Chapter Forty-Nine

They watched the ceiling nervously, though—as would soon become all too clear—not closely enough.

Just as Cynthia had feared, the high-domed openness, the “meeting-placeness” of the Grand Cavern was an instant fight-or-flight trigger for a few of the Rescue Aid delegates—mostly survivors of the attack on the abandoned Rescue Aid Headquarters.  The experience was too deeply etched in some of them; blustering and waving off old fears one moment, they were struck with remembered horror in the next.

Arthur had a partial technical solution; the little grassy field just before the reinforced tunnel entrance was soon dotted with shaky delegates adjusting their wireless headsets, some of them folding their ears under to get them on properly.  The fresher air and sunlight seemed to do some good; still the range of emotions running through the “outside” group ran from shame (unwarranted but feeling no less real) to bewilderment.

The remaining delegates who summoned up the courage to step inside the Grand Cavern (and stay) had only kind words for those who could not.

The desks ranging out across the floor of the Cavern were mostly laid out along geographical lines, with shiny new brass placards for each country (straight from the Forge, and with only a couple of spelling mistakes).  A brighter touch, though not evenly applied:  Sophie Brisby and her parents stood at the entrance with a huge collection of salvaged flags from the old Headquarters.  Even the delegates for whom Sophie had no flags would pat her on the head with a “Bless you, child,”—the scattering of color throughout the room was some comfort.

The settling in and settling down, the quick exchange of new names that wouldn’t stick the first time—all of this wound down, replaced by an expectant hush.

On the central stage, the emcees for the evening (as it were) faced their audience and shuffled their feet.  They sat in four chairs, out of fifty or more left empty—the Cavern’s stage was still set up from a recent Thorn Valley Symphony concert, and getting the extra chairs out had been at the bottom of the maintenance list.

Still heavily bandaged, Bernard did not look as though he was in any hurry to stand up, even with the help of the crutches. A couple of paramedics from the Institute stood by off-stage, waiting for him to try it.  “So,” he whispered to Bianca, “Who wants to go first?”

“I think it’s only fair to let our hosts start off,” she whispered back.  “You don’t have to talk unless you want to, darling—I’m only a little scratched up, but you should be in bed.”

Bernard nodded, sagging a little.  A paramedic took a half-step toward him, but Bernard straightened up in his seat.  “After the ceremony, I promise.  I’ll even let them stick the I.V. back in.”

Elizabeth looked to Bernard and Bianca, who nodded back.  Justin put out a paw graciously and gave her a boost up as she stood, but pushed her lightly in the back toward the microphone.  “Go get ‘em, Liz,” he grinned, as she caught her balance and glowered back at him.

Gripping the microphone stand and lowering it to her height, Elizabeth cleared her throat.  “Ahem.  Well, welcome to the Grand Cavern, everyone.  I see a lot of new faces; some of you came to visit on exchange trips.  A couple of you grew up here, or trained as doctors at the Institute before turning to the dark side—politics—”

This earned her a few chuckles and rolled eyes around the Cavern.  “The most important thing I have to say,” she continued, “whether this is your first time here or not--things have changed.  We face the same enemies, who seem bent on our destruction precisely because we do work together.  They cannot stand the idea of different species living together in peace—”

She reached a paw back toward Justin, who took it— “or loving each other.  This isn’t a war with a front line you can draw on a map.  Even if we beat the ones we know about, new ones will spring up to take their places.  The only way to fight these enemies is to keep proving them wrong.” She suddenly stamped a foot on the stage, making Justin and the others jump.  YOU CAN DO THAT HERE,” she boomed into the microphone.

An exotic stew of exclamations and mutterings swept back and forth across the cavern floor.  Bernard put a hand over his heart.  “Warn us next time,” he breathed…

“This place is yours,” Elizabeth went on. “For as long as you need it.  Talk.  Plan.  Argue.  Then go out into the bigger world and try things.  You need technology?  We have engineers, Arthur will train anyone he can grab.”

