat appeared shocked, and to the Rangers’ amazement turned his back on them to face this newcomer. She continued to talk, not in a friendly manner. “I told you to go to the store and I find you here playing with your old friends! I work and slave all day to support you and the children and this is the thanks I get?”
       A female cat emerged from the shadow. She was as fat as Fat Cat and wore a dress of light green with polka dots. She also carried a rolling pin which she used to bonk him on the head with. “Play with your friends later! There’s work to do!”
       “But Chubbi!” Fat Cat pleaded. “Fluffikins! It’s the Rescue Rangers, and I’m finally getting my revenge! Can’t it wait for that?” From behind Chubbi, two pudgy male kittens emerged. “Look, Portly, it’s the Rescue Rangers!” said one, named Husky.
       “Wow! It really is them!” Portly replied. “I didn’t know they knew dad. Maybe we can get their autographs!” Chubbi crossed her big arms. “What kind of example are you setting for our children by going around avenging? The house needs painting, the garden needs weeding and the tile in the kitchen needs new grout!”
       Dale began laughing. “You’ve got a lot bigger problem than us now!” Lahwhinie had been giggling as well. “Yeah, and you’ll be paying alimony if you don’t get home, fat boy!” Fat Cat’s blood boiled as the Rangers laughed and taunted him. “I’ll show you!” Fat Cat went to grab a nearby piece of pipe, but his wife slapped his hand. “Oh no, you don’t! That’s all you want to do at home, show people how tough you are. Well, I’ll give you something to show!”
       Chubbi got a pincer lock on Fat Cat’s right ear and began dragging him away. The former crime boss was outclassed. “NO! It’s not fair!” Fat Cat shouted. “I had them beaten! I was going to win! Win!” The kittens smiled and waved to the Rangers, who smiled and waved back. The youngsters followed their parents and all was well.
       Dale laughed till he had to stop for breath. “I guess we got the last laugh on fat boy! He’s unhappily married and we’re all happy about that.” Gadget hugged him. “It just goes to show what a good wife can do for a man, uh cat.” Lahwhinie shook her head, amazed. “The kids seemed nice enough. I guess that’s just more irony.”

       Bedivere and the rest of the bats flew down. “Noel and Foxy here were ready to come home, so we ambled up here early,” Bedivere said. “Miss Eva told us where all y’all were, and there isn’t a Fairmont born that’d stand on the sidelines when a fight’s going!”
       “Too right, pally,” Monty said, shaking the bat’s wing. “Ya got the gift of showing up at the right time for a jolly punchup, just like ol’ Monterey Jack!”
       “What about this fly-away catwalk?” Gadget asked. “Shouldn’t we neutralize its mechanism?” Chip thought about it, then took the remote from Gadget and flipped it to Theo. “Okay, but do it so that it’s not permanent. We may tangle with them again, and it’d be nice to have an edge. Theo, a souvenir of your first command.”

       Theo caught the remote, then remembered why they’d come. “The device! We've got to—”
       But it was too late. The device hummed to life, and the entire foundation of the cat food factory shook with power as it launched itself through the ceiling and into the atmosphere.
       “Move out!” Chip shouted, and Rangers and bats scattered alike, dodging falling pieces of metal and superstructure. When they were outside, Theo regrouped with the others. “I should’ve counted on something like that force field! Now it’s up to your Theo to act before it’s too late.”
       “But isn’t it already too late?” Gadget asked. “I mean, wouldn’t the devices have to be activated simultaneously?”
       “You’re forgetting the differences in time between universes,” Theo said. “Our earths occupy the same space, but in different universes. That device is headed for low earth orbit, if I’m guessing right. It’ll remain stationary over this spot on the planet’s surface, waiting for the device in the alternate universe to catch up where it’s right below it. They will be activated at the same relative time, but your world is about twelve hours ahead of mine. It will take that long before the gateway can be opened.”
       Lahwhinie pointed to the factory, now shaking again. “I think round two’s about to start!” Indeed, the ground started shaking again, and a violent aftershock rolled through the area and out of the city. Later, they would learn that it had been felt several states away, but as Theo quickly explained to them the worst might be yet to come.
       “The tremors in my world were felt worldwide,” Theo said. “They apparently weren’t huge, but we may have to expect more of them. Now it’s up to your Theo.”

       May 30 8:47pm Tokyo

       When they reached Tokyo, Theo and Bink landed at Narita Airport. The mouse who helped them taxi in was named Yoshi Hamashira, and fortunately he spoke English. Theo had only to ask him what he needed to know, and Yoshi led the way.
       The Boeing 777 is the most advanced passenger plane in the world. With a range of just over 5,200 miles and a cruising speed of 623 miles per hour, it makes for a comfortable and quick ride to almost any part of the globe. Once Theo and Bink had the San Francisco plane spotted, Yoshi and his flight crew assisted them with stowing their plane on board. They stuck a big “Made in Japan” label with a shipping destination on the plane, and all they needed after that was to distract the baggage handlers for a few moments. Once the cargo plane was on board and the baggage loading continued, the humans paid the plane no mind, thinking it was an oversized model airplane bought by some tourist.
       “Thanks, Yoshi,” Theo said, then bowed. “Or should I say, arigato.”
       “You’re welcome,” Yoshi said. “Now, you had best be joining your plane.”

       Yoshi walked part of the way with them, pulling out a manga he was reading. He tapped Theo on the shoulder. “Do you ever wonder what would happen if Wonder Woman became a samurai warrior?”
       Theo smiled and shook his head. “Nope, can’t say as I have. What brought that up?”
       “Oh, just a thought I had. Have a safe trip!”
       They entered the cargo bay with the rest of the baggage and settled back into their plane for takeoff. Some of the bags shifted as the plane quickly gained speed, and then they were up. Theo leaned back in his seat, ready for some rest. “This reminds me of a story that my Uncle Bernard and Aunt Bianca told me.”
       “The one where they went to Australia?” Bink asked.
       Theo sat up. “That happened here too?”
       “Yep,” Bink said. “Some things are the same between our universes. Like the feelings I have for a certain munk.” Theo grinned, patting her hand. “Don’t worry. We’re going to make it now, and I’m sure you’ll get to tell him how you feel.”

       Theo took what seemed to him a quick nap, then Bink awakened him. He could feel the plane tilting down. “We’re there already?”
       “Time flies when you’re battling crime,” Bink said. “Speaking of which, what time is it?” Theo checked the timepiece. “It’s 2:02am…no wait, that’s Beijing time. Here, it’s 11:02am on the 30th.”
       “The 30th?” Bink said. “I thought yesterday was the 30th.”
       “It was, but we crossed the International Date Line, so we get to have the 30th all over again.”
       Bink shook her head at the idea. “So we’re actually going to land at a time before we took off?” Theo nodded. “Fifteen hours earlier, but our countdown clock’s still the same. We have exactly one hour and twenty-five minutes to make it to Hoover Dam and stop Klordane!”

        When the cargo door opened, what appeared to be a model plane flew out and buzzed the baggage handlers’ head. Another forty-seven minutes found them over Las Vegas. It was nearing noon local time. Bink pointed down to the city, buildings shining in the hot sun.
       “Just think, Theo,” Bink said, pointing. “That’s where Frankie, Dean and the rest of the Rat Pack played. Not to mention Siegfried and Roy! Do you think we could’ve made a go of it on stage if the Rangers hadn’t come up?”
       Theo took in the tall buildings. “Maybe, but I don’t think I was ever cut out to be a performer.”
       “My mom says I was, every time I got myself into trouble!”
       Theo grinned slightly. “Say, I just had a thought. You know how everyone jokes about going to Vegas and getting married by an Elvis impersonator? Do you think my Becky would go for that one?”
       Bink shook her head adamantly. “NO! Nada! Never, and no how!” Theo laughed at the effect. “But Becky, it’d be fun! And the guy could serenade us and all...” Bink crossed her arms, but there was humor in her voice now. “Theophane Vaclav, there is no way I or any other version of me is going to get married by some third-rate impersonator who’s obsessed with the fifties!”
       Theo grinned again. “Oh, so you’d want it to be in Graceland, then.”
       Then he realized what Bink had said. “What did you call me?”
       “Huh? Oh, nothing.”
       “Come on now, Bink. You had to have a reason for using my old name.”
       Bink appeared conflicted, as if she was caught between two hard choices. “Well, I suppose you’d find out sooner or later. Your parents are alive here, Theo.”

       May 30 11:55am Hoover Dam

       Bink explained that Sergei and Katrina Vaclav didn’t die in the fire that had taken them in Theo’s universe. He’d grown up with them, and only in the last couple of years had he moved in with the Rangers. Theo thought on that for a while as they left Vegas behind and he banked the plane for its final turn toward Hoover Dam. Theo found a flat and reasonably clear place to land near the dam, and as soon as they got out the young Rangers surveyed their surroundings.
       The area was as sparse as a moonscape, and only the large boulders scattered around provided any decent form of hiding place. As they worked their way to a better vantage point, a voice behind them made them flinch. Abari emerged from behind some nearby rocks. “So you’ve made it, good. You’re right on time. We have right at thirty minutes left, and we will require most of it to gain our objective. Now, listen close.”

       Abari squatted down, beginning to draw a representation of the dam and its interior in the shallow dirt. Bink and Theo squatted as well, watching while the mouse from ancient times explained. “I have already visited our adversaries, in phased form. They are in a large room near the bottom of the dam’s interior, where they are currently preparing power feeds to connect to the time viewer when it appears. The dam itself is mostly automated, so there are very few humans on-hand, and I suspect most of them have been distracted by now.
       “Their plan will be to use the time viewer as a dimensional ‘anchor’ while Fat Cat uses the interdimensional machine created under Klordane’s guidance to force open the gates of Limbo itself. The bridge from Limbo to our world and the other worlds will only stay open while the extra power from the dam is in connection with the time viewer.”
       “That’s all well and good, but how do we destroy that thing?” Theo asked.
       Abari stood up. “We’ll need to pay a visit to a nearby explosives shack and take the raw materials with us. The time viewer will only remain in an unphased state for about one hour once it appears. We have that long to get to it, get your friends and family out of Limbo, stop Klordane and destroy it. We also have one more problem—it would appear that Klordane has anticipated that you might interfere, so he has provided himself with some insurance. Fat Cat has kidnapped the two youngsters from your headquarters, and has them tied up in the control room with him.”

       Bink pulled Theo aside. “Theo, he’s got Geegaw and Ally! We can’t play God with their lives! Your Gadget would never forgive us!” Theo spoke back calmly. “If we fail, everyone dies. The kids are his insurance, so they’re in less danger at the moment than the rest of us.”
       “Well that makes me feel real good,” Bink said with sarcasm, then sighed, nodding her head. “Okay, we press on. So what’s the best way in there, Abari?” Abari led them over to a promontory from which they could view the full dam below. “I’ve figured out a route through the interior that will allow us to avoid contact until we’re nearly upon them. Then we will face the critical moment of confrontation, which must be at the precise time they open the energy bridge to Limbo. When that happens, you have to engage the others long enough to allow me the chance to enter the interdimensional bridge before Klordane can use it to escape.”
       Theo didn’t know if he liked that part. “How many others are we talking about?”
       “In the control room, no more than a half-dozen. They’re all spread about throughout the complex, looking for us I suspect. If it comes before we get to the control room, I can handle that. But when I have to enter Limbo, you’ll be on your own. Oh, and I should warn you that there could be...unanticipated effects from their creating this bridge.”
       Theo knew he didn’t like the sound of that. “Such as?”
       “If I knew, we could anticipate them. They’re going to rip open the very fabric of space-time when they do this. There’s no telling what could happen, to be honest. Just be prepared to act. Now, are you ready?”
       Bink took a look back down at the dam. “I guess it doesn’t matter, really. We have to try.” Abari squatted down, resting his arms on his knees as he too studied the dam. “Yes, we do. I’ve looked forward to this day for the last four centuries. There was a time that I enjoyed being immortal, living outside of time. But now I’m ready to be free and live out the rest of a normal life.”
       Abari allowed himself to grin, but there was much frustration behind it. “Many a day I’ve thought of the luxury of just being able to sleep in a bed, rather than having to spend my nocturnal hours floating through space. All the people I knew in my homeland are long dead—I have no friends in particular. I’m a mouse without a country, without a home. But if all goes well, I’ll at least be a mouse again instead of a wraith. Theo, Bink, my thanks for joining me in this.”
       “You’re welcome,” Theo said, squatting next to him. “We and everyone we know would be doomed without your help.” Abari nodded and stood, Theo following suit. “Now, as Charlemagne said, ‘let us not quit until they do’. Forward!”

       Quickly the trio walked along the promontory, Abari leading them to an explosives shack that some humans had put there for some construction work. Taking a stick of dynamite, they split it into two half-size sticks. They did it once more, then Abari fashioned fuses for them and grabbed some spare twine to tie it all together when they were ready. With the bomb parts on their backs, they left the high ground of the promontory behind and walked about fifty feet behind the explosives shack. There, they could take in a full view of their final objective.
       Hoover Dam was an impressive sight for a human, and for someone the size of the Rangers triply so. The huge cascades of water thundering over the dikes in the dam created an homage to sheer power that rivaled anything one might name in nature. The spray from the water came up high enough to be even at eye level with them, and they were yet a couple of hundred feet above the dam’s top. Now they trekked in that direction, down a rock-laden path and to their right once they were at the bottom of the promontory.
       There was a guard on duty—a cat with bandoliers around his body to be exact. Before he saw them, Abari closed his eyes and stretched out his hand. The cat fell down as if tripped and was knocked unconscious. Theo and Bink were amazed, but Abari waved them forward, heading toward the concrete walkway along the top of the dam. “He’s the only guard on this side. We can reach the stairwell from here undetected now.”
       “Only undetected until his pals realize he’s not at his post,” Theo added. “We have to be more subtle, man.”
       “How’d you do that, anyway?” Bink asked.
       Abari led the way, running. “All of my years in this phased condition have allowed me to develop some unique mental abilities. I suppose you would call it telekinesis, but in any case it’s a skill I will need to free our allies in Limbo, for thought is the only power there. Hurry now!”

       They ran across and entered the door to the nearby stairwell. Theo was right, and as they descended they could hear shouts from the top of the dam. Abari led them down three flights of stairs and then through a large metal door that opened into an expansive room with piping that led several hundred yards in each direction. “Most of these pipes are to regulate the functions of the huge gates,” Abari said, “but I found a couple of them that are used simply to provide outside air to the lower levels. They lead down to the level we need to access, so from here on we can avoid any entanglements until we’re ready to strike.”
       Bink wasn’t too hot on this idea. “Uh, when you say down, do you mean straight down?”
       Abari nodded. “Pretty much, but the pipes are just big enough for us, which means we can climb down them and keep a hold on each side with our claws.”
       “All right, Jedi Master Abari. Lead the way,” Bink joked.
       Abari let out a laugh. “I might’ve known you’d have said that.”

       Abari led them to a broken portion of the pipe in question, where they climbed in. The pipe ran parallel to the others in the room for about a hundred yards, then took a Nestea plunge straight down. It was dark now, and even with their sensitive eyes the adventurers took their time, getting good claw holds on the piping before heading down. It was slow and taxing work, but some of the welds in the pipe plus several T-junctions allowed for resting places.
       It took them a good ten minutes to find the bottom of the dark maze, and then the pipe headed off to the right for another thirty yards. At the end, they could see a pale flashing yellow light and stopped short of exiting when they heard voices.
       “Mole, I don’t care if those dolts we hired can’t find who knocked out the guard!” Fat Cat said. “No one is to get into that room with us. Understood!” Mole took off his hat, scratching his head. “But if we’re all in here, how could anyone get in here with us?”
       Fat Cat bonked him. “I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed doing that. NOW KEEP WATCH!”

