Nothing But a Gadget
An RR "What If" Story
By Indy and Chris Silva

Chapter One – An Unexpected Request, a More Unexpected Result

       If there was a happiest place on Earth for Gadget Hackwrench, it had to be her workshop. Today, her spacious cathedral to inventiveness was filled with the sounds of banging on metal, drilling into wood, bolts tightening and hammers hammering. In the midst of this constructive symphony stood Gadget. She took a moment to admire and evaluate her latest work, then ten ideas came flooding in and she began modifying as fast as she could. Soon, the sound of her humming filled the room—she loved to hum when things were going well. Today, everything was good, and her concentration was at its peak.
       Her humming stopped when a knock came at the workshop’s door. She didn’t stop working, though. Gadget hated to leave a train of thought unfinished, particularly when it involved an invention. The knocking started again, louder this time, and Gadget began working double-time.
       “Be there in a minute!”
       Using same baling wire to hold her invention and her thoughts together, Gadget took a last admiring look at her latest creation and only then headed over to unlock the door. Her mind was still working on the next step when she found Chip standing in the doorway.
       “Oh, hi there, Chip!” Gadget said, perky as ever. “Got a new case already?”
       Chip hesitated just for a moment and glanced behind him as if he were concerned about being seen here. “Uh, no. Are you busy at the moment?” Gadget thought the question was a little strange, since Chip couldn’t have missed the sound of her working on her latest invention. “Well, not right at this very moment since I’m standing here talking. Although if you mean if I’m busy with something the answer’s yes because I’m working on a new pulley system to handle heavy loads and it’s coming along very well! Want to see?”
       “Sure, Gadget. I love spending time with you,” Chip said.
       Gadget pulled him into the workshop and continued her modifications even as she prattled on. “Okay. Now the way I figure it, the average ounces displaced per unit of energy we expend with this new pulley system should allow us to lift fifty times our weight! Nightmares like that typewriter we had to get in here will be a thing of the past. Well, not that we won’t have nightmares—I mean, nightmares happen on occasion but problems with excessive weight displacement will be solved. Or at least I think they will.”
       Chip waited for her to pause for a breath, which finally came. “If your project is going to be done tonight, do you have any plans for later?” Gadget stopped a moment and thought. “Well, let’s see. I still have to finish mounting the block and tackle, route the drums through the superstructure and test the rope for adequate tensile strength. That should take approximately 3.2 hours. So I guess if everything goes according to schedule, I won’t have any plans for later, no.”
       “I was thinking perhaps we could do something together, perhaps a movie?” Chip asked. Gadget turned and smiled. “Oh Chip, that’s a nice idea! But it’ll have to wait, of course.”
       Chip’s smile diminished slightly. “I understand. Maybe I could help you with your work to make it go faster.”
       “Oh no, it’s nothing like that,” Gadget said. “I mean if we’re going to do a movie I’ll have to build a camera and then invent a process to handle the film and then there’s the film processing lab of course and post-production. Golly, maybe we could open our own studio! Ranger Pictures...”
       “I meant that we should go see a movie, together.”
       This concept was so totally off from where Gadget’s thought process was that she had to take a few moments to complete her thinking and then work on this new idea. Going to see a movie with Chip? “Go see one? At a theater? Golly, I haven’t been to see a movie in years—well, besides that drive-in theater we went to about a year back. I think the last one I saw in a closed-in theater was back in the late 70’s with dad. Something called “Star Fight” or something like that. I remember the model ships looked pretty neat, but I thought they could’ve been built better.”
       Chip blinked, his own thought processes obviously grinding away as well. “Boy, it has been a while hasn’t it? I’d really like to take you to the movies tonight. Would you like to go with me?” Gadget absorbed the idea again, and once she’d considered it her smile returned. “Okay, sure!”
       “That’s great!” Chip said. “We can finish up here and be out the door before the others even know we’re gone.” Gadget looked him with blank curiosity. “Why would we want to do that, Chip? After all, it’d be impolite to walk out on everyone.”
       “Who’s walking out, lass?” Monty had poked his head in the door at the end of Gadget’s sentence and now she came over to him, happy with this new thought. “Hey, Monty! Guess what? We’re all going to see a movie!”
       “We are?” Monty said, instantly intrigued. “Crikey, I hope it’s a real ripper!” Dale, unfortunately for Chip, was right behind Monty. “A movie? Neato! Let’s go see ‘The Alien Vampire versus the Claw Monsters in 3-D’!”
       Chip had to force that smile now. “Yes, we’re going to see a movie tonight... together.” Gadget was all excited now. “It sure was thoughtful of you to suggest this idea, Chip. We haven’t done anything together like this in a long time. Maybe we can all start doing this as a weekly thing!”
       “Wow, great idea, Gadget!” Dale said. “Isn’t that a great idea, Chip? Huh?”
       The smile was definitely an effort now. “Yes, I can’t wait to use our free time to do stuff together,” Chip said. “Let’s get this over with...uh, I mean, let’s help Gadget finish her work so we can go.”
       With all the Rangers pitching in, the work was soon completed. Chip did manage to corral the seat next to Gadget’s in the RangerWing and in the theater, and for a time he thought he might be able to salvage something of the evening. He should’ve known better. The movie was X-Men 2, and Dale chirped on every minute of it about the entire history of the superhero team, as well as pointing out all the inconsistencies and changes they’d made the characters for the film.
       “Sure was a grand adventure,” Monty said as they walked out. “Reminds me of the time I was with this bunch of cannibal canaries. Or so they said. Actually, they were just pretending so’s this rogue gang of toucans wouldn’t invade their territory. Talk about your fruit loops…”
       Dale was still spouting on when he spotted an ornate water fountain outside the theater. Rushing up, he jumped onto the periphery of it and pointed at Chip. “So, evil Magnus, you have come to challenge me!”
       “Not now, Dale,” Chip said. “Let’s just go on home.”
       Chip turned and kept walking, hoping Dale would do the same. Dale was all charged up, though, and in a moment Chip felt water splashing on him. “Ha, you won’t ignore the forces of justice!”
       That was it—Chip had kept his ire below the surface all night, but now he saw an outlet for it. “Prepare to die, Charles Xavier! You’ve read your last mind!” Chip ran and jumped up on the fountain’s cement periphery, grabbing a stick that had fallen there. Dale followed suit and the battle was on.
       “Hey guys, not so rough!” Gadget said.
       Monty patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Gadget-luv. They’re just having a bit of sport.” Chip poured it on, giving it all the frustration the day had built up for him. Dale parried and fought back, but Chip’s sheer determination proved decisive. He undercut one of Dale’s legs and the fun-loving chipmunk began to teeter at the water’s edge.
       “That’s what you get for messing with my life!” Chip said.
       “Oh yeah?” Dale retorted. “Let’s see how shocking you think the drink is!”
       Chip knew what was coming, but it was far too late. Dale snagged him and over the side they went. With a ker-sploosh, the both of them fell in.
       “Looks like both their plans are all wet!” Monty said, causing Gadget to laugh. “Too bad ol’ Zipper wasn’t here to see it, but he and Queenie oughta be having a right good time themselves.”
       Out the chipmunks came, soaked to the bone. Dale was laughing, but Chip was fuming. He marched off, dripping a trail of water behind him. For the first time, Dale realized all that had taken place hadn’t just been for fun. “Hey, what gives? You sore at me?”
       Chip turned around and snorted. “Sore at you? No. Sore at the world’s more like it. I’m going for a walk.” The others watched him go, not knowing what to do next. Dale rejoined them. “Aw, don’t worry. That’s just how Chip is. He’ll bounce back by tomorrow.”
       “I don’t know,” Gadget said. “Maybe I’d better go talk to him. You two stay here.”
       Gadget managed to catch up with Chip before he knew she was coming. “Chip, what’s the matter? Why are you mad at Dale?” Chip kept on walking, his eyes facing forward. “I curse the day that idiot ever blundered into my life. He’s always been getting in the way of everything I’ve ever tried to do!”
       Gadget sensed there was something more to it than what he was saying, but just what she couldn’t imagine. Still, she knew something was wrong with him, and that alone was enough to make her want to help. She touched his shoulder from behind. “Now Chip, you don’t really mean that. Dale’s your best friend and always will be. Can’t you tell me what’s really bothering you?
       “Yes, what’s bothering me is that he always ruins my attempts to tell you that I’m madly in love with you and I want to date you.”
       Chip and Gadget both gasped at the same time. Chip slapped his hand to his face—he hadn’t meant to just blurt it out like that, but his ire with Dale and with the whole situation had him out of sorts. Gadget dropped the movie stub she’d been holding in her left hand. This was something she’d never seen coming, or even thought about. True, she knew that Chip and Dale liked her and paid her attention, This was something Gadget just wasn’t prepared for, and it showed.
       She was suddenly aware that they were alone on a deserted sidewalk with only streetlights for witnesses, and she sorely wished the others were here. Once she recovered from the initial shock, it took her a few more moments to find her voice, and it was a shaky voice when it came. “ me?”
       Chip turned to her and nodded, appearing almost contrite. “Loved you since the day I first saw you.” Gadget felt like a deer in the headlights, vulnerable and small. She didn’t know what to do with her hands, and found herself pulling on the end of one of her golden tresses, trying to comfort herself but not really succeeding. Her breathing began to increase in its rate, and she could feel her pulse quickening. Panic was beginning to set in
       “Uh...gosh...uh...that’s nice, I guess...but...”
       Chip gently took her hand in his, trying to reassure her. “I know it’s a surprise, but I know you have feelings for me too.” Gadget’s panic was bursting at the seams now. “What uh....what do you mean?”
       “I know you’ve been trying to hide it so as not to upset Dale, but it’s obvious you’re in love with me too.”
       She wanted to run. She really wanted to run. She needed to get away—to think. But he had her hand. “Chip, I...please, I....oh, DARN!”
       Gadget couldn’t hold it together anymore and pulled away. Before Chip could react she was already sprinting for the park at a dead run. Gadget’s mind was racing even faster, trying to seize hold of a thought, any thought. This was what she had been afraid of, what she’d been dreading. And now it had slapped her in the face like a blindside from a prizefighter.
       Chip for his part had been left dumbfounded. He’d seen the fear in Gadget’s face, but for the life of him he couldn’t understand it. When his brain kicked back into gear, Gadget was already across the road separating the movie theater from the park.
       Chip bolted after her, running on all fours. “Gadget, wait! Why are you running away from me?”
       Even if Gadget had heard him, it wouldn’t have mattered. She sprinted up their tree and into headquarters at full speed, tripping over the rug which sent her sprawling. Her twisted ankle didn’t stop her from getting to her destination, though. Zipper had returned from his date with Queenie and had been in the kitchen when he heard the bang of Gadget slamming into one of the walls.
       Now he poked his head out and saw Gadget slam the door to her workshop and bolt the interior lock. Chip came in just in time to hear the first echoes of Gadget’s crying. Zipper pointed to the locked door and buzzed, asking what was going on.
       “I’m not sure, Zipper,” Chip said. “But I think I’m in hot water. You’d better go collect the others at the theater.”
       Zipper did so, and Monty came about five minutes later. “Crikey! What’s goin’ on here, Chip? Zipper here says Gadget came like a blooming tornado rippin’ into headquarters, and now she’s locked herself in her workshop, crying up a storm?!”
       “What’d you do to her?” Dale asked, accusingly.
       Chip shook his head as he replied. “I didn’t mean to upset her, guys, honest! I don’t know just what happened myself, Monty. I guess I opened up a bit too much to Gadget and she didn’t like what she heard.”
       Monty was Gadget’s surrogate father, and his paternal heartstrings had been plucked. That had the big Aussie in protection mode. “All right, mate, let’s sit down over here. I want to hear it all from the start, ‘cause I expect I’m the one who’s gonna have to fix the mess you’ve made.”
       Chip didn’t like being treated like a teenager, but he reluctantly settled down on the sofa and explained to Monty what had happened, blow for blow. “I just don’t see what caused her to run away like that!”
       Monty looked at Chip like he’d just missed the easiest question on a math test. “Lad, I realize you just blurted it out without thinking, but you had ta know that Gadget wasn’t prepared for that! You scared her, and now she’s in there afraid and not sure what ta do!”
       “Why doesn’t she just admit she feels the same way and all’s well?” Chip asked.
       Monty looked around to make sure they were alone, then continued. “, now don’t take this the wrong way or anything...well, I’ve talked with the lass some about this and...I don’t think she feels that way about you.”
       Chip looked incredulous. It was unthinkable. “Right, Monty. But seriously, she’s made it clear enough since the start.” Monty took his voice one grade lower, and on a more serious tone than he’d used with Chip before. “Lad, you might think that, but Gadget don’t think that way. She never has, long as I’ve known her. The lass, she’s as sweet and gentle as a newborn, but just about that innocent too. Things you’ve been reading as flirting or encouragement, she’s meant as just being friendly or nice. I know she’s quite a woman to look at, but on the inside she’s still a kid in a lot of ways and just as vulnerable.”
       It took Chip a lot of effort to ask the next question, but it had to be. “Monty, are you telling me that for the last few years I’ve been kidding myself?”
       Monty drew in a deep breath. “Chip, I know how you feel about Gadget, and myself I have no problem with you loving her and all if she wants that. But Gadget’s...well...skittish when it comes to relationships.”
       At that, Gadget emerged from the workshop. It was obvious she’d been crying, and despite her efforts at drying them the tears had matted her fur somewhat. She was rubbing her head with her left hand, showing the after effects of a stress-induced headache.
       “I think I should be the one to explain, Monty.” Gadget motioned Chip to sit down by her on the sofa, and he did so. “I’m sorry I ran away, Chip. It was the only thing that came to mind. I just felt trapped and had to have some time to think.”
       Chip was the scared one now, but for totally different reasons. “Gadget, couldn’t you tell how I felt? Couldn’t you have said something to let me know?”
       Gadget shook her head and pulled in her shoulders, in a protective fashion. “I’m sorry. I knew you liked me, but every boy I’ve ever met likes me. I know I’m pretty and attractive, Chip. That’s why I don’t fuss with makeup and dresses, because it’s like waving a red flag to a bull.
       “For a short time, dad talked me into dressing up and these two boys from school fought over me. They nearly killed each other, Chip, and I didn’t even like them! I couldn’t bear to see that kind of thing happen with you or Dale, or anyone else, so I don’t think about that kind of thing very much. And, well, it’s just not all that important to me anymore. I like you and I like Dale, but I don’t even think…I really know…what love is, and the thought that you love me...well, frankly it scares the willies out of me.”
       Chip just sat in stunned silence as his world slowly fell apart. “It’s okay, Gadget. I...I understand. I’m sorry I scared you. It won’t happen again.” Chip stood up as if in a daze and began walking toward his room. He patted Monty on the shoulder gently as he passed by him.
       Gadget looked over at Monty, worried. “Monty, is he going to be okay?”
       “He’s a trooper, lass,” Monty said. “It’s not going to be easy for a while, but he’ll get over it. Now you’ve got another challenge.”
       Gadget stared at him. “What’s that?”
       “Now you have to tell Dale.”
       Gadget looked worried. “But he’s so sensitive and all! Couldn’t it wait?”
       Monty crossed his arms. “Lass, Chip’s gonna talk to him the moment Dale sees him! And the first thing Dale’s gonna want to know is how you feel about him. He might even think you love him and not Chip.”
       Gadget covered her head with her hands. “Oh golly, I wish this wasn’t happening!”
       “Wish what?”
       Dale, followed by Zipper, was at the door. He’d gone to the comic book shop for some last-minute reading until Zipper summoned him. He could see that Gadget was upset, but couldn’t fathom the reason why.
       Gadget couldn’t meet Dale’s gaze. She knew it would be painful, but she had to get it over with. “I need to talk to you.” Dale sensed it was something bad, but he couldn’t begin to guess.
       The mouse inventor walked outside and Dale followed her, puzzled. She shut the door to the outside behind them, leading him over to the edge of the veranda. “Dale, I don’t even know how to bring this up,” Gadget started. “Dale, I’m not in love with you or Chip. You two are my closest friends in the entire world, but I don’t have romantic feelings for either of you, at least not right now.”
       Dale blinked, then blinked again. Then he heaved a sigh of relief. “Whew! I thought you were dying or something!” Gadget stared back, puzzled. “Golly, you’re taking this better than Chip did.”
       Dale’s vision shifted away from her. “Well, if you’re gonna be honest, I will too. I think you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, but I knew that you were too pretty and all to love anyone like me. I tried for a while, but I knew that Chip’s the guy that the pretty ones want so I just gave up fooling myself. I never thought any girl would be interested in me until Foxy came along. Now she and me are friends and we like doing things together. So it’s okay and all, y’know.”
       Gadget wiped her eyes and smiled. “Dale, don’t sell yourself short. There’s nothing in you that isn’t worthy of love. It just wasn’t right for you and I, at least not now, but who knows what the future holds? I’m glad Foxy’s here for you and that you found someone who can show you that you’re just as worthy of love as anyone else.”
       Dale looked back at her. “ don’t like Chip better than me?”
       “I like you both the same,” Gadget said, smiling back. “I’m sorry that I made you think less of yourself because of me. Dale, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not stupid, you’re not a goof and I know I once called you that. You’re not ugly, either, but you need to believe all that about yourself.”
       Dale stood there, mystified. He’d never known Gadget to lie. “Well, that’s what Foxy says too. I guess maybe things aren’t as bad as I thought.”
       For a moment, they said nothing, then Dale sported a smile and quickly hugged Gadget as he headed back inside. “Thanks. Hey, let’s see if there’s a cartoon on!”
       Gadget smiled and shook her head. Dale had proved a lot more resilient than she’d have thought possible. Maybe she’d misjudged him. Unfortunately, she’d nailed Chip right on the head—or rather, right in the heart. She had to make it right between them, but she couldn’t lie to him either. It was a real conundrum, to be sure, but still her feet led her to Chip’s door and she knocked lightly.
       Chip had a feeling it was Gadget. He knew her, or at least he thought he knew her well enough to know she’d already come to try to patch things up. “Come in, Gadget.” She came in and saw the same hound-dog look on his face that she’d seen on other boys’ faces several times before. This wasn’t the first time she’d broken a heart, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
       She drew in a long breath. “Chip, I’ve just finished talking to Dale and he understands. But I want you to understand that I wasn’t rejecting you. You’re a wonderful friend, and the best leader I know of. It’s not that I thought about it and then turned you down. I’m not really ready for that sort of thing. Do you understand?”
       “I understand,” Chip said, sighing. “It’s just that I made a complete and utter fool of myself in front of you and Monty. Right now I’m more embarrassed than hurt. **The hurt will come soon enough**. Just give me some time to get my head on straight and everything will be right as rain again.”
       Gadget hugged him gently. “Oh Chip, you shouldn’t feel that way. I know Monty understands now that you were working on a mistaken assumption, and he’s not going to hold that against you anymore than I would. Look at me.”
       Chip did so, the spark gone from his eyes now. Gadget forced herself to stay positive. “I’m not going anywhere, and I’m still here if you need me. Let’s just consider this a fresh start, okay?” Chip nodded, but halfheartedly. “I know you mean well, Gadget, but it’s going to be a while till I’m ready to start over. Just give me some time to get over this and live it down.”
       Gadget headed for the door. “Okay, Chip. But no one’s going to make you feel that way other than yourself.”

Chapter 2 – Enter the Bat / Time Alone

       Gadget closed the door behind her, guilt clawing at her insides. She knew that she was responsible in a way, but she also knew it wasn’t her fault. That didn’t make it any easier, though. The next day, Gadget watched Chip mope around Ranger Headquarters with his nose stuck in his Sureluck Jones book. Not even the temptation of the police station could jar him from his melancholy. It had Gadget worried, and she shared the worry with the others.
       It was Foxglove, visiting for the day, who came up with an idea. “We’ve got to get him out of this treehouse for a while and get him interested in something again. How about if I get him to go to the park or maybe the library? I bet I could coax him out.”
       Gadget nodded in agreement. “That’s a good idea, Foxy! He loves the library, so that might be your best bet.” Foxglove looked over at Dale. “You don’t mind, do you, cutie?”
       Dale thought about it a minute. “Well, I guess it’s okay. We’ve gotta do something to get him out of here, and I’ve already tried all the jokes and silly imitations I know. He just lays there on the sofa like a lump of jelly.”
       “Okay, I’ll try it tomorrow morning.”
       The next morning found Chip Maplewood in the grandiose state of self-pity, right next the neighboring state of festering depression. He’d barely eaten anything and had done his best to ignore Gadget’s attempts to involve him in her work. He walked outside with his book and set up shop on one of the chairs on the veranda. He was so self-absorbed, he didn’t even notice when Foxy landed in front of him.
       “Hello there!” the chiropteran said.
       Chip grunted a response, but after a few moments of looking at her beaming, smiling face he relented and forced a small smile. “Good morning, Foxglove.” Foxy decided to give it all the charm she had and pointed the book Chip was reading. “Oooh, is that Sureluck Jones? You must love books, and also going to the library. I know I do.”
       “You?” Chip asked, surprised. “You like going to the library? What do you read?”
       Foxy smiled. He’d swallowed the hook. “Oh, some of this, some of that. I like Gone With the Wind and other romance stories. I’ve read a little Sureluck Jones too and I like to see the latest pictures you find in the International Mouse-O-Graphic. The photo spread they had on the giant fruit bats in India was really something.”
       “I’m surprised we never met while we were both there, though I suppose your being a bat brought you in late in the evening and I’m more of a morning person,” Chip mused. Foxy nodded. “Most likely. Say, I bet they’ve got the latest IMOG issue in this week! Why don’t we go, and you can show me what your favorite books are?”
       Chip sighed. He didn’t want to go, but couldn’t think of any excuse to justify not going. “I suppose. I’ve read every Sureluck Jones novel several hundred times in my life. Maybe we could look for something else. Maybe John Grisham.”
       Foxy giggled with happiness as he got up. “This is going to be fun!”
       Foxglove poured on the compliments all the way over. She talked about how smart, capable and well-read he was. She took his arm when they crossed the street and made over the size of his muscles. When someone on the street recognized him, Foxy made the most of it by saying how lucky she was to be the friend of such an important person. Chip was beginning to feel the effects of Foxy’s efforts when they reached the library.
       Once they were there, Chip was in his element. That helped smooth the way, and Foxy was ever-attentive. Chip found he was enjoying being the center of a girl’s attention, and they spent the entire afternoon going from one section to the next. The librarian actually had to shush Chip once when he got into an enthusiastic talk about the finer methods of detecting crime. By the time they left, Chip was nearly back to his old self and Foxy was again on his arm.
       “I’ve really enjoyed today, Chip,” Foxglove said. “You make everything so much more interesting.”
       Chip had a new bunch of books under his arm and smile on his face. “Thank you, Foxglove. Today I realized there’s much more to you than I thought at first and it was fun being with you as well.” Foxy chuckled. “I’m glad. Say, why don’t we go to Carnival Land tomorrow? I hear the rides are great, and we could talk more about ways to stop crime and all.”
       “If Dale doesn’t mind me monopolizing your time like that.”
       Foxy stopped. She’d actually forgotten about Dale for a moment. Chip was more of a gentleman than she’d thought he’d be. “Oh, that’s right. Well, we’re all just friends so I know he’ll understand. I can go with Dale the next time.”
       “Okay,” Chip said, “just so long as I’m not getting in the way of your relationship with Dale.” Foxy laughed, amused. “Oh, don’t worry about that, darling. Dale likes to go to the comic book store tomorrow anyway and he’ll be there all afternoon. I figure I should get to choose something fun I like to do, too.”
       Sure enough, the next morning Dale headed out to satisfy his comic book cravings. Foxy showed up soon after, and Gadget was surprised to see her and Chip headed for the door together. The mouse inventor had just finished eating, and was about to check on the RangerWing when she flagged them down. “Hey guys, where are you going? The RangerWing’s out of commission at the moment, because I’m readjusting the torque on the wing struts.”
       “Keep up the good work, Gadget,” Chip called from behind. “Foxy and I are going to the amusement park. We’ll be back in a few hours. See you later.”
       Gadget was mildly surprised at this. Usually Chip was bubbling over with enthusiasm for a new case, but right now all his attention was on the female bat. “Well, okay. Gosh, Dale’s gone too. What about you, Monty?”
       Monty had been on the sofa, watching the morning stock reports and noting the cheese futures. “Oh, me and Zip’s got a date with a load of Swiss coming in on the tide. You have a good day inventin’ and all, lass!”
       In five more minutes, Gadget was alone. It wasn’t something she was entirely used to, but she found that as she started in on fixing the RangerWing the quiet was comforting. All the stress of the past couple of days melted away in the solitude and she soon fell into a constant rhythm of work. Gadget finished the RangerWing a little before noon, and finding no one had returned she grabbed a quick lunch and started in on a new project.
       This was unfamiliar ground for Gadget, because normally one of the Rangers would interrupt her or an emergency would arise. Now, there was just her and the workshop. Gadget’s mood went from satisfied to gleeful over the afternoon, and she ended up not only building three new inventions but also sprucing up her workshop. When the Rangers returned in the evening, she was glowing from the day’s effort.
       “Hello, everyone!” Gadget said, greeting them at the door. “Golly, I hope you guys had as nice a time as I did!”
       Chip said good night to Foxy, and Dale followed soon after with a stack of new comic books. “Kablammo Man issue 300 just came out and I bought five copies as collector’s items!” Chip watched as Foxglove flew off and gave him a meaningful smile. “We had a blast. We went on all the rides. Oh, I brought you some cotton candy, Gadget.”
       Gadget shook her head. “Thanks, but you can have it. Cotton candy never really appealed to me.” Chip handed the cotton candy to Dale, who devoured it in seconds. “Thanks Gadget! Well, I gotta organize my comics.”
       Chip headed for the veranda, grabbing one of the books he’d checked out yesterday. “I’m going to get some reading in before dinner.” Monty checked the clock. “I’d better get dinner on!” Zipper was checking it too and buzzed, “I’m going to visit the hive and see what Queenie’s doing.”
       And in seconds Gadget again found herself alone again.
       She didn’t mind that, though, because it was what she’d asked for. By the time she’d made it to her workshop, she had five ideas swimming around for modifications to old inventions or for new machines. The happiness returned, and Gadget kept going all the way through to morning. When she finished, Gadget looked upon her newest creation with satisfaction. She’d built a Ranger-sized version of an ultralite one-man plane, and decided to go see who would volunteer to test it out.
       Stretching to work out the kinks, Gadget left the workshop and headed for the kitchen, only to find that her breakfast was there waiting for her along with a note:
       Sorry we missed you, but Chip wanted to check out Police Headquarters. We’re all going to the amusement park today afterward as long as there ain’t a crime, so feel free to do what you likeMonty.
       Gadget sat down to eat. “Golly, I thought they’d be tired of that by now. Oh well, there’s plenty to be done.”
       After a quick meal, the mouse inventor went back to her workshop and folded up the wings of the ultralite. It could wait, because she had other ideas on things that would be useful for the Rangers. Over the course of the day she created emergency parachutes for them all, a new set of camping gear, a pair of night-vision binoculars and a quick-collapse frame for a pup tent. Gadget was pleased and when the Rangers came back from their day, she was there to meet them.
       “Guys, you should see all the stuff I invented today! I need a volunteer for one of the inventions too. Did you guys have a good time?” she asked. Chip thumbed over at Dale. “Well, most of the time. Foxy and I were about to go through the tunnel of love, when Dale dragged us over the shooting gallery.”
       “Hey, you liked the shooting gallery! Didn’t he, Monty?” Dale asked.
       “Sure did, mate. ‘Specially the part when Foxy here hugged him when he won her that stuffed bear,” Monty said.
       Foxy blushed. “Oh, he was so sweet!”
       Chip perked up at the attention. “I was glad to do it. Say, I’m beat. How about we pull out a movie?” Gadget thumbed toward her workshop. “But I...”
       “Great idea!” Dale said. “Let’s watch ‘Slobbering Swamp Monsters of Saliva Island’!
       “I’ve got...” Gadget started again.
       “No, not that!” Chip said. “I’d like to get a full night’s rest. Foxy and me are going to a Broadway play tomorrow.” Foxglove reveled in the idea. “Ooh, I can’t wait. Thanks so much, Chip. Good night!”