“He’s always poaching my best students from the Institute!” cried Dr. Ages, from somewhere at the back.

“Don’t blow a gasket, you old coot,” Arthur huffed.

“Settle down, you two,” growled Justin, into the microphone as he snagged it from Elizabeth.  “We must have enough doctors left over--they’re already our biggest export.  But like Elizabeth says, you need anything from us, all you have to do is ask.  Easier than that, even—if you need it, take it.”  Justin gritted his teeth.  Thorn Valley has been looking out for itself, for too long.  We’ve turned a blind eye to the troubles of the outside world.  It’s time we did our share.”

Justin turned and handed the microphone to Bianca.  “Don’t feel so bad, Justin,” she covered the microphone with one paw as he sat down, “we’re all in this together now.”

Bianca took her paw off the microphone and scanned the crowd.  “I’d bang a gavel or something, if it would make you feel more at home.  I can, at least, declare that Rescue Aid Society is now in session.”  The delegates began to whistle and pound on their desks, finally breaking into a full cheer, but Bianca made a calming motion with her free paw and they settled back down.  “This isn’t the usual order of things, but I think you’ll forgive me—we have a pending membership application from a little place called Thorn Valley.  I highly recommend you vote for their inclusion, as members of their security forces with extremely sharp swords are guarding all the exits.”

Nervous laughter greeted this observation as the delegates all craned around for a view of the uniformed Guard-rats – Cynthia was also at the main exit, hanging back in the shadows and hoping that two delegates in particular did not try to wave hello.

“So, let’s hear it then!  Voice vote on inclusion of Thorn Valley as a permanent member of the R.A.S. Security Council.  Those in favor?”

“AYE!” the delegates boomed back, in apparent unison.

“Those opposed?”  Bianca tacked on, for sake of form.

“Nay,” came a single voice, from near the United States desk.  Everyone turned to look for its source.  Timothy held his paw up and waved from the Thorn Valley desk, to take away any doubt.

Elizabeth put her head in her paws, groaning.  “Every time, Timmy, why every time?”

What are you playing at? signed Tina.

Easy, Tina, he signed back.

“All right then,” Bianca coughed.  “The ayes have it, motion passes!  Any particular reason why this should not have been a unanimous vote?  Especially when the only ‘nay’ comes from the proposed member state, whose vote doesn’t count yet?”

“Sure,” grinned Timothy, leaning over his own microphone.  “By the way, is this thing on?  I can’t hear myself.”  The other delegates nodded at him and he went on.  “Just letting you know that I’m not going to rubber-stamp everything that comes up for a vote.  I’ll always be a thorn in your side, when Thorn Valley needs me to be one.”

“Fair enough,” Bianca frowned.  “You’re going to be trouble.”

 

“No, he’s not,” chuckled the Commander.  “Trouble takes time, and you’re out of it.” 

He drew his ear back from a small hole in a wall, lined with an egg-crate-like material.  Thousands of tiny rock flakes still littered the floor, chipped out of it by Group B workers, swept up, and carted away in countless loads by the nearby minecart and its electric winch.  Only a thin shell of rock-coated plaster now lay between the dim, dusty hollow and the open air of the Grand Cavern.  The Commander rapped on the wall with his knuckles, savoring the sound, or rather the way it immediately fell dead in the air.

Devin and Gadget were tied, back-to-back, to a wooden support beam at one side of the hollow.  Gadget was mostly all right, save for a welt above her right eye.  Devin was not so fortunate; he hung limply with a split lip, a broken front tooth, and one eye nearly swollen shut.  Geegaw was closer to the Commander, but carefully hogtied again.  He shifted and strained against his bonds as they cut through his fur and into his flesh; the Commander had wisely left him little room to wiggle this time.

“You’ve hurt her, I know you have.  I’m going to rip your liver apart with my bare hands, you know,” seethed Geegaw.

“Had some time to think this one out, have you?”  the Commander smiled.   “Isolation has improved your temperament.  Don’t worry; we slapped her around a little, but nothing as rough as we gave her pet lab rat.”