       Fat Cat walked off in a huff, leaving Mole in the immediate tunnel. The undiscovered inhabitants of the pipe could hear the near-sighted soul begin to hum and then sing, apparently enjoying the echo of his voice. “Oh, if I had a candy bar, I’d eat it in the morning...I’d eat it in the evening...all over this la-and...”
       Theo listened to the improvised parody a few more moments, then checked his timepiece—less than ten minutes to go. He knew they needed something fast, and he whispered to his comrades, “I have a plan. Stay back.” Slowly, the chipmunk crept closer to the opening of the pipe, far enough back where it would reverberate his voice. He began speaking in a soft, ghostly voice.
       Mole blinked and looked all around. No one was in sight. “Uh, hey! Who goes there? That…you…Fat Cat?” Theo fought back the urge to giggle, pushing his voice deeper. “I’m the voice of judgment, Mole. I have seen all the evil you have done and all the evil that will happen when Fat Cat gets what he wants. The blood of the millions will be on your hands, Mole. You will have helped bring indescribable suffering on this world.”
       Mole began to quiver and shake. “ Oh no! I didn’t mean to do it! I just needed money to buy candy. I don’t wanna go to the bad plaaaace!”
       “You are a simple soul, Mole. You have put your trust in evil people and they have led you astray. I give you fair warning so that you can escape the fate that will soon come to those you serve. To escape the coming judgment, you must set free the innocents, the two children held captive in the control room. Take them from this place of doom and once away, wait for my next sign.”
       “Uh, okay. But won’t Fat Cat get mad if I do that?”
       “Evil is always angry. It hates mercy, compassion and wisdom. Suffer him for a little while longer and then you will be free from his wrath forever.”
       Mole took off his cap, kow-towing. “Well, all right. I hope I get a candy bar when I go to the good place...” Mole headed off toward the direction Fat Cat had gone, and Theo hopped out of the pipe, Bink and Abari following.
       “Well done, lad!” Abari said. “I see you’ve read your Sun-Tzu. He was a nice enough human, but a little war-happy. If your scared friend in the tunnel goes through with it, he should bring the children back this way.”

       Mole entered the control room. The only person visible in there at the moment was Mepps, who appeared distracted—which was of course normal for him. “Hey, where’s Fat Cat at?” Mepps pointed to the opposite side of the room. “He went through the other door to the elevator. Said he was going to squish some heads or something. Hey, why’re you here? He told you to watch the hallway!”
       “I heard a voice! A spooky one,” Mole said, starting to shake. “It said really, really bad things are gonna happen to the boss and his boss and to us too.” Mepps, being a simpleton, naturally had no sense of skepticism. “Really?”
       “It said that the boss’s boss was gonna kill a lot of people when he gets through that gate thingy. We’re helping him do it, so does that make us...bad people?”
       Mepps tried to think, which lasted so short a time it’s not really worth mentioning. “Maybe if we run away, it’ll be okay.” Mole shook his head. “The voice said our only hope was to take those little kids and get away real fast, because the bad guys are gonna get it!”
       “Okay, let’s go! I don’t like spooky voices!” Mepps said.

       Mepps and Mole grabbed the kids and headed toward Theo and friends. At that moment, a tool fell in the control room and echoed loudly, putting the bad’uns into a total panic. They ran, dropping the kids, and fled down the long corridor heading for the stairwell. In moments, they were out of sight and the heroes untied Geegaw and Althea.
       Althea jumped into Theo’s arms. “Oh thank you, Uncle Theo! I thought we’d be stuck in that place forever and a day!” Geegaw adjusted his glasses, which had been down to the end of his nose. “Indeed. It was most fortuitous that you found us.”
       Bink checked the tunnel behind them. “Looks like the coast is clear now.” Althea took hold of her hand. “Yeah, let’s make like an egg and scramble!” Abari held up a hand in a stopping motion. “Would that we could, young one. But your parents and friends are held prisoner, and the only way to save them is to wait here until the evil ones who would free their master open the gateway to Limbo...ah, that should bring them.”

       A loud humming sound had triggered Abari’s last comment. In the control room, Gadget’s time viewer appeared. The device was humming with power, and as the group looked around the corner they could see it change from semi-transparent to fully solid. Then they heard footfalls coming from the opposite direction and pulled back into the corridor to escape detection.
       Fat Cat entered along with three of his hired guards, and his eyes bulged at the sight of the time viewer. “At last, it’s here! Mepps, Mole! Get in here, you cretins!” He waited a beat, then proceeded over to the time viewer. “Oh, those two miserable dolts could lose themselves in a phone booth. Now, you three begin connecting these heavy-duty wires up. It’s almost showtime!”
       The henchmen obeyed, quickly connecting power leads from the plant’s hydroelectric output to the time viewer and the interdimensional device that Fat Cat had brought with him. It was an exact duplicate of the one that the other Fat Cat had used, save that it wasn’t made to be launched. The portly feline went to the device and prepared to activate it. Theo motioned for the kids to stay out of sight as the moment of decision quickly approached.
       “Just think!” Fat Cat said. “When I throw this switch, history will be unmade! Prepare to tremble, unknowing world, at the power of Fat Cat!”

Chapter 23 – Zero Hour

       May 30 12:27pm Hoover Dam

       As he threw the switch, Abari, Theo and Bink charged forward. The Rangers took on the three guards, while Abari ran right at Fat Cat—or rather at the swirling door of energy that had appeared between the metallic oval that was attached to the time viewer and the interdimensional device.
       Fat Cat was surprised at first, then alarmed. “What are you—NO, NOT THAT!”
       But it was too late. Abari jumped into the swirling gateway, and power emanated in all directions. Holes emerged in reality itself and Fat Cat ran for it, sensing disaster. Bink and Theo couldn’t run, though, because they had their hands full. The hired henchmen were rough, but the two of them were much more polished fighters. Bink had just finished off her adversary and Theo one of the two fighting him when the other turned and ran.
       Theo looked to see what the problem was and turned to find a vortex of energy opening up next to him. He tried to jump clear, but it was pulling him in. “Bink! Help me!”
       “THEO!” Bink shouted, reaching for him.

        She missed, and Theo was sucked in. For a moment, he was blinded by the lights all around him, and then he reoriented to find that he was right back in the same control room—but wait, that wasn’t quite right. It was the control room all right, but now Fat Cat was there as well as Gadget. She was strangely dressed, in what appeared to be purple battle fatigues and one of her makeshift helmets.
       “Hold it, Fat Cat!” Theo said. “You won’t be freeing anyone today!”
       “Oh really,” Fat Cat said, turning to face him. “And who might you be? A fan of a fallen hero?” Theo didn’t know what to make of that comment, but unknowingly he’d served as an ideal distraction. Gadget used a remote control to activate a Ranger-sized tank that shot a capture net at Fat Cat, immobilizing him.
       “No! I won’t be beaten!” Fat Cat shouted. “Not now!”
       Gadget ran over and shut down the controls to the time viewer, then she ran to Theo and embraced him. “Chip! Oh Chip, you’re alive!” Gadget began kissing him, warm tears flowing down her face. It took Theo a moment to collect himself, things having proceeded so fast. “Wait, there’s been a mistake.”
       Theo gently pushed her away, and pushed the fedora up on his head, allowing her to see his face better. “I’m not Chip. I’m his another reality.” Gadget appeared totally shocked. “You’re…you’re not Chip, are you…” She looked down, crestfallen. “I’m sorry. I thought you were him.”
       “It’s really complicated,” Theo said, pointing back to the hole in space behind them, “but I need to get back to my own world and save another Chip and the rest of them. What’s happened to your Chip?” Gadget looked up again, the hope that had been there now faded. “He’s...dead. For five years now.”
       Theo felt a shudder go down his spine. “How...oh, there just isn’t time! I gotta get back home or everyone’s gonna die!” Gadget looked back to the hole behind them. “I understand. And tell your Chip...well, there’s another Gadget that cares about him.” Theo nodded and, despite how strange it felt, he kissed her on the cheek. Facing the portal, he prepared to jump back through.

       Abari passed through the barrier of energy that separated his reality from—well, from where he was now. He was in a large tunnel made of pure energy, power crackling and pulsating in iridescent colors all around him. And in front of him, none too pleased, was Aldrin Klordane.
       “I have been aware of your interference for some time, rodent.”
       Abari, now halfway to the netherspace of Limbo, found his body was still corporeal but there was no gravity. However mental power did rule here, so he floated up to eye level with the nefarious human. “I should hope so, Klordane. Your brand of evil draws heroes out of the woodwork, even ones as ancient as I. Now then, are you going to return to Limbo willingly, or do I—”
       At that moment, something seized him around the neck. “You see, my friend,” Klordane began, “I’ve developed my mental abilities over the years, too. My force-of-mind power will crush you, and then the world will be mine!” Abari gritted his teeth, fighting to breathe, and concentrated.
        To his shocked surprise, Klordane found his mental grip slipping and, stretching his hand out like a claw, he reasserted his attack. Abari was ready this time, though, and deflected it, using his mental concentration as a shield. “Your power is considerable, human, but I’ve had millennia to develop my own mental discipline. I may be a mouse, but mentally you’re no match for me!”
       “Oh really!” Klordane said, challenging. “We shall see!”
       From out of empty space a ball of energy appeared, and Klordane beckoned it to fly toward his enemy. The ball exploded on contact, knocking Abari backwards. He’d not been prepared for such an advanced show of power from Klordane, and he cursed himself for not being ready for that.
       Abari jumped up, now angry. “You know I can’t let you pass!”
       “Then one of us has to die,” Klordane said. “And I vote for you.”
       Again, Klordane summoned the energy balls, but this time Abari was prepared. He waited for the last moment, then erected an energy shield. The balls bounced off the shield, headed back for their creator. This time it was Klordane who was caught unprepared, and he’d spent no time developing mental shielding.
       “Yaargh!” Klordane shouted as the energy discharge hit him. He was thrown back nearly to the opening at Limbo, but managed to hang on. “You miserable little creature! But I’m not alone!”
       Several other prisoners of Limbo appeared in the tunnel, adding their mental assault to Klordane’s. Abari concentrated harder, the energies between him and the group of fiends resounding in deafening crackles of white-hot power. It was a standoff.

       With all the effort Klordane and his cohorts were putting forth, their concentration was forced away from other tasks. Slowly, the barrier holding the Rangers in Limbo prisoner weakened, then faded. The Rangers floated free, and instantly they flew toward the energy tunnel. Wiz-Ra motioned to Chip. “Follow me, and bring the others. We haven’t much time before you must destroy the time viewer and the final link to this awful place.”
       Chip didn’t have to be told twice. “Rescue Rangers, away!” A large procession of Rangers headed for the mouth of the portal. There were several other criminals guarding the entrance, but as they neared the portal Wiz-Ra found some of his abilities returning. His hands glowed with power and he forced the others back and away as he and the Rangers entered the portal.
       Klordane saw them coming and knew he was in trouble. “How dare you interfere in my glorious scheme!” Abari was nearly spent, but when he saw the others he took on new hope. “I dare because I must...and the ordinatio elementum must be upheld. Back, fiend! Back to the hellhole you so hate!”
       Abari unleashed the full force of his mental might, and it hit Klordane and his minions like a piledriver. He screamed, begging for Abari to stop, but the mouse would have none of it. Klordane was knocked unconscious, and Wiz-Ra used his abilities to pick the villains up and send him back into the netherspace.

       Abari welcomed the newcomers, then Wiz-Ra, the old hero of Third Earth, came up beside him. “I will stand guard at the far end of the tunnel by your world, and make sure that Klordane does not pass if he awakens. I cannot enter your world, for the differences in time and space would kill me, but I wish you well.”
       Abari shook the index finger of Wiz-Ra’s hand, both of them now corporeal enough again to allow it. “And I you. Long have I known of your struggles, Wiz-Ra. I wish I could repay your kindness.” Wiz-Ra shook his head. “See to their reunion with their reality, and that will be reward enough.”
       The mouse nodded, and Wiz-Ra followed them to the end of the tunnel. Abari jumped out, while Wiz-Ra stood at the portal’s door, visible to those who had now escaped, but still enveloped by the tunnel’s energies. Chip brought their attention to the time viewer. “We’ve got to destroy it now!”
       “No, we can’t!” Bink shouted. “Theo’s not here!”
       Lahwhinie turned to her. “What happened? Where is he?” Bink gestured to the more than a dozen swirling holes of energy in the room. “When Abari went to save you, these ‘things’ appeared and Theo was pulled into one! We’ve got to give him time to get back!”
       Abari looked at a timepiece he carried. “I’m afraid we cannot wait.”

       Chip marched up in front of him. “Abari, I’m not going to lose my boy, even if he’s technically not at the moment!” Abari looked him in the face. “Chip, I understand your feelings, but we only have ten minutes left before the time viewer phases again. When it does, it will be over two decades before it unphases, and I would have to recalculate its place of re-emergence. There is no telling what could happen if someone once again gained the knowledge of the location of its appearance. No, it must be destroyed, here and now!”
       “But you’re asking me to—”
       Gadget walked up to the Ranger leader. “Chip, he’s right. We have to.” Chip turned to her, shocked. “Gadget, how can you say that!”
       “Chip, we all love Theo, but we’ve got to face facts. This is our only chance to be sure that Klordane can’t return again. We owe it to the worlds we’re fighting for! Chip, you know Theo would want us to.”
       Lahwhinie stepped forward to join her sister. “Chip, it’s got to be this way.”
       “No, don’t listen to them!” Bink protested. “I…I love him! I want my own Theo back so that I can tell him!” Chip caught Bink up in his arms and hugged her. “I know you do, Bink, and I know it’s not fair. But sometimes being a Rescue Ranger means things don’t always go the way you’d like. Okay Abari, what do we do?”
       Abari recovered the makeshift bomb parts they’d brought, assembling them with the twine. “I managed to create an explosive device of sufficient size to permanently damage the viewer without harming this edifice. However, we will need a timer to give us time to escape.”

       “Like this?” The contingent turned as one to see the bespectacled mouse youth was holding up a makeshift clock assembled from spare parts. Abari nodded, pleased. “Precisely, young Geegaw. Well done! But we will need a means of sending a spark to the bomb when the time is expired.”
       “I think I can handle that end,” Althea said. She grabbed a metal spring she’d spied and attached it to the back of Geegaw’s clockwork mechanism. Taking one of the torches, she wrapped the wider end of the coil around the end of it and set the whole thing up where when the hour struck it would let the torch fall on the bomb’s fuse. Now they placed the bomb’s fuse to the right of the contraption and the bomb on the viewer.
       “Set it for—how long do we have?” Chip asked.
       “Six minutes,” Abari said.
       “Set it to go off in five minutes. That should give us enough time to get clear of the room before it explodes.”
       A voice rang out, seemingly from nowhere. “Hello? Is anyone there?” They all looked around, and then Bink pointed to the portal. “ He’s here! Theo, come on! We’ve got to get out of here!”
       “I can’t!” Theo shouted. “The portal won’t let me back through. It’s blocking me for some reason!” The Rangers all looked at each other, bewildered, and then Wiz-Ra spoke up from the edge of the tunnel to Limbo. “I sense the particular reality he has joined is such that he can only return if someone else exchanges places with him. It must be a simultaneous exchange.”
       Lahwhinie stepped up. “I’ll go, Chip.”
       “No, Theo needs you. I’ll go!” Chip said.
       “And he doesn’t need you?”
       “I’ll go!” Bink said.

