Chapter 1: Prologue
It was an especially heavy snowstorm that one Siberian evening. But as sled dogs, they were used to it.
Even so, a certain husky was having trouble sleeping that night. With a soft growl, the restless canine shook the ice crystals from his salt and pepper fur before rising to his feet and stretching his lean body. He looked towards the sky, watching as the menacing clouds continued to pour their snowy fury upon them, and snorted at them in defiance.
Glancing toward the nearby cabin where their master rested, the husky slowly padded through the crisp snow, leaving his mark with a soft crunch. He moved carefully, precisely so as not to wake the other dogs that lay sleeping around him.
Each dog lay curled in their designated spots to keep themselves warm, as they learned to do since they were young. Snowflakes continued to cover their bodies, but it didn't bother them in the least. Eventually a layer of snow would encase them and provide a warmer layer of protection from the more freezing surroundings.
Except for one, the black and white husky noted with some exasperation.
He stood where another husky lay, her pure white fur buried under the frozen crystals. Even though she was the youngest of the pack, the larger dog thought she would know the proper way to keep herself warm while sleeping.
With a canine sigh, the black and white husky carefully moved her tail closer to her snout. Instinctively, the white canine curled into herself more, and the appendage coiled around her nose. Satisfied, the larger dog stepped back.
As pack leader, he made particularly certain that each member of the group was taken care of and ready whenever they were needed…even if it meant helping someone warm up a little.
The black and white husky continued along, briefly checking on each of the other dogs that created their group. As he came upon the last canine, his paws carried him further as his blue and brown eyes drifted to an undisturbed patch of ground. At first glance, there was nothing out of the ordinary about that certain spot, but he knew it was only because the snow long since covered any physical traces that a dog once rested there.
Unable to stop himself, the leader shuffled his nose through the snow, sniffing through the ice crystals as he thought of the last member of their pack. It had been a while since he thought of the other husky who left them behind, but he remembered that night very clearly. And though he knew that the other dog was never coming back, he found himself missing the absent part of their family.
Growling suddenly, he dug his paws into the snow-covered area. The other chose to leave, he reminded himself. Not even a scent was left anymore, demonstrating how long the other was gone. The leader knew it would be best not to think of that other dog any longer.
Even if that other dog was his brother...
With another snort, the black and white husky headed once again for his spot among the other dogs. The storm was finally beginning to ease, and he knew he could finally lie down comfortably and get some rest.
However, as he neared his snow-covered hole, a piercing whistling sound suddenly echoed throughout the night and forced him to freeze in his tracks. He looked up sharply, his bi-eyes scanning the darkness to locate the source of the noise. His one good ear perked up and moved with the sound while his other ear – a smaller round stump that looked as though was bitten off by a larger creature – twitched irritably at the annoying frequency.
The tone persisted, drawing the other sled dogs from their slumber and pulling them up on their paws. Curious to the noise as well, they hesitantly approached their leader and sniffed the air, trying to determine what was causing the racket.
The whistle grew sharper, beckoning the pack forward into the frozen emptiness before them. At first they moved slowly, uncertain about what awaited them beyond their residence. But at the whistle's command, the sled dogs broke into a swift run to greet whatever called them. The black and white husky broke ahead of the group, leading them through the frigid night.
Though the initial storm had waned, a light snow still lingered and covered the fresh tracks, helping the dogs disappear into the darkness.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
Exile grinned as he shook the water out of his fur, momentarily forgetting about the mess he was leaving in the bathroom. Grabbing a nearby towel, he then continued to dry himself off as he enjoyed the relaxing feeling from his shower. He slowly approached the sink as he wrapped the towel around his waist, picking up a brush that lay waiting for him. As he ran the soft bristles through his blue-grey fur, his tail wagged eagerly behind him.
He never really considered himself a vain dog, and usually he didn't have time to pamper himself like this. But the mission they just returned from left his fur a knotted mess. Since they were all done for the day, he thought it would be all right to engage in the small pleasure of extra grooming.
Earlier that morning, they were sent to help a leaking oil tanker that was starting to sink in the Pacific Ocean. Trying to clean up the tons of crude oil spilling into the sea and rescuing the ship's crew became much tougher when a sudden spark lit the boat on fire. He and Blitz remained behind to keep the ship from exploding as Hunter, Colleen, and Shag hurried to get the people to safety. Luckily, the fire went out before any serious damage was done, and his ice vision managed to slow the oil that poured into the ocean. When the other three returned, the five of them did their best to clean up as much oil as they could.
It was a surprisingly difficult change of pace from what they usually do, a long and tedious process that took up most of the day. By the time they returned to Road Rover Mission Control, they were all dripping in sticky black grease. They went through a specialized procedure to clean the oil from their fur, but the slippery substance left them all feeling uncomfortable and in need of a wash.
As the only female member of the team, Colleen had her own bathroom where she could clean herself up. But the other four Rovers who shared one debated what order they would get to use the bathroom. Shag, whose snowy fur was much longer than any of theirs, was granted the shower first. Blitz went next, after a lot of complaining that would only stop as soon as he got clean.
After the Doberman was finished, he and Hunter had another dispute who should go; although this time they were vouching for each other instead. Hunter argued that the husky should clean up, since he spent more time on the tanker and was wallowing in oil longer. But Exile insisted the retriever should be next, since the foul smell of the oil bothered his sensitive nose more. That argument eventually won out, and Exile waited patiently for his turn until Hunter was finished cleaning himself off.
Of course, as the last one to use the bathroom, he expected that all the hot water would be gone. It didn't really bother him, though, since he was used to cold temperatures. Sometimes he even found a slight chill to be relaxing. And a cold shower was nowhere near what he was accustomed to.
After combing through all the knots in his tail, Exile quickly got dressed in his silver Rover uniform and cleaned up the wet bathroom floor. Then he exited and headed down the hall, searching the rooms for his fellow teammates.
It didn't take the husky long to find the other Rovers in the common room. They all sat on the floor (since they were still not allowed on the couch) and watched TV, though there was also a side conversation between Hunter and Blitz. As he neared, he could see a large bowl of popcorn resting nearby, though Shag moved it to make some room for him.
Taking the seat next to the sheepdog and Colleen, Exile accepted some kernels of the snack that was offered to him. "What is everyone watching?" he wondered, his thick accent weighing down his words.
Shag grumbled out a wordless reply, but Exile felt his stomach suddenly sink as he swallowed his popcorn hard.
"Dog sled racing?" he repeated, looking towards the television screen.
"That's right," Colleen said, finally tearing her eyes away from the program to look at him. "It's just a prelim race, though. They're tryin' to get ready for a bigger race comin' up soon."
"Hey, Exile," Hunter suddenly piped up, his discussion with the Doberman momentarily forgotten. "You used to be a sled dog, right?"
The husky rubbed the back of his head. "Da," he reluctantly replied.
"Maybe you could help us out with something." The leader turned to fully face the other and motioned to the television. "See, Blitz and I can't decide which team is better. I'm pretty sure the first team is gonna win –"
"No way!" Blitz interjected. "I'm telling you, de second team is way better! They are bound to win for sure!"
"And we can't seem to agree," Hunter continued. "Since you were a sled dog, you would know what it takes, right? Do you think you could tell by lookin' at 'em?"
Exile frowned, glancing at the screen as the camera swept over the two teams. "It is…hard to be telling," he answered after a moment. "Both teams have good chance of winning."
"Oh, come on," Blitz retorted. "Dhere has to be some way to tell."
With a sigh, the Russian native looked at the sled dogs again. His ice-blue eyes carefully studied the teams as they interacted on screen, getting a better assessment of the overall group. "The leader of first team is strong," he expressed, though he didn't seem to be telling anyone in particular. "He is much trusted by musher and other dogs, and other dogs respect him. Leader of second team is good too, but having trouble making some dogs focus on race. Must be new to team. But if second leader can't bring order to team, first team maybe more likely to winning."
Hunter grinned, turning to the Doberman. "Toldja," he quipped. "You might as well pay up now."
Blitz snorted and folded his arms. "Not a chance, Mutt boy. He said maybe. You're not getting my milk bones until de end of de race!"
As their discussion once again picked up, Exile turned to the annoyed collie. "They are placing bets?" he asked.
She sighed. "Yeah…"
"Hey, are you sure you don't wanna make a bid?" Hunter asked, cutting Blitz off mid-sentence. "There's still some time, y'know."
"Nah," she replied with a wave of her hand. "I'd rather watch for the sport itself."
The retriever shrugged. "Okay, suit yourself. Any other takers?" He glanced at the husky with an expectant grin. "Exile?"
Exile shook his head. "Count me out."
"All right then." He and Blitz then turned to Shag, who collected their treats and tallied them up.
Colleen rolled her eyes and shook her head. She wasn't keen on gambling, and if it wasn't a small bet between friends she would have decked them all. She was a tad surprised, though, that Exile wasn't joining the pool. Glancing at the other Rover, she noted the somewhat…pained expression in his eyes as he focused on the race.
Concerned, she said, "Exile? You alright?"
With a blink he snapped out of his daze, looking toward her. "Hmm? Oh…yes. I am fine."
The English canine frowned. "Are you sure?"
Hesitating for a moment, the husky glanced back at the television screen before rising to his feet. "Actually, I am feeling bit thirsty. I need something to drink…"
She couldn't respond as he dashed towards the kitchen, disappearing through the silver corridor. Sighing, she turned her attention to Hunter who was preoccupied with rooting for his sled team. She reached over and gently gripped his arm. "Huntie…"
The retriever glanced at her over his shoulder. "What's up?"
"I think there's somethin' botherin' Exile."
Curious now, Hunter turned around to face her. "Really?"
She nodded. "Maybe you should go talk to him."
"Right now?" He scratched his head, briefly looking back at the screen. "But the race…" he started, but the rest of his protest faded at the stern expression on her face; he had seen that look before, and he definitely did not want to be on the receiving end of it. "Okay, okay. I'll talk to him."
As he got up and headed for the kitchen, he passed Shag and whispered, "Let me know how the race goes…and keep Blitz away from my milk bones."
"Rotcha," the sheepdog replied.
As Hunter entered the kitchen, he wasn't quite sure how to approach Exile. The normally happy-go-lucky husky was seated at the table and staring off into space. His head rested in one hand while the other hand circled the rim of his steaming mug. At first glance, he looked just as he did in the morning before he was fully awake.
But as the leader caught the look in the other's eyes, he knew that Colleen was right. Something was bothering Exile.
Trying to figure out the best way to talk to his teammate, Hunter noticed the jar of dog biscuits the Master left for them on the counter. His eyes darted from the jar to Exile, and after a moment he grinned and slowly entered the kitchen.
"Hey, Exile," the retriever said casually as he made his way to the counter.
The Russian Rover said nothing, and he dropped his gaze to the table as Hunter entered his line of vision.
Pretending not to notice the lack of response, Hunter removed the lid of the jar and pulled out two bone-shaped biscuits. Then he nonchalantly sat beside the larger dog and bit into his snack with a loud crunch. Chewing thoughtfully, he held out the whole treat to the husky. "Want one?" he offered.
For a few minutes nothing happened, but Hunter continued to wait. At last, his super patience was rewarded when Exile slowly glanced up at him. He simply grinned, continuing to present the tempting dog biscuit. Looking at the biscuit questioningly, the husky took the treat and sat up straight, turning it over in both hands.
Finishing off his own treat, Hunter brushed the crumbs off his gloves and licked his lips. "So…" he finally ventured, "what's wrong?"
Exile sighed, placing the dog biscuit on the table. "Is nothing," he replied. Then, with a small smile, he added, "I am feeling very okey-pokey."
The retriever didn't look convinced, but he shrugged anyway. "If you say so. Wanna head back and watch the dog sled race?"
The Russian canine involuntarily winced, rubbing the fur on his neck. Glancing at the waiting leader, he then stared at the cooling liquid in his mug.
Folding both arms on the table, Hunter leaned forward a bit to get a better look at the other's face. "Talk to me, Bro," he said softly. "What's the matter?"
The lingering fight in Exile died as he sighed once again. He carefully turned the words over in his mind before he answered, "After seeing dog sled race, I am feeling a deep sickness for home."
With a slight incline of the head, Hunter blinked. "Really?" he asked. He wasn't expecting an answer like that; even though their schedule recently kept them away for a few days, it wasn't really a big problem. "Well, the Master said we can all go home tonight. I think we're all planning on heading back after dinner…"
Exile shook his head. "Net. I am speaking of old home…where my family lives."
Hunter's eyes widened. "Family…?"
Averting his gaze and taking a long sip of his drink, the husky then nodded.
A thousand questions were soon racing through the retriever's mind, all centered on Exile's revelation. A family? Exile never mentioned having a family before. Was he trying to find them, like when he was trying to find his mother? But the way he said it, and talking about his old home…And it just came up so suddenly. What brought it up in the first place…?
Then Hunter remembered that Exile said he was feeling this way after seeing the dog sled race. As he thought about it, it began to make more sense. Since Exile used to be a sled dog, then…
"Do you mean the other sled dogs you used to work with?" he wondered. "Your old team?"
Leaning more over the table, Exile folded his hands together. "When dogs are working together long time, they are becoming close, like a pack…" He looked at Hunter. "Like family."
The leader nodded, knowing exactly what the other meant; after working with the other Rovers for so long, it was only natural that they were so close…he certainly felt that the Rovers were part of his family. That's why he was so surprised that Exile never talked about something like this before, especially if it was hurting him this much. It was also why Hunter wanted to do whatever he could to help.
"You really miss them." It wasn't a question, and he didn't need an answer to realize he was right; the husky's silence said it all. "Have you ever gone to see them?"
Exile shook his head, once again turning away. "I can't."
Hunter frowned. "Why can't you?" he wondered. Then, with a playful nudge of his elbow, he teased, "Weren't you the one telling me I had to make time for the important things?"
Unfortunately, his banter did nothing to lighten the other canine's mood. With a soft sigh, Exile replied, "It was different thing for you, Hunter. You were wanting to see your mother."
Despite how dense the leader could be sometimes, the implication was not lost on him. "You don't wanna see your family?"
Again, the husky said nothing, and instead finished his now-cold drink in one motion. But Hunter already figured out the answer. "Why not?"
Closing his eyes, Exile inhaled deeply, as though preparing himself for what he would say next. "Because…they are not wanting to see me."
The retriever watched the Russian native with puzzled eyes. "What do you mean?"
Leaning forward, Exile rested his head on his arms to turn away from Hunter. "The night Master call us to be Road Rovers, other dogs wake up before I go. They ask me why I am leaving, but even after I tell them they don't want me going. They are all upset, but especially head dog, Shurik.
"Even when I explain to Shurik that I must go, he is not happy with me. He say that, if I leave, I am turning tail on whole family…that I am abandoning them. Then he say if I leave…I don't come back."
"And you left anyway," Hunter said, realizing just how hard that must have been.
"There was no choice," the husky replied.
Unsure of what else to say, the leader finally asked one question that was really bothering him. "How come you never said anything?"
"Is first time you watch dog sled races," Exile explained, finally sparing a glance at him. "Is first time I think of family around comrades."
"But…you have thought about them before…haven't you?"
Exile sighed again and nodded. "Every night before I go sleep. If I sleeping here or in my doghouse in Russia, I always thinking of family. I wonder…if they still sleeping outside in snow."
Hunter could feel the other's guilt, radiating from him like a fresh scent, and his heart went out to his Siberian friend. None of them ever really talked of their lives prior to becoming Road Rovers, but he figured that most of them didn't lose anything important; Exile was a sled dog, Blitz was a guard dog in a junkyard, Shag was a sheep dog, Colleen used to wander the streets, and he and Muzzle barely escaped being put to sleep. They were all happy when the Master placed them in homes, with owners who cared for them.
He didn't think that any of them gave something up before joining the Road Rovers, especially not a family, and especially not Exile…who, he realized now, was probably happy the Master placed him in a new home because he felt that he couldn't return to his old one.
Reaching over, he placed a supportive hand on the husky's shoulder. "Man…" he said slowly, "I'm really sorry, Buddy. It must have been tough leaving everything behind like that."
Exile looked back at him. "To be total honesty," he said, "I didn't like being sled dog much. People always rushing me, and I was glad to leave it behind. I only miss my family."
The leader frowned; that was probably the hardest thing to sacrifice. "Still…"
Sitting up straight, the Russian Rover ran his fingers through the fur on top of his head. "Is all right," he said. With a small, genuine grin, he looked at Hunter. "I choose this, after all, and I love being Road Rover. Plus, I have comrades now."
Even though Hunter knew the other meant it, he could still feel some lingering pain. "Is there anything I can do?" he wondered.
Exile shook his head. "Actually, I am feeling okay now after removing chip weighing down on my chest."
The retriever scratched his head. "Okay…" Somewhere in there, he figured the other meant he felt better after talking about it. Still wanting to make sure he was really all right though, Hunter asked seriously, "You sure?"
"Da," the husky assured. "I am fine now…really."
Studying his teammate for another moment, Hunter then nodded. "All right then. Just let me know, okay? Whatever you need."
The two Rovers stood from the table. "Thanks, Comrade," Exile replied. "But all I am needing now is some sleep. I think I'll head home now."
Before Hunter could respond, Blitz poked his head into the kitchen. "You are heading back now?" he asked, stepping inside. "I'll go with you."
"But what about the race?" Hunter wondered.
The Doberman scoffed, shrugging the retriever off. "It's just a bunch of dogs running through de snow, anyway. It's so boring."
Blinking in surprise, Hunter then shrugged. "Okay. See you guys later."
Bidding their leader goodbye, Exile and Blitz both left and made their way towards the transdogmification room. They said nothing to each other at first, but as they neared the machines, Exile glanced at the German canine. "So, by how much is your team losing?" he asked with a smirk.
Blitz glared at him. "I don't want to talk about it…"
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
Exile sat patiently in the snow as his owner lined his doghouse with a fresh new blanket, his tail wagging as he waited for the man to finish. When the man got to his feet, the husky barked happily.
