Chip put Fat Cat’s key in the lock plate and gave it a decisive twist. The outer stone doors ground open, and with a pneumatic hiss the inner metal door opened like a camera iris. Beyond lay a narrow stone bridge, barely wide enough for two of them to walk side-by-side, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the glowing, mottled green tunnel that rotated around the bridge. It was clearly designed to make an intruder dizzy and disoriented, and it was working.
“Doesn’t look too bad,” Dale observed, before he had to lean on Chip because the spinning tunnel made his head spin.
“Snap out of it Dale! Let me think.” Turning away from the stomach-churning tunnel, Chip came face-to-face with their newest member, and inspiration struck. “Foxglove, can you use your echolocation to sound out the tunnel without getting dizzy?”
“I think so,” she said. Chip stepped aside for her. Foxglove approached the tunnel and closed her eyes. Her echolocation made the others wince slightly, even though it was mostly out of their range of hearing. In a few seconds, she had a perfect, three-dimensional picture of the bridge and tunnel. “I’ve got it,” she announced, keeping her eyes closed.
“Great!” Chip said, “Okay, everyone in line, close your eyes and follow Foxglove.” Dale came first, resting his paws on Foxglove’s shoulders. Chip got in line behind him, then Gadget, each resting a paw on the shoulder of the person in front, with Monterey Jack bringing up the rear. Zipper hitched a ride on Monty’s shoulder. With the confidence born of a lifetime of instinct, Foxglove walked down the tunnel, careful not to go too fast, with the other Rangers following like a cautious Conga line.
About halfway down the tunnel, Zipper heard a sound that Foxglove missed, because her attention was focused in front of them. Cautiously, he looked back and opened one eye for a peek. What he saw made him squeak in alarm, drawing Monty’s attention. The tunnel was collapsing behind them, like a paper tube being twisted shut, breaking up the bridge as it went. “It’s a trap! Run for it mates!” Monty cried out.
All of the Rangers opened their eyes and broke into a dead run, taking the risk of getting dizzy and falling off the narrow bridge over the risk of being crushed along with it. They made it out of the tunnel just in time. The tunnel continued to collapse until it resembled a lumpy green line. They could hear the stones of the bridge being pulverized within as it twisted tighter and tighter, until it suddenly winked out of existence, leaving a trail of dust in the air that drifted away.
“Well, one thing’s for sure,” Gadget observed, “we can’t go back the way we came in.” The others were too out of breath and awe-struck to comment. They had emerged onto another circular bridge built around some sort of enormous clockwork mechanism that filled up almost the entire gigantic open space and looked as though it had been designed by M. C. Escher on a really bad acid trip. Gears clashed, flywheels spun, counterweight governors whirled about, crankshafts swung, cams and levers clacked, and the entire mechanism revolved slowly about a massive central kingpost, like some sort of mad mechanical ballet. The polished mechanical monstrosity was both handsome and awful to behold as it reflected the torchlight from the walls in crazy patterns. The bridge they were on was about a quarter of the way up the thing’s height, but even so the drop beneath them was dizzying. Somewhere below, the regular clanking, chuffing and hissing sound of huge steam engines could be heard, apparently the prim e movers for the whole mechanism.
Foxglove covered her ears; the noise was overwhelming to her.
Chip was bothered by something. Why were the stones of the bridge they were on so smooth?
“Strike me starkers,” Monty breathed. “What do you suppose that thing does, Gadget-luv?”
Gadget was forced to say something very unusual for her. “I have no idea.”
“I do!” Dale yelled, pointing, “It’s a chipmunk smasher!”
Everyone turned to see what he was pointing at. An enormous polished iron wheel was approaching, riding on the very bridge they were standing on. It was connected to the main body of the machine by a large shaft and a set of gears. They could feel the weight of its approach through their feet.
“Here we go again,” quipped Monty as they all began to run.
Gadget’s mind raced furiously. They basically had two choices. The first choice was to keep running ahead of the massive iron wheel until they tired and it caught up to them, in which case their remains could be conveniently mailed to their next of kin. The other choice was more of an out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire situation, but it might at least buy them an opportunity to move someplace safer. She saw an opportunity ahead. Now or never, she thought. “Everyone, jump!” Gadget leapt across the open space, trying hard not to think about the dizzying drop beneath her, and landed with a jarring impact on the machine’s gears, scrambling clear as she did so to make room for the others.