Chapter 3 – Serious Talk and a Resolution

       Foxglove flew away, and the other Rangers headed for the sofa where Chip and Dale renewed their argument on what to watch. Gadget realized they weren’t going to listen to her, so she headed outside. It was dark already, and she checked out her night-vision binoculars. They worked perfectly, and she could see everything around her. There was only one problem—she wasn’t happy about it.
       Why was that? Gadget took a moment to clear her mind, and there in the light of the bulb she’d installed by the door she started to think on it. “Golly, what happened? What changed? Is it my breath? What happened in the last few days that makes them act like I’m not even there...oh right, I asked them to give me some time. And now that they’re not romantically inclined toward me anymore, I’m just a friend and they let me do my own thing. Just like I always wanted them to…”
       Gadget rubbed her head again. She’d realized that her headache hadn’t been brought on by stress, but by bumping her noggin into the wall in that mad dash for her workshop. She made a mental note to take a piece of aspirin when she got back inside. For now, though, she still had a lot of thinking to do.
       Inside, the guys watched their movie and when it wrapped up Chip caught Dale’s attention. “Dale, there’s something I need to discuss with you.” Chip directed Dale back to their room and then shut the door. “Dale, we need to talk about Foxglove. Particularly, our relationship with her.”
       Dale couldn’t see where this was leading. “Whattaya mean? She’s staying around and all, isn’t she?”
       “That’s the point, Dale. If she’s staying, we need to understand what our relationship with her will be, understand?”
       Dale shrugged. “Uh...nope.”
       “Dale, you’re not a child anymore!” Chip said. “Foxy likes you. Doesn’t that mean anything to you! I thought you’d be jealous of the time I’ve been spending with her, but you’re not. Don’t you have any feelings for her?”
       The red-nosed chipmunk shuffled his feet. “Well I…kinda. I mean, I like going and doing things like hang gliding and all, but then she gets all touchy-feely. I don’t like that stuff. Do you like it?”
       Chip was caught off guard with that, and tried to be diplomatic. “We’ll, it’s taking some getting used too, but I don’t dislike it. Don’t you think you should spend more time with her? She really likes you, and if you don’t make a move she might move on, maybe find someone else.”
       Dale scratched his head, shuffled his feet some more and seemed to be counting something that Chip couldn’t make out. “Well, like I say, I’m not the touchy-feely type. Besides, I think she likes you better anyway.” Chip rolled his eyes. “Dale, you can’t assume every girl you meet will like me better than you! Foxy fell for you big-time the moment she saw you. I’d think she’d be good for you! She’s beautiful, loving, compassionate, and she’s certainly open about her feelings! She’s got that cute giggle and those big beautiful eyes...but, I think you’re gonna miss out on something special here if you don’t do anything about it.”
       Chip’s tirade had Dale cringing some. He pulled his head in slightly as if he wished he was a turtle. His eyes showed the first signs of noticeable panic. “Chip, she scares me half to pieces!”
       Now where had he heard that before? “Why Dale?” Chip asked. “Haven’t you ever wanted a girl to really like you? She’s what most guys dream of—a girl that appears out of the blue and falls madly in love with you. No problems with trying to meet a girl, dating and all that. She’s right there and in love.”
       “That’s just it!” Dale shouted. “I never really thought any girl would seriously like me! I mean, I might’ve had dreams about Gadget and some other girls, but they were just dreams, that’s all! I never expected any girl to be...well, that way about me. I don’t have the first idea of what to do or if I’d be doing the right thing or if she’d hate me if I suggested we go roller skating! Why couldn’t they have had a class on what to do about clingy girls in school instead of boring’ ol algebra!?”
       Chip paused, trying to be patient. “Nothing’s going to be accomplished by fretting and hiding from her. You’re going to have to just deal with this in a mature fashion. Talk to her! She’s probably clingy because she’s been alone for a long time or never had anyone to care for her, so part of it’s probably desperation. You need to find out if there’s real feelings there or if she’s looking for an emotional crutch.”
       Dale crossed his arms, mumbling. “Easy for you to say. You always knew how to talk to the girls. Me, I couldn’t even talk to Gadget the first two weeks she was with us here in the tree house! You remember how she thought I was speech-impaired. Even now, I can’t barely get two words out to her.”
       “Hi, there!”
       Dale turned to see Gadget, who had just knocked before opening the door to their room. “Oh, hi Gadget. Me and Chip are talking about Foxy and why he thinks she’s right for me and why I don’t. I think Chip thinks I love her and I ain’t fessing up to it but I think he’s wrong! Whattaya you think?” Gadget was surprised in that it was the most anyone had said to her at one time to her in the last few days.
       “Golly,” Gadget said, the first thing she could think to say. “Well, by the sound of it you should just ask her how she feels instead of trying to guess, but she’ll also probably ask you what you think about her so you’d better know the answer to her question before you even ask yours.”
       Dale took a moment to absorb that, then whirled back to Chip. “Now see, there’s a good answer! Why couldn’t you have told me that?” Chip rolled his eyes again and shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, I don’t know...I guess I’m not very observant. Will you help clear this all up and talk to her so we can find out where this is all headed before anyone gets a broken heart or hurt feelings?”
       Dale groaned at the prospect. “Oh, all right. But if she scares me out of my wits, it’s all your fault!”
       Gadget stood there as Dale marched out, then waited a beat before speaking to Chip. “Uh, I guess maybe this wasn’t the best time to ask someone to help me test one of my inventions?”
       Chip dusted his hands off, glad for any distraction at this point. “It’s no trouble, Gadget. How can I help you?” Gadget’s hopes crept up some. “Well, you see, I’ve been on an inventing binge the last few days but whenever I need someone to test anything the place is usually empty. You don’t think everyone’s afraid to test my inventions, do you?”
       Chip knew a question to avoid when he saw one. “I’m sure it’s just coincidence. What do you want me to help you with?” Gadget was surprised to find that Chip was not trying to flatter her or charm her. He was being perfectly ordinary
       “Come on, I’ll show you.”
       Gadget led Chip into the workshop and showed him the ultralite. Then she grunted in frustration. “It’s night now! You can’t fly this at night. Well, you could but I doubt you would unless it was a matter of life and death. Maybe we should test out the camping equipment I made. I’m not quite sure if that mini-grill’s going to cook things uniformly.”
       “We should wait on the flying,” Chip agreed, “but the grill sounds like a good idea. We can try it on the veranda.”
       Gadget immediately agreed to this idea and they carried the grill out there. Monty brought out the cheese and chips to create a cheese melt with, and soon Gadget was taking temperature readings while Chip watched the chip on the grill, the cheese slowly melting on it.
       The mouse inventor watched as Monty went back inside. She realized that she and Chip were alone for the first time since the theater incident, and she looked up from her temperature readings. “Chip, didn’t you say you were planning on taking Foxy to a Broadway play tomorrow? If you’re trying to encourage Dale, maybe he should be taking her to the play.”
       Chip took on a note of frustration. “I don’t know what to think yet. What if she’s just using me to try to make Dale jealous?” Gadget made a few notes on the notepad in front of her. “Then ask her. I suspect that if it’s Dale she wants, she’ll tell you outright. If not, then she’ll be insulted but she’ll get over it. Foxy seems like a nice person, anyway.”
       “I know I’m spending a lot of time with her and I like her, but I’m trying not to,” Chip admitted. “Dale’s finally met a girl who likes him and I don’t want to get in the way. I’ve done that too many times in various ways to Dale over the years. He’s nearly written her off as liking me more than him. The guy’s just got to take a stand or he’ll never be happy!”
       Gadget put her makeshift thermometer down. “Chip, why is Dale’s happiness so important to you? I mean, I know you’re his friend and all but you two squabble all the time.” Chip had to admit, she was right on that point. “Dale’s my best friend in the whole world and he’s like a brother to me, but at the same time I think Dale blames a lot of his loneliness and unhappiness on me. So I don’t want to do anything this time. I want to keep out of the way and let Dale determine for himself the outcome of his relationship with Foxy. I don’t want him to be able to blame me if it doesn’t work.”
       Gadget was amazed. Chip was talking to her like a friend, and being very blunt and open. She was also surprised at how mature he sounded. “Chip, I think that’s one of the nicest things I’ve ever heard.”
       Chip found her compliment agreeable and it helped him. “As you’ve obviously seen, it can be a rocky friendship. Dale’s never wanted to grow up and now that buried maturity is fighting with his childlike desire to take nothing seriously. I just hope he has the guts to talk to her.”
       “I think he will. He’s stronger than you realize. Uh oh...”
       They’d been talking and allowed the cheese to start boiling on the chip. Gadget grabbed an oven mitt and took it off. “Par for the course with me. Dad never could seem to teach me how to cook right.” Chip helped her put the scalding chip inside a sandwich bag to contain the burnt smell. “Well, I’m no cook either. Dale and I ate a lot of pizza and Chinese food before we joined the Rangers.”
       Gadget laughed lightly. “Good thing we have Monty. Jeepers, I just realized that we’re talking and everything’s normal between us. I never knew you guys didn’t know how to cook. I guess most of us missed out on learning that skill.”
       “I was too busy obsessing with crime fighting and Dale with his daydreaming,” Chip said. “And you were too busy learning to invent. I guess cooking isn’t a skill you know you need until you’re on your own.”
       Gadget had half-expected Chip to revert to his regular self, but when he didn’t she was relieved. “Right. Let’s get another chip on the grill and see what happens. Uh, corn chip that is.” Chip laughed. It was the first time he could remember Gadget making a joke intentionally. “Okay, let’s try this again.”
       The experiment went well this time and once Dale got a whiff of the cheese, he and Monty were right there along with Zipper. The remainder of the evening was spent talking and applying cheese to chips. Foxy had been feeding nearby and when she saw them outside and decided to drop back in. She greeted everyone then turned her attention to Dale, taking on a coy smile with her wings behind her back.
       “Hi!” Foxy said. “Looks like a fun time. How are you doing, Dale?”
       “Aaaaugh!” Dale said, surprised that she was centering in on him and not Chip. “Oh, sorry Foxy. I uh, was just eatin’. Uh, how are you?”
       Dale had dropped his corn chip and instinctively reached for it on the veranda floor. Foxy pulled his hand away. “Oh, no! Don’t do that, Dale. It could be contaminated. Let me get you another one.”
       “Uh, that’s all right, you don’t have to...” Dale said.
       But Foxy had already made the move. She grabbed a chip bubbling with cheese off the grill, and didn’t realize how hot it would be. She started juggling the hot potato, which wasn’t good for someone with appendages as large as hers. She bumped into the grill, sending another chip flying and lost her grip on the one she had. Cheese was flying everywhere—in Gadget’s hair, in Chip and Dale’s fur, on Monty’s jacket, and all over Foxy’s wings. When the panic parade stopped, everyone was looking at everyone else.
       Dale had the start of a grin. “Uh oh, I think the others might be ‘cheesed’!” Dale began giggling. The others weren’t quite so amused about having been covered in scalding hot cheddar, but they had endured worse many times and put on a pleasant face as they began to clean themselves up.
       Foxy was scared that the others would be mad, but when Dale started giggling she joined in. “I didn’t know you had such a sense of humor, darling. I’m glad you didn’t hold it against me.”
       Chip sensed an opportunity for his friend. “It’s okay, Foxy. I think maybe the rest of us should go inside and clean up. Don’t you agree, Monty, Zipper and Gadget?” They caught Chip’s look. “Oh, er, right,” Monty said. “This reminds me of the time I was in Bordeaux, judgin’ a wine and cheese festival. Didn’t care about the wine of course, but the cheese! Ah, that was a sight...”
       The foursome went inside and Foxy helped Dale clean up. “I’m so sorry about that. Guess it was my turn to be klutz today.” Dale smiled, helping her clean off as well. “Not half as klutzy as me. I’m the king of klutzes. Don’t worry, they won’t hold it against you. If they put up with all the stuff I do, they’ll put up with anything you do.”
       Foxy smiled. “You’re just being kind, but thanks.”
       Dale looked back to the grill, lamenting all the wasted food. “Did you get enough to eat? I mean, I don’t know how filling bugs are…” Dale shuddered at the thought of eating icky bugs, especially when an icky bug was a good friend of his.
       “Yeah, I was pretty well through, but thanks for asking. Uh, do you mind if I ask you a question?”
       Dale wondered where this was leading. “Uh, I guess not. What’s on your mind?” Foxy ducked her head a little and took on an apologetic look. “I...I just wanted to say...well...oh, you’ll think this is silly, but I just wanted to say that I’m really glad that you were willing to spend some time with me and all. I mean, you Rangers do so many important things and all and I’m just a nobody and you’’re so somebody.”
       Dale rolled his eyes, then grinned as it reminded him of Chip’s earlier reaction. “Please, Foxy. I’m twice the nobody you only think you are. Things are nicer around here just having you around.”
       Foxy brightened at once. “They are?”
       “Sure!” Dale said. “You’re like a pretty flower or something like that, except you don’t smell, which is a good thing I guess.” Foxy blushed and seemed taken off-guard. “Wow, that’s about the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me. I didn’t know you even thought about me that way. Truth is, I was scared you were just overlooking me with all the girlfriends you must have around so I sort of overdid things with the hugging and all.”
       Dale forced himself not to laugh at the idea of his having a bevy of girlfriends. “Foxy, you’re the only girl that’s ever showed any interest in me! That’s why I’m always so scared when you’re all touchy feely.”
       Foxy’s mouth dropped. “No! The only girl? How can that be? You’re so cute and nice and all. I’m sorry about the touchy-feely stuff. I was just desperate to get your attention! I’m not really that way, but I sort of just lose control sometimes when I’m around you. I’ll do my best not to do that again. Say, want to go on a walk through the park tomorrow? I bet you know all the best sites to see in it.”
       Dale had to know more. “Foxy, do you like me because of me or are you just lonely and want to be around other people? I need to know what you really feel.” Foxy looked away for a moment. “Well, I guess it’s not fair to say that I know you yet, but I like the time we spend together. I won’t lie about it—I like being around other people, and that’s why I went out with Chip too, because you weren’t available and it’s boring being alone. But I do like you.”
       “Okay, that’s a start I guess,” Dale said. “Sure, we can go for a walk in the park tomorrow.”
       “Yay!” Foxy came at him, about to hug him, then remembered when she saw him cringe. “Oh, sorry. Um, is it okay if I hug you?”
       Dale looked a little uncomfortable, and was. “Uh, well I guess so.” Dale decided to make the first move and end the awkward moment. He leaned forward and hugged her. “Good night, Foxglove.”
       Foxy completed the hug, being gentle this time. “Thank you. It’s been a wonderful evening. Except for the cheese, of course.” Dale grinned at that. “If you’re going to stick around you’d better get used to cheese—lots and lots and lots of cheese!”
       The cute bat winked at him. “Just as long as it doesn’t stick on me!”
       Dale waved as she flew off and he made a beeline for the door and slammed it behind him. He had his back to the door and his heart was pounding. “Well, that was interesting...” The door slam attracted the attention of the others. “So, how’d it go?” Chip asked.
       “We had a heart to heart talk and we’re going for a walk in the park tomorrow,” Dale said, in the same line as if he’d said he had a dentist’s appointment. Gadget had just come back in the main room from showering the cheese out of her hair and fur. “Oh, that sounds nice! I’m glad you two are still friends and all. Why don’t we all watch a movie now?”
       Chip and Dale looked at each other in surprise at Gadget’s unusual request. Gadget wanting to watch a movie was like Dale asking to read Hemingway. “Well, sure Gadget,” Chip said. “What do you want to watch?”
       “Oh, you can pick,” Gadget said. “I just thought it’d be nice to spend the evening with you guys this evening.” Chip and Dale again looked at each other, but this time with a look of concern. “Are you sure, Gadget?” Chip asked.
       “Yeah, it’s not something you usually ask for,” Dale added.
       Gadget smiled and put a hand behind each of their shoulders, leading them over to the sofa. They sat down, Gadget between the both of them. “Well, I realized over the past few days that you both are my friends and I haven’t been treating you very good. I let things get out of control the other day with the yelling and all and I guess in some ways I’ve been a little scared of showing my feelings openly because I wasn’t sure how you two would take it. But I just want you both to know that I think you’re two great guys. I’m glad you’ve found someone nice to do things with, Dale, and I’m also glad that you’re treating me like a friend, Chip.”
       Chip smiled back, resolved to it. “Just friends, as they say.”
       “Just one big happy family!” Dale said. “Let’s watch the one with the cannibal zombies!”

Chapter 4 – All Dressed Up / Dinner Theater

       The Rangers settled in for the show, and the boys were surprised when Gadget actually seemed to enjoy herself. She laughed at the funny parts and even took their hands when the scary parts came. The movie ended and Chip found that Gadget was asleep with her head resting on his shoulder.
       “Wow, I never thought I’d see that,” Dale said.
       Chip had to admit, he never thought he would either. “I think she’s learned that she can trust us. Gadget, come on, wake up…” Gadget opened her eyes slowly. “Huh? Oh, sorry. I’ve been up inventing several days straight. Did the smog monster win, or did the zombies?”
       Dale turned off the television. “It had a happy ending. The guy with the chainsaw killed them all.” Gadget yawned and stretched. “That’s nice. Well, good night, guys. Oh, think we could test out that ultralite tomorrow, Chip?”
       “Sure, Gadget,” Chip said. “First thing in the morning. Goodnight.”
       “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite!” Dale said.
       Early the next morning, Chip watched as Dale and Foxy left for their tour of the park. Gadget hadn’t been seen since breakfast, and Chip was wondering if she might be on another inventing binge when she emerged from her workshop. And Chip’s mouth dropped.
       Gadget wasn’t dressed in her coveralls, but in a dark purple business suit with a light purple blouse. Even her purple flats matched. She wasn’t wearing makeup, but that hadn’t quite registered on Chip’s mind yet.
       “Gadget, what...why are you dressed up?” Chip asked.
       Gadget looked a lot more like a television reporter now than a mechanic, and Chip thought she also looked taller and more commanding despite the skirt showing off her legs. “Well, I thought about it, and I realized that if it’s in my hands now what happens to me relationship-wise, then I’d better at least see what dating’s like. I’ve had this old thing for years, but never could bring myself to wear it because I just wanted to be accepted for my abilities. What do you think?”
       Chip’s head felt like it was going to explode. **What is going on in this woman’s brain?!** “Gadget, you look lovely. Please, tell me what’s going on? You’ve been acting very weird lately.”
       Gadget walked over. “Chip, what happened in the workshop made me sit down and really think about things for the first time in years.”
       “Gadget, you don’t have to—”
       “No, let me finish,” Gadget interrupted. “I thought about it and I came to the conclusion that I was letting all the concern I had about my looks and how people saw me rob me of a whole part of my life. I’ve always reacted by drawing back and shutting myself in, but I realized when I yelled at you that I had a right to just say no if I didn’t like something and that I shouldn’t just withdraw but speak up. So here I am. I’d like you to go on a date with me, Chip Maplewood.”
       “Excuse me?”
       Gadget smiled, her eyes beaming. “You heard me. I want to know what a date’s like, and I’ve learned I can trust you so I want you to go out with me on a date.” Chip was startled for a moment and began to sweat. His mouth went dry. “Well...well uh, sure, Gadget! Is there anything in particular you’d like to do? Dinner, movie, dancing?”
       “Well, actually there’s a new exhibit at the New York Science Museum I’d like to see,” Gadget said. “I think you’ll like it too—it has to do with new energy sources and their applications. They say you can actually go inside an electromagnet in one of the exhibits. And then after that we could go to dinner and see if there’s anything interesting to do. So what do you think?”
       Chip felt like he was in some strange movie of Dale’s, the kind that he watched in the middle of the night. “That sounds fine, Gadget. I’ll go and make dinner reservations.”
       “Oh, no problem, Chip. I’ve already made them. I know a place in town that serves the best Italian food, and it’s off the beaten path. Shall we go?”
       “Wow, you’ve really planned this out,” Chip said. “I’ll leave a note for the others…”
       Chip quickly scribbled out a note on the fridge, wondering if any of them would believe it. He came back in, half-wondering if the mouse in the business suit would be gone, but no there she was, waiting patiently. He offered Gadget his arm. “Do you have a preference for the Wing or Plane and would you like to fly?” Gadget was cordial. “Thanks, I would. We’ll go in the Wing. I’ve just overhauled it so I know she’s good to go and it’ll make it easier to land on the museum’s roof.”
       Gadget led the way, and off they went to the Science Museum. Chip found himself reassessing the girl next to him. He knew Gadget could be direct at times, but this? Still, she’d apparently thought hard on all of this and decided she wanted to do it. Chip wasn’t used to being the datee, but considering who had asked he found he didn’t mind.
       “Dale, are you afraid of me, or just of the idea of commitment?” Foxglove asked. She and Dale were on their walk in the park, a nice sunny late morning. Dale walked on, next to her. “Well, I dunno. It’s not so much commitment as it is the idea that I might get in over my head and not know what to do.”
       “Whew,” Foxy said. “I’m glad it’s not only me.”
       Dale had been looking down, counting the cracks in the sidewalk, but this make him snap his head up. “You’re scared about commitment, too?” Foxy nodded. “Oh yeah. I mean, I really like you and all, but I’m used to my freedom too. If we were…intimate then it would mean a whole bunch of lifestyle changes.”
       The conversation allowed Dale to relax some. “So you’re not really serious about getting into a relationship right now?” The pretty bat glanced away for a moment. “Well…”
       **Ah, she is** Dale thought. “But not with me?”
       Foxy paused, then nodded. “I really like you and I love our time together. But I guess I think of you as a friend.” Dale smiled, relieved. “That’s how I feel too!”
       “Really?” Foxy asked. “Oh Dale, that’s—okay, it’s not wonderful but it’s a…”
       “Relief!” Dale said.
       “Yeah, relief!” Foxy echoed. Chipmunk and bat alike let out big contended sighs to accentuate the point.
       They walked on a little more and then Dale breached the next topic. “You said you’re not interested in me that way, but what about Chip?” Foxglove had known it was coming. “I…I think maybe, in a way.”
       Dale arched his eyebrows. “And you didn’t want to hurt me by saying so?”
       Foxglove touched his arm. “You aren’t, are you? Oh please, don’t be mad!”
       The fun-loving chipmunk patted her arm back. “I’m not mad, Foxy. Gadget talked with me the other night and I think I understand things a little better. Y’see, I’ve kinda blamed Chip for a lot of my troubles, and I realized that a lot of them were just made up, sort of. You do like the touchy-feely stuff, don’t you.”
       She nodded. “It’s like I’m always ready with a hug. I know you don’t like that, but I need someone who does. And I need someone to be with who I can share that side of me with.” Dale smiled back. “Oh, it’s not so bad—between friends.”
       Foxy hugged him tight. “Oh thank you! But we can still do things together. I like going to movies and watching TV and even some of your comic books. But not the vampire ones.”
       “Okay, no vampire comics,” Dale said. “Say, you weren’t with us the other night when we went to the movies. How’d you like to see the X-Men?” Foxy was all for it. “Lead on, gallant sir!”
       Chip and Gadget’s time at the Science Museum turned out to be fun. The exhibits were diverting, and Gadget loved getting to explain everything to Chip. Chip found he was able to enjoy Gadget’s presence and listen too, which told him that things had definitely changed. When they left for the restaurant, he was feeling just a little intimidated. When they got there, that feeling began to grow. Petrini’s Fine Italian Restaurant was directly under a human Italian restaurant of the same name. It had all the atmosphere—the drippy candles, the music, the whole nine yards.
       It turned out that Gadget had done Signor Petrini a favor in the past on one of her many missions in the city to help people. He’d needed special machinery to handle making his pasta and Gadget had volunteered. Ever since then, she’d had a standing offer to eat free at his place. She’d been too shy to take him up on that then, but Petrini had joyfully agreed to her coming when she’d phoned.
       The Italian mouse showed she and Chip to the best table in the house and soon they were in the land of garlic breadsticks and the best spaghetti in town. Chip winced a little when Petrini winked to him as he walked away, chuckling some. Gadget paused a moment once she’d sampled the food. “Thanks for coming with me to the museum, Chip. I liked having you along. It was nice having someone to talk to and share all the things I was fascinated with.”
       Chip felt very uncomfortable. Aside from the nega-Gadget he was having dinner with, some musicians came up to the table and the whole bit took on the feel of that famous scene from Lady and the Tramp. “Thank you for inviting me, Gadget. I’m sorry I’m not more scientifically oriented. The restaurant’s very nice, though. I love good Italian food.”
       “Oh, good!” Gadget said, sampling the vegetables and pasta. “I was concerned you wouldn’t, but I didn’t want to spoil the effect. Actually, I like explaining things to people. It helps me to think more deeply about it all, and you asked good questions. So, we’re having dinner now. What else usually happens on a date?”
       Chip half-chuckled to himself at the question, feeling like a date-coach. “Well, a date is where strangers see if they can make the move to being friends and from there it gets really complicated, but basically it’s to find out if there’s the potential to become more than friends.”
       Gadget ate a little more, seemingly absorbing this information like she would a new mathematical formula. “And how do you know if that potential is there or not?”
       “There’s either chemistry or there’s not,” Chip said, taking a bite of his acorn ravioli. “It’s not something you can describe. It’s either there or it isn’t.”
       Gadget blinked, puzzled. “Chemistry? What do molecular covalences and compounds have to do with potential? That’s an electrical force.” Chip sighed. “I knew I shouldn’t have used that particular word. There’s either a connection between the two people or there isn’t. Love is irrational, not scientific.”
       “Oh, I see, irrational,” Gadget said, looking down a moment, then back at him. “In what way?”
       “In that it follows no logical path,” Chip explained, “and there’s no way to explain how or why it works. People fall in love or they don’t. Or perhaps one person falls in love, but the other doesn’t feel anything.”
       Gadget pursed her lips. “Golly, that doesn’t sound like a very good system. So you’re saying it’s all arbitrary? That would mean there’s no systematic way to know who you really like and who really likes you. Right?”
       “Correct. How Dale and I felt about you is a good example. The first time we saw you we both fell hopelessly in love with you, but you didn’t feel the same way about us.”
       Gadget took a moment to think on this. “But how could you love me without knowing me? I mean, I’ve heard of ‘love at first sight’ but shouldn’t it require more than that? When I saw the two of you, I liked you okay enough. I mean, I didn’t know you but you were both polite and not salesmen so that was two things in your favor. And I guess I was a little lonely just being there on my own and I hadn’t had a real challenge in ages.”
       Chip gulped slightly. “I’ll be honest, it was just your looks at first. You could have had the personality of a troll and I still would’ve fallen for you. Later it was just intimidating being around you because of your brilliance. It made me feel like an idiot when I was around you.”
       Gadget took on a look of sincere concern and reached out, touching Chip’s hand. “You did? Why didn’t you tell me that?” Gadget asked.
       “Who likes to admit they feel like an idiot?”
       Gadget’s eyes showed her apology. “I’m sorry, Chip. I should’ve realized! It’s happened so many times before, too. Boys would come over to ask me out and dad would try to set me up on a date, but then I’d open my mouth and it would scare them off. Dad said it was because I was special, and I suppose he was right. But it got to the point where no one was willing to try anymore, and I just sort of accepted that as the status quo.”
       “It must be lonely being so smart,” Chip said. “There can’t be more than a handful of people as smart as you on the entire planet. Having to tolerate the rest of us must be tough at times.”
       Gadget nodded. “It can be, especially looking the way I do. I don’t apologize for my appearance, but sometimes it does get in the way of fruitful intellectual conversation. Still, I’ve found it helps people to be open with me as well. But you’re right, it’s been lonely at times. I have made a decision, though. I don’t want to sacrifice who I am because of my appearance. I want to be accepted for what’s inside as much as what’s outside. Don’t you think that’s fair to ask?”
       “It’s a fair demand,” Chip admitted. “But must people, myself included, tend to judge only by what we see. My intuition breaks down when it comes to emotional matters and that’s why I’ve been particularly irrational when it comes to you.” Gadget felt better about it all now. “I understand, and thanks for being frank with me. Oh, we’re done here, aren’t we? I guess we’d better go.”
       In fact, they’d finished their food some time back. Chip and Gadget headed outside, continuing to talk, and now they were back on the roof of the establishment. “So if love’s irrational and unpredictable, how do you know if it’s present at all?”
       Chip took her hand, heading for the edge of the roof, where they could overlook the lit-up city. “Well, I’ve heard it said that a formula for knowing if you’re in love is if you think of the other person more than you think about yourself.”
       Gadget mentally filed that away for future reference. “I seem to remember a song that says that you can tell when you kiss someone. Is that true, too?” Chip grew a bit nervous and he hoped Gadget couldn’t see it. “Uh, I don’t know. I’ve ... uh, never gotten to that point in a relationship.”
       Gadget took a step closer, looking directly into his eyes. “Let’s find out.”
       Before Chip could react, Gadget grabbed his jacket lapels and yanked him toward her. She caught him in a long kiss, and her natural strength had Chip on his tiptoes, trying to regain his balance, physically and otherwise. Finally, she let go. “Hmm … well, it’s sort of a strange sensation. I’d better kiss you a couple more times to be sure. That way I can eliminate any bias from the first kiss’ results.”
       Gadget started to reach for his lapels again. As much as Chip wanted it to continue, he took her hands and gently moved her back. “Gadget, please don’t tempt me like that! Remember, it’s not scientific. You caught me off guard there. Let’s take it slow. I just got over your telling me you weren’t interested in romance, and now suddenly you’re interested.” Gadget slowly began to realize she’d made a mistake, and her hands rose up to her face, which was blushing.
       “Oh, no. I’m sorry, Chip! It’s just that I don’t really know what to do, and that’s the way my thinking works,” Gadget said. “I was just interested to see if the aphorism was true or not. What can I do to make it right?”
       Chip was amazed. She really was clueless. “Your thinking’s still too clinical. If you’re truly interested in understanding your emotional side you need to follow your heart and not your head. Use your instincts rather than logic. Aside from that, I have to ask this: are we here tonight just because you wanted to experience a date or did you want to be here with me?”
       Gadget ducked her head, her eyes looking up at him. “Would you be angry if I said it was the former?”
       “No, Gadget. I think I know you well enough to know you meant no harm. I had a lovely evening, regardless.”
       Chip leaned forward and gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek. Gadget blinked, then touched the place where he’d kissed her. “Golly.” For a moment, she just looked at him and then she giggled. “That felt nice. Was that a thank you, too?”
       “Yes,” Chip said, smiling now. “It’s selfish to say it, but you have no idea how long I’ve dreamed of being kissed by you. We both experienced new things tonight.” Gadget had to fight an urge to draw back in. “Oh. You won’t think less of me because I did that, will you?”
       Chip chuckled. “Of course not. It was an experiment. One that I hope worked with no problems.”

Chapter 5 – When Silence is the Worst Sound of All

       Gadget laughed at Chip’s joke and they headed for home. Chip felt a lot better about some things, but worse about others. He hadn’t realized how isolated Gadget had been from the social life of others. She just didn’t know how to do anything when it came to relationships, and he was beginning to wonder if she could really learn—or if she wanted to. When they landed at Headquarters, he helped her out of the Wing.
       “Thanks, Chip,” Gadget said. “I’d like to do this again, but first I’ll have to think about it some. I learned a lot about you and myself.”
       “Sure Gadget, anytime. It was very illuminating.”
       Gadget reached over and kissed his cheek then went inside, giggling some more. The next day, the group had breakfast as always and Gadget, now back in her coveralls, talked eagerly about her first date. Chip blushed some about the kissing, and Dale of course laughed, but everyone took it good-naturedly. Then Gadget rubbed her head, wincing a little.
       “That place still giving you trouble, luv?” Monty asked. “Maybe you ought to go see Dr. Batorious.” Gadget shook her head. “You know how I feel about doctors, Monty. It’s just from that header into the wall. It’ll pass.”
       “Are you sure, Gadget?” Chip asked, feeling a pang of guilt over it. “It wouldn’t take but a quick checkup to find out.” Here, Gadget was adamant. “I’ve never liked doctors, Chip. It’s just the way I am. But if it gets serious, I’ll go.”
       “Okay, that’s fine. Do you need help in the workshop today?
       Gadget got up for her chair, the headache having passed now. “No, that’s fine. I’ve got a surprise or two to work on today.” Dale liked the sound of that. “Surprise! Tell me, tell me, tell me!”
       “Well, it wouldn’t be one if you knew!” Gadget said. “See you later, guys.”
       In fifteen minutes, Gadget Hackwrench was alone at Ranger Headquarters—not because she’d been left alone this time, but rather the other Rangers had simply chosen it to be that way. Gadget set into her work with a will, a warm place inside of her. Next week was their sixth anniversary of being a team, and each year they would celebrate it like any birthday or personal anniversary. Gadget had decided to make each of the Rangers something special and currently she was working on a rodent-sized mini-television for Dale, knowing how he enjoyed watching his shows at any and all hours.
       “Let’s see now...there, that should do it!” Gadget said, completing the wiring on the small console. “I’d better hook it up to my DC adapter and make sure it works okay before letting Dale run wild with it.” Gadget took the little TV over to her bench, where she’d made a machine to convert regular electricity over to use with small appliances like this one.
       This time, the anniversary meant more to her. Not that it hadn’t previously, but now she’d come to know Chip and Dale better and it made her appreciate their friendship and support. She also knew that with the goings-on none of them would have been thinking about the upcoming anniversary and she’d be able to surprise them. She began humming a tune, getting lost in the work she enjoyed.
       The day passed without incident for the most part. The guys did spot a petty thief, which they helped the police nab by attracting their attention with a flare. Keeping the crooks in line made Chip happy, because he knew he’d contributed a little in a way to public safety. He piloted the RangerWing on its homeward trek. “No Dale, we’re not staying up till all hours this time!”
       “Okay,” Dale said, “but how about if we watch wholesome movies then, like Sound of Music and Wizard of Oz?”
       “No way,” Chip said. “Besides, we’re going to surprise Gadget with an early anniversary this year. It should be her night to have fun.” Dale held tightly his gift for Gadget, a chrome adjustable wrench with her name engraved on it.
       “Aw, a little self-indulgence don’t hurt now and then, Chip,” Monty said. “After all, y’know Gadget’s back at HQ an’ going all-out for our anniversary like always.” Chip sighed, half in resolve and half in admiration of the mouse inventor. He glanced over at his own gift for her, a rodent-sized circuit tester.
       “Yeah, I know. She’s wonderful. Especially now that she’s being herself and not what we want her to be.” As they neared the tree, Chip’s dreamy thoughts suddenly gave way to concern. “Monty, weren’t the lights on when we left?”
       Monty paused, thinking. “I reckon so. Maybe the lass had to go out fer somethin’.”
       Foxglove flew alongside of them. Chip’s concern for Gadget stung her a little, but she knew he had to make up his own mind. “Maybe we shouldn’t have left her alone at HQ, with all that dangerous stuff in the workshop.”
       “Nah, Gadget’s always careful about that...uh, except when she isn’t,” Dale said.
       Monty leaned forward to where his face was right behind Chip. “Uh, how about pouring on a mite more speed, Chipper? Not that I’m worried or anything.”
       Chip complied and they landed quickly, all of them jumping or flying out. They called to Gadget when they entered the now-dark headquarters but got no reply. Chip pulled out his flashlight from his jacket and headed for Gadget’s workshop, talking as he entered the door.
       “The breakers are in her workshop. We’ll just flip them on”
       The others saw Chip stop in his tracks, unable to move or talk. Monty hurried to the door, as did the others. The sight they beheld was something that none of them thought they would ever view. Gadget was on the floor, face-down, and not moving.

Chapter 6 – Bet You Didn’t See That Coming, Or This…

       Monty leaped forward and gently turned Gadget over. He was silent for a few moments and then began to scream hysterically. The others quickly joined him in their own unique hysterical responses.
       Dale pointed and shouted, “OH NO! Gadget! Gadget’s dead, and her wires are hanging out of her head! NO!” Chip was crying next to Dale, but for some reason what Dale said didn’t seem to make sense. He opened his eyes and looked at Gadget. Sure enough, there were the burnt leads of wires sticking out of her neck.
       “She...she...she’s not real!” Chip shouted.
       Foxglove’s eyes got large and she passed out and Zipper just fell out of the air. Dale sat on the floor seemingly in shock. “Is she d..d..dead, Chip?” Chip’s hand shook as he slowly reached out and touched the wires to be sure they were a part of her.
       They were.
       “She’s an android!” Chip said.
       Dale started coming back from the daze he’d been in. “Then someone must have replaced the real Gadget with this copy! What do we do now?”
       The others seemed to be coming back to their senses now. Chip’s mind was already racing, trying to deal with the image in front of him and what it all meant. “Nimnul’s the only one that would have the know-how to build something like this, but somehow I can’t imagine him working this subtly. I think the first thing we need to do is get someone to repair this one so we can interrogate it.”
       “Yeah, but who?” Dale asked. “Those thing-a-majiggles sticking out of Gadget’s—er the android’s neck look real hard to fix!” Monty stood up. “Sparky’s the only guy I know that would have any idea as to how to fix”
       Chip snapped his fingers. “Of course! Let’s take this problem to Sparky, then.”
       Even though they knew this wasn’t Gadget, the boys still picked up the android reverently. Chip noted that the duplicate was perfect, right down to her skin pores and even the silky feel of her hair.
       When they reached Sparky’s lab at NYU, he was as distraught as the Rangers had been at first. “Einstein’s ghost! She looks like she’s been hit with an atom-smasher!” Chip led the trauma team. “We need your help, Sparky! Someone built this copy of Gadget and we need you to get her working again so we can get some answers.”
       “That’s a copy?” Sparky said, looking the android over. “It’s certainly a good one, then. Bring it over to my workbench and I’ll take a look.” Monty gently placed the android on the bench and then involuntarily brushed her hair off her face. “Just be careful, mate, no tellin’ who or what she’s here for.”
       “Who’s here?” Sparky asked.
       “The robot Gadget, mate,” Monty said.
       Sparky gasped. “Gadget’s a robot?”
       “Just fix the robot, Sparky!!!” Chip shouted.
       Chip caught his breath. “I’m sorry, but we’re understandably upset right now. Gadget’s been kidnapped or worse, and this android’s the only clue!” Sparky began inspecting the damage. “Looks pretty straightforward...hmm, what’s that?” Sparky pointed out a small panel that had opened behind Gadget’s left ear. “If it does what I think it does, it does quite a lot.”
       Sparky pushed the button, and everyone jumped back as her ears immediately extended from her head on metallic antennae. “Hey, she’s like Inspector Gadget! That’s kind of funny, come to think of it.” Monty had to react quickly to prevent Chip from bonking Sparky. The leader of the Rangers watched as the telescoping ears appeared to be looking the android over. “What does it all mean, Sparky?”
       “Some kind of diagnostic program running, looks like,” Sparky mused, watching the ears as well. “Yep, it’s centered in on her head and neck now.”
       The ears stayed on the spot for a few moments, then additional metallic antennae sprouted from the ears and began the repair process. “Impressive!” Sparky said. “Whoever built this intended the android to be self-sufficient, even in the case of breakdown. That button was a fail-safe in case the android’s main power was kicked off-line. Must run on a separate backup...fascinating.”
       Dale felt queasy from looking at the android’s bizarre manner of self-repair, and Chip didn’t dare take his eyes off of it. “Be on your guard, there’s no telling how it will react now that we know its secret.”
       As they watched, the android repaired itself, even perfectly resealing the broken “skin”. The ears returned to their normal place, and after a few more moments the android’s eyes fluttered open
       “Golly...what...what happened?” the android asked.
       Chip stood over her, arms crossed. “All right, android, who made you and what have they done with the real Gadget?” The mouse-droid sat up, apparently still weak from the accident. “Thanks for trying to cheer me up, Chip, but it looks like I’m okay. I was making a TV set for Dale and—”
       “Drop the act! We pulled your damaged body out of the remains of Gadget’s workshop and brought you here for Sparky to repair you so we could find out what happened to the real Gadget.”
       This brought the android to full attention. “What do you mean, ‘real Gadget’? Is this some kind of joke—Dale are you behind this?” Dale took a few steps back when the android addressed him. “S...stay away from me, whatever you are.”
       Chip motioned for the android to stand behind the x-ray machine. It did so, then Chip pushed a full-length mirror up where it could see the machine's output. When Sparky flipped on the machine the android began screaming hysterically.
       “What have you done to me!” the android shouted, running toward the far side of the room.
       “The better question is, what have you done with Gadget?” Chip said. Dale pointed, but from afar. “Yeah, imposter, did Nimnul make you or somethin’?”
       At this, something entirely unexpected happened—the mouse-droid began to cry. “I am Gadget! I am! Someone’s done this to me!” Gadget covered her eyes, the crying becoming uncontrollable. The others didn’t quite know what to do. It looked like Gadget, sounded like Gadget and even acted like Gadget.
       “Well, don’t cry...lass,” Monty said, going over to her and bringing her back. “We’ll find out what’s goin’ on here.”
       Chip backed off a bit on his harshness too. “Sparky, can you find out when and where she was made?” Sparky mulled it over. “I guess so. We could try the X-ray again to see better what’s under the chassis, so to speak. Gadget, would you mind if we...”
       Gadget looked up again, her eyes reddened. “I guess not. I’ve never had an X-ray before because I’ve always been squeamish about doctors. But I want to know what’s going on too.”
       Sparky led Gadget over to an X-ray machine and this time they all got a good look at the display. Silently, they stared in amazement. The complex combinations of circuitry and electronics were beyond anything any of them had seen.
       “That didn’t come from Radio Shack,” Dale said, whistling.
       Chip studied the intricate circuitry, impressed. “I wonder how long this machine has been in Gadget’s place?” Foxglove was amazed as well. “She fooled us all, even me with my sensitive hearing. I was never able to detect anything unnatural in her.”
       Monty shook his head. “I don’t know what to say or think, pallies. This is just too unbelievable.” Dale remained at the back, still too shocked and shaken to know what to say or do. Sparky on the other hand was gripped by curiosity. “The know-how to made an android of this complexity must’ve taken years of—ah hah, there it is!”
       “There what is?” Gadget asked, feeling like the main attraction at a science fair.
       “The maker’s mark,” Sparky said. “I might’ve figured whoever did it couldn’t resist signing it somewhere. On the left arm servo, it’s engraved—G. Hackwrench.”
       “G. Hackwrench!!!” they all shouted.
       Monty scratched his head. “Are you tellin’ us that the late Geegaw Hackwrench built this here android copy of Gadget? Then what did he do with the real Gadget?”
       “But wait!” Chip said. “G could stand for Gadget as easily as Geegaw.”
       Sparky shook his head. “I think your friend’s right, Chip. Look.” Sparky pointed out smaller letters under the engraving that hadn’t been initially visible:
       This is my daughter, Gadget. If you find this, please reactivate her and don’t let her know she’s an android. If her repair systems aren’t functioning, activate the tracking beeper in her tail and it will lead you to me.
       Chip looked up from the writing, starting into the android’s eyes. “You are really Gadget…and all this time we’ve believed you were flesh and blood.” Foxglove stared as well. “You didn’t know you weren’t real?”
       “BZZZZZZZ?!?!” Zipper buzzed.
       Dale looked woozy. “I think I’m gonna be sick…”
       Monty’s voice was only a whisper. “Oh, Gadget darlin’.” He took the horrified Gadget in his arms. For her part, she couldn’t say anything. She was in total shock and just clung to Monty.
       Foxy turned to Chip. “What do we do now?”
       Chip pulled on his jacket lapels. “We find Geegaw Hackwrench, that’s what.”
       Gadget looked over at him, tears flowing. “But he’s dead... I... if I thought I was... real, maybe I don’t know anything. Maybe everything I think of as my memories are all false! Everything I’ve ever seen or done before I met you all is just stuff put there by dad!”
       The weight of it began to hit her. “Then…I was never a child…never grew up. I’m invention.” Chip came over to her. “Not just an invention, Gadget. You’re the most amazing invention anyone’s ever seen!”
       Gadget pushed him away. “But I’m not really real! I’m just a collection of circuit boards and complex algorithms!”
       “But you are self-aware,” Chip countered. “Maybe you aren’t real in that you’re not a real mouse, but then again maybe you are real because you’re a living machine.” Dale looked over at Sparky. “Is there any real stuff in her? Maybe she’s a cyborg or something, like the Six-Million Dollar Man.”
       “Nope, she’s all computers and machinery, Dale. No organic material at all.”
       Gadget caught the meaning of Dale’s question and turned to look at him with those beautiful eyes of hers in a questioning gaze. “Dale, you aren’t afraid of me, are you?”
       Dale took a step back again. “I’m sorry, Gadget, but this is a little weird for me right now. I mean, on the one hand there’s Terminator and on the other hand there’s the replicants from Blade Runner, just...uh, give me a little time to get used to it, then I think I’ll be okay.”
       Chip, ever the leader, tried to quell the situation. “Don’t worry, Gadget. It’s going to be okay.” Gadget looked at him with the most obvious stare of unbelief he’d seen. “Chip, what if you were to suddenly discover that you were never born, you never had parents, and never had a childhood? No memory you have is real, just planted there to make you think you experienced those things?”
       “I don’t know, Gadget,” Chip said honestly, “but some of your memories are real—those of us and what’s happened since. You’re still a Rescue Ranger, and you mean as much to us as you ever did.”
       “How can I even exist!” Gadget shouted. “The technology needed to do this is almost...unearthly. How did dad…how did he make me? I thought he was just a pilot. He probably isn’t really dead then. He just implanted the memory in me so he could move on, that...”
       Her fists balled up in anger. “Maybe mom’s still alive too. Every memory I’ve ever had when I was on my own is probably false!” Chip took her hand, hoping to calm her down. “All the more reason to find out the truth, then. The inscription said that there’s a tracker in your tail. If you can access that, then we can find your father or someone with the answers you need, anyway.”
       Monty pointed to her tail. “Uh, how do we activate that thingy in there?”

