Foxglove was perfectly frantic with worry. “I stayed here watching him all night, and when I wanted to get up and watch the sunrise with him, I couldn’t wake him up, nothing works!”
Gadget was immediately worried. Given the injury Dale had suffered last night, this could potentially be serious. “Omigosh, Dale!” Quickly she knelt down beside him, and put her head to his chest to listen for a heartbeat. It was there, strong and regular if a bit slow. A check of his wrist also revealed a strong pulse, indicating adequate blood pressure. His breathing was also slow, but regular and full. Gadget opened one of his eyes, and then the other. The pupils were equal, but didn’t react to the light; they were fixed and dilated. The bump on his head was already going down, nothing unusual there. Foxglove could only watch and worry. “I’ll get the kit!” Gadget said, and rushed to her shop, berating herself for not following up on Dale’s condition earlier. Could she have missed the possibility of a concussion?
Chip came in next, still groggy. “What’s all the commotion this time?”
Gadget ran back in, carrying the first aid kit. “Dale won’t wake up!” she said. She knelt down by the unconscious chipmunk again, and began hunting through their limited medical supplies.
Chip had memories of their adventure with the Kiwi cult running through his head. “Oh c’mon, you just don’t know how to wake Dale up. Watch.” Chip advanced on Dale and smacked him in the face a few times, then yelled in his ear, “Wake up peanut-brain, or you’ll miss breakfast!” Dale however, remained unresponsive.
To say that Gadget was horrified at Chip’s “treatment” of Dale would be understating things, and it was with commendable restraint that she merely pushed him out of the way, rather than bouncing him off the nearest wall. Gadget had dug a small vial of smelling salts out of the first aid kit. Uncorking it, she waved the vial under Dale’s nose for about a minute, but the pungent odor had no effect.
The smelling salts made Chip’s eyes water though. Now he began to worry. He had finally picked up Gadget’s sense of urgency, but seemed unsure of what to do with it.
“Emergency!” Monterey Jack crashed into the room in such a rush that he knocked the door to his room off its hinges. “There’s something wrong with Zipper!” He held out Zipper’s limp form to Gadget, carefully cradling him in both forepaws.
“Dale too,” Chip informed him.
“Oh no, me poor little pals . . .”
Gadget felt somewhat overwhelmed. She tried the smelling salts first, again with no result. As with Dale, all of Zipper’s vital signs were present, but slowed down. Inventing was her specialty, not medicine, and Gadget felt it was high time to consult a professional. “We’d better get them to a doctor, and fast!” She carefully took Zipper from Monty and laid him on the couch too, and covered him with a napkin in lieu of a blanket. Foxglove watched them both while the others went to their rooms to dress.
It didn’t take long before they were in the Ranger Wing, making their way to the City General Hospital at maximum throttle. Foxglove’s concern for Dale dictated that she ride along with him, rather than fly by herself. Besides, she couldn’t even keep up with the Ranger Wing at the speed Gadget was flying.
When they reached the hospital, Gadget steered the Ranger Wing towards the basement entrance, where the animals of the city had constructed a parallel facility. She converted to VTOL mode and landed on the small pad that had been erected for aircraft. By the time she had shut down, the others had already carried Zipper and Dale inside, and she rushed to join them. What she saw inside brought her to an abrupt halt.
The waiting area was filled. Chip was already talking to the triage nurse, while Foxglove waited anxiously nearby. “But my friend hit his head, he could be really hurt!” Chip was saying.
The triage nurse, a heavy-set, dark-furred mouse, was obviously very tired, and had no intention of being told how to do his job. “Well, since you’ve got the problem all figured out, how about starting work on the treatment then?”
Chip fumed, clearly on the verge of blowing what was left of his cool. “But we need to see a doctor right now!”
The nurse waved his paw at the full waiting room. “This place is full of people who need to see a doctor right now, that’s what hospitals are for,” he replied sarcastically.
Gadget decided that she’d better intervene before the situation got any worse. “Excuse me, is it always like this here?”
“Huh, just the past couple of weeks,” the nurse replied. “What are you, new around here? There’s an epidemic.”