"There you go," the president of Russia said, brushing the ice crystals from his robe. "Now you will be nice and warm, da?"
Exile barked again, letting his owner know he would be fine.
The man smiled and scratched behind the canine's ear. "Good. Sleep well, Exile."
Barking once more, the husky gently licked the man's hand. Then he sat once again and waited, watching his owner shuffle through the snow and back into the house. Only after he was sure the human was back inside did he shake the snowflakes from his fur and enter his doghouse.
As he lay down on the soft blanket, Exile looked up at the dark grey sky, watching as snow continued to fall. It was to be expected, after all, since it often snowed in Russia during the winter. But though the snow came gently tonight, the husky couldn't help but worry.
It must be snowing much harder in Siberia…
With a low whine, Exile laid his head between his paws, still watching the white powder descending from the sky. It was a week since his conversation with Hunter about his family; though he did feel a little better letting his secret out into the open, he still felt regretful about leaving his family behind. He felt especially worse on nights like this when his owner took the extra time to make sure he would stay warm. Meanwhile, he was sure the others were still sleeping out in the snow trying to retain their own body heat.
The talk also added an extra guilt of never telling his comrades about his family before. Was it that he didn't want to tell them because he was ashamed of what he did to his family? Or was it that he didn't want them to know that he had a family before them…before the Road Rovers?
And just because he told Hunter didn't mean he was entirely cleared yet. The others still didn't know about his family. Was there really a need to tell them, though? Colleen might suspect something, but Blitz and Shag probably didn't. There was a chance he could get away without telling his story again. Yet could he really continue keeping this a secret after finally telling someone? He was sure Hunter wouldn't say anything to the others, but if the leader thought it was bothering him and tried to help him, would the others take notice?
Didn't his friends deserve to know?
A yawn interrupted his thoughts, and he finally turned away from the snow. It was late, and he had plenty of time to think about this later. For now, it was better to get some sleep.
However, just as he closed his eyes, a whistling sound pierced the silence and forced them open again. His ears perked as he lifted his head, looking outside to locate the source of the noise.
At first, the whistle was faint; his ears twitched to trace the direction it was coming from. But the sound steadily grew louder. Curious, Exile rose to his feet and slowly stepped out from the warmth of his doghouse and into the chilly night.
His paws crunched gently in the snow as he looked around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and the property looked like it always did. But the husky continued to wander around, searching for anything that could possibly make such a noise. If it posed any threat, he had to be ready to protect his owner.
There was no strange scent in the air, nothing to suggest any danger. But as he finally came to the front gate, the whistling became stronger. Was it coming from beyond the gate? Determined to find out, the husky began digging under it. He could probably slip through…
A chorus of howling interrupted his task, and he looked up at the sky as a warm light shone down on him. "Exile," he heard the Master's voice call, "report to headquarters. Now."
Exile hesitated for a moment, looking back at the hole he dug. It was almost deep enough for him to get through. He needed to find where the whistling came from, find what was making the noise, and why…But the Master was calling, and…Did the whistling just get louder?
His tail twitched anxiously, and he took a step closer to the gate, looking out. He needed to know…
Shaking himself out of his daze, the Siberian husky slowly backed away from the gate. The Master's exclamation forced the whistle to quiet down somewhat, and the canine knew he had to go. Whatever it was, it had to wait.
He turned and ran for the secret passage to Mission Control. He didn't get very far, however, when a sudden shot echoed through the darkness. Before he knew it, something large and heavy fell on top of him and forced him to crash to the ground. He barked in surprise, struggling fiercely to free himself, but the weighted net kept him pinned to the ground.
"Not bad," an unexpected voice drawled around him. "You're a pretty smart dog, aren't ya?"
Exile froze, his fur standing on end as the voice cut through him with painful clarity. He knew that voice…too well for his liking. But he never heard it before here, in Russia. And he never heard it when in his pure canine form. He never thought he would.
A figure approached, and the husky looked up, confirming his worst fears.
The Groomer smirked as she knelt down to him. "Well, you're a fine specimen indeed. I think we could definitely use you."
He saw her hand come closer, and though the net still separated them he growled deeply and snapped his teeth at her.
She drew back sharply, but her sick smile never faded. "Oooh, ferocious!" she exclaimed. "Pretty good for a spoiled house pet."
Though he continued to snarl at her, questions sped through his mind. Just what was she doing here? Of all the dogs in the world to kidnap, what brought her to Russia to abduct him? Unless…
Did…did she know? Did she know…that he was a Road Rover? He couldn't recall giving away any indication that Exile the Road Rover and Exile the Russian president's dog was the same canine, but…what if she somehow figured it out anyway? To not only take the dog of a world leader, but a Road Rover as well…it would certainly give her the kind of sinister satisfaction she enjoyed. And – ice ran down his spine as soon as the thought entered his mind – what if she knew about the other Rovers as well? What if she was planning to abduct all of them? Hopefully the Master could warn them and prevent that from happening.
He didn't realize that the Groomer tied the net around him until he felt himself being dragged across the ground. Then he barked furiously, yelling at the woman in his canine tongue to let him go, that there was no way he'd ever work for her, and if he managed to get out of this he was going to…!
"I wouldn't be making so much noise," she warned as she pulled him across the icy land towards the gate. "It's late, and you might wake someone."
It was then that the husky noticed that two cano-mutants stood on the other side of the gate, and his fur bristled when he saw that one of them had a gun. If he did wake up someone, that person might come out to see why he was making so much noise. What if it was his owner? What if the cano-mutant shot at him? The president of Russia encountering the canine beast would not turn out well at all…especially if the cano-mutant did not miss.
Exile couldn't afford to take that chance.
"Loyal, too," the Groomer commented idly at his sudden silence. "You'll be perfect for the General's army."
To be turned into one of Parvo's cano-mutants, and to serve whatever evil purpose he thought up this time…to be loyal to that man, and the idea of maybe even fighting the other Rovers…it all made Exile's heart drop into his stomach.
The husky yipped in surprise when the woman tossed him over the gate, and he landed in the waiting arms of one of the cano-mutants. Once again he began to struggle, but the dog-man's grip did not loosen.
As the Groomer made her way over the iron bars, she ordered, "Put him in the truck with the others."
Others? There were others? Panic gripped him once again, and a shiver ran through his entire body. Surely she didn't mean the other Rovers…she couldn't have gotten to them already! As he was carried to a waiting military-style truck, Exile could only hope that wasn't the case.
The cano-mutant tossed him into the back of the truck, and he hit the floor of the bed hard. Trying to clear the sudden dizziness in his head, Exile realized the truck was full of cages, each holding a number of other Siberian huskies. Though part of him was relieved – this meant that Parvo and the Groomer did not know who he really was, and that the Road Rovers were safe – he was concerned for these other dogs. Just what did Parvo want with all these huskies?
The truck gate closed with a sharp bang, and Exile looked up to see the Groomer looking inside. "Comfy?" she sneered.
He growled at her, but she simply laughed and closed the tarp covering, hiding them from the rest of the world. Then, he heard the start of the engine, and his heart began racing when he felt the truck moving.
Panting deeply, Exile looked around at the other huskies in their cages. Some were sleeping (if a little uneasily), but the ones awake lay in their prisons with wonder and concerns. No one seemed too afraid, though…at least not yet. But then again, they had no idea what was awaiting them.
Unexpectedly anxious, he fought against the net that held him, hoping maybe it would come undone. But it was too small, forcing him to curl into himself and preventing him from moving too much. Even if he tried to straighten himself out, the mesh held fast around him.
Still, determined to break free, Exile looked at the material the net was made from. Despite how heavy it was, it wasn't anything extraordinary. If only he had his heat vision, he would certainly get out of there no problem!
As it was, he settled for chewing on and pulling at the net, trying to break through the tough cords with his teeth. But he already had a feeling that his regular canine fangs –sharp as they were – would not be enough, and for the very first time he found himself wishing that he had Blitz's bite strength.
While he gnawed at the rope, a tan and white husky in the cage closest to him became curious. Rising to her feet, she slowly approached and whined softly, wondering what he was doing.
He growled around the net in his mouth, telling her that he was trying to get free, and he needed to go – that his Master was waiting for him. He said he couldn't let this woman who captured them take him away; he had to go so he and his friends could stop the man responsible, whatever he was planning. And with every frustrated tug on the net, he stressed that he…Had. To. Break. Out.
Some of the other dogs exchanged looks, unimpressed by this one's attempts and reasoning. They all wanted to get out, after all. They were all taken from their masters by this strange woman, and they all wanted to get back home. What made this one so special? Why should he get out when they couldn't? What was going to happen to them anyway? And what could he and his friends do to stop this "man" responsible?
However, the tan and white husky didn't seem to agree with their doubt. Slipping her snout between the bars of the cage, she bit down on a section of mesh and yanked at it, instructing the blue-grey one to pull harder.
Understanding what she meant, Exile complied despite the limited room he had to work with. The two huskies pulled the net in opposite directions, stretching the rope past its capabilities as they weakened it with their teeth. After painful minutes that felt like hours, their efforts were finally rewarded when a ripping sound echoed through the truck bed, and the two dogs finally tore a hole in the net.
When the opening was big enough, Exile slowly crawled through and out of the net. Thanking the light-colored husky for her help, he then ran to the truck gate and jumped up, resting his front paws on the door as he moved the flap back to look outside.
The truck covered a lot of ground in the time it took him to get free, but he could still see his owner's house in the distance. But what was he supposed to do now? The longer he took to decide, the further he went. How was he supposed to get to headquarters?
A chorus of howling once again echoed around him, and he looked up at the bright light shining on him. "Exile, you have to jump," the Master commanded. "You have to get out of there, quickly!"
The husky whined softly, wondering about the other dogs.
"There's no time. You must get out, before it's too late."
Jumping down and backing away from the truck gate, Exile looked back at the other huskies who stared at him in their cages. He knew he had to leave – he just couldn't become one of Parvo's henchdog-men – but he couldn't just leave these other dogs, could he? Not when he knew what was going to happen to them…not when he was there to help them. But what could he do?
"Move it, Exile!"
The tan and white husky suddenly barked sharply, telling Exile that he better get out now. He protested, insisting that he couldn't just abandon them. There just had to be some way to help them escape.
But the female replied no, there was nothing he could do for them right now. If there was any chance of saving them, then he had to leave them behind…and go.
Exile growled, turning away from her. He knew she was right – there was nothing he could do for them in his pure canine from. The only way to help them was as a Road Rover. And if he waited too long, he would be of no help to anyone. But even knowing all that did not make him feel any better.
He was, after all, still abandoning them.
Pushing his guilt aside, Exile silently promised that he would save these other huskies when he had the chance. He slowly backed up to put as much distance between himself and the truck gate as the cage-crammed truck bed would allow. Then, steeling himself, he ran forward and jumped over the gate, sailing out of the truck.
Unfortunately, he misjudged the speed and momentum of his landing, as well as his distance off the ground. His legs were taken out from underneath him, sending him crashing hard into the pavement. Pain suddenly shot up his left front leg, ripping an agonized yelp from his throat as he rolled in the dirt and snow, finally coming to a stop somewhere off the road.
Luckily, the drivers of the vehicle did not notice his escape, and the truck continued to disappear into the night.
For a moment, Exile remained lying on his side as the pain seemed to spread throughout his body, preventing him from doing anything else. Then, slowly, he forced himself to stand; the effort of that alone left him breathing heavily, and his heart hammered rapidly against his chest.
"Exile!" the Master called, and the canine could hear the concern in his voice. "Are you all right?"
Gingerly, the husky tested his injured leg. He winced as he placed pressure on it, knowing he couldn't really walk on it. And he could feel something was bleeding somewhere. But he still whined in soft affirmation, telling the Master that he would be okay.
"Do you think you can still make it to headquarters?"
Looking up, Exile could still see his owner's house, even though it looked much farther away. He barked this time, his voice strong as he told the Master that he would get there.
"All right," the Master replied, although with some uncertainty. "Come as soon as you can…And be careful."
He would, he told the Master. Ignoring the pain that still coursed through his body, he limped as fast as he could back to the house, running on sheer willpower to get to the passage to headquarters.
Hunter grinned as he stepped out of the Transdogmifier. "Did I ever mention how much I love that machine?" he asked.
"Only every time," Colleen retorted, trying to stifle a yawn. "Crikey, would it kill anyone to leave the crises until mornin'?"
"Maybe," the leader said with a shrug. "Depends on what the situation is."
"Yeah, well, let's just hurry up and get dhis over with," Blitz grumbled, stretching his arms over his head as he stepped forward. "Even a face like mine needs to rest."
"I'll say," the collie murmured under her breath.
As Shag joined the other three, he grumbled indistinctly as he rubbed the lingering sleep from his eyes.
"You'll have plenty of time to dream about chew toys later," the Master suddenly stated, garnering the Rovers' attention. "Right now, we have an urgent matter to deal with."
"Hold on a second," Colleen interjected, looking around. "Where's Exile?"
Noticing for the first time that the husky was not among them, Hunter glanced around as well. "Weird," he said, scratching the top of his head. "It's not like Exile to be late…" He turned to the Doberman. "Don't the two of you usually show up around the same time?"
Blitz shrugged. "Maybe he slept in…"
Ready to give a witty response, the retriever froze when a strange scent swiftly filled the air. Inhaling deeper to try and get a better fix on it, he said, "Do you guys smell that?"
"Smell what, Huntie?"
"It smells like…" He sniffed the air again, and when he could finally identify what he smelled, he felt the fur on his nape stand on end. "Like blood…"
Shag yelped sharply, causing the other three to look where he was facing. When they did, they gasped.
"Exile…?" Hunter breathed, his eyes widening as he approached the Russian canine. "Exile…what happened?!"
Panting heavily, the husky was unable to respond. His blue-grey fur was matted with dirt, and blood stained his left shoulder, steadily dripping down his front leg onto the metallic floor. Limping closer, his body shook as though it took that much effort just to stay on his paws…and by the way he looked, it probably did.
Still, ignoring all their concern, Exile slipped past them and ran into the Transdogmifier. The smoke covered him briefly, and the Rovers watched as he grew and transformed into his Cano-Sapien form. But instead of emerging tall and proud as he usually did, the Siberian canine stumbled out of the chamber, his face twisted in a painful grimace as he clutched his injured shoulder.
Shag quickly caught the husky before he fell to the floor, taking extra care not to jostle the wound as he noted that blood was already beginning to show through the silver uniform.
"Exile," Hunter said, uncertain if the other was even awake to hear him at this point, "what's going on? What happened?"
"Explanations will have to wait, Rovers," the Master said. "Right now, Exile needs to be treated."
"On it, Master," Colleen answered dutifully. "Shag, let's get him to the med lab!"
The giant sheepdog nodded, following the collie as he half-carried Exile to the medical station. Hunter and Blitz tailed behind them, exchanging mystified expressions as they wondered just what kind of dilemma their friend ran into on the way here.
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
"How're you holdin' up, Exile?" Colleen asked softly as she worked, noticing the husky wince.
"Fineski," he replied, trying to keep the weariness out of his tone, "although I will be feeling much better when you stop poking needle in my shoulder…"
She smiled a little as she continued to suture the wound; she knew it didn't hurt him, since she had already numbed the area. But he probably could still feel something, and she recalled that Exile was rather…uncomfortable around medical procedures.
"Just relax," she soothed, trying to keep him engaged. "I'll be done in just a sec."
The Russian canine only responded with a small shake of his head, and Colleen couldn't tell if the movement was intentional or not. After a quick examination over her teammate, the collie was relieved to find that Exile mostly sustained merely minor injuries. The small scrapes were easily taken care of, and his ankle wasn't too terribly sprained. He could probably walk on it if he needed to; still, she would prefer that he'd let it rest until it healed.
There were only two serious injuries, but they did cause a good deal of concern; one of course was the gash on his shoulder that she was currently sewing up. It wasn't too deep, but it was a few inches long, and she was worried about the amount of blood he probably lost. Even if she had the best medical skills within the team, she was by no means a doctor, and she couldn't be sure of the real damage of blood deficiency.
The other problem was a sizeable bump she found on his head. She had bandaged it up already, but she wasn't sure yet if she could leave it at that. She expected the headache and the dizziness that accompanied the welt, but she became a bit uneasy when Exile almost fell off the table as they sat him down. He also complained a little when they pulled a light closer to better look him over, and he didn't seem to hear her when she asked him some questions. If his head was hit hard enough, the symptoms could mean he had a concussion.
He seemed to be doing better, though. She spent most of the time speaking to him while she treated him, hoping to keep him attentive. If he did have a concussion, she didn't want to risk him falling unconscious. Eventually he began responding to her, and they managed to carry on a conversation as she took care of his wounds. His previous response also encouraged her, showing her that he was clearly aware of what was going on, and she imagined the bump on his head wasn't as serious as she initially thought.
However, she knew that they still needed to be careful. For now, they had to keep Exile awake until she could be absolutely certain that he did not have a concussion…even though what he really needed was some sleep. Whatever adrenaline had powered him to get to headquarters before had now rapidly dissolved, leaving him so exhausted that she felt sorry for keeping him up.
"There we are," she said as she closed up the stitch and snipped off the extra twine. Over her shoulder, she called to the other Rovers, "All done, gents."
The other three canines, who agreed to hang back and let Colleen take care of their injured teammate, made their way over as she gently grasped Exile's arm and helped him slowly sit up. When Shag was close enough, he reached into his snowy white coat and retrieved a dog dish filled with water that he offered to the husky.
Taking the bowl, Exile lapped at the water gratefully, enjoying the feeling of the cool liquid through his dry throat. He drank until there was nothing left, then let out a satisfied sigh as he handed the dish back to the sheepdog. "Spasibo," he rasped out. He shook his head a little, coughing a bit to clear this throat. "I mean, um…thank you."