Everyone made it across the gap safely as the monstrous wheel rumbled harmlessly past, but that didn’t change the fact that they were now in mortal danger of being crushed by the giant gears, and had to keep in constant motion to avoid the meshing teeth.
“I’m not normally one to complain Gadget-luv,” huffed Monty as he climbed, “but how exactly does this improve our situation?” Chip’s coat got caught in the gears, and he only barely managed to tear free before he was caught, leaving a corner of the garment behind. The effort nearly caused him to fall off.
Dale looked around in alarm. “Where’s Foxglove?” She was not on the gears with them. Rather, she had taken flight and was hovering anxiously a little above their heads.
“I’m up here, I’m okay,” Foxglove called back. Dale breathed a sigh of relief.
Chip decided that they had to move. Reaching beneath his jacket, he pulled out the coil of rope and tossed one end to Foxglove, who deftly caught it. “Foxglove, take that up as high as you can and tie it off somewhere safe we can all climb to!” Foxglove nodded and was off, flying like the wind with Zipper following her closely. The machine had no shortage of hazards and she had to dodge a couple of whirling flywheels, ensuring that the rope didn’t get tangled on anything. Soon she had spied just the thing, a large flat bracket from which support beams for various parts of the mechanism extended in several directions. Foxglove landed on the bracket and took the end to the largest of the beams, where she paused in apparent confusion. Zipper buzzed interrogatively.
“I don’t know how to tie knots,” Foxglove explained sheepishly. Zipper squeaked in encouragement and took the end of the rope from her, and by dint of a series of rapid aerial maneuvers about the beam he tied a sturdy bowline. Finished, he gave Foxglove a smile and a thumbs-up. They made a good team.
Foxglove leaned over the edge and waved to the others. Chip and Dale began climbing, followed by Gadget and Monterey. Chipmunks are natural climbers, so Chip and Dale reached the top in short order, with Gadget slightly behind them. Monterey, on the other hand, found his size and age working against him. He had to pause about halfway up the rope. Zipper flew down to him and squeaked with concern.
“No worries mate,” he puffed, “just need a moment . . . to catch me breath . . . and I’ll be on me way.” Suddenly the rope whipped about violently, nearly throwing Monty off. Holding on tight, he looked down to see what was happening and found that the rope had gotten tangled around one of the machine’s governors, which was now drawing the rope tight. The rope creaked and vibrated in Monty’s paws as the strain began to build. “Aw, gimme a break!” Monty groaned, resuming his climb with profound haste. The knot popped as it shifted, and loose strands began to show. Puffing with the effort, Monty made it to the bracket just as the rope parted. Chip and Dale helped drag him up onto the bracket, where he lay gasping for breath. “Like I said . . .” he managed between gasps, “no worries. . . What’s next?”
“It looks like there’s a platform of some sort near the kingpost there,” said Chip. “If we can get to it we should have an easier climb.”
“Yeah, if we can get to it,” echoed Dale. They were near the wall of the tower. The kingpost and the platform lay at the center of the tower on the other end of a worrisomely narrow support beam that traversed a big slice of open space, accompanied by the ever-present danger of falling into, and being pulverized by, the machinery below.
“Sorry I asked,” said Monty, levering himself to his feet.
“It shouldn’t be too hard,” said Gadget, trying to sound cheerful, “just don’t look down.”
“If I had a dollar for every time someone told me ‘don’t look down’ in a situation like this, I could have retired by now,” Monty grumbled.
“C’mon everyone,” said Chip, starting across the beam.
It wasn’t quite tightrope walking, but it was close. Foxglove could fly and did so, keeping an anxious eye on Dale as she did, but everyone who had to stick with more pedestrian methods of locomotion was acutely aware of their balance, and the fact that a misstep would lead to a very painful and messy end.
As they were nearly half-way, the machine rumbled ominously. The vibration transmitted through the beam caused them all to stop. “What was that?” Dale asked.