That hadn’t helped at all, Monterey looked ready to hit someone, and Chip looked like he was about to read the riot act. All in all, it was a fortunate thing that a doctor, attracted by the commotion, came along. “Do you think we could have a little quiet out here? This is a hospital after all. What’s the problem anyhow?” Doctors were fairly rare in this community, and becoming one was still considered a respectable achievement. This one was female, slim and attractive, with Asian features.
Monterey spoke up, since Chip was in no condition to be diplomatic. “Me pally Dale here hit his head, and now he won’t wake up, and for some reason me other pally Zipper won’t wake up either!”
“Let me have a look at the bump,” the doctor said, putting on her glasses. She looked as though she hadn’t slept in a while. Gadget obliged her by removing the dressing. The wound was pretty well healed, just the swelling attested to Dale’s misadventures of the previous night. The doctor next had a look in Dale’s eyes, also noting the fixed and dilated condition of the pupils. “The bump is nothing, no crepitation or other outward sign of fracture. There probably won’t be much left of it by day’s end. But he is unresponsive, so it looks like it might be another case of the epidemic. Better move him to Ward 4. I’m Doctor Chen. You guys are the Rescue Rangers, right?” she asked, turning her attention to Zipper.
“Er, yeah,” Chip was taken aback, but resumed his normal courteous manner. “That’s us. What’s wrong with Dale?” A pair of hospital orderlies came in and gingerly lifted Dale onto a stretcher, and wheeled him away, politely telling Foxglove that she should remain in the waiting area.
“You’ll have to excuse Nurse Redmond. He’s actually a very nice guy when he’s gotten enough sleep,” Doctor Chen said, as she continued her examination of Zipper. “As you can guess, we’re very busy here. There’s an epidemic going around, and although I won’t know for certain until we’ve run some tests, it looks as though your friends have got it. We still don’t exactly know what ‘it’ is though.” She turned to another orderly. “This one goes to the insect ward, wake up Dr. Grey, he’s the arthropod expert.”
“Dr. Grey just got to sleep a couple of minutes ago,” the orderly replied.
Dr. Chen sighed. “All right, let him have twenty minutes then.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to help me pals here?” Monty asked concernedly.
Dr. Chen removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “Come with me for a moment, I want to show you something.” She turned and walked through the large double doors, with Chip, Monterey Jack, Gadget and Foxglove following. There were a number of gurneys in the hallway, each one occupied. Dr. Chen led them to another set of double doors and opened them. Beyond was a large open ward, with every bed filled. Extra beds had been moved in, and they too were filled. Even a few stretchers had been pressed into service as hospital beds. “This ward is filled to about twice its normal capacity. We have five more wards, all in more or less the same state. It’s the epidemic that’s doing it; the number of victims is growing almost at a geometric rate. It’s the same story in the human hospital above us. We can hardly get lab time any more, because the humans are in there almost twenty-four hours a day now, trying to figure out what’s causing the epidemic.”
The most disturbing thing about the ward was the unnatural stillness of it. Apart from one or two nurses moving quietly from patient to patient, there was almost no movement or sound in the ward at all.
“Golly, is there anything we can do to help?” Gadget asked.
Dr. Chen brightened perceptibly, despite her obvious fatigue. “I am so glad you asked. If you could stick around a bit, even just a couple of hours, and help out the nursing staff, I’d really appreciate it. As you can see, we’re just swamped here.”
Gadget spoke before Chip or Monty could raise any objection. “We’d be glad to help out.” Monterey shot Chip a look, there she goes, including us again. Chip could only shrug in reply. Once Gadget had made up her mind about something like this, there wasn’t much you could do except go along for the ride.
But Chip, Monterey, and even Foxglove were as good as Gadget’s word. Foxglove somehow managed to wrangle herself a position helping out in the ward where Dale was, so she could keep an eye on him, even though it obviously pained her to see him like this. Monterey helped out moving patients, and Chip put himself to his unexpected new duties with his usual gusto, although from time to time he dropped in to see how Dale was doing as well. On a side trip to the human hospital, Chip had a look around and confirmed that conditions there were just as bad. Even though the humans had more resources, their wards were similarly filled with eerily quiet patients.