Chapter 7 – Questions, Questions

       Once the group was back at headquarters, Gadget hurried off to her workshop before anyone could say anything to her and she closed the door. She found herself feeling like a stranger in her own place—no, in her own life. It wasn’t really her life at all and now she realized she had a lot more in common with her inventions than she’d ever guessed. Slowly she walked through, looking first at her tools then at all the letters of thanks she’d been sent over the years for the help she’d so freely given.
       Then she reached the end of the table, and there it stood. The framed picture of Geegaw Hackwrench that had been her most treasured possession. She’d always made sure that it was off to the side and protected—now she felt like...she stared at the picture, anger bubbling up inside until it came out in a tirade of pent-up frustrations.
       “You lied to me! How could you do that!”
       Gadget began picking up inventions, tools—whatever she could get her hands on—and threw them across the room. “All of this, it’s a sham! A fake! I thought I was special because of you, but I’m just a pile of metal and silicon with a heart of steel. Why didn’t you tell me...”
       With her anger at its peak, she grabbed the frame in her hands. “Why did you have to ruin everything?!” Gadget brought the frame over her head to throw it at the wall, when someone snatched it from behind. She whirled and found Chip there.
       “You’d regret it later on, you know,” Chip said.
       Gadget spat back her answer. “I don’t care! What does it matter? Why should I even care? I’m just a machine, remember?” Chip took her hand again. “Gadget, of course you care! You’re the most caring person I’ve ever met. Look, I know this is still setting in but you’re obviously a lot more than just a machine.”
       “Oh please, Chip,” Gadget said, pulling away and starting to pace. “This isn’t the time for the mock heroism. Do you still think of me as the same Gadget? Prove it, then, kiss me. Come on, kiss me, knowing I’m really just a machine!”
       Chip knew there was no right answer, but he took her hand again. “Gadget, you don’t know how long I’ve wanted you to ask me that. My feelings for you haven’t changed, and I care about you deeply. But if I kissed you, it would be for all the wrong reasons, and you know it.”
       “Well, maybe so, but just leave me alone,” she said. “Why don’t you all just leave me alone!” Chip pushed his way in front of her. “Because we’re your friends! You’ve been there a hundred times for all of us—don’t push us away when you really need us. Please.”
       Gadget was nose to nose with him now. “I can see it in your eyes, Chip. There’s fear there. You’re really horrified by what I am, just like I am. I need to be alone for a while.”
       Chip started to speak again, but Gadget pointed at the door. Chip nodded and left. The mouse inventor turned to the morass around her and realized her anger was spent. She put everything back in its place, then noticed that Chip had left the picture of Geegaw at the end of the workbench nearest the door.
       “You’re going to answer me yet, Geegaw Hackwrench. I want to know why, and by golly, you’re going to tell me.”
       Gadget opened the door and headed for the kitchen. She had been feeling hungry after all the activity and started to rummage around in the refrigerator when it hit her that it must be programmed hunger. She slammed the door and started to walk out when she heard the slightest sound. She looked all around, then found the source—Dale was under the table, cowering in the far corner in the shadows.
       Gadget felt a surge of anger, but then let it pass. “Dale, please don’t hide from me! I know I must seem like something out of your worst nightmares, but I’m still Gadget, except I’m a machine.”
       Dale didn’t move a muscle, except the ones to speak with. “Are you gonna get mad again? Chip said you tore up your workshop.” Gadget shook her head. “I’m through being mad for now. I just...I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
       “Okay,” Dale said, daring to come out. “I just didn’t want to upset you more. I don’t know what to say to you. Are things gonna be different? Are you gonna be a different person now? You used to never get that upset before.”
       Gadget came over and held out a hand to Dale, who slowly took it after looking at it for a few moments. She helped him up, then took a step back. “I don’t think things will ever be the same. I’m not what I thought I was, and now everyone’s afraid of me—even Chip. I’m still the person I always was, though…at least I hope I am.”
       Dale edged closer. “Do…do you still think of us the same? Or are we different to you now that you’re not like us?” Gadget shrugged. “Everything I based my evaluations on is topsy-turvy. I thought I was real, but I’m not. Is anything real—I just don’t know.”
       “Is there anything we can do to help you? I’ve seen a lot a TV shows about things like this. Usually at a time like this a...person like you usually wants to find out where they came from and why they were made.”
       “I’ve already thought about that,” Gadget said. “I’m going to find that tracker and get my answers, but right now…”
       Gadget’s tears returned. “I need a hug!”
       The android mouse wrapped her arms around Dale and cried hard on his shoulder. Dale stood there dumbfounded at first with his arms hanging at his side, but his good nature overcame his fear and he hugged her close to him as she continued to cry. Monty had been listening outside and timed it so he could relieve Dale.
       Gadget cried some more, and Monty’s paternalistic feelings made him sympathetic to her. “Don’t cry, Gadget luv. We’re all just a bit out of sorts over this revelation, that’s all. You’re still the wonderful Gadget that we all love so much, and we’ll get to the bottom of this. We gotta find out what happened to yer dad!”
       “We need to go back to the airport and...I need to know if dad’s alive or dead. We’ll have to dig up their graves,” Gadget said. Monty didn’t like that idea, superstitious as he was. “Lass, ain’t there another way? I don’t like the idea of disturbing the dead an’ all. I’m sure ol’ Geegaw wouldn’t like me poking around like that, especially after Zanzibar and all.”
       Gadget raised her arms in a pleading action. “Everything I’ve experienced before I met you guys is just...programmed into my memory! The deaths of mom and dad may have just been made up. The sorrow and emptiness I’ve felt all these years at his death could just be made up emotions to make me think he was dead. I have to know.”
       Monty wiped his brow. “Okay, lass. If ya want, I’ll have a couple of mates I know handle the hard part. You don’t even have to go.”
       “No outsiders,” Gadget said. “If you don’t want to do it, I understand. I can handle it.” Monty patted her shoulder. This was the Gadget he knew and loved. “Just trying to spare you, lass. I’ll help. He was like a brother to me. Gadget luv, there’s gotta be more to this than you or me knows about. For one thing, Geegaw was a good mechanic but he never knew anything about all that computer stuff. There ain’t no way he could have built you.”
       Gadget sat down, suddenly feeling depressed. “The sad thing is, you have more knowledge of him than I do. I can’t rely on any of my memories. Everything I know could be just made up.” Monty put his hand on her back. “Then it’s best we find out. If they ain’t dead, maybe you can make some new memories.”
       “I wish it wasn’t too late to go back and not let myself discover what I know now. I would’ve been happier with the illusion,” Gadget said.
       “I know, lass. I know.”

Chapter 8 – Mouse or Machine / The Search Begins

       It was about three in the morning when Dale suddenly woke up, screaming. Chip bumped his head trying to get out of his bunk and check on his friend. “Dale! Dale, you all right?”
       “Chip, I had the strangest dream!” Dale said, his eyes slightly wild. “I dreamed that Gadget was an android and she...”
       “I wish it was a dream,” Chip said, sighing.
       “Ahhh!” Dale shouted. “It wasn’t a dream?!”
       Chip shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
       Dale felt like crying, but there were no more tears. “Oh, poor Gadget...poor us! What are we gonna do about it, Chip?” Chip put down the Sureluck Jones book he’d been reading and still had in his hands. “I don’t know, Dale. I mean, I still have feelings for her, but it’s not the same anymore. It’s like she’s....dead in a way.”
       Dale looked toward the door. “I don’t know what to think yet. From movies and stuff I know that people like her can fit in and all. It’s just a matter of her finding herself. At least we have it easier than most people. Usually it’s the machine that wants to be real, but here it’s the real person that discovered she’s a machine. She just needs to get back on the track she was on before. She’s more real than most real people I’ve ever known.”
       “Yeah, she’s that girl that both of us were waiting for,” Chip said. “I guess maybe we should’ve figured she was a little too perfect.” Dale returned his gaze to Chip. “Do you realize how selfish we’re being even talking like this? Her whole life has been destroyed and here we are talking about our dream girl.”
       Chip pushed himself off Dale’s bunk, landing standing up. “I know, but it’s like part of us has been destroyed too! At least Foxy’s interested in you, but I’d waited for Gadget to show any interest at all. I guess I just figured she’d come around eventually and I could tell her—I love her. But now...”
       “But what’s changed really?” Dale countered. “I’ve seen enough sci-fi movies to know that it can still work out between a living being and robot or android.”
       Chip looked up at him, emphatic. “Dale, no matter how pretty or how kind she is, she’s not real!” Chip sat back down on his bunk, rubbing his temples. “Sorry, Dale. I’d just always dreamed...but what’s the point now.”
       Dale wondered about that. “Okay, besides all that, what are we gonna do to get her back to herself?”
       “I don’t know!” Chip said. “I think the only person who does know is the one who made her.” Dale’s voice showed his skepticism. “But what can they give her that will change anything? She’ll still be an android.”
       Chip thought about it. “Maybe they could wipe her memory of all this, and then only we’d know.” Dale shook his head. “But things would never be the same between us all and she’d know something was wrong! We’d never be able to tell her and it would create a lot of bad feelings between us all and eventually tear the group apart.”
       The leader of the Rangers climbed up the bunk again, glaring at his friend. “What do you want, then? Just give up, and hope she can adjust? Maybe she’s not real, but I still owe her enough that I’ll give it my best shot to give her some kind of normal life!”
       “We all owe her big time, Chip. It’s not just you. But you’re right, let’s find the people that made her.”
       Chip turned off the light, giving Dale time to turn on his nightlight. “Let’s get some sleep, Dale. Maybe it’ll be easier to handle in the morning.” Dale pulled the covers over his head. “Maybe we’re both dreaming right now and when we wake up none of this will be real.”
       Chip turned over and went to sleep. At times like this he usually dreamed, but none came—perhaps because his own dreams had once again been crushed.
       Gadget had gone to bed a couple of hours before Chip and Dale’s talk, then realized her tiredness was programmed so she got up again. Now simple curiosity was driving her as she went to her workshop. Sparky had provided her with pictures from the X-ray camera, and from this she was able to put together a schematic of herself. Most of her basic operations looked straightforward, but the central processing area was under her left ear. Tentatively, she decided to see what would happen if she applied a low charge to the area. Immediately, she lost all sense of touch and pain.
       “Oops, guess that was the wrong place.”
       Gadget reversed the polarity on her electric charge emitter, restoring her senses.
       She began looking over some of the other gear that Sparky had loaned her. Admittedly, she had never been very much into computers, but now knowing that she herself was one made her pour over the manuals that had come with the equipment Sparky had brought.
       As she read, she learned enough about her systems to try something more serious. She again applied the light electrical charge to herself to numb the sense of pain and made an incision into her scalp to reveal an access port for a computer. She plugged herself in and began accessing her own mind.
       It was easily the most eerie thing she had ever done, particularly when she managed to access her visual input and could watch herself watching herself on the computer monitor. All sense of humanity felt like it was slipping away as she delved deeper. She found the systems that controlled basic life simulation stimuli like hunger and sleep, to such minor things as blinking. Since these were there only for the sake of simulation rather than necessity they could be shut down with no ill effects.
       Gadget hesitantly shut down her breathing and then her heartbeat. She checked her pulse and found it to be completely gone. She held her breath and found that even after ten minutes had passed she felt no ill effects whatsoever. Tears began to fill her eyes.
       She turned off her sleep and hunger stimuli, since she didn’t need those any longer, and spent the rest of the night tinkering with her inventions. When Foxglove came to check on her in the morning, Gadget was testing to see if her pain center was still deactivated—by sticking herself with needles
       “Good morning, Gadget. How are you do—oh!” Foxy fainted promptly at the sight of Gadget, the living pin cushion
       “Oh, shoot. I forgot what I’d look like,” Gadget said. “Well, she probably needed more sleep anyway.” Gadget helped Foxy to her feet, once she’d plucked out the needles. “Golly, I’m sorry, Foxglove. I should’ve locked the door.”
       Foxglove came around, still disturbed by what she’d seen. “What were you doing? Acupuncture?” Gadget helped her up. “Just testing to see if my ability to sense pain had been deactivated properly.”
       Gadget started to head for the kitchen then sighed. “It’s breakfast, but I don’t even need to eat anymore. All this time it was just for the sake of appearance.”
       “Well, it does explain one thing anyway.”
       “What’s that?” Gadget asked.
       Foxy looked a little guilty for mentioning it. “Uh well, it explains why when you cook everything tastes like machine oil. Guess it was necessary for you.” Gadget smiled, remembering the boys’ reactions to her cooking. “Well, not really, my...body is too advanced for such basic materials. I’m not sure yet what keeps me going. It’s going to take a lot more research.”
       “Oh,” Foxy said, not sure what else to say. “Okay, then. Does this mean you won’t be eating at all anymore?”
       Gadget started walking toward the kitchen again. “I’m so used to doing it, so I don’t think I should stop. That would only make me seem even more alien to everyone. I want to try to be as normal as I was...before. You probably can already tell that I shut down my heartbeat and the only reason I need to breathe is just for the sake of speech.”
       Foxy hadn’t even thought about it, but now to her shock she realized that Gadget’s heart wasn’t beating and she was standing there normally. “Gadget, you’re immortal! You could literally go on forever. That means you’ll be around after all of us are long gone.”
       Gadget had a momentary look of anguish and shed a few tears then wiped them away. “These aren’t even real tears, they’re just there for looks.” She rushed back into her workshop and hooked herself back to the computer, reactivating her regular breathing and heartbeat.
       “I’m sorry, Foxglove,” Gadget said as she returned. “This is still too much to bear. I know what you said is true, and it terrifies me!” Foxglove’s natural sympathy took over. “Honey, you don’t have to look on it as a bad thing. Most people are terrified of dying. You don’t have to worry about that, ever. And as for being real or not, you’re real to all of us.”
       “You can’t understand what it’s like, Foxglove. None of you can! There’s just nothing like it I can compare it too. I was made, the rest of you were born. All of you learned from experience while I was programmed.”
       “It’s still similar, though,” Foxy countered. “We were made by our parents, and we were programmed in a way because we all have to learn things. Besides, you’re not just a machine—you’re a living machine.”
       Gadget held out her arms. “Is it living if I can shut down all life signs in my body? What does it even mean to be alive?” Foxy looked confused for a moment. “I don’t know. Maybe your body’s not alive by animal standards, but somewhere in all of that circuitry you know you exist, so you must be alive. Didn’t some big thinker say something like that?”
       “Rene Descartes: ‘I think, therefore I am’. I guess that’s a good point. But it doesn’t make me feel any better.”
       Foxy hugged her. “Sorry, I’m not much good at this sort of thing. Why don’t you come on into breakfast, dear? Maybe being with the others will help some.” Gadget looked toward the kitchen. **If they’ve gotten over their initial revulsion** “Oh well, might as well face the music.”
       Gadget walked along with Foxy toward the kitchen. All discussion and activity ceased when the mouse inventor entered the kitchen. A heavy silence hung over the whole team.
       “G...good morning everyone,” Gadget said.
       Monty was just bringing a plate of cheese flapjacks to the table, and he put on a jovial air. “Mornin’, Gadget luv! Say, I’ve got a couple of flapjacks with yer name on ‘em right here!”
       “Thanks, Monty.”
       Monty gave her the flapjacks, and to her surprise they did indeed have her name on them, spelled out in string cheese. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on her every move, so Foxy broke the ice. “Guys, I think we need to help Gadget find her folks. What do you think?”
       “This is a mystery like no other,” Chip said. “We have to solve it.”
       “Yeah, this is really weird,” Dale said. “We gotta keep going till Gadget gets some answers to some big questions.”
       “Buzzbuzbuzz?” Zipper buzzed.
       Chip nodded. “Good question, Zipper. My guess would be to start the investigation where it all began, at the airplane where we first met Gadget.”
       Gadget threw down her utensils. “Will you all quit talking about me like I’m not here!” Gadget pushed herself away from the table and ran out into the main room. The others looked at each other in surprise and followed her out of the room.
       Monty rushed to her side and sat next to her, putting a comforting arm on her shoulder. “Now Gadget luv, you know we mean well but we’re havin’ trouble adjusting to all this too. Just be patient with us. Chip talked like that ‘cause that’s how he is when he has a case. Everything else falls by the side, like tact and such.”
       Zipper flew over and gave her a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. The pain and the fear in Gadget’s eyes were almost more than any of them could stand. “You’re all already thinking of me in the third person, because I’m not Gadget anymore to you but just a mound of metal that looks like her! I’m a fraud, an imposter, an isotope of the real element! Well maybe I am, but by golly I won’t be ignored! Talk to me—call me names, tell me you’re afraid, yell at me! Something!”
       She looked at the faces around her, scared and confused, then opened her arms toward them in a pleading fashion. “Tell me I’m not going to spend the rest of my life like a prisoner in solitary confinement.” Monty stood and lifted her off the ground and cradled her in his arms. “Gadget luv, you’re never gonna be alone as long as any one of us is around.”
       Dale stepped forward, putting his fear aside. “Yeah, it’s all for one and one size fits all!”
       “As Monty said, just be patient with us Gadget,” Chip said. “This is far beyond any of the usual surprises we’ve endured. You’re still special and wonderful to us and we won’t ever drive you away. I’m sorry we’ve not treated you properly since this happened. We’re still coming to terms with it. We want you to be happy and we want you to have closure on this so that you can move on with your life.”
       Gadget could feel the warmth of them all again and managed a smile. “Thanks. I know it’s hard, because I feel like I’ve died too in a way. I’ve got to find a new life now, and a new sense of what it is to be me. But whatever happens, I promise I won’t forget that you’re all my friends.”
       Monty let Gadget down, and she hugged them all. “Now, let’s go. We’ve got a mystery to solve.” Chip gestured to her. “Would you like to do the honors, Gadget?”
       “Thank you, Chip. Rescue Rangers away!”

Chapter 9 – Back To the Past / The Old Pilot’s Home

       The Rangers gathered in the RangerWing and headed for Gadget’s old home. The beat-up Mitchell B-25 was still there, and when they entered its innards it brought back the memories of Gadget’s first meeting with the others. Gadget led them into a different part of the plane than what they’d previously seen. It was a storage area with metal lockers and a metal writing desk.
       “This is where dad stayed when he was here—at least that’s what I remember. Maybe he left something behind,” Gadget said. “Be careful, though. There may be some traps left over that I didn’t deactivate.”
       When the others had wandered off, Monty came up to Gadget. “Gadget, do you still wanna do what you mentioned last night? Do you really wanna dig up the graves?”
       “If we have to, Monty. I’ll see if there’s something here first, though. Dad would want me to know, either way.”
       Monty felt a little better. “But wouldn’t you have found something here in all the time you were here by yourself?” Gadget led the way through the remains of the plane. “Now that I know what I do about myself, there’s no telling how long I really was here alone. I could have been here for years, or days, and just been pro...made to think that it had been years. What if there isn’t even a real Geegaw or Marva Hackwrench? What if they’re fake too? What if this is all just a big experiment to see if someone like me could fit in as a regular person?”
       “They’re real, lass. Don’t fret yourself on that one. But if they’re both still around, I’ll be the first to want to talk with ‘em.”
       Chip called from near one of the lockers. “Hey, we found something!”
       Gadget rushed over to Chip. “What is it?” Chip pointed toward the top of the human-sized locker. “Dale says he’s found a rodent-sized strongbox in one of the lockers. It’s locked, but it could be your dad’s.”
       “A strongbox?” Gadget said. “Golly, I don’t remember him having one. Maybe it was something erased from my memory.”
       Inside, it was easy to hear the sound of Dale grunting and the skid of metal on metal. “This...thing’s...heavy!” Dale pushed the strongbox outside and it fell a foot or so to the floor in front of the Rangers with a strong echo. The box was metal, with a standard lock built-in.
       “Stand back, everyone!” Gadget improvised some tools and picked the lock. As she was working, Monty motioned the others to move back to give Gadget some privacy as she opened the box. “You’re right, Chip. It is dad’s.” Gadget took out a device that fit easily into her hand along with a stack of papers. She sat on the floor and found a letter on the top of the pile. It was dated three years before the Rangers had met Gadget.

  Dear Gadget,

  This box’s existence wasn’t put into your memory, so if you found it you must have discovered the truth and started looking for answers. You’ll find here a copy of Marva’s research and a manual to go by if you need to make modifications or repairs not covered in the standard repair sequences. And to answer your main question, no we aren’t buried at the airport. You can check, but all you’ll find are rocks. I asked Marva to give you those memories for closure’s sake so you wouldn’t worry about us. It pained me deeply, because I love you like my own little girl—which brings up another topic.
  We may not still be alive, so there’s a few things you need to know. Marva was the one who made you, and you were fashioned after our daughter. She left your mother and I when she was your age and headed off on her own. Marva couldn’t bear the loss, so she built you to take her place. But it is I who helped your early development and rise to sentience. I watched you grow with the pride a father has in his child, and the day you first hugged me you had my heart. I know the pain you’re suffering now, because it’s my pain too.

  The device you have in your hand will activate the tracker. When you activate it, it will home in on me. I had a metallic capsule implanted containing an advanced homing device. This tracker will be able to detect it no matter where I am. I hope I’m still alive to explain the rest to you, but if not then know that I was proud of what you’d accomplished and no doubt of what you’ve accomplished since. If you can’t think on me kindly, then at least be happy because that was all I ever wanted for you.

  All my love,

  Geegaw Hackwrench

       Monty waited for a little while then walked over to Gadget. “Well, Gadget luv, what does it say? Any answers there?”
       “Do we need to pack for a long trip or a short one to find them?” Dale asked. Gadget studied the device in her hand. “Let’s find out. I hope it still works after all this time.”
       Gadget turned on the tracker, and it immediately blipped a signal. “It’s faint, but it’s constant. He’s apparently on the other side of the planet. If I’m reading the coordinates right, he’s somewhere in the Pacific Rim—probably in one of the island chains. I’ll be able to pinpoint it when we get closer.”
       Chip was all for that. “We’ll get back to HQ and get packed. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Chapter 10 – And Away We Go!

       The Rangers headed for the treehouse and within the hour everything was locked up and they were into the jet stream headed east. When they’d crossed Europe and Asia, they reached the Philippines. The tracker indicated south so they headed on down into the Spice Islands, in the Indonesian island chain. Near Tanimbar Island—a thick jungle covering an old volcanic crater—the tracker’s bleeps grew very strong.
       Monty had been watching Gadget for the past few days. She seemed more stable emotionally, but there was still an edge to her smile. “Are you gonna be okay, Gadget luv?”
       “Don’t worry, Monty,” Gadget said. “I have nerves of steel, among other body parts.” Monty was glad Gadget was able to joke about it some. “All right, but you’re not indestructible now. Be sure to leave a few blokes for ol’ Monterey Jack ta handle, if there’s a dustup!”
       Down they went, landing on the island’s beach. Remote didn’t begin to describe it. The only sound was the surf and Dale’s “yahoo” as he ran and jumped in. Chip watched him go, knowing it was useless to chide him. “He never could resist a good beach. So Gadget, which way does the tracker say to go?”
       “We go west,” Gadget said, pointing toward the interior jungle. “I want to thank you all for coming with me. All this has been a terrible nightmare and the only thing that could have made it worse is if you had abandoned me.”
       Chip came up next to her. “We wouldn’t do that, Gadget. We all owe you more than we could pay back over a lifetime. The least we can do is be with you while you find your answers.” Gadget hugged him and each of her friends and was relieved that they didn’t react with fear to her touch anymore.
       “Okay, let’s go. I want answers. I need answers.”
       Gadget led them deeper into the island, forging a trail that led them to the ruins of an old WWII human airbase, the nationality of the base long since lost to time. An old hangar remained and from inside the sound of welding could be heard
       “I think this is it, the moment of truth,” Gadget said.
       As they approached they could see a seaplane in the far distance tied up to a dock at a nearby lagoon. It largely resembled the original Screaming Eagle, with the name Sea Eagle painted on the side. The hangar was rodent-sized and appeared to be an altered mailbox, or more likely several mailboxes that had been cannibalized and altered to the framer’s purpose.
       They came up to the menagerie of buildings from the rear, and when they were about a hundred feet away they saw a young native mouse coming. His attention was on the scrap pile behind the hangar and he didn’t see them at first. He was wearing goggles on top of his head, similar to Gadget’s, as well as a welder’s apron and gloves.
       “Hey, that’s not Geegaw,” Dale said. “Uh, unless he’s had one of those, you know, surgery things or something.”
       “I don’t think dad would go in for plastic surgery, Dale,” Gadget said. “Hello there! We’re looking for Geegaw Hackwrench!”
       The young mouse quit leaning over the junk pile and looked. His expression changed immediately to one of surprise, then pleased surprise. “Barbara!”
       “Barbara?” Chip and Dale said.
       “Lass, I thought your name was Gadget,” Monty said.
       Gadget was at a loss. “Uh, well it is, or at least I think—”
       Whatever else she was going to say, it was cut off by the young dark-haired mouse running over and picking her up off the ground in a happy swinging arc. “Barbara, it’s really you!” the mouse said. “I told dad you’d come someday and here you are!”
       “Dad?” Gadget said. “Then, you’re my brother?”
       “Half brother, actually,” the young male said. “Oh, pardon me. My name’s Miles—Miles Hackwrench.”
       The Rangers were at a loss. Chip stepped up, shaking his hand. “My name’s Chip, and this is Dale, Monterey Jack, Foxglove and Zipper. We’re the Rescue Rangers, a group that works to help people and stop criminals.”
       “Really?” Miles said, impressed. “Wow, I never knew you were doing anything like that, Barbara! Dad mentioned something to me years back about your being in Canada or something.”
       “But I’ve never been to Canada,” Gadget said. “Well, to be fair I’ve flown over it on the way to places like Alaska and such but not to live there or anything. Um, why are you calling me ‘Barbara’? My name’s Gadget Hackwrench.”
       Miles appeared confused. “Gadget? Dad never said anything about you being named anything else but Barbara. Could ‘Gadget’ be a nickname?”
       “I don’t think so,” Gadget said, shaking her head. “Dad always called me Gadget. He is here, right?” Miles nodded. “Oh yeah, he’s over on Dunlevy Island, arguing with old Shamus, our main supplier. We run a tourist air service of the islands here and while it’s pretty profitable it can be the Dickens keeping up with parts and all. He’ll be back around noon or so. Hey, why not come on up to the house, and meet mom? She’ll be pleased as punch to see a relative.”
       The Hackwrench house, a largo three-bedroom bungalow in the native style, had a welcome feel to it. “When dad and your mother Marva parted ways, he was alone for quite a few years. Then when he moved here he met Onaya, and they fell in love. Here’s mom now.”
       Onaya Hackwrench stepped out of the house then stopped, surprised to see who was there. She was an Asian mouse, her dark hair fixed up in a bun in the Japanese manner. She was wearing a floral kimono and had just put on her wooden sandals.
       “Barbara?” she asked, her voice soft and full of wonder. “I did not think we would see you here. And are these your friends?”
       Gadget approached, finding she liked Onaya on first sight. “I’m Gadget Hackwrench, actually. And yes, these are my friends. I’m pleased to meet you, ma’am.” Gadget introduced the others, and Onaya appeared as confused as Miles had been. “Gadget? Strange, for you appear as Barbara does in her pictures. You must be related to her. Come, and we will eat and talk.”
       There was a picnic bench set up just outside the bungalow, and with all of them helping to set the table it didn’t take long. The meal was tasty, a mixture of various coconut dishes mixed with some Asian spices and berries. “Ma’am?” Chip asked. “Did Geegaw ever tell you about a girl named Gadget?” She shook her head. “No Chip, he did not. My son’s speculation about her name may be correct, but if it is I am not aware of it.”
       Onaya was sitting on Gadget’s left and patted the mouse inventor’s left hand. “I am pleased you have come, Gadget. You and your friends honor my home, and I think you are very beautiful.”
       “Golly, thanks,” Gadget said. “Do you think dad will be glad to see me?”
       “I should think so,” Onaya said. “He is a very good man. Ah, I hear the cargo plane coming. He will be here soon.”
       Onaya’s prediction was correct. As they watched, an old cargo seaplane landed in the water and bumped the dock. Geegaw Hackwrench got out, accompanied by another middle aged mouse, the two of them apparently carrying on an argument.
       “If I’d wanted an aluminum bearing, I’d have made one! What do you think I’m running here, a war surplus shop? You go back and tell Shamus I need the brass fitting and I need it yesterday. Oh, that looks like tourists. Let’s go.”
       As he approached, Gadget stood up. It was hard to read her emotions at the moment, but her wide eyes spoke volumes. When Geegaw saw her, he saw those eyes and for a moment his memory shifted back in time, even before the birth of the person who she was made to resemble. The memory quickly faded, but he had to admit it was still there.
        “Well, you did made it,” Geegaw said, stretching out his arms. “Come here, princess!” Gadget uttered a cry of pure joy, forgetting anything else. She ran and hugged her father, crying for the years they’d been apart. “Dad! Oh, you’re real! I thought you were dead!”
       “Easy, princess,” Geegaw said, comforting her. “I know, I know. It was a terrible thing to do to you, but it wasn’t by choice. Not mine anyway. I hoped you’d come and find me someday.”
       Geegaw and his smiling daughter came over to the table, where Geegaw kissed his wife and ruffled his son’s hair playfully. Chip was glad to see that he appeared to be the good mouse he’d expected, and he made the introductions for the third time around.
       “We’re glad we’re getting to meet you, sir,” Chip said. “Gadget’s told us some about you and Monty’s told us more. But why are your wife and son calling her ‘Barbara’?”
       “Oh that,” Geegaw said, laughing a little. “That was what I wanted to call her, and Marva liked Gadget. So with her not here I guess I just took to calling her what I wanted. But Marva was right, and Gadget it is. So Gadget, how about a tour of my hangar?”
       At this point, Geegaw could’ve asked her to scale the Eiffel Tower and she wouldn’t have objected. Cheerfully, the mouse inventor went off with her father, chattering away giddily. The Rangers followed, curious to know more about this mouse they’d given up for dead so long ago.
       There were two more planes in the hangar, in various states of repair. Tools and parts were strewn everywhere, and the smell of airplane fuel, grease and motor oil permeated the structure.
       Geegaw and Gadget went back in the hangar and all the way to the rear. Gadget stood transfixed. “Is that what I think it is?” Geegaw nodded proudly. “A Hyperion N-12 four-seater. Yep, I found the wreck on an island a few miles from here about three years ago. Only seven of them were ever built and two of them are in museums. This one’s going to fly again. Hand me that monkey wrench over there and let’s get to work.”
       “Too-ra-loo!” Monty said. “Reminds me of some of the old days, mate. Remember some of those old crates we used to keep in the air?”
       “Hey, yeah!” Dale said. “Tell us about some of your adventures!”
       “Yes,” Foxglove said. “You must have been everywhere and seen everything.”
       The veteran pilot glanced once at Monty, and that was all he needed to see. “Well, Monty and I certainly are ones to know about old times. I remember the run he and I made down to Bolivia to those native bats. We nearly ended up stranded in the jungle and if it hadn’t been for that bat chieftain sending out patrols we’d have never found our way out! That’s one reason I chose a seaplane this time—much more versatile. Monty, why don’t you go to the Sea Eagle and Miles will show you around it and you can help him get that part we need.”
       Monty hadn’t left yet, despite Geegaw’s invitation. “It’s good to see you again, mate, even if you don’t mind my saying so that it’s quite a shock. But why’d you leave Gadget there all by her lonesome at the plane? That ain’t like you, pally.”
       Geegaw stood up. “Well, before we go into all that, why don’t you all come inside and sit down? We can leave the plane for later.”
       Geegaw led them into the modest but comfortable bungalow he called home. By the look of it, it was well-kept place, mostly due to Onaya. She brought out some lemonade and had everyone sit down in the living room.
       “In answer to your question about leaving Gadget, Monty, I had no other choice,” Geegaw said. “Marva and I had been drifting farther and farther apart and our marriage was about to crash and burn. She was ready to chuck it all and start over somewhere else. Among the things she wanted to leave was Gadget. I refused, we fought more. Eventually I convinced her to just let Gadget be. We’d go off together and we’d still be able to cut all the strings.
       “Well, we got as far as Japan before our marriage finally fell apart. She’s still there last I heard and I just wandered around the Pacific and ended up here. I got myself an airplane and I make a little money flying tourists around. Now, I have a question. How did you end up with this group, Gadget?”
       Gadget smiled, glancing at the others. “Well dad, it’s a pretty long story.” Geegaw swirled the lemonade in his glass, allowing the ice cubes to clink some before taking a sip. “That’s all right. I seem to have a little time now.”
       For the next three hours, Gadget and occasionally one of the others explained the formation of the Rescue Rangers and all the adventures they’d had. It was easy to see Geegaw’s pride in his daughter’s accomplishments. “I always knew you had potential, princess. My only regret was that I had no way to give you flesh and blood. There’s no one so deserving of that as you.”
       Onaya and Miles stared at Geegaw, then at Gadget. “What do you mean, dad?” Geegaw nodded toward Gadget. “She’s an android. Marva and I made her.” The gasps of surprise told the newcomers that Geegaw hadn’t shared this information previously.
       “An android?” Onaya asked. “But she appears real in every respect!”
       Gadget hesitantly reached out and took Geegaw’s hand, as she recalled doing so in her suspect memories. “Is anything I remember of you real or is it all made up?” Geegaw laughed softly. “Princess, I’m at the age where I’m starting to wonder if half of what I remember’s real. But yes, you were given some false memories, and some of what you did do was erased to preserve the illusion for you. Here.”
       The pilot grabbed an ornate cane and ambled over to a safe embedded in the wall. Opening it, he removed a mini-CD. “These are your true memories, Gadget. I never told Marva, but before she purged you I saved them. They’re yours if you want them.”
       Gadget held the disc reverently, looking at it almost as a Pandora’s box. “Do I want to know my true past? I’m happy with what I was and who I was and I can come to terms with all this eventually. But this will just serve to remind me of what I was—a machine, a thing. You made me into a person, dad. You let me be your daughter. I don’t know if I want to risk that.”
       “There’s some things that I can’t adequately explain that your own memories could,” Geegaw said, then invited her to sit next to him. He put his arms around her. “I was there every step of the way with you, Gadget, and watched you change from a simple machine to a loving and incredibly-talented young lady. That’s what you’ll find there. One thing you may have noticed is that you haven’t had the yearning to build a relationship. That was partly to protect your secret.”
       “I haven’t, but I have felt alone at times. And the other part?” Gadget asked.
       “I’d rather let the other part rest, actually. Have you felt lonely, child? I didn’t realize that your program would allow that.”
       “I didn’t feel lonely until I met the Rangers,” Gadget said. “Then after our first adventure together I had an urge to return to my solitude, but the thought of going back there to be alone again after having made some friends kept me away. Looking back, I don’t know how I was able to bear being alone all that time.”
       There was surprise in Geegaw’s voice now. “That shouldn’t have registered with you at all. Suppose I should’ve expected that from you—you always were surprising me. Your sister was that way, too. Well, maybe there’s hope yet.”
       “My sister?” Gadget said. “I have a sister? Who is she? Where?”
       Geegaw grinned. “Your sister left us some time ago. She was independent and wanted to be on her own. She was still in Hawaii last I heard.”
       “Lahwhinie!” Chip said. “No wonder they looked so alike!”
       Geegaw started. “You met her?”
       “Yeah, and I wish we hadn’t,” Chip said. “She’s a terror.”
       Now it was Gadget’s turn for questions. “Dad, where is mom now?” Geegaw gestured to her with his head to follow him. “Come with me, Gadget. Gentlemen, miss, we’ll see you in a few minutes.”
       Geegaw led Gadget to his bedroom, where he showed her a picture of Marva. “I haven’t seen Marva in more than four years now. Last I knew, she was working with a secret R&D team, near Tokyo. She always was one for research. As for your sister, when she left us, she changed her name to Lahwhinie and put us behind her.”
       “That’s what we’ve all been dreading,” Gadget said. “When we met Lahwhinie she nearly killed us all. Does she know about me and what I am?” Geegaw started at that news. “No, I don’t think she knew. Marva kept you a secret from her, but she started on you months before Ga...Lahwhinie left. It’s possible she could’ve found out somehow. Did she say or do anything that would lead you to think so?”
       Now Gadget started. “Her name is Gadget?!?”
       Geegaw looked apologetic, but nodded. “Yes, princess. It was one of the reasons I wanted to call you Barbara. She was too much like her mother—self-willed and concerned about what others thought of her. She fought with Marva constantly and avoided me at every opportunity. She pretended she was a jet-setter and an old pilot just didn’t fit her style.”
       Geegaw showed Gadget another picture, this one of a teenage mouse with a horrible sense of taste in clothing. “When she was old enough, she bailed out and we were alone. Marva never said so, but I think the real reason she built you was because the other Gadget broke her heart. She wanted another chance, but when it came she was reminded too much of her failures. The breaking point came during an air show we attended in New York at that very airport where the Rangers found you. She begged me to leave you there, and finally I gave in once you were reprogrammed. It wasn’t your fault, Gadget. It was just one of those things.”
       “Does she hate me?” Gadget asked.
       Geegaw hugged her. “Oh, no! Marva never hated you, child. It was just the memory she hated. She didn’t mean for me to know, but I caught her crying one night before she left. She was looking at your picture. I think it was the pain and the guilt that drove her away from me as much as anything. How I tried to console her, but she never could get past failure.”
       “She walked out on both of us,” Gadget said. “Oh, getting back to your earlier question about Lahwhinie, she did say that we were like sisters. But I don’t think she meant it any deeper than just for the sake of manipulation of a stranger.”
       “Most likely. If she’d known, I’d think she would’ve tried to destroy you—or worse, she’d have told you who you were.”
       Geegaw sat Gadget down on the foot of the bed, and sat next to her. “So tell me, as your father, is there someone you care about?” Gadget squirmed a bit. “I wasn’t sure before this happened and now that it has happened I don’t know if there will ever be anything. That’s a lot to ask from a guy.”
       “You have a lot to give, though. I should know, since there’s a lot of me in you. I tried to teach you to respect everyone and to be caring and positive. I’m glad to see that you are.”
       Gadget was more than agreeable on that point. “The people that like me are happy with me the way I am.” Geegaw patted her shoulder. “Well, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Down the line, it might mean more to you. Gadget, are you going to tell your sister about this?”
       “I don’t know. I can’t imagine that it will make her any nicer to me. I think that finding mom would be tops on my list for now. I need to see her again ... for the first time.”
       Geegaw went to his dresser and brought out a splendid engagement ring. “I’d advise against it, actually. She’s very secretive. But if you do see her, would you give her this for me? It rightly belongs to her and ... well, if she doesn’t want it I’d like you to have it. Just in case.”
       Gadget studied the ring. “I take it from that, you’re not going to come with us?”
       Geegaw smiled and shook his head. “My adventuring days are over, princess. I’m perfectly happy with my little corner of paradise. I have my plane, steady work, and stories to tell. I’m only a little older than Monty, but after all the punishment of the early days I feel twice that age. The tropical sun does me good, though, as well as soaking in the surf.”
       The old pilot drew his daughter to him. “I love you, precious. Tell them to stay the night here, and by noon tomorrow I’ll have your plane fitted out with some fresh supplies.” Gadget smiled and was glad she could truly experience the embrace that she only knew from false memories. “Now that I know where you are, don’t think that I’m never going to visit again. I’ll drag the boys down here whenever I can.”
       “You do that,” Geegaw said. “Now, we’d best be getting back to the others. It’s already late, and my bones are telling on me.”
       Geegaw escorted Gadget back into the modest living room, and everyone stood. “Dad’s invited us to stay the night, and we’ve got a few things to work out yet.” Geegaw thumbed behind him. “The guest room’s not that grand, but there’s the sofa and some extra hammocks too. Make yourselves at home.”