The collie frowned as she put her tools away. The same thing happened in her conversations with Exile earlier as well. Sometimes after she asked him a question, he would respond entirely in Russian. Usually he caught himself quickly and repeated the answer in English, but she worried that the inability to separate the languages was a possible sign that he did have mild brain trauma.
Hunter suddenly pulled her aside, and she looked up at him curiously. "How's he doin', Colleen?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
She wasn't sure if he suspected something himself, or if he could just tell she thought something was wrong. "He's all right for the most part," she replied honestly. "But I'm a little concerned 'bout his 'ead."
She half-expected him to make some kind of joke. But instead, his brows knitted together as he frowned, scratching the top of his head. "Is it bad?" he wondered.
"I don't think so…But we should keep an eye on 'im, just in case."
"Do you know what's goin' on?"
Colleen shook her head. "I tried askin' 'im earlier, but he never said. When he did start talkin', I didn't bother askin' again. He might tell you now, though."
Hunter nodded. "Okay…" He turned and once again approached the Siberian husky, waiting while the other put on his silver uniform. "Exile…" he said after a moment, "do you think you could tell us what happened?"
"Ja," Blitz interjected. "Just tell us who did dhis, and I will personally see to it that dheir heinies are severely bitten."
Exile groaned, though from pain or revulsion even he couldn't tell. "Don't be weird boy…" he grunted, placing a hand to his head.
"Do you remember anythin'…before you came 'ere?" Colleen questioned.
At first, the Russian canine said nothing, and simply sat on the examination bench with his eyes tightly shut. Then, just as they were about to ask again, his fist clenched and he nodded. His voice was barely above a whisper as he replied, "The Groomer…"
They all heard him anyway. "The Groomer?!" the others repeated with wide eyes.
"She was there?" Hunter exclaimed.
"Da," Exile seemed to sigh. "She try to take me from my home."
"Okay, time-out," the leader said, crossing his hands in a 'T' position as he processed what they were being told. "Groomer tried to steal you…?"
"You…as a regular dog…?"
"From the house of the Russian president?"
The husky nodded, earning troubled looks from the rest of the Rovers. All different kinds of possibilities filled their heads about why the Groomer would kidnap Exile, including the same fear that she might know who they are.
"Can you…can you tell us what happened?" Hunter asked again, hoping they could figure out what Groomer was really after.
Exile shrugged, rubbing the back of his neck. "She came…capture me…put me in truck with other huskies."
Something about the flippant answer somewhat worried the retriever, but the end of the comment caught his attention. "Other huskies?"
The Russian canine nodded again. "Many others…all Siberian huskies."
"That's not like Parvo," Hunter remarked. "Why would he only want one kind of dog?"
"He isn't after just one breed, Rovers," the Master announced suddenly. "He's after a special type of breed. Across the globe, dogs have been disappearing in mass quantities; not just several types of huskies, but also Eskimo dogs, malamutes, Samoyeds, Chinooks, Greenland dogs, Eurohounds, Tamaskan dogs…"
Colleen's eyes widened with comprehension. "Sled dogs…" she murmured. "He's after different kinds of sled dogs."
"Exactly," the Master confirmed.
Scratching the top of his head, Hunter glanced at the collie. "How'd you know that?" he wondered.
She smirked as she crossed her arms. "If you paid more attention to watchin' the race instead of swappin' bets, you'd probably know that too."
The Master sighed as a debate about dog sled races broke out among most of the group. Even though they were good dogs most of the time, there were occasions when they would get a little too sidetracked. "Now's not the time for this, Rovers," he advised.
Exile, who preferred to stay out of the conversation, looked up at the man as the chatter died down. "Wait…" he said, slipping off the examination bench. Turning to Hunter, he asked, "Are dog sled races still ongoing?"
"Um…I think so…" the retriever replied. Thinking for a moment, he nodded. "Yeah, some races will still be going on until that really big race in March."
The husky turned to their Master. "If evil Parvo-man is after sled dogs, could he also going after them?"
The Master rubbed his chin. "It's possible…If he is, then we'll know where he'll hit next."
"Hey, good thinking, Exile," Hunter commended, placing a hand on the other's good shoulder.
The husky, however, said nothing, and didn't seem to appreciate the revelation of his suggestion.
"You know what to do, Rovers," the Master said. "Find Parvo…and stop him."
"Yes, sir!" the leader answered for the rest of the team. Turning to the other canines, he said, "Let's head out, Rovers!"
With a group howl, the team made their way to the vehicle hangar. But Hunter hung back with the Russian member for a moment. "Hey, Exile," he began, "maybe you should –"
"I am going," Exile responded resolutely.
The retriever frowned. "You really oughta get some rest."
"I am fine." A fire burned in Exile's icy eyes as he looked at the other. "This time… is personal."
Still somewhat hesitant, Hunter then nodded in understanding. "All right…but be careful, okay? Take it slow."
Exile didn't answer and looked away.
The roar of the jet echoed across the mountains, the blanket of snow gleaming beneath them in the sunlight. The trees danced as they passed overhead, shaking off the ice crystals that gathered atop their leaves. At first glance, there didn't seem to be any problems in the encompassing region. However, as they approached their destination, they could make out the throng of people gathered around the base of a mountain, and the empty sleds scattered about the area.
Colleen finally stated the thought on all their minds; "Looks like we're a little too late…"
Hunter carefully landed the jet in an open section, mindful of the approaching humans. As the engines died down, the aircraft's door slid open for the six canines to step out into the crisp wintry air.
Blitz hugged himself as he shivered. "Why can't we ever get sent to a nice beach somewhere?" he complained. "Where they serve dhose drinks with de little umbrellas… But noooo…it always has to be someplace where my tooshie freezes!"
Exile rolled his eyes, deciding to overlook the Doberman's exaggerations this time. Instead he inhaled deeply, enjoying the sharp air that filled his lungs. Honestly, they weren't often sent to cold regions like this. Normally they were sent to much warmer locations, and while he never complained, he usually felt more at ease in cooler temperatures. Actually, he felt he worked much better in places like this.
Unfortunately, while he generally felt fine being in the cold, the chilly atmosphere did nothing to help his injuries. His head and shoulder were beginning to throb with a growing pain as a frosty wind blew around them.
Doing his best to ignore his ailments, he tried to focus his attention on the conversation going on between Hunter and a nearby person. "So they just ran off?" he heard the leader ask.
"Yeah," the human replied in a heavy tone, his body stiff – and they knew it wasn't from the cold – as he slid his hands into the pocket of his thick brown coat. "You can ask some of the other mushers too, but it's the same for all of us. While we were running the race, the dogs all just stopped for no reason. No matter what we did, we couldn't get them to go; they just sat there, and nothing happened for a good few minutes. Then they suddenly got out of their harnesses and ran off."
"Were they acting strange at all?" the retriever wondered.
The musher combed through his thick beard as he tried to recall. "Not that I noticed…though they seemed to be looking for something before running away."
Placing his hands on his waist, Hunter turned to the Siberian Rover. "Whatcha make of it, Exile?"
The husky frowned. "It's nyet nothing," he commented. "Dogs must have heard The Whistle."
Exile nodded. "The Whistle is probably what make dogs stop in middle of race. It sounds like it's calling you, and you must find where it comes from. The louder they hear it, the more they are wanting to find it."
"You heard it?" Hunter asked. This was part of the story the husky failed to mention before.
"Da. I hear it before I see Groomer."
"She must be using it to gather all the sled dogs," Hunter mused. Turning back to the musher, he said, "How long ago was this?"
The man checked his watch. "Three…maybe four hours. A bunch of us just got back from the route after the dogs ran off."
"Well, she's got a heck of a start," the retriever quipped. "We're gonna hafta haul tail if we're gonna catch her."
Colleen suddenly cleared her throat, and when Hunter glanced at her curiously she motioned her head to the Russian native. The husky subconsciously rubbed his injured shoulder, staring at the snowy ground with a distracted look in his icy-blue eyes. Turning back to the collie and noting her concerned frown, Hunter nodded in agreement, recognizing what she meant.
"Okay, Rovers," he began, the authority that made him leader easily slipping into his tone, even as his mind rapidly worked to think of a plausible excuse to use. "We better split up. Colleen, Shag and I will take the Tank Rover to scout around."
"Roger, 'unter," Colleen replied before she and Shag went to get the vehicle he called for.
Turning to the remaining three, Hunter continued, "Exile and Blitz, you two stay here with Muzzle for now and keep an eye on things."
Muzzle hopped around in his stretcher, grunting out a wordless affirmation. Blitz exhaled a trail of steam as he sighed. "Fine," he grumbled, still trying to keep himself warm.
Exile, however, frowned as he looked at the leader suspiciously. "Why I stay here?" he wondered.
"Well," Hunter said slowly, "if Groomer and her pets are still close by somewhere, we need to make sure she doesn't cause any trouble with these people around. So in case she shows up and tries something, I need you and Blitz here to protect everyone." It was the only thing he could come up with so the other wouldn't be offended, and he hoped that it sounded believable.
But Exile didn't look convinced. "Why for she'd come back here if she already took all dogs?"
"Well…" The retriever rubbed the back of his head. "You never know with Groomer. It's better to be prepared."
The Siberian Rover crossed his arms. "You want me staying because I am hurt."
Hesitating for a moment, Hunter then sighed. He thought himself a pretty good actor, but it was much harder for him to outright lie. "Look, I know you wanna get her for what happened, but you need to take it easy, Exile," he said.
"Bolshoi," Exile protested. "I am all righty to go."
Hunter didn't look persuaded, but still placed a hand on his friend's shoulder and said, "Maybe so, but you had a long night. You stay here and rest up, so you'll be ready when we really need you."
At first Exile said nothing, his ears folded back against his head as he looked away from the leader. He was obviously not happy about this decision. But not wanting to argue, he nodded anyway.
Seeing that Colleen and Shag were waiting for him, Hunter patted the husky's shoulder encouragingly. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll probably need backup anyway, so if we see her, we'll call you."
Exile watched as the retriever ran off and hopped into the Tank Rover, looking on as his three comrades headed out into the snowy wilderness. As the vehicle disappeared, he placed a hand to his throbbing head. Even though he really did want to find Groomer and help all those other dogs that were taken before, he knew that Hunter was right; he needed some rest.
The way he was now, he wouldn't be much help at all.
Despite the Tank Rover's usefulness in snowy terrain, the problem was its design lacked a covertness that would otherwise help them sneak up on the Groomer if they ever did find her. Unfortunately, the helicopter mode would make it easier for Groomer to see them before they found her, and the sled mode didn't have a means of maintaining momentum.
In normal circumstances, Hunter and Colleen would just take the Sled Rovers and have the Tank Rover waiting as a base nearby in case they ran into trouble. However, the leader didn't want the sheepdog by himself in the off chance that something happened. That usually wasn't a problem…but since Exile wasn't with them this time, they couldn't afford that risk.
So instead, the Tank Rover plowed through the snow with Shag at the wheel, while Hunter and Colleen kept watch for any signs of Parvo's right-hand lady.
For a while, nothing was said between the three Rovers as they concentrated on their tasks. But the silence was finally broken as the retriever muttered, "I just don't get it…"
"Don't get what?" Colleen asked.
"What Parvo's up to…" The leader scratched his head as he looked toward his two teammates. "He doesn't usually go after one type of dog."
Shag mumbled an incoherent question, but after a moment of thought Hunter shook his head and waved it off. "That's not really the same thing," he replied. "When Parvo captured those Shiba Inu, he only took…what? Five of 'em? But this time, he's capturing who-knows-how-many sled dogs. And even if they're different breeds of dogs, they still have that in common." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "What is he up to…?"
The sheepdog offered a garbled suggestion, and Colleen couldn't help but roll her eyes. "I don't really think Parvo's the sort for a sleigh ride through the mountains, Shag," she quipped. "And even if he was, he wouldn't need all those sled dogs." Turning to Hunter, she added, "Maybe he needs these sled dogs for a particular purpose."
"Like what?" the leader wondered. "Pulling sleds?"
The collie shook her head and sighed in exasperation. "Is that all you think Exile is good for?" she retorted.
Hunter felt himself wince a little, somewhat surprised by the bite in her accusation. He was only kidding, after all. Then again, maybe this wasn't a time to be making jokes…especially about a matter that personally involved one of their own. With an understanding nod, he urged her to continue.
"Sled dogs are used for pullin' sleds," Colleen confirmed, "but they also need the strength to do so. Sled dogs are also known for their endurance to travel the distance to transport their load, and the speed to get to their destination in a reasonable time."
Hunter and Shag exchanged questioning glances before turning back to their female teammate. "Did you get all of that from the race on TV?" the retriever asked.
Colleen smirked. "I guess you miss a lot when makin' bets, huh?"
"I guess so…" Hunter replied, rubbing the back of his head. "But that still doesn't tell us what he's up to."
"It might be better if we never find out," Colleen pointed out. Shag whined softly in agreement.
But all Hunter could think about was the intense expression on Exile's face before they left headquarters, and he answered somberly, "I wish we had that option…"
The Tank Rover continued en route, treading through the blanket of snow and weaving around the thick cluster of trees. But behind the dense foliage, the passengers inside the armored vehicle did not notice the large van that stealthily drove out, following their tracks back to where they started.
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
Even from where he stood, he could listen to the people discussing what would happen to the race now, and the judgment to postpone the race until a later date. Even if the Road Rovers managed to find the missing dogs, he heard them say, they wanted to let the dogs rest after an ordeal like this. The competition would have to wait.
So, in light of this decision, a majority of the people began to leave the racing site, and he managed to make out plans some people had of heading into one of the small towns some distance away. Eventually, the people who remained were the mushers of the missing teams and some of the race officials, who he vaguely realized still constituted a large number of the people.
Not that any of this really mattered to Blitz, who was still trying to keep warm. As a short-haired dog bred for a lean and muscular build, Dobermans were intolerable to cold weather; even as a cano-sapien, he was no exception. He hated going anywhere this cold! On missions like this, he spent more time miserably freezing than anything else, and he was lucky if he could hear anything over the chattering of his own teeth. Then again, the sound of any town nearby intrigued him. Maybe he could slip away into one of those towns and warm up for a while…
His ears twitched slightly when he heard a low grunting approach, and he watched as Muzzle somehow hopped towards him. The reason, Blitz knew, that the Rottweiler was often left behind during their wintry assignments was because the snow made it difficult to transport him around. They would if they had to, obviously, but there were usually some problems with snow getting caught in the stretcher's wheels.
Right on cue, as the crazed canine neared, an uneven patch of snow pitched the stretcher forward. Blitz's hand shot out, grabbing the handle and righting the other dog. Even if they still didn't like each other that much, their disadvantages on arctic missions meant they were stuck together often, and they had come to some sort of understanding…which usually meant that they left each other alone.
Except Muzzle was really annoying him right now, as the Rottweiler continued to hop around in front of him. He tried to ignore the other at first, but he was forced to look back when Muzzle growled at him.
"What?" he finally asked. "What do you want? Can't you see I'm busy trying not to freeze?"
Muzzle seemed to roll his eyes, but then began grunting again, though more urgently. Hopping once more, the restrained dog adjusted himself so his back was facing the Doberman. He bobbed his head forward; glancing back to make sure Blitz was paying attention.
Blitz gave him an irritated frown. It was hard enough to understand Shag's unintelligent mumbles sometimes, but he just gave up when it came to Muzzle. Though he knew that he wouldn't get any peace otherwise, he looked over in the direction Muzzle was pointing in.
There, Exile sat leaning against a tree with his head in his hands, and the German canine finally remembered the other Rover that was there too. The husky usually wasn't left behind with them during these kinds of operations, so it was no wonder Blitz forgot about him for a while. But even he could figure out why the leader made Exile stay behind, especially in the condition the other was in.
Uncertain about the purpose for this, Blitz glanced back at Muzzle, who seemed to be watching him expectantly.
"So?" he wondered as he shivered.
Muzzle grunted, motioning toward the husky again.
"Well, what do you expect me to do about it?"
The Rottweiler growled, deeper and louder than before, startling Blitz into leaping back. By now, he recognized the warning signs well enough to know when the crazed canine wanted to bite him.
"Okay, okay!" he conceded, holding his hands up in defense as he slowly backed away. "I'm going, I'm going…" He figured it would be safer than staying with Muzzle anyway.
But as he approached his injured teammate, he had no idea how he could help. In one of the rare moments when Colleen spoke to him, she mentioned to watch out for Exile because of his wounds, but she never said what to do about it. And he hadn't spoken to the husky since they were back at headquarters, mostly because he had no idea what to say. What could he do to make the other feel better?
Blitz felt so awkward just standing there, debating about what to do, that finally Exile just looked up at him with an irritated expression on his face. "What?" he snapped.
If it had been anyone else, Blitz probably would have backed down under the withering glare he was receiving. But he somehow knew that right now, Exile was really more bark than bite. Given the circumstances, he figured he would probably be the same way. Ignoring the attitude, he pushed on, "I just…uh…wanted to see if you…needed…anything…"
The anger quickly faded into surprise as Exile stared at him, blinking curious eyes. And even Blitz had to agree that it wasn't something he would say. So he folded his arms over his chest and added, "What? I can't offer to do something out of the goodness of my heart? I am such a nice guy, after all."
He expected – maybe even hoped – that the husky would make fun of him somehow; it would have been a normal exchange, and at least that way he could assume that his teammate was somewhat okay. But even though Exile didn't reply, the comment earned a sarcastic roll of the eyes, and Blitz grinned triumphantly. It was something, anyway.
Exile slowly rose to his feet, leaning heavily against the tree behind him for support. "I am fine," he finally said, a sigh trailing his words. Running fingers through the fur on his head, he winced as he brushed against the bandaged bump. "I am only needing a little more resting."
Blitz frowned as he looked over his injured teammate, certain that Exile needed more than he let on. "There's a town nearby, I think," he offered. "Maybe you should rest there, out of the cold."