“I don’t know,” said Gadget.
“Don’t worry about it, just keep moving,” said Chip.
The broken rope had gotten completely tangled around the governor, slowing and eventually halting its movement. The machinery resented this impingement on its movement and continued to strain against the cords, causing the engines to work harder. Steam pressure built, and finally with a pop and a loud rushing hiss, one of the safety valves lifted. The space rapidly began to fill with hot steam.
The heat and moisture made the beam that much trickier to negotiate as the white clouds of steam began to climb towards them. They were running out of time. Gadget sized up the situation and, in a flash of the blindingly obvious, proclaimed, “That can’t be good.”
“Come on! We’re almost there!” Chip yelled to the others.
“The sooner we get out of here the better,” Dale agreed, “I’m starting to cook!”
“Now I know how a lobster feels,” Monty added.
Chip reached the platform and grabbed onto the railing, swinging himself over to safety, then turned to help Dale and Gadget, who helped Monterey. “We’ve made it!” Chip said as Monty climbed over the railing. He ran towards the kingpost in search of a ladder or other way up, and a large paw brutally back-handed him in the face, sending him sprawling almost over the edge.
“Chip!” yelled Dale, rushing to his long-time partner’s aid.
“The only thing you rodents are going to make,” said Fat Cat, stepping from the shadows where he’d been waiting and doffing his coat, “is a messy stain on the floor.”
Monty pushed up his sleeves and advanced as Chip shook his head, trying to recover from the blow he’d received. “You can’t stop us Fat Cat, no matter how many times you try.”
“Oh, but this time is different,” Fat Cat promised. He dropped his coat on the platform and raised his cane. “No elaborate plans, no stupid henchmen, and no last-minute expositions. This time I’m just going to kill you.” Fat Cat grasped the polished bronze cat head on the end of his cane and pulled, unsheathing a long sharp blade. Monty stopped, shifting his guard, and Fat Cat lunged. Monterey dodged, with only his coat-tail taking the brunt of Fat Cat’s slashing attack. Fat Cat followed up with a sweeping backslash, forcing Gadget to duck and roll to keep clear of the flashing blade.
“What happened?” Chip mumbled dazedly. His face hurt and the salty taste of his own blood reminded him only that he’d been ambushed.
“It’s Fat Cat,” Dale explained, helping his friend into a seated position as Foxglove landed nearby, “and he’s got a sword.”
“Are you alright?” Foxglove asked with evident concern.
“Yeah, but Chip’s hurt. Help me with him.”
Gadget regained her feet next to a dingy control panel with gauges and hand-wheels, then leapt to her left to escape another downward slash of Fat Cat’s sword. Gadget noted in a strangely detached fashion that the needles on the gauges had left their respective green zones, and were steadily climbing towards the red. From somewhere far below, a loud pop-hiss heralded the opening of another safety valve. Gadget jumped again to avoid another attack.
“Quit jumping around like that, and I’ll make this easy on you,” Fat Cat growled.
“Fat chance Fat Cat,” Gadget responded, backing away.
“Have it your way then,” said Fat Cat, raising his sword to strike again. Monterey seized hold of Fat Cat’s tail and swung him into the kingpost with a resounding clang, causing him to drop his sword. With a snarl, Fat Cat swatted Monterey hard, slamming him into a set of levers next to the control panel with enough force to bend the linkages, then retrieved his sword. As he prepared to deliver a coup-de-grace, Gadget did the only thing she could think of. Seizing the gangster’s tail, she bit down as hard as she could. Fat Cat yelped in pain and twisted around. Gadget leapt clear and ran, with Fat Cat in angry pursuit. Monty disentangled himself from the levers and followed slowly, limping from his injuries.
The platform circled around the machine’s kingpost, so the chase inevitably led to the spot where Dale was still trying to help Chip recover. With Foxglove’s help he’d managed to set Chip back on his feet, but without support he tottered unsteadily. Coming upon this tableau, Fat Cat abruptly abandoned his pursuit of Gadget and pointed his sword at Chip instead. “I think I’ll start with you instead,” he hissed.
“No!” Gadget yelled, sliding to a halt. She was too far away to help.