Chapter 11 – Life and Beaches

       At the hangar, Geegaw leaned up against the side of the building and lit his pipe, extinguishing the match. For an old pilot, the silence of the night was almost deafening, yet he was also drawn to it. Monty’s approach shook him old of his thoughts.
       “Hello, Monty. I was just thinking about the time we did that mail run from Nome to Juneau. I thought the old Screaming Eagle would never take the cold, and then that blizzard came! Those sure were rough and ready days, back then.”
       Monty leaned to the building, next to him. “Aye, they were. We were two young, crazy fools then. Geegaw, I gotta hard feelings about Zanzibar, right?” Geegaw gave out a laugh and knocked some ashes from his pipe. “Only you would think to ask me that! I know what I said to you at the time, and when it happened I was mad enough to take on a lion and win. Oh, we were both rowdies back then, and sure you could’ve used more restraint. But age gives a mouse clarity about things like that, so all sins are forgiven. I just hope you aren’t still holding a grudge on me for that long night I gave you in Hong Kong at Cat Alley.”
       Monty had to chuckle at that. “After we stopped at that bar afterward and toasted each other’s health for a couple of hours I don’t recall much of anything about that trip to Hong Kong, so no worries mate. It’s ancient history. Now, about somethin’ real important—Gadget. Geegaw, I’ve known you for years and never known you to lie to me before. So why are you lying about Gadget now?”
       Geegaw nearly dropped his pipe. “Lying? What makes you think I’m lying?”
       “Get out of it, mate,” Monty said, taking on a slightly hard tone. “The roundabout answers, the way you described Marva. She was never the secretive sort! And you and her loved Gadget. I know you did! So what’s the deal, pally?”
       Geegaw chuckled slightly. “I guess I never was that good a liar, was I? Well, Barbara should’ve figured on that.” Monty’s eyelids narrowed slightly. “So Barbara ain’t Gadget after all. Who is she?”
       “You ought to be able to guess that one, old friend,” Geegaw said. “Come on, let’s get some rest. I’ll tell you all about it first thing in the morning.”

       The Rangers settled in, and late that night Gadget found herself alone on the beach—or rather she thought she was alone until she noticed Dale sitting down, stargazing near the surf. She walked down and sat next to him.
       Dale kept looking up. “Hi, Gadget. Have you ever looked up at the stars at night and wondered if we’re just some speck of matter inside a gigantic Lightbrite toy?”
       Gadget wondered where Dale got such notions. “Actually, our bodies are made up of atomic and subatomic particles bonded together so powerfully that the energy needed to break them apart would be greater than all the nuclear bombs in existence. The stars are kind of pretty, though.”
       “That’s right,” Dale said. “Our bodies are all made up of just atoms and particles and stuff, so all that’s different is when it gets to the bigger bits of matter. But on the real small level, we’re all the same.”
       Gadget stared out into the night, looking over the waves. “I appreciate what you’re trying to say, but I know I’ve hurt you and Chip both. I’m not sure what Chip’s going to do, but Foxglove likes you. You should start dating her, she’d like that.”
       Dale looked over her, concerned. “Don’t you like me anymore?”
       Gadget looked at him, trying to appear resolute. “Oh Dale, of course I do. It’s just that you deserve a real girl, who can give you a family and all the things that come from a true relationship.”
       “Foxglove’s a bat, I’m a chipmunk There’s no kids there either,” Dale said, kicking a little sand. “You’ve got a heart as big as the world, you know you do.”
       “A heart made of a ceramic/ytterbium alloy.”
       “I’ve got a heart made of icky gross stuff and blood,” Dale said. Gadget was gradually getting the feeling that Dale could be serious. “Dale, are you trying to say you still have feelings for me? But you know I’m just an android. Wouldn’t you rather have a real girlfriend?”
       “You are real!” Dale said. “Why do you keep saying you’re not? Why, any guy would be lucky to have a girl like you.”
       Gadget moved in front of his face. “Dale, I’m not a girl! I only look like one! I’m just a duplicate, a knockoff, a not-so-cheap facsimile to placate a woman who was embarrassed because she ran her real daughter off!”
       “Why should that matter?” Dale asked. “Could you ever love a lazy, dopey, hyperactive chipmunk with an overactive imagination?” Gadget’s voice got quieter. “Dale, I’m not even sure what love really is. I see it going on around me, but it wasn’t included in my programming.”
       “Now you’re just making excuses. You know perfectly well what love is. It’s like how you smile whenever you talk to one of us. It’s that special relationship you have with Monty, what made you care enough about me to do that Double-O-Dale thing.”
       Gadget took Dale’s hands and pulled him up. “Dale, I do care about you, and all the Rangers. It’s just that, well, when it comes to things like kissing, hugging and all the things people in relationships do, I don’t have any instincts for that. I know what other people do, and I can emulate the things they do, but the feelings that go with that—if I have them, I’ve never experienced them.”

       Dale impulsively moved forward and gave her a quick kiss. Gadget was caught off-guard, and just stood there. When Dale stepped back, she blinked and it took her several moments to find her voice again. “Golly, that was unexpected.”
       “Uh, yeah, it was,” Dale said, ducking his head slightly. “Sorry. I got a little upset and wanted to put my money where my mouth was, sort of.” Gadget was still a little shaken, this being her second kiss ever. “Well, it’s okay, I guess. Jeepers Dale, could I ask you something?”
       “Sure, anything.”
       “In your experience, when a guy kisses a girl, what kind of reaction does she typically have?”
       Dale paused, thinking. “I don’t know. You’re the first girl I ever kissed ... or really wanted to kiss.” Gadget appeared frustrated. “I don’t know whether I should be scared, happy, amorous, sad, or somewhere in-between. But let’s see what happens the second time...”

       Before Dale could react, Gadget grabbed the lapels of his shirt and jerked him to her. She kissed him until Dale started trying to pull away for want of air. When she finally let him go, Dale collapsed on the sand, trying to catch his breath.
       “Oops, I forgot I didn’t need to breathe and you do,” Gadget said. Dale gasped, finally regaining his breath. “Golly!!! How did that feel, Gadget?”
       Gadget grinned and giggled. “It tickled!” She helped Dale up again. “You’re not afraid of me anymore, are you?” Dale shook his head. “No. I was at first ‘cause it was like something out of a scary movie, but I’m okay with it now. You’ve got a better understanding of love and compassion that most people could ever hope to match.”
       Gadget hugged him. “Thanks, Dale. I don’t know if I should really feel good about that, though, as I’m a total neophyte. Come on, let’s get back to dad’s place.”
       “Good idea, Gadget. If it helps any, I’m as much a neo...beginner as you are at stuff like this. But what should I do about Foxglove? She says we’re friends and she likes doing things with me still. I don’t want to hurt her.”
       “Well,” Gadget said, leading the way, “at this point we’re just talking. I really do think you should tell Foxy, though. But ultimately you’d have to decide if it came down to her and me—that is, assuming I’m reading Chip right and he’s no longer...well, interested.”

       Dale took her hand. “He still likes you and you’re still his friend, but I think the romance for him is gone. I feel good and bad right now—for the first time in my life a girl likes me, but not just one! I don’t want either of you to be unhappy, but I’m not sure what to do. I don’t have any experience with stuff like this.”
       Gadget squeezed his hand supportively. “Somehow I suspect quite a lot of people are in that boat. Come on.”

       Foxglove had finished her evening meal, noting that tropical insects were a rare delicacy, when she spied Chip walking along the shoreline. She swooped down and walked beside him. “Penny for you thoughts, Chip?”
       “Just wondering about fate, the universe and jelly doughnuts,” Chip said. “Have you seen Dale lately?” Foxglove nodded. “Yes, and he and Gadget seemed pretty chummy. I guess things are okay between them.”
       Chip sighed. “I can imagine.”
       Foxglove put a wing on his back. “Don’t feel bad, Chip. After all, she’s a machine, and you both know that things aren’t the same anymore.” Chip knew it all right. He felt like the world’s biggest fool in a way, and yet sympathetic to Gadget’s plight at the same time. Now Foxglove drew closer and Chip felt the warmth of her presence and was caught.
       Part of him wanted to tear away and find an island all his own. Part of him wanted to give into the feelings that were on the verge of breaking through his control. In the end, need overshadowed independence and he allowed her to remain close.
       “I’m glad you came by. I wasn’t looking forward to being alone.”
       Chip stopped and she let her wings ease around him. “Chip, I want you to answer me honestly: how do you feel about me?” Chip pushed his fedora back on his head. “I did all I could to encourage Dale to be with you, because I saw what a special person you are. I have to admit, from the first time I saw you, I wanted you to be where you are right now.
       “I thought it was Gadget, but all of this has made me realize it wasn’t. But I couldn’t let Dale win where Gadget was concerned. We’ve always fought to see who was best at everything, and I saw he was interested in Gadget. I guess I let it get too personal, but also...well...”
       Foxy was amazed. “You didn’t fight for me since Dale didn’t show any interest in me, but some part of you began to like me anyway?”
       Chip nodded. “You were so fun-loving that at first I thought you and Dale were a natural match. But as time passed, I could see that it wasn’t Dale who was interested in you as much as me. I’m a sedentary chipmunk, I’ll admit that. I like serious things and keeping a constant schedule and everything predictable.”
       Chip slipped an arm around her. “But when I look at you I see another whole side of life that I really don’t know anything about, and that intrigues me. You’ve always got a way of brightening the day like Gadget, but for me it’s like you keep me from taking myself too seriously. When you’re around, I remember that there’s life going on around me and not just casework.”
       Foxy looked in his eyes. “And I think I someone more serious and mature to be around would be nice. Chip, you’re a handsome, mature, intense guy. You’re a bit scary at times when you lose your temper, but at other times you can be very affectionate.” She hugged him tighter. “Do you like me, Chip? Could this possibly be the beginning of something more than friendship?”
       “Maybe, Foxy. We’re both really vulnerable, so this could be our way of protecting ourselves. But if it’s not, I’m willing to give it a try.”
       Foxy leaned forward and gave Chip a gentle kiss. “I hope it lived up to your expectations.” Chip blushed. “It’s certainly a good start.”
       Chip escorted Foxy back to the hangar where they parted, and the next morning the group all gathered together again. Monty and Geegaw had gone off early for a walk to talk about old times, while the rest of the Rangers gathered near the hangar and discussed what to do next.
       “Well Gadget, you’ve met your father now. Is that good enough for you, or do you still want to see the rest of your family?” Chip asked. Gadget watched as some of Geegaw’s staff helped to load some provisions into the Wing. “I don’t know. I’m not really family. I was built by them. Dad thinks of me as family, but mom might see me with the same sentiment as a toaster.”
       Miles walked up then, bringing an old wrench with him. “Here, Gadget. This is one of dad’s old wrenches and he said you ought to have it. Maybe having a piece of your history will help make things easier.” Gadget took the wrench reverently. “Golly, thanks!”
       Close on his heels came Geegaw and Monty, the old pilot walking up to his daughter. “Princess, we’ve got a few things to discuss.”

Chapter 12 – Truth, Swaying Palms, and More Truth

       “I was lying about Lahwhinie,” Geegaw continued. “Her name’s not Gadget.”
       “Tell him the rest, mate,” Monty said. “Tell her about Barbara.”
       Gadget pressed him. “Barbara? You mean you lied about that too?”
       “That’s…going to take a while to explain.” Geegaw scratched his head, thinking. “And I’m probably not the best person to explain it to you. In fact, I think I will come with you. But instead of Marva, we’ll go visit Lahwhinie first.”
       “So you do know where Marva is, and you do have an ongoing relationship with her, right?” Chip asked.
       Geegaw nodded. “Marva and I are still good friends.”
       “What’s all this pretense for?” Chip asked. “You’ve as much as said that Marva was the one who made Gadget. Why don’t we go see her now?” Geegaw pulled out his pipe. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. And when we go see Marva, I want Lahwhinie with us. As for the pretense, there is a good reason for it. However, as I said, I’m not really the one who should clear that up.”
       Gadget gave out a yelp of frustration. “What is this family, ‘Liars Anonymous’? How much of what you’ve told me is true, dad? Any of it!”
       “Some of it,” Geegaw said. “A good portion of it, actually. But I did it for a good reason.”
       “Barbara,” Chip said. “You did it to protect this Barbara. What is she to you?”
       “I can’t tell you that,” Geegaw said. “At least not yet. Please, be patient. It’ll be best if you meet with Lahwhinie and Marva first. Then we’ll decide what to do about Barbara.”
       Geegaw went off to brief Miles on what they were doing while Chip and the others gathered around Monty. “What did he tell you, Monty? Gadget asked. “Who is Barbara?”
       “He told me, but I think it’s best if he tells you in his own time,” Monty said.
       “But why?” the mouse inventor asked. “Is she evil or something?”
       “No, not that, lass,” Monty said, searching for the right words. “It’s just sort of, well, complicated.”
       Gadget stomped her foot in frustration. “Apparently my family’s up to something so secret, they erased it from my programming and he was willing to lie to our faces about it!” Gadget said. “Whatever it’s about, I intend to know. Especially about this Barbara person.”
       “Yeah, what’s that about?” Dale asked. “It couldn’t be another name for Gadget’s mom or her sister Lahwhinie. So who is she?” Monty stroked his chin. “You’ll find out soon enough, mate. And when you do, you may wish you hadn’t.”
       “What’s that supposed to mean?” Chip asked. “Why not just tell us and be done with it?”
       “Because it ain’t my secret to tell, or my responsibility.”
       Geegaw returned in a few minutes, decked out in the flying outfit that he’d worn in the picture Gadget kept. He spoke to Miles for a minute, instructing him to stay and look after the business. “Okay, let’s go see them.”
       Gadget pulled out the ring he’d given her. “Then you can give mom this yourself, assuming you told me the truth and it’s really hers.” She dropped the ring on the sand, and Geegaw picked it up, sticking it back in his pocket. “Guess I had that coming. Serves me right for giving you such a sense of honesty. Wouldn’t have it any other way, though.”
       The Rangers and Miles headed for the Wing while Geegaw took off in the Sea Eagle. The trip to Hawaii went quickly enough, each of them taking turns flying. As they suspected, Lahwhinie was no longer among the villagers. Hubba-Hubba told them with a note of satisfaction that the would-be queen of the village had been banished to the other side of the island.
       Chip led the way, putting his detective skills to use, but even a layman gumshoe would have been able to figure out the trail of Lahwhinie’s influence. From surf shop to souvenir store to hula show, a line of irate managers and bosses told them of how she’d tried to swindle them.
       When they reached the far side of the island, the team split up to investigate Lahwhinie’s whereabouts. Gadget and Dale started by checking with a long string of businesses along the boardwalk, put there for the tourist trade. Most had heard of Lahwhinie, evidenced by their strong reactions when seeing Gadget.
       Once she’d explained, a couple of managers mentioned hiring the conniving Hawaiian in the past, but her tours of duty there were short. A couple of hours later, Dale asked for a break near a tropical-themed ice cream parlor.
       “Oh, a friendly oasis at last!” the red-nosed chipmunk exclaimed. “Be back in a minute!”
       Gadget found a table and soon Dale was back with a hefty milkshake, into which he’d put two straws. “C’mon, dig in! It’s cold and dee-licious!” Gadget was surprised for a moment that Dale would offer. It was such an intimate gesture and it surprised her that Dale would be this tender with her. She knew he was going to great lengths to encourage and support her efforts.
       The mouse-droid found it strange; Dale almost seemed to like her more now that he knew she was an android than he did before. She noticed Dale’s uneasy look in response to her long moment of hesitation. The mouse inventor smiled warmly and took his hand and joined him in consuming the milkshake.
       She had to admit, it was good, with all-fresh ingredients. “Thanks, Dale. I don’t have to eat anymore, but I still enjoy the taste of things and sharing something nice with a friend. Well, ready to go check more stores out?”
       Dale gave her the signal to put on the brakes. “We just sat down, and I’m sorta tired. Can’t we stay here a while?” Gadget blushed slightly. “Sorry about that, Dale. I forgot that I turned off my need to rest or sleep. Now Dale, tell me truly, does it bother you that I’m not like you? I mean I’m sort of like you in that I’m shaped like a rodent and you are one, but really I’m not although I do think and act like one at times. Well, you know what I mean, right?”
       Dale paused between sips. “Gadget, even if you were a mouse, you wouldn’t be like me. I know I’m sorta dim and goofy and you’re really smart. I really like you, but I got nothing to offer you, now more than ever. You can’t ever make me believe that everything in you is just programs and stuff.
       “They couldn’t have made a program for every possible situation you’d ever have, especially with your work in the Rangers. They couldn’t have programmed you with what to do if you encountered a red nosed chipmunk with low self-esteem who dreamed of being a super spy. You came up with that on your own, and you saw how much I was hurting and your heart, no matter what it’s made of, went out to me. That’s when I realized you would be the only girl I’d ever love. At that moment you knew me and understood me better than anyone else I ever met, even Chip.”
       Gadget blushed again, for entirely different reasons. “Golly. I’m flattered you think of me that way, Dale, but I’m still just an android. I suppose I do have an artificial intelligence and some level of self-determination, true. Still, don’t you think you’d be better off pursuing a relationship with a real girl? I mean I do like you and all, and I’m not complaining but we can’t ever have children or grow old together.”
       Dale sat up, forgetting the shake for the moment. “I’ve seen enough movies to know love hurts, and usually involves car chases and gun battles and sometimes the hero dangling from the villain's helicopter. I don’t know about kids…maybe you could build children.”
       Gadget hadn’t considered that option. “I’ve never appreciated my friends more than I do now. I love all the Rangers, and I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you. Especially you, Dale. You’ve been so kind and understanding through all this.”
       “This is one time when my watching so many sci-fi movies has come in handy. Even though there are lots of movies about evil robots, there are some with good robots.” Dale took her other hand in his. “And there are even a few where people fall in love with an android. Being ‘real’ is just a state of mind.”
       Gadget smiled back. “Which state would that be?”
       “Oh, I dunno. New Mexico, maybe.”
       Gadget laughed and they finished their milkshake
       As they left hand in hand, several people from the booths that had been beside them just stared in wonder as Gadget and Dale left, having heard their very bizarre conversation. Another half-hour and they had tracked down Lahwhinie’s latest whereabouts. The Hawaiian hussy had just worn out her welcome with yet another manager, this time at a local dance spot known as the Swaying Palms.
       In fact, they were just in time to see her get fired. The angry mouse manager’s palms were swaying in a gesture of “get lost”, and Lahwhinie complied. She had her head down as she walked and didn’t see who she was walking toward until she was right up on the group. Lahwhinie looked up, then froze.
       Gadget grinned. “Well Lahwhinie, I see you’re as much a charmer as ever.” It took her a moment to recover from her double take, but quickly she put on her sarcastic face. “Well, if it isn’t all my favorite people in the entire world. This would make the dearest Hallmark moment. So, what do all of you want? You can’t stick around, you’ll cramp my style.”
       Chip and the others came running up now—well, save for Monty whose running days were largely behind him. “You can’t cramp what doesn’t exist,” Chip said. Lahwhinie stuck her tongue out at Chip. “Nice to see you too, sweets. What do you want? Why are you bothering me?”
       Chip thumbed at Gadget. “Don’t blame me, little miss traitor. This was all her idea.” Gadget stepped up. “Look, I know that we’re not on the best of terms and all, but the family’s getting together for a reunion.”
       Geegaw, who had remained quiet until now, chimed in. “Lahwhinie, you haven’t been home in nearly a decade. How about putting things aside for a few days and spending some time with your family?”
       Lahwhinie walked up to Gadget and examined her closely. “Is this the twerp or the toaster oven?” Dale blinked, surprised. “You know about that?”
       “Yeah, of course. They built her because Barbara went bad. They wanted their little girl to be perfect, so they made this goody-goody so they wouldn’t have to be reminded of me.”
       Geegaw approached her. “Lahwhinie, you know that’s not true. Marva and Barbara made her when she was teaching Barbara about advanced robotics. You were the one who tried to convince the head of Marva’s company to forward you a small fortune on the premise that it was Barbara who had asked for it. You were found out and you left before the authorities could question you.”
       Lahwhinie scowled at him. “Hey, I didn’t get any of the family brains—guess they couldn’t afford to give me all the best parts like Miss Wonderful there.”
       The collective gasp told Lahwhinie that she’d just crossed a big communication gap. “What, you didn’t tell them?” Geegaw turned toward the others. “Lahwhinie was Barbara’s first android. Gadget was the second.”
       Dale pointed at Lahwhinie. “Whoa, this is wilder than the last issue of “Amazingly Fabulous Stories”! So they’re both androids?” Lahwhinie thumped Dale on the arm. “That’s what he said, stupid. And I’d just as soon you didn’t spread it around.”
       Lahwhinie turned on Geegaw. “What do you want from me, old man? Come crying to your arms? Hey, I make no apologies for anything I’ve done, I’m a survivor. Just go back to your toys and your perfect child and leave me alone!”
       “You’re blowing it, Lahwhinie,” Chip said. “If you’d get off your high horse for a minute and think, you’d realize we’re doing you a favor. Right now, you’re persona non grata on this island and frankly you need a way out.”
       “Hah! You’re just going to all stand around and pity poor dumb Lahwhinie. And don’t say you won’t, because you’ve done it before! Shaking your heads, and comparing me to Barb and Gadget.”
       Chip looked at her, curious. “You know Barbara?”
       “Duh! Who do you think built me, lard-for-brains! Just like her. And she looks like both of us. Barbara, you probably know her by her nickname, Gadget.”
       Gadget’s eyes moved toward Geegaw again. “Oh, so Barbara’s Gadget.”
       “It’s true,” Geegaw said. “She made you both.”
       Dale was all revved up about this mystery now. “Chip, it’s like how among all the Rangers only I know your real name is really Cha...”
       “Okay!” Chip said. “I get the idea. I’m just surprised, that’s all.”
       Gadget gently took Lahwhinie’s arm. “Please, Lahwhinie, come with us. Surely you can’t hate all of us that much. We’re going to see Marva and maybe we can see Barbara too. Maybe she can do something for both of us, give us better lives.”
       “You can’t be serious,” Lahwhinie said. “It’ll be like a meeting of Scienceaholics Anonymous.”
       Lahwhinie started to turn around, when out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of several disgruntled rodents of her acquaintance. They were pointing and talking in an agitated manner, so much so that Lahwhinie suddenly warmed to the idea of a boring family gathering. “Oh well, I am in-between jobs now. I guess a little time off might be healthy.
       Chip had also spotted the acquaintances. “Yeah, I thought you might see it that way. Let’s go, quickly!”
       Substituting action for words, the Hackwrenches and friends left the area. Soon they were back at their planes, resting from the brisk run they’d had. Once the vehicles had been checked and gassed up, it was time to decide who was riding with whom.
       Lahwhinie sauntered up to Chip. “Well, as long as we’re going to be together for a while, I could go with this one. After all, I’ve got a bad reputation to heal. What do you say, handsome?” Chip was suddenly very nervous, and seeing the look Foxglove gave him made his decision clear. “Uh, I’m sitting next to Foxglove.”
       Lahwhinie made a nasty face, then turned to Dale. “Guess that leaves you. At least you’re dressed for this part of the world.” Dale took Gadget’s hand. “Sorry, Lahwhinie, I’m already sitting with Gadget.”
       “Well then, who do I get?”
       “How about me, babe?”
       Lahwhinie turned around and there was Shaka Baka. It had been a while since she’d seen the dopey surfer, but of all the people on the island he’d stayed loyal to her. “Oh, hi Shaka. Your surfboard in for repairs or something?”
       “Yeah,” Shaka said, sad. “Real bummer. The waves are calling and I can’t answer. Hey, the other Lahwhinie-like babe’s back!” Gadget waved to him. “Good to see you. We’d stay and talk but we’ve got a date in Japan.”
       “Japan?” Shaka said. “Hey, I’ve got nothing better to do. That’s like over by Maui, right?”
       With a sigh, Lahwhinie gestured for him to come. “Oh, joy. One hides behind a bat, another behind a junk pile. And I’m left with a surf-crazed beach bum who failed geography.”
       Chip pulled Lahwhinie over to one side, lowering his voice. ”Does he know that you’re...well...”
       Lahwhinie turned toward Shaka. ”He wants to know if you know I’m not real.” Shaka nodded. ”Oh yeah, I know. Except when she tells me to forget it.”
       It was decided that Shaka Baka and Lahwhinie would go with Geegaw. With the seating arranged, all that was left was to decide on the exact destination.
       “We should go to Marva now,” Geegaw said. “Of all the people in the world, she has the most influence on Barbara. Her laboratory’s in Kobe, Japan.”
       “Hold it!” Lahwhinie said. “Does anyone even know where Barb is? I haven’t heard from her in ages.” Geegaw sighed. “I know where she is, but Marva would have to make the decision of whether we contact her or not. She knows Barbara as good as anyone.”
       It was agreed, and in a few minutes they were in the air.