       The arguing began to grow, until another voice joined the fray. It was Chip’s voice again, but it was another Chip from another of the dimensional holes in front of them. He jumped through to their reality, and the sight of him stopped them all cold. He was bedraggled, his jacket and hat torn and restitched several times. He also showed signs of several badly-healed wounds.
       “Lahwhinie and Gadget, you’re alive! You’re all alive!” the newcomer chipmunk exclaimed. “Look, I don’t understand all this, but let me go. There’s nothing for me back there. Klordane destroyed my world and the other Rangers, but I made him pay for it. Nimnul, Fat Cat and the goon squad, too.” Chip quickly limped over to Gadget and to everyone’s surprise, he kissed her. “Farewell, my love.”
       He turned toward the portal, and the Rangers looked on, mystified. Chip—that is the Chip native to this reality—spoke to Theo through the portal. “Okay Theo, we’ve found a volunteer to get you back. Another me is coming, and on the count of three, you will both jump through!” Theo said he understood, and Chip thought he heard a surprised gasp as well. “Okay. One...two...three!”
       The wounded Chip jumped, and Theo emerged back through the portal. Bink ran up to him and hugged him tight. “Oh, you’re back! You’re back!” Strangely, they heard almost the same words on the other side of the portal, spoken by that reality’s Gadget. The group broke out in pleased smiles as they heard words of mutual affection and joy. Abari was the one who brought them back to reality. “We must go! We have— Great Scott! We’re out of time!”

       Abari pointed to the clock on the bomb timer—there was less then 30 seconds to go. Chip started to head for the timer when Wiz-Ra called his name. “Wait, there is no need. Farewell, my friends, and think of me from time to time.”
       Wiz-Ra concentrated, and a sphere of greenish energy enveloped them all. The sphere went through the dam’s concrete external wall, carrying them outside. It floated them up to the top fast, then deposited them on the walkway. Moments later, the sphere fizzled out as somewhere far within the reaches of the dam the explosion blew up the time viewer. Klordane was barely awake in Limbo, but it registered on his mind.
       “So close... so…very…close...

       The tunnel resumed its normal function and sealed the prisoners of Limbo in once again. There, Aldrin Armstrong Klordane was once again a spectral resident of the netherspace that he had tried so hard to escape. For the rest of his days, he would live in eternal twilight. For another prisoner, the prognosis was far rosier. When the time viewer was damaged, it quit functioning and Abari fainted.
       Chip and Lahwhinie helped him up. “Are you okay?” Chip asked. Abari was shaking from the effort he’d put out, fighting Klordane and the others, and he forced his labored breathing to slow. He concentrated, trying to use his mental abilities to pick himself up, but nothing happened. This confused him and he tried again—nothing.
       “I’m much better than okay, friend Chip,” Abari said, smiling. “I’m alive again!” Abari asked for help getting up, which Chip and Theo were all too glad to provide. He look down at the water spilling over the dam below. “The time viewer is shut down, and I am a free mouse!”

       No sooner had he said it when the extra Rangers and rodents around them began to fade. “The dimensional wounds are healing, and things are returning to normal,” Abari said. Basil doffed his deerstalker hat to the others. “It was a rousing adventure, one I shall not soon forget.”
       “Nor I,” Agnes said. “A good hunt’s always done wonders for me.”
       The Chip married to Gadget shook hands with his counterpart. “It was a pleasure.” The three Gadgets meanwhile were saying their goodbyes to each other as well. Gadget Maplewood was first. “Goodbye, everyone! See you sometime—oh, well likely not.”
       “Goodbye, Rangers,” Gadget Hackwrench said. “Goodbye, Theo. I hope you and your Bink will be happy. All four of you, for that matter.” As they vanished out of sight, Chip Maplewood looked across the dam to see a bright sun shining in the clear blue sky. A beautiful day was ahead of them. Lahwhinie leaned back against the dam’s guardrail, breathing a grateful sigh of relief. “Well, I’m glad that’s all over. So, who’s hungry?”

Chapter 24 – A Delayed Return, New Perspectives and an Old Friend

       May 30 1:03pm Hoover Dam

       Theo walked over to Bink, who had been waiting to talk to him. “Bink, I just wanted to say thanks for everything. And if your Theo’s anything like me, I think he’s very lucky to have someone like you around.” Bink hugged him. “I know he is, and so am I. Thanks for everything, and I hope that everything’s okay when you get home.”
       They waited a few moments, then a few moments more. Theo looked at Abari. “Uh, when am I supposed to switch back? The others are already gone!” Abari shrugged. “Whenever the dimensional gateway between this world and yours finishes normalizing. The linkup between the two worlds strengthened the barrier that the activation of the interdimensional device here had established. It will likely be at least a day.”
       “A day!” Theo said. “But I need to go home, not to mention Gadget’s kids. What’ll I do until then?” Lahwhinie walked over. “Why not come home with us? You’d be more than welcome, and…there’s probably some other people you might like to see.”
       Theo didn’t know what she was driving at. “Who?”
       “Your parents, the Vaclavs.”
       Theo just stared. “You mean…you mean it’s true?”
       “Sure it’s true!” Bink said. “You thought I made it up?” Theo shrugged. “I wasn’t sure. I just sounded too good to be true.” He looked to Chip. “You had to hide them from me then, right?” Chip nodded. “That was a reason that Lahwhinie and I didn’t join your mission team, because we were concerned that you’d refer to something that would trip us up. Theo managed to brief us on most things in your world, and we were able to match the details pretty well. But here, you lived with Sergei and Katrina until just about two years ago, then became a part-time Ranger. Or rather, the other ‘you’ did.”
       In all his years, Theo had never thought he’d get to see his parents again. He’d wished for it, dreamed about it, but never believed he would. Now he was being given that opportunity. “I hope that dimensional thing doesn’t shift me back too soon. I want to see them.”

       It was cramped quarters in the cargo plane, but the flight back to Las Vega was short enough. From there, it was easy enough to gain passage to a jet headed for New York. That night, Theo slept in a bed identical to his own at home, but one that he knew wasn’t his. Not that he could sleep anyway—the thought of seeing his real parents consumed him. He could still remember the night of the fire, and the pain and loss. It was a chapter of his life he’d believed to be closed, but now he had to deal with it.
       Next morning, the typical breakfast smells awakened him. Everyone was polite, but he could sense now that the crisis was over he was more of a stranger than a friend—to everyone save Bink. She asked him every question she could think of about his world, and about his Bink. He’d just started to tell her about the sleepover when a knock came at the door.
       “We called them earlier,” Chip said. “They said they wanted to see you. Are you ready?”
       “Doesn’t matter, I suppose,” Theo said. “Go ahead.”

       Chip opened the door, and to Theo it was as if he’d been granted a wish. His parents were older than he remembered, but that was only natural because they were. Sergei’s fur showed signs of graying, while Katrina’s brown hair had lightened considerably. They both stood there, apparently as confused as he was about what to do.
       Theo stood silently for a little while, almost feeling dizzy. “I haven’t seen either of you alive since I was four years old...only some old pictures my nanny Mrs. Pendergast gave me.” Katrina took a step into the treehouse. “Anna? Yes, I remember Anna. She used to take care of you years ago.”
       “Yes, before she passes on, rest her soul,” Sergei said, sporting a thick Slavic accent and broken English. “She was being great friend to your mother, er, Katrina and me.” The Vaclavs were still hesitant but walked inside. They sat on the sofa, Theo facing them
       “You must have many questions,” Katrina said.
       Theo was still studying the faces in front of him. “I did, but I can’t remember any of them. It’s been so long, it almost feels like we’re strangers. I’ve always wanted to see you both again, to say I love you and I miss you. I wish we could’ve been a family, but thankfully Chip and Lahwhinie did their best to raise me as their son. I truly see that it was my destiny to be a Rescue Ranger, even if you both had lived.”
       Sergei had kind frost-blue eyes, and they shone with amusement. “You have always loves the Rangers, and we knew your wants. When you were running away from home as a teenager, we find you were trying to come up with the way to join them. So Katrina and I, we speak to Chip Maplewood and tell him of our boy’s wants. He agrees to give you a chance, and you prove yourself worthy.”
       “We weren’t sure we were doing the right thing at first, but your heart was totally to be a Rescue Ranger,” Katrina said. She was the quintessential protective-mother type, and it was evident that she was more used to telling her son what to do than talking with him as an equal. “So we said ‘who were we to interfere with a young boy’s heart?’. We wanted you to be happy.”

       Sergei spoke softly, and Theo could see he was the softer touch of the two. “I...the others told us that we were not being there for you as a young man. I know if your Sergei and Katrina are like to us, then we would wish to be there for you. Are you happy in your world, Theophane?”
       “Very much,” Theo said. As he spoke, the memories came flowing back. “It was rough going at first. I spent nearly seven years at the orphanage after you died. I stowed away on the RangerPlane when Chip was on a mission to Texas and on the way back he decided to adopt me and about a year later dad...Chip married Lahwhinie and life’s been good ever since.”
       Katrina smiled a little. “Yes, I could see our Theo doing that. Is your life there like our Theo’s is here, then? Are you going to remain a Rescue Ranger and work for the good of others?” Theo pulled down on the brim of his fedora, a habit he’d picked up from Chip. “Till I’m old and gray and my kids can take over.”
       Sergei laughed, a deep and hearty laugh. “Just what our boy told us when we asked him! Yes, you are much like our Theo, even though we were not there for you as much. And is there someone special in your life, young man?”
       Theo pulled a picture out of his inner jacket pocket. “Yeah, Bink. I’m going marry her soon.” Katrina gasped slightly in surprise, studying the picture. “The same Bink as the one here? Here, she is just friends with our Theo, but there...oh, but you are so young yet.”
       Sergei shook his head slightly at his wife. “Katrina, this is not the time.”
       “And when is that time?” Katrina countered. “He wants to hear what we have to say!”

       Sergei threw up his hands. “Ah! Have it that way, then.” Katrina looked to Theo, apologetic. “I am sorry, Theo. It is just that...just that your father and I married young and we did not want that for our boy. We have...I have discouraged Theo from thinking about getting married until he is older. Are we, well, are we doing something wrong, then?”
       “Bink’s been my best friend in the entire world since I was 11 years old,” Theo said, choosing his words. “There’s no other woman on earth that I’d want to be with. Your Theo grew up in a different world, so maybe it would be different for him. Here Bink’s just a friend and it might take many years for your son to reach the point of marriage. I’ve known I would marry Bink since I was twelve.”
       “Since you were twelve!” Sergei exclaimed. “Now, that is a man making up his mind. But can you handle being the family man and the full-time workings of the Rangers, too?” Theo grinned. “If you’d asked me that question a week ago, I probably wouldn’t have known what to say. Now, what with all that’s happened, I’ve been forced to think about it. The marriage part probably won’t be much trouble and since we’re different species we won’t have to worry about having kids until we decide we’re ready. Not like what happened to Uncle Dale and Aunt Gadget.”
       The Slavic chipmunks looked at each other. “What happened to them?” Sergei asked. “Theo mentioned nothing about that. Only that there were more children in your treehouse than ours.”
       “Well, due to a couple of bizarre accidents Dale and Gadget were able to have children of their own. Noel, he’s Chip’s duplicate created in a big accident, married Foxglove and then used a device Gadget built to become a bat so he and Foxglove could have a family too. Bink and I can have kids already that way, but we’ll probably adopt one or two even if we have kids of our own.” Katrina took a long moment of thought to answer. “I did not know that our son could be so decisive. What you choose to do is your business, of course.”
       “I’ve been a Maplewood since I was eleven and that’s what I’ll always be,” Theo said. “Just give your Theo room to make his own choices and be a little more open minded about the girls he can see. I can’t even imagine what my life would be like without Bink.”
       “We will talk to him when he comes back, and see what his mind is. Now, before you have to return, do you have anything else you wish to know?”

       During all this, Theo had been studying the people in front of him. He hadn’t known what to expect, but now that they were real and speaking to him he realized that it wasn’t what he’d expected at all. Theo had avoided the hardest topic, but now he felt it was time. “I wished I could have saved us from that fire and I was bitter and angry over it, and for so long I’ve felt that it was perhaps survivor’s guilt that motivated me to be a hero. Your Theo has the same drive and determination that I have, so I see that it’s truly a sincere motivation.”
       Sergei started to answer, but Theo held up a hand to stop him. “I think maybe I just needed to hear you say that the choice is mine now. For years since the fire, I’ve tried my best to do everything with you in mind. I wasn’t sure if you’d like me joining the Rangers or not, but now I realize that it wouldn’t have mattered if you’d objected. I tried to prove myself in your eyes with everything I did, but I felt I never would. Now I realize it wasn’t really you at all—it was me.”
       “What do you mean, Theophane?” Sergei asked.
       “I wanted ‘me’ to be perfect, because I thought that would be what you’d want. I couldn’t save you, so I decided when I joined the Rangers I would become the perfect hero and save others and do it in your memory and all. Pretty lame, huh?”
       “No, not really,” Katrina said. “But we would never have asked you to be something we were not. Be happy, Theo, and do the best you can. That is all we or they could ask of you.”
       Theo rose, satisfied. “Thank you. You’ve lifted a burden that I’ve carried around with me for over a decade.” Sergei shook the young munk’s hand. “No, I think you did that. But we were glad to help.”

       The three of them talked more, now speaking as friendly acquaintances. Theo asked them about their childhood, their struggles and good times. It was information he’d always wanted to know, and he asked for a pad to write some of it down so he could remember. When it was time for Katrina and Sergei to leave, Theo gave them a friendly hug. “I’m glad I was here for this. I’m sure your Theo’s looking forward to seeing you again.”
       “And we him,” Katrina said. “Goodbye, Theo. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
       The Vaclavs left, and Theo went outside. A burden had indeed been lifted from him and now he felt eager to get on with his life, to see what the next horizon held. He looked down from the veranda and saw Abari there, looking up at him. Theo waved him up, and the ancient mouse joined him.
       “It is strange, trying to deal with what you had lost, is it not?” Abari said. “You are indeed fortunate, Theo. All those I cared about died long before you were born. I have no one that I care about, though I hope to change that someday. Here, I would like you to have something.”
       Abari reached into a pocket and brought out a ring of wrought gold, with a huge diamond attached. “I was married once, a very long time ago. When you were in Africa, I revisited my old haunts and dug up a stash of treasure I’d hidden in case I ever needed it. When I phase, whatever is in direct contact with me phases as well so I was able to keep this with me. Tell Bink that it was given to you by a very old friend.”
       Theo held up the ring, admiring it. The gold alone looked to be worth a small fortune, but the diamond in the setting was at least five carats, far more than he could afford. “Thanks Abari, you’re a pal. I can’t wait to see Bink and everyone else again. Say, why don’t you come back to HQ with us? The Rangers could use someone with your knowledge and wisdom, and we could help you adjust to the present.”
       Abari smiled and shook his head. “This is my reality, even if it isn’t my time. Now that I am normal again, my abilities are all but gone. I will be able to give you one more gift, though. Come on, it’s time to head inside.”