The regular staff regarded them warily at first, but soon warmed to their enthusiasm and energy, and even Redmond, the heavyset nurse who’d been so gruff with them before, brought them some coffee.
The coffee was warm and refreshing, but had its usual side effects as well. On her way to the little mouse’s room, Gadget bumped into a tallish mouse in a blue uniform wearing thick rubber gloves. She started to apologize, but then recognition dawned.
“Is that you Gadget?” the former lab mouse replied.
“It sure is; what are you doing here?”
“Oh, well,” Sparky replied, “after you guys rescued me from Nimnul‘s lab, I came here to see if anything could be done about my, ah, condition. They couldn’t do anything about it, but they did think of a way for me to put it to good use. So I went to school, and . . .” Sparky removed his gloves and held his paws about a quarter inch apart. A blue spark shot between them, making Gadget jump. “I became a paramedic. I’m my own defibrillator.” He beamed with pleasure at having found his niche, and replaced his gloves.
“That’s neat! I mean it’s too bad they couldn’t do anything to help you, with the electricity thing, but I still think it’s great that you could turn a curse like that into a gift like this. I mean, golly, you’re helping save people’s lives!” Gadget said.
“Yeah, I like to think so. So what brings you here?”
Gadget’s face fell. “Zipper and Dale are sick.”
“Oh no, not the epidemic?” Sparky asked.
“Dr. Chen seems to think so.”
“Oh, well if she thinks so, then it’s probably so. She’s real smart,” Sparky pointed out. “I remember hearing her and Dr. Grey talk about it. Dr. Grey said that the humans did an EEG on some of the victims and discovered that they all had very active brainwave patterns, almost as if they were dreaming or something, and suggested they look for psychological causes rather than physiological ones. But that’s crazy, I mean, who ever heard of a mental epidemic? It’s not as if psychosis were contagious.”
“Yeah,” Gadget agreed distractedly, “that does sound silly.” But silly though the idea was, it took root in her mind and refused to be ignored.
“Well, I’ve got to get going. With this epidemic going around, the ambulance crews are really busy. Thanks for getting me a fresh start, and I hope Dale and Zipper get better.” Sparky started off down the hall.
“Thanks,” Gadget replied, somewhat preoccupied with the idea of a mental epidemic. “See you around!” Sparky turned and waved, and then was gone.
Even the streets of the city were emptier now due to the epidemic, but even so, the streets still had their denizens. The old rat bore the time-dulled scars of many fights and narrow escapes from his younger days. He drew his shabby coat tighter around himself and huddled closer to the small fire for warmth, as the setting sun cast lengthening shadows down the orderly steel and concrete canyons. Someone was always tossing cigarette butts and other trash down this small alley, and with careful tending this debris of human society made for a comforting fire. It was also reasonably safe from cats, thanks to the chain-link fence the humans had put up to keep out their own predators.
With a loud buzz the mercury vapor security light above the alley flickered into dull orange life. The old rat gave it only a cursory glance as it continued to brighten, thinking it odd that something so bright should give off so little heat. Even in springtime, the wind that blew down city streets seemed somehow colder than the winds that blew anywhere else. The old rat wrinkled his nose as the odor of sooty diesel fumes intruded on his thoughts, and a garbage truck rumbled past on the street. As it did, it struck a pothole, dislodging a small paper sack from the hopper that had somehow escaped the crusher. The old rat’s ears perked up as it struck the sidewalk pavement with a hollow metallic sound.