"Bolshoi," Exile said. "Cold is not bothering me."
As a chilly wind blew overhead, Blitz shivered and hugged himself. "Well, it bothers me!" he complained through chattering teeth. "Can we please find somewhere warmer to wait?"
Rolling his eyes again, Exile shook his head. He understood why Blitz desperately wanted to get warmer, but they couldn't just leave. They had to be ready just in case Hunter and the others called and needed their help. Still, he felt a little sorry for Blitz and wondered if sitting in the jet would be enough to satisfy the Doberman.
Before he had a chance to voice his suggestion, however, Exile's ears perked up to a strange sound, faintly echoing against the snowy terrain. "You hear that?" he asked, turning toward the cluster of trees behind him.
"No," Blitz replied miserably, pulling his coat tighter around him.
Exile frowned, his ears twitching as he tried to get a better fix on the sound. All he could make out was a low rumble, but it sounded familiar somehow. It also seemed to be coming closer, and he soon felt the vibrations in the ground as it approached. Then, as he saw a large shadow looming towards them, his eyes widened.
"Look out!" he said, grabbing Blitz and shoving him out of the way. They both hit the snowy ground, narrowly avoiding the military-style truck that plowed through the trees behind them. The truck barely screeched to a halt when six cano-mutants jumped out from the covered truck bed, surrounding the Rovers before they had a chance to recover.
Clutching his injured shoulder and rising to his feet, Exile looked up and glared at the cano-mutants around them. Even through his hazy vision, he already knew that they were all mutated Siberian huskies, and he could feel the rush of anger through his blood as the image of the captured huskies on the truck flooded his mind. As he stared at the canine beasts around him and Blitz – guns ready to fire on command and trapping the Rovers between them and the truck – Exile couldn't help but wonder if any of these cano-mutants were the huskies he left behind only hours earlier.
The sound of the truck door opening and slamming shut drew Exile out of his thoughts, and the fur on his neck stood on end as he looked towards the Groomer. Every instinct in his body told him to simply strike her now, but the feeling of Blitz trembling slightly beside him kept him rooted to his spot. He knew he couldn't risk them both getting attacked from all sides just for a chance at the woman, no matter how much he wanted to.
"I wasn't expecting to find any of you Rovers back here," the woman sneered, placing her hands on her hips. "I assumed I had thrown you all off my tracks back in the forest."
"Oh really?" Blitz said as he cowered behind Exile. "Maybe you could let us go find the others, and we can pretend we never saw you."
Groomer rolled her eyes. "Actually, I think this is much better. What better way to test our new warriors than by getting rid of you weaker mutts?"
Blitz huffed indignantly, and even Exile was a little offended by the comment. "I am not weak!" the Doberman protested.
The woman laughed. "Of course," she retorted. "That's why you were left behind."
Exile growled and clenched his fists; her words really stabbed at him, especially because his current state was exactly why Hunter made him stay behind to begin with. Though it had bothered him at first, glancing at the group of cano-mutants around them reminded him why it was a necessary precaution. There were only six cano-mutants, but he was in no real condition to take them on. And though he knew Blitz could hold his own, the Doberman was sometimes unpredictable in risky situations that he could never tell if Blitz would fight or not.
He knew their best chance in this situation was Muzzle, who luckily was still unnoticed by their enemy. Looking past the wall of mutated huskies, he could just see Muzzle partially hidden by the jet. Unfortunately, to get to the Rottweiler, they would have to somehow get past the cano-mutants without getting hit by their laser guns. And while all the beastly dogs were much bigger than him and Blitz, the biggest one was the one directly between them and their fellow Rover.
Looking around quickly once more, he ran a hasty plan through his head. He would only have one shot, and he sincerely hoped that Blitz would understand what he was up to.
Exile barely had time to react when the Groomer suddenly snapped her fingers and the cano-mutants began firing at them; ignoring Blitz's surprised yelp, he pushed the German Rover forward as he jumped back and temporarily out of the lasers' target area. Red filled his vision as he fired a powerful heat beam at the large brown-and-black husky in front of them, causing the laser in its hands to explode and send it falling back into the ground.
Seeing the hole in the cano-mutant wall, Blitz needed no prompting as he scrambled to his feet and made a run for it. The other soldiers aimed to fire at him, but Exile was quicker as he shot at the rest of the lasers guns. The larger canines promptly dropped their weapons when they were hit with the heat beams, stunned long enough for Exile to spring to his feet and hurry after Blitz, who was already heading for the jet and Muzzle.
Unfortunately, Exile didn't get very far before he was tackled hard from the side, and his head spun as he was pinned to the snowy ground by one of the other cano-mutants. Trying to shake off some of the dizziness, he somehow managed to focus on the bi-colored eyes of the black-and-white mutant husky over him. And, though it was hard to be sure with the canine's fierce expression, the cano-mutant's eyes narrowed and it seemed to glare down at him.
"You…!" the cano-mutant snarled, its razor teeth clenched tightly as it spoke.
Exile's eyes widened slightly. They had never heard any of the cano-mutants speak before, and he'd always assumed that they couldn't. The rough voice that the dog beast used to speak made it sound as ferocious as it looked, but something about the way it said that one word made Exile feel nervous somehow.
"I am liking it better when you don't talk," he quipped, kicking the cano-mutant off him as he flipped onto his feet. The canine soldier flew back and into a tree, and Exile turned to run as the other mutated huskies ran over to help it. With them distracted, maybe he could release Muzzle while Blitz could call Hunter and the others back…
Exile stopped in his tracks, his fur bristling as ice ran down his spine. Slowly turning back to the cano-mutants, he watched as the black-and-white husky was helped to its feet by the others, staring intensely at him with a fire in its blue and brown eyes. Of course Exile had noticed those eyes before, but he didn't think much of it since the bi-eye color was normal of huskies. Except now he realized that the cano-mutant was also missing an ear – and that shouldn't mean anything, but to Exile's memories it did… Plus no one ever called him by his real name…except…
"Shurik…?" he whispered, forcing the name out around the sudden lump in his throat. He had to be wrong, it just couldn't be…
The black-and-white cano-mutant bared its teeth in a half-smirk, half-scowl. "Da, moĭ mladshiĭ brat," it – Shurik – replied in a low growl. Gesturing to the other cano-mutants with his hands, he added, "How easily it seems that you have forgotten your family since you left…"
"Family?" Exile repeated, his eyes widening as he looked at the rest of the mutated huskies. The other cano-mutants stood beside and slightly behind their leader, and as Exile gazed at each one, he began to recognize the dogs he once knew within the beasts they were transformed into. "Anushka, Ilya, Eva, Danya, Star…you are all…you're all here?"
"Of course," Shurik snorted. "We are always staying together, no matter what. You used to know that…until you abandon us."
Exile opened his mouth to reply, but his voice refused to cooperate. His heart pounded rapidly in his chest, sending a sudden rush of blood through his body and leaving him feeling slightly lightheaded. This…this couldn't be happening…His entire family was captured by Parvo…? How long have they been…?
"Exile, what are you doing?!" Blitz called, jarring him out of his shock. "Hurry up and get over here!"
"What are you all waiting for?!" the Groomer suddenly snapped, drawing the cano-mutants' attention. "Destroy the Rovers…now!"
All the huskies turned back to look at each other. Exile hesitated; the cano-mutants didn't.
Two of the cano-mutants charged forward, and Exile stumbled backwards, barely avoiding their blows. But the smaller of the two quickly rushed for him again, swiping sharp claws against his thick coat. It swung at him again, but Exile caught the cano-mutant's arm as he stared at the white husky that stood over him.
"Star!" he gasped, wincing as he fought to keep the other from overpowering him. Pain shot down his left arm, and he knew he couldn't hold against her for very long in his state. Mustering up all his strength, he pushed her back and into Shurik who stood behind her.
Nearby he heard Blitz scream, and Exile saw the other cano-mutants chase after him and Muzzle. He knew he had to help his teammates, but against his family…? Shaking his head slightly, he fired a light ice beam at the four canine beasts and trapped them in ice. Knowing that the ice wouldn't hold them long, he hurried to where Blitz stood to catch his breath.
"It's about time," Blitz grumbled. "I thought you were wimping out on me or something."
Exile decided to ignore that comment. "We need to call the others."
"I already did, and they're coming back…But isn't there something else we can do in the meantime? Something that might save us?" As Blitz spoke he gestured to Muzzle, who fought against his restraints in eager anticipation.
Hesitating slightly, Exile rubbed the back of his neck and glanced away. He didn't really understand why Blitz never wanted to be the one to remove Muzzle's mask, but in this case he was glad for it. Shaking his head, he finally answered, "We can't."
"What are you talking about?" Blitz asked, gaping at the other Rover. "Why can't we?"
Before Exile could respond, the thunder of a roar echoed around them, and they turned to see the frozen cano-mutants breaking out of their icy prisons. Joined by the other two members, the six canine beasts then set their sights on the Rovers. Blitz and Muzzle both looked at Exile expectantly, but he ignored them and kept his focus ahead of him.
Suddenly darkness covered the area around them, and they all looked up to see a metal ship hovering overhead. With a disappointed sigh, Groomer reached into the driver's seat of the truck and pulled out large missile launcher. "Looks like we're gonna have to cut this short, Rovers," she announced, setting the weapon on her shoulder.
Before she had a chance to fire, however, the Tank Rover came barreling through the trees and slid to a stop behind the three heroes. The door fell open and revealed the remaining members of the team, standing ready to fight.
"What's your hurry?" Hunter asked with a grin. "Don't you wanna play?"
The woman smirked. "Normally I'd love to," she replied, "but we're a little behind the General's schedule." She turned her back to them, looking over her shoulder. "But don't worry, we can play later…if you survive." She raised the launcher and pulled the trigger, firing a missile that sailed away from them and towards the mountain.
The bomb exploded against the alp, sending a tremor through the earth that the Rovers felt from where they stood. Then the snow at the peak began to rumble and plummet down the slope in a thunderous white wave.
"She started an avalanche!" Colleen gasped.
Laughing at her handiwork, the Groomer jumped back into the truck as a yellow ray of light shone down from the metal ship above. Whistling to the cano-mutants, she called, "Time to go, kids!"
The canine soldiers hurried back into the truck, jumping into the covered truck bed as it began to lift off the ground. The last one was Shurik, who simply grabbed hold of the tarp as he stood outside against the truck door. Exile watched, his heart painfully pounding against his chest as he caught Shurik's gaze; concerned ice-blue barely able to meet the furious brown-and-blue that stared back. Then he was gone as the truck disappeared within the escaping ship.
"Should we go after 'em?" Colleen wondered.
Taking a quick look around, Hunter finally noticed the people who still lingered, hiding since the Groomer first arrived. "No time," he responded. "We gotta get these people outta here, fast." Thinking for just a moment, he turned to Colleen and Shag. "You two get everyone into the jet."
Exile frowned as he watched the two of them follow orders. "But, Hunter," he said, "there isn't enough room to be fitting everyone."
"I know." Hunter glanced toward the rapidly approaching rush of snow. "You ever been in an avalanche, Exile?"
Realizing what the other meant, Exile looked to where the Tank Rover was parked. "No," he admitted, "but I believe I am still remembering what to do."
Hunter followed his gaze, nodding in approval. "Good enough for me. Get Muzzle inside," he directed.
As Exile went to do as he was told, Shag and Colleen returned. "Everyone's all set," the collie reported.
"All right," Hunter said as he ran the scenario through his mind one last time. "Colleen, take the jet and get everyone to safety. Shag and Blitz, you guys with me in the Tank Rover."
Shag whimpered a nervous question, glancing between Hunter and the Tank Rover.
"We're gonna wait out the avalanche," the leader replied casually.
"Are you crazy?" Blitz said. "You expect us to just sit and let thousands of pounds of snow bury us in a small metal death trap?!"
Hunter shrugged. "It's either that, or you can sit outside the Tank Rover."
Blitz and Shag looked at each other anxiously before glancing up at the surging snow. Then they both hurried and ran for the Tank Rover.
Colleen turned to the leader, watching him with a worried frown. "Hunter…" she said softly.
"You better get going," Hunter declared, rather calm despite the situation as he kept his focus on the coming avalanche.
She hesitated. "You guys can't just –"
"Sure we can," Hunter argued with a shrug, finally facing her. "We have to get those people to safety, no matter what. Besides, the selfless-hero thing is what we do."
The comment didn't seem to reassure Colleen, so Hunter gave her a small grin. "We'll be fine," he promised, placing his hand on her shoulder. With a small pat, he then gently nudged her toward the jet. "Now hurry and get going."
She didn't have a chance to answer as Hunter then turned and ran for the Tank Rover where the others were waiting. Looking towards the rushing avalanche and knowing there was no time left to waste, she headed back to the jet. As she stepped inside, the doors closed with an ominous hiss behind her.
"'Scuse me, comin' through," Colleen said as she pushed her way through the small group of people to the front of the aircraft. Even though most of the people involved in the sled race had left, there were still enough to crowd the ship, and many were forced to stand.
As soon as she sat down, she turned the ignition key and flipped several switches that brought the jet to life with a rumbling roar. With a last glance towards the Tank Rover, she tightened her grip on the wheel. "Hang on," she warned. A sudden jolt interrupted any answer the people had, and the jet lifted from the ground.
But even as the jet rose into the air, Colleen could still feel the tremor of the earth from the oncoming snowy flood. When she felt they were a safe distance away, she allowed herself to glance down and watched, helpless, as the Tank Rover was buried beneath the avalanche.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
At first, there was nothing but the darkness that surrounded them on all sides. It felt heavy, almost suffocating, as if it was closing in on them. Then the groan of straining metal broke through the imposing silence, awakening them from the daze of being thrown around the cabin. They all began to regain their senses and tried to see through their blackened vision.
"Is everyone okay?" Hunter's voice shattered the uneasiness, loud despite his whispering.
"Oh yeah, just wonderful," Blitz retorted. "This was a great idea. I'm so glad we did this."
Shag grumbled as well as he started to push himself up off the ground.
"Ow, hey! Careful!" Hunter said, trying to roll away from a sudden painful pressure on his back.
"Hey! Watch where you're going!" Blitz protested as he tried to push whatever was on top of him.
"I'd love to, but I can't see a thing!" Hunter tried once more to move, but realized he was trapped between something heavy and something that wasn't moving at all. Frustrated, he struggled to see if any part of his body was free, and felt his foot kick something hard.
A sharp clang echoed within the small space, followed by a growl of complaint.
"Oops! Sorry, Muzzle."
"Would you hurry and get off me?" Blitz whined. "I think I'm beginning to suffocate!"
Shag grunted indignantly, once again trying to untangle himself.
"Ow, ow, ow! Okay, hold up!" Hunter yelped when he felt something start to bend at an unnatural angle. When the dog pile stopped struggling, he sighed. "This is getting us nowhere."
"Well, what do you suggest we do?" Blitz huffed.
The leader thought for a moment. "Exile?"
There was no answer.
"Exile?" he tried again.
For a moment, only silence continued. But just as he started to consider worrying, there was a small painful moan that sounded oddly distant from the rest of them.
"Da," the husky finally answered, his voice small and weary.
"You okay?" Hunter asked, trying to follow the direction where he thought the other's voice was coming from, but still unable to see anything in the dark.
"Ugh...never better," Exile replied, stronger now. His sarcasm was a little more subtle.
"It's pretty dark here, man. Think you can help us out?"
It fell quiet again for a moment before there was some shuffling a little bit away from them. Then the Rovers in the pile felt themselves being pulled away from each other and straightened out.
When Hunter felt all the pressure lifted off of him, he rose to his feet. "Whew," he sighed, dusting himself off. "Thanks, Exile."
"My pleasure," Exile replied.
"Now...think you can find the radio so we can contact Colleen?"
Another pause. "Uh...there may be small problem, Hunter."
"...Please tell me the radio isn't broken."
Exile waited a beat. "From down here...it is looking so."
Hunter groaned, slapping his forehead with his palm. "The radio is on the ceiling, isn't it?"
Shag mumbled a small quip.
"Very funny, Shag," Hunter said, though he had to admit the other was right; technically, they were the ones on the ceiling. "Hey, Shag, you got a flashlight, right?"
Shag grunted affirmatively, and a moment later a beam of light pierced the darkness. As it went on, Exile blinked rapidly, his night vision fading to help him adjust to the sudden brightness.
Taking the flashlight from the sheepdog, Hunter pointed it above them, confirming that the Tank Rover was completely flipped over, and they were standing on the ceiling. Looking around, he also found the transmitter dangling from the radio, looking as damaged as the rest of the consol. Even if the Tank Rover was right side-up, they wouldn't have been able to do anything because the controls were damaged while they were being tossed around inside.
"Huh..." Hunter said, looking over the damaged equipment. "I would not have predicted this."
"Oh great," Blitz grumbled, shooting a glare at the retriever. "Any more bright ideas?"
Hunter shrugged. "I got nothing."
The Doberman threw his hands up. "We're doomed."
"Ah, don't worry, Blitz. I've got it covered." He turned to Exile, placing a hand on the other's uninjured shoulder. "So what do you think we should do, Exile?"
Glancing up and studying the objects that hung above them, Exile replied, "There is nothing much to be doing now. Surface is towards that way..." He pointed up towards the upside-down floor. "So that is the way to be getting out."
"Think we could dig our way out?" Hunter wondered.
"Nyet. Snow is packing too tightly. We are unable to dig fast enough without snow collapsing on us."
"So what are we gonna do?" Blitz demanded. "How long can we stay down here in this little space? There isn't enough air for all of us...!" He started hyperventilating. "I'm too beautiful to die!"
Exile grabbed Blitz's muzzle and snapped it shut. "Don't be weird boy," he said. "And don't be doing that if you wish to conserve air. Besides, we should be fineski. I am already creating air bubble."
"Air bubble?" Hunter echoed, watching as Exile walked to the back door.