       With Abari’s extensive knowledge he’d acquired, along with the talents of Gadget and Eva, they managed to modify the Rangerizer to allow for interdimensional transport. A half hour later, it was ready. Gadget Oakmont knelt down by Althea and Geegaw. “It’s been wonderful meeting the two of you. I never thought about having children, but looking at the two of you, I—”
       She hugged them to her neck, crying, and Althea cried too. “It’s okay,” Althea said. “We know that if you’d had the same opportunity, we’d have been here too.”
       “That’s right,” Geegaw said. “Besides, you could always adopt. There’s plenty of kids who’d love to have you for a mom. I know I love it.” Gadget laughed, smiling at the idea. “I’ll think about it, and thank you. Thank you both.”
       Eva guided them into the Rangerizer, and within moments they were gone. Theo turned to Abari, who had stayed around to see him off. “Thanks again, and if you change your mind I’d be glad to have you on my team anytime. Hey wait! What about the other Theo? How will he get home?”
       “I gave him instructions early on about on how to modify the Rangerizer in that universe,” Abari said. “I’m sure the other Gadget and Eva will be just as capable as these two.” The ancient one watched as Theo closed the door to the Rangerizer, then pushed a button on the outside, allowing him to say a few last words. “Now, you’d better be getting home. I can still sense the movement of dimension and space, and it is almost time for you to leave us. I think there is one last person you would like to speak with before your journey ends.”

Chapter 25 – If You Travel Far Enough, Homecoming and the Wrath of Miss Spelling

       Before Theo could ask who Abari meant, the visage of the ancient mouse and everything else around him began to fade. He found himself in a tunnel similar to the one that connected Limbo to the outside world. Only now instead of that grayish-pink netherworld he could see another world at the far end of it. His world. Theo started to run and then he stopped when someone else entered the tunnel at the far side. Of all the people he’d met, this was the one he’d been the most curious about. Slowly, he walked forward and the other chipmunk did as well. When they reached the tunnel’s midpoint, they stood face to face.
       The munk facing him spoke first. “I trust all went well. I’m sorry I pulled you into this without telling you, but I felt you’d understand.”
       “Of course,” Theo said. “We world-saving heroes have to make the hard choices. Take good care of mom and dad and ask Bink out on a date at least once, dude.” Theo extended his hand to his double, and his counterpart shook it. Each tested his strength on the other, then laughed.
       “I’ll do that,” the counterpart said. “Your Bink sure loves you. I wish I could do more than say thanks, but if I know you that’s enough. And I should, after all. Oh, and I left something back there for you. It’s not much, but you might find it interesting.”
       “Thanks. See you later, man.”

       June 1 8:15am New York

       Theo headed for his end of the tunnel while the other did the same. Soon Theo emerged in Ranger Headquarters, and then it was as if he’d been daydreaming. He looked through the door of the Rangerizer and Bink was talking to him. “...and then we saw Chubbi bonking him with a rolling pin! I think he’s going to be on permanent trash duty from here on out. Theo? Theo, are you okay? You look sort of spaced.”
       Theo looked at her pretty face, smiling. “So, was the other Theo as suave and dashing as I am?”
       Bink’s face lit up. “THEO!” She opened the Rangerizer door and kissed him over and over, overjoyed to have him back. Theo croaked out a reply. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Theo needs to breathe!” Bink stopped, embarrassed. “Oops, sorry. It’s just that you’ve been gone so long, and I’ve been saving up!”
       Theo took her in his arms, never more happy to do so than now. “Baby, just wait till I tell you who I got to meet right before I left—my birth parents.” Bink looked at him, confused. “Your real parents? They were still alive there? Wow, what was that like?”
       “It was weird, sorta anticlimactic actually. They were complete strangers, and we really had nothing in common. I’m a Maplewood now, not a Vaclav.”
       Bink touched his face, tenderly. “You didn’t need to go on any dimensional hayride to find that out. I could’ve told you that.” Theo nodded. “Yeah, I guess I always knew that too, but it didn’t really become clear until I got to meet them face to face.” Bink put an arm around him. “Come on. The others gave me a minute alone with the other Theo to say goodbye, and they’ll want to know you’re back.”

       Theo’s homecoming was as happy as he’d imagined. Gadget was overjoyed to see her babies again, and both she and Dale had hugged and kissed them until they’d had more than enough attention. With everything back to normal, the Rangers settled in to hear the trio’s recounting of what happened to them, then in his usual boisterous manner Monty retold all that had happened while Theo was away.
       The Fairmonts’ and Maplewoods’ early arrival from Texas was a nice surprise, and Colby and Lonestar had plenty of things to tell their personal personage. It got late before any of them knew it, and the younger chiropteran Maplewoods were tuckered out from the long journey from Hondo. It was agreed to give the kids a day or two to recover, and then reconvene for a more organized get-together.
       It wasn’t too long before Theo felt the weight of the past week on him, and he excused himself. His room was just as he’d remembered it, but when he laid himself upon his pillow it was almost as if he could feel the warmth of that other Theo’s head upon it. He chuckled, realizing it was a silly notion, and yet it took half a paperback to get him to sleep.

       June 2 7:27am New York

       Early the next morning, a banging noise jarred Theo out of his slumber. “Theo, open up! You’ve got to get up now!” Theo tumbled out of bed. **What now?** “Huh? What? Whose universe is in trouble now?” Theo put on his jacket, stumbling to the door. Lahwhinie met him nose-to-nose, obviously bothered by something.
       “Theo, do you have any idea of what today is!” Lahwhinie exclaimed. “It’s the day after your paper for Miss Spelling was due! None of us thought about it, what with all that’s been going on, but Eva mentioned the paper this morning and I checked. You’ve got to go to Miss Spelling and work this out, or you won’t graduate!”

       As the reality of her words sunk in, Theo bolted into the hallway. “Bye mom! Talk to you later!” Theo rushed through the kitchen, grabbing a piece of fruit on the way, and made for the RangerWing. Bink was at the base of the tree, and waved up to him. “Hey Theo, wait up!”
       “No time, Becky!” Theo shouted down. “I’ve got to talk to Miss Spelling now!”
       “Theo, wait! You don’t know something! Hang on!”
       But Theo was off and flying. He knew how much graduating meant to everyone, and of course to himself. He’d explain all this somehow to Miss Spelling and she’d work it out with him. He’d tell her how he’d been dreaming and was in another reality and stopped Klordane from ruining the universe and...
       Theo pushed his fedora back and rubbed his forehead. “Oh man, am I ever in it deep...”

       He flew to the school to see if Miss Spelling was there. He could see that the door to her homeroom was open, so he ran across the small campus and into the room. The teacher in question was there, seated behind her desk, reading from a stack of papers. “Miss Spelling, I can explain everything! I’m sorry, I’ll take care of it tonight!”
       Miss Spelling’s gaze brought him up short as she locked her eyes on him. Never had Theo felt quite so vulnerable. He knew he’d failed, even though it was by no means his fault. But how could he make her understand? It didn’t seem likely, so he was prepared to do anything short of selling his soul when she replied.
       “No need for that, Theo,” Miss Spelling said. “I can tell you rushed getting the ending done in time, but for a story on this level of quality I can be flexible.” Theo was all ready to plead his case, when he realized what she’d said. “What story? I’m not lying, Miss Spelling! There is a good explanation!”
       Miss Spelling stood up and smiled warmly, which for her happened as often as a warm day in Antarctica. “What story? Why, the story you brought me at day’s end, yesterday!” The veteran teacher removed her spectacles. “Theophane Maplewood, sometimes I think you’re too much like your father for your own good. He was scatterbrained too, always trying to do and learn too many things at once. But this story shows me that my faith in you was well-placed. Such characters! This Abari whom you helped in that other world, certainly one of the better original characters I’ve seen. And your last chapter where you write as a Theo from another world about to return to his home, the feelings were deep and real.”

       Miss Spelling handed the paper over to him, with an A+ marked at the top of the front page. “I’ll be in contact with you as soon as I’ve talked to my agent friend. This story should be shared. Oh, and you can tell your father that he can be proud that his boy managed to best his own grade. I might have known it would take another Maplewood.”
       Theo heaved a sigh of relief and gave a silent thanks to his alternate-world twin. “Thank you, Miss Spelling! I’m honored that you think it’s that good.”
       “Yes, I knew you would be,” Miss Spelling said, replacing her spectacles. “Now, you’d best run along. I have more papers to grade, and you have a prom to prepare for tonight. Give Miss Chesnutt my regards.”

Chapter 26 – A Final Note, The Prom and The Big Moment

       Theo thanked her again and ran out, feeling lighter than air. The burden was gone, and now he knew everything would work out. He wanted to go home and tell the others, but first he felt he owed someone else a greater debt. Theo landed near his clubhouse and went inside. Settling in at his desk, Theo began to read from where his own part of the story had left off.
       It was evident that his doppelganger and Abari had been communicating, because the rest of the story formed a chronicle of his time in the alternate universe. Theo was grateful to have it as a memento of his adventures, but he found that his part of the storyline ended after the point where they’d defeated Klordane—he made a note to himself to write down the rest of what happened with Abari later on.
       Then he found the last chapter was written from the other Theo’s perspective, and the last few paragraphs were particularly of interest:

       As I think on all that has happened, I realize that adventure and action are poor substitutes for what really matters in life. I miss my own Becky terribly, and having been around this other-worldly version has made me realize what kind of potential there is between us. My parents may not approve at first, but I think in the end they will. After all, no one can live your life for you.
       It is strange, sitting here on this bed and writing in a room which for all appearances is the same as my own, but in reality I know that it is not. I’m sure my companion is eagerly awaiting his homecoming as much as I, and a reunion with his own Becky. She’s told me enough to know that she loves him dearly, and I’m glad for them.
       Then, there is this fellow Abari, a mouse ripped from his own time and now an outsider no matter where he goes. He has my sympathy, but I do not think he wants that. He simply wants to live, and after speaking with him that is all I really want out of life as well. To live, to make a life for myself and those I love—is there any greater adventure? I do not think so, now that I have seen and understood.
       My time here grows short. Theo, when you read this and I know you will, think kindly on me. I appreciate all that you’ve done, beyond my ability to explain. We saved more than a couple of universes. We saved ourselves, and I think we both learned something in the process. Whatever the future holds for you, you can know that I am thinking of you and your Becky.

        Your friend,


       Theo started when he heard someone behind him. Bink had been reading over his shoulder. “He finished it up just an hour or so before he had to leave. I tried to tell you, but you were in panic mode.” Theo put it down and looked over his shoulder at Bink. He smiled and reached back and grabbed her hand. “Well, he’s a pal. Say, shouldn’t you be getting ready for the prom?”
       “I will soon. Don’t worry, I’ll be ready by the time you come by.” Bink sat down beside him. “Theo, what was...what was the other Bink like? He told me some about her, but not much. Was she like me?”
       “Some. She was kind and good-hearted and adventurous like you, but more standoffish. I think not having me for her boyfriend growing up made her more independent.”
       Bink absorbed that. “I see. Do you wonder what it would be like if things were different? He told me that your parents were still around there.” Theo leaned back in his chair. “They were almost like overprotective sitcom parents. They certainly weren’t thrilled about their Theo being a Rescue Ranger. It was definitely under duress that they gave their approval.”
       Bink drew a little closer, studying his face. “And what do you think your life would’ve been like without me?”
       “I would’ve fought all my life to make the world a better place, but I’d never have been able to experience the real fun of it without you.”
       The squirrel smiled a little, leaning in closer and speaking softly. “And I would’ve gone on through life without knowing one of the bravest and kindest souls ever to wear a funny-looking hat.”

       She pulled his fedora down over his eyes, and Theo, caught off-guard, shouted in surprise as he righted it on his head. While he had both his hands on his hat, Bink lightly kissed him on the nose and stood up. “See you tonight, Jake Stone.”

       Theo watched as she winked at him, then laughed at it all when she was gone. He stuck his hand in his pocket, and when he brought out the ring his laughter stopped. The ring Abari had given him was still there, and it brought his feelings to the fore. For years he’d been thinking about his senior prom and what it meant. Now the day had come and the dance was just hours away. From inside, he could feel cold reality starting to seep in.
       By evening, it had attached a firm grip on the munk. Theo dressed, checking his tuxedo over again and again to be sure he looked right. Chip came in to see if he needed a hand. “You look great, son! Bink’s going to go wild when she sees you in that outfit. Got everything you need?”
       Theo brought out the ring and showed it to Chip. “Dad, I’m going to propose to Bink at the prom. I know Uncle Dale did that with Aunt Gadget, but it was at the dance six years ago that I decided she was the one, so it seemed fitting to bring it all full circle.”
       Chip looked at the ring and the munk holding it, and it seemed he was looking at himself at that age all over again. “Theo, are you sure? Are you sure that she’s sure?” Theo gave him a “get real” look. “Dad, I’ve been sure for six years and now, yes, I’m sure she’s sure. At times it’s almost painful for neither of us to just ask the other.”

       Chip hadn’t really seen this coming, though he realized that he probably should have. “Hang on, I’ll be right back.” The leader of the Rangers returned less than a minute later with Lahwhinie in tow. “Theo, your mother has something she’d like to tell you.”
       Lahwhinie walked up to personal speaking distance and took his free hand. “Theo, your father and I knew that this time would come, but we were thinking that you were going to wait until later before considering marriage to anybody. I know I wouldn’t have been ready at your age. Of course, you’re a lot better off than I was at your age. Have you thought all this though, and the sacrifices and changes you’ll have to make?”
       “I’m very sure, mom. I’m not naïve. I’ve shared a home with four married couples and I’ve very carefully watched and observed the ups and downs of marriage and relationships. I’ve seen the best and worst of it and I’m as sure as anyone could be about such a big step.”
       Lahwhinie stood there a moment, evaluating. “I know that parents are supposed to have this long list of wise reasons not to do things, but frankly I can’t think of one good reason to tell you not to ask her. I like Bink very much, Theo. She’s all I could ask for you to find, and I know she’s going to say yes. Oh, my little boy’s grown up!”

       Lahwhinie burst into tears and grabbed Theo in her iron grip, crying all over him. This display brought the others, and it didn’t take a lot of guesswork to see what was happening. Well okay, there was one. “Hey, what’s going on?” Dale asked. “Why’s Lahwhinie crying and all? Is Theo going away or something?”
       Dale ran up to the young Ranger. “Theo, you’re not joining the army or anything, are you! We need you here to fight off the hordes of evil and to watch the late, late, late show with me and the kids!”
       Theo calmed him. “Don’t worry, Uncle Dale, it’s all a good thing. I’m going to propose to Bink at the prom, just like you did.” Theo showed him the ring, and Dale’s eyes lit up. “Wowie-zowie! What a sparkler! But I didn’t propose to Bink at the prom.”
       Gadget put her hand on Dale’s shoulder. “Dear, he means that he’s going to propose to Bink the same way you did to me.” Dale winked. “I knew that. Just kidding.” Gadget came over and hugged Theo. “Oh golly, this is exciting! Now I wish Dale and me were going too, so he could propose to me all over again. I’m so happy for you!”
       Theo hugged her back. “Thanks everyone. This is the big step, but a good one. Wish me luck.” Monty slapped him on the back. “I’ll do better than that, mate. I’ll wish ya all the happiness you and the lass deserve. Too bad I don’t have that magic lamp no more, or I’d wish you up a big wedding present, too!”
       “Oh, I think ve can handle that without the magic, dahling,” Eva said, kissing Theo on the cheek. “You will make the most wonderful groom, Theo dear! Remember to dance with her first, and give her time to enjoy the night. Then she will be sure to always remember all of it with fondness.”
       Lahwhinie took her turn again in the hugging line. “And while you’re away we’ll start whipping up wedding plans. There’s a lot to plan on. Food, outfit, location... maybe Hawaii...”
       “Las Vegas!” Dale interjected.
       “Oh, Paris is heavenly,” Eva said.
       “Sydney’s a right good spot,” Monty said.
       Zipper, who still only spoke when he had something to say, did so now. “Why not have the wedding right here? Can’t think of a better place.” Honey was all for that. “And I will see to it that the ceremony receives the royal treatment.”
       “Of course, there is the Staten Island landfill…” Zipper mused. Theo loved his uncle’s sense of humor. “Well, I’ll have to talk with her about it first and her mom will certainly want in on the preparations.”
       “That’s for sure,” Chip said. “Say, you’d better get going! You have to pick her up in fifteen minutes.” Chip shook his son’s hand, then hugged him. “I’m happy for you, son. I’m glad I was here to see this day.”