Chapter 13 – Marva Hackwrench

       From Hawaii, the aerial parade headed west toward the islands of Japan. Marva Hackwrench was among the most brilliant rodent minds in the field of robotics, and long ago she had received offers from several Japanese think tanks. At first she had resisted, but then came a time when she could resist no longer and accepted a hefty research grant and faculty job at the prestigious rodent engineering annex at Kobe University.
       When they reached the city in question, the Rangers and Hackwrenches found themselves over a metropolis supporting more than one and half million people. Kobe has always been a prosperous port city, now a mixture of textiles, farms and a dozen other types of industries. Amid the sprawl they found the Kobe University campus, nestled neatly among the streets and buildings.
       The Tadokoro Advanced Robotics and Particle Physics building housed the brightest rodent minds on campus. Once the planes landed, the visitors moved quickly to the front door, finding complimentary slippers. They put them on, as was the custom in Japan, and entered. Marva and her team of robotics researchers occupied the top level of the concrete and glass monstrosity, and as they rode up a small glass elevator Chip couldn’t help but notice how spotlessly clean the place was.
       “That’s the way in Japan, Chip,” Geegaw said. “Onaya’s mother was Japanese, then she moved the family to the island. Everyone in Japan takes pride in their building’s appearance. For it to look dilapidated would reflect on all the people residing in it.”
       Dale poked Chip in emphasis. “See, Chip? Instead of bonking me for making a mess, you ought to be bonking me and you!”
       Chip shook his head and in a minute the elevator reached the top floor. Mice and other rodents in white lab coats were walking in every direction, many in muted conversations. In a minute, a male Japanese mouse stood and bowed before them, and they did likewise.
       “Greetings,” the mouse said. “I am Professor Hiromoto, and I am honored by your visit. I was informed of your arrival by the desk clerk and of your interest in meeting Dr. Hackwrench.”
       “Yes, I’m her ex-husband and we’re her friends and family,” Geegaw said. Hiromoto nodded, smiling. “It is a great honor to meet you. Please, follow me and we will make preparations to join her in the Clean Room.”
       Chip elbowed Dale. “Good. Maybe one of us will learn by example.” Then he drew close to Geegaw and tapped him on the shoulder, whispering. “Hackwrench? She kept your name?” Geegaw grinned. “It was her decision. A sign of her respect for me, even though our lives had taken different paths.”
       Dale blew Chip a raspberry at his “clean” comment and they entered a long, narrow white room. On one wall hung about two dozen white plastic suits with hoods. These they put on, then each one received a surgical mask to cover their faces, leaving only the eyes exposed. They could still talk, but it came out a bit muffled.
       “Wow, I feel like we’re going into surgery!” Foxy said. “Paging Dr. Foxglove…”
       “In a way, we are,” Hiromoto said, smiling. “The Clean Room is where we keep all of our most sensitive electronic equipment, including the newest robotic materials we are constructing. Come, Marva is already in there.”
       Following the professor, the white-clad bunch entered the Clean Room. “Crikey!” Monty exclaimed. “I ain’t seen a place this white since the time me mum had me whitewash the house—inside and out!”
       Gadget couldn’t help but wonder if her existence had started in a room much like this. The mouse-droid took Dale’s hand, finding herself very grateful when Dale gave her hand a gentle squeeze. For all of his initial fears of her true nature, he was now more open and caring than he had been before.
       She felt the urge to speak. “Dale—well, all of you, I’m glad you came along. You’re all real friends to me, thank you.”
       The others returned her thanks, then turned their full attention to the room around them. It was indeed white, and Lahwhinie commented on how dry it felt. “That is necessary,” Hiromoto explained. “We keep the humidity low in order to protect our machinery. Dr. Hackwrench and the others are in the next room, working on our latest project.”
       Walking through a veritable maze of circuitry, wiring, and robotic parts of all shapes and sizes, they found a team of six rodents at a large table. The clean room precautions were not necessary here, so Dr. Hiromoto indicated for everyone to remove their hoods. This room was laden with computers, small circuit boards connected by fiber optics, and more loose pieces of machinery than even Gadget had seen at one time. One of the rodents, a hamster, was covered in a light metal frame with electric wiring strung like spaghetti or Christmas lights. The frame was attached to each limb and had substantial supports for the neck and back.
       As the newcomers watched, one of the scientists tapped in a series of commands to the computer and asked the metal-laden person to move. He did do, walking tenuously at first, then with more confidence. A ripple of approval went up from the others, then Hiromoto walked over and spoke with them. The scientist who had been at the computer stood up and approached them.
       “I’m so glad you’re all here today. I’m Marva Hackwrench.”
       Marva was blonde-headed and blue-eyed like her daughters, but her hair was cut short with some grayness showing, her facial features more defined. Her face was kind, but there was a sense of quiet, measured intelligence about it that was all her own. Marva was also a half-head taller than Gadget, her voice a measure lower than the mouse inventor’s. “Geegaw, Gadget, Lahwhinie, it’s great to see you and the friends you’ve brought along. We’ve just reached a wonderful breakthrough.”
       Marva led them over to the Frankenstein-like hamster. “This is Sato Fijamora, a friend of ours. He is quadriplegic, meaning he can’t use any of his limbs—until now, that is. We’ve managed to build an artificial synaptic receptor into this exoskeleton that can read his brain’s impulses in real-time and make his arms and legs move just as if his spinal connection was in place!”
       Gadget found herself wondering how Marva knew it was her. “Marva, uh, mom? How come you knew I wasn’t Barbara?”
       Marva laughed softly. “Well, even if I hadn’t known you were coming all I had to see were your eyes and your eyeblink ratio. I programmed it in to make it appear natural, but it involuntarily cycles every 3.7 seconds. I take it you’re aware of your true nature now, correct?”
       “Yes, unfortunately.”
       Marva took her hand, patting it. “I’m sorry you’ve had the illusion of being our real daughter taken away, but you were bound to find out in time. Your friends here would have aged, while you remained young. And now you’ve come to find out about Barbara.”
       Geegaw chuckled. “Caught in the same mouse trap as me, Marva. I’ve told them everything except Barbara’s history and where she is. I figured I’d leave that for you to explain.”
       Marva motioned them to pull up some chairs. “Then you should know that Barbara still remembers all of you and holds no bad feelings toward you.” Chip studied her, a curious look in his eyes. “Why should she have bad feelings toward us? We’ve never met her before!”
       “Oh, but you have,” Marva said. “After your initial adventure that brought you together, Barbara saw that you were a group worth helping. She replaced Gadget, and for the first year or so you were—”
       “We were working with her!” Chip said, aghast.
       Dale’s eyes were as large as Chip’s. “Zowie! And we never knew!”
       “But what happened to me?” Gadget asked. Marva crossed her legs. “It was simple enough. Barbara had been observing everything the Rangers did through the audiovisual pickups she built into you. Gadget. When you went back to the plane to get your tools to construct the Rangers’ treehouse, Barbara was there to meet you.”
       “Wait!” Chip said. “You mean, everything that Gadget sees, Barbara sees?”
       Monty mulled that over, “So the lass knows everything that’s happened, including that we’re here right now?” Marva pointed to her computer. “Absolutely. That’s how I knew you were coming. I’ve been in contact with her for the last thirty minutes via encrypted instant messaging.”
       “Where is she?” Dale asked.
       “That’s up to her to let you know,” Marva said. “First, let me tell you a bit more about Barbara. We’re a lot alike. She told me several times during her formative years that she never could integrate well into society, and often had to force herself to work with others.”
       “But she’s so kind and nice! That doesn’t make sense!” Chip said.
       “She is,” Marva said. “But underneath she shares my need to be alone to think, to work.” Monty pressed the issue. “Looks like you’ve managed to overcome your shyness, Marva.”
       Marva’s tone was one of correction. “Shyness? No, not really that. More a desire for solitude. I can work with others, as evidently she can as well. But after a time I’m sure her own needs overcame her.”
       “Where did she go to?” Foxglove asked.
       Marva got up and walked over to a world map on the wall. “She’s gone somewhere conducive to her work where she won’t be disturbed. It was a place that Geegaw first took Barbara and I to for summer vacations.”
       Geegaw grinned at the memory. “It was the one time that we really spent together as a family. Lahwhinie went up there once before she left us. Remember?” Lahwhinie sighed. “Nimpo Lake, Canada. One of the most boring places on earth.”
       Gadget glanced over at the computer. “Would she even want to see us?”
       “I’d like to think so. Let’s ask her.”
       Marva sat down in front of the computer, everyone else gathering around. Quickly her fingers spread across the keys, typing the message. “They’re here, and they want to come see you. Is that okay?” For several seconds which seemed like eternities to several people in the room, there was nothing. Then the single word, Yes came back.
       “All right, we get to see her!” Dale said. “Uh, she will be nice to us, right?”
       Marva grinned as a response came over the screen. Well golly, Dale, of course I’ll be nice. Why wouldn’t I? Dale pointed at Gadget. “Hey, we forgot that she can see and hear us!” Dale waved at Gadget’s face, shouting, “Hi there, Barbara! We’ll be seeing you at Lake Dimple soon!”
       “That’s ‘Nimpo’, Dale, and Gadget probably doesn’t like you using her as a camera,” Chip said. Gadget had to admit, it was surrealistic. “Um, I guess you can hear me too, Barbara. I’m looking forward to meeting you…again.”

I’ll be waiting. Signing off. You can speak freely now.
       Monty took a look at their destination on the wall map. “If she’s at Nimpo, then she’s totally isolated. There aren’t any roads to access it. The only way in or out is by plane, by the looks of it. I suspect she packed a bunch of her equipment and tools up there and settled right in.”
       “Why didn’t she talk to us and tell us she was having problems? It’s almost a betrayal that she left and didn’t tell us!” Chip said. Marva shut off her computer. “Let’s talk some more outside. We’re about to wrap up in here.”
       The Rangers and the Hackwrenches left, and in about ten minutes the scientists followed. Marva was thin yet not overly so, and appeared surprisingly fit for a mouse who supposedly sat around in a lab all day. When Monty asked her about it, she smiled back.
       “Geegaw will tell you that my other passion is hiking. On weekends, I do get out and walk the trails. Outside the city, there are many rustic areas that are perfect for a day’s hike. Remember the time we hiked through Carlsbad Cavern, Geegaw?” Marva asked.
       “How could I forget!” Geegaw said. “My neck was sore from watching for rogue bats, and my legs were sore from all the walking!” Marva grabbed a clipboard, signing her initials on a sign-out sheet. “I soon learned that my ex-husband only went as far as a plane could take him. You could use a little exercise, dear.”
       Marva patted the slight bulge of his tummy, giving Monty and the others a good laugh. “Sorry Marva,” Geegaw said, good-humoredly. “I’m still a flier all the way. Even Onaya couldn’t break me of that one. Say, since we’re all together, how’s about your joining us for a few days? We’ll go spend a few days lounging up there in Canada. And I’ll even go on a hike with you, if you ask nice.”
       The mouse scientist was hesitant, but the pleading looks from Geegaw and her children convinced her. “I suppose...I could get away for a few days, but not long. I have very important work going on here.”
       “You have important work out here too,” Geegaw said, gesturing to Gadget. Marva looked at Gadget, and remembered. “Yes. Yes, I suppose I do at that.”

Chapter 14 – The Streets of Kobe and Heading North

       The Rangers started talking among themselves about what sights to see, when Geegaw called and waved to Gadget. She nodded in his direction and dismissed herself from the others. “You guys go ahead. I'll catch up.”
       Gadget had been expecting this from Geegaw, as they hadn't talked in a while. He motioned for her to join him for a walk and together they headed toward some of the manicured gardens on the Kobe University campus. “Now you know more of why I was so evasive, princess,” Geegaw said. “I'm not sure what Barbara's reception will be like, but I know you well enough that it won't bother you.”
       Gadget’s face shifted between resolve and mistrust. “I understand, dad. I'm just finding all this hard to deal with. Why do I even call her ‘mom’? She helped build me, I suppose.”
       “She did, and in some ways she won't be able to see you as a real child. But I know she cares about you as well in her own way. Marva spent a lot of time on you that she didn't have to, adding in details and advising Barbara on how to make you the best you could be. That would be many people's definition of a mother's role.”
       Geegaw sat down on a bench, Gadget joining him. She decided to dare a direct question. “Do you resent Barbara for not being the daughter you wanted her to be?”
       “No, not really,” Geegaw said, collecting his thoughts. “Resentment is like poisoning yourself and hoping it harms the other person. Barbara always had a mind of her own, and while she's like you in many ways she's different too. It's difficult to explain. But no, I don't resent that. After all, she takes after me in being single-minded and having wanderlust. Can't dock her for being my girl.”
       “And you don't hate me for being an imitation of your real daughter?”
       Geegaw gave out a laugh, his eyes shining. “Hate you? Oh, if you only knew what a source of comfort and strength you've been to me over the years. While some of your early memories had to be replaced, those years you remember barnstorming around the world in the Screaming Eagle were real as this. I needed someone to share my life, and not only did you share it, you made it full and happy when you were with me.”
       The old pilot's voice grew soft now. “Truth is, when I had to give you up, it was giving up a part of myself. I knew I had to, but there were so many times during those first few weeks I stayed up all night and wondered if I could get away with coming back and taking you with me. Your old man's missed you, princess, and I didn't realize how much until you threw down that engagement ring back at the island. We were separated again, and I remembered how much that hurt.”
       Gadget nodded, taking that in. “Well, that's not as bad compared to the fact that I thought you were dead.”
       “I know, and it was like you were dead too because I couldn't come to see you. If I had it to do over, I would've found a better way.”
       The mouse inventor took her father’s hand. “Thank you for still letting me be your daughter even though I know the truth.” Geegaw drew her to him, holding her close. “Thank you, dear child, for being my daughter.”
       Geegaw whispered into her ear, “And you always will be.”
       Marva came looking for them and Gadget could sense they wanted time alone so she went in search of the others. The task proved easy enough, as they’d waited for her. Soon they agreed to split up and see the sights of Kobe, meeting back at day’s end. Dale and Gadget went to ask the building’s desk clerk about the best places to see while Chip and Foxglove walked outside to check out some brochures they’d picked up. Foxglove was eager to explore the city and took Chip’s arm while he pulled a couple of brochures out of his inner jacket pocket. When he did, something else fell out, and the cute bat picked it up.
       “Oh, what’s this?” Foxglove turned it over to find it was a small photograph. “It’s a picture...gasp! Chip, you’ve got a picture of Gadget in your jacket!”
       Chip didn’t seem upset over it. “Gadget gave me that quite a while ago. She had just built her camera and had taken a picture of herself to test it and I had asked for a copy of it.”
       Foxglove looked betrayed. “But why did you keep this, now that we—you still like her, don’t you?” Chip tried to keep it rational. “Foxglove, calm yourself. I forgot it was in there. There’s no need to get upset.”
       “Oh, you men are all alike!”
       Just then, Dale and Gadget emerged from the building, all excited. “C’mon!” Dale said. “There’s an IMAX theater just down the block, and if we hurry we can catch the next feature!”
       Gadget walked up to Chip and Foxglove. “And Mariko the desk clerk also suggested a great restaurant for dinner. Why don’t we go ahead and reserve it for a foursome?”
       “That sounds like a great idea, Gadget,” Chip said. Foxglove felt she was being challenged, and stepped between the mechanized mouse and Chip. “Even better, I think you and Dale should go there. Chip and I would rather do a walking tour.”
       “Huh?” Gadget said, confused. “But he just said...”
       Foxglove pulled Chip toward the street corner and the nearest bus stop. Chip pulled his arm free from Foxglove’s grasp. “Foxglove, what on earth has gotten into you?” The chiropteran took on an accusatory tone. “As if you didn’t know, mister ‘two-timer with secret pictures’! No wonder you’ve been putting me off! How many other pictures are in there, huh?”
       Chip got an annoyed look on his face and began digging all the stuff out of his pockets. Shortly a remarkably large pile of stuff was at his feet. “There, do you see any other pictures?”
       Foxglove did look—there was Chip’s case notebook, multiple pages torn out with Chip’s own brand of shorthand on them. He had another notebook which she hadn’t seen previously, labeled “known criminals and their MOs”. Chip also had a pocket version of one of the Sureluck Jones stories, “The Case of the Royal Rapscallion”. There were some packets of food, a compass and a rodent-sized glow stick. No pictures graced her vision, though, and suddenly she felt like a real heel.
       “Chip, I’m sorry again. I know you’ve liked Gadget for so long and when I saw that picture I just went a little crazy,” Foxglove said. Chip sighed. “I realize you’re not used to relationships, but you can’t go flying off the handle like that. You have to trust, so that your partner can have friends of the opposite gender without them being a rival.”
       “So you’re saying that if you’re looking at another girl that doesn’t mean you’re comparing her to me?” Foxy asked.
       “Right,” Chip said. “Though I have a responsibility to you not to be flirting or anything like that when my heart’s with you.” Foxglove moved to his side. “Okay, I’ll behave. And I promise not to flirt with any cute guys I see, either.”
       Chip hugged her tightly. “Good. We’d better hurry or we’ll miss the movie!”

       The IMAX movie, “Secrets of the Arctic”, was entertaining, save for the narrative being in Japanese. Still, the pictures of gigantic polar bears, penguins and seals made for a interesting time. As the foursome came out, all conversation had shifted from that to Barbara.
       “Why did she leave us, though?” Chip said. “Was it something I did?”
       “I don’t think so, Chip,” Gadget said. “If she’s like me, she may not have been able to reconcile her feelings, but I get the idea that there’s more to it with her. Marva mentioned her need for solitude. If I had that need, it would be for inventing.”
       Dale couldn’t figure that one. “But all she had to do was ask! We’d have given her the space she needed.” Gadget was holding Dale’s hand, and gave him a “that’s too simple” look. “With all the secrecy she’s worked under, it must be that she’s working on something she thinks is either too dangerous to work on in public or it’s very valuable. Maybe both.”
       Foxglove didn’t like the idea of getting into something dangerous. “But if that’s true, maybe we’re doing more harm than good by going to see her. What if we learn about stuff that we shouldn’t?” Chip had already considered that. “I think that she’ll have taken precautions before we come. If she’s really like Gadget and wasn’t just pretending, then she’s going to have taken care of every detail down to the letter.”
       “I hope she like me,” Gadget said. “Or maybe it’s that I hope I like her.”
       “Come on,” Chip said. “I’m sure Monty and the others have already made the travel plans by now. We’ve got an old friend to see.”
       The next morning, with the Hackwrenches (save Gadget) in Geegaw’s plane and the Rangers in theirs, they flew north, heading over the North Pole and coming down through Canada. Nimpo Lake is in western British Columbia, near the western coast of Canada, and a few hundred miles north of the US-Canadian border. It’s a rugged, unconquered territory, where the modern conveniences and amenities are left far behind. The only activity the travelers saw as they flew over the forests and lakes was the Trans-Canada railway, where the occasional train traversed the vast landscape.
       Geegaw guided them to Lake Nimpo, and truly it was on the far side of nowhere. The lake itself was part of a series of lakes and rivers that dotted this region, nestled in-between mountains and verdant pine and fir forests. They landed in a clearing flattened for aircraft, and stretched their legs.
       “Chip, Dale, help me with my swamp boat,” Geegaw said, as he opened up the rear of the Sea Eagle. “I haven’t used this baby in a while, but up here it’s like money in the bank. You’ve got to have it.”
       The boat was large enough to accommodate them all, which meant it also took Monty’s help to wrestle the boat out of the plane and into the water. As the group crossed the lake, Chip began wondering what kind of person they were going to meet. For so many years, his thoughts and feelings had rested on the mouse-droid next to him.
       With all his deductive skills, he had not guessed that he wasn’t dealing with a flesh-and-blood being. More than that, he’d become comfortable with Gadget. She was like an anchor in his life, giving him a consistency and stability that he needed. Was all that about to change?
       How much did he really know about the real girl behind all this? True, he’d known Barbara for a year or so, but what if she had been play-acting? His thoughts were clouded there, and it irked him that he couldn’t resolve that issue. Chip shivered slightly, realizing for the first time in all this merry-go-round that the person he was about to meet could shatter a lot of his well-being. It left him unnerved, to say the least.
       His mind remained active while Geegaw ran his boat onto the far shore and picketed it. The aviator mouse pointed to a nearby grass-laden hill. “That’s where the lab is. It’s been about two years since Marva or I have been here, so it’s possible she’s modified the security system since then. We’ll head over to Crazy Bear Lodge first and see if she’s there. It’s close to supper and we might as well eat first. Barbara liked their dinners, as I recall.”
       The lake area was quiet and peaceful, with only a few tourists enjoying the beach area by the lakeshore. It was truly a private getaway, with only the float planes tied up at the main pier providing access for humans. Chip could see how the solitude would appeal to Barbara—it appealed to him, for that matter. But it didn’t appeal to everyone.
       “Hey, I’m gonna miss the latest episode of ‘The Red Badger’!” Dale protested. “I’ve heard of rustic, but this place is the pitifulme of it!”
       “You mean the epitome of it,” Chip corrected.
       “No, I mean pitifulme, as in ‘pitiful me, I’m stuck out here with nothin’ to do’!”
       Lahwhinie shook her head at him. “That’s the idea of a getaway, nutbrain.”
       “I’d like to get away from here!” Dale retorted. Chip came close to bonking him, but let it ride. “Cool it, Dale! We’ll find Gadget, uh Barbara, and talk to her some. Then we’ll go.”
       “What if she doesn’t want to talk to us?” Foxy asked.
       “I think she will,” Marva said. “She likes having time to herself, but she’s not a total recluse.” Monty had his own thoughts there. “I don’t know, lass. If you’d seen the cornucopia of death and destruction she laid out in that plane of hers, you might think twice.”
       The Crazy Bear Lodge was a collection of a few nice-looking cabins for the tourist trade, anchored by a larger building for gatherings and meals. There were some rodents living in the area, and a few inquires led them to believe that they were in the right place. Several had seen someone who looked like Gadget, but no one knew just where she lived.
       Monty was about to relate how the present proceedings reminded him of his last time in Peru when from a nearby room a sound brought them all up short. “Crikey!” Monty said. “Sounds like a bloomin’ herd of dingoes, singing off-key!”
       “Is that someone in pain?” Marva asked.
       Geegaw winced, his ears covered. “I don’t know, but from the look Chip’s got I suspect we’re about to investigate.” Chip did have a strange look on his face as he listened, and he wasn’t the only one. “There’s something familiar about that sound, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
       “Yeah!” Dale said. “Reminds me of something bad, like hordes of mutant slayers! Uh, maybe we ought to wait till it goes away?” Chip started dragging him. “No. Someone could be in trouble. Rescue Rangers, away!”
       Chip led the way as usual, and near the end of their quick journey they were all obliged to cover their ears. The source of the cacophony turned out to be a human female, singing (if it could be called such) on a makeshift stage. The audience was forgiving, or they would never have been there. Chip pointed at her, recognition taking hold.
       Dale cut him off. “Yoko Ono?”
       “We should be so lucky,” Chip said. “There’s only one person that sings like that. Irwina!” Monty felt like his eardrums were about to revolt on him. “Double crikey! But she was in jail the last we saw of her.”
       “BZZZBUZZBZ!” Zipper buzzed angrily.
       “Easy there, mate. We gotta make sure.” Monty put up a hand to stop his friend, who was already rolling up his sleeves. Geegaw approached the others, out of the loop. “Uh, I suppose this is someone you’re familiar with?”
       “You could say that,” Chip said. “Irwina Allen was a top-notch researcher at a pest control lab.”
       “She was unhappy though,” Gadget continued, “because she wanted to be the next queen of rock ‘n roll.”
       “So she builds this way-out contraption to hypnotize a bunch of bees into doing her dirty work for her,” Monty said.
       “And then the queen bee found Zipper and he brought her to us and we helped her find her swarm and she locked Iron Goose in the closet and stuck us inside a drum while she sang real bad onstage!” Dale added. Chip thumbed at Zipper. “Then Zipper here took on the bees and got us out, and we short circuited her little concert.”
       Geegaw absorbed all that, then returned his attention to the human on stage. She was dressed conservatively, holding a microphone, and looked like she was having the time of her life. Unfortunately, she was the only one for whom that could be said.
       “So why is she here then?” Marva asked. “This sure isn’t a place to find fame and fortune.” Dale held his nose at the terrible onslaught. “Well, singing that bad won’t get her either one. I mean, Vanilla Ice wouldn’t work in this place!”
       “That’s probably it!” Chip said. “She’s just looking for someplace where she’ll be accepted.”
       As Irwina finished, a couple of people in the crowd clapped politely, and one even did so enthusiastically. As the Rangers and their friends watched, the supportive audience member got up and it turned out to be a short lumberjack. He walked up, apparently wanting her autograph. Chip watched, amazed at first that anyone would make such a gesture. Then some internal alarm went off and the fedora-clad chipmunk found himself giving this new arrival more scrutiny.
       “Say, haven’t we seen that lumberjack before, too?” Chip asked, pointing.
       Dale looked closely. “Yeah, I think you’re right...but wait, he couldn’t be here, he must be someone else—uh, Paul Bunyan!” Dale then doubled over, giggling. Chip thought about bonking him, but it just wasn’t worth the effort. “Get serious. Monty, what do you think?”
       Monty squinted at the short fellow in the traditional flannel shirt and jeans. “Reminds me a bit of a bloke I knew years back, name of Avalanche Le Shock. Scourge of the Canadian timberlands, he was! Hated rabbits for some reason or other. ‘Course, he was about four feet taller than this bloke and covered in muscles and had a French accent, but other than that you couldn’t tell ‘em apart.”
       For a moment, Chip pondered asking Gadget to make a bonking machine so he could bonk everyone in the room. “For crying out loud, it’s Norton Nimnul in a bad disguise!”
       Dale snapped his fingers. “Aw, that was my next guess!”
       And sure enough, Nimnul it was. After a brief talk with Irwina, he headed outside and the Rangers trailed him. There, he took off the fake beard he’d used to semi-hide his features. Cackling as only he could, Nimnul looked about him in satisfaction.
       “Ha, ha! This couldn’t be more perfect if I’d planned it! Here I am, on vacation from those idiots at the funny farm who thought a couple of weeks up here would do me good and get me away from my ‘delusions’ about the vermin! Those doctors are the kooky ones—I’ve got them wrapped around my little finger! And now, with fresh air and quiet to think, I, Norton Nimnul will begin my plans to take my rightful place as ruler of the world!”
       This litany was enough to get the Rangers’ attention, and they followed as Nimnul continued his soliloquy. “And running into this Irwina was great stroke of luck. She’s not only a great singer, but a great mind as well! I remember, she was the only person to get the trick question about ant biology right on the midterm finals at college. And now, I’ll convince her to join her mind with mine and together nothing will stop, us!”
       Nimnul headed for one of the guest cabins, muttering about “the service out here” as he slammed the door behind him. Chip immediately called a group conference. “This changes the scope of everything. Sorry Geegaw, Marva and the rest of you Hackwrenches, but duty calls. Nimnul’s too dangerous to be allowed to go unchecked.”
       “And Irwina’s too dangerous to be allowed to sing!” Dale said.
       “Even if those two ain't got an evil plot going yet, we gotta check it out as a public service!” Monty added.
       “You know Marva and I are in,” Geegaw said. “We’ll see to it that this Nimnul’s plans don’t get off the ground.” Chip hadn’t planned on having a private army, but this was pretty near it. “Okay. First things first. We need to find out what Nimnul’s plan is. Second, we need to know if Irwina’s got any plans of her own besides singing. Third, once we know one and two, we’ll devise a plan of our own. All right?”
       Lahwhinie yawned. “You guys all just run along and play cops and robbers. Where’s the buffet?” Shaka Baka pulled at her. “Aw, c’mon babe! It sounds like fun!”
       “It’ll be good for you,” Geegaw added, “and besides it’s not like you’ve got other plans.” Lahwhinie was about to object, before running over things in her mind and realizing her father was right. “Okay, but if I break a nail you’re in big trouble, pops.”
       Geegaw smiled back. “I’m shaking already.”

Chapter 15 – A Meeting of the Minds

       Nimnul hadn’t left his quarters for several hours, but when he did the Rangers were right on his trail. He was gussied up, and once inside the lodge inquired as to the whereabouts of one Irwina Allen. Reaching her room, the star-struck scientist knocked. A few moments later, Irwina stood there in a bathrobe and curlers, her face covered with beauty cream.
       “Sorry pal, I didn’t ask for room service. Try the next room down.”
       Nimnul held up a bunch of flowers he had swiped from the landscaping nearby. “Irwina Allen! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m a big fan of your work!” Irwina was admittedly surprised. She took the flowers, then looked at Nimnul questioningly. “Okay fanboy, you’ve got my attention. What is it you want—an autograph, a date, or my latest CD?”
       “I desire what every man desires...your technology! I’m Professor Norton Nimnul!” Nimnul said.
       At that, Irwina’s interest faded somewhat. “Look, Mister Nutcase, I’m out of the inventing business. I’m on the way up in the music circle. True, I’m paying my dues now, but someday I’ll be at the top and it’ll be legit. So just take your desires and march ‘em right out of here, okay?”
       Nimnul started to panic. “B-but I’ve read your papers on insect communication and read the police reports of your arrest! Your work was revolutionary! With just some minor adjustments it could be used to control animals too and together we could conquer the world!”
       “So go conquer it,” Irwina said, annoyed. “I want to entertain it! And as for insect communication, there’s always a problem, like those rodent who got in my way. How was I supposed to know some pesky animals would get ticked off by my music?”
       Nimnul knew all too well who that was. “It wasn’t the music! They’re do-gooders that follow me everywhere! Crime fighters! They thwarted your beautiful plan!” Irwina began to wonder if this guy had used his cologne to rinse his brains out with. “Crime fighters? Rodents? I think you’ve spent a little too long at the bar, pal. As for me, I’m on in an hour.”
       Irwina shut the door in his face, and Nimnul scowled. “Even when they’re not here those vermin manage to ruin my plans!”
       Nimnul stormed off, the vermin in question having been privy to the exhibition behind a potted plant. Now they emerged, standing where Nimnul had stood. “It’s a good thing Irwina’s turned over a new leaf,” Chip said. “We don’t need the two of them teaming up.”
       “True,” Geegaw said. “But without her help, he’s likely to try something on his own.” Gadget didn’t like the sound of it. “Golly, you’re right! But what?”
       “With that wacky loony, who knows,” Monty said. “I’ll jus’ be glad when he’s behind bars again.”
       The door suddenly opened, and Irwina looked down. “And another thing—oh, not you guys again! You may be crime fighters, but I’ve given up crime so leave me alone!” She slammed the door again, leaving the Rangers as cold as she had Nimnul. “Crikey! Did she understand us talking out here?”
       “Well, maybe,” Chip said. “She does communicate with insects after all.”
       Marva didn’t like it. “She seems the dangerous sort. I would keep an eye on her.”
       “Well, at least she’s not interested in us,” Gadget said. “Let’s see what Nimnul does now.”
       Nimnul was in no mood to be confronted as he left the lodge. He had thought that Irwina would have surely joined him, but with that avenue closed his thoughts returned to his old adversaries. “I’ll show those miserable miscreants! It’s all their fault that none of my plans work out. I’ll grab me a few goodies from the hotel’s supply room and then it’ll be ‘Katie bar the door’! Nyah hah ha!”
       From a distance, the Rangers watched as the cackling Nimnul started to carry out his new plan. “We’ve gotta stop him!” Dale said. “But first, there’s something I gotta know...”
       “What’s that?” Chip asked.
       “Who’s Katie, and why’s she barring things?”
       Chip sighed, trying to evoke patience. “It’s just an expression, Dale. Come on, we need to see what he’s up to now.” Dale agreed. “Yeah, and whoever this Katie is could be in trouble, too.”
       For the next hour, Nimnul was hard at work in his rooms. The Rangers tried to look in but he’d pulled the shades. At the end of the hour he came out holding something that looked like a cross between a pistol and a pneumatic stapler. He concealed the device as he approached the lodge. “I’ll deal with those rodents once and for all this time! But first, receptive or not, I’ll enjoy another unforgettable performance!”
       It didn’t take long for the Rangers to see he was headed for the ballroom to hear Irwina sing once again. Chip gathered the group together. “Okay, when the lights dim for the performance, that’s our time to move. The first job is to disable that gun of his. Gadget, Marva, think you can handle that one?”
       “We’ve beaten him dozens of times,” Dale said to Marva. “He’s just a big doofus, but we should be careful. He’s never tried stapling us before.”
       “Don’t worry, Chip,” Gadget said. “We’ll see to it. Mom, how about it?”
       “Certainly,” Marva said. “The mechanism didn’t appear too complicated.”
       Chip kept his eye on Nimnul. “But what’s it for? He could build far more dangerous weapons than that. Why would he build a lethal staple gun? We’d better be careful in case there’s more to it than there appears. Monty, you and Geegaw watch out for them while Dale, Zipper, Foxglove and I cover the exits.”
       The lights dimmed and Irwina came out on stage. The audience was sparse, which was a good thing for the Rangers, allowing them to move around the room unimpeded. Irwina started the show with her own unique version of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. Nimnul was entranced at once and failed to see as several diminutive forms neared him. Gadget took a look at the strange gun, still in Nimnul’s hand, as he held it down beside his seat.
       “It looks ordinary enough,” Gadget mused, in hushed tones, “but there must be something to it. Perhaps the butt of the pistol has something special built into it—ouch!” Gadget had drawn her hand back as she was about to touch the pistol butt.
       “What’s wrong?” Marva asked.
       “An electrical shock,” Gadget said. “I couldn’t get my hand near that thing!”
       Marva studied the gun now. “He must have a static power generator in it.” That was the end of their musing, for Nimnul had managed to spot them. “So, come to see a performance, eh? I’ll make sure you get your full money’s worth!”
       Nimnul started firing the gun, which sent out staple-shaped bolts of energy. A very angry Irwina leaped off the stage and picked up a pitcher of water and smashed it over Nimnul’s head, “How do you expect me to be the next Juice Newton if you don’t let me sing?!”
       “Yeowch!” Nimnul dropped his gun, which discharged upon hitting the floor—which upon contact with the water zapped the drenched mad scientist. He jumped with the pain, and ended up konking his head on the floor as he fell off-balance and passed out.
       Irwina shook her head at him. “Well, that’s the quietest you’ve been since I’ve known you. Sorry about the delay there, folks.” Irwina went back to her stage while the Rangers made themselves busy carting off Nimnul’s electric staple gun.
       “Everybody was kung-fu... fightin’!”
       With Nimnul disarmed and incapacitated for the time being, the Rangers reassembled outside the lodge. “That was a nice warmup,” Chip said. “What’s that nutcase doing here?”
       “You heard him,” Dale said. “He got a break from the loony bin and he’s on vacation.” Chip’s grimace showed how much he believed that one. “There’s got to be more to it. But for now I suppose we should make our visit to Barbara.”
       “Only one problem with that now, Chip,” Geegaw said. “It’s already night.”
       Chip had been so intent on stopping Nimnul, he hadn’t realized how much time had passed. “Well, it’s still only 10:30 local time. I’m sure she won’t mind.” Geegaw pulled Chip back as he’d started up the hill. “Chip, do you remember what Barbara did to that airplane?”
       That was all the pilot needed to say. “Like I said, we’ll sleep down here tonight.”
       “Does she really have her place booby trapped?” Dale asked.
       Marva nodded. “Some of it. The hill wasn’t booby trapped the last time we were here, but that was some time ago. She may have added on, and I think it would be best to visit her when we are all fresh, including her.”
       Foxy appeared worried. “Won’t she be expecting us, though?”
       “It’s all right,” Geegaw said. “She knew we might be delayed. Besides, I suspect she’s seen everything that’s gone on.”
       Gadget smiled a little when everyone turned her way, singing, “Smile! You’re on Gad-get camera.”