"Da. In avalanche, it is advised to make air bubble to help stay awake so to be rescued. So I make air bubble." Exile pushed the door open, revealing a wall of solid ice in front of them that left a few feet of space between the snow and the Tank Rover.
"Whoa-ho!" Hunter exclaimed, his eyes following the ice wall up to see it stop just above their vehicle. "Nice work, Exile. But how'd you manage this?"
"When avalanche start to slow, I use ice vision to push snow back and make air bubble." Slowly, ever so carefully, the husky stepped out of the Tank Rover and onto the thick floor of snow, pleased to see it supported his weight. "Should be okay for a few hours."
"Hours?!" Blitz cried. "It'll take that long?"
Exile shrugged. "Depends how long it takes to be finding us."
Shag whimpered softly, cowering within the tank as he looked at the wall of ice.
"Is all right, Shag," Exile assured, carefully touching the wall and inspecting it. "Since it stays holding, we aren't buried too deeply. Rescue party may be finding us sooner than we think."
Hunter frowned and rubbed his muzzle thoughtfully. They couldn't afford to wait too long, especially with Parvo still out there. There had to be a faster way for them to get out than just waiting. "Hey, Exile?"
The husky turned towards him. "What?"
"Do you think...you could try something for me?"
"Hunter...Hunter, come in. Hunter...anyone, come in!" She was answered with nothing but static, and Colleen slammed the radio off in frustration. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she tried to think. Someone from the rescue party said not to expect to hear from them right away, but even so, she was beginning to worry.
She could only think of three reasons why no one was answering. Either the radio was damaged and they couldn't contact her, the snow was too thick and was blocking her signal...or...
She shook her head, not letting herself finish the thought. They were fine. They had to be.
"They better be," she muttered, switching the radio back on just in case the others tried calling. "If not, I'll kill the lot o' them."
With nothing left to do inside, Colleen grabbed her coat and pulled it on. Her anxiety may be enough to keep her heated inside the jet's cockpit, but after alternating between being inside and helping the rescue team outside enough times, she knew that she'd need more than just her nerves to stay warm out there.
After evacuating the remaining people from the racing site, Colleen had taken them to a small town safely away to wait out the avalanche. They had to remain even after the avalanche stopped, just to make sure the snow was completely settled before the rescue team could try to find the buried Rovers. She offered to help, and she was doing what she could, but she still had to leave most of it to those who knew what they were doing.
She scoffed to herself. "We can save the world from monsters 'n' terrorists, but I can't do much to help dig through the bloomin' snow." She made a note to suggest covering avalanche scenarios in emergency training.
Approaching one of the rescuers, she asked, "Any luck so far?"
"Nothing yet, unfortunately," the man replied. "We're working as fast as we can, but..."
'But not fast enough,' she thought. She knew she had to ask this next question, no matter how much she feared the answer. "How...long do you think they 'ave?"
He turned to her, a little uncertain, before glancing away again. "It's hard to say," he finally answered. "Though I'd imagine they'd have a better chance of survival if they were in the vehicle as you said they were, depending on how strong the vehicle is."
"I think it'd 'old up pretty well," she said with more conviction than she actually felt.
The rescuer nodded. "But we also have to take into account the number of them down there, and in a small space together they'd be using up more oxygen than if they'd been buried separately."
She tapped her foot impatiently, glancing up at the sky beginning to streak with orange. "We're losin' light fast..." she murmured, more to herself than to the man. "Is there anythin' else we can do?"
"I wish there was. But we can't just dig anywhere and hope to find them. The force of the avalanche probably pushed them farther down the mountain, and to search the entire area will take too much time and more man power than we have. It's bad enough with the light we have currently, but once the sun sets it'll be close to impossible. Our only chance is if we can determine where they're buried."
"Where they're buried..." Colleen looked across the snow-topped area; it all looked the same under the painfully-bright whiteness. Though the rescue team members were spread out as much as they could, no one was turning up anything. Some were even beginning to give up as the sky continued to darken.
'If only we could figure out where they are,' she thought. 'Just some kind of sign...anything to help us find them...'
Suddenly, a few feet down from the rescue party, a jet of water shot out of a thick snow patch, startling Colleen and the rescuers. The water jet seemed to evaporate in mid-air as a beam of red quickly cut through it, sending hot steam to disappear in the winter wind.
Colleen's eyes widened, recognizing the beam immediately. "Exile!" she gasped. She hurried along with some of the rescuers to where the beam was shooting out.
Before they could reach it, however, the heat beam disappeared, leaving only a trail of steam in the hole it created. As she neared, she could make out several surprised voices underneath the mound.
"Hunter?" she called, working to be heard over the yelling voices of the rescuers.
"Colleen?" Her heart skipped a beat to hear Hunter's voice, and not sounding hurt at all.
"Get us out of here!" Blitz yelled, and she was surprised to be so relieved to hear his voice.
Shag also called up with a panicked whine, and that's when she felt her heart stop.
"Exile collapsed?" she echoed, hoping she'd heard wrong.
"Yeah, he's out cold and needs help!" Hunter called up again. "Better hurry!"
"Right!" she replied, and she hurried to join the rescuers in digging them out.
His tail straightened in surprise as he froze in his tracks. He was sure if the others hadn't woken after his call, then he could get by without waking them. With a twitch in his ear, he turned to the young husky who looked at him sleepily.
/Where are you going, Exile?/ she asked with a small yawn.
/Nowhere, Star,/ he said softly, approaching the white one and smoothing down her fur with his snout to relax her. /Go back to sleep./
/But why are you up?/
/It is nothing./
/Then perhaps you should stop disturbing the others, Exilo.../
Exile winced, his ears flattening as the lead dog Shurik approached them, followed by the older silver-black husky, Anushka.
/Is everything all right?/ Anushka asked, using the familiar mothering tone she spoke with to everyone.
/Yes, it's fine,/ Exile answered quickly, taking a step back as they came closer.
Shurik eyed the grey one with suspicious brown-and-black eyes. /Well good,/ he said. /Then we should get back to sleep. We have much work to do in the morning./
/Uh.../ Exile hesitated, glancing at the empty space behind him. /I cannot./
/Oh?/ The leader sat back with a serious demeanor. /And why is that?/
/I.../ Exile took another step back. /I have somewhere else to be./
Shurik's ears perked forward with interest, but he retained his calm as his tail swayed back and forth. /What do you mean, somewhere else to be?/
/I thought you said you weren't going anywhere,/ Star said as she rose to her feet, her curiosity overcoming her drowsiness.
Exile whined softly, looking away from her. /I am sorry, Star, I - /
She suddenly jumped at him cheerfully, seeming to think he was playing a game. /When will you be back?/
He stepped back from her, and only then did the others seem to notice his somber mood. /I...I do not know./
/But where would you go?/ Anushka wondered, sounding as though she wished to humor him. /Where is this place that you are heading?/
Turning back to the empty wilderness, Exile's tail drooped a little. /I...I am not sure myself,/ he admitted. /But I will find it./
/How will you find a place that you do not know?/ Shurik countered with slight amusement. /You do not even know the way./
Nearby, the three remaining huskies stirred, pulled out of sleep by the commotion. The largest, a black and brown colored dog, stretched as he looked up. /What is happening?/ he wondered.
/Shh, Danya/ Anushka said. /It is nothing. Go back to sleep./
A white husky with black spots looked between the silver one, the leader, and Exile. /Oooh,/ he said mischievously, jumping to his feet just to crouch down teasingly, /is Exile in trouble? I never imagined such a day would come./
/Silence, Ilya!/ a light red one admonished. /It is none of your business./
/Or yours either, Eva,/ Shurik countered casually. Looking back at Exile, he shook his head and began to walk back to his sleeping spot. /Enough of this foolishness. Back to bed, all of you./
Exile watched the other for a moment. He knew what he had to do, but it was more difficult than he expected.
/Exilo,/ Shurk cut through his uncertainty. /I said to bed./
Digging his paws in the snow, he finally gathered his resolve and lifted his head. /No./
There was a muffled groan, catching the attention of all in the room despite its softness. They turned towards the occupied bed, seeing the husky slowly sit up and place a hand to his bandaged head.
"Exile!" Hunter exclaimed in relief, reaching the bed before the others.
Opening his eyes wearily, Exile seemed slightly disoriented as he glanced around.
"Exile?" All the Rovers looked up as the Master stepped out onto his platform. "Are you all right?"
"Ugh...I am thinking so," Exile replied, rubbing his head. "What...what has been happening?"
"We brought you back here after diggin' you guys from the avalanche and you collapsed," Colleen replied. "You tired yourself out using your ice and heat vision, with all your injuries 'n' all."
"Sorry, Exile, that's my fault," Hunter added rather guiltily. "I forgot you were hurt, but I didn't mean to wear you out like that."
Exile sat silently for a moment, staring at the tiled ground. "Is all right. I am agree to helping, after all. But...now we are losing Parvo's trail."
"Well, yes," the Master replied slowly. "Parvo did manage to get away. And unfortunately, we can only wait until he strikes next to find him." He paused for a moment, looking down at the Rovers who literally had their tails between their legs. "It's all right, Rovers, you'll get him next time. But what happened?"
The Rovers exchanged uncertain glances, except for Exile who continued to stare at the floor. "Well..." Hunter began as he scratched his head, "Colleen, Shag, and I got there right before the Groomer started the avalanche...but I dunno what happened before that..." Then expectant eyes turned to Blitz.
"Hey, don't look at me!" he protested, holding his hands up defensively. Then he pointed to the husky. "It was all Exile's fault!"
Hunter rolled his eyes. "C'mon, Blitz, there's no need to point fingers, we just - "
"He is right, Hunter."
They all turned to Exile, but he avoided their gaze as he continued to focus on the ground. Gripping the edge of the bed, he continued, "We are having chance to at least be slowing Groomer down if we release Muzzle...and Blitz even be telling me to do so."
Hunter frowned curiously, trying to understand. "What happened?"
Exile sighed. "I couldn't."
"But why not? We've done it dozens of times. What was the problem?"
Colleen watched the husky for a moment as he carefully massaged his injured shoulder. "Maybe...you were scared?" she suggested, but with a little doubt.
All the Rovers, including Exile, looked up at her curiously. "Scared?" the leader repeated.
She shrugged. "Sure. Y'know how sometimes the victims of attacks are too scared to face their attacker, even though it would help them get better? Well, maybe Exile was too afraid to do it because the Groomer attacked him."
Exile felt his fur bristle a little at the idea of being afraid of the Groomer. "I wasn't - "
"But wait," Hunter interrupted, turning to fully face the collie, "we've all been attacked by the Groomer before. How does that make any sense?"
"That's different," Colleen replied before Exile could say anything. "This time, Groomer attacked 'im in his home in Russia, while he was a normal dog. There wasn't much he could do then, and so maybe he felt that there isn't much he can do now."
Noticing that the husky had something he wanted to say, the Master cleared his throat to try and get their attention. "Rovers..."
"Well, whatever's going on," Blitz retorted, turning to Exile, "you need to just get over it. We have a job to do, snowball, and we don't need you making it any harder."
Hunter suddenly noticed the way Exile's ears peaked forward, and the blue-grey fur stand on end. Teeth were beginning to show, and the leader scooted closer to Exile just in case. "Blitz, you better lay off..."
"What?" Blitz protested, oblivious to the husky's demeanor. "If he'd just listened to me in the first place, we wouldn't have this problem. He just needs to deal with whatever issues he's having, and suck it up so we can do what we have to and get it over with."
It happened so quickly that no one realized it until it was too late. Exile shot forward suddenly and tackled Blitz hard, sending them both crashing to the floor. Shag gave a frightened yelp and dove under the medical table as the two wrestled on the ground, each struggling to overpower the other. Then with a swift motion, Exile grabbed Blitz by the collar and stood, holding the Doberman a few inches off the ground as he slammed him into a nearby wall.
"Exile!" the Master exclaimed.
"Exile, heel!" Hunter said as he and Colleen each grabbed the husky's arms, trying to pry his grasp on Blitz loose.
But Exile wasn't paying attention to them, and didn't even seem to notice them. All his focus remained on Blitz. And Blitz could see the pure rage in the cold ice blue eyes that glared at him. That, and the daunting reminder that Exile was actually very strong, filled him with a paralyzing fear that prevented him from begging and whimpering as he normally would have.
"Exile, let 'im go!" Colleen said.
Only then did Exile react, glancing at her briefly before looking back at Blitz. But instead, his grip on Blitz's collar tightened as his teeth bared.
"Next time," Exile growled in a voice so deep, it was barely his, "we try attacking your family, and we see how you are dealing with it, huh?"
"Exile, that's enough!" Master's voice boomed, shattering the tension around them.
He growled again and shoved Blitz into the wall once more before releasing him. Shrugging Hunter and Colleen off of him, he turned and stormed out of the medical bay.
The remaining Rovers watched on as he left, concern and confusion filling the silence around them. Crawling out from under the table, Shag murmured a whispered question.
"Yeah..." Colleen replied just as softly, "I heard 'family' too..."
Shurik froze, and the other huskies all tensed, looking back at Exile in surprise. Even Star, the youngest and newest member of the pack, was learning never to disobey Shurik when he used what they called his 'leader' tone. But more shocking was the fact that it was Exile who dared to defy Shurik this time.
The black-and-white one turned back to look at Exile. /What was that, Exilo?/
/I...I am not going back to bed./
Shurik's bi-colored eyes narrowed. /I have no more patience for this, Exilo. To bed. Now./
Exile's tail twitched slightly, but he kept it high to keep his confidence up. /I have already told you that I must go,/ he said. /And so I will./
/Go?/ Danya repeated, looking at the others curiously. /Go where?/
/He does not know,/ Shurik answered, his gaze never wavering from Exile.
Ilya's head tipped curiously. /Not know? How will you find such a place if you do not know it?/
/Enough,/ Shurik snapped, causing the others to cringe. They all knew that while the leader hardly lost his temper, it was always a serious matter when he did. /We shall speak no more of this. Exilo, everyone, to bed./
/Brother.../ Exile pleaded, taking a step toward the other husky. /Please understand.../
/How can I when you do not?/ Shurik shot back. /I said that is enough. I expect better of you than this, Exilo. You usually know when to listen./
/I do! And I am listening. That is why I must go!/
Anushka blinked. /What do you mean?/
Exile grunted, glancing up at the sky. /Before, I heard a call that tells me to go. So I will...and find the one who calls me./
/But why?/ Star whined, approaching him slowly. /Do you have to go?/
He hesitated, his decision wavering slightly as the white one's ears flattened against her head sadly. /I am sorry, Star,/ he said softly. /But I must go, because.../ He looked up at the sky again, trying to find the right way to answer. /I am chosen./
/Chosen?/ Eva repeated, exchanging curious expressions with the others. /Chosen for what?/
/To...to help people./
/Help people?/ Shurik shot back. /To what do you owe these people? They have done nothing for you. They are none of your concern./
/Perhaps,/ Exile replied, /but if I have a chance to help, why should I not take it?/
The leader growled. /So then, are you so willing to help that you can abandon us so easily?/
Exile's body tensed, the fur on his nape stood on end. /I am not - !/
/You are leaving to a place you do not know where, looking for someone you know nothing of to help those who mean nothing to you./ Shurik snorted. /You do not even know when you will return, if at all! Is all that more important to you than us? Your pack?/
Slightly aggravated, Exile retorted, /There is nothing else I can do! I have been chosen for this, but it is not by my choice that I should go!/
/But now you must make the choice!/ Shurik countered. /You must choose whether you will remain with us...or leave us./
/I.../ Exile looked at the other huskies as they waited expectantly for his reply. He knew what they wanted him to say...could feel how they wanted him to respond. And he knew that even Shurik, as angry as he was, would be upset if he left. But as much as he wanted to say otherwise, his answer was already determined. /I am sorry./
/Exile...!/ Star whined sorrowfully.
/Is there no other way?/ Danya wondered, looking at the others.
/No...there is not,/ Shurik said, but he looked at no one except Exile. /Go then, if that is what you must do.....but leave now, and do not expect to be welcomed back here./
/Shurik!/ Anushka protested, seeing Exile recoil from the statement as though he'd been hit. /That is too much!/
/He has made his choice,/ the leader replied, turning and walking away. /If he will no longer listen to me, then we cannot afford to have him in the pack./ He glanced back at Exile from the corner of his ice blue eye. /So go, do what you will...but do not come back here again./ Then he shook his head, ruffling his fur before settling back in his sleeping area. /The rest of you, go back to sleep./
The remaining huskies glanced at each other, reluctant to do anything for a moment. But shaking himself from the shock, Exile said softly, /Do as he says now. It is late, and you will have work in the morning. Get to sleep./
/What about you?/ Eva wondered.
/I have remained long enough. I must go./
They hesitated for a while longer. Then Anushka approached him, rubbing her muzzle in his fur affectionately. /Take care, Exile,/ she said.
Exile closed his eyes. /You as well./
Stepping back, she looked at him once more before turning to the others and ushering them back to bed. Danya, Ilya, and Eva glanced at Exile once more, silently bidding him goodbye before following the silver one back to their sleeping spots. But Star remained, her tail tucked between her legs as she stared at Exile.
/Exile.../ she whimpered.
/It is all right, Star,/ he assured her, letting his tail wag in a vain attempt to cheer her up. Then he gently nudged her back to her sleeping spot. /Go to sleep now./
Even as she lay down, she looked up at him, her ears once again pressed against her head. /Can I go with you?/ she asked.
He shook his head, moving her tail so that it wrapped around her body. /Not this time, Star. I must go by myself./
/Shh,/ he said, nuzzling her fur. /You must rest now, Star./
She hesitated, then nuzzled against him in return. /I'll miss you.../
Exile said nothing, unable to answer. Instead he took a step back and gave her a gentle lick on the face. Then he turned and hurried off into the empty darkness, doing his best not to look back.
Exile's eyes snapped open, forcing the memory away and back to the scene of the beach before him. But the image of his family was still there, present in the back of his mind, as Shurik's voice continued to ring in his ears.