       Theo waded through the hugs of various family members as he made his way to the RangerWing. He waved to the others as they gathered by the door to see him off. Just as he took off, he realized that in all his declarations he hadn’t even asked the girl yet. “Bink, after that buildup I just gave them, I sure hope you say yes.”

       At the Chesnutt house, Bink was nearly ready as she’d promised. Like Theo, she’d been planning for this night for a long time. Her hands betrayed her as she tried to fasten one of the straps on her dress, she was so filled with nervous energy. Donna came in and helped her, looking at her girl in the mirror. “You look absolutely stunning, dear. Theo’s certainly going to be the proudest boy at the prom.”
       Bink looked at herself in the mirror, seeing a worried face looking back at her. “Uh, mom, maybe this isn’t the best time to ask, but what do you think of Theo? I mean, really, really think of him?” Donna was no fool. She’d watched her daughter and Theo draw close over the years, and she knew what the question meant. “I think if he has the courage to ask you, then you should follow what’s in your heart.”
       Bink turned around and hugged her mom. “I was hoping you’d say that. He’s made a good impression on dad too, so I was hoping you’d both be okay with it. Call it woman’s intuition, but I just know he’s going to ask me soon, maybe tonight!”
       Donna folded her arms around Bink, careful not to wrinkle her dress. “I know. Ever since the day that little boy came over here the first time, I’ve known this could come. If he does, you can answer but tell him that we want to speak to him as well. He’ll understand our meaning. Now, I think that I should lend you my mother’s emerald necklace tonight. Your grandfather proposed to her when she wore it, and they were always happy.”
       Bink paused. Donna had never let her touch the necklace. “Are you sure you want me to wear that to the prom? Something might happen to it.”
       “Don’t worry about that, Bink,” Oscar said, who had been lingering at the door, waiting his time. “I’m sure if your mother wants you to wear it, it’s important to her that you do.” He told hold of her shoulders, feeling a father’s pride. “My, but you’re a scintillating sight! Dashed if I wouldn’t marry you myself.”
       Bink blushed and answered, giggling, “Dad, stop being so silly! I might be getting engaged soon. This is serious!” Oscar sat down next to her. “Yes, it is. Marriage is very serious, and not a step to be taken lightly. Donna and I know that both you and Theo are responsible people, and that you love each other. You’ve both got some maturing to do, but you’re more fortunate than I was because you have so many people to help you both. I think Theo’s one fine boy. I wish he’d been this age when I was still in the nuclear cleanup program. He’d have been a shining light there.”
       “I’m kinda glad he wasn’t,” Bink said. “He might’ve ended up a chipmunk nightlight. It’ll be a whole new world being married, but I’ve always thrived on new challenges.” Donna checked her dress over. “You’ll have some at first, but if it’s to be now then we’ll do what we can to help out. Oh, another wedding dress!”
       Donna worked her hands, elated. “I’ve got just the pattern, too...”
       “Now hold on, muffin,” Oscar said. “The boy hasn’t asked her yet. He might want to wait, even. It’s a big decision.” Donna didn’t want to, but she reined in her enthusiasm. “Yes, you’re right. Sorry, Bink. Oh wait, I hear him coming!”

       The Chesnutts went into high preparation mode, Bink’s heart beating faster than she felt it ever had. A minute later, a knock came at the door and Oscar headed for it, forcing himself to go slow. He opened it, and there was Theo in his white tux, a bouquet of roses in his hand. “Ah, Theo! Good, you’re right on time. Come and sit down, and Bink will be out in a minute.”
       Theo sensed a talk was coming, but he’d expected that. “Thank you, sir. I’m sorry if I’m a bit nervous. It’s just this is going to be a big night, after all.” Oscar led him into the room, showing Theo to a comfortable chair then sitting across from him in his own. “Yes, quite a big night. So, I see you’re none the worse for wear over that adventure that Bink was describing to us. Donna and I were relieved that you came through that okay. Your plans are still to remain with the Rangers, correct?”
       Theo wondered what he was driving at, but revealed nothing. “Absolutely. It’s what I was born to do.”
       “Yes, so you’ve said. Theo, I’ve got lots of connections. What if I were to call in a favor and get you started as, say, a junior executive at one of the local corporations? With your abilities and leadership you’d be a board member inside of two years.” Theo crossed his legs. “I’d say thank you, but no thanks. I’ve spent my life preparing for the life of a crimefighter. It’s not an easy path, but it is a rewarding one. I know the trials and tribulations and I’m ready.”
       Oscar nodded, lighting his pipe. “I thought that would be your answer, but I just wanted to make sure. Well, Bink must be ready by now. Let me go back and check on her.” When Oscar reached Bink’s room he found her standing there, glaring.
       “Dad!” Bink snapped. “What did you ask him those things for?”
       “For the same reason you eavesdropped—so I could be sure that his mind was made up,” Oscar said, amused. “Now, Your Majesty, it’s time for your grand entrance.”

       Oscar offered his arm, and Bink obliged him. Theo tried to get comfortable, but the thought of the ring in his pocket wouldn’t let him. Then he saw her, and all other thoughts melted away. Bink was wearing an evening dress of her own design, a mixture of fiery blue sequins with white sequins balancing them in an uneven sawtooth pattern. One long strap came over her right shoulder and fastened to the left front of the dress. The emerald necklace was a fine touch, an antique that accented her neck and her gold earrings nicely.
       Theo had long since stood up, taking her in. He held out the bouquet, smitten. “Uh, I think I’d need a thesaurus to adequately describe how beautiful you look.” Bink took the bouquet and found a vase for it. “Oh, I think you could manage, ‘Mister A-Plus in Miss Spelling’s class’. You look great too, Theo. Just about the way I’d imagined you’d have looked as Jake Stone when we first started play-acting.”
       Donna beamed as Bink rejoined her date. “Oh, I’ve got to get the camera!”
       “I could’ve told you,” Bink said. “Smile pretty for the scrapbook!”
       The young couple each put an arm around the other and Donna soon had her memento. Theo shook hands with Oscar and paused a moment when he came to Donna, then hugged her as well. As the Chesnutt parents walked outside to watch them go, Oscar put an arm around his wife
       “Yep, he’s going to ask her all right. I knew it for sure when he hugged you, because he’s never done that spontaneously before. Do you think she’s going to be happy?” Oscar asked.
       “Yes dear, she’ll be happy. And I think we’ll be happy too.”

       When they had waved Theo off, Lahwhinie had held Chip’s hand, and as her son vanished out of sight her grip had tightened. She eventually released his hand and slowly backed up, walking discretely but as fast as possible back inside. Chip followed a few moments later, ending up in their room. He closed the door, and found Lahwhinie on the edge of the bed, crying softly into her cupped hands. When Chip moved toward her she stood up and ran to him, grabbing him tightly and to his shocked surprise just broke down completely, crying like a baby.
        “Peaches!” Chip said, holding her. “What’s the matter? I thought you’d be happy for our boy!” She was sobbing so hard Chip had to help her back to the bed’s edge. They sat there together, her grip on him never lessening. “I am happy, Chip. Happier than I ever thought possible or have any right to be!”
       Lahwhinie dried her eyes some, continuing. “He’s the best son any mother could ask for and he loves me. Chip, even as a child I never allowed myself to believe that I’d ever have all this. I was a monster and did such terrible things—horrible destructive things! Back on that boat in Hawaii with Renaldo, all the bad things in my life finally caught up with me and I was going to get what I deserved, but then suddenly it was like someone said, ‘okay, you’re free to go’.”
       She looked in his eyes, the sense of guilt obvious. “Why am I here? What right do I have to be here, having my family, you, Theo and soon a daughter in law.” Lahwhinie started to let her head drop when Chip pulled it back up. “Hey, hey! That person who was on the boat’s long gone. You’ve proven your worth to us all time and again. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d probably be a miserable old munk, all alone and wondering what could’ve been.”
       He turned a little towards her, putting his forehead to hers so that he could angle up his eyes toward hers. “You’ve made my life such a happy one. I feel like I’m the one that doesn’t deserve it.”
       “Chip, growing up I knew people who weren’t nearly as bad as me. Some died horrible deaths, others are in jail. I should be in jail for what I did! Why was I forgiven and allowed to go free? What did I do to deserve all this happiness?”

       Chip looked down, thinking some on his own life. “If deserving had anything to do with it, neither of us would’ve gone far. True love doesn’t work that way. I loved you from the first time I saw you, even though I didn’t fully realize it until later. You needed me, and I needed you. I think it was just one of those things that was meant to be.”
       Lahwhinie pulled him to her, hugging him. “I’m sorry, Chip. Sometimes the past still rears its ugly head. I’m not the person I was then, but I’ll never be able to forget or forgive myself for what I did and all the hurt I caused.”
       Chip waited until the hug was over and took her hands. “The memory of it may linger, but no one here sees that old Lahwhinie anymore. You always had the potential to be what you are now. The real tragedy is that you didn’t always have people that cared about you to guide you. And now, you and I will have the luxury of watching our children and possibly our grandchildren grow, and we’ll have new generations of people to care about.”
       As Lahwhinie wiped her eyes again and her normal facade began to reappear, she gave him a smirk. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around, Charles. I’d never have gotten this far in life without you.”
       She gave him a powerful smooch, and Chip got a silly grin on his face as she let him go. He began sinking toward the floor, flailing his arms. “Somebody help me! I’m sinking under the waves of love in here!” Lahwhinie laughed a little at his antics then leaned over where he could see her face above him. “Chip, if there’s one thing I can promise you, it’ll be that you’ll never feel lonely. I’ve always loved you like each day was my last day on earth.”
       Chip got back up. “Then I think we’re both okay in that department. Now, we’d better start getting ready for when they get back.”

       Theo helped Bink into the RangerWing, making sure her dress was clear of any obstacles. The ride to the school was nostalgic, reminding them both of the time that Chip had flown them there as kids. When they landed, Theo opened a compartment in the instrument panel and brought out a corsage.
       “I was afraid the wind might’ve messed it up,” Theo said, pinning it on her.
       With a flourish of chivalry, Theo helped Bink out of the Wing and escorted his date toward the lively and festive gymnasium. The theme this year was “Back to the Sixties” and they’d secured The Beach Combers to be the main band. It was a loud and rocking atmosphere as the two Rangers walked in, and it took only a moment before they were recognized. Zooger was first, appropriately (or not) wearing a powder blue Nehru jacket and red-tinted John Lennon shades.
       “Hey, the T-man and the Binkster, putting the competition to shame from the get-go!” Zooger said. Theo high-fived him. “Thanks, Zooger. You look really...uh...Sixties...ish.” Bink’s friends ran up a few moments later, elated and in fancy dresses of their own. “Oh, Bink! You look so, so awesome!” Debbie Pacanowski said.
       Denise Denkins was right behind. “Awesome and a half! Come on, we’ve got to show you off!” Theo shook his head, amused, as the girls all ran off. Someone tapped him from behind and he turned to find a smiling young rat dressed to the nines, accompanied by a very lovely young mouse.

       Rhett pointed at him. “It’s your fault, Theo. You pushed me into asking Phoebe here, and how was I to know she had a crush on me?” Theo remembered seeing the roulette girl when he and Bink had visited the Rat Pack. “Hey, I am the up-and-coming world’s greatest detective. You just notice those kinda things. You make a cute couple.”
       Phoebe pinched Rhett’s cheek and he blushed. “Easy there, Phoebes! Come on, let’s mingle.” The couple launched out into the mob, and Theo looked on, satisfied. He could remember when Rhett was persona non grata with everyone, and now he was on top of his part of the world. The band started to play “Little Ace Auto”, and Theo began looking for his date. Instead he found Miss Spelling, who had an older-looking muskrat with her.
       “Theo, this is Mr. Silas Hedridge, of Hedridge Books,” Miss Spelling said. “He’s the agent I was telling you about.” Silas shook Theo’s hand. “My father founded the company, and I scout new talent. I must say, your manuscript is full of imagination. What would you say to a paperback printing to start, and then if it goes well we could consider a second printing in hardcover.”
       “Sure!” Theo said, totally surprised. “Author and crimefighter sounds better than just being a crimefighter. Thank you, sir. Thank you Miss Spelling. Dad will be thrilled to hear that I got a book offer.” Miss Spelling caught his attention. “Just remember to keep a level head, Theophane Maplewood, and use the skills you’ve been given wisely. I will be following your career with interest.”

       Mr. Hedridge gave Theo his card and the munk thanked him again, sticking the card safely away. The gym floor was now a multitude of dancing couples, and Theo had to wade through them. It was worth it, because the slow music started just as he found Bink.
       “Well, look who it is,” Bink said, slipping into playacting mode. “Jake Stone, Superspy. I did not think you had the courage to show yourself here, Mr. Stone.” Theo smiled suavely, kissing her hand. “Jake Stone would take any risk to dance with his favorite femme fatale.”
       Bink lowered her eyelids, amused. “You should know that playing favorites is dangerous, Mr. Stone.”
       Easily, they slid into each other’s arms as the music slowly led them. “You seemed nervous earlier, Jake,” Bink continued. “Is your mission that serious?”
       “Yes, it is,” Theo said, then whatever composure he had was gone. “Uh, how can I put this, uh...Bink, would you—aw nuts, how would you like to be Mrs. Jake Stone?” Bink’s grip on Theo’s hand doubled, as he realized he was serious. “You mean...oh, come with me, quick!”

       Bink pulled a confused Theo with her until they were outside. They climbed up a high grassy hill behind the school, at the top of which they could see half the park. The moon was near full, and the scene was grand. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’d come up here and enjoy the view,” Bink said. “I had a dream long ago that when I got married I’d be asked right here on this hill where I spent so much time. I know it’s silly, but what’s a dream if you can’t make it come true?”
       Theo knew it was important to her, so that made it important to him. “Hey, all my dreams have come true. Who would I be to scoff at someone else’s?”
       With all the fanfare he could muster, Theo got down on one knee and took the ring out of his pocket. He gently took Bink’s hand in his, slipping the ring from his pocket to her finger. “Becky Chesnutt, would you marry me?”