City street rats do not get to be old unless they are very cautious and careful indeed, but the metallic sound from the paper sack gnawed at his curiosity. There wasn’t much in the way of foot traffic at this hour. It would be a simple matter to dart out, grab the sack, and spirit it away back to his alley to see what fate, or providence, had brought him. After all, one man’s trash was another rat’s treasure. So, temporarily forsaking the warmth of his fire, the rat went to the fence and looked around. Pedestrians were few and far between, and there even seemed to be far fewer cars on the street than he remembered, though he couldn’t imagine why. It took him only a second to decide that whatever the bag contained was worth the risk, so out he ran and scooped it up. It was surprisingly heavy for its size, but even so encumbered the old rat made it back to his haven with his new treasure unobserved. Smiling now, the old rat tossed some shredded newspaper onto the fire, momentarily bask ing in the warmth. Whatever was in the bag was probably not food, since it didn’t feel like a can. Unable to contain his curiosity any longer, the old rat ripped the bag open to see what was inside.
Inside there was a largish gold chest with a very ornate lid. The old rat stared at it in wonder, already calculating how much he might be able to get just for the chest. But if the chest was so rich, then what it contained might be even richer. He held it up to the light, examining the lid to see how it might open. Finding no catches or locks, he set the chest down on his lap and simply tried the lid, which opened easily, and inside . . . was sunlight and blue sky, the song of birds and the scent of grass and wildflowers.
The old rat sat for a minute longer, staring into the other world inside the box, the light inside the box reflected in his eyes, before he carefully closed the lid. Moving now with a new purpose, the rat tucked the box under one arm beneath his coat, and went once more to the chain link fence. Once there, he gazed across the sidewalk, across the street, through the low wrought iron fence, at the large oak tree near the center of the city park.
Chip dropped by the ward one more time to check on Dale. Foxglove was still there, though she looked very tired. Chip felt tired too, but he supposed Foxglove had more right to be, since she’d been up all last night and all day today, not to mention that she was nocturnal. Some of the tiredness came from worrying about Dale, Chip knew. Worrying about Dale had been almost his full time occupation for quite a while now.
Dale lay quietly on the crisp hospital linens, clad now in a generic green hospital gown rather than his usual loud shirt. A notation on his chart confirmed precisely what they had all feared; Dale was a victim of the mysterious epidemic. Chip found it unexpectedly difficult to see Dale like this, and wondered what Foxglove must be thinking. Gently, he reached over and tapped her on the shoulder. “We’ve done all we could here today Foxglove. We should go home now, you look like you could use some rest.”
“I’m staying here,” stated Foxglove, not taking her eyes off of Dale’s face.
“How can you stay here? You haven’t slept or eaten anything all day!” Chip said with some surprise. Foxglove turned and looked at him. Even through her evident weariness, Chip could see the hard edge of her determination.
“This is where Dale is, so I’m staying here.” Foxglove turned her attention back to Dale. “I’m not going to leave him again.” It was evident to Chip that she still felt responsible for his being here in the first place. Nurse Redmond walked up behind them quietly, not wanting to intrude. Chip turned at the sound of his footsteps.
“Hey man,” the heavyset nurse began, “I just wanted you to know that we really appreciate all the help you guys gave us today. You guys did real good, thanks a lot. If there’s anything, y’know, that we can do for you, just ask.”
“Can I stay here?” Foxglove asked him.
Nurse Redmond was a practiced observer of people. “I think I can arrange that. I kinda figured you might want to stick around. This your husband?”
Despite her fatigue, Foxglove blushed. “Er, no --”
“Ah,” Redmond interrupted. “Well, we can fix you up anyhow. You can’t stay in the ward, but we’ve got a couch in the Nurse’s lounge you can crash on for a while. If you’re hungry, we’ve got a canteen that caters to all diets.”
Through her weariness, Foxglove mustered a small smile. “Thank you.”
Redmond yawned hugely. “My shift is up now, but I’ll let the oncoming head nurse know you’re welcome here.”
“Okay,” sighed Chip. “We’ll come back tomorrow to see how Dale’s doing. We’ll see you then.” Foxglove didn’t seem to be paying any attention to him, so he left. In fact, Foxglove was quietly repeating some of the words she’d heard in the church where she had lived in the steeple for a while. She didn’t know what prayer was, but she knew that humans believed that these words had some kind of power, and she was hoping that they might be right.