Are you so willing to help that you can abandon us so easily?
His hand clenched tightly, but only briefly before opening again as he looked at the small seashell he held. He had found it earlier as he made his way to the beach and had picked it up, holding it as he stared out at the ocean. Even now, the beach and everything about it - seashells, the sand, the waves - still fascinated him. After a long, hard day of Rover work, he liked to relax by taking a walk along the beach and discover something new about it.
But this time, all he could think about was how he had never seen the beach before becoming a Rover, and how he never would have if he hadn't left Siberia. He never would have seen the beach or the ocean if he hadn't left his family behind.
Is all that more important to you than us? Your pack?
Fingers clenching around the shell again, Exile then threw it into the ocean with all the force he could muster, watching it until even he couldn't see it anymore. Then he continued to stare out, watching the waves disrupt the reflection of the moon on the ocean's dark surface.
How easily it seems that you have forgotten your family since you left…
His tail twitched anxiously as the image of the mutated versions of his family returned to his mind. The angered expression in the once-familiar blue-and-brown eyes especially frightened him. He could never recall seeing Shurik so furious before, and his heart ached to know all that rage was directed at him. What really made it worse though was the fierce face it came with, now that Shurik was mutated into one of Parvo's men.
And unfortunately, it wasn't just Shurik. All of them had been captured, taken away and transformed into monsters for Parvo's benefit. If it had been anything like the night he was almost captured, then they all must have heard the whistle that drew them to the Groomer. And he knew that if Shurik had decided to go, they all had followed him. He knew...they had all gone together.
We are always staying together, no matter what. You used to know that…until you abandon us.
He shook his head and tightly shut his eyes, trying to drown out the voice by concentrating on the sound of the waves. But with each hiss of ocean water against the shore, he could still hear the accusing tone of the cano-mutant his brother had become.
Exile jumped slightly at the unexpected voice, but somehow managed not to turn around. He knew that the other Rovers would have found him eventually, but he wasn't sure if he was ready to confront them about this yet.
Then again, he knew that this time, he had no other choice.
"Exile?" he heard Hunter try again. "Are...are you okay?"
He shook his head, even as he kept his back to them. "I am...feeling very heavy down in my heart."
Behind him, the sand crunched softly as the others slowly came closer. "Maybe you'd feel better if you talked about it?" Hunter suggested.
Hesitantly, Exile turned to face them. They all stood some distance away from him, watching him with careful, concerned eyes. He knew he couldn't blame them for being so cautious around him now, after what he did in the medical bay...He caught Blitz's eye briefly before guiltily looking away again.
"I...I do not know how to start," he said after a long moment.
There was another pause as the crash of the waves filled the tense silence between them. But finally, Colleen cleared her throat as she dared to speak first. "'unter told us...'bout your old pack," she said softly.
Exile winced slightly, his ears sadly flattening against his head as he rubbed the back of his neck.
"Sorry, Exile," Hunter said, looking a little uneasy himself. "I know it's not really any of our business, but - "
Exile shook his head. "Nyet, is all right. It maybe something I should say long ago. I only wish I could be telling you myself."
Hunter frowned. "Exile, y'know you really don't have to tell us anything if you don't want to."
Shaking his head again, the husky finally looked up at them. "Now that family is involved in Rover work, I am having no choice but to talk about it."
Hunter and Colleen exchanged worried expressions. "So it's true?" the collie asked. "You really did see your family? Up in the mountains?"
Exile nodded. "They are the mutant dogmen that Blitz and I are fighting before Groomer and Parvo make their get-away."
They glanced back at Blitz, but the Doberman held up his hands and shook his head, indicating that he really hadn't known that either. "And that's why you wouldn't let Muzzle loose?" Hunter asked, turning back to the husky.
"Da. I didn't...wish for them to get hurt."
"Too bad they didn't feel the same way," Blitz mumbled, but Shag elbowed him back into silence.
"Exile," Colleen began hesitantly, not really wanting to bring up a sore spot, "are you sure that was your family you saw up there?"
"Yeah," Hunter added, "I mean, you don't think they could've been some other huskies that looked like your family?"
Exile sighed. "It was definitely them."
"But how do you know?"
"Because..." Exile let his gaze drop to the sandy ground. "One of husky-mutants tell me so."
Hunter blinked in surprise. "It told you?" he echoed.
"Da. At first, I am not recognizing them myself." Exile ran his fingers through the fur on his head. "But the one in charge - the leader - is already knowing who I am, and he say that they are all there. And soon, I know it to be Shurik."
Ears perked up as Hunter recognized the name. "Shurik? That's the head dog of your old team, right? You sure it was him?"
Exile nodded. "Mutant dogman is black-and-white husky with two different eyes, a blue and brown one, like Shurik. He is missing one ear also..." Exile demonstrated by covering up one of his own with his hand. "Like Shurik is. Plus, he call me 'Exilo', and Shurik is only one I know who still calls me by name given at my birth."
"Your birth name?" Colleen frowned curiously. "It sounds like you and this Shurik guy were pretty close if he calls you by your real name..."
"The closest of group," Exile confirmed with a wistful sigh. "All of pack is very caring of each other, and we consider all family. But Shurik and I...we are only ones who come from same litter."
Hunter's eyes widened as realization quickly dawned on him. "Shurik's your actual brother..."
Closing his eyes, Exile nodded.
The other Rovers looked at each other with mystified expressions. It was one thing to find out you were fighting those you considered family. But to have to go against an actual family member like that...It was no wonder Exile was so shaken up by it.
Shag murmured a soft question, curious but a bit reluctant to bring it up.
Exile nodded. "It is because Shurik and I have been together very long time. He is first born of litter, and I am second following him. When we are puppies, our relationship at first is being no different from relationship with others. But he save me once from polar bear, where he lose his ear, and since then we are like two pods of peas. I even stay with Shurik when no one wishes to buy him because of missing ear, until we together are sold to becoming sled dogs."
Pieces finally started coming together in Hunter's mind as he thought of the night Exile first told him of his family. "So the reason Shurik was so upset when you left..."
"Is because it is first time we ever are separated," Exile finished sadly, once again looking away.
"Oh, Exile..." Colleen said, her heart sympathizing with him as she reached out to comfort him.
But he took a step back, just out of her reach. "I am blaming no one but myself. I choose to leave Shurik...all of them...everything behind when I become Road Rover. And because I have done that, they are all captured by Parvo and changed into mutant dogmen."
"Now, wait just a minute!" the collie protested. "You can't blame yourself for all that. There's no way you could've known!"
"Besides, what could you do?" Hunter said. "The Master called us to be Rovers. You couldn't just turn that down. And if I remember correctly, Shurik didn't give you much of a choice either. 'Leave and don't come back.' Isn't that what he said?"
The husky sighed, hearing those words again echoing in his memories. "But I choose to listen. I choose to give up...to give them up. If I disobey Shurik once, why not do so again? Even just to look, to see how they are doing. But I am always too scared to go, too scared to try and visit. But if I did try, then we maybe known sooner that Parvo captured them...I maybe save them sooner."
He shook his head as his tail twitched in agitation. "Instead, I am finding out much too late and am unable to fight them, giving Parvo man chance of escaping. So Parvo can still carry out evil plot, and family is still doggie monsters. I let family down, I let comrades and Master down..." He buried his face in his hands. "I am big failure."
The four other Rovers looked at each other, each wearing a similar expression of shock at Exile's declaration. They could actually feel his guilt; deep, dark, and too great a burden for anyone to bear. He was more miserable than any of them had ever seen before, and it just didn't seem right for someone as lively as Exile. While they weren't really sure if anything they said would help, they knew they couldn't let him take the weight of the world upon himself.
"Hey, c'mon, Exile," Hunter finally said, approaching the other and placing a comforting hand on his shoulder, "you're not a failure. You had no way of knowing any of this was gonna happen, so you can't beat yourself up over it. Sure, Parvo got away, but we'll find him again. We'll put a stop to whatever he's up to, and we'll get your family back."
At first, Exile didn't move other than a small shudder of his shoulders. Then, letting his hands slowly drop, he looked at the leader with the saddest expression Hunter had ever seen on the husky. "You truly think so?" Exile asked hesitantly.
"Of course," Hunter replied with a small grin, hoping to lighten his mood. "We're the good guys, remember? We always win."
Colleen rolled her eyes before standing on Exile's other side. "Besides," she added, gently placing a hand on his arm, "this is important to you, Exile."
His attitude turning more serious, Hunter nodded. "Right. So we're gonna do everything we can to help you through this."
Shag suddenly gave an affirmative yip before stepping forward, picking up the husky and giving him a light embrace to help him feel better.
Despite some lingering doubt, Exile couldn't help but laugh a little as the sheepdog put him down. "I am thanking you all very deeply," he said, his voice thick with emotion.
"You don't have t' thank us, Exile," Colleen said.
"Yeah, man," Hunter said. "We're a team. We help each other no matter what."
For the first time that evening, Exile's mood seemed to brighten as he smiled and nodded.
Returning the smile, Hunter then turned to look at all of them. "All right, Rovers, first thing's first. We're gonna have a lot to do in the morning, so we better get some sleep. Especially you, Exile."
"Uh..." Exile shifted a little, watching as the others began to head off. "Perhaps not yet."
"Exile..." the leader said sternly.
"I am promising I will soon. I am...just needing to speak with Blitz for a moment."
Blitz, who had just started to leave, stopped at the sound of his name. His ears twitched a little as he turned back to the husky.
Finally understanding, Hunter nodded. "All right. Just get some rest." Then he hurried to catch up with the others.
As he waited until the other three were completely out of sight, Exile glanced at Blitz. Though the Doberman stood with his arms folded across his torso and tried to appear indifferent, he fidgeted a little where he stood, looking a bit nervous. He also wouldn't look at Exile directly, and the husky sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck.
"Blitz," he started slowly, and he noticed the way the other seemed to flinch as he spoke, "I am...hoping you can forgive me."
Blitz finally looked up then, surprised. "Forgive you?" he wondered.
Exile nodded. "What I did...I am only very worried and angry at myself for everything. But I should not be taking frustrations out on comrade. And I am sorry if I hurt you."
He watched Blitz frown, wearing an expression that he couldn't read. And as the seconds passed and the silence grew, he began to worry that Blitz couldn't forgive him. He couldn't really blame the other, though. The two of them had certainly had their disagreements in the past, but nothing ever that bad. They had never gotten physically aggressive with each other before, no matter how close they'd been to it. And it wasn't Blitz's fault for not knowing about his family, since he never told him. He knew he hadn't treated the other fairly, and he hoped that he could make it up somehow.
His attention returned to the other when Blitz suddenly scoffed. "Like you could ever hurt me," he finally replied with a small grin on his face.
Exile blinked a bit, then smiled as well. But he added, "Even so, I should not be acting as I did."
"Yeah, well..." Blitz shrugged and let his arms fall back to his sides. "Just be glad I'm so forgiving."
Exile resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Lucky me," he retorted just as playfully. Then, more sincerely, he added, "Thank you."
"Ja, ja, all right, enough of the mushy stuff," Blitz said, feigning agitation to cover his discomfort. "I'm going to bed to get my beauty sleep. And you should get some too, because you seriously need it if you ever want to be as pretty as me."
This time, Exile really did let his eyes roll as he followed behind the other. He appreciated the underlying sentiment, but he couldn't help replying, "Don't be weird boy."
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
"Exile?" the Master called suddenly. "May I speak with you for a moment?"
Exile paused at the sound of his name, his attention drawn away from the others. The Rovers had just returned from their first mission, a little tired but pleased by their success, and had been on their way to get some well-deserved rest. But curiosity quickly replaced the husky's weariness as he made his way to the Master's platform.
"Yes, Master?" Exile asked a little nervously, his tail drooping just so slightly as though he was about to be reprimanded for doing something wrong.
"It's all right, Exile," Master assured him. "I just wanted to talk to you about placing you in a new home."
"Oh." Relieved, he seemed to perk up a bit. "Are you already finding homes for us?"
"Yes, I think I have an idea of good homes for all of you. But there is something I have to ask you, Exile."
Exile blinked, looking at the man with a questioning incline of the head. "Is everything okie-doki?"
"Well..." The Master paused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he tried to think of the best way to explain. "I've found a home that's suitable for you, Exile, and it would be easier to situate some things. But...well, technically, you do already have a home."
At first, the husky looked at him with a confused expression. But as he realized what the man meant, he winced and looked away. "O-oh..."
"Now, Exile," the Master said gently, calling the Rover's attention back to him, "I want you to be in a place where you can be happy. So, if you'd like, I can return you to your previous home, and we can set something up there for when you need to return here."
Exile looked up at him, his ice-blue eyes wide with surprise. "You...you would allow me to go back?"
Master frowned at the strange question. "Of course. Since you already had a home before becoming a Road Rover, you can be allowed to go back until you're needed again here. If that's what you want to do. Otherwise, I can place you in a different home, and you can live there instead."
Exile's ears flattened against his head as he looked down at the floor. But the man already caught what looked like pain on the husky's face. He wanted to ask about it, but as he was about to Exile looked up again, all traces of pain gone.
"I think," Exile spoke slowly, "it would be better if I am placed in new home, rather than return to old one."
Master blinked. "Are you sure?"
Exile nodded. "Back home, I am sled dog. If I am returning there, I will continue working, and as Road Rover this is being difficult. So I must give up old life if I am continuing to this. Old home...is no longer being a place of home for me."
Something in the husky's voice made the Master's frown deeper, and he could feel that there was something else Exile wasn't telling him. But knowing that he shouldn't pry, he let the subject drop. "Very well," he finally said. "I'll make the arrangements, and you and the others should be able to settle in to your new homes by tomorrow."
Exile nodded. "Thank you, Master."
"You're welcome. Now I think it's time you get some rest."
With another nod, Exile then turned and slowly headed out. But the entire time he left, Master couldn't help but notice that Exile's tail was drooping again.
Master was pulled out of his thoughts by movement on one of the nearby monitors. Sitting back in his chair, he closed and rubbed his eyes as they began to sting from staring at one screen in front of him for the past few hours, looking for Parvo.
Although he had to admit, he hadn't been completely focused on finding Parvo.
Sighing, he glanced up at the surveillance monitors, trying to find the source of disturbance that attracted his attention. The cameras set around Mission Control were mostly for precautionary reasons, and were sometimes necessary in order to keep track of what was going on in an area as big as their headquarters, as well as the grounds surrounding it.
Of course, the cameras also tended to pick up more... personal moments, and he couldn't help but recall the recent event with Exile. He wasn't trying to pry, but the Master was also worried about Exile's behavior and wanted to understand what was wrong. He saw when the other Rovers found Exile on the beach, and he listened as Exile explained everything. And while he was surprised by most of it, he knew he should have expected it.
Just as he had expected it before.
The night that he had first called the Rovers, he had made the call to Exile first because he knew that the husky might have some trouble with the other sled dogs, especially since Exile wasn't the lead dog. But he never realized just how hard those huskies would take Exile's departure. The night when he spoke to Exile about sending him back home suddenly made sense, and he understood why Exile hadn't wanted to go back...why he felt he couldn't go back. And as much as he wanted to do something, he knew that ultimately Exile was the only one who could deal with this problem.
As his eyes swept over the monitors once more, he finally found it was Exile that had been the activity on the screen. He was walking through the halls of headquarters, though he didn't seem to have any particular destination, as his mind seemed to wander as much as his feet. Frowning, the man checked to see where Exile would end up before rising from his chair and heading out of his room.
Light from the corridor behind him poured into the dark room as Master stepped out onto his platform, overlooking the transdogmification chamber. But Exile didn't seem to notice as he continued to stare off into space.
"Exile?" the Master called.
Looking up, Exile seemed a little surprised about where he was. Then, seeing the man, he turned towards him.
"What are you doing up so late, Exile? You're the one who probably needs the most rest."
Exile rubbed the back of his head. "I know..." he replied slowly, "but I am...unable to be sleeping."
Master sighed. He suspected that everything still wasn't quite all right with Exile. "What's on your mind?"
The husky sighed. "I do not know what to do."
"About your family?"
Exile nodded. "I am unable to bring myself to fight family. But I don't wish to let others down again. And stopping Parvo may mean I must fight family."
The man stood silently for a moment, thinking it over. "Are you worried about hurting your family?"
Exile fidgeted slightly. "Da...but..."
"I am..." Exile glanced at the floor again. "I am also worried that I will be more...unforgiven."
The Master frowned. "What do you mean?"
Exile glanced off to the side as he played with his hands. "My brother, Shurik...He is already very angry when I leave. If I fight him...fight them, then he may hate me more, even if we change them back. I...don't want them to hate me."
Another moment of silence passed before the Master cleared his throat. "Exile...you are aware of how Parvo transmutates dogs, right?"
Exile looked at the man curiously. "Um...he puts them in machine?"
The man couldn't help but chuckle a little. "That isn't quite what I meant. You see, when you and the other Rovers are transdogmified, the machine draws on your qualities, things you already possess, and makes them stronger. It emphasizes your intelligence, your loyalty, as well as each of your own personal traits, like your vision, Hunter's speed, or Shag's strength."
Considering this for a moment, Exile then nodded.
"Now, when Parvo transmutates dogs, he also accents certain characteristics and makes them stronger. Except the traits he chooses can be a bit more negative. A dog's ferocity, savagery, fury, willingness to attack and fight, things like that."
Exile frowned. "Parvo is not needing dogs' loyalty or intelligence?"
"He does, but since a dog already has those things, he's not interested in changing them. What he wants is to make a better fighter, so he magnifies a dog's negative qualities in order to achieve that."
"Ah." Exile paused for a moment, before finally asking, "But what is this doing with my family?"
"Well," Master said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "it's possible that your brother's...resentment towards you is only because of Parvo's transmutation."
Exile blinked. "Really?"