Chapter 16 – Barbara Hackwrench / A Very Long Day

       Geegaw’s plane also had sleeping quarters, so he and Marva stayed there while the Rangers rented two of the cabins in the area. Gadget Hackwrench, left to her solitude, turned off the lights in her room and slipped into bed. She didn’t sleep well that night—her mind was full of thoughts, many of which she knew she couldn’t talk about just yet. And what would Barbara do?
       She had no memory of her maker, though she recognized some of her own traits in the other mouse inventor. Why had she left, and why build androids? Try as she might, these were matters she just couldn’t settle in her thinking. Gadget reactivated her sleeping program, glad for a reason to give up consciousness at the moment.
       “Oh golly, what a mess this is...”
       Lahwhinie had kept to herself for the most part, hardly talking with anyone but Shaka Baka. Now she was wandering down by the lakeshore, having left Shaka up the beach. As she cleared a small bunch of trees, she found Geegaw who was sitting near the water's edge and contemplating the moonlit waves. He looked up as she approached.
       “Oh, hello Lahwhinie,” Geegaw said. “I was just remembering a happy moment or two I spent here. Where's your boyfriend?”
       Lahwhinie half-chuckled. “Oh, he's lamenting the fact you can't surf on a lake.” Geegaw had never enjoyed Lahwhinie’s sarcasm. “Poor boy. Come and sit down.”
       She did so, tentatively. Geegaw drew slowly on his pipe. “I know our past hasn't been good, Lahwhinie. We parted ways far too soon, and some of that was my fault. I pushed you too hard, wanted you to excel and didn't listen enough. But I did it because I cared about you, as much as I ever cared about Barbara or Gadget. And whether you realize it or not, I still care.”
       “Yeah, right,” Lahwhinie said. “Then why didn't you come looking for me? Why'd you let me turn into a monster?”
       The emotion in Geegaw’s voice went up a notch. “I did come looking, child! Three years ago I tracked you down and found you, on the arm of that rich pineapple baron of yours. Then he found out you were stealing from his accounts and threw you out. I watched in secret as you told him your opinion of him and immediately started hunting another benefactor. You were living the life you wanted, and while it wasn't a good life I felt I didn't have the right to interfere anymore.”
       Lahwhinie crossed her arms. “From television, I thought parents where supposed to teach their kids right from wrong. I was made, given awareness and intelligence and then cut loose without any preparation for living.”
       Geegaw looked right at her. “That was a failing on our part. Barbara and Marva were thrilled when you gained sentience, but then they simply moved on. I knew they didn't mean to ignore you, but when they're in the inventing fit it's hard for them to concentrate on just one thing.”
       The old pilot puffed some more. “They didn't consider the responsibilities involved. I tried, but by the time I realized you were in trouble it was too late. You'd already decided that you wanted out, and then you tried to rob from Marva's company to fund yourself and you were found out. She let you go, but I think that ended up being a far worse punishment for you than confinement would have been.”
       Lahwhinie plucked a pebble from the sand, throwing it in the water. “Why didn't they just pull the plug on me?”
       “There was some discussion of that, or of wiping your memory and starting over from square one. In the end, I explained to Marva that you weren't a lightbulb that could be switched on and off. You were and are a living machine, and you have feeling and needs. You were already a unique person, and despite what had happened you had a right to live your own life. We didn't have the right to terminate you, just because we weren't happy with what you'd done.”
       “I always knew I was the black sheep of the family,” Lahwhinie said. “Do you think I should get upgraded or something? Maybe smarter or something like that?”
       Geegaw wondered how many conversations he’d had over the years were as unique as this one. “If you want that, I'll discuss it with Marva. Would you like to have programming like Gadget, where you could forget you were an android and live life like any other mouse?”
       “No, that's too much. Knowing what I am is what made me what I am. It's too big a part of me.”
       “I'm glad we agree on that.”
       Shaka Baka, having grown bored, now came and joined the twosome. “Hey, your flying kahuna-ness! I was wondering what was up and all.” Shaka sat down next to them. “So, what's the scoop?”
       Geegaw took in a deep breath. “I'm just wondering what was it that brought me to this point in my life. I never expected my life to be this complicated.”
       “Whoa, that's heavy,” Shaka said. “When life gets complicated, I go surfing.”
       Lahwhinie turned a patronizing eye toward her boyfriend. “Shaka Baka, when life does anything to you, you go surfing.” Shaka shrugged and smiled. “Hey, keeps me focused, you know? So uh, Mr Geegaw, you're okay with me liking Lahwhinie, right?”
       “I'm glad that she found someone to love her like she deserves,” Geegaw said. Shaka put his hands on Lahwhinie's shoulders from behind. “Hey, she's like the perfect wave in my book.”
       Lahwhinie smiled a little at Shaka Baka's attention, but she was admittedly surprised at Geegaw's reaction. She'd searched his face, but found no reason not to believe him. Perhaps he did care about her, but for now she had other things to consider, principally a girl named Barbara. Lahwhinie stood up, taking Shaka Baka's hand, and they strolled off on the moonlit shoreline.
       Early the next morning found the Rangers on the beach. It was only a hundred feet from their cabins and by far the cleanest one they’d ever been on. Technically it was a sandy shoreline, but it more than sufficed. Some of the locals had come out and now several of them were playing games like beach volleyball and frisbee. The sky was clear as crystal, a totally idyllic setting.
       “Go long, Dale!” Gadget said. “I’m really going to throw it!”
       Gadget, wearing her cutoff tee shirt and shorts, had the frisbee now and she wound up and let the mouse-sized plastic platter fly. The projectile whizzed past the panicked chipmunk who ducked just in time, ricocheted off a few trees and landed back at Gadget’s feet.
       “Oh dear. I forgot about using restraint again. You okay, Dale?”
       Dale pulled his head out of the sand, spitting some grains from of his mouth. “Don’t worry! Just a little grit to go with that oatmeal we had!” Meanwhile, Lahwhinie was wearing shades and sunbathing on the shore in a bikini, patterned after her usual dress. Shaka Baka was sitting nearby, sulking. “Oh, get over it!” Lahwhinie said. “Not every beach on earth has waves, you know.”
       “Man, like it’s so bogus,” Shaka said. “What’s the good of a beach without surfing?” Lahwhinie ignored him, turning over on her tummy. “Get the suntan lotion, will you? My skin may be artificial, but it still burns. I don’t want to end up looking like a turnip.”
       Out on the lake, Chip and Foxglove were touring via a foot-powered paddlewheel boat. The stolid chipmunk normally would’ve smiled at the sight of Dale jumping around on the shore and getting the sand out of his bathing trunk, but he and Foxy were enjoying each other’s company instead.
       “Sure is nice here,” Chip said. “Maybe we’ll make this a regular vacation spot, if it doesn’t put a cramp in Barbara’s plans.”
       “She’s such a different person than Gadget, staying up here all alone. It’s strange, but in a way I’ve never met the real Gadget until today. I’ve never really thought of her as an android and been comfortable with the thought until now,” Foxy said. Chip had to admit, she had a point. “I’m that way too. Hopefully it’ll be that way for all of us, accepting her for what she really is.”
       Chip and Foxy turned their heads as Dale yelled and waved at them from the shore to come in. Marva was there now, as were the other Hackwrenches. The fedora-clad chipmunk turned the paddlewheel about. “I don’t know if I should feel happy, betrayed, or what. What do you think?”
       “I’m not sure. It seems like we got the better Gadget out of the deal. This Barbara doesn’t seem as nice as our Gadget,” Foxy said. Chip pumped his legs, moving the paddle wheel. “It’s hard to say yet, but you may be right.”
       When they reached shore, they learned that Marva had been in contact with Barbara via her PDA and she’d agreed to have them visit after lunch, once she had some pressing business out of the way. Marva and Geegaw had found the surroundings to their liking, and had arranged a hiking tour of the surrounding area for the next day. The hills around Like Nimpo were gorgeous, particularly the aptly-named Rainbow Cliffs which had volcanic glass or obsidian in them which caused them to sparkle in iridescent colors in direct sunlight.
       A newcomer came into view now, a native packrat wearing a red and black flannel shirt. He was light gray in color and slightly larger and taller than Gadget. His hair was jet black, as were his eyes. Those eyes warmed immediately when he saw the group.
       “Hello there! Didn’t expect to see a tourist group today. I understand you’ve arranged for a hike tomorrow. I’ll have my assistant Leonard handle that. My name’s Ken. Ken Thunderbolt.”
       “Hello Ken,” Geegaw said, shaking his hand. “I take it you’re the head guide around here?”
       “Oh, I take care of the local tourist trade when it’s busy, although it never gets all that busy. I do maintenance work on the Lodge, keeping the rooms going, and I’ll also hire out as a guide. I’m First Nation as you might have guessed, a rodent member of the Cowichan tribe. I’d stay to guide you myself, but I’m on the way to a native festival up north. Just thought I’d say hello and let you know you’re in good hands. Have fun!”
       The packrat smiled and waved as he walked off. “Right nice lad, that,” Monty said. “Seemed more than a mite glad to see us.”
       “It’s like he said, they don’t get a lot of tourists up here,” Lahwhinie said. “He was pretty cute, though. Now let’s get back to doing nothing. My tan’s only half-done.”
       When noontime came, they went to Crazy Bear Lodge to eat. It was the only thing around with a civilized dining area, and the buffet sported fresh berries, nuts and local delicacies. Monty commented on Barbara’s not meeting them there, and Marva related that Barbara only left her lab a few times a month, having stocked it with everything she needed. Once they were done, the group returned to the bottom of the hill.
       “I suspected she’d be keeping a low profile in any case,” Geegaw said. “All right, up the hill we go.” Chip grabbed his arm as they returned to the base of the hill. “Wait. Before we go up there, what kind of reception are we really likely to get?”
       Geegaw shook his head. “I’m not really sure, lad. Barbara’s my daughter, but even I haven’t been able to figure her out fully. A lot of who Gadget is came from her, but there’s more too. Put aside any expectations you have.” Chip tried to do so, but the others could see he was burdened a great deal with this.
       Dale patted him on the back. “Aw, don’t worry Chip. After all, the worst she can do is kill us!” Chip grimaced. “Thanks Dale, that really put it in perspective.” Foxglove hugged Chip tightly. “Well, don’t worry, cute stuff. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to see you.”
       “I wish I was.”
       Shaka Baka carried Lahwhinie up the hill, the Hawaiian mouse not wanting to get her feet caught in the many brambles. The others followed and soon they were in front of a small natural crevice in the hill’s rock facing. About a foot in, a steel door, hidden from viewing below, barred further progress. Geegaw approached an alphanumeric keypad next to the door.
       “Marva and I have passwords in her system, so it shouldn’t be difficult getting in,” Geegaw said. Shaka didn’t like the setup. “But uh, why ain’t the babe here to, you know, meet us?”
       “No one ever said she was a social maven,” Lahwhinie said, crossing her arms.
       Geegaw entered a 12-character code and they could hear the choonk of the tumblers moving in the locking mechanism. The door swung open and for a moment they all stood there, like Dorothy and her friends about to go see the wizard. Chip frowned slightly and took the lead.
       The interior was dark, but there were red telltale lights that provided just enough guidance to tell where the walls were. The earthy smell of the cave they were walking through combined with its echo effect to keep everyone silent for the moment. Foxglove soon came up next to Chip, which he discovered when she spoke.
       “Maybe I ought to lead the way,” Foxy whispered. “I can see everything ahead with my echolocation.”
       “It’s all yours, Foxy,” Chip said.
       Foxglove walked just ahead of him, and then suddenly there were bright lights behind them and Gadget giggled. “Hey, I just remembered! In the schematics, I have focusing lamps built into my eyes. Pretty neat, huh?”
       Monty, whose heartbeat had more than doubled during that moment of epiphany, breathed out hard. “Lass, I’m right glad to have it easier to see, but you could’ve done it a little less dramatically there!”
       “Sorry, Monty. Sometimes I forget I’m a mouse-droid.”
       They continued on, now with Gadget illuminating the way—that is until she tripped. “Oh, darn! Sorry about that.” The fall had knocked her lights out, so to speak, and Foxglove took up her echolocation again. “My, this place is pretty big, isn’t it? With my echolocation, I can tell that there’s an opening ahead a few times again the size of Gadget’s workshop back home. I don’t sense anything moving yet th—wait! There’s something moving along the far side of the wall.”
       “What is it?” Chip asked. “Is it a person or a machine?”
       Foxglove concentrated. “I hear a whirring sound. I think it’s a machine. Oh Chip, what if she’s mad at us for being here, after all?” Monty didn’t like to admit it, but the dark gave him the willies. “Gadget luv, right now would be a good time for those eye lights of yours again.”
       “Sorry Monty, I can’t seem to switch them back on!” Gadget said. Chip dug around in his pocket for his mini-maglight. He turned it on and looked around. “Barbara, where are you? We’re your friends! I think we at least deserve a hello and hopefully an explanation.”
       Chip could now hear the whirring too, and it made him slightly nervous. He pointed the light toward it, only to find that a voice rang out loudly. “Okay, whoever you are, I’ve got fifty-two forms of deadly weapons and my personal robot guards ready to'—”
       “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUGH!” Dale shouted, followed by a loud KA-THUMP.
       “Dale?” Chip asked.
       “The lad ran into the wall and knocked himself out,” Monty said. “Barbara luv, we didn’t mean to upset ya, lass!”
       The voice had been repeated its warning but now cut out, immediately followed by a sound like a record needle drawing across a record. “Oh, shoot! I forgot I left the recording on!”
       “Barbara?” Chip asked. He pointed the light toward the source of the echoing voice, only to find that it was a mini-helicopter with a strange-looking camera attached to it. At the same moment he shined the camera on it, he heard a yell come from somewhere. A door opened somewhere far off and the now-familiar voice rang out, “Don’t DO that! It’s overloading the camera’s visual receptors.”
       “Oh, sorry.” Chip moved his flashlight down a bit and now the camera-copter moved a bit closer. Chip took off his hat. “Gadget…Barbara, it’s me, Chip. We’re all here. The Rangers and your parents and your siblings.”
       The sound of clicks on a keyboard followed. “No problem. Just follow my sentinel down, okay?”
        The cave led deeper and deeper into the hill. More lights and telltales showed that the way opened up and they could now behold a huge cavern. It was at least a hundred feet square, with the floor of it a good thirty feet below the ledge they were standing on. A railing was here for safety, which circled off to their right along the wall, spiraling down like stairs. There were objects below on the cavern floor, but none of them could make them out. The copter-bot started down the path.
       “Guess we’d better follow the yellow brick road,” Chip said.
       The railing led them down to floor level, where they could now see that there were manifold machines—banks of computers, along with more types of machinery than any of them had seen at one time. Barbara had been busy, no doubt of that.
       Geegaw ventured a call. “Barbara, sweetheart? It’s dad, and your mother’s here too, and all your friends. Where are you?” Marva was less hesitant. “Barbara Stephanie Zenobia Hackwrench! You get out here this instant!”
       “Yeah, the garbage you threw out’s returned,” Lahwhinie grumbled.
       A metal door opened at the base of the cavern wall, about ten feet ahead and to their right, the light from it streaking the rest of the cavern in a pale yellow and showing off the cavern’s immensity. A voice sounded from inside.
       “Come on in.”
       Slowly, tentatively, they did so. Every eye squinted as their eyes objected to the light-filled room. There were more computers in here, some on every wall of the smaller space. A control room, filled with visual pickups, showed locations of the cave’s interior as well as Lake Nimpo, Marva’s lab, Geegaw’s home, even Ranger Headquarters. They entered, attracted at once to the sound of fingers clicking on a keyboard off to the left. A silhouette of the top of a mouse’s head combined with an office chair partially blocked out a huge screen.
       The darkened figure quit using the keyboard and flipped a switch. The lights came on in the cavern outside and in here. Barbara Hackwrench swiveled around and got out of the chair. She was wearing a purple two-piece outfit, the top consisting of a purple windbreaker made of parachute silk and a zippered front over a white half-sleeve sweater. The bottom was the same purple material, and Chip noted with interest that she was wearing running shoes. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail.
       “You’ll have to excuse my appearance. I just finished my morning calisthenics and wasn’t expecting you so soon. Pardon the lights, too—I was running an experiment on some new equipment and had the breakers off outside as a safety precaution.”
       Barbara walked toward them, appearing totally at ease. “Well, this is quite a reunion. I suppose I should have arranged for such a thing myself, but you know how time gets away from you. I’m glad to see you’re all doing well.”
       Monty stared at her. “That’s it? Not even a hug? You seemed glad to see me when we found you in that plane.” Barbara shook her head. “That wasn’t me. That was her.” She pointed to Gadget. “The person you first knew was Gadget. As mom told you, I joined up with you later.”
       Chip took off his fedora again, feeling like he was in the presence of someone important. “Thank you...Barbara. We’re doing well. How are you?”
       Geegaw, knowing he had to make the first move, dragged Marva over to their daughter and took them both in his arms and hugged them. “A family reunion, though it seems like I’m the only one who’s glad about it.”
       The hug was predictably brief, then it was Barbara’s turn to set the tone again. “I know you Rangers have some questions for me. I’ll answer them in time.” Then her attention moved toward Gadget, and it was as if the mouse had seen her creation for the first time. Barbara walked over, coming face-to-face with her doppelganger. “Still functioning and pristine after all this time. I had suspected they would find out about you long before this, but perhaps I made you too well.”
       “Uh, thanks, I guess,” Gadget said, feeling nervous under her inventor’s scrutinizing gaze. “Yes, if it hadn’t been for the lab accident that nearly tore me apart, I wouldn’t have noticed.”
       Barbara studied her, as if looking for flaws in a gemstone. “You’ve served your purpose well enough. Now that time’s over.” Chip didn’t like the way she put that. “What do you mean, ‘it’s over’?” Barbara looked at him calmly. “I mean that it’s served its purpose and it’s time to shut it down.”
       Dale placed himself in front of Gadget. “Over my dead body, lady.”
       The others quickly moved up to join him.
       “And ours,” Chip and Monty said.
       Barbara stood there for about three beats, saying nothing. “I suppose I should’ve expected this. You’ve become attached to it.” Dale’s eyes were pure liquid fire. “At first I thought it was Gadget that was the monster. I sure got that wrong!”
       “Let me guess, I’m for the scrap heap too?” Lahwhinie asked.
       Monty put his hands on Barbara’s shoulders and looked her in the eye. “Now, Barbara, don’t do anything rash.” She pulled back from him. “No one tells me what I can or can’t do, particularly with my inventions! I’m grateful for the time we all spent together, so you may stay for now. But don’t presume to dictate to me.”
       Chip marched up. “I’ll do more than that, you…” He searched for words to fit, because this was Gadget’s face he was looking at. “You uncaring, selfish little—”
       “Oh, here it comes. ‘You betrayed me, Barbara. How dare you?’,” Barbara chided, not backing up an inch. Under other circumstances, Chip would have stopped right there, but his hackles were up now. “I thought you were made of better stuff. Obviously I was wrong. You don’t care about anything or anyone but yourself!”
       “Wrong!” Barbara said, shouting it loud enough to make Chip flinched. “I cared all right, and what did it get me! Listening to you prattle on about how great a leader you were. Putting up with all of your harebrained adventures, Monty’s cheese attacks, pointless rambling stories, Dale’s goofing around, Zipper’s—well okay, Zipper didn’t make a lot of impression on me. But one day I just grew tired of the lot of you and packed it in!”
       “Fine!” Chip shot back. “If we’re so awful, then we’ll just leave you here to rot, but we’re taking Gadget with us! She’s a thousand times better than you!”
       Geegaw pushed between them. “Barbara, they came because they cared about you.”
       Barbara and Chip stared each other down. “Maybe they did, but that life is long behind me. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like a few minutes alone with Dale Oakmont.”
       The request was surprising, particularly with the tirade that had just gone on, but they obeyed. Dale wasn’t thrilled about it, to say the least and watched as the last of them closed the door behind them. Then he was alone with her.
       “Of all of them, I know you’ve got the softest heart,” Barbara said. “I didn’t mean to hurt it just now, but I want to know why you were willing to defy me to save an invention.”
       Dale shook his head. “I love her, it’s that simple. And I won’t let you kill her...or even kill Lahwhinie.” The normally-funny chipmunk just looked at her in scrutinizing silence for a few moments. “Who are you? Were you really ever there with us?”
       Barbara went to her large screen and tapped in a series of commands. An image came on the screen, showing a skateboard with the Ranger symbol on it. Her voice started to warm. “I remember when I built that for you and the others. At that time, I would’ve been glad to have built anything for anyone. I’d been alone for so very long that I’d forgotten what companionship was like. When I saw the lot of you and Gadget, I realized that maybe it was time to get out and do some good. I suppose my traps at the plane were a bit much, but at the time they seemed necessary.”
       “Maybe you were there with us for a while,” Dale said, rebutting like a lawyer in court, “but you’re not the person I thought I knew. Gadget’s not an invention, Barbara. She’s a person and one I like a whole lot. “
       “I can see you like her. Yes, I was with you for a time. I was young and curious, and when the opportunity arose to work as part of a team I found that intriguing, even fun. After a time, though, the novelty of it had worn off and I realized that I was limiting myself too much. I needed...wanted to do more for mousekind and even mankind, so I left. Gadget was meant to simply be a distraction, so you wouldn’t know the truth.”
       Dale dared to take a step closer. “You thought so little of us that you didn’t tell us you wanted to leave?”
       “No, I...” At this Barbara hesitated, as if deciding how much to say. “If you would, go to the door and ask Chip Maplewood to join us.”
       Dale did so and soon Chip was there too. He kept his thoughts to himself, wanting to let Barbara have her say before he said a word. She was obliging enough. “Your friend can tell you what we’ve talked about later. For the moment, you need to hear the answer to the question that’s haunting both your minds—why I left you.”
       Barbara motioned them to chairs. Dale obediently sat down, but Chip crossed his arms. Barbara ignored the gesture and took a seat herself. “All of my life, I’ve known my gifts were given to me to help others. For a time, being a member of the Rangers was a sufficient use of those gifts. However, by the time we faced the Cola Cult and their leader Bubbles, my time with the Rangers was already at a crisis.”
       Barbara walked over to her monitor, moving the camera that observed the cavern floor to focus on a particular invention. “When the gyromobile and the modified Rangerskate failed, I knew I wasn’t using my abilities to their utmost. And while I enjoyed tinkering with inventions and stopping a criminal here or there I was denying my destiny. It was Gadget, not me, who saved you from Bubbles.”
       Chip logged that information. “So when you walked out on us, that was you?”
       “You built the Gadget mouse-droid that fast?” Dale asked.
       Barbara swiveled back around toward them, cupping her hands over her right knee and pulling it up into a semi-defensive position. “Not quite that fast, and yes I walked out. I realized at that point that my skills were being wasted and that the often inferior materials I was working with made my inventions prone to mishaps. As for Gadget, she’s been around for quite some time. I made her for Geegaw, because he wanted someone with him on his adventures and I had my own work to do. After a time, he brought her back to me and asked to make her more sentient, more independent.”
       The mouse shifted her weight, as if the retelling made her uncomfortable. “We argued and I ended up keeping her. When the Cola Cult issue came up, I used a memory mapping technique to imprint my memories and knowledge into Gadget so that when she awoke she would know everything up until that moment. She would believe she was me, and that she always had been.”
       “And after making a person who believed she was you, you’d feel no guilt shutting her down?” Chip asked. “She’s a person with free will, machine though she may be.”
       “So you say,” Barbara replied. “I never meant for Gadget to be my permanent replacement. It just, well, worked out that way! That mouse-droid’s like a part of me that I set aside a long time ago and don’t need to be reminded of. She can’t grow beyond the programming, so there’s little point in it.”
       Dale had heard enough. “She already has, and there’s lots of points to it! If you don’t want that part of your life, at least let her have it! You don’t want that fun, nice, loving part. She’s the most wonderful person I’ve ever met. She’s everything you aren’t!”
       For a moment she said nothing. Then her eyes started to moisten. “Get out.”
       “Now hold on!” Chip said. “Dale’s right—you’re acting mean for no reason at all.”
       Barbara stood up again, her eyes locked on Chip in a fearsome gaze. “Look at you all. You all care about is her! You didn’t even know I’d left you! How do you think that makes me feel?”
       “What do you care?” Chip said, pointing at her. “You’re the one who left us, remember?”
       Chip and Barbara both eyed each other with the same accusing look, while Dale’s face was a mask of fearful uncertainty. Then she backed off, taking on a dispassionate look. “It’s late, and maybe we’re all tired and on edge. The guest quarters are the next room to your right.”
       Chip didn’t like it—it was a dismissal, and a very rude one to his thinking. “I wish we’d never found out about any of this.”

Chapter 17 – Things That Go Bump in the Night / Revelations / A Private Talk

       The leader of the Rangers marched out, Dale following. The guest quarters were surprisingly spacious, given that Barbara had been the only denizen of the place. Geegaw explained that his daughter had planned for every contingency, including the option to bring in more scientists to help with her projects. The immaculate condition of these rooms showed that this particular option had never been exercised.
       The rooms themselves were spartan—each one fitted with metal-encased bunk beds, a metal table and an area rug. A common bathroom served them all. To Monty, it reminded him of his time in the rodent underground when he put a lot of his explosives knowledge to use. For some reason, the link between that time and these rooms made him shudder but he didn’t stop to dwell on it.
       Everyone had brought rations, and soon a quick repast led to an early bedtime. Chip for his part couldn’t sleep. If anything, his suspicions about Barbara paled with reality. And yet, how could she have been so nice before and so...hostile just didn’t seem the right label. Of course, there had been that time with Baby Thaddeus, but it was more an exception to the rule than anything. Still, there was more cruelty in Barbara’s stare just now than in any of Gadget’s growls at the time. Dale spoke up, shaking him out of his thoughts.
       “Chip, what’re we gonna do?” Dale asked. “What if she won’t let us take Gadget home?”
       Chip half-smiled, for his friend’s thoughts paralleled his own. “Don’t panic, Dale. This is still...the person who we used to know. We just caught her off-guard. Give it some time and we’ll all cool down. Then we can talk some sense into her.”
       “I dunno, Chip. She was real mad at us for some reason or other. But I won’t let anything happen to—”
       A tapping at the door caught their attention, and Foxglove stuck her head in. “Guys? I think we might have a problem.”
       “What’s wrong, Foxy?” Chip asked.
       Foxglove stepped in, a look of pained concern in her eyes. “I was about to go to sleep but decided to wish Gadget and Lahwhinie good night. I knocked on the door to their room, but they didn’t answer! I opened the door, and their room’s empty!”
       **Oh no, she didn’t**. Chip grabbed his fedora. “That’s not good. Dale, get everyone together and meet me at the lab.”
       Dale rushed off. Chip ran to the lab, his mind filled with all manner of terrible possibilities. He didn’t want to believe Barbara would do anything so despicable, but it was possible. He turned on the lights and searched around and found a locked door. “Barbara? Barbara, are you in there?”
       No response.
       Chip knocked, then repeated the knocking. Every fiber of his being told him something was wrong. In a few moments the others were there, including Geegaw and Marva.
       “What’s going on, Chip?” Geegaw asked.
       “I wish I knew,” Chip said, trying to push down the panic. “I think she’s in there, doing something to the mouse-droids.” Marva touched Geegaw’s arm. “I don’t like this, Geegaw. Something’s bothering Barbara, something that’s made her very upset. There’s no telling what she’ll do!”
       Geegaw pointed to another alphanumerical keypad next to the door. “That's her private lab. It may not respond to our pass code, but I’ll try.”
       “Wait!” Chip brought out a small kit, taking a canister from it. He blew powder onto the keyboard, and in a few moments a set of mouse fingerprints was evident. “Okay, we’ve got a two, eight, seven, three, g and h. Any idea what that’s about?”
       Marva studied the possibilities. “I think so, Chip. Let me try.” Marva punched the keys in a given sequence and the lock began sliding back.
       “You got it!” Chip said. “What was it?”
       “Her birthday.”
       The door swung open and the sight inside was enough to freeze the blood. Barbara had stripped Gadget and Lahwhinie of their outer skin layers, exposing the metallic substructure underneath. One of the mouse-droids was strapped to an operating table, some of her wiring behind her ear exposed. The other one was on her feet, with her hands around Barbara’s throat. And that mouse-droid was squeezing.
       “Barbara!” Geegaw shouted.
       Geegaw ran to help his child, but the mouse-droid slapped him back, knocking him halfway across the lab. “No one’s turning me off! No one!”
       “Like, that’s Lahwhinie!” Shaka Baka said.
       Dale ran over to the other one and unstrapped her. She didn’t move, but Dale saw the repair button and pushed it. In moments the tendrils had her wires fixed and Gadget’s mechanical eyes glowed. She was a copper-golden color, her hair still intact. Where her eyes had been were two bright ellipses of light, mouse-eye sized.
       Shaka put his hands on Lahwhinie’s arms, knowing her strength was far greater than his. “Babe, don’t do this.” Lahwhinie’s voice was filled with rage. “Look at me, you muscle-brained moron! I’m a stinkin’ machine! A mechanical monster! And now she wants to shut me down!”
       Shaka put his hands over Lawhinie’s mechanical hands. “You’re not a monster, Lahwhinie. Let her go, please.” Barbara was gasping for breath now. Shaka, his voice trembling with emotion, continued on. “Don’t kill her, babe. I won’t let her hurt you. No one’s going to turn you off.”
       Now her voice took on a note of despair. “Look at me! I...I’m a thing....I’m nothing!” Shaka kept his hands in place. “You’re not nothing to me—you’re everything. You’re the queen of my heart. The surf of my soul. If you kill her, might as well kill me too.”
       Slowly, tentatively, Lahwhinie relaxed her grip and Barbara gasped for air. Lahwhinie stared at her, her eye-lights red with anger. “So, what do you have to say for yourself now, miss perfect?”
       Barbara croaked out a reply. “I’m...sorry....”
       “Oh no, we’re way past sorry here,” Lahwhinie said. “You just couldn’t stand that they loved either me or Gadget more than you. So you did what you always do—take the easy way out. Well not this time, toots. I want my skin back and then you fix her up too and apologize for all this.”
       Meanwhile, Gadget had managed to sit up. “Oh gosh, the last thing I remembered—oh no...” Gadget saw her reflection in a mirror on the wall and covered her eyes. “She did it. I begged her not to, but...”
       Gadget started crying, and it ate at Dale’s heart. Gadget turned away from Dale, ashamed of her true form revealed for them all to see. Dale quickly grabbed a lab coat and draped it over Gadget’s shoulders. “It’s okay, Gadget. We’re here now to help you.”
       Dale held her close, nearly crying himself, and Gadget clung to him tightly. “Thank you. I’m sorry you had to see me this way.”
       “I don’t care how you look, Gadget. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
       The crying started again, but this time it wasn’t Gadget. Barbara had witnessed all this, amazement turning to shame and then sorrow. She slumped down, covering her face.
       “What have I done...”
       Geegaw and Marva hesitantly approached their daughter and hugged her. Then Geegaw examined his daughter’s neck and hesitantly joked,. “Well, that’ll probably leave a bruise. I’d suggest a turtleneck for a while.”
       She cried on her father’s shoulder for a minute, then saw that Chip was watching her. With a look of pained embarrassment, Barbara let go of her father came near to him. “I...I lied about the real reason I left. I was starting to develop feelings for you and for Dale. That day you asked me not to leave and I asked ‘Why not?’ you never answered but I could see it in your eyes. I wasn’t willing to allow myself to go there, and so I activated Gadget. I was afraid of that kind of commitment.”
       For Chip, it all hit home in that one moment. The look Barbara was giving him was the very same look Gadget had given him when she came out of the workshop, crying. **Neither one of them knew how to handle their feelings. So it wasn’t just that Gadget was an android, then**. “Why didn’t you just tell us, Barbara? We were your friends. Even if you didn’t feel the same way, we still cared!”
       All at once she began spouting at him. “I didn’t know what to do! I can solve problems and invent practically anything but I didn’t know! To me, the whole thing was like a statistical projection. I could see that if I stayed, the relative probability of attachment would increase percentage wise with every passing day. Then someday I’d no longer be able to leave, be able to fulfill my dreams!”
       She took hold of his shoulders, shaking him as she went on. “I had too much to do, but I couldn’t tell you or the others I wanted time away! And I couldn’t tell you my feelings because I simply didn’t know where it would lead! Oh golly, I hate when I’m like this...”
       Chip moved his hands to where they were on her shoulders. “I’m sorry we put you in that situation, Barbara. I know you’re hurting inside, but don’t take it out on them. Gadget and Lahwhinie didn’t do this to you. And we do care about you. Don’t let your feelings get the best of you.”
       Barbara took one of her hands down and gripped his, her voice becoming small. “I misjudged you. I’m sorry.” She looked back to his face and found no hint of malice there. All in one motion she let go of his hand and latched on to him. He hugged her back, wondering just how much of this he was to blame for. He should’ve seen it coming, but for some reason he hadn’t.
       Barbara stood back and brushed herself off. “I’m sorry everyone. I-I’ll put them back together.”
       The mouse inventor went to Lahwhinie, working quickly. The process took only a couple of minutes, the guys turning around at a couple of points out of politeness. Lahwhinie’s tendrils sprang from her ears, resealing her skin layer and making it as perfect-looking as ever. When the guys turned back around, she had on her usual Hawaiian dress and looked completely normal.
       Chip shook his head at the transformation. “Amazing. If I didn’t know it, I’d never suspect she was a mouse-droid.” Then Barbara went to Gadget, who was still with Dale. Even with mouse-droid eyes, it was evident there was hurt in them. Barbara was having a hard time looking at her. “I was jealous of you, Gadget. I programmed you, but Dale was right. You grew beyond the programming to be what you are. Everyone’s always loved you and you were so open in ways that I couldn’t be. Part of me wanted to stay and grow closer to the Rangers, but I didn’t listen to it. You’re that part of me, I think, and I regretted what I saw when you showed up.”
       Gadget hugged Barbara. “That part of yourself you gave me is still inside you. It’s not like you removed it. You simply shared it with me.” Barbara took up her tools. “I guess you’re right. I’ll fix you too, but I feel I owe you more.”
       Barbara leaned over and whispered in her ear. After a minute, Gadget said, “We’ll talk about it.”
       “Hey, what about me?” Lahwhinie said. “You made me and threw me out. I was just an experiment, but at least she was made to be you. She at least got to believe she was real for a few years. You never gave me that! I always knew what I was, something that could be discarded!”
       Lahwhinie walked over, pointing an accusing finger at Barbara. “You liked her more! She was the perfect experiment, and I was the flawed one.” Barbara looked at her, curious. “I didn’t know you wanted that. Is that what you want, Lahwhinie? To believe you’re flesh and blood?”
       Dale spoke up, suddenly remembering something. “Issac Asimov’s laws of robotics! ‘A robot can’t hurt a person’. Let me guess, you gave Gadget those rules, but you didn’t think to give them to Lahwhinie. That would explain a lot.”
       “No, not any more,” Lahwhinie said. “I won’t have my memory erased. The damage is done. You can’t go home again, as they say. Just get me back to normal and I’ll muddle through as always.”
       “You don’t have to muddle through alone,” Shaka Baka said, coming up beside her.
       Barbara wondered at such feelings. “No, you certainly don’t. But Lahwhinie, I can reprogram you and wipe the affected memory. You’d have most of your memories, but you wouldn’t remember the last day and I can alter the rest so that you’ll have the kind of life you’ve wanted.”
       “No. I’m the sum of my experiences, and that’s the only real thing about me.”
       Shaka Baka put his big arms around her. “Babe, you’ll always be real to me. Maybe you’re not like other girls, but you’re the tops.” Lahwhinie took his hand and managed a slight smile.
       Barbara nodded and turned back to Gadget. “What about you? Your programming limits your development.”
       “As you said, I’ve already outgrown it,” Gadget said. “I think learning about myself and about you has allowed me to grow even further. Thanks anyway, but I think for anything else I need, I can program myself.”
       Barbara sighed, sensing a great burden removed from herself. “Well, now what do we do?” Chip pointed to a wall clock that showed it was past four in the morning. “All of us non-mouse-droids had better get some sleep.”
       Monty stretched and yawned. “Too right, pally. Then tomorrow our Barbara can show us all the wonders she’s been workin’ on all this time.” Barbara brightened some at that idea. “Sure! But first, I’ll go ahead and fix Gadget back up. The rest of you can go along now. And I’m sorry for the way I acted.”
       They left, and in a few minutes Barbara had reattached Gadget’s epidermal layer and the mouse-droid was clothed as usual. Barbara studied her again, this time to make sure the job was adequate. “What are the other Rangers like now? I see them pretty often, but it’s not the same as being there. You seem pretty attached to Dale.”
       Gadget blushed. “Well, I’m not sure what it is exactly between us. We’ll just have to see if anything develops. In a way, I think he likes me more as a mouse-droid than he ever did as a mouse.”
       “That sounds like Dale,” Barbara said, pulling out some diagnostic equipment. “I remember he liked to flirt some, but for the most part he was just a fun-loving boy. Still, he seemed very devoted to you. And what about Chip?”
       “He apparently has been pining for Foxglove since they day they met.”
       Barbara paused, apparently lost in trying to figure that one out. “Well, at least he’s found someone. There, all systems check out, including your interior lamps.”
       Gadget pushed herself off the operating table she’d been sitting on, now standing face to face with her mirror image. “I wish it hadn’t come to this, but maybe it was better that it did. You seemed to need to face up to some things. Are you okay now?”
       Barbara rubbed her face self-consciously. “I’ve never felt that angry before. But in the end, I realized I was angry with myself. I didn’t give Chip or Dale a chance, and just cut my chains and ran. Do you think they’ll forgive me?”
       “You ought to know,” Gadget said. “You know them as well as me. They’re good boys, and better than most. Barbara, why did you create both Lahwhinie and me?”
       Barbara gestured for her to sit down, and she did so herself. “When I first decided on the idea of creating an android, it was for the simple challenge of making a sentient android. It took several attempts, but I succeeded with Lahwhinie. I gave her free will and an identity of her own. I just didn’t realize that she’d want her freedom, and then one day she’d left my workshop and was gone.”
       Smiling, Barbara opened a drawer and pulled out a picture of Marva and Geegaw. “When mom and dad were still together, mom and I worked in tandem a lot. She taught me a good deal about mechanics and robotics, and when I tried the second time I realized that I had to limit your free will. Instead of letting you develop naturally, I gave you my own development, or rather part of it.”
       “So I could have my own relationships and all if I wanted?” Gadget asked.
       “Yes, I think you could,” Barbara said. “I didn’t want you to because that wasn’t the reason I built you. But now I can see that reason’s long gone. Now, are you all right?”
       Gadget, so typical of herself, had for the moment forgotten the actions of the past hour. Thinking back made her shudder. “I think…I think I’ll be okay. It’s still a bit of a shock. But I’ll survive. We all will.”
       “Let’s go, then. The others will be expecting you.”