Chip walked out onto the aircraft pad and crawled into the Ranger Wing next to Gadget, who was already at the controls. Monterey sat quietly in the back, keeping his thoughts to himself, which was unusual for him.
“Where’s Foxglove?” Gadget asked.
“She’s staying here, I couldn’t talk her out of it. Nurse Redmond said he’d see that she was taken care of.” Chip yawned; he’d had no idea that hospital work could be so tiring.
“Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about Foxglove. She can fly, and she knows the way back to Headquarters if she wants to come home later,” Gadget said, starting the Ranger Wing’s motors.
“I know,” Chip replied, “but she looked so tired. She’s been up longer than the rest of us.” The Ranger Wing lifted off and converted smoothly to horizontal flight mode. Nobody spoke on the flight home; they were just too tired. From this altitude, they could see the last rays of the setting sun pushing through the clouds in the west. Monterey and Chip huddled down in their seats against the dusky chill in the wind.
It was a fairly short flight, and Gadget brought the plane to a smooth landing in the tree outside the oversized mailbox that served as its hangar. In her mind she was still pondering the concept of a mental epidemic, trying to imagine just how such a thing could be transmitted from one victim to another. She couldn’t picture it, no matter how she tried. She hopped out of the Ranger Wing and carefully made the connection to charge the batteries overnight.
“It’s just not right,” Monty said, getting out of the plane himself.
“What’s not?” Chip asked.
“All those poor blokes in that hospital, and Zipper and Dale too, and here we are like a bunch of great lumps, unable to do anything about it,” Monty said, clenching his fists in frustration. Chip sympathized. Monterey was a mouse of action, when he saw a problem, he wanted to confront it directly, but of course there was no way for them to confront a disease.
“Golly Monty,” Gadget said, “we did everything we could. You heard what Dr. Chen said; even the humans don’t know what the problem is or what to do about it.” She started up the stairs in the back of the hanger. Right now all she wanted to do was get some sleep.
Monty followed her, with Chip trailing behind. “I know. But it’s still not right. We’ve come up against a lot of hard scrapes in our time, and we’ve always managed to come out on top, and now we’re being done in by some tiny little bug we can’t even see.”
“I know it’s hard on you Monterey,” Chip said as they reached the top of the stairs and entered the hall to their rooms and the common area. “It’s hard on all of us, but there’s just no way for us to fight something like that.”
“Actually there is,” came a strange old voice from the common area. “You just have to know where the battleground is.”
Gadget stopped, and Monty and Chip pushed past her to see who the intruder was. They stopped short at the sight of the old, scarred rat in the shabby coat seated on the couch with the strange, ornate gold box on the table in front of him. Gadget pushed her way between Chip and Monty for a look.
“I was beginning to worry you might not show up before it was too late,” the old rat said. “Please excuse me for letting myself in, but I am in rather urgent need of your help, and my time is very short.”
“Who are you?” Chip asked, forgetting his diplomacy again.
“You can call me the Muse, if you prefer. I’m sorry I don’t have time to explain in greater detail. It’s a very long story, and it all begins with this.” The rat laid an old gnarled hand on the gilt lid of the box.
Chip was cranky as a result of being so tired. “I’m sorry, but we’re very tired, and we don’t accept payment for our services anyways.”
“This is not payment, it is a portal,” the rat explained. “This is Pandora’s Box.”
“This guy’s a couple ornaments short of a Christmas tree,” Monty observed.
Chip was inclined to agree. “Are you crazy? Pandora’s box is just an old Greek myth.”
“Roman,” the rat corrected him, “and since it’s here it’s obviously not a myth. I would like you to come with me.”
Gadget decided that the old rat was a harmless crackpot, and determined to get him out of Headquarters as gently as possible. “Golly, I’m sorry Mr. Muse, but we really can’t take any cases now. Two of our members are in the hospital –“
“Only their bodies are,” the old rat interrupted, “Your friends are in here,” he said, patting the box.
“What?!” said Gadget, Monty and Chip all together.
“More specifically, this is the gateway to where they are.”
“Alright,” Monty interjected. He’d had enough. “Even supposing this fancy breadbox is Pandora’s box, what does it have to do with our friends being sick?”