“Pet…” mumbled Devin, blinking and straightening his head (he immediately whacked it against the wooden post).  Ow!  Pet, huh?  Come a little closer and I’ll pet you with my foot,” he spat, a sliver of his former tooth tinkling to the floor.

“Papa?”  Gadget struggled to look over her shoulder, but could not see him.  “Papa, I thought I lost you—”

“You’re going to,” the Commander said gravely.  “He’s really more trouble than he’s worth, and as soon as this little escapade is over, I don’t think I’ll have any more need of his services.”

“Don’t you touch him!” growled Gadget.

“Ah, but you are the feisty one, aren’t you?  I bet you were plenty of fun for Turner’s crew—”

“Fun they’ll pay for,” Gadget snarled, the words dropping out like icecubes.

“I don’t see any crew here,” Devin squinted in the dim lantern-light.  “What, now you’ve got us tied up and you don’t need your thugs anymore?  Coward!”

“Not that it’s any of your concern,” yawned the Commander.  “They’re out on business.”

 

In a deeper, darker tunnel, a few dozen rats with needle-guns waited around the corner from a stone wall.  One of them held a plunger attached to wires snaking around the corner, where a cache of dynamite lay.

“You know the drill,” said the plunger-rat.

“Drill, that’s funny, yeah,” snickered another rat. “Because we’re gonna drill through that wall—”

Shaddup.  Once the wall is blown, the main branches past the breach all lead to the perimeter of the Valley floor.  We cut off their exits, shoot anyone who tries to break past us, and hold the line until the Commander gives the signal.”

“What’s this signal again?” the other rat scratched his head.

“It’ll sound like a steam whistle out of hell,” grunted the plunger-rat.  “You’ll know it when you hear it.  Everybody back from the bend!”

The Group B rats all crouched against the wall as the one with the plunger twisted the handle and pressed it in.

It was a strangely muffled explosion, all their lanterns suddenly snuffed.  Water rushed in to fill all space, the rats wheeling madly and spun off down into drowning depths.

That wasn’t supposed to—thought the plunger-rat, as the waters claimed him.

 

High above, the stillness of Thorn Lake was broken as a churning, gurgling whirlpool appeared, sucking fish and algae and who-knows-what into the tunnels running below.  At the edge of the maelstrom, the big old pike flailed valiantly to escape the sucking maw, forced ever closer to its center.

Realizing instinctively that the fight was lost, the pike gave a shrug-like flick of his tail and aimed straight for the middle of the trouble.  He sized up the hole, flushed some extra water over his gills for a little O2, and made the plunge.

Oh well, he thought, I always did want to travel.

 

At the back of the Grand Cavern, a sentry rat dashed in and hurriedly exchanged words with Cynthia.  She pounded him happily on the shoulder—he retreated with a painful but ungrudging salute, and Cynthia stalked triumphantly down toward the center platform.

“It worked,” she shot out the side of her mouth at Arthur as she passed him.

Elizabeth came over and bent the side of the stage to confer in whispers with her daughter, and stood back up with a hand over her heart.  She rushed to Justin’s side and relayed the news.  Justin stood up and snatched the microphone from Bianca.

“Sorry, Bianca, I’ll let you get back to roll call in a second—everyone, please keep your seats—we’ve just gotten word—”

 

“My boys must have broken through the wall,” gloated the Commander.  “You’re trapped, Justin, you’re all trapped.  And this is going to be just like shooting fish in a barrel.  Good night, lights out—”

The Commander pulled a tarp off a sizeable lump nearby the plaster shell.  There, glittering and exposed, lay the “devil’s beach ball”, the spheroid bomb with its thousands of packets of needles.

“Devin, what’s he doing, what’s he got over there?” cried Gadget, scrabbling to wrench herself around.

“Looks big,” observed Devin, whistling a little around the broken tooth.  “Metal, but looks like the Death Star made out of honeycomb.”