The Master nodded. "Anger is one of those things that the transmutation would stress. So Shurik's animosity for you might only be because of the effects of increased aggression."
Thinking for a moment, Exile shook his head. "But this is meaning that Shurik is still angry with me. It must already be there, if Parvo's transmutation makes bad things bigger."
"But it may not be as bad as you think," the man pointed out.
Exile sighed. "Even if this is so, I do not know if I am able to fight him...all of them."
The Master frowned as the husky once again turned away. "Listen, Exile," he said gently, "I know it can be hard to have to fight against your family. But sometimes, we have to do what's hard in order to do what's right."
"Can this really be right?" Exile wondered. "Fight family or let others down? To do both feel wrong."
"I know. But when the time comes, you'll know what to do, and you'll make the right choice."
"How are you being so sure?"
The Master smiled. "Because out of all others dogs, you were one of the ones chosen, Exile. I know I made the right choice...and I know that you can do this."
Exile frowned, feeling much less confident about his abilities than his master. But he wasn't able to say so when a sudden beeping could be heard around headquarters. "What is this?"
"Parvo..." the man muttered.
Exile's ears perked up in interest. "You are finding him?"
"It would seem so." Looking back towards his chambers, he then glanced at Exile. "Go wake the others. You'll need to prepare to depart."
"Now?" Exile asked, surprised. Then he paused as the rest of the man's words sunk in, and he added hesitantly, "All of us?"
"Yes. Whatever Parvo's up to, you all need to stop him as soon as possible. Get the others and get ready, and I'll prepare your coordinates." With that, the Master disappeared in his veil of light.
The tense silence seemed to make the trip to Antarctica much longer.
There hadn't been much time for sleep before the Master detected strange energy activity from a small island off the coast of Antarctica, and connected it to Parvo's transmutator. So the Rovers hurried off in hopes of catching up to the bad guy and quickly put a stop to his plans...whatever those were.
But even in their fastest jet, the flight to the South Pole was a long one. It hadn't been so bad before when most of them were catching up on their sleep. But as they were nearing their destination, they all had to be alert and ready to go. And they could all feel the uncomfortable heaviness that penetrated the air.
Colleen's grip on the steering wheel tightened ever so slightly as she sighed softly. It was her turn to pilot the jet after taking over for Hunter who, though wasn't asleep, needed to take a break and rest up before they landed. Since he had driven most of the time down there, she figured he could use a break.
She glanced at the copilot seat next to her carefully, not wanting to get caught looking. But Exile sat turned away from her, his arms crossed and his body stiff as he stared out the window, that he wouldn't have noticed her concerned eyes on him anyway.
But she was concerned, and she could tell that the others were as well. In the reflection from the glass, she could see the intent, solemn expression he wore as he watched the billowing ocean waves below, looking but too lost in thought to really see anything. His rigid posture gave away how stressed he felt, discharging it throughout the cabin for all the rest to feel. And he sat silently, never having spoken a word since waking them all up to leave.
She frowned as she once again looked to the empty sky before her. She knew something had to be said, anything to break the ear-splitting, nerve-racking silence. But Exile obviously wasn't going to make the first move, and the others didn't seem willing to either...not even Hunter, which rather surprised her. She had expected the retriever at least to say something a long time ago, when they were all awake enough to feel something wrong. But since he wasn't saying anything, she decided that she would.
Now all she had to think of was what to say...
Well, to start things off, she would first have to get Exile's attention. "So...Exile?" she said slowly, doing her best to sound nothing but casual.
The husky's ears twitched slightly, and he spared her a sideways glance.
She could also feel the others' attention shift onto her, curious to see what she was up to. But she ignored them for the time being as she turned to Exile, hoping her next few words wouldn't worsen his already dreary mood. "What...what's your family like?"
"Hey, c'mon, Colleen," Hunter suddenly said, his tone edging on a reprimand. "Give the guy a break, will ya?"
She turned to look behind her, seeing the retriever sitting back in his seat with his arms folded behind his head. "What?" she asked, genuinely confused that Hunter of all people was shooting down her attempt so quickly. "I was just curious."
"If he doesn't wanna tell us about it, then we don't need to know. It's none of our business, so just leave him alone."
Hunter didn't get very snappy too often. In fact, she could recall very few times when he did. But his reply reminded her of the time he was searching for his mother, and how touchy he had been when Blitz started getting nosy. At the time, he wouldn't talk about it, and he didn't want the others to interfere with his personal matters until he was ready to tell them.
And then she realized, that was exactly why Hunter didn't say anything to Exile. He recognized how very sensitive the subject was, and he was giving Exile the space he needed to talk about it or not if he wanted to. Just as when he hadn't wanted them intruding into his own private affairs, he didn't want to bother Exile about something as personal as his family until the husky himself was ready to talk about it. And she felt a little sheepish for not realizing that sooner.
She glanced back at Exile, who once again was staring out the window, appearing to ignore the exchange between Hunter and her. Frowning, she then concentrated on piloting. There was no more point in trying now, and it would be best to follow Hunter's example of leaving Exile alone and just ignoring the tension as best she could.
The silence easily settled back over them, but only for a moment before Exile sighed, "My family..."
She turned to him, seeing as he sat back in his seat and closed his eyes. But even though his arms were still crossed, his body seemed to be a bit more relaxed. And the expression on his face wasn't quite as hard as it was before. In fact, she could've sworn she saw a small smile.
Then he opened his eyes again, and looked at her with an expression that seemed much more Exile-like. "I don't mind talking about them," he said, "but exactly what is it you are wanting to know?"
She paused, rather unsure herself. She wanted something to break the ice, and while she was glad that it worked, she hadn't really thought up anything specific. After a few more moments, she grabbed an idea and turned to Exile. "Well, there's a certain structure for sled dogs, right? Almost like a sled dog hierarchy?"
"There is?" Hunter asked curiously.
"Da," Exile confirmed, letting his arms fall to his lap. "In sled dog teams, members of pack are put in certain place on harness based on what position they serve. Based on dog's ability, dog is placed in either front, middle, or end of harness."
Shag muttered a soft curious question.
"Well, front of harness is Lead dog's place, middle of harness is swing and team dogs, and end of harness is wheel dogs. Each position is being different, so dogs must be suitable for task. But all serve important functions on sled dog team, and musher must be choosing dogs very seriously to put in which spot."
Colleen couldn't help but smile a little. No matter what Exile said about his previous life as a sled dog, he was true to his breed and seemed to enjoy talking about his work. "So what was your sled dog team like, Exile? 'o was put where?"
Looking out at the sky before them, Exile once again fell quietly contemplative as he remembered. "At head of team is Shurik, as Lead dog. He is most serious of team, but also smartest and bravest. When sled team is changing and needing new leader, we all feel Shurik is best choice and help him be chosen by musher."
Hunter, who had come up to stand between Exile and Colleen's seats, exchanged a glance with the collie, and knew she could hear just as well as he could the kind of respect and admiration Exile used when talking about his brother. They could tell just how much Exile looked up to him.
"After Shurik, I am placed with older female, Anushka."
"Second behind the leader?" Colleen asked, impressed. "That's a really important place too, right?"
Exile nodded. "But it is necessary place for us. Anushka is oldest of us, and part of sled team before even Shurik and I are arriving. So her experience is important to be having near top. Plus, she is caring of everyone, and takes care of those behind us as well as keeping Shurik from working too hard. Anushka is being like everyone's mother.
"And I am placed there because I am needing to be close to Lead dog, as I am Second lead."
Hunter blinked. "Wait, what?"
"You were second-in-command of your team?" Colleen asked, looking at the husky.
Exile frowned. "Is this so hard to be believing?"
"Well...no, I guess," Hunter replied, scratching his head. "But how come you never said anything about it?"
Exile looked up at him, clearly not understanding. "What is it mattering?"
Hunter and Colleen glanced at each other once again. While positions were never officially set other than Hunter being the leader, they all acknowledged that Colleeen was in charge after Hunter...that she was second-in-command. And they both wondered if things would have been different if Exile had spoken up about his experience in such a position.
"After Anushka and me," Exile continued, unaware of what his teammates were thinking, "there are two more females, Eva and Star. Eva is most fastest of us, and she is loving to run as fast and as long as she can."
"Well that doesn't make any sense," Blitz retorted, standing behind Hunter's empty chair and leaning against it with his folded arms resting on the top. "If sledding is all about being the fastest team, shouldn't the fastest dog be de leader?"
"Now see, Blitz?" Hunter said jokingly. "Aren't you glad I'm the leader?"
The Doberman rolled his eyes. "It's not the same thing, Mutt boy."
"If fastest dog is put first," Exile suddenly interrupted, "they may set pace the rest can't follow. In sledding, being fastest dog is doing no good if other dogs can't keep up."
"Oh...I guess that's a good point," Blitz reluctantly conceded.
"Eva is put in middle to keep control of her speed, since she is forced to follow behind others and must keep pace set by Shurik. But because she is fast, she can also motivate dogs behind her, making sure they are not lagging behind and putting strain on harness."
"So how 'bout that other girl?" Colleen wondered. "Star, was it? What's she do?"
"Star..." Exile said slowly, and a small smile lit up his face. "When I leave, Star is still in need of much training. She is newest to pack, and youngest of all us. She is full of energy and very playful, but always wanting to do her very best. She is having great chance of being very good sled dog."
"Hmm...sounds like you really liked that girl," Blitz commented in a teasing tone.
Exile frowned as he caught the hint. "We were close," he explained, his tone bordering defensive. "When Star is first arriving, I am in charge of doing most of her training as sled dog."
"Really?" Colleen asked. "Shouldn't the Lead dog do that?"
"Shurik is busy with much other stuff, so he ask me to take care of Star. That is why she was behind me, so to watch how I behave and do as I do."
Pausing a moment to count on his fingers, Blitz then said, "You only named four dogs. Weren't there six up in the mountains?"
Ears flattening a little, Exile glanced out the window, and Colleen wished she was close enough to throttle Blitz for reminding Exile of his family's condition. But the husky seemed to shake himself out of it as he replied, "I haven't talked yet of Ilya and Danya. They are ones at end of harness, closest to sled. Although Danya maybe could do job himself, since he is biggest and strongest of group.
"But though Ilya is mischievous and likes to play jokes on others, he is very stubborn to get job done, and so very trustworthy and able to hold own as well. Plus, two dogs are needed to balance harness and make suitable anchor."
"Anchor?" Hunter echoed curiously.
"Da. In case something should happen to sled, the strongest dogs must be close to pull sled out of danger. Or if something happens to dogs in front, they can hold ground to help rest of team."
"Huh..." Hunter murmured thoughtfully, "sledding is a lot more complicated than I thought."
"There is much thinking when sled dogs are being put together," Exile said. "Mushers always must make careful choice and know well dogs' personalities, and dogs themselves must have understanding of each other to work together."
Colleen glanced up at Hunter, noticing that he seemed to have something else on his mind...a question waiting to be asked. But as a light on the consol began to flash, she didn't give him the chance to say anything when she announced, "We're here..."
The guys glanced out the window as Colleen carefully landed on the empty snow-covered ground. There was not a trace of anything around them, but they already expected that. In fact, it was a good sign. The plan was to land the jet some distance away from Parvo's coordinates in order to avoid detection, and cover the rest of the way on the ground, since it would probably be easier to infiltrate Parvo's operations with the element of surprise. But based on Parvo's coordinates, they knew he was stationed at the base of some mountain, and that served as his protection on one side. So they would still have to be careful, since Parvo most likely would have troops around to protect the exposed areas.
As soon as the engine was shut off, the Rovers headed down into the lower section of the jet. Since they were traveling on the ground, they would have to take a suitable vehicle to travel the snowy terrain. Luckily the Master had modified the Tank Rover's sled mode, giving it a small motor in order to give it a self-sustaining mobility, making it a more covert mode of transportation.
"How cold is it out there?" Hunter wondered as he grabbed one of the specialized jackets provided for them.
Colleen zipped herself up before grabbing the thermometer that hung by one of the doors. "Let's see...-10 degrees Fahrenheit."
Blizt groaned. "Wonderful...as if my tooshie hasn't frozen enough already. I hate cold!"
"Could be worse," Hunter said with a shrug. "We could be hear during the winter."
"Yeah, then it'd be freezin' and dark," Colleen added.
"Still, you better bundle up too, Shag, just in case," the leader suggested, glancing at the sheepdog.
Shag murmured a short reply.
Hunter blinked. "You are?"
Shag nodded, pulling back some of the fur strands of his apparent-jacket to reveal a zipper running down his front.
"Huh...all right then..." Hunter wondered when the other had put on a jacket that looked exactly like the rest of his fur, but decided not to ask about it. Instead, as he opened the hatch doors and looked out into the frozen environment, he said, "It's too bad we couldn't bring Muzzle along. He probably woulda had a lotta fun."
"Yeah..." Colleen said in a soft tone, "but you know why we couldn't."
Hunter briefly glanced in Exile's direction, seeing the husky staring hard at the sled. The reason they hadn't brought Muzzle this time was mostly for Exile's sake, in the chance that they encountered his family again. Because Hunter knew that, if he was in Exile's place, he would never want to release Muzzle on his own family either, no matter the circumstances.
Seeing that the other still hadn't put on his equipment yet, Hunter said, "Better get moving, Exile."
Exile hesitated slightly, tearing his eyes from the sled and seeing the others finish getting ready. Then he shook his head.
"C'mon, Exile," Hunter said, pulling his jacket hood over his head. "I know huskies are used to cold weather and everything, but you still gotta be careful."
Glancing away, Exile said softly, "I am...not going."
"What?" The other Rovers looked towards the husky in surprise. "What do you mean 'not going'?" Hunter asked.
Exile closed his eyes. "I...I can't. I cannot do this..."
Hunter frowned. "Exile..."
Swallowing thickly, Exile then looked up at the leader. "Hunter..." he said in a rough, shaky voice, "on night Groomer try to take me from my home, I leave behind many other huskies Groomer already capture. And I promise to rescue them, no matter what. But I am unable to keep promise if I cannot fight my family."
"Well, maybe you won't 'ave to," Colleen insisted. "With the amount of dogs Parvo's stolen, I'm sure you could avoid 'em."
Exile shook his head. "Nyet. If they are there, then Shurik will certainly be finding me. And I am unable to face him again this way. But if I do not fight him, then I might again cause problems for comrades, and...I don't wish to be letting you down again."
Hunter stood silently, studying the husky with serious eyes and a thoughtful expression.
Exile looked at the leader again, a strange mix of pleading determination in his eyes. "Please," he said softly. "I must keep promise to help save other dogs...even if it is meaning I must remain here and do nothing."
For a moment, Hunter said nothing, and he looked away as he ran the situation through his head. Then, turning back to Exile and placing a hand on his shoulder, he finally answered, "Don't worry about it, Exile. You stay here and we'll take care of everything."
Exile sighed. "Thank you," he said, but the slight look of guilt seemed to offset his relief.
Hunter smiled reassuringly. "No problem. You just rest up and keep an eye on things from here, okay?"
Nodding, Exile then headed out and back towards the cockpit.
Once he was gone, Hunter, ignoring the others' curious gazes, headed for the powered sled. "Let's get going. We've gotta make tracks if we're gonna get to Parvo."
Slowly, uncertainly, the Rovers got into the sled as Hunter started the engine. Nothing was said as the sled drove out of the jet and onto the sleek ground of ice, and for a while the only sound they heard was the running motor of their vehicle and the frigid wind whipping around them.
But finally Colleen glanced at the retriever. "Huntie..." she said slowly, "are you sure that was a good idea?"
Glancing at her, Hunter blinked curiously. "Hmm? Was what a good idea?"
She frowned before motioning her head back to where the jet stood, a fading gleam of silver as they drew farther away from it.
"Oh..." Hunter sighed softly. "Maybe...I dunno. It might not be, really."
"Then why let 'im stay behind?"
"He just...he needs some time, I guess. This wouldn't an easy thing for anyone, and Exile seems to be taking it especially hard. I don't wanna make it any worse for him by making him fight his family."
"We might need 'im," Colleen pointed out. "We're already without Muzzle, and 'aving Exile stay behind might make things harder."
Hunter nodded. "I know. But Exile's gotta sort things out first. He's got a tough choice to make, and if he's gonna do something, he has to be sure that he's gonna do it, and that he can do it."
Thinking it over, Colleen then nodded and sat back in her seat, crossing her arms. "All right...I just hope you know what you're doing."
Hunter laughed, but it didn't disguise his uneasiness. "Me too."
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
"Are we there yet?" Blitz whined as he tried to pull his jacket closer around him.
Hunter glanced at the collie beside him and noticed the annoyed expression on her face. Knowing she didn't want to answer that question again, he looked at the monitor resting in her hands. "We still got a way to go, Blitz," he finally said.
Blitz released an exaggerated sigh, but surprisingly fell back into silence.
"Maybe we should o' left 'im behind," Colleen muttered under her breath.
Hunter pretended to consider this for a moment, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel. "Even if Exile had come along, we probably couldn't do that anyway."
She sighed, resting the monitor on her lap as she crossed her arms. "Fine, but I swear, if 'e asks that question one more time...!"
The leader frowned, turning his attention back to the snowy terrain before them. Tensions was at an unusual high as they continued towards Parvo's location, and it was hard to explain exactly why.
He felt that part of the reason was simply the time it was taking to get there. They had landed a good distance away from where Parvo was, but now he was wondering if they perhaps landed a bit too far. The motor attached to the Tank Rover's sled mode was small to keep the sled light and streamline, but unfortunately that also meant that the sled wasn't very fast, and it was taking them longer to get there than anticipated. It didn't help that the icy ground was rough and uneven, making it a bumpier ride than they thought it would be. The constant bouncing was starting to put even him in a bad mood.
It also didn't help that it was cold. Even though it was summer, and even though they were bundled up, the frozen wind around them still managed to slip past the layers they had on and seep into their bodies. They were ignoring it to the best of their abilities (some more successfully than others), but it was difficult not to think about the cold closing in on them, to feel it licking at their faces.
