Title: No Remedy For Memory
Era: Shortly before the establishment of Central Park Zoo Base. Everyone is eighteen or older in penguin years.
Setting: Hoboken, New Jersey.
Summary: There are memories held dear and memories best forgotten.
When it came right down to it, knives formed the sharpest memory that Skipper held from The Game. Through the slurry of consciousness-altering substances ravaging his system at the time, he knew not much more than that Manfredi and Johnson awaited reinforcements out of his sight as they hid in the warehouse. He never could repay the debt he owed each of them, Johnson for spear tackling Gacy and Manfredi for cutting him loose of his spreadeagle. Skipper treasured a blurred recollection of seeing the gangleader's beaktip splinter from Johnson's uppercut. There came next an umph and then an oomphthud of Johnson's bulk piledriving into the prison buff pecs of a black soul set on degradation. Manfredi joined Johnson in a chop block to smash the emperor penguin flat. The world darkened as Skipper lost the last of his sight following Private's anguished Wot did the rotters do to Skippa? and Kowalski's You contemptible scoundrels!
Everything faded to a sublime feeling of warmth after that. When Skipper swam back to full consciousness, a literal warm bath surrounded him as Kowalski wadded a shop towel between the rim of the tub and his head. "Heated water speeds up the metabolism to flush out any drugs," came the scientist's pronouncement while his team surrounded the tub, five members strong. Skipper felt too relieved to be embarrassed at the stares. After this, he was sure he'd never be shy again in his life.
"Gettim?" he sloshed through a beakful of spit that the tranquilizer darts must have caused. There was no word for what his tongue tasted like. The entire team nodded before high ones slapped all around. Rico offered everyone a victory beer from the former contents of the tub until Skipper's slow shake of the head stopped him cold.
The weather had finally decided to cloud up for good and all, gray solid cover instead of the in again, out again sun that matched no one's mood. The mission ended with seven members of the Model Airplane Smuggler Gang gagged, bound and awaiting pickup by Central Jersey Command and one in a body bag. No more would excited kiddies open Revell Model Kits to find them short crucial pieces, no more would kiddies turn the opposite of trusting in Hackensack, Hoboken or Weehawken. The crucial parts could be glued together with slight modification to form accurate models of top secret airplanes, such as the TR-3B Anti-Gravity Spacecraft (Penguin Scaled), to smuggle to the highest black market bidder. In a two-pronged simultaneous operation, a penguin code-named Doily decimated the supplier of the modifications, while the Big Boss assigned a younger team to tackle the larger gang that stole the parts. As she'd outlined the attack scenario to Skipper, the Big Boss grumbled aloud at legitimate companies who released classified information publicly "for $23.99." That madness ended now.
It took weeks for the nightmares to end, though. Even though Skipper endorsed all eighteen impartiality ideals from his training and had done his best to practice them after his graduation from OCS last June, he noticed now and then that Kowalski, Rico and Private got a Look Between Them. The Look said that the three realized bulky Johnson and bulkier Manfredi were his favorites on the team. It bothered the new commander sometimes.
Other times the shards of memory of that broken afternoon expanded like fractals, and there was nothing for it but to fight through the nasty mood caused by resurfacing images and sounds. The bout always began with remembering the smuggling cartel's midlevel gangleader's growly voice.
"Now, now," said Gacy, "I don't think it's a good idea to struggle, love, do you? Better to just enjoy yourself."
Skipper could no longer stand. Kneeling, looked up into Gacy's face. By his smirk, he could see absolutely nothing wrong with this and Skipper realized that it had probably happened many times in the past. He was just the current penguin subjected to The Game. He had to think fast before he couldn't think at all. Where was his team? Why had he forged ahead? Never swim alone, Skipper. That was foolhardy, and now you're going to pay.
Another gang member whose real name he never learned leaned down casually as he fastened Skipper's feet to the spreader bar of the Jacobs ladder. His left eye twitched with unholy delight. "Enjoy," he mouthed.
Gacy prowled around the partially bound penguin, now addressing Twitch. "Keeps the interest high, dunnit? Binding a tasty one layer by layer." Skipper turned rigid with shock at the words before thrashing with one thirty-ninth of his regular strength. Twitch rocked at the impact and slapped Skipper into stillness.
Skipper lay back as the drugs bit deeper and watched his attackers almost dispassionately. It was as if it were happening to someone else. Clerestory windows provided a green source of lighting high on the west wall of the sailboat supply warehouse, which shared square footage with the plastic model company's inventory storage. High scudding clouds continued to flash past up the Hudson, dappling the sunlight of false cheer to illuminate the scene with a weird key light effect and then muting the large space back into sickly shadow.