Gadget tilted her head and “hmmed” to herself.  Devin could feel it through the wood—Are those gears turning in your head, Gadge?  C’mon, think us out of here!

“Goddamn,” she stated flatly.  “It’s a shrapnel bomb.”

Gooood,” the Commander widened his eyes and nodded.  “Like father, like daughter.  She’s quick!  Wrong place, wrong time, right answer.”

“HELP!” screamed Geegaw.  “HE’S GOT A BOMB!  GET OUT!  GET OUT”

The others took up his cries, but nothing happened.  After about thirty seconds, hoarse and weary, they gave it up.

“Nobody got out,” mourned Geegaw, disappointed to the core.

“Satisfied?” smirked the Commander.  “We soundproofed this place as we went.  That’s not decoration up on the walls, it’s studio-quality quiet.”  The Commander hefted the bomb, straining under its weight, and set it against the wall, beneath the spyhole.   He put his ear to the hole again.

 

“Yes, we’re absolutely certain,” Justin nodded at an incredulous delegate.  “There’s no way they could have survived; the tunnel was rigged to drain the whole lake onto them if they breached the wall.  We’ll have to collapse that tunnel before the lake will return to normal levels—”

 

The Commander staggered back from the wall.  “No.  NO!!!  Damn you, Justin, not all of them, how could you –”

He began pacing aimlessly around the hollow, biting at his claws.

“You look distracted.  I like that in a villain,” Devin flashed a gaptoothed grin.

“Shut up Shut Up SHUT UP!!!” screamed the Commander.  He latched onto a pickaxe and swung it around in a deadly arc—Devin twisted to one side as the pick bit into the wooden support and sent splinters into his already-battered face.  The Commander wrenched at the tool, but it was solidly stuck.

He kicked Devin in the ribs, left the pickaxe hanging, and dashed to the table by the wall where the shrapnel bomb lay.  “I’ll get more of them, Justin.  I’ll call in reserves.  I’ll get them all to come—they’ll swarm over your muddy lakebed, over the falls, and tear the place down around your ears!”

Geegaw’s ears pricked up suddenly.  “Say, O resident homicidal lunatic--or is it genocidal?”

“What are you blathering about, you useless mechanical mangler?!” The Commander planted his feet and flexed his paws.  He put a paw against the one opening in the bomb’s surface.

“Nothing much, I just hear you grunting away trying to push that silly contraption of mine through the wall by yourself.  I do have one question for you—”

“Oh, quit stalling for time and ask the damn question.”

“Fine.  What goes ‘squish’ and jumps at you out of the dark?”

Wha—” the Commander started.

That,” Geegaw answered for him.  A large furious bundle of rat sprang into the room and barreled into the Commander, snarling and snapping, dripping wet.

“Turner!” cried Gadget.  “What the hell?”

“Sorry I’m late,” Turner shot over his shoulder, as the Commander grabbed a lantern and smashed it into his face.  Liquid flame poured out across his neck and shoulder, but fizzled.  Turner clawed at shards of glass in his cheek and batted at sparks, smoldering but not alight.  “I’m soaked, psycho—try burning a wet towel—  The Commander leapt for the shrapnel bomb again.

Not one to waste time, Devin wrenched his back against the support.  He and Gadget worked their bonds up close to the axe-blade of the pickaxe, only close and sharp enough to shave a thread or two off the rope, but they kept working at it.

“I hear a good scuffle!  Who is that?” called Geegaw.

“Handsome young fellow,” toothed Turner, picking one of the larger pieces of glass out of his cheek and pegging it at the Commander.  He batted the Commander’s paw away from the aperture of the bomb, but the Commander whipped around and wrapped both paws around Turner’s throat.  Turner wheezed and whirled the Commander around like a top—one of the smaller rat’s legs knocked the bomb against the plastered wall.

A large chunk of plaster broke away near the ceiling of the Grand Cavern.  It hurtled to the floor and nearly clocked Justin—Bernard spotted it a second before and jabbed Justin with a crutch, making him jump out of the way.