       Bink had been expecting a simple ring, but when she saw the ornate gold ring with the huge stone it made her gasp. “Oh Theo...” It was barely above a whisper. The tears weren’t long in following. “I don’t want to know how you managed it. It’s just perfect. Yes, Theo.”

       Theo smiled and gave a thumbs up. “Cool!” he said, leaping to his feet and lifting her off hers, spinning her around. “Now we’ll be a team on and off the case!” Bink put her arms around his neck. “We will indeed. Now we’d better head back while we’re still alone. I’ve got a sneaky suspicion that we’ve got a bunch of snoops ready to spread the word on us.”
       It was time to Theo to let her know. “Yeah, I told everyone before I left that I was going to propose.” Bink, still in Theo’s arms, bonked him on the side of the head, but she was laughing. “You didn’t! Okay, we might as well go on to Headquarters, then. I’m sure they’re all waiting for us.”
       “Not quite yet.” Theo said, gesturing with his head toward the gymnasium. Bink rested her head on Theo’s shoulder. “Right. Just one more dance before we go.”

       Theo was only too happy to oblige, and soon they were on their way back to Headquarters. They had a rough idea of what to expect when they returned, but there were some surprises. In addition to all the Rangers, Bink’s parents had come over as well as Foxy and Noel and the adult Fairmonts. There were also two special guests—Chip and Lahwhinie escorted Sean Maplewood and Anna Pendergast from the sofa
       “We knew that they’d want to be here for this,” Chip said. “Um, you did ask her, right Theo?” Theo stole a humorous glance at Bink. “Yes, in a stammering, roundabout way, which luckily didn’t put her off. We’re going to get married!”
       “YEE-HAW!” Bedivere said, slapping Theo on the back and bowling him over. “I know you had it in you, cowpoke!”

       Theo recovered and took Bink’s hand, showung the ring she was wearing. The assembly gazed in wonder at the diadem, and Sean came forward. “It’s an honor to be here for such an auspicious occasion, and to see the Maplewood line continuing with two such fine young people.”
       Mrs. Pendergast was all-emotion as she hugged Bink, then Theo. “Oh, tis a grand day, indeed! To think, just yesterday you were no higher than my coffee table and now you’re marrying a bonnie lass like this! Theo, I know your parents would be happy for you this day.”
       “Thanks Mrs. Pendergast. I’m glad I had you here to share it with.” Theo looked to the group surrounding him. “I’m glad you’re all here to share it with us. Thanks to all of you for helping me and guiding me through my early years. And for taking in an outsider and giving him a place in your hearts.”
       Chip kissed Bink on the cheek, then hugged his boy’s neck. “You’ve paid us all back a dozen times over, son. But the sentiment’s appreciated.” Lahwhinie was right behind him. “Yeah, by me in particular. I was an outsider once too, you know. You helped me to make a new life here. I’m glad you’re getting to make one of your own now.”
       Foxy was crying, which meant things were absolutely normal. “Oh, this is so wonderful! Let me hug you both!” She did so, her warm heart leading her to hug them a second time before giving Noel a shot. The chipmunk-turned-bat put his wings on Theo's arms. “I know we agreed that Chip would be your official dad, but at a time like this I've just got to say that I’m real proud of you, and I hope your life will be as happy as mine.”
       Theo hugged him. “Hey, you’re my dad, too, and always will be. It’s sort of like Charlie Chan, only in reverse. Sergei was my number one dad, and Chip’s number two, so that makes you number three on the list.”
       “They say the best things come in threes,” Noel replied back, winking.

       Sean went to the sofa and brought back his bow fiddle. “This calls for some music. I remember the song that my dear and I danced to at our betrothal feast...”
       Sean began to play, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and Theo led Bink out for a first dance. Soon the others joined in, and it was a happy time that all of them would remember in years to come. Sean ended up turning his fiddle over to Althea, who already was an above-average musician. She’d learned the tune by ear, and now Sean took his turn dancing with Bink. When the music ended, he bowed and kissed her hand. Then he held it, examining the ring.
       “Quite an ancient antique,” Sean observed. “The diamond appears to be an 18th century cut, but the inscription is in Cuneiform, I believe. I collected the works of Robert Adelhurst, the first person to successfully translate the language. If I read it right, it loosely says, ‘a dream is for the ages’. We’d say, ‘a dream is forever’.”
       “An old friend gave me that,” Theo said. “A friend who knew a great deal about forever.”
       The wedding talk was well underway now, with Donna and Lahwhinie discussing the details full-bore. Chip tapped his son on the shoulder. “I think we can all manage without you two for a while. Come on, we’ve got something special.” Chip led them outside, where they’d set up a table for two on the veranda, complete with champagne, candlelight and a Monty-prepared dinner.
       “Wow!” Theo said. “A romantical type setting if there ever was one. Thanks, dad. Well, Mrs. Maplewood, would you care to join me out on the veranda for some bubbly and some fine cuisine?” Bink gave him a hard stare. “I’m not Mrs. Maplewood yet, Mr. Maplewood. But you do know how to treat a lady.”

       After all the activity of the evening, it was nice to have some time alone and Theo made a mental note to thank everyone for it. He found himself thinking of the future, and of all that had happened recently. “I suppose I’ve taken all this for granted for so long, but my time in that other reality made me see that I could’ve easily missed out on this day. I just want you to know that I really appreciate this life, and getting to live it with you.”
       Bink put down her champagne flute and looked at him. “I haven’t heard you talk that way before. Your experience really did have a big impact on you, didn’t it?”
       “Yes, it did. I’m more certain now of my destiny than I ever was before. And I know it was you who I was destined to go through life with.”
       Bink took his hand. “Right back at you.”
       Slowly, they drew closer. Each could feel the strength and love of the other, and as they kissed it was as if the world was made just for them.

Epilogue, or Telling the Last of the Tales

       June 8 7:45am New York

       About a week later, Dale headed out of Headquarters to take a stroll around the park. It wasn’t his first choice of activities, but Gadget had insisted that he get out and exercise at least three days a week. He’d tried to convince her that his walks to the comic book store were enough, but for some strange reason she’d disagreed. Now the red-nosed munk was approaching the park water fountain, heading for the walking trail, when someone called out his name.
       Dale turned to find a bedraggled and confused-looking feline starting at him. “Hey uh, where’s your tree at?” The munk dropped the comic books in his arms, panicked. “Mepps! YAAAAAAAAAAH!”
       Running as fast as he could go (which considering the adrenaline boost was a lot faster than normal), Dale zoomed across the park. Geegaw was up on the veranda and saw his father coming across the park lawn.
       “Hey, mom!” Geegaw shouted, sticking his head in the door, “Dad’s getting some really great exercise! He’s moving faster than that time the ice cream truck crashed into that big tree and spilled Tutti-Fruti everywhere!”

       Gadget came to the door in time to see a red, yellow and brown blur zoom across the remaining distance and join them on the veranda. “Golly Dale, I’m impressed! You keep that kind of exercise up and you’ll be able to run marathons when the rest of us are sitting in rocking chairs!”
       Dale desperately tried to catch his breath and pushed them inside, slamming the door behind them. “Cat! Mepps! Outside!” He began gesturing to the door with both hands and Althea, who’d now joined them, looked at her dad in confusion. “There’s catnip outside? And why are you pointing at the door?”
       At last, he was able to speak. “No! Mepps the cat is outside in the park looking for this tree!” Gadget went to the window. “Golly, you’re right! He must’ve followed you back here. What’s he after?”
       “I don’t know, but it’s probably not good!” Dale said.
       Althea took a step toward the door. “Shouldn’t someone go out there and ask what he wants?” Dale barred the way. “No, no, no! He might be dangerous...hey, wait a second. This is Mepps we’re talking about after all and he’s alone. My grandmother could beat him and she’s in a nursing home.”

       Dale motioned for the others to stay inside, just in case, and went out. There was Mepps, looking humble, and holding Dale’s comic books. “Thanks for showing me the way, but you didn’t have to go that fast.”
       “Uh, no problem,” Dale said. “Why did you want to come here, anyway? If this is another one of Fat Cat’s crazy plots, we’re gonna put a world of hurting on all of you!” Mepps shook his head profusely. “Nope, the boss is gone. When his place fell down, he left us all again! I’m tired of hanging around, but I don’t know what to do.”
       Dale wondered how that cat’s brain even kept him moving. “Can’t you just move on? There’s got to be other people you could work for, other things you can do?” Mepps’ voice became contrite. “I don’t know how to do anything else! The boss took me in when I was a kitten. He did all the thinking and all. I don’t know what to do.”
       “Well, you were kinda good with the work you were doing,” Dale said. “You could get the job done—until we’d show up—so maybe find a way to put those criminal talents to use for good.”
       Gadget and the kids, who had been listening, came out now. When Gadget saw Mepps, her tender heart took over. “Oh honey, look at him! He looks like he hasn’t eaten in days, and he’s all filthy. We’ve got to help him!” Dale looked back at the bedraggled cat. “I don’t know... still, he never was very good at fooling us. Okay, take the kids inside and we’ll see about grub. Mepps, come on up and we’ll see what we can do.”
       Mepps was surprised, to say the least. “Really? Wow, thanks!”

       Soon, Monty was employed to help out, and out came a fresh dish of cheese chowder. Mepps wasn’t in any position to be picky, and once he’d started in he ate it all at one sitting. Of course, the other Rangers were involved by now, and Chip was in a sparked debate with Gadget in the main room.
       “I still say this was a mistake!” Chip said, pointed to the cat on the veranda. “He’s a hardened criminal and that’s all he knows how to be.” Lahwhinie came up behind Chip and wrapped her arms around him. “You would’ve said the same about me the first day I came here. I feel sorry for the poor dope, so let’s help him out. Someone gave me a second chance, and I want give someone else that chance too.”
       One of them he might have been able to argue with, but Chip knew better to deal with Gadget and Lahwhinie as a team. “Okay, okay. But he can’t stay here. We need to find someone to help reform him, and get him on the right road. Any ideas?”
       “The Beef man would be my first choice,” Dale said, thinking of Pastor Beefy.
       Althea tugged on the bottom of Chip’s jacket. “How about Detective Drake? Humans like cats.” Chip knelt down by the youngster. “Ally, he’s also got a dog, and cats and dogs don’t usually get along.”
       “But Plato would understand!” Althea countered. “Mr. Mepps wants to be good, and I’m sure Detective Drake will help! Why don’t you ask him?”
       “She has a point,” Lahwhinie said. “Drake can talk to us animals, so he’d be able to guide him.” Gadget pushed the point home. “And who knows? Maybe with the right influence, he could even be a contributing force for good! Please, Chip?”
       Chip looked through a window outside, where Mepps was picking the dirt from between his toes. “You always were an optimist, Gadget, but I suppose so. I’ll call him.”

       An hour later, at a secret meeting place in the park, Detective Donald Drake found himself looking down at one of the mangiest cats he’d ever seen. He didn’t have any of Gadget’s optimism, but he’d also listened to her arguments. “I just don’t know. I mean, he seems a little slow on the uptake. Still, if he wants to reform I guess we could give it a try.”
       “Thank you, sir,” Mepps said, a little intimidated by Drake. “I’ll be as loyal to you as I was to Fat Cat.” Drake appeared bemused. “I wonder if that’s a good thing.”

       Mepps left with Drake, waving goodbye to the Rangers. The first step was a veterinary clinic to get the troubled tabby the first checkup he’d ever had. After a series of shots and medication, it was off to the groomer’s. Even for a professional, Mepps was a challenge. Still, when he came out he actually looked presentable. A change of clothes did more to help that impression, as Drake got him a Bogart-like trenchcoat
       “It’s good, but it needs something more,” Drake said. “A Bogie fedora would do.”
       “A fed, or a what?” Mepps asked.
       Drake shook his head. “It’s going to be a long day. Come on, might as well go back to the agency and let you meet Plato.”

       That meeting was memorable, to say the least. Plato didn’t like it at all at first, but once Drake had explained the situation the loyal police dog grudgingly agreed it was the right thing to do. He decided to take direct responsibility for this new recruit.
       “Now, if you’re going to be a detective, you must learn to tell the important from the obvious,” Plato said. “You must have dogged determination, and once on a case you must never give up. Any questions?”
       “What is it we do here?” the clueless cat asked.
       Plato cleared his throat, pointing to the sign on the door. “This is the finest private detective agency in the city. Here, we receive clients who need help, and we try to solve their problems. Generally, that means finding out if a crime has been done.”
       “Oh good, I like crime!”
       Plato grimaced at him. “No, no! You don’t understand. We find those who have done a crime, and help the police or other law enforcement to stop them. We are in business of stopping criminals from committing crimes.”
       Mepps cringed when Plato raised his voice, and he raised his arms in front of his face, expecting a blow. When it didn’t come, the feline was shocked with relief. “Wow, I get to be the good guy this time? So, what do you want me to do and where do you want me to go to stop crime?”
       Plato could see that he was dealing with a far simpler soul than he’d at first expected, and his voice softened. “We’ll be training you for a time, and once you’re ready we’ll let you start helping us. Until then you appear malnourished, and that’s never good for one’s thinking. What do you think, Drake?”

       Drake had a lot of things he could have said, but decided to be diplomatic. “I’d say we’ll give him a week to recover himself, and then we can start in on the finer points of detective work. How does that sound to you, cat?”
       “I’ll do a good job, boss,” Mepps said, saluting the detective.
       Drake pointed at him. “Mepps, why are you here?”
       “Do you really understand what this is all about?”
       Mepps paused a few seconds, then shook his head. “No.”
       Drake thought as much. “Mepps, you’re here for us to try to give you a new life! You were a criminal and we’re going to try to turn you into a crimefighter. To succeed you need to have passion for your work, but you don’t seem to have passion for anything. What motivates you, Mepps? What is it you want to do with your life?”
       Mepps considered the question and looked up at Drake with a half-apologetic glance. “Uh, eat fish?”
       Drake shook his head. “That’s dinner. I’m talking about tomorrow, a month from now, and ten years from now. You were a henchman and now you’ve got to find your own way. I didn’t bring you here to be my henchman. I brought you here to make a, cat out of you. Give a cat a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a cat to fish and he’ll feed himself for a lifetime, or something like that. Haven’t you ever wanted to be free of Fat Cat and be your own boss?”
       “No,” Mepps said, and frankly meant it. “He always looked after me. I just want to do good and not mess up.”
       “Look Mepps, Plato and I will due our best to set you on the straight and narrow, but there’s no one that’s going to baby-sit you anymore. You’re going to have to learn to look out for yourself and stand on your own two feet. Plato and me are detectives—we use our wits and guts to make the world a little better place to live. You have to think about what your new place in the world is. The choice is ultimately yours, Mepps, so give it some thought. Now come on, fellas, let’s get some Chinese food.”