Chapter 18 – I Bet You Thought That Was the Worst of It…

       Barbara watched her go, then closed the lab door. She returned to her private chamber, where she plopped into a chair and sat for some time. The whole matter had shaken and drained her, and while in some ways she did feel better she also felt the guilt of her rash decision. It would take time to recover from that, for her and for the others, but to her pleased surprise she didn’t consider that a problem any longer. Slipping into bed, she managed a brief smile.
       The next morning, the entire demeanor of the place was turned around. Talk filled the large industrial kitchen Barbara had installed for the scientists, Monty taking his place as head chef and storyteller. It was a time to reminisce and also to catch up. Barbara was fielding as many questions as she was asking.
       “So they really thought the RangerPlane was a ‘flying god’?” Barbara asked, her curiosity peaked. Dale gestured in large circles with his arms. “No! A ‘rrreally great flying god’!” Dale laughed, as did the others at his imitation of the kiwi chief.
       Chip changed the focus of the talk. “Barbara, you mentioned you’ve been developing new inventions for some time. You’re living on the far side of nowhere. How do you get them where they’ll do any good?”
       “Oh, that’s easy,” Barbara said, pointing straight up toward the ceiling. “On the other side of this hill there’s a satellite uplink that the hotel uses for videoconferencing and emergencies. I tapped into it, and I can send data streams from my computer to whoever I want. I’ve got several clients around the world I work with, including mom.”
       Marva spoke up now. “In fact, that exoskeleton you boys saw in my lab was a collaboration we developed together.”
       “Crikey,” Monty said. “You’ve got your finger on the world up here, then! But you ain’t talked about yourself much, luv. How’ve you been doing up here, all alone-like?” Barbara smiled casually. “Oh, I’m not all that alone. My husband Ken keeps me company.”
       The silence was deafening.
       “Husband?” Dale asked.
       “Too-ra-loo!” Monty said.
       Zipper’s mouth dropped. “BuzzbuzBUZZbuzz!”
       Barbara shook her head. “Well no, it wasn’t that shocking, at least for me.”
       “When did this happen?” Chip asked.
       Barbara blushed slightly. “Oops, I guess I forgot to mention that. We were married about a year ago. Ken’s away in Saskatoon at the Saskatoon Salmon Festival, so he wasn’t here to greet you.”
       Chip and Dale traded quick glances but didn’t say anything. Foxglove said plenty. “Oh, you’ve got to tell us more than that! How’d you meet him? What’s he like?”
       “Oh, he’s a native packrat,” Barbara said, bringing out a picture of him. “He and his tribe live nearby. When I first arrived I met him while setting up my lab. He was very helpful and very intelligent. I...I just got used to him being around and always being helpful and his insight into mechanics and technology were astounding.”
       Chip had his suspicions on that one. “Isn’t that sort of strange, his being a mechanic up here?”
       “Well, it’s not so much that he’s an inventor type, but that he seems to understand the best way to put a machine together. He calls it ‘nature’s balance’ and it could admittedly have something to do with his upbringing. His tribe seems to have this innate sense of wanting symmetry and balance in all their designs.”
       The leader of the Rangers relaxed, realizing he was allowing his emotions to lead too much, then took a look at the picture. “Hey, I’ve seen this guy!”
       “You have?” Barbara asked. “When?”
       “Hey yeah!” Dale said. “The tour guide, and he did say his name was Ken!”
       Geegaw laughed. “No wonder he wanted to meet us. He’s a shrewd fellow, my son-in-law.” Marva joined in. “And a handsome fellow, too. I believe even Lahwhinie agreed on that point.”
       “Oh yeah, he’s cute,” Lahwhinie said. “But Shaka’s cuter.”
       Shaka Baka grinned at the compliment, while Barbara shook her head. “It’s just like him to say hi and not tell you. I guess he knew I’d want to tell you myself. He’ll probably act like nothing happened, unless I bring it up, too.”
       “Maybe we can spend more time with him when he returns,” Chip said. “Meanwhile, can you show us a few of the things you’ve developed here?” Barbara brightened, as if they’d asked her to tell her favorite story. “Golly, sure! I haven’t been able to do that in a long time. Come to the lab, you can see all my new inventions.”
       Barbara happily led them inside, babbling on about her work as usual. Some of the smaller inventions were on display tables, presented proudly. The inventor mouse pushed a button on the wall, causing a series of wall panels to rise. There, in repositories behind what looked to be bulletproof glass, were five prominently-displayed devices. Barbara gestured to the first one, what appeared to be a mechanical mole.
       “This first invention I made just a month after opening the lab,” Barbara said. “The peace and quiet’s really conducive to working. Anyway, it’s a rescue device for digging down to find animals or people trapped underground. I also developed a size-change ray with it that allows the “Power Mole” to get through nearly any hole or crevice, then grow large enough to dig big holes plus pull people to safety. It’s been a staple in some of the rescue corps up here.”
       Marva’s eyes glowed in appreciation. “A true engineering marvel, that one.”
       Chip studied the machine closely. “Hmm...”
       Barbara looked at Chip, curious at his curiosity. “What is it, Chip?”
       “Nothing, just thinking. Go on, please.”
       Barbara approached the next invention, giving Chip a quick self-conscious glance before continuing. “And this is my sonic stabilizer—it’s a healing device sort of like ultrasound but using the discernable spectrum of sound. In fact, I found that its waves—”
       “Can cause people and objects to behave the way the sounds are playing?” Chip asked. Barbara’s eyes grew large. “Well yes, but how could you ever have known that?”
       Gadget put a hand on Chip’s arm. “You’re thinking it too, aren’t you.”
       “Yes, and it would explain why he’s here,” Chip said. “Keep going, Barbara.”
       Barbara did so, introducing them to her Electra-Porter, an experimental device for quickly sending solid objects from place to place. She’d intended to use it to “deliver” prototypes of her inventions, but some of the technology proved unstable so she’d abandoned it.
       Then there was the Meta-Matic, a device meant for use in correcting genetic deformities—the idea was for the sufferer in question to wear a bracelet while a volunteer of the same species wore a corresponding one. The Meta-Matic compared the genetically-defective stands of DNA with the good ones and devised a “patch” that would correct the problem. It also was experimental, but Barbara said she’d used it successfully with a couple of animals so far.
       By this time, all of the Rangers were having trouble looking in Barbara’s direction. She’d been babbling right along, not noticing, but now she saw it and a chill went through her.
       “Something’s wrong. What are you not wanting to tell me?”
       Dale coughed. “Barbara, I think you forgot to wear your tinfoil hat.” Chip gestured toward the inventions. “Barbara, have you had any dealings with Norton Nimnul?”
       Barbara shook her heard before her words could get out. “Nimnul? That kooky mad scientist? Of course not! Look, what are you driving at? You seemed to know what my inventions would do and—ooh…”
       She stopped mid-sentence, reality hitting her like a piledriver. “No. You can’t mean that he...that I...NO! My inventions?!?”
       “We’ve encountered quite a few of these,” Chip said, his eyes apologetic.
       “With a mad scientist twist,” Dale added, his look just as sorrowful.
       Monty’s moustache bristled at the thought. “Yeah, there were some hairy times. Somehow he knows everything you build.”
       Barbara’s face moved from shock to anger to fear, his eyes welling up. “But how? How! My security here is top-notch and I don’t send anything out in the clear. It’s all scrambled! I’ve taken every precaution, spoken to no one, covered every track! And you’re saying that he’s been committing crimes with...and threatening you with...”
       The mouse inventor covered her eyes, rubbing her temples. “I think I’m going to be sick...” Monty punched his fist. “I say we find him and make him talk!”
       “Maybe we could use some help,” Chip said, his thoughts pushing ahead. “He’d never tell us, but he might be willing to tell another human, someone he seems rather fond of.”
       “Irwina!” Monty said. “Too right.”
       “That’s that I’m thinking. It’s worth a try, anyway.”
       Barbara ran off suddenly, headed for the bathroom. From inside came a loud, shrieking scream of pure hostility that froze everyone’s blood. Dale shuddered. “Whoa, I didn’t know she could do that.”
       “Her inventions mean everything to her,” Gadget said. “It’s like Nimnul’s taken some of her children and corrupted them.”
       “We’ve got to set it right, then,” Geegaw said. “She won’t be at peace until we do.”
       Barbara returned after a few minutes, winded-looking but better. “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to let that creep get away with this. Oh, and I bet he’s stolen my exoskeleton schematics too! I oughta grow myself to twice his size and stomp him good!”
       Chip stepped up, hoping he could handle this peacefully before Barbara actually carried out any threats. “Has anyone here ever talked to humans before?”
       “Well,” Monty said. “I’ve known a human or two in my day, but I don’t think I got what it takes to convince her to help us. You should do it, Chip.” Chip could feel all eyes on him and he resigned himself to it. “Peachy. Well, hopefully she’ll listen to us. We need to find out how he’s getting Barbara’s inventions and what he’s planning to do next.”
       “And while you do that, I’ll start getting packed here,” Barbara said.
       The others looked at her confused. “What for?” Monty asked.
       Barbara’s eyes showed her determination. “Do you think I’m going to allow that pilfering scientist to keep what he’s stolen from me? When all of this is said and done, I’m going back with you guys and pay a visit to that dome of his. He’ll wish he’d never heard of me by the time I’m done!”
       Dale reacted with a shallow laugh. “For how he reacts whenever he sees us, I think he already wishes he never heard of us.”

Chapter 19 – A Strange Alliance / A Midnight Meeting / Late Hours

       It was all the Rangers could do to contain Barbara, and even her parents had to repeatedly admonish her to be patient. Chip assumed the role he was so good at, planning the next stage of operations. Two hours later, Irwina Allen heard a slight knocking at the door to her dressing room. When she opened it, she found a pint-sized admirer.
       “Oh, it’s you again,” Irwina said. “Now see here, I’m right in the middle of getting ready for my public. Whatever you’ve got to say, make it fast.”
       Chip didn’t like speaking to a human, but he knew there was no way around it. “Uh, well, we need your help, Irwena.”
       “Oh, joy. I’m pushing forty and can’t get a gig outside of one-horse towns like this and you need my help? You must really be desperate, pal.”
       “Actually, we are,” Chip said. “We need to know how Nimnul’s stealing technology from one of our friends up here, and he sure won’t talk to us.”
       Irwina waved him inside, nervous about being seen talking to a chipmunk. “Nimnul? That toad...well, he’s totally enamored with me, so he can’t be all bad...but I’ve gone straight now. I don’t want to deal with some guy who’s just out for world conquest. There’s not a lot of future in relationships like that.”
       “We believe Nimnul may be up to something big and we need your help to find out and stop it,” Chip said. Irwina paused, giving it what appeared to be serious thought. “I wouldn’t put it past him. He was acting all secretive the last time he talked with me. I think he’s onto something big, but he probably won’t say what it is unless I agree to go in with him on it. And I take it you want me to say yes.”
       Irwina stood up and started pacing, thinking out loud. “I suppose I could, chipmunk, but what would I gain out of it? I’ve learned a lot about business in my time, and the first rule of business is ‘I do something for you, and you do something for me’. I need a break, a way to get myself in front of a bigger crowd. I need to get noticed and frankly I need a better voice.”
       She stole a look at Chip, who as she expected showed surprise. “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I’ve had enough people tell me I can’t make it, but I’ve got a way to tip the scales. I’ve designed a sonic voice enhancer, but I don’t have the wherewithal to build it right now. If you can, and can get me noticed, then it’s a deal.”
       Chip paused at her terms. “No hypnotic control in that voice modifier?”
       “None, just modifies the tone to make it palatable,” Irwina said. “I admit, it’s cheating in a way. But it’s also better than living on bread and noodles and whatever that stuff is the locals eat. So, what do you say?”
       It was cheating, and Chip didn’t like the idea. Still, they were in a tight spot and needed Irwina’s help. “We’ve got a deal, Irwina.” The scientist-turned-singer nodded in return. “All right. I’ll send a note for Nimnul to meet with me after the concert tonight. Once I find out what he’s up to and all, I’ll meet you down by the lakeshore. Look for me around midnight.”
       “Thank you, Irwina. We won’t forget this.”
       “And I won’t let you forget it,” Irwina said, escorting him to the door. “Now hurry along. I’ve got to finish getting ready.”
       Chip nodded back, and as Irwina opened the door he ran out quick, making sure not to be seen in case Nimnul was around. Thankfully he wasn’t—he was already out in the audience, having arrived there first. Chip spied a look at him from the stage and saw he was wearing his best tan herringbone suit and red bowtie. The chipmunk shook his head, wondering if the guy was colorblind. He also noticed Nimnul had a bouquet of roses, so Irwina’s planned note probably wasn’t necessary.
       Satisfied, Chip retired and left the building. He didn’t entirely trust Irwina, but he trusted her more than Nimnul. After all, she was a one-time offender and Nimnul was a career do-badder. Still there was that twinge that always came up when he wondered if he was being snookered. Chip shook his head and went back to report to the others. Once they’d heard the details of the exchange, they waited until fifteen minutes before midnight to set up their vigil.
       When the hour came, it was Chip’s turn to pace. Gadget smiled because she knew this mood in him. “Don’t worry, Chip. I’m sure she’ll be here in time. Even if she isn’t, she won’t catch us napping. I don’t need sleep so I’ll keep watch if this goes much longer.”
       Chip had been watching the lakeshore, but now he returned his attention to the mouse-droid beside him. “That’s okay, Gadget. We’ve had our share of vigils before. Nimnul may be delaying her, I’ve thought of that.” Now he looked at her, and for the first time he addressed Gadget—the Gadget he knew now. “Are you doing all right? I know it couldn’t have been good, Barbara taking your...covering off like that and all.”
       She looked away a moment, slightly blushing. “Well, it wasn’t a happy moment to be sure, but I’m better. It’s sort of harrowing, thinking you’re one thing all your life and then finding out otherwise. But inside I’m still me.”
       “Indeed you are. Maybe there’s more to you than the parts and all. I’ve always thought of you as having the kindest and, well, sweetest soul.”
       Now she really blushed, then hugged him. “Golly, thanks Chip.”
       That exchange naturally attracted Foxglove’s attention. “Hey, what’s going on over here?” Gadget knew she was encroaching some. “Don’t worry, Foxy. I was just thanking him for giving me a soul.”
       Foxglove looked toward Gadget, confused. “Oh. Uh, okay. You’re not a vampire mouse-droid, are you?” Gadget laughed a little at the notion. “No, no! I meant figuratively. He was…” Foxglove held up a wing to indicate silence. “I think she’s coming.”
       It was a half-minute more before any sounds were apparent to the others. Chip had to grin when he heard Irwina nearly trip in the dark and exclaim, “Stupid bush! What idiot put you there?” Then the stumbling and talking got closer and Irwina headed over toward them.
       “You’re lucky I was only ten minutes late,” Irwina complained. “That crackpot was about ready to propose marriage to me! Thankfully he’s already married to his dirty work. So, looks like you’ve been doing some genetic replication since the last time I saw you.”
       Barbara came forward. “Actually, these two are androids. I made them.” Irwina nodded, looking slightly impressed. “Not bad work. Then you’re the one who gets this.”
       She handed a folded up set of blueprints to Barbara. “This’ll explain all you need to build me that voice enhancer. But you may have to put it off for now.”
       “Huh? Why’s that?” Dale asked.
       Irwina took on a self-satisfied look. “Nimnul spilled the whole story to me. He couldn’t resist my natural charms.” She primped her hair a little, proud of herself.
       “So what’d he say!” Chip asked.
       “I’m getting to it! Boy, are you ever impatient.”
       Dale laughed and pointed. “She sure nailed you, Chip. Hehhehhehheh!” Chip tried to bonk him, but he jumped out of bonking range. “Okay, sorry. So what is his plan?”
       Irwina rolled her eyes. “Oh, he’s got this wild scheme about some super-suit he’s built. He’s planning on using it to rob a few banks and then hire some more muscle and take over his city.”
       That was all Barbara needed to hear. “That...that...weasel! He’s using my exoskeleton design! Ooh, I wish I had him in front of an atom-smasher right now!” Irwina blinked in surprise. “Your design? And it’s not bad at that. Antigrav built-in, jetpack, lasers, the works. He showed me a copy of the schematics he’d come up with for it—the little fool didn’t realize I have a photographic memory.”
       “You do?” Barbara asked, instantly interested. “Say, would you draw it out of me? Maybe we can give him a dose of his own medicine.”
       There is that something between inventors that is a wonder to behold. Barbara and Irwina smiled conspiratorially, and it was evident that each had found a kindred spirit. Monty got the talk rolling again. “That’s a great enough idea, Barbara-luv, but we ain’t exactly Nimnul-size, even with super-suits and all.”
       “Oh, I think I can take care of that,” Barbara said, “Mom, think you’ve got an all-nighter in you?” Marva’s smile showed she was game. “Anytime you say the word.” Barbara turned to the mouse-droids. “Gadget, I’ll need you and Lahwhinie to help out, too. And while we’re at it, we’ll cook up a little surprise for old Nimnul.”
       Gadget nodded and bumped Lahwhinie in the ribs. “Oh, all right.”
       “Like, I’ll help out too, inventive dudette!” Shaka Baka said. Chip pulled on his coat lapels, satisfied. “Okay, let’s get cracking. Rescue Rangers, away!”
       It didn’t take long for the three inventive geniuses to get going. Marva, Gadget and Barbara were soon hard at work in Barbara’s lab. They fell into a rhythm, each helping the rest, and soon the work itself was second-nature. When it was, Marva started asking Barbara about Ken.
       “I could see he was a very nice person. And is that how you feel too, Barbara?”
       Barbara had on a welder’s shield, but her happy tone told the others enough. “Yes! He’s like no other guy I ever met. Brilliant, clever, creative, kind and giving--well, there was that one white mouse with the huge head but he had a real ego problem. I thought about it a lot since Ken and I married, thinking about how my family would feel and all, and then suddenly out of the blue you all arrive on my doorstep. It seems like a sign to me, a positive sign.”
       Barbara waited until Gadget was across the room, getting more supplies, then whispered to her mother. “The one that surprises me is Dale and Gadget. He does understand she’s an android, right?”
       “He knows,” Marva said, amused. “I asked him about it, and he said that he likes robots and doubly likes her. And strangely enough Gadget seems to have developed a real affection for him. When we developed her artificial intelligence, I hardly thought providing her with self-determining algorithms would lead to that.”
       Barbara fired a hole into a piece of metal, preparing to weld another piece together with it. “Well, Dale is a really sweet guy and I think they’d be happy together. Wow, they both finally found girls, no pressure anymore. No more competition. Things should work better in the group.”
       Geegaw had joined them now, checking on their progress. “Was that the real reason you left them, Barbara? The pressure of the chipmunks competing for your attention?” Barbara flipped up her welding mask, nodding. “Yes. It was unbearable at times. They were like two little children fighting over a toy. It was just one unending distraction from my inventing.”
       “They’re going to feel guilty about that. Perhaps we should arrange for you to talk with them privately again, so you can explain. I still believe that they’ll take it pretty well, Barbara. They seem to have adjusted.”
       “Yeah, that might be a good idea,” Barbara said. “I don’t want there to be any hard feelings. Despite what I said, I still do care about them as friends.”
       Barbara had known that long before she’d admitted it to her father—she did care, and while she’d chosen another as her companion for life she felt she owed Chip and Dale in a way. While the two chipmunks were annoying at times, particularly to an inventor who needed peace in order to concentrate, they had shown her more of life in those few months than she’d seen before or since.
       It had instilled her with a desire to help others, far beyond the efforts of the Rangers or any other rodent organization. That was what she explained to the two curious souls that evening in the lab as they sat across from her. She went back to her welding, but now she could hear them coming. Geegaw’s curiosity had spread, and now all the Rangers were in the lab, looking on.
       Barbara waved the two chipmunks over. “I just wanted to let you guys know that I’m sorry about running out and all. I didn’t handle your competition over me well, and I should’ve come to you both instead of choosing the way easiest way for me. I needed to give this first purpose in life my entire effort, and now I know I’m doing what I should be. But I do have both of you to thank, because you allowed me to see the real rewards in helping others.”
       “I’m sorry too,” Dale said “Barbara—zowie, it’s going to take me a long time to get used to saying that. I’m sorry, Barbara that I helped chase you away.”
       Chip felt deeply embarrassed about the tirade he and Barbara had gone through earlier, annoyed with himself that even as an adult he could still act so childishly. “I apologize as well, Barbara. We mistreated you, and we’re deeply sorry for that.”
       Barbara’s eyes looked kindly on them. “Oh guys, I already told you it was okay. I know that you both care about me, and I’m glad of that. But I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all moved on now.”
       Chip looked over at Foxglove, grinning as he did. “Yes and thankfully, Dale didn’t hold a grudge against me for falling for the girl that fell for him. She’s so open and adoring and affectionate, she’s everything…”—Chip had almost blurted out ‘she’s everything you’re not’ and was glad he’d held his tongue—“…everything I could have ever hoped for.”
       “That’s wonderful, Chip,” Barbara said. “And you, seem to have a very unique friend of your own.” Dale and Gadget traded looks. “Oh yeah, she’s more than just a dream girl, she’s so amazing! She’s like a butterfly just coming out of her cocoon. She’s literally like no girl I’ve ever met before. So much love, so much wonder, so much brains!
       “I wish you could see all the stuff she’d done with us over the last few years, Barbara. To think she was just a machine once, and now she’s one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. Barb, thank you for putting her in your place, rather than just leaving outright. I understand now that neither Chip or me could have made you happy, but thanks for leaving behind someone that could make me happy.”
       Barbara turned that over in her mind as she prepared for the next step in her plan. She had never thought that her creation would be loved, or apparently return someone’s love that way. “You’re welcome, Dale. I have seen a lot of what Gadget’s done, but I’ve missed out on a lot of what you guys have done. I should’ve expected better of you, though. You were always kind to me, and while I couldn’t stay I did think of you, Chip, Monty and Zipper a lot.”
       It was a happy time as Barbara continued to work and talk, babbling now about inventions, laughing now about old times, the mouse inventor and chipmunks chatting like old friends. The hours passed, and then it was very late. Marva had finally given out, and now it was just Gadget and Barbara working.
       The mirror-image inventors continued on tirelessly, for Barbara loved working at this time of night as much as Gadget did. Barbara looked over at her companion, remembering when she saw Gadget as a collection of circuit boards, molded plastic and wiring. It was strange thinking of her as a person, and yet she realized that she did.
       The mouse inventor had a question nagging her, and now seemed the time to bring it up. “I talked to Dale and he really does love you, and not because you look like me. Do you love him, Gadget?”
       “I’m still learning what love is, but yes, I do believe I love him,” Gadget said. “There’s an intangible quality about him, an innocence. It’s almost like he’s out of place in this world, like I am. In a strange way it’s almost a kinship. My being an android removes me from the pool of organic womanhood and all the difficulty he has relating with them. He has more understanding and compassion for my state than I would ever have dared imagine. “
       “I know all this must still be bothering you. Do you need me to upgrade any of your systems?”
       “I don’t think so. I’m used to the way I am. I’ve found I’m able to ‘grow’ in a manner of speaking. When I had to pretend to be you, I was stuck in my programming that required me to keep everything in a status quo, but when I discovered my true nature I was free. I wasn’t you, anymore.”
       For some reason, that fact pleased Barbara. “Okay, Gadget. I hope it works out for you.” Gadget hugged Barbara. “And thank you for letting me be free. Thank you for my life.” Barbara returned to her work. “Did I really give you life? Now I have to wonder…”

Chapter 20 – Little Problems / Big Adversaries / A Rousing Finale

       The next morning, Nimnul was up early. He’d been waiting his chance to get at Barbara’s lab, and when he saw her and the others leave in the RangerWing and the Sea Eagle he knew his opportunity had come. “Those simpletons have no idea of what Norton Nimnul’s capable of. Time for a…small excursion. Ha, ha, ha!”
       The jovial scientist pulled out his Gigantico Gun and shrunk himself down to mouse size. He pressed a button on his shoes and springs extended out, allowing him to bounce from the base of the hill to the worn path leading to Gadget’s lab.
       “Now, to get in there and fix my digital pattern descrambler. No cable thief should leave home without one!” Nimnul said, approaching the locked front door. Confidently, he whipped out a device the size of a calculator which scanned the lock and gave him the entry code. A few cackles later he was past the lock to Barbara’s communications room and looking things over.
       Nimnul opened a panel next to the large viewing screen, exposing a series of circuit boards. On one of these, he removed a small device the size of a diode. The filament in it had burned out, and Nimnul replaced it with a new one. He took a seat at the viewing desk.
       “Let’s see why that mouse and her pals left in such a hurry.”
       Quickly, Nimnul brought up a log of past exchanges. Most of these he was familiar with, but noticed a half-hour exchange yesterday evening. Bringing it up, he watched as Barbara talked with one of the scientist mice he’d been before.
       We’ve made a real breakthrough, Barbara said. This invention’s too complex for the usual method to work. I’m coming myself. Take every precaution. If anyone gets their hands on this and misuses it, it would be disastrous.
       “Oh, just the kind of invention I like!” Nimnul said. “I’ll have to give Irwina a rain check, but if this one’s as good as she’s saying I’ll find several ways of making it up to her!”
       The conversation continued, and Barbara agreed to meet her scientist contact in New York at a certain warehouse down by the docks. Nimnul wrote down the location, grinning like someone who had just found the fountain of youth. Back outside, he regrew himself to normal size and headed toward the lodge. He wrote a quick note explaining he’d be back in a couple of days and left for a cabin back in the woods.
       This was Nimnul’s hideout, a place he’d chosen years back when he first learned of Barbara’s work. The cabin was mere camouflage of course, hiding a helicopter-like device. “A quick trip to my lab, and I’ll be ready to pick up my invention!”
       Nimnul laughed again as the mini-copter rose into the sky, headed south-southeast. The next morning, at a certain geodesic dome, an unusual form rose into the sky. The dawn’s light shone off the glint and shine of metal and glass, accenting a six-foot tall exoskeleton. Nimnul surveyed the city, feeling more powerful at this moment than he ever had before.
       All his life, he’d been picked on because he was short. In school, he’d been called “stump”, “midget” and worse. Now he would show them. Now he was the big man, and once he had this mouse’s secrets he wouldn’t stop there. He would plunder and conquer, raising an army of metallic warriors. And then, one day, he would rule it all.
       The jet pack on his exoskeleton made the trip to the warehouse far faster than New York traffic would ever allow. Landing outside, he approached stealthily, making sure his quarry was inside. His eyes gleamed with avarice, for there was the inventor mouse and the scientist. They were standing on a crate, trading what appeared to be small suitcases.
       Nimnul walked in, haughty as a king. “Well, well. I happened to be passing by, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature inventor and one tiny friend near!”
       Barbara turned around. “You’re making a big mistake, Nimnul.”
       “I don’t think so, my pretty,” the wacky scientist said. “I know whatever you’re up to, it must be very secret. I love secrets, especially when they make me rich!”
       “Oh, then you’ll love this secret,” Barbara said, a glaring smile forming on her face. For the first time Nimnul hesitated, but just slightly. “You’re bluffing, mouse. Now let me have it.”
       “Your wish is my command. Now!”
       Nimnul’s eyes grew large at the sight. From behind a high pile of packing crates, ten rodents appeared. They too had exoskeletons and moreover they were human-sized. “It’s funny what molecular enlargement allows,” Gadget said, hovering with the others. “We’ve been expecting you.”
       “Give it up, Nimnul!” Chip challenged. “You don’t have a chance!”
       In other circumstances, the reality-challenged scientist might have turned tail and run. But not today. Not with all this power at his disposal. “Wrong, my overgrown woodland friend. It’s you who doesn’t have a chance! Come on, everyone, let’s go outside and play!”
       The Rangers watched as Nimnul lifted off and flew out of the warehouse into the sky. Moments later, they were on his tail. Humans below pointed in amazement as the near-dozen forms stopped and hovered near the Statue of Liberty.
       “You’re outnumbered and outclassed, mate,” Monty said.
       Nimnul glared back. “Really? Let’s see how you handle my special modifications, rodent!” He took out a remote control and pressed a button. In moments, the Rangers and their companions were forced backwards.
       “It’s a magnetic repulser!” Gadget said. “He’s using magnetic waves to push us back!”
       Nimnul bowed, as if accepting applause. “And now, for act two!” He pushed another button and what looked like wings sprouted from each side. Chip pointed, shouting, “Missile launchers! Scram!”
       “Eat heat-seekers, vermin!” Nimnul shouted back, the whole volley of missiles firing at once. Each missile locked onto one of the enlarged rodents, tracking their motions through the air.
       “Chip! Everyone!” Gadget said, contacting him via the built-in radios in their exoskeletons. “I think I know how to turn this against him. Fly toward the repulser field!”
       “Gadget, that’s suicide!” Chip countered. We won’t be able to get away!”
       “Trust me!”
       Whatever Chip thought of his mouse-droid counterpart, he knew he could always trust her. “All right, let’s do it!” With a united motion and will, the ten metallic mice and chipmunks headed back toward Nimnul.
       “Like whoa, this is serious,” Shaka Baka said. “Like facing a 50-foot wave in a hurricane. Let’s rock!”
       “We’ve got to get your head examined,” Lahwhinie said, flying next to him.
       Onward they flew toward the repulser field, then just as they were about to contact it, Gadget shouted, “Now, bank down, hard!” They did so, and the missiles hit the repulser field and bounced off, falling harmlessly toward the ocean below.
       “Drat!” Nimnul said. “But you won’t survive act three! Now prepare to face the full wrath of Nimnul!”
       “Oh, shut up!”
       Nimnul checked behind him, shocked at the voice who had said it. There was Irwina, hovering in the air. “But how did you…oh, I get it. You’re in league with them, aren’t you?”
       “No, I’m in league with myself!” Irwina said. “I knew what you were up to, and frankly the world doesn’t need any more madmen ruling it. Besides, it hurts the tourist trade and the entertainment dollars.”
       Nimnul seethed with the sense of betrayal. “I trusted you, cared about you! And this is the thanks I get?” Irwina didn’t blink. “You cared about me, but only as far as my brain was concerned. You’re nothing but an idea thief. I bet that’s why they kicked you out of the university. You’ve probably stolen every idea you’ve ever come up with!”
       “Enough!” Nimnul said, pressing another button. He began growing, getting larger and larger until he was 100 feet tall. “Now, I’ll crush you and anyone who tries to stand in my way!”
       The laughter from the giant Nimnul was near-deafening, but Irwina still wasn’t fazed. She put some earplugs in her ears, and when the Rangers and their friends showed up they had plugs in theirs as well. “It’s time for you to face the music!” Irwina shouted.
       From behind her, Irwina grabbed an electric guitar and plugged it into her exoskeleton. She had her voice enhancer now, and truly her voice was stunning. She began playing as she sang “Proud Mary”, and electrical waves shot out and sought their target. Nimnul winced, surrounded by the electro-musical onslaught.
       Irwina played on. “And now, we’ll take it up into the ultrasonic range!”
       She did so, and soon it was too much for Nimnul’s nerves. As he passed out, Gadget flew over and pushed the button on Nimnul's exoskeleton, causing him to shrink back to normal. As he started to fall, Chip snagged him.
       “Thanks, Irwina. Without you, things might’ve been—what?”
       Chip’s reaction was caused by a human flagging them down, at the head of a speed boat. He was dressed in a business suit, and appeared excited. “That was incredible, and that music! That voice! Those effects!”
       The man’s boat drifted over to where Irwina was hovering. “I’m George Gigmaker, and you’re just what I’ve been looking for!”
       “Me?” Irwina asked, startled.
       “How can you doubt it?” George said. “You’ve got the style and the edge with that metal whatsits. I’ll give you a five year contract, right now. What do you say?”
       Irwina was more than excited, but she knew she had to talk to one person first. The person in question had just joined them, wearing an exoskeleton of her own. “Barbara, we make a good team. I owe you and these guys. Is it all right if I keep the suit as long as I use it for my career?”
       “You got it, Irwina,” Barbara said.
       Irwina screamed with delight. “Look out, world, the queen of rock ‘n roll is back!” The others laughed, then George addressed them. “Say, who are all you guys?” Chip smiled back at him. “Friends. Let’s go gang, before they think we’re aliens and start shooting.”
       The Rangers headed off, shrinking back to normal size. Foxglove now flew next to Chip. Her wings had made it too difficult to get into an exoskeleton, so she’d hung back during the fight. “That was awesome, Chip! We ought to use those exoskeletons all the time and be the Mighty Metal Rescue Rangers!”
       Chip laughed. “Well maybe, but I don’t think we’re really the world-protector types.” Then Chip’s exoskeleton developed a short and it started veering back and forth erratically.
       “Use the emergency release!” Barbara shouted. “Next to your right hand!”
       Chip did so, then realized he’d just lost his means of staying in the air. “Um, Foxy? Help!” Foxy dived over toward him as he fell, snaring his jacket. She fought gravity’s pull, then started flying them out of harm’s way.
       “I didn’t think you would be able to carry this much weight, Foxy,” Chip said.
       Foxy looked down at him, annoyed. “Oh, you would have to mention that!”
       Foxglove strained with the weight, working to get them near to the ground before she gave out. The others came to help, Dale and Monty taking Chip off Foxglove’s claws. They managed to get him near a shallow creek next to the Hudson River, then Dale’s hand slipped and before Monty could react Chip fell into the water with a big SPLOOSH.
       He came up easily enough and swam for the nearby shore. Just as he reached the shoreline and stood up, here came Foxglove running it him joyously. “Chip, we did it!”
       Chip opened his arms just in time to receive a pink bat in them. They both fell back into the creek, but they didn’t seem to mind. Gadget and Barbara landed next to the creek, the others right behind them.
       “Hey, you two! You’re gonna drown in there!” Monty said.
       Chip hadn’t realized they were no longer alone, but the king-sized smooch he’d received allowed him to throw caution to the wind. He picked Foxy up and walked out of the water, happy as any chipmunk has a right to be, “We’re fine and it looks like the rest of you are fine too. Now we need to search for all those injured from Nimnul’s impact.”
       Dale meanwhile had gone over to pay attention to Gadget. Her exoskeleton had given her a difficult time, and when she’d pulled hard on her controls to avoid one of Nimnul’s missiles she’d wrenched an arm out of its mechanical socket. The red-nosed munk watched while her repair mechanism got busy
       “You sure you’re okay?” Dale asked, watching.
       Within a minute, the tendrils had done their work and Gadget freely flexed her arm. “Yep! Guess there is some advantage to being an mouse-droid. But now we’d better get going. I'm sure we've attracted enough attention as it is.”
       Back on the dock, another human in a suit stood in front of a camera. “And now it appears they’re leaving,” Stan Blather said. “Over the past hour, we’ve witnessed these strange beings fight and stop a giant human from rampaging through our city. Who is this colossal assemblage, and will we see them again? Only time will tell.”