“Well, I’m glad I came after all,” whistled Bernard.

“Please, don’t panic,” Justin said automatically into the microphone, “not yet, anyway--”

Many of the delegates were already out of their seats and coming up for a closer look.  All other eyes trained upwards toward a dark hole that had appeared, as Justin, Elizabeth, and Bianca bent to examine the plaster.  “ARTHUR!” yelled Justin.  “Wheel your tail up here right now and take a look at this!  It’s not natural!”

 

One of the ropes holding Devin and Gadget finally parted; they fumbled the rest of the bonds off and stood back from the fight.

“Should we help?” Gadget rubbed her sore wrists and tried to follow the action as Turner and the Commander shredded chunks of fur and flesh from each other.

“I wouldn’t know where to start,” offered Devin.

“Don’t let him set it off!” screamed Geegaw.  “That’s a start!”

Through some uncanny combination of hate and determination, the Commander wrenched one of his arms free of Turner and jabbed it at the bomb.  Turner crammed his paw in after, trying to pull the other rat away, but a sickening, crunching CLICK sounded.

“Oh, no, they hit the first switch!” gasped Geegaw.  “Get down!  Get out!  Get behind something!”

The Commander yelped in pain and Turner hissed as they lifted the bomb off the table, still shoving and clawing at each other but distracted by a new pain and inability to let go of the thing.  “Let go of me, you murdering bastard!”  Turner slammed the bomb back onto the table.  “What did you stab me with in there?”

“I’m not doing it!” shrieked the Commander.  “It’s his goddamn bomb!  It’s grabbed me!”  He turned a bloody, feverish eye on Geegaw and tried to scrabble after him.

Turner grabbed the Commander by the scruff of the neck with his free paw and slammed his head into the table.  Bringing the bomb up over his head, he slammed it into the floor, carrying himself and the Commander with it.

“Devin!  Quick, your lab coat!  It’s that needle-stop material!” Turner barked, as the Commander resumed his thrashing.  Devin whipped off the coat and flung it over the bomb.  The Commander thrashed and kicked, clawing at the coat—Gadget leapt in and pinned his legs.  “Keep it covered or we’re all dead!” Devin pulled on the coat with all his might, stretching it across the bomb.  He put a knee in the Commander’s back, trying to help Gadget keep him still.   A repeating click sounded from the inside of the bomb, faster and faster.

“It didn’t go off, it didn’t go off,” Gadget yelled for Geegaw’s benefit. 

“It’s building up pressure!” screamed Geegaw.  “Get back!”

Turner tucked the lab coat around the bomb as best as he could from his side, then lay on it.

Devin and Gadget shook their heads at him. “No!  Not on top--” cried Gadget.

A moment later, the weapon erupted with a shriek like all of the winds in the world at once.  Devin howled but could not hear himself.  A few stray needles whistled past his cheek, one piercing straight through his ear. He and Gadget screamed wordlessly, Geegaw unable to even cover his ears, all writhing helpless in an eternal moment of sound made pain.

It cut off like a switch, leaving only a ringing in the ears and a faint susurration of panic drifting up from the Cavern floor below. 

The Commander still struggled weakly, trying in vain to drag himself away from his broken son and the spent weapon. He was leaving most of one arm behind, tangled up in the forest of steel spikes that glimmered around the edges of the “beach ball”, driven into tiny cracks in the stone floor.  Gadget and Devin crawled back, recoiling in horror.

Turner did not move or speak.

“No, NO! Wasted!  So much work, so much time, I HATE YOU!” the Commander worked up a bloody mouth of spit and launched it at Turner.  Turner twitched as it slid down into his whiskers. “What kind of son are you?!”

Devin and Gadget pushed and pulled at each other, still numb, but managed to get each other to an upright sit.  “We stopped it, Dev, we stopped it,” Gadget kept saying.

“Somebody tell me what’s going on!” insisted Geegaw.