He also suspected that they were a little uneasy because they all were at least a little worried about Exile. He wondered what the husky was doing at the moment, and if he was all right by himself. Although the funny thing was, if Exile had been there with them, he probably would've handled the cold a lot better than they were.
His frown deepened as a realization threaded itself into his thoughts. "You think this is why Parvo was after all those sled dogs?" he wondered.
Though she didn't look at him, Colleen nodded. "Most likely. It'd be easier for sled dogs to work in cold environments like this."
It did make some sense then. If the villain was going to create a base in one of the coldest places in the world, he would need to have dogs who could work well despite the freezing conditions. "But why does he need them in the first place? What's Parvo doing down here?" Hunter asked, though he didn't seem to be asking anyone in particular. It was just something he still didn't understand.
Frowning, Colleen opened her mouth to reply. But she was cut off as the device on her lap suddenly started beeping.
"'ello..." she said curiously, picking up the monitor. "What 'ave we here?"
Though he kept watching the white nothingness passing around them, Hunter glanced at the collie once in a while, seeing the way her eyes quickly read through the information presented to her on the monitor. When she was finished, she lowered the monitor again.
Noticing the puzzled expression on her face, Hunter asked, "Whatcha find?"
Her frown seemed to deepen as she turned to him. "Y'know that mountain Parvo's hidin' behind?"
"Well apparently, that mountain is actually the world's southern-most active volcano."
Hunter blinked. "Volcano?"
She nodded. "Yup. Mt. Erebus...one of four on the whole island."
"Oh great," Blitz said. "That's just what I needed..."
Hunter glanced back at him. "What's the matter, Blitz? Shouldn't you be happier? Since you don't like the cold and all..."
"Yeah well, I'm not too fond of melting in a fiery death, either."
Hunter grinned a little, turning to face front again. "Yeah, I'm pretty sick of lava myself," he admitted. "What's the deal with villains and volcanoes anyway? That's way too overdone."
"Well, it shouldn't be too much of a problem," Colleen said. "Mt. Erebus is the only active one. The other three are all dormant."
"Yeah. And for an 'active' volcano, Mt. Erebus doesn't do much. It's pretty low-level, and most of the lava activity stays in its inner crater. It's not really much of a threat."
Hunter frowned. "So that still doesn't tell us what Parvo's up to...Just what is he doing down here?"
The question settled in the silence as they drove onward. Suddenly the sled hit a particularly rough patch of ice and ricocheted slightly into the air, landing heavily back onto the uneven ice and jerking the Rovers inside harshly. Shag yelped as he was thrown off balance and fell onto Blitz.
"Hey!" Blitz protested, giving the sheepdog a hard shove. "Stay on your side, Mop boy!"
Shag gave a grumbling protest, nudging Blitz in retaliation. The Doberman growled.
"Hey!" Colleen snapped, though she didn't bother to turn around. "Don't make me go back there!"
Blitz and Shag pointed to each other. "He started it!" Blitz said, and Shag whined something of the same effect.
Slowing down a little, Hunter looked back at them with a stern expression. "If you two can't get along, I'm gonna pull over right now, and we can sit in the cold until you can. I don't want that, do you?"
The two seemed to pout. "No..." they both murmured, letting their heads hang a bit.
Watching them for a moment, Hunter then turned around again to look ahead, letting the sled get back up to speed. However, as things fell quiet between them once more, they soon heard the sound of a mechanized roar echoing around them, something they hadn't noticed before. Realizing that it was coming from an engine that wasn't theirs, Hunter looked around but saw nothing except snow and ice.
"Uh...Huntie?" Colleen said, tapping his arm.
Noticing she was pointing above them, Hunter looked up to see a plane just as its large shadow passed over them. It was heading in the same direction they were going, and it was flying at an alarmingly low altitude - low enough to see them against the blanket of white.
"Um...are they going where I think they're going?" he asked.
"Most likely," Colleen replied grimly.
"Right." He quickly shifted the sled's speed until it was going as fast as it could - still not fast enough - as he added, "What're the chances they haven't spotted us?"
"Not in our favor."
"General!" the Groomer called as she briskly entered the room.
Parvo remained where he stood at the large window, overlooking the work of his operations outside the building. "What is it, Groomer?" he asked, his tone deceptively calm.
She saluted as she came to a stop behind him, though he was not facing her. "We have a situation, Sir."
Only then did he turn to look at her, a dark scowl set on his hard features. "You know I don't like delays, Groomer...What is it now?"
"We've just received word from some of the troops returning from an aerial shipment," she reported in her rough accent, pulling up the clipboard she held and flipping through some documents.
"And?" Parvo asked impatiently. "What's the status?"
"Well, they've returned with the shipment successfully. However, as they were landing, they believe to have seen the Rovers on their way here."
Parvo barely managed to suppress the growl in his throat. "I thought you had taken care of them, Groomer..."
"I did! Or...I tried to..."
"You know that's not good enough...!"
"It's not all bad!" she insisted. "I managed to get rid of two of them, anyway."
He frowned, facing her fully. "Really?" he asked, his tone giving away his doubt.
She nodded. "There were only four Rovers spotted."
Parvo paused as he considered this. He suspected that those two missing Rovers weren't really gone, but their absence was something at any rate. Less Rovers meant less of a threat to him. Turning back to the window, his eyes locked on the grand mountain in the distance, gleaming white under the constant sunlight. "Still..." he seethed, his muscles tense as he clenched his fists, "I've come too far to let the Rovers ruin my plans now."
"What are your orders, General?"
Studying the mountain once more, Parvo then smirked. "Perhaps it's time the Rovers learn what happens when they challenge someone...who can control the forces of Mother Nature herself." Glancing at the Groomer, he ordered, "Bring them here."
"Hunter, look out!"
Hunter slammed on the breaks and turned hard, barely avoiding the laser fire that were shot and hit right in front of them. Then he hit the gas, speeding forward in whatever direction they were facing, followed close behind by the group of cano-mutants.
"Well, so much for the element of surprise," Colleen muttered as she fired another shot from her own gun.
Hunter chuckled. "No kidding. We really gotta work on that." It was a flippant response, doing well to mask the annoyance he truly felt about the situation.
Of course the plane they saw was one of Parvo's. And of course the plane's pilots had spotted them on the ground. So of course Parvo had sent some of his cano-soldiers out to try and stop them. It hadn't been long since seeing the plane that they caught sight of the first wave of cano-mutants, firing at them and chasing them in vehicles faster than their small sled. And no matter how many they managed to lose, more just seemed to keep coming.
What really annoyed him, though, was that the longer this chase went on, the longer it took them to get to Parvo. Even now, he wasn't sure if they were still going the right way. Ever since the chase started, the location device lay forgotten on the floor since Colleen had abandoned it in favor of the gun she was using to get the cano-mutants off their tail. It wouldn't have been so bad, because they were bound to confront Parvo eventually...
But he promised Exile that they would take care of things. And the longer this took, the longer it took to keep that promise. And he didn't want to make Exile worry any longer.
"Hunter, they're gaining on us!" Blitz cried, drawing the leader out of his thoughts. "Quick, go faster!"
"I would, but the Tank Rover's sled wasn't exactly made for this kinda thing, and the motor doesn't really help much."
"What?!" The Doberman glanced fearfully behind them. "Then what do we do?!"
Hunter shrugged. "Hope for the best, I guess."
Shag gave a frightened whimper as he held his head.
Though the beastly canines continued firing, their faster vehicles allowed them to catch up easily. Blitz screamed as the monster dogs pulled up alongside the Rovers, and one of them swung out and knocked the gun from Colleen's hand. She managed to block another attack and kicked the cano-mutant hard, sending it flying off its vehicle, but more began pulling up around them, and Hunter slightly wished they had taken the risk with a bigger-but-faster mode of transportation.
Just as the cano-mutants were taking aim, Hunter once again hit the brakes, skidding to a stop and forcing the other vehicles to shoot past them. Then he threw the gear into reverse and drove backwards to put more distance between them and Parvo's men. When the cano-mutants finally realized what happened and managed to change direction, he set the sled back into drive and turned once again in a new direction.
Unfortunately, more cano-mutants were showing up on the horizon, firing more shots as they drove after the Rovers.
"Huh..." Hunter said suddenly.
Colleen glanced over at him. "What?"
"You ever wonder why bad guys usually seem to miss us during a chase scene like this? I mean, it's not like we're a small target or anything."
The collie frowned. "You wanna get hit?"
"Well, no. I'm just wondering why bad guys have such lousy aim."
Just then, one of the cano-mutants pulled out a missile launcher and aimed it at the Rovers. It fired, but the missile sailed far above the Rovers' heads.
"See?" Hunter said, waving to the rocket as it passed them. "Like that."
The rocket didn't stay in the air long though, quickly descending before it hit the ground with a booming explosion. A column of snow shot high into the air from a wide, deep hole in the jagged ice left by the missile, right in the path of the sled.
"Looks like they weren't aimin' for us, after all," Colleen quipped, her tone a bit pitched with panic.
Hunter blinked. "Oh...well, that's better, I guess." He hit the brakes again, but the momentum of the sled on the ice caused it to skid forward, and they were too close to the chasm to stop in time.
"Everybody out!" Hunter said, although Blitz and Shag were already scrambling to get out. Colleen jumped out next, and Hunter waited until she was cleared before following after her, jumping out of the sled just as it fell into the hole and disappeared in the dark ice below. But he gasped, barely managing to grab hold of the ledge before falling in himself.
"A little help here, guys!" he called, unable to find a supportive foothold and feeling the frozen slush slipping under his fingers.
A hand grabbed Hunter's wrist, but before he had a chance to thank whoever had saved him, he was pulled up hard and found himself dangling a few inches from the ground, face-to-face with a fierce cano-mutant. Nearby, he saw the others were surrounded by cano-mutants themselves, unable to do anything as lasers were pointed in their faces.
"...Not exactly the kinda help I was looking for..." Hunter quipped, wincing as the beastly canine roughly started dragging him away.
Parvo's lips twisted into a sinister smile as he watched some of his cano-mutants setting up the crate-sized machine, right at the base where the ice lifted up to form the side of the volcano. Then when they finished, they quickly backed off as Parvo stepped forward, letting his hand run along the consol's controls.
"First, Mt. Erebus," he breathed, his plan quickly flying through his mind once more. "Then, the entire Ring of Fire. And soon, the whole world will be mine."
Only a a mind of true genius like his could ever conceive such a brilliant plan. Because who else could ever think of using a low-level activity volcano like Mt. Erebus for world domination? And the true beauty of it was that the plan itself was actually very simple. But it took someone with real vision and insight to fit the pieces together.
Because, however low-level Mt. Erebus was, it was still one of the volcanoes that made up the Pacific Ring of Fire. All volcanoes along that Ring were connected along those plates. If he could control one of the volcanoes in the Ring, then it wouldn't take long before finding a way to control all of the Ring of Fire itself. Granted, it took time and energy to generate strong enough pulses to spread throughout the plates. But he was nothing if not persistent.
And he was certain that this device - his Seismic Generator - would be enough to grant him control over all the volcanoes. The testing he had performed already showed that the device, when attached to the base of the volcano, would send out a series of seismic vibrations deep below the Earth's crust. With the turn of the dial and the flip of a switch, the volcanoes along the Ring would be completely under his control. He could control where the vibrations went and which volcano (or volcanoes, or just the entire Ring of Fire) was affected. His device could also alter the strength of a volcano's activity; if he so wished, his device would violently churn the magma of even the most dormant of volcanoes, until it had no other choice but to burst in a fiery detonation. At his hands, he could unleash a series of violent volcanic eruptions that would certainly throw the world into complete chaos.
Unless of course the world's governments were willing to...convince him otherwise.
Obviously, though, it required a lot of research to make his plans possible. And he had chosen Mt. Erebus for that reason. It was the southern-most active volcano in the world, but because the lava never left the inner crater, it was a safe place to work. Plus, there were few people who worked in this area of Antarctica (and those who did were easily dealt with), making it easier to avoid detection from those meddlesome Rovers for as long as he had. It gave him enough time to see his plans reach fruition.
It had been difficult in the beginning, however. Because even he, who was barely fazed by anything, felt how cold the sub-arctic region was. Being able to have hard-working cano-mutants who could withstand the freezing conditions posed a bit of a challenge. But as expected, he found the perfect solution. After all, sled dogs thrived from this sort of thing. They were born and bred to work, and the cold weather was ideal for them. They were the perfect types of dogs for his plans here.
They were strong, which enabled them to transport things with little effort. They were fast, which meant the work would get done quickly. And they were persevering, determined to get their work done. Indeed, they would work for as long as they needed to, pushing themselves to the limit and beyond. Sled dogs were breeds that could easily work themselves to death...Which was fine by him. That's why he had so many of them.
Sometimes his own evilness made him tingle all over.
Just as he began inputting commands into the Seismic Generator, he heard the Groomer call behind him, "General! We have the Rovers!"
He turned to see his right-hand lady approaching, followed by a group of cano-mutants that surrounded the chained-up Rovers, holding them at laser point and dragging them along like prisoners of war.
Parvo smirked as a cano-mutant tugged hard on the chain that tied the Rovers together, forcing them to stop before him. It did his black heart good to see his enemies humilated so.
"Glad you could join us, Rovers," he sneered, turning his back on them to face his machine.
"All right, Parvo," he heard one of them say, trying to put up a brave front. From what little he knew of the Rovers, Parvo recognized the voice of what he thought was a retriever. "What are you up to?"
Smirking, he finished calculating the data on the Seismic Generator before turning back to the Rovers. "You're about to find out." It was all the warning he gave them before pushing the giant red button on the Generator's consol.
Suddenly the ground began to rumble - slow at first, but soon grew difficult for them to keep their balance. Then everyone looked up as a thick cloud of black smoke began to rise from the volcano, spreading heat and ashes into the air. Columns of lava spurted out of the crater, and when the ground began to shake harder, more of the glowing red-hot lava brimmed at the volcano's edge, threatening to overflow.
Quickly turning a dial on the Seismic Generator, Parvo then pushed another button. The ground gave a violent jerk that nearly threw them all off their feet, and seemed to knock against the mountain. Indeed, it almost appeared that Mt. Erebus wobbled back, and the lava ebbed away from the side they were on to pour over the opposite side instead.
"He's controlling the volcano...?" the female Rover exclaimed, and Parvo smirked at the sound of her horrified awe.
The retriever blinked as he watched the volcano, his seriousness gone for a moment. "Yet another unexpected twist...Bummer!"
"And this is just the beginning," Parvo said, motioning to the volcano as lava continued to flow over the other side. "Soon, I will have more volcanoes under my control. It's a shame you Rovers won't be around to see how this all ends, but I assure you it will be good...for me."
"You'll never get away with this, Parvo," the retriever suddenly growled, solemn once again as his features set in a hard glare.
Parvo couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the statement. Unfortunately, the statement was so funny that the humor quickly faded into a hacking cough. "Lozenge!" he wheezed.
Dutifully, the woman retrieved her dispenser and shot the medicated candy into his mouth. His coughs died down as he felt its soothing effects, then he smacked his lips together and cleared his throat before meeting the retriever's unwavering gaze.
"How quaint," he mocked. "You honestly think you can still stop me? In case you haven't noticed, Rover, I've already won...It's over."
"It's never over 'til the fat cat sings," the retriever shot back.
Beginning to feel irritated by the dog's behavior, Parvo turned to a group of nearby cano-mutants. "Take them to the other side of the volcano," he ordered. "There should be a nice lava pool to throw the Rovers in by now."
The big white Rover yelped fearfully as it and the Doberman-like one trembled. But the female Rover remained impassive, as though unconcerned with their current fate. And the retriever continued glaring with the same hard expression, a clear confidence in his eyes even as they were all dragged away.
His fists clenched tightly as he watched them taken away from his sight. He had won, he knew that. There was nothing they could do now to stop him.
So why? Why did that one Rover's arrogance make him actually doubt his victory?
His ears twitched at the sound of the metal crackling under the continuous heat, and his eyes were beginning to sting. After another long moment, the red-hot energy of his laser vision faded.
Only then did Exile let himself blink, rapidly at first to help his dry eyes. Then he closed his eyes and rubbed them with his thumb and finger, trying to relieve the tension of using his heat vision for so long. It wouldn't normally be a problem for him to use his heat vision for long periods of time. But being as exhausted as he was put some strain on his body and made it harder for him to focus. He probably should rest, but he was too worried to stay still for too long.
Opening his eyes again, he then glanced down at the discarded wrench by his foot. He hesitated for just a moment, staring hard at the tool as though debating what to do with it. Then he carefully picked it up and resumed working on the bike in front of him.
Shortly after the others had left, Exile had gone back to the cockpit to try and catch up on the sleep he had missed on the way down there. But it hadn't taken long before the silence started to get to him, and it weighed much heavier on him since he was alone. He soon grew anxious, and began wandering around the jet in hopes of finding something to do. He somehow found himself in one of the cargo rooms where he stumbled across a lone motorbike.
Curiosity got the better of him and led him to examine the bike, wondering what it was doing there. He discovered that the bike was still unfinished, a possible prototype for a new machine they could use someday. And eager to be busy, he took the bike to the launch bay in order to fix it up.
At first, he found the silver-blue bike to be a bit awkward. The handlebars were thicker than most motorbikes, it was larger and longer than the Sled Rovers (and yet still only suitable for one rider), and the four wheels made it a bit difficult to move around the jet. But he grew fonder of the machine as he worked on it, finding the motorbike's frame was still as streamlined as the sleekest motorcycle, made for easier manuvering out on the open road...or ice, given the thick treads of the tires. He soon realized that the bike was built for harsh conditions, and the thick handlebars would provide a good grip for driving on rough ground.
He wasn't quite sure how long he had spent down there, kneeling by the bike and just working on it. But he suspected he'd been there