       For a week, all the people could talk about were the huge animal-like robots and the battle in the harbor. Gradually life returned to normal, as it did at Ranger Headquarters. Dale, now back to normal size as they all were, still loved wearing his exoskeleton. At the moment, he was cleaning his room with it, which amazed Chip no end.
       “Well, when you’ve got the strength of fifty chipmunks, room-cleaning’s kind of fun!” Dale said, picking up their bed so he could dust under it. “Besides, I think Gadget sorta likes it. It’s like we’re not all that different now.”
       “I think she’ll adjust fine,” Chip said. “Now as for Lahwhinie—”
       “What?” Lahwhinie said. She was still here, along with Shaka Baka. “Okay, so I’m a little socially challenged. Let bygones be bygones.”
       “Whatever,” Chip replied. “Say, I thought you two were leaving today.”
       Lahwhinie pointed toward Gadget’s workshop. “Barbs wanted to do a little upgrade work on goody-two-shoes and me. I’ve already had my turn.” Dale looked at Chip, worried. “Upgrade? She’s not gonna turn Gadget into a Frankenstein monster, is she?”
       “Come and find out,” Lahwhinie said, grinning.
       Inside the workshop, Barbara was tinkering with Gadget. She closed the mouse-droid’s auxiliary control panel on her right side next to her abdomen, dusting her hands off in a nonverbal sign of completion. “There. How do you feel, Gadget?”
       “Fine, I guess,” Gadget said. “I’m still sort of getting used to being a mouse-droid, but I think it’s easier having people around who care about me and need me. Is that why you married?”
       Barbara watched as Gadget’s tendrils resealed her skin. “Partially. I was used to being on my own and making my own decisions, and didn’t like relying on anyone. I thought of it as a show of weakness. But Ken was so patient and kind, and before I knew it I was sharing my life with him. All the success in the world can’t make up for an empty house, or an empty soul.”
       Gadget nodded, pulling her top back into place. “So tell me, now that it’s all over, why did you make me to look and sound just like you?” Barbara pulled up a stool and sat in front of her, her voice lowering some. “I felt I couldn’t meet up with everyone’s expectations. Everyone said I was destined to do this, destined to do that. ‘Oh Barbara, you should be nuclear physicist’. ‘You should be a lawyer’. No one was letting me choose for myself!”
       “So you made me in all the other people’s image,” Gadget said, understanding. “You gave them the successful person they wanted, while you were free to go off and become the kind of success you wanted.”
       “Yes. And I felt I was so much smarter,” Barbara said, grinning a little. “I guess I proved myself wrong on that one. And I took a lot of my feelings out on you. I denied you the one thing I myself most wanted—the freedom to set my own goals and live my own life.”
       Gadget patted her hand. “I know you’ve had it hard, Barbara, but that’s over with now. Golly, I sort of think of you like another twin sister. You, me and Lahwhinie are like the Hackwrench triplets!” Barbara had to laugh at that. She hugged Gadget, and Gadget returned the favor.
       “I suppose,” Barbara said. “I’m glad though that you were able to be happy here. They’re a good bunch of people.” Gadget smiled back. “Especially Dale. Speaking of which, we’d better get ready for him! Is everything set?”
       Lahwhinie’s comment had both the boys wondering what was up, and obediently they followed the Hawaiian mouse-droid to just outside the workshop. “Are you ready in there, Barbs?”
       “Sure!” Barbara said. “Come on in!”
       “They opened the door and Dale’s mouth dropped. Barbara was smiling, and next to her Gadget was too. Only now Gadget was wearing a purple dress with her usual sash around her waist. Her face also showed a little blush and her eyelids had some shadow.
       “She…she’s wearing makeup and a dress!” Dale said. “You’ve turned her to the Dark Side!”
       Gadget giggled, shaking her head. “No Dale, she’s just upgraded my program. I know I said I wasn’t going to but the more I thought on it, I was just missing out on an opportunity. I’m still the Gadget you know, but now my program’s no longer fighting the fact that I was growing beyond my programming. Now I can dress as I like, talk as I like, and well…”
       She came over and kissed Dale lightly on the cheek. “Do as I like.”
       Dale was speechless for a moment, then looked over at Barbara. “Wow, now that’s what I call an upgrade!” Barbara shook her head. “All I really did was remove the limits on her programming. It was Gadget who did it.”
       Smiling more now, Dale returned his attention to Gadget. “So you mean we can be all romantical now, huh?” Gadget nodded. “We can, but I’m still getting used to the idea.”
       Chip came over and shook Barbara’s hand. “Thanks for all you’ve done. I should’ve thanked you before, but with all that’s been going on—”
       “I understand,” Barbara said. “I felt it was the least I could do after leaving you all in a lurch the way I did. After all, you Rangers and Gadget all have taught me a good deal. So I’m willing to offer you something even more.”
       Dale had been hugging Gadget, but this caught his notice. “What’s that?” Barbara walked over and touched his nose. “I’ve been enhancing my mouse-droid technology for some time. If you like, I can make you mouse-droids as well. It’s a simple-enough process to transfer you over to a mouse-droid body.”
       The Rangers looked at each other, mystified. “You mean, we would never wear out?” Dale asked. Barbara nodded. “My mouse-droids are designed to last practically forever, barring something like a big-time explosion or something. So, what do you think?”
       Dale looked at Gadget, then back to her maker. “Uh, it’s a pretty cool idea, but I dunno. I mean, I’m sort of used to the body I’ve got. Would that make me programmable?”
       “Oh, please say yes,” Chip said. “Then we’ll be able to make him do his chores!”
       Barbara laughed. “No Dale, your will’s your own.”
       Dale paused, then shook his head. “No, I think I like things the way they are.”
       “Too right,” Monty said, coming into the main room along with the others. “After all, mouse-droids are all right and all, but we flesh and blood types have a lot going for us too.
       “You sure do!” Gadget said, hugging him. “Like my new look?”
       “You’re a regular princess, lass. We’re sure glad to have ya with us.”
       Marva and Geegaw had been with them too, and now made their goodbyes. “It’s been wonderful seeing you all,” Geegaw said. “We’ll make sure to drop by when we can.”
       “When time allows,” Marva said. “Inventing has a way of eating up time. Wouldn’t you say so, Barbara?” Barbara nodded. “Sure does, and I’m sure Gadget can attest to it, too. I’m ready to go when you are.”
       It was a talkative bunch that followed Barbara Hackwrench and her parents out on the veranda. She took time to say goodbye to each of them, including Foxglove, who’d just shown up. “It’s been a great time. I wish I could spare more, but there’s lots of ideas to be explored yet. And now that my security cameras will reveal where Nimnul put his little device, I can rest assured that my inventions will only be used for good.”
       “That’s great, Barbara,” Foxglove said. “Um, you aren’t disappointed that Chip chose me instead of Gadget, are you? I mean, she’s sort of you in mouse-droid form.” Barbara smiled back. “It’s fine, Foxglove. After all, I programmed you both that way.”
       The silence was palpable.
       “What?” Chip said. “Wait, are you saying that…but I remember growing up and all!” Foxglove was equally aghast. “Me too! I’m not a mouse-droid, uh bat-droid!”
       Dale laughed. “She got you good, Chip! You should’ve seen your face!” Barbara tapped the chipmunk on the shoulder. “Actually, I wasn’t kidding. And you’re a munk-droid, too.” Dale stared at her. “I’m…I’m…but…”
       “Actually, you all are,” she said, sighing, pointing at the Rangers. “I wasn’t going to tell you, but I think it’s only fair. All of you died in your attempt to stop Klordane. I found Gadget and repaired her, but I wasn’t able to save your bodies. So I transferred you into mouse-droid bodies so you could carry out your life’s work.”
       “Crikey…” Monty said. “Are you on the up-and-up?”
       Chip approached her, not knowing what to think. “And you…you saved us? But if that’s true, why are you telling us this now?”
       Barbara smiled. “Don’t believe me? Here, I’ll open your access portal.” Barbara reached for his nose, and Chip watched in wonder as she took hold of it with her right hand. Then she squeezed hard and make a honking sound. “Got you last, big boy!”
       Dale laughed so hard he fell down. The others did too, and Chip felt a smile well up as Barbara blew him a friendly kiss and headed for the Sea Eagle with Geegaw and Marva. Lahwhinie and Shaka Baka went with them, as Hawaii was on the way. “Now that was a joke to end ‘em all!” Dale said. “I gotta find someone to pull that on someday!”
       They waved goodbye, watching as the Hackwrenches left. Foxglove put her wings around Chip. “Would it have been so bad if we were androids, Chip? I mean, we’re happy. What’s a few circuits between friends?”
       “Nothing,” Gadget said, her arms around Dale now. “Nothing at all.”

       In Riker’s Island prison, one Norton Nimnul stood up in his cell. The breakfast bell had just sounded and a prison guard brought him a tray of food. “Now be a nice boy and quit talking about the rodents, and maybe I’ll bring you some dessert at dinner,” the man said. Nimnul grumbled, taking the tray.
       For over two weeks now, he’d done nothing but rant and rave about “the vermin” and how they’d thwarted his plans once again. He wasn’t doing that now, and for good reason. The ranting had largely been to keep the guards away from his cell, while he assembled a small device the parts of which he’d smuggled in with him.
       The parts formed a viewer the size of a cell phone. “Those idiots think I’m mad. But with this little baby, I can afford to stay here for a while. I’ll soak in all the secrets that mouse has and then use them to destroy this prison and take over! Now, let’s see what’s on today…”
       To his surprise, the image of Barbara was looking back at him. “Ah good, you’re there. I was wondering how long it would take you to build that viewer. I knew you’d managed to smuggle the parts in, but frankly I expected you to have it assembled two days earlier.”
       “Huh? You mean you…oh no…”
       Nimnul watched as the picture in his viewer shifted to his geodesic dome. The song “Aloha, oe” starting playing. “You wouldn’t, you couldn’t! Not that!” As he howled, a huge explosion ripped the dome to shreds. “My lab…my beautiful lab…”
       “And that’s our show for today!” Barbara said, sounding merry. “Oh, and Nimnul? Remember, it’s not nice to fool Barbara Hackwrench.”
       “Barbara?” he said as the picture faded to black. “I thought her name was Gadget! Curse you, Barbara! Curse you!” The kooky professor went ballistic, smashing the viewer against a wall and then jumping on it again and again.
       At the end of the corridor the warden met with the prison guard. “Nimnul again?”
       “Yeah,” the guard said. “Now he’s going on about someone named Barbara.”
       The warden mulled it over. “Ex-wife maybe. Couldn’t imagine anyone being happy, married to that psychopath. Make sure not to mention her name around him.”
       “Yes, sir,” the guard replied. He watched the warden walk away, then half-smiled at the continuing tirade Nimnul was making. “At least someone got the better of him.”

       In a now-secure laboratory in a hillside in Canada, a female mouse inventor laughed and laughed. Perhaps it wasn’t kind, but she knew Nimnul had it coming to him. Now that his knockoffs of her inventions were destroyed, she could continue with her work unchallenged. Perhaps it was that satisfaction that precluded her from hearing the approaching footsteps and the lab door opening.
       “Barbara?” a male voice asked. “Barbara, are you here?”
       The mouse in question leapt out of her chair and came running. “Ken! Are you ever a sight for sore eyes!” He caught her up in his arms, and they shared a loving kiss. Ken’s good nature showed in his eyes, and in the gift he’d brought her.
       “Two gifts, actually,” Ken said, handing her a bouquet of flowers. “You really should learn the art of décor someday, dear. However, I think you’ll appreciate this more.” Barbara unwrapped the package he gave to her. “A laser-guided level! Oh Ken, you’re so thoughtful!”
       “I try,” Ken smiled back. “Now, how was your time while I was away? Not too boring, I trust?” Barbara took his hand and led him back toward her control viewer. “No, not really. I recalibrated a few things and saved the world from a mad scientist. You know, routine.”
       Ken laughed. He was dressed in a fisherman’s shirt, with multiple pockets on it. His pants were heavy duty for hiking, as were his boots. His dark hair was mussed slightly as usual, and his rugged face and muscular figure spoke of the hours he spent in his outdoor pursuits. His eyes were dark as well, but there was plenty of amusement in them.
       “Routine, right. Why not come out for a while? The sun will be down in an hour, and we can watch the sunset from my canoe.”
       Barbara hedged. “Well…”
       He took her hands. “Please.”
       She laughed, getting up. “You know I could never refuse a ‘please’ like that. Ken nodded. “Good. I’ll tell you all about the powwow and the viewing of the fish run this year. The elders were pleased, so that should give you a clue.”
       “Of course,” Barbara said, ducking into a small room next to her lab. She had been wearing her jogging outfit that the Rangers first saw her in, but now she came out in a pair of purple coveralls.
       “I don’t remember you wearing those before,” Ken said. “Something new?”
       Barbara shook her head, taking his hand again. “Something old, actually. I…happened across a friend wearing one like it recently and decided to make me a new one. What do you think?”
       “Very becoming. Maybe I should meet this friend. If they can get you to change your clothes, maybe they could get you to join me for the Wilderness Games in Calgary next month.”
       “Oh, don’t worry. I’m going with you,” Barbara said, grabbing a pair of goggles out of a drawer. “In fact, I’ll even fly you there.”
       “Really!” Ken said. “Now I have to meet this person. I think you’re actually becoming gregarious. Why the change?” Barbara put an arm around him. “I was just reminded of how precious life is, and why we should cherish it. So I’m going to.”
       “A wise wife I married,” Ken said, escorting her out of the entryway and walking with her to where they could overlook Lake Nimpo below. “Look, Barbara, how the sun melts into the water and forms a bond with it. It’s a reminder of the bond of life, and of its symmetry. It’s a good world we live in.”
       “It is indeed, dear,” Barbara said, a tear starting to form. “It is indeed.”


        The surf pounded the powdery white Hawaiian beach, seemingly wishing to punish it for some long-forgotten injustice. A mouse sat near the waterline, pondering it all. She watched the rhythm of the waves, incessant in their work, and for a scant time wondered who had made things like this. Then she saw a blond-headed surfer mouse arrive on one of those waves and she stood up, decorated in her traditional blue Hawaiian dress. Shaka Baka ran over to her
        “Whoa, babe! It's ever so fabuloso to be back in the land of perfect waves. Did you see me take on that monster wave and ride the tube?”
        “You were truly a mouse in his natural habitat, a surfboard,” Lahwhinie said. “I'm still amazed how you never tire of that. I envy your enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life.”
        “Oh, you know, comes natural,” Shaka said, nonchalant.
        Shaka sat down on a beach towel and Lahwhinie joined him on one of her own next to him. He grabbed a smaller towel and dried himself. “So now that you're back and all, what're you gonna do?”
        “Just continue my lonely wandering through the dark alleys of life, forever cursing the day I was made, and the person who made me. What about you, now that you know I'm a soulless machine?”
        Shaka took her hand. “Hey, don't run yourself down, your Lahwhinosity! After all, you're still a cute babe and all, even if you're all metal and stuff underneath. And hey, maybe you're a machine, but you're still queen to me.”
        Lahwhinie leaned against him, resting her hands behind her head and looking off at the crashing surf. “The better question is why? I've treated you like dirt, nearly get you kicked out of your tribe and you discover I'm an android, what can you possibly see in me?”
        Shaka's voice grew quieter. “It's love, babe. Nothing better than that.”
        Lahwhinie shook her head, disapproving. “Doesn't that bother you just a little? My heart doesn't race at the sight of you and my pulse doesn't quicken because I don't have a heart or blood. I can't blush for the same reason.”
        Shaka put his huge arms around her. “That's okay. For me, life's all about the waves and the wind and being happy and all. You're what I always wanted—someone who doesn't mind me doing what I do and doesn't need more. Everybody else has, but not you. I just want to live and be cool with that and let the next dude worry about everything else. You''re like the biggest part of my dream, and if you weren't here it'd all be wrong.”
        Lahwhinie rested against him more. She found she enjoyed his embrace and though for all her artificial thoughts, she couldn't understand why she enjoyed it. She'd done and said just about all she could to try to discourage him, but he had persisted. What was it about him that seemed to see something special in her that no one else ever saw? She was nothing in the eyes of most people, but to him she was everything.
        “At times like this, I wish I was real. To dream of flesh and blood living. I feel like Pinocchio, but being made of metal, not wood and being a girl and all too.”
        Shaka spoke again, uncertain this time. “Uh...can I, know you, ask you something?”
        “Don't worry,” Lahwhinie said. “I won't lead an armed uprising of household appliances against our fleshy overlords.”
        “That's good, I guess. I was just gonna ask...” Shaka let go and walked on his knees over the hot sand until he was in front of her, bringing out a ring made of amber. “Wish it was a diamond or something, but I found this years ago and it's been like a good luck charm for me. I sort of had the idea of using it if I ever got married, but I didn't think anyone would ever want me, you know? So what I'm saying is, well, do you?”
        Lahwhinie looked at the ring for a few moments. It had little cash value. She had once dreamed of someone offering her rings worth tens of thousands, but this ring was different than those in another way. Those expensive rings had no value beyond dollars and cents—they really meant nothing, just the "signature" of a business deal or handshake. But this ring had value to Shaka, it meant something to him and it meant a great deal to offer it to her. He was giving up something precious to him, a part of himself he wanted to share with her. She slipped the ring on and smiled.
        “I do.”
        Shaka stared for a moment, surprised. “Awesome...” Slowly, he put his arms around her again, kissing her this time. “You're the best, Lahwhinie. Say, still got some surf time before chow. Why not come along and I'll show you how it's done?”
        “Welll,” she fudged, “I usually find it easier to get someone who looks like me to do it in my place...”
        Shaka took her hand. “Aw, c'mon! After all, you've been in the water before and you didn't get overloaded or anything. Besides, it's fun and you ought to have fun.” They got up, heading for the nearest surf shop. Lahwhinie glance up at him. “Uh, you do realize, with me being a machine, that means no little surfer dudes and dudettes, right?”
        “Yeah, but I guess if I wanted kids I'd already have done something. I mean, kids means getting a job and doing all sorts of stuff that doesn't involve surfing. I'm happy with the way things are.”
        Lahwhinie couldn’t argue with that. “Well, I hope you'll make some time in your busy surfing schedule for little ol' me?”
        Shaka hugged her with one of his massive arms, pulling her off the ground. “Hey, of course, babe! I mean, married and all, that means sharing time. So we'll do some shop-around days and tour the coast and whatever you like. I'm cool with that.”
        Lahwhinie walked arm in arm with him toward the surf. She didn't want to say another word, afraid that if she did she'd somehow ruin the perfect moment in which she found herself. She didn't want it to end. She sighed happily and rested her head on his shoulder as they walked.
        Soon they were in the surf, each on a surfboard. Shaka knew it would take time to train her properly to surf, but then they had all the time in the world, or at least in his world. And for once, both mice were happy

        A week later, Fxglove—who had now moved in with the Rangers—was up early to cook her favorite chipmunk breakfast. Her enthusiasm was not equal to her knowledge, though, and soon her cheese omelet and nut bread batter was all in her fur. She did get some points, though, for the aroma did bring Chip to the kitchen. The sight was far from what he’d expected. There she was, sitting at the table and crying, looking like a cover girl for Cooking Foul-ups Illustrated.
       “Uh, did the kitchen explode again?” Chip said, looking around, then centered in on the sobbing bat. “Oh, Foxglove! I didn’t know you could cook...relatively speaking.”
       The relatively speaking cook wasn’t speaking at all. She buried her face in shame. “Oh no. I wanted so much to have everything right, and now it’s not and—” The culinary-challenged chiroptoid cried the louder.
       Chip kissed her, tasting the batter on her lips. “It tastes fine to me, Foxy. You did all this for me? I’m touched.”
       Chip pulled her up gently and hugged her, holding her to him. The caressing did wonders, as it does for any female in the arms of the man she loves. “Oh Chip, you make it hard to be a failure,” Foxglove said. “I promise, no more cooking, at least till Monty’s given me some lessons.”
       “Let’s enjoy some of your meal and then we can clean up this mess. So, what’s on our agenda for today?”
       Foxglove pulled out an imaginary list. “Let’s see...kissing at nine, followed by hugging at nine-thirty, with more kissing at ten, and…” Foxglove let out a surprised squeal as Chip jerked her chair over by his, breaking her concentration. “Then again, who needs a schedule...”
       Chip kissed her, announcing “nine-thirty”, then hugged her at “ten”, causing the amused bat to giggle. “My kind of time-keeping,” Foxy said. “But we do have to think about checking for crime today.”
       “True, we need to do that,” Chip said. “Foxy, I’ve always been so afraid to show any sort of affection to anyone, but there’s just something about you that does something to me. Thank you for coming into my life.”
       “Oh, you’ve always been a shameless flirt, Chip,” Foxy said. “You just never had a girl take you up on it before is all. I remember how you used to throw yourself at Gadget. That must feel pretty silly now, knowing she’s a machine.”
       Chip nodded. “Yeah, that’s true. Do you think there’s a future for us, Foxy? A bat and chipmunk?” Foxy considered that, grinning some at the memory of the kissing. “If there’s a future for anyone, there’s a future for us. After all, we not only make a good team, we’re on the same team! Who knew that crime fighting could be so rewarding...”
       “Right now we’re still giddy, but will we feel this way later on? I want you to be with me, but are we good for each other?”
       Foxglove looked at him curiously. “I don’t know, Chip. I love you, if that counts for anything.” Chip smiled back. “It does. It means everything.”
       “Then for today, that’s all that matters.”
       While Chip and Foxglove enjoyed the morning, a certain mouse-droid inventor creaked the hall door open that led to Dale’s room. A cacophony of snores met her auditory sensors, and smiling a bit she sneaked in. Gadget, now wearing her coveralls again, had figured out that Dale was a late sleeper when left to his own machinations, but she’d waited all she could. Clearing her throat, Gadget prepared to speak—she’d been tinkering with her vocal synthesizers and found that she could produce a voice in any range she wanted.
       Now her voice come out loud, deep and foreboding, like that of Dread Viper, the villain of the “Snake Wars” trilogy. “THE FIERCE IS STRONG WITH YOU, YOUNG SNAKEHUNTER, BUT YOU ARE NOT A JUNGLEMAN YET!”
       Dale fell out of bed, the blanket still over his head. “You’re not my father!”
       Gadget drew near, lowering her still-altered voice to a whisper. “Join me, Snakehunter. Turn to the venom side!”
       Dale took up a kung fu stance. “I’ll never join you!”
       Gadget ripped the blanket off of him, returning to her regular voice. “Guess I’ll have to rule the snakepit alone, then!”
       Dale brightened immediately. “Oh, if the Dark Side looks like you, then maybe it’s worth turning!” Gadget giggled, hugging him. “Good morning! I don’t need sleep so I turned my sleep cycle off and I’ve been inventing all night and I was sort of bored and wanted to see if you wanted to do something fun this morning.”
       “That’s great!” Dale said. “A new adventure awaits us!”
       Gadget went into the hall while Dale slipped out of his nightgown and into his regular clothes. With her realization that she wasn’t Barbara, Gadget had come to the decision to be her own person. Now the mouse-droid felt like a whole new person and it showed. When Dale came out, Gadget grabbed his arm and off they ran for the out-of-doors.
       “Last one to the bottom of the tree’s a rotten egg!” Gadget said.
       Dale eagerly ran down but watched, astonished, as Gadget simply jumped from the veranda, landing effortlessly on the ground. “Ta-da!”
       “Cool!” Dale said. “You’re like a superhero! Gadgetwoman! You’re the neatest girl I know!” Dale rushed down the tree and took up her arm. “What fun adventure do you feel like having today, Gadget?”
       In the past, Gadget would have thought playing like this was childish or silly, but now that she was free to express herself she found it was purely fun. “ about you pretend you’re the Red Badger and I’ll be the evil Mechanica, mistress of metal!”
       “We’ll need costumes,” Dale pointed out.
       Gadget grinned. “Oh, that’s right, but no problem—come on back to my workshop.” Dale did so and found that Gadget’s workshop was a lot more organized than the last time he remembered. It also had several more inventions
       “With my mechanical tendrils now at my command,” Gadget explained, pointing at her ears, “I’m able to get three times the work done! I invented a new type of sewing machine last night that makes clothes-making a breeze. Hang on a sec...”
       Gadget went over to the sewing machine—a human’s hand-held sewing machine with all but the active parts of it removed. She had bolted it to the wall to give it stability, and instead of one needle there were three needles and spools of thread. The spools were white, but Gadget had ink dyes of various colors she could dip them in. Next to the machine was a PDA, which Gadget entered a few commands into.
       “Just like an inkjet printer!” Gadget said. “My new insta-color sewer can take a pattern from this computer and automatically sew it with the colors and design I choose! Watch!”
       Dale watched, amazed, as both a Red Badger and Mechanica costume emerged from the machine in the matter of a minute. Gadget’s costume was black with a yellow capital “M” on the front of it and included a black cape trimmed with yellow piping.
       Gadget brought Dale his costume. “Fortunately, the ink’s fast-drying. You go to your room and change, and I’ll be down at the bottom of the tree waiting for you.”
       Dale took the costume reverently—Gadget had made a superhero costume just for him! He left the room, slowly walking back to his own room. He put it on and looked in the mirror. It fit perfectly. He couldn’t believe that he was the guy that Gadget liked. At the back of his mind was again the nagging question, what could he possibly have to offer a girl like that?
       He pushed aside the question, content for now to enjoy his time with her. He rushed down the tree and awaited his supervillainess lady fair. Suddenly twin tendrils surrounded him like boa constrictors, pulling him into the air. Gadget emerged into view, in costume and in character. “So, Red Badger, you think to thwart the plans of Mechanica? This time, I shall defeat you and the world will be mine!”
       “You can’t hope to defeat me, Mechanica!” Dale said. “Good always triumphs over evil! Give up your evil ways and use your mechanical superness to help the world!”
       Gadget laughed an evil-person laugh. “Never! Now, I shall crush you in my power pincers!”
       “You leave him alone!”
       It was an oversight, but no one had informed Tammy of how things had changed. The teenage squirrel had been busy the past few days with a school project and hadn’t made it over to Ranger Headquarters. She was making up for lost time now, only to find that Dale—at least it looked like Dale—was at the mercy of some evil villainess. Tammy had always wanted to be a Ranger, and now she decided was as good a time as any.
       Before anyone could react, Tammy had jumped on “Mechanica’s” back and was struggling with her. Gadget released Dale immediately and he plopped to the ground as mouse and squirrel began to tussle.
       “Tammy, why are you attacking Gadget!” Dale said. “Stop fighting, both of you!”
       Dale quickly got behind Tammy and wrestled her away from Gadget, knowing Gadget might accidentally hurt her. Tammy couldn’t figure out what Dale was doing until she heard “Gadget” and took a good look at her adversary. “Gadget, is that you? Wow, what a cool costume!”
       “Uh, Tammy,” Gadget said, taking her mask off, “there’s some things that have changed. We, uh, better go back to HQ and tell you about them.”
       Tammy studied them both, then pouted. “You’ve gained superpowers and didn’t tell me!” Dale laughed. “Well, I wish—but not quite, for me at least. Gadget, on the other hand, has some differences.”
       “Oh?” Tammy said, turning to the mouse. “Like what?”
       Gadget decided to just say it. “Tammy, I’m an android. It turns out I’m not the real Gadget Hackwrench—well, okay I am Gadget but the girl who called herself Gadget is a real mouse and I’m not. I’m an artificial duplicate that she left in her place when she left the group.”
       Tammy grinned, crossing her arms. “That’s nice, and I’m really a shape shifter from the planet Mars. So, can I play too?” Dale breathed easier. “My, you took that well. Gadget, think we can whip up another costume?”
       “I’m sure we could, Dale, but I think what she’s saying is that she doesn’t believe us. Come on with us, Tammy.”
       The amused squirrel did so, entering the main room of headquarters. Gadget promptly detached her ears, the tendrils they were attached with holding them out to both sides. “See?”
       “I don’t think she did,” Dale said. “She’s out cold on the floor.”
       Dale rushed to the kitchen and got some water, that he splashed on Tammy’s face to wake her up. “Tammy, I know it’s a bit of a shock, but once you’re over that it’s pretty cool.”
       Tammy pointed at Gadget, her hand shaking. “’’re really an android...” The commotion had brought Chip and Foxglove into the main room as well, where they witnessed Tammy’s reawakening. “That’s right, Tammy,” Chip said. “The real Gadget built her for us when she left the Rangers a long time back. We didn’t know until recently that she was an android, but now that we do know we’ve accepted what’s happened.
       Gadget helped Tammy up. “Tammy, I hope you don’t think less of me, or think of me as a freak or a monster.” Tammy eyed her, nervous. “Well, mean, you’ve been an android all this time?”
       “You knew the real Gadget for a while, but she left after tangling with the Cola Cult. Then she let me take her place, after removing my memory of myself before that time. So all that time I thought I was her.”
       Tammy was astonished. “Wow. Now that you know, what’re you going to do?” Gadget gestured to the Rangers. “I’m going to stay and keep doing what I was doing before.”
       “I guess that makes sense,” Tammy said, warming to the idea. “So, what do you really look like, underneath?” Gadget appeared self-conscious. “Well, you’d faint again if I showed you, but there’s metal, plastic and other artificial forms.”
       “Sort of like us, but less gooky,” Dale added.
       Tammy shrugged. “I guess if you were going to kill us, you’d have done it long ago. So what’s it like, being an android and knowing it?”
       “It’s kind of fun now,” Gadget said. “It’s like a whole new world of possibilities have opened up. And Dale has helped me adjust to being an android and helped me think of myself as a person.”
       Tammy continued to question Gadget and now Dale some as well. It was a shocker to be sure, but it helped her to see that Gadget was as kind as ever. Then her thoughts moved to Chip and a wave of sympathy went through her, for she knew that Chip had loved Gadget. She announced her leaving and asked to speak with Chip outside. “Chipper...Chip, are you going to be okay, now that you know that Gadget’s not real?”
       “Yeah, I’m fine,” Chip said. “Gadget’s falling for Dale was like a weight off my shoulders. I met a new girl, Foxglove the bat. She’s a great lady.”
       Tammy stomped her foot. “I might’ve known! I guess I just never was old enough for you, huh?” Chip took her hands and kissed her on the forehead. “Maybe in another time and place, Tammy. I’m sorry. I’m sure there’s a swell guy out there for you.”
       Chip could see that Tammy was disappointed, but she smiled and nodded, kissing his cheek in kind before leaving. The leader of the Rangers watched her go, then Foxglove was beside him. “You told her?”
       “Yeah. She was pretty disappointed, but she’ll get over it.”
       “She’s a nice kid,” Foxglove said. “Well, come on, cutie. We’ve got a busy day to plan!”
       Those were words to Chip’s liking—he wanted to settle into a routine again, and work helped to make that possible. Soon, the day was planned and they were off in the RangerWing on their usual patrol. Things wouldn’t be quite the same of course, but then again any type of change brought that guarantee. He looked across at the bat who was admiring him and he knew that things could have turned out a lot worse. Chip Maplewood was happy, at least, and whatever came next he had that satisfaction.
       The Rangers spent the remains of the day gabbing among themselves. It was late before Chip and Foxglove called it a night, but it was just turning prime-time for Dale. The fun-loving chipmunk was overjoyed—now he could stay up to all hours and the girl he loved never got tired so she’d stay up with him! Dale brought in some popcorn and soda as “The Revenge of Fracula” got started
       “All right, Fracula!” Dale said. “This one’s a classic. The guy who plays this one’s not as good as the one who did it in ‘Revenge of the Claw Monsters’, but he’s still pretty good.”
       Dale sat next to Gadget, both of them partaking of the snacks. It was true that Gadget didn’t need to eat, but she found that the others were easier around her if she did. “The cinematic technology’s pretty lackluster. Is that typical of most monster movies?”
       “Yeah, it’s hard to make something look futuristic when you have no budget. These old ones are pretty funny, the people in the fifties trying to stun the audiences with the weird science of the far flung future of... 1970!!!”
       Gadget laughed softly. She wasn’t all that into monster movies normally, but Dale’s antics made it an experience to remember. He had a running commentary going with the movie and would often jump up and act out a character or two. The mouse inventor thought to herself that Dale would have made a decent stage actor. As the commercial came on, he sat down and she turned toward him.
       “Dale, now that we’re alone I just wanted to say thanks again for standing with me,” Gadget said. “You’ve always been so sweet and kind-hearted, but it’s times like this when you really need someone’s support.”
       “Thanks, Gadget,” Dale said, snagging some more popcorn. “I’m glad I could help. It really hurt me to see you sad when you found out you were an android. You have so much love in you, I knew you were never just a machine. You’re so smart and caring and all, I just don’t know what good I’ll ever be to you. I just hope you find someone worthy of you.”
       Gadget was about to hug him when Dale’s last words made her pull back, startled. “Worthy? What do you mean? Don’t you think you’re worthy, Dale?” Dale let his shoulders sag. “Gadget, I’m a goon. I barely finished school. I’m good for a laugh, but I’ll be no help to you with your work and stuff. When you talk about your work I can hardly understand a word of what you’re saying.”
       Now Gadget did hug him. “Oh Dale, that doesn’t make you a goon! Most people can’t understand my inventions. Besides, I love you for your heart, not your mind. And your cuuuute widdle nose!”
       Gadget had grabbed Dale’s nose with her thumb and forefinger and moved it back and forth in emphasis. She ducked her head, grinning at him. Dale blushed deeply. “Gadget, I love you more than anything. I’ll try to learn about machines and stuff, so I can have at least a little idea of what you’re talking about. My heart and all the other bits and pieces are yours forever...I know it can’t be forever, but I’m yours for all the time I’m alive.”
       That set Gadget to thinking. “Well, technically Barbara was right—it might be possible to transfer you into an android body as well. Then you’d never get old, and we really could be together forever!”
       “I could really become an android?” Dale said, amazed. “That’ cool! Well, I suppose it’s not something we have to worry about now, but would you want me hanging around forever?”
       The now-serious look on Gadget’s face showed that she had indeed thought about it. “When I learned that I was an android and that I could outlive everyone I knew, it was sort of scary. I mean, I’ll stay young like this forever, but you and the rest of the Rangers will turn old and...well, you know. It would be so comforting to know that one of you at least would always be with me, and especially so if it were you.”
       “Gadget, I’ll be with you wherever and whenever you’d want me to be.”
       She knew that Dale was just being nice, but the words were a comfort in themselves. “You don’t have to make up your mind right away. And even if it’s too much to ask, I can always transfer a copy of your brain’s engrams over to an android and you’d be around that way. But it would be nicer to have the real thing.”
       Dale wondered how life could have been so nice to him. “Gadget, if you can be happy with me, than I would do anything for you.” Gadget put her arms around his neck. “Just be yourself. That’s all I really want.”
       Gadget hugged him again, this time a little longer in her affection. Then it was time to watch the semi-comic adventures of Fracula as he attempted to lead the un-dead against Buck Stagman, hero of the cosmos. Android and chipmunk held hands, and for now the world was at peace.

A special thanks goes out to Morgan K, who provided part of the inspiration for this story with his story, "It's What's Inside That Matters". Marva Hackwrench, Miles Hackwrench, Onaya Hackwrench, Barbara Hackwrench, and Ken Thunderbolt are copyright Indy and Chris Silva. The Rescue Rangers, Lahwhinie, Shaka Baka, Geegaw Hackwrench, Professor Nimnul, and Irwina Allen are all copyright Disney and used without permission but with the utmost respect.