“It blew up,” Devin understated.  “Or blew out—”

“They didn’t drop it?” Geegaw trembled.  “Oh thank God—”

“Turner?” Gadget broke off her litany.  “Turner, can you hear me?”  She stood up and staggered a couple of steps toward him.

Turner opened one eye.  It was the only one he had, Gadget realized as he turned his head a bit.  What was left of his head. “Don’t look,” he ordered.  “Getting up.”

“Don’t!” cried Devin, “Stay down and we’ll get you some heloh, sweet Jesus—”

Against medical advice, Turner unfolded, his free arm cradling the bloodied weapon, the Commander thrashing and snarling but unable to find purchase on the floor.  Turner’s blood spattered down, and he slipped in it a little, fighting to stay upright.

“Turner, don’t move!  You’ll hurt yourself worse!” cried Gadget.  She grabbed so tight to Devin’s arm that he still felt it days after.

“Not bloody possible,” Turner frothed, turning another shade of red. “Which way?” he hissed, from a hundred holes.

“Don’t do this, Turner,” begged Devin.  “There must be something—”

“If I don’t—you might—let him live—” Turner gasped. Which way?

No one answered him for a few seconds, but Geegaw spoke up.  “Two steps to your left, I should think.”

“Thanks,” bubbled Turner, forcing more blood down his front.

“He’s insane, he’s insane,” gibbered the Commander.  “Don’t let him do it!”

Devin grabbed at Turner as he fell toward the hole, but only got a grasp on one of his ears.  It held for a moment, but snapped away.  He stared dumbly at the thing in his paw—not a proper ear at all, but a cleverly worked piece of leather and velvet—

Turner and the Commander crashed through the damaged wall and dropped like twin stones – or rather like a whirling planet and its insignificant satellite – and hit with a simultaneous, sickening slap on the stone floor far below.

A fresh round of distant screams and muffled orders leaked through the gap in the wall.  “They fell?” choked Geegaw.

“Yes. Yes, they did,” Devin staggered back from the hole, seeking solid ground closer to Gadget.  His stomach was one huge knot of terror and relief, eating itself.

“It’s over, then,” Geegaw breathed.  Tears began to roll down his cheeks.  “Thank God it’s over.  Oh, poor Growler, he saved us--”

Devin sighted his lost scalpel on a pile of wood, retrieved, it, and numbly reeled over to free Geegaw.  “Gadget, get over here!” Devin called her, sawing at the ropes.  “Stay untied this time, Mr. Hackwrench.”

“I’ll do my best,” Geegaw flexed his paws.  “Gadget, please, where are you?”

“That’s funny,” Gadget said in a hollow, quiet way, as though it were the least funny thing she had ever said.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” gulped Geegaw.

She brushed a distracted paw at her outfit, just below her collarbone.  “Can’t wipe it off,” she frowned, irritated now, as her paw left a red pinstripe down her chest.

“Gadget, sit down,” Devin barked, and though Gadget nodded, she listed to one side and slid halfway down the stone wall, crumpling to her knees and flat onto her face.

Devin rushed to her side, leaving Geegaw clutching after him in confusion. Devin managed to roll her onto her back—her breath still came strong, but she was working hard at it, a faint high-pitched wheeze trailing each lungful.

“Gadget?  Are you all right?” called Geegaw.  “Did she faint?”

“No!  I think she’s hurt!” Devin fumbled at the zipper of Gadget’s jumpsuit, but it slalomed off-track and jammed on a broken zipper-tooth.  Broken?  What the hell broke it?  

 

“…something…punched me in the chest…” Gadget murmured, and her eyes slipped to the side, hazy and unfocused.

 

 “Mister Hackwrench!” Devin screamed.  Pleasepleasepleaseplease…”  Geegaw stumbled over rocks and tools, toward his frantic voice.  Devin dragged the old mouse down to crouch by his daughter and guided his paws over the jammed zipper.  “Get this goddamned thing off her!  I’ve only got one paw working!”