Monterey was too far away to help.
Dale stepped between Fat Cat and Chip and put up his fists. “You’ll have to get through me first!”
“Alright then, you first,” said Fat Cat. “Makes no difference to me.” He raised his sword to strike.
Foxglove unleashed a blast of echolocation at full strength. Unsupported now, Chip slumped to the floor as Dale covered his ears. Fat Cat grimaced in pain as he dropped his sword and clapped both paws over his ears, reeling from the unexpected assault on his sensitive hearing. He was still reeling when Foxglove slammed into him in a repeat of the attack he’d suffered earlier in his office.
This time he had no one around to help him dislodge the furious bat. “GET OFF!”
On seeing Fat Cat threaten Dale, the same terrible feeling she’d felt before had welled up within her, and as before, she’d reacted without thinking. The sheer fury of her assault gave Foxglove the upper hand over her much larger opponent. Fat Cat flailed away at her, howling in pain and stumbling in an attempt to get away, and finally stumbled into the railing that surrounded the platform. For an instant, the two combatants seemed suspended in space, then Fat Cat tumbled over the rail, flailing for support and screaming. Fat Cat and Foxglove disappeared into the swirling clouds of steam.
“Foxglove!” Dale yelled, rushing to the rail and searching the thick steam for any sign of her. Monterey Jack and Gadget joined him at the rail, as Zipper dove into the steam to look for her.
Chip rolled over onto his hands and knees and attempted to stand. “What’s going on?” he asked. Gadget took a hold of him before he fell over again.
“It’s terrible, Foxglove and Fat Cat . . .” she trailed off. Chip saw Dale and Monty standing by the railing searching the clouds of steam for any sign of Foxglove, and that told him all he needed to know. “She was defending you and Dale,” Gadget explained.
“FOXGLOVE!” Dale yelled again.
Shaking off Gadget’s offer of help, Chip tottered over to the railing and put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Dale continued to search the mist.
“That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen”, Monty said.
“Look!” said Gadget, pointing.
Zipper emerged from the steam, eyes squeezed shut against the heat, and behind him, flapping brokenly, came Foxglove.
“She’s hurt!” Chip observed. Dale ducked under the railing and fearlessly ventured out onto the beam that they’d crossed earlier. Monty followed and, keeping one paw on the railing, grabbed hold of Dale’s shirt to keep him from falling as Dale reached out to Foxglove.
“C’mon Foxglove, you can make it!” Dale encouraged her.
“Dale,” Foxglove responded, the strain of the effort clearly showing. She was clearly in distress, but of course she had one major incentive to make it. She half-flapped, half-reached for Dale. Dale stretched himself out as far as he could, then finally grabbed a hold of one outstretched wingtip. Foxglove winced in pain, allowing her injured wing to relax limply as Dale pulled her up onto the beam with him.
“Attagirl!” said Monty.
“Don’t worry Foxglove, I’ll take care of you,” said Dale soothingly.
“Is that a promise?” she asked weakly, smiling at her hero.
“Yeah, I promise.” Dale carefully carried Foxglove back to the platform, where Gadget examined her injured wing and confirmed that it was indeed broken.
“That was pretty amazing, but I don’t think you should try to fly anymore until your wing heals,” said Gadget. Dale waved her aside and made a splint for her wing using Fat Cat’s scabbard and coat. Gadget watched for a bit, but when it seemed clear that Dale knew what he was doing, Gadget went over to examine the control panel she’d seen earlier.
“What happened to Fat Cat?” Chip wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” said Foxglove, wincing slightly as Dale tied the knot on her sling. “We hit something and then I lost track of him. If it hadn‘t been for Zipper I don‘t think I would ever have found my way out of the steam. The noise was really messing up my echolocation.”
“Thanks Zipper,” said Dale, favoring him with an affectionate pat.
“Nice job there pally,” added Monty.
Zipper blushed and gave his best “aw shucks” grin.
“Guys, I’ve got bad news and more bad news,” said Gadget. She twisted a couple of the hand wheels on the control panel shut. “Which do you want to hear first?”
“Er, dealer’s choice luv,” said Monty.