"Are you sure you wouldn't fancy a drink?" Gacy asked in a solicitous tone. "Might need one before the afternoon's over." Skipper shook his head violently enough to make the vertigo worse. The flipper that caressed his cheek clamped over his nostrils and when he had to breathe at last, the wet neck of a beer bottle tilted into his beak. He drank deeply and nearly asphyxiated.
"Take it easy, sweet cheeks, we don't want you to choke, now do we?" Gacy asked and wiped the beer from Skipper's chin. "Happy to get you drunk, love, but we do need to keep you alive, don't we?"
Skipper looked up again into Gacy's face and wondered what was going on in his head. How could Gacy get to the point where he thought that this was normal and acceptable behavior? By the Endless Iceberg, how did he himself get to this point, waiting for whatever would happen next in The Game? He didn't recognize his own voice. "Whujja --- what did you --- sti-stick me with innat dart, scum?"
Twitch lifted Skipper like a baby into what felt like an uncomfortable hammock. The flippers that had fastened his feet moved higher, stretching his thighs apart to the point of pain. "Garn, Boss, make 'im guess." Twitch appeared determined to strap every joint Skipper owned down to the Jacobs ladder whose top disappeared into the gloom of the warehouse ceiling. Twitch pinched the inside of Skipper's knee as he tightened the strap. "Cor, it's too loose, can't have that." Velcro zzzirrrred undone and then got done up again as the pressure increased against screaming muscles. Whatever was in the drug cocktail overcame the pain after a moment, but when Twitch jiggled the Jacobs ladder in cruel fun, the nausea increased. Skipper swallowed back bile. The ladder slanted at twenty degrees off vertical to increase the sense of instability. It was like being on an inversion table before that final sickening flip.
Gacy brushed a loose feather off Skipper's forehead. "My, but you are a handsome one," he said, running a scarred flipper down Skipper's flank, letting it come to rest on the hip. "You are about the plummiest this club's had and that's saying something!" he added almost proudly. Skipper strained away from the touch.
"Not yet, laddybuck," Gacy murmured, gliding the flipper through white feathers all the way down to the dimpled skin. He felt his way up to the keelbone and the notch of the throat. "Don't get too excited before the fun starts."
Skipper managed to croak, "Club? So thash what they're calling it nowadaysh?"
"Right as rain, straight arrow." Gacy cupped Skipper's face before yanking off the BlackBerry that had remained in place through all the action of the capture. "I don't need these because I plan ahead, right, lads?"
Skipper hissed as the adhesive affixing it to his head pulled out some feathers. Absurdly, he hoped that he would get the BlackBerry back when this was over because he was responsible for all supplies. A raw voice said you've got bigger things to worry about, palio, and he was seventy-seven percent sure this was in his own mind.
A tiny voice that sounded like Rico's whispered advice that Skipper strained to hear, but he couldn't understand the heavy brogue as he usually did. This time he was ninety-six percent certain his brain was playing tricks with him.
Twitch secured his left flipper at the pit and elbow. He tickled to get a response and failed. "Aw, 'e's got too much sloop innim, Boss. We shan't have much fun with 'im if 'e can't even feel a tickle." He moved around the ladder to tie down the right flipper, feeling the brawn along the way. "These are the real things, not big like us emperors, mind, but good and firm." He squeezed Skipper's bicep again. "Nope, these are the real things all right, all right." There were quiet laughs from the shadows.
"Get cracking with it, Gacy," a voice said by Skipper's feet. "You always take all bloody day to get them primed and ready."
"Best part, my lad." Gacy blocked Twitch before he could fasten down the neck. "No catharpin there, you git! We want his head free to make things more accessible, like."
"Not even the iron clamp sort? I like the clamps, makes 'em go all pop-eyed --- "
"Not on this one. Not this time. Maybe later." Skipper retained enough sense to pick out ways that Gacy held sway over this criminal crew. Sure enough, he invited others into the activity. "Whose turn to spin?"
"Me. My turn," said a youngish voice to the side. Skipper squinted up as a face materialized above him. It was a tall youth in the midst of moulting. Regrowing yellow feathers ringed the neck and the rest of the head remained bald. The other parts of the body were a blur, except for the Swiss Army knife held in a trembling grip. There was more than adolescent nerves going on here because there was a funny smell coming off him. It seemed that Skipper was not the only reality-impaired penguin in the warehouse.
The bound commander dredged up four clear words. "Turn back now, son."
A dismissive snort coupled with an uneven giggle marked Skipper's cross-eyed look at the blade as it descended to tap his beak. "I'm fixin' to have me some fun before julep time, y'all."