“Pandora’s box was the first gateway to the world of dreams,” the Muse began. “Before it was opened, no one ever dreamed. The world lived in an idyllic, but stagnant state. When the box was opened, people gained access to the world of dreams. They began to dream, then they began to hope, and eventually they began to grow. Without the capacity to dream, there was no imagination. No advancement was made.
“Some of darker hearts twisted their dreams into evil ambitions, thus it is as the legend said, when Pandora opened the box, all manner of evil went out into the world, as those with evil intent abused the gift of dreams, but also in the box was hope. That hope was the ability to see that there was something beyond ordinary perception, something to strive for and to be accomplished.
“Now someone has seized control over the dream world. He has imprisoned many people there, including your friends. He calls himself the Nightmare King. I am the guardian of the dream world, and I have taken a great risk to come here and seek your help, for I too am imprisoned.” The old rat stopped, and seemed to focus on something far away.
“All right,” Chip said, “how do we know what you’re telling us is true?”
The old rat seemed to snap back on. He regarded Gadget with wisdom in his eyes far more ancient than he appeared to be. “One of you has already had prescient dreams about it.”
Gadget shivered. “But I don’t even believe in visions or prescience,” she stated flatly.
The old rat smiled kindly. “My dear, your belief or lack thereof makes no difference to the truth.” Gadget drew closer to Chip, feeling distinctly uncomfortable. The old rat seemed to focus on something far away again, but only for a second this time. “I have been discovered. I am out of time. Please, I must ask that you come with me, now.”
“Guys,” Gadget began, “I know this sounds silly, but I have a feeling we should do as he asks.”
“You mean you had the dreams?” Monty asked incredulously.
“Yes. I don’t know, maybe. Just trust me, okay?”
“I trust you Gadget,” Chip said. “After all, what could we have to lose?”
“Much,” the Muse answered unsettlingly. “Please come and sit down.” As Monterey Jack, Chip and Gadget hesitantly complied, the old rat carefully opened the lid of the box. Inside there was an elaborate, but otherwise unremarkable red velvet lining, but the box appeared empty in all other respects. “I realize you are tired, so this will actually be easier. Please join hands, and no matter what, don’t let go of the person beside you.”
Gadget sat on the couch and held out a paw to Chip, who still didn’t really understand what was happening, but sat beside her and held her paw regardless. Monterey took a hold of her other paw and patted it reassuringly. “Now what?” Chip asked.
“Now close your eyes, relax, and breathe deeply. Cast all fear and doubt from your mind. They are nothing more than anchors, dead weight you do not need to take with you.” The muse spoke in an even, hypnotic tone. The red lining in the box began to fade away, revealing a silent black void. “Remember, do not let go of the person beside you. I am now going to count backwards from ten, and then the journey will begin. Ten . . . nine . . . eight . . .”
Monterey relaxed, letting his mind wander. He didn’t know what to expect, but was not afraid. Presently he became aware of a sensation of floating, and thought he felt a dry, hot wind, and heard the crash of the ocean. It almost felt like –
“Seven . . . six . . . five . . .”
Home, Chip thought, listening to leaves rustle in tall oak trees as birds called to one another. He was suddenly awash in a sea of memory, of all the good times he and Dale had had growing up together in the public park, of all the adventures they dreamed about having –
“Four . . . three . . . two . . .”
Of all the adventures they’d shared. Gadget fondly remembered her father, and the first time he’d shown her the true wonder and exhilaration of flight, dipping low over the sunny farmlands and swooping high into the cloudless blue skies, the scent of wildflowers heavy in the air –
“One . . .” and all at once, everything went black.
The lid of the golden box snapped shut, startling the old rat out of his reverie. He looked around, completely unsure of where he was, or how he’d gotten there, or who the other people were in the room with him. But there at least was his treasure. Warily eyeing the three sleeping figures on the couch opposite him, he arose and clutched the golden chest to himself, and left as quickly and quietly as he possibly could, though not before helping himself to some of the contents of their icebox.
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