Geegaw gasped and set his steely paws to either side of the zipper.  He jerked the sides apart and the zipper-pull zinged away like a shot.  Devin could see a spreading, seeping patch of blood welling up from Gadget’s chest.  He rolled the jumpsuit carefully down over her shoulders and reached underneath her.

He pulled his paw back sweaty but unbloodied.  He pressed it against the trickle of blood, now becoming a small stream, running from what had to be an entry wound, though it was so small—the faint whistling noise shut off like a switch.

Lungs, Devin’s mind gibbered.  It’s one of the needles from that—oh, God, it’s punctured a lung and it’s still in her—

 

Gadget gurgled and a light red froth bubbled at her lips.  Devin felt his own blood rush out of his face, and a creeping horror threatened to overtake him.  Devin frantically skinned out of his undershirt, wadded it up and held it tight against her wound.  Don’t press too hard, you don’t know where that needle is… “Come on, Gadget, sweetheart, stay with us!”

“What’s going on?” Geegaw leaned in closer to Devin, voice trembling.

 

“One of those needles got her in the chest, I think!  Gadget!  Stay awake!”

 

The blood-spattered lab coat lay nearby—needles were driven halfway through it in places, but the stethoscope still hung out of one pocket—Devin snatched it up and jammed the earpieces in, resting the chestpiece over her heart and praying the needle was lodged somewhere it could do no more damage.  He squeezed his eyes shut tight as he heard an unnatural lurch and crackle to her heartbeat, muttering negations under his breath.

“Can you move her?” quivered Geegaw.

“No, that would be a really bad idea,” Devin shuddered. Her heart is ripping itself to shreds against that needle, he could have added, but instead, he slid the stethoscope lower, over Gadget’s rounded stomach.  A much smaller, much quieter heartbeat ticked valiantly. God, don’t let it get any quieter…

 

 

“Help!” yelled Geegaw, through the hole.  “It’s an emergency!  Get anything medical you can lay your paws on!”

“Who the hell are you?” boomed Justin, from the hastily evacuated Grand Cavern.  Elizabeth stood by his side, warily watching the hole, paws clenched.  A couple of Guard-rat archers brought up their crossbows, but Cynthia motioned them to lower their weapons.

Geegaw Hackwrench!  Gadget’s here, and she’s in a bad way!”

“Holy hell,” gritted Justin.  “Drop us a line if you can!”

“Wait a second!”  Geegaw retreated into the hole, and after a shriek of twisting metal, a minecart hurtled back out.  A long thin cable whiplashed after it—Justin and the others jumped back as it crashed down by the covered bodies of Turner and the Commander.

 

Geegaw collapsed in an exhausted heap, but pushed Devin back toward Gadget.  “Don’t worry about me, take care of Gadget!”

“I don’t know if I can,” Devin bit his lip.  “But I’m going to try.”  He snagged a lantern from the wall (one that hadn’t been dashed to bits by the Commander and Turner in their whirlwind fight).  He picked up his scalpel from beside Gadget, crouched over her, and drew an imaginary dotted line along the side of her chest.  Be sure of what you’re getting into— he felt Gadget’s pulse again—fainter now, and going.  Nothing else for it.  I can hear the medical board screaming already…

 

“Mister Hackwrench,” Devin gulped.  “I hear you’re good with tools.  Does that include a hammer and chisel?”  He snatched the tools one by one and folded Geegaw’s restless paws around them.

“You mean--oh, God, no” moaned Geegaw.

“That needle has got to come out, or it’ll kill her.  I’ll put the chisel where it needs to go.”  Praying, he rummaged around in the shredded lab coat and found a half-empty, punctured soft-pack ampoule of Betadine.  Thank god I’m such a packrat, he breathed a sigh of relief.

Geegaw swelled up, hissing like a kettle about to boil.  “You’re joking!  Operating on her?  Here?

Devin threw a despairing look at the dark tunnel back into the labyrinth.

“If I don’t get it out, she’s done for.  And she’s carrying your grandchild.”