“Okay. The bad news is that the machinery seems to be damaged, but it’s still running. Actually, I don’t know if that’s bad news or not. I could be bad news or good news, I suppose, depending on your point of view, but . . .”
“Gadget-luv,” Monty interrupted, “what’s the other bad news?”
“Whatever’s wrong with the machine is causing the steam pressure to build up. I think I’ve slowed it down, but it’s probably only a matter of time before the pressure gets to be too much and the boilers go, leveling the tower, if not the whole Citadel.”
“And that would be bad news no matter what your point of view is,” Monty quipped.
“Maybe we should just leave and let the explosion stop the Nightmare King,” Dale said hopefully.
“No,” Chip said. “The Muse was pretty clear on that point, we have to go all the way with this.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” said Dale.
“Is there a way up, Gadget?”
“Yes, there’s a ladder over here by the control panel.”
“Then let’s get going,” said Chip, clearly beginning to feel like his old self again.
The iron ladder led up a short distance to an iron hatch set in the ceiling. Chip braced against it and pushed, but Monty had to climb up on the ladder beside him and help before the heavy hatch finally yielded, swinging onto the floor of the chamber above with an echoing crash. The Rescue Rangers emerged into a huge cylindrical room with a staircase set against the outer wall. A giant cap bearing marked the position of the machine’s kingpost. It was clear they were going to have to climb to reach the Nightmare King. Their way was lit by iron braziers bolted to the walls at regular intervals, and by the occasional flash of lightning that made itself visible through the narrow windows as the storm outside built in intensity. As they neared the top of the winding staircase, they slowly became aware of a familiar howling wind.
Finally, the staircase led through an opening into the floor of a giant domed room. As they emerged cautiously into the huge space, the dome split into sections and began to spread open like the petals of some monstrous stone flower. As the dome ground open, the wind outside burst in upon the space in furious eddies of such violence that they felt compelled to crouch down against its vehement assault. And the sky . . .
The sky outside the dome was filled with hideously boiling clouds, swirling in a great, twisting tunnel that reached as far upward as the eye could see, and glowing an evil, sickly green. It was the maelstrom, a thousand times more powerful than they remembered it. The wind from it threatened to tear the very breath from their lungs. A fierce discharge rent the air in the eye of the storm, twisting and rising along with the pestilential clouds and illuminating the whole chamber with its hellish glare.
Off to their right was a cylindrical control panel from which levers sprouted at various angles. Control linkages descended through holes in the floor.
In the center of the room was a strange machine inside a large vertical iron ring, from which a blinding green radiance emanated. Backlit by the radiant glow, his back to them and his coarse black robes whipping in the wind like a monster’s wings, the Nightmare King presided over the churning chaos.
“Welcome, Rescue Rangers,” a voice boomed at them over the shrieking winds. “I commend you on coming so far, the Muse chose his pawns well. But as you can clearly see for yourselves, you are already too late.”
In the “real” world, people became drowsy for no apparent reason. People dropped off at their desks, in the middle of conversations with friends, at meals in restaurants, while watching television, and even behind the wheels of cars, which continued rolling along until they struck something solid.
In the hospital, the staff, who were already tired as it was, began to nod off in the midst of their duties. Dr. Chen felt tired and light-headed, and decided that she could use some fresh air. As she stepped out the door, she was nearly hit by an out-of-control ambulance, which was odd in and of itself because the entrance to their hospital was placed a good distance from the human hospital’s driveway, just to prevent such things from happening. Very awake now thanks to the adrenaline rush she‘d just gotten, she watched in disbelief as the ambulance continued on over the grass until it struck the side of the building with a soft crump.
There it sat, engine idling and emergency lights flashing. Dr. Chen could hardly believe her eyes, but the strangeness of that sight was dwarfed by the strangeness of the next sight that met her eyes, the sight that made her stop in shock and stare, open-mouthed.
The sky over the city had been rent open by some sort of gaping green wound that swirled and churned like a malevolent whirlpool. Thousands of points of light were flowing up from the city, and appeared to be sucked up by the freakish phenomenon.
The sight of the horrifying gash in the sky was the last thing she remembered before she passed out
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