       “Oh goodie, I like Chinese!” Mepps said, then paused. “Do they have cheeseburgers?”
       Plato shook his head. “I wonder what happened to Fat Cat anyway…”

       June 8 6:15pm New York

       As silently as he could, the former resident of the Happy Tom Cat Food Factory padded down the stairs that led from the second floor to the first floor of his modest home. When Klordane had convinced him to help, Fat Cat had recruited some of the best animal minds to construct the devices the human needed. In particular, he’d needed the assistance of a rogue Russian scientist who had the knowledge to build the heart of the interdimenal devices.
       Fat Cat had been prepared to offer the feline genius anything in exchange, but the price was something he hadn’t dreamed of. The scientist had a daughter, and she wanted to get married. Despite his self-proclaimed shrewdness, Fat Cat had stumbled a little blindly into it, his drive for power rationalizing almost any action. So it was that he and Chubbi had become cat and wife, and soon two boys followed.
       At first, things had been fairly peaceful, but as Chubbi learned of Fat Cat’s plans she grew to like it less and less. Chubbi had insisted on a regular home life for Husky and Portly, and despite his evil machinations Fat Cat did like his boys—even if they were Ranger fans. He wanted them to believe that he was the head of the household, but that illusion had vanished some time ago—as it was about to do again now.
       “And where do you think you’re going?” Chubbi asked, a basketful of laundry in her arms. Fat Cat had a bowling bag, so that much was obvious. “Oh come now, Fluffikins! I need a night out to help me forget the pain of being defeated by those ragtag Rangers!”
       “Fluffikins” wasn’t impressed. “And how about me? Do I get a night out? No! You’re always plotting to steal something and who’s left to do the work of running this family?” Fat Cat got on his knees. “I promise, I’ll take you and the boys out tomorrow night! We’ll go to CarnivalWorld!”
       “Good,” Chubbi said, then pushed the big basket into his belly. “Now, get to cleaning those clothes! And when you’re done the lawn needs mowing and the grout around the tub needs to be replaced!”
       Fat Cat groaned, grimacing, and Chubbi caught him at it. “What was that!” The henpecked feline saw the rolling pin on the table next to her and sighed. “Nothing, dear. Nothing.” Once he was out of earshot he added under his breath, “I’d like to take that rolling pin and give her a taste for once.” But he knew he didn’t dare—she was just as big as he was and tougher still. He got the laundry going.

       Meanwhile the rest of the goon squad was similarly employed. Mepps had been fortunate he left when he did, because the others had simply stuck with Fat Cat and paid the price. Mole was cleaning the kitchen floor, Wart was painting the hall and Snout was cleaning the rugs. “We’ve got to bust out of here!” Snout said. “She’s about to work us to death!”
       They all started to head for the back door when heavy footfalls announced that they were too late. Mole shook, down to his feet. “It’s Bloody Mary!”
       Chubbi was staring them down. “Did you finish your work yet?”

“Nooooo,” they all said, miserable.

“Get to it!” she said, snapping her fingers. The trio slowly went back to their places, grumbling about and promising to escape the domicile they’d come to know as “The Rock”.



After Mepps and Detective Drake were gone, the Rangers all returned to Headquarters. As they were approaching, a noise outside caught their attention because there was only one possible source. They all ran up the tree, and there, standing on the railing of the veranda, was one Bedivere Fairmont along with all the rest of the Fairmont family.

“YEEEEEEEEEEE--HAWWWWWWWWW! Slap my wings and call me a blowhard! You’d better have lots of hugs saved up for your Uncle Bedivere!”

They all did, of course. There was no one that livened up a place quite like the Texas prairie bat, and now he was eager to show off the newcomers. In addition to Galahad and Daisy’s children, all in their teens now, Foxy and Noel had brought along their newest additions. Lonestar was still the apple of Foxy’s eye, but now there were four more apples to fill the basket of her love.

“Well now, I’ve finally come at the right time!” It was Gary, the mail bird. “I’ve been wanting to see all the Fairmonts at once. Now Foxy, you’re going to have to run me through them all again.” Foxy lined them up. “Okay, we’ve got Violet, who’s next-to-oldest. Then there’s Lance, short for Lancelot. Our younger girl is Rose, named after the ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’, and the youngest one’s Arthur, named after Arthur Maplewood. We’d planned on naming Lonestar ‘Arthur Lancelot Maplewood’, but the name Lonestar seemed to suit him better at the time.”

“Who’s Arthur Maplewood?” Dale asked.

“Dale, don’t you ever listen to Sean’s stories?” Chip said. “Arthur’s the Maplewood from England who came over and adopted Sean as his son.”

“Oh, that Arthur Maplewood! I bet he wasn’t as prestigious as my ancestor, though,” Dale said, kneeling down by little Arthur. “Hey, tell them you want to be renamed Gerard after Lucien Gerard D’Oakmont.”

“He does not!” Chip said.

“Does too!” Dale countered. “Lucien was a great swordsmunk. Yours probably sat around drinking tea all day and calling cookies ‘biscuits’.”

“Oh yeah?” Chip said.




“Um, I think I’ll be going,” Gary said, handing a package to Lahwhinie. The bird knew to keep a safe distance when a quarrel broke out between the munks. Foxy, after all these years, still tried to break up their arguments. “Now boys, there’s no need in fighting over it. After all, we did—” But the two chipmunks were already headed back inside. Noel stopped Foxy before she could follow. “Don’t worry about it, sweetie. I know what they’re going to do. After all, I used to be one of them.”

Chip and Dale came back out in fencing suits, epees in hand, with the sword points capped. “Best two of three touchés?” Chip asked.

“Right!” Dale said. “Monty, go ahead and clear out a space here for us.”

Monty sighed and did so. “You blokes sure this is necessary?” Chip nodded. “He besmirched the Maplewood family honor, and I have to answer him for it.” Dale nodded back. “And as the besmircher who wasn’t besmirching anything worth besmirching, I’m defending my family’s honor and right of besmirchment!”

“You don’t know what that means, do you dad,” Geegaw said. Dale looked his way, grinning. “Nope, but I’m sure it’s something worth two touchés out of three!” Althea clung to Dale’s leg. “Don’t fight with Uncle Chipper, dad!” Dale knelt down. “Aw, don’t worry, Ally. We’re not really mad with each other or anything. Y’see, Chip and I grew up doing this sort of thing and we just look for any old excuse we can to go at it.”

“That’s right,” Chip said, putting on his mask. “Besides, this won’t last long. I’ll finish it real quick.” Dale stood up, putting his mask on. “Oh, you will, eh? Well, we’ll see who finishes it fast. En garde!”


With that, they were off and fencing. Gadget, Lahwhinie, Foxy and Eva took everyone else inside. “They’ll be at for an hour at least, if I know them,” Lahwhinie said. “First, one will say ‘it wasn’t a real touch’. Then the other will say ‘best four of five’.”

Gadget looked back outside as the two munks did their best Errol Flynn impressions. “Golly, do you think we should let them be doing that? I mean, there are children present and all.” Uncle Bedivere put a friendly wing around her. “Aw now, don’t you worry about those two sidewinders. Why, I can remember back in the old days when we wanted to settle an argument we’d go out to Cactus Bottoms and fly through the saguaros. The bat with the fewest thorns was declared the winner. Much safer what them boys are doing. I might take on the winner mahself!”

“Yeah!” Althea said. “Besides, they’re more fun to watch than Spongebob Squarepants. Get him, dad! Get him!” Gadget pulled Althea away from the window, and everyone headed for the sofa in the main room to get better acquainted with the new additions to the family.

Colby, who’d been vacationing with the Fairmonts, got Lahwhinie’s attention. “Yes, Colby, what do you want?” Lahwhinie asked. Colby sat down next to her. “I want to tell you every neat thing that happened about the earthquake we felt and all, but first I wanted to know what happened here while I was gone. Not much, right?”


Later that night, as Geegaw and Althea settled into bed, their parents came in to check on them. “Everything okay here?” Gadget asked. “Geegaw, you look like you’re someplace else.”

“I guess so, mom,” Geegaw said. “I was thinking about Limbo and Klordane and all. Do you think he’ll ever get out?”

“I don’t think so,” Gadget said. “He’s lost his best chance. I’d say the odds of him succeeding now are seven thousand two hundred and fourteen to one.” Althea looked impressed. “That much! Seven thousand two hundred fourteen—”

“Well, actually it’s more like seven thousand two hundred fourteen point three, but I figured I’d round it off to be polite.”

Dale put an arm around her. “That’s my Gadget! Polite, even with numbers!”

Althea sat up. “Mom, will I get to get married like Uncle Theo?” Gadget smiled down at her. “That’s something no one can put odds on. But I’d say if it’s meant to happen, it will.”

“Do you think it is?”

“I’ll let you know in about ten years.”



In another Ranger Headquarters, a red-haired chipmunk appeared from the kitchen. Alex and Mercy, Chip and Gadget’s adopted children, had been worried when their favorite aunt had disappeared. Now they plus Dale and Foxy’s adopted child Barbara were peppering her with questions.

“What happened to you, Aunt Agnes?” Mercy asked. “Alex said you, dad and mom probably went back to Africa and were eaten by wild cannibals!” Her brother stuck his tongue out. “I said maybe she was. C’mon, Aunt Agnes, tell us what happened!”

Agnes sat down on the couch, and Barbara climbed up into her lap. The young bat girl loved everyone, but Agnes in particular. “Okay, okay,” Agnes said. “I did go to Africa, but not the Africa in this world.”

“Huh?” Alex asked. “What does that mean?”

“It means me wife’s got a real ripper of a story ta tell!” Monty said, also emerging from the kitchen. Chip and Gadget had been exhausted from all the traveling they’d done and were asleep in their room. Agnes had already told Monty most of what had happened, and while he wasn’t sure he believed it all, he was sure that by the sheer details of it all some of it had to be true. “Go on and tell ‘em, lass.”

“Well, when I left here I was up in another Ranger Headquarters,” Agnes began. “And there was another Chip, another Dale, and several other Gadgets.”

“Why were there several?” Mercy asked.

“Because two of them were from other universes as well. One had married Dale, and another hadn’t married at all.”

Alex wrinkled his mouse nose at the idea. “Mom, marrying Dale? Get real!”

“It was real there, cheri,” Agnes said. “And I met another boy older than you who was Chip’s adopted son in yet another universe. He told me that where he came from, Chip had become two Chips through some accident and one of them married Foxglove and the other married that Hawaiian girl that looks like your mother.”

“Is all that true?” Barbara asked, looking up at her.

“I do not know,” Agnes said. “So many things were happening so quickly. I tried to help as best I could, but mainly I wished to return home to Monzy and to the three of you.”

Mercy caught her attention. “Can we go where you went sometime?” Agnes smiled and shook her head. “I do not think so, young one. And I think it is best that way. One set of Rangers is enough for any universe. Now come, it is time for bed.”



The heat of the June sun had already warmed the air by the time the crowd gathered. Not a lot usually happened on the south side of town, but today was a big exception. The rodent population was the pleased recipient of a new state-of-the-art community center. Pleased in spite of the fact—or perhaps because of it—of who the benefactors were.

As the mayor and all the important animal representatives took their seats on a microphone-clad podium, Rhett Capone was doing his best to keep his father from running off. They were both wearing expensive tailor-made suits and Rat for one looked like he wanted to take himself and his suit to another country

“Dad, come on!” Rhett urged. “This is good publicity for us! I know it’s not exactly your racket, but a little speech in front of everyone’s not going to hurt you.” Rat was conflicted over it all, and it showed in his voice. “I know, son, but it’s just that even though were doin’ good stuff here, I just got so many bad memories of this place. Too much bad stuff happened to me to ever forget.”

Rhett adjusted his dad’s silk tie. “But that’s why we’re doing this, to help make things better for the folks coming after us. You know that mom would’ve wanted you to.” The mention of Rat’s late wife made him stop and grin a little. “Yeah, yer maw would’ve liked that. I think she’d be proud of both of us tonight.”

“That’s right, dad. Oh, come on! That’s our cue!”


Rat froze up, but Rhett pulled him along. The assemblage all stood and cheered when the Capones took the stage, and the mayor pulled a silken silver cord that revealed a bronze plaque showing the building’s name: the Tiffany Zettlemoyer Memorial Center. Rat found himself in front of a crowd of nearly a thousand clapping onlookers, the microphone in front of him. The audience quieted down to hear him speak

“Listen up, you mugs...” Rat began, then caught himself. “Uh, thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I grew up in this here neighborhood. I lived in the filth and woke up to the smell of death and decay every day. I watched my folks die bad here and I went bad to escape this place and I swore I’d never come back here ever again.”

 Then Rat pointed to the plaque, and his demeanor changed. “But Tiffany, even though she’s gone, she was still part of us. A lot of things happened in the past and just when it seemed I was about to set myself up as the crime boss of all of New York, a miracle happened and I was given a chance to walk away from the life I’d lived and start over again with my son who I nearly lost and a wonderful woman who put up with a lot of guff for the sake of me and my boy, my wife Vera.”

Vera joined him at the podium, as did Rhett and his new girlfriend Phoebe, and Rat continued. “When all was said and done, I realized that there was more to life than money and power and I’m here to share that with all of you. I thought that this was the worst place on the planet, but now I’m determined to make this a better place so that crime ain’t..uh, isn’t the only escape.”

Rat stepped back and Vera, now dressed in a pink tailor-made business suit, took the podium. “We decided to name the center in honor of Rhett’s late wife, because she was a very giving soul and many of the people in the area still talk about her acts of kindness. We know that in a way this is a dream of hers coming true, so it seemed appropriate.”


Rhett and Phoebe walked over and pulled down a covering cloth, revealing a bronze statue of Tiffany, holding a small loaf of bread in one hand and a children’s book in the other. Rhett returned to the microphone. “My mom cared about the kids around here, and she’d have loved to see kids playing in a clean and safe environment. Well come on, everyone! Don’t stand around on our account. Let’s have some fun!”

That was the invitation the crowd needed, and eagerly they come forward as the Capones gave a guided tour of the place. From the parquet-floor basketball courts to the modern fitness facilities to the swimming pools and elderly care and rehab rooms, it was wondrous. Even Rat had to smile some to see the kids and all the people having a good time. Then he motioned the family outside and they gathered around the statue again

“It sure is a good likeness of her, dad,” Rhett said. “She’d probably laugh at us both when we told her that this one act of goodwill’s brought us more new business deals than anything else either of us has done. Bet you never thought that playing it legit would be so lucrative, did you?”

“Bein’ legit is for shmoes,” Rat said, then chuckled. “So I take pride in bein’ as big a shmoe as they come.” Vera gave him a hug. “You don’t fool anyone for a minute. I saw how much you enjoyed all those people thanking you. Now admit it, this is a better way to spend your life than down in that dingy old sewer.”

“Okay, ya got me, dollface. I love it. People respect me rather than fear me, and it’s nice. People smile at me now. It’s a nice change.”

“And you look so dignified in that new suit, Mr. Capone!” Phoebe was a ray of sunshine, and already Rat had taken to her. She kissed him lightly on the cheek, and the old boy melted. “Hey, none of that stuff in front of the crowds,” Rat said, but more joshingly than anything. “I still gotta maintain my image as a tough customer.”

Rhett slapped his dad on the back. “I don’t think you need to worry about that, dad. Now we’d better get inside. The caterer’s got a private lunch set aside for us, and after the photo-ops I’m going to show you the new building I acquired for the theater we’re building. I checked it with our accountants, and with the amount of people we can hire and the foot traffic, we’re talking about a full return on investment in less than a year. After that, we should be able to double what we have now in just a few months’ worth of shows. Maybe quicker if we get some of the top-notch actors.”

“Good work, son,” Rat said, for he still loved the color of money. “Maybe I’ll run this town after all, legit wise.”

As they headed inside, Rat took a last look at the statue of Tiffany and a gleam of light hit the face and he could’ve sworn she was smiling at him for an instant. Rat smiled back, then head inside with the others. It was certainly a new day for them all



In Victorian England, a mouse rounded the corner of a stately white house and entered a well-kept mouse hole. Upon entering, the old but capable butler took his deerstalker hat and Inverness cape.