A chorus of "You gots that right" and "'Bama, you hit that baby on the head" and "Leave some for me" got drowned out by Gacy's "Just do it," which penetrated Skipper's failing senses despite the soft tone of voice. He closed his eyes as the world spun. 'Bama hauled at the ladder's nearest ratline without putting away his knife and the blade nicked Skipper's shoulder before he opened his eyes to face the dusty cement floor. Dried paint, shellac and marine diesel oil stained the surface to form a disorienting swirl that resembled vomit. His weight lay secured so tightly in the Jacobs ladder that his back didn't bow from the pull of gravity, well that was something, at least. His mind skittered on the surreal thought of himself as a ripe penguin-shaped berry depending from a chestnut-colored tangle of ladder-shaped vines. To his horror, he was soon to be plucked.
'Bama knelt in the mess, as uncaring as any penguin could be. He jabbed Skipper's belly with the butt of the knife. "Gotta give you braggin' rights, Boss, he's at a perfect height and angle for The Game." He stood.
Skipper tensed all his core muscles to raise his head and give a dirty look. His body betrayed him by turning to mush as his head drooped. All he could do was spot lower halves as he was surrounded by --- he counted dizzily --- fifteen legs and one metal claw that looked like a barbecue implement. "Twell," he mumbled.
"Ah, did you mean to say go to hell, then?" A flipper that had to belong to Gacy rolfed his shoulder's gash painfully before venturing downward. "No doubt, Skipper, no doubt." The flipper patted and rubbed. "But we'll die happy."
Skipper could feel the collective excitement growing in the darkness around him. "Dinefire, Cee."
The laugh that followed was Rico's psychotic one without the happy go lucky undertones. "Now why would I do that, narc? Even though there's just one of you with enough guts to try to take us down, we'll enjoy what our Godfather lets us have fun with all the way till tomorrow. We're his favorites, we are."
Except there was not just one. Manfredi and Johnson formed two solid anchors to Skipper's sanity, Manfredi hugging a seafloor that did not shimmer or shake like his untrustworthy eyes said the dirty cement did. Johnson, good old Johnson, gripped Manfredi as co-anchor, tethered to him upcurrent in the time-honored maritime practice of backing. A vessel braving a cyclone required backing to secure it from drifting in rough seas, and this was by far the roughest sea that Skipper had navigated in his short career. He'd belly slid ahead in his eagerness to thwart this motley crew, but his nearest team members surely followed as fast as they could? Manfredi might be a Size 4X and Johnson a 3X Tall, but they were fit as was any commando. They'd learned to move their bulk in slower, craftier ways. He'd drilled them himself and he knew. Even without being able to see their approach, his faith in them endured. The other three members battled faulty comm systems. They'd figure out soon enough to storm the warehouse. He was sure of it.
"Unveiling time, gents," purred Gacy with a most unwelcome pinch. A nearly demonic orange glow from the sky filtered down to make the nasty floor look even nastier. Feet shuffled closer and then the ladder shook with some hauling and pulling to adjust its squared openings behind Skipper. The movement set off fiercer nausea and he feared he'd lose his lunch in front of his enemies. He swallowed hard. "Let's see what you've got, hey? Don't want to peak too soon."
Hoarse voices started a chant. "Do it do it do it --- "
"Settle down, lads, you're first after me." It didn't seem possible that Skipper could feel worse, but the false kindness in Gacy's voice proved him wrong. "The Game is a serious do and needs some respect."
Skipper looked down his tilted body and tried to tense in preparation for whatever would come. It was no use; he couldn't stiffen so much as a toe. He was as limp and accepting as it was possible to be. He disgusted himself for being so weak. He could feel the evil around him grow as he slipped towards unconsciousness. Maybe if he held his breath he'd faint faster and take away some of their fun.
He gasped in surprise at the solid punch. "Here now, none of that! You're sensitive as a nancy cat, well who would have guessed?"
A murmur of appreciation ran around the group and they shifted their weight in hot anticipation of The Game. The metal leg scraped across the cement floor. Ahab, Skipper's blitzed mind supplied, he was the skipper with no heart for anything but killing for revenge. "'Hab."
"What was that oh never mind. 'Bama, gift me with one of your Southernisms. I'm in the mood for some poetry." One impatient hissssss sounded before a grunnnt as his fellow thug must have elbowed him into quietude.
There was that giggle again as a trembling flipper waggled Skipper's beak open. "He's spread out for you like a bluetick coonhound's dinner, Boss."
More shouts of encouragement. "Start 'im off Boss you first Boss aw'ight hurry up Boss we wants our turn --- "
"Let him loose, 'Bama. Nobody needs to hold any penguin still for me, isn't that so, Skipper? Easy, easy, you'll get into it right enough," Gacy said, as if to calm an unruly steed. He pressed himself by Skipper's head. "We're really in for a treat, gents. I'll make him love The Game if it takes me all night."
Skipper's vision faded as darkness claimed his heart, too. Did it matter what happened next? His team had let him down. Manfredi and Johnson must have run into a snag and the relative inexperience of Kowalski, Rico and young Private made them misjudge the timing of this whole operation.
Gacy could wind him up like a clock.