Geegaw sagged, but kept a stranglehold grip on the hammer and chisel.  “God help us all.  Get started, then.”

Devin turned a knob on the lantern, opened the glass shield around the wick, and ran the scalpel through the flame.   For good measure, he flamed the tip of the chisel as well, and handed it back to Geegaw.   He slathered one side of Gadget’s chest with the Betadine, steeled himself, and lowered the scalpel.  Gadget had made it well; it cut straight through the fur, skin, and muscle, and down to the bone.  Good clean edges.  It was just like pulling a zipper, but smoother.  Devin was grateful Geegaw couldn’t see it.

Devin chose a rib and pulled Geegaw closer, guiding the tip of the scalpel to rest on the underside of the glistening rib exposed through the incision.

“Feel that?”

Geegaw nodded.  “Please don’t make me do this.”


”You’ll be fine!  One good tap, like cracking an egg.  Just get me in there!”

Geegaw cringed, but let fly with the hammer.  The blow struck off-center, sending a bloodspatter and a chip of bone flying.  The hammer-head struck Gadget’s side with a resounding THUMP! that sounded worse than it looked.

Geegaw dropped the hammer and chisel and began to sob.  “She’ll be all right!” Devin screamed at him.  Geegaw howled with grief and began pulling his whiskers out.

“Mister Hackwrench,  Devin tried more calmly.  “This is the best invention you ever made.  Help me fix her.”

Geegaw swallowed and readied the chisel again. “For Gadget,” he whispered.  “And for Annabelle.”

Devin only had a split second to wonder who Annabelle was, for Geegaw struck like thunder—like the old god Vulcan hammering away at his forge—one true and solid strike, and Gadget’s rib nearly jumped apart as it split.

“Did I do it?!  Did I—”


Devin had his gloved paw around the broken rib in an instant.  “You did just fine.” I’d give my right paw for a rib spreader, though.   “Grab the other rib!  The one underneath the break!”

Geegaw felt around and got his grip, his tears pelting his daughter’s fur.  By this time Devin’s own were in full flow, and he didn’t give a damn—he just wished their tears weren’t the only saline solution in this hellhole.

“Make a wish,” breathed Geegaw.

“You know it already.  One—two—three!”  They both pulled, and though the sound tore at their hearts, it left Devin with an open view of their prize.

Devin sliced open the membrane around Gadget’s heart – it was like a Ziploc baggie full of blood, and it drained in a rush.  Free of the pressure, Gadget’s heart worked a little easier—a mixed blessing, as the unseen needle thrashed and tore all the worse. 

Devin reached in and wrapped Gadget’s heart up in his paw.  It leapt and fluttered—for a moment he marveled how he could nearly wrap the paw around it.  He felt the blood squirt from a hole that had no business being there.

Floating in the heart, seesawing with each beat of Gadget’s heart, was the long, cruel needle ripping at the delicate organ, its sharp ends still at their terrible work.  He could feel it but hardly see it for the blood.

Unable to get a grip on the needle, still working almost as blind as Geegaw, he made a grim choice and got a pawpad around one end of the needle.  It slipped and skittered, but he managed to drive it into his own flesh.  He yelped but pulled back, and the needle came away just enough for him to get a purchase on it.  He pulled his paw out from Gadget’s ribcage, yanked the needle out from between his pawpads with his teeth, and spat the hateful thing away.

“So much blood, I can feel the blood,” sobbed Geegaw, head in paws.

Devin put his paw back against her heart, one pawpad plugging the hole, and tried to hold her together.  “Come on, Gadget, you fight for us, keep it up—”

Gadget’s breath, labored until now but some sign of hope, finally stilled.

“Oh, no, oh, no—I can’t hear her breathe-- come on and breathe,” pleaded Geegaw.

Devin bent and breathed for her, then went on working at her tattered heart.  Thirty pumps, two breaths.  Thirty pumps, two breaths.

He kept it up until a couple of Institute paramedics clambered into the hole, courtesy of the electric winch.

They made him stop.


Button images by Keith Elder