“Thank you, Jenkins,” Basil said. “Is Mrs. Hackwrench at home?”

“Yes, she is, sir,” Jenkins replied. “And someone of your acquaintance as well.”

Basil’s features softened, as he was sure he knew who Jenkins meant. “Very good, then.” The great mouse detective advanced into the sitting room, where he found his wife entertaining a kindly-looking old mouse. Or at least that was what Basil had always thought of him. “Dr. Dawson, well it is good to see you again!”

Dawson stood up, shaking his old friend’s hand. “And it’s a pleasure to see you as well. How is retired life suiting you?” Basil took a moment to greet Arianna, gently hugging her and giving her a kiss on the cheek. “I’m sorry I’m late, my dear, but you know I can’t resist a good challenge.”

“Indeed I do,” Arianna said. “Now, suppose you tell us where you disappeared to this time. The doctor moved to the edge of his seat. “Disappeared? What’s this about, Basil?” Arianna filled the doctor’s teacup. “I was with Basil when he simply vanished. I knew it must have had something to do with the Temporal Council, so I came home and waited. You’ve been gone an hour, you know.”

Basil poured himself a cup of Darjeeling. “It may have been but an hour here, but my adventure lasted several days. You may want to produce your notebook, good doctor, for the story is one that may interest your brood of readers. However, I suggest you fictionalize it and replace the names, for they would never believe the actual facts. Now, it all started about two millennia ago near the Egyptian trade routes…”



In another reality, on a different continent, a lone mouse wearing a white bedouin’s outfit approached the stony remains of an old building in the middle of the desert. Once it had been his home, but that was another time, another life. At the corner of one of the foundations, he dug and unearthed a metal box. Through the centuries, Abari had managed to collect and store a number of items precious to him. The ring he had given Theo was one of them, but he knew it would be even more precious to the one he’d intended it for.

Quickly Abari collected the things together, for now he had a use for them. He was alive again, and his treasures would more than supply his needs and wants. Putting them in a pack, the ancient one returned to the sled he’d bought, which was pulled by two scarab beetles. **Some things never change** he thought, and turned his charges back toward civilization. Then he walked back to the last of the ruins standing and scratched something into one of the large mud bricks with the point of the dagger he was carrying. As he drew farther and farther away, the setting sun turned the desert sand into a blaze of orange and red. The inscription on the ancient brick shone brightly against the aged brick around it.


Si finis bonus est, totum bonum erit.


All’s well that ends well.



When Gadget Hackwrench returned home, she’d been talkative at first. The others were glad to see her, and the feeling was mutual. Dale had asked her about what it was like in that other universe, and that brought her thoughts back to two small children. Gadget made a quick excuse and retired to her workshop and the Rangers readily let her go, figuring she was tired from her ordeal.

It was an ordeal for her, but not the kind they imagined. Over the past few days, Gadget’s carefree world had been shattered. She’d always thought of herself as a kind and thoughtful mouse, but now she realized that there could be a victim of her unintended cruelty living right under her own roof. Chip and Dale had shown interest in her at first, of course. She was used to getting some attention from boys, but she’d learned not to reciprocate too much and that usually took care of things. Friendship was one thing, but relationships were just a big muddle of emotions that she’d wanted to avoid.

Now she found herself thinking about Dale and what the others had told her. She’d called him a goof-up in Paris, like the other Gadgets had, and hadn’t given it a moment’s thought since. And it was true that she’d berated him in that boot, but she thought he’d just shaken that off. The stories about the red dress and falling into Dale’s arms were new ones to her—not that the adventures hadn’t taken place, but she’d simply acted different in her world. Thoughts of what might have been haunted her throughout the night and into the next day, which prompted her to go to the main room in the afternoon, where she knew Dale would be.

It was cartoon time, and Dale never knew a toon he didn’t like. Gadget heard him laughing as she walked in, and nearly turned around. He was so immature and all—were they just pulling her leg? She continued on and sat down on the sofa near him, Dale not really conscious of her.

She waited for the commercial to start and cleared her throat. Dale looked over her way casually. “Uh, hi Gadget. Need somethin’?”

She froze—of all things that could’ve happened, she froze. She tried to get her hands to work, to signal what she wanted to say, and all she ended up doing was looking like a very confused mime. This of course drew Dale’s attention fully to her. “Are you feeling okay? Maybe you need more rest after all that weirdness.”

Gadget shook her head and indicated her mouth, which to Dale meant she was thirsty. He ran and got her a thimble of water, which Gadget accepted gratefully. Her throat was dry, but the problem went a lot deeper. She took a deep breath, and the words finally came. “Thanks, Dale. I, well, wanted to talk with you, if that’s okay and all.”

Dale’s first thought was that he’d done something wrong.  Someone talking to him usually meant another browbeating for his bungling. He sighed and nodded. “Sure, Gadget, what do you want to talk about?” She fought back the nervous tension trying to overtake her, and spoke on. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and I realized that I haven’t always treated you well. I’ve yelled at you at times and once called you a goof-up. I didn’t really think about what I was doing, or what you’d think about it. I just wanted to say that I was sorry, and...well, I think you’re pretty—okay, pretty okay.”

Dale was speechless for a few moments, thinking perhaps he was the one who had traveled to an alternate world. “Really? Wow, thanks Gadget! That’s really swell of you to say.  I’m sorry I’m such a bonehead, especially around you. There’s a lot of dumb stuff I’ve done to make you mad, so it’s all my fault anyway.” 

Gadget relaxed some, and her smile returned. “That’s all right, Dale. It’s just the way you are. Friends?” Dale held out his hand. “Friends till the end!”

Gadget hesitantly brought her hand forward to take his, and Dale fervently shook it, pumping her arm up and down. She waited until her hand was free, then stood up. “Well, I guess I’d better get back to my inventions. Have fun watching your shows.”


She started to walk in front of him, but realized that she’d just gotten through apologizing for being impolite so she walked around the far way. As she started walking along the back side of the sofa, she had an impulse she’d never imagined before. When she reached Dale, she nonchalantly brushed his ear tips with her fingers. That made him crane his neck around to the left and she looked she looked back at him as well as she walked away, smiling and waving.

Dale watched her until she was out of sight, then turned around. He’d been hungry a minute ago, but now he was so nervous he couldn’t even remember if he’d eaten or not. The red-nosed munk craned his neck back around. **Maybe we got the wrong Gadget back**



With the pressures of the past few weeks over, everyone agreed that a vacation was in order. Bink and Theo, who had been at CarnivalWorld when the Fairmonts arrived, were particularly pleased with the news. Uncle Bedivere naturally volunteered his ranch, and that was all the invitation the Rangers had needed. Soon the whole bunch was down on the Double-D in Hondo, and the crystal-clear Texas sky was like a thousand shining pearls in a sea of black. The Steadmans had come over as well to welcome them back. They’d all gathered around a big campfire, Bedivere holding court with a guitar on his lap and a song in his heart.

“Buckaroos, I can’t ever remember a time when I had so many kinfolks ‘round the fire. Like mah pappy Gallopin’ Gawain used to say, ‘boy, when the family comes together, sing the old songs and remember the good times’.”

“Mister Fairmont?” Althea said, getting his attention.

“Call me Uncle Bedivere, dahlin’!” Bedivere said.

“Uncle Bedivere, darling, who’s that over there?”

Bedivere turned and looked behind him. About fifty yards off, two humans were sitting by a campfire of their own. One was wearing a hat similar to Theo’s and the fire reflected off the glasses the other one was wearing. “Oh, them. They’re a strange pair, but pay them no mind. They come out here pretty often and most end up arguing about things called ‘continuity’ and ‘plotline’.”

Althea absorbed that information and looked over at the humans again, then pointed. “Look! Now the big one’s taking his hat off and they’re both putting on paper pirate hats!” Bedivere shook his head. “I told you they were a mite strange, but those hats ain’t paper. They’re made of tinfoil. I ambled over one night where I could hear ‘em and they said those hats are for protecting them from some old jaguar or such.”

“Jaguars?” Noel said. “But there’s no jaguars around here.”

“Didn’t say it made sense, cowpoke. They just tend to write in their big notebooks and sit by the fire, so I let those sidewinders be. Now, where was I…oh yes, old songs and good times! That’s what we’re going to do tonight. Here’s a ditty that comes from way back...”


Bedivere started that guitar going, and all the couples got cozy. Althea stood up on the log she was sitting on and waved to the humans. They waved back, then took out their notepads and started writing and fussing about something, adjusting their tinfoil hats. Althea shook her head and turned back toward the fire, sitting down to listen to the music.


Just give me land, lots of land

Under starry skies above...

Don’t fence me in!


Let me ride through the wide open

country that I love,

Don’t fence me in!


Let me be by myself in the evenin’ bre-eze

And listen to the murmur of the cotton-wood tre-es

Send me off forever but I ask you ple-eze,

Don’t fence me in!


At this point, a lot of the assembly joined in


Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle

Underneath the western skies.

On my Cayuse, let me wander over yonder

Till I see the mountains rise.


I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences

And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses

And I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences

Don’t fence me in!


The song went another round, then someone started up “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, and everyone was clapping and shouting. Then the hands on the Double-D starting singing the slow ballad “Blue Shadows” and the crowd grew quiet. Chip pulled Lahwhinie close to him, and Dale and Gadget were in each other’s arms, rocking to the slow plaintive rhythm of the melody. For the Fairmonts, the music was as natural as the sun rising, and Foxy and Noel loved it too. Noel had his wings around his wife, and his children were playing near the old driftwood log they were sitting on

“This is heavenly,” Foxy said. “I wish every day could be like this. Noel, do you ever think about wanting to go out and sing on tour again?”

“Sure, Foxy, I’d love to do that,” Noel said. “Being a U.S. Marshal is all well and good, but I miss the stage and the music. How about you?”

Foxy hadn’t brought the topic by accident, and Noel knew it. She was wearing one of her performing costumes, and he’d known for a while the wanderlust had been tugging at her. “It would be fun to give it another go,” Foxy said. “Mr. Steadman says that he’d gladly book us a tour, and we could take the kids along and hire a sitter during the performances. Oh, it’s just such a wild idea that it actually might work!”

“Then first thing tomorrow we’ll start making calls. The kids might enjoy the excitement and if they like it maybe they could join us when they’re older,” Noel offered. Bedivere got up and walked over behind them. “Now here I thought you two where settled like two clams in mud! Well, you must have some of your great-grandpappy’s hankering for adventure, Foxy, because it never came from me! What’ll you call your new group?”

Noel thought a moment, then brightened. “Maybe we’ll call ourselves Fairwood!” Galahad had been listening in as well, and now joined them along with Daisy. “Sounds good to me, son. What do y’all think?”

“If someone doesn’t mistake you for a golf club I’d say you’re all right!” Daisy said. That got a laugh out of everyone, including Foxy. “I think that settles it, honey,” Foxy said. “We’ll have to give everyone a copy of our new CD when it premieres.”


Then she paused a moment, looking around the large circle of friends and family, her eyes resting on Theo and Bink. “I feel like we should all give a toast to our newest engaged couple. Sound good?”

Chip grinned, across the fire from him. “Sure, if you can get their attention long enough.” At this, Bink and Theo popped up. They’d been smooching, and both appeared apologetic. Bink ducked her head. “Uh, howdy?”

The assembly laughed, and Bedivere obliged Foxy’s request by supplying everyone with a tall glass of lemonade. “This stuff isn’t spiked, is it?” Dale asked. “I still remember your three-alarm chili peppers!”

“They’re a delicacy, ain’t they?” Bedivere said, laughing. “Nope, that’s just good ol’ whet-yer-whistle lemonade. Now, who’s up to do the toasting first?” Monty took the floor first. “To two o’ the best kids this old adventurer’s ever known. May ya find yer lives together as smooth as a good hunk o’ Brie ‘86.”

“Hear, hear!” Dale said.

 “That is sure to be a smooth life, dahling,” Eva said. “And I vould like to add my best wishes to you both. Theo, you are the bravest young man I know, and you will always be the apple pie of my eye.”

Zipper was next. “It’s been a pleasure getting to know you, and even more because now everyone understands me!” Monty cast a grin his was. “We understood you before, pally, but just not all the time.”

“Well, I understand what love can do to a person,” Honey said, “and why it’s such a wonderful thing. Theo, Bink, I’m happy that you’ve found that kind of love together. Royalty could have done no better.”

“That’s for sure!” Tammy said, sitting next to Rob. “I’m just glad that my sister’s getting hitched, so that I’ll have her room when I come home visiting!”

“Hey!” Bink threw a warning look Tammy’s way, but they both were playing and knew it. Tammy raised her glass of lemonade. “I wish you both all the happiness you deserve.” Gadget stood up, not entire used to speaking this way and showing her discomfort. “Well, if your life’s anything like Dale’s and mine, then I’m sure you’ll be happy. We had some happy accidents—”

“And some not-so-happy ones—” Dale added.

“But everything worked out great. I love you both.”

Dale’s constant smile he wore grew as he said, “Me too, especially if you’ll mind the kids when we go on our next vacation!”

The crowd laughed again, and then it was Chip’s turn. “Well, what can I say, my boy’s getting married. I’m grateful that the girl that he’s marrying is someone who’s a true friend and love of Theo, as their growing years together have shown. Bink was family to us long before the engagement. We love you both.

Bink and Theo stood up now, raising their glasses to everyone. “Thanks, guys,” Theo said. “My life’s already been far beyond any expectations I had, and I expect the next story I write will have to cover my experiences with this little lady.”

Bink nudged him some for calling her that. “This has been so wonderful, and I’ve really felt like a part of this big family for years. I guess it’s just making it official now. Of course, you know what this mean, Chip. Now Tammy’s going to be part of your family, too, although I think she adopted you from day one.”

Tammy blushed. “I did not! I was just...impressed by him, that’s all.” Dale rolled on the ground, laughed. “You sure were! You impressed your arms right around his neck!” Tammy began chasing Dale around the campfire circle, and Lahwhinie took center stage.

“I can’t top what Chip said, except don’t make us grandparents too soon. We’re not that old yet,” Lahwhinie said.

Now it was Bink’s turn to blush. “Well, I think we’re not really ready for that yet. We’ve both still got some dreams to live before we start a family and all.”


After a few moments where no one knew what to day, Bedivere chimed in again. “Well folks, it’s starting to get late. You know your Uncle Bedivere has to beat the sun up tomorrow morning. Let’s have one last song, and I think that cute little filly that’s getting such a fine husband should make the choice.

Bink smiled, liking being accepted and included. She looked at Theo, raising an eyebrow meaningfully. “Oboy, I know what’s coming...” Theo said. Bink giggled, because he’d guessed right. “Come on, now! You have to sing it too!”

“Oh, all right,” Theo said, relenting. “Bedivere, give us a cue...”

The two of them put a arm around each other’s back, and started in on the singing.


Happy trails to yoooou,

Until we meet again...

Happy trails to yoooou,

Keep smilin’ until then...


The song continued, now with everyone joining in. For the team and the family that was the Rescue Rangers, it truly was a beautiful day. There would certainly be more challenges for them to face and enemies to battle, but they would be together. And from the look of the contented faces around the campfire, that was what mattered


Who cares about the clouds if we’re to-ge-ther?

Just sing a song and bring the sunny wea-ther,

Happy trails to yooooou,

Til’ we meet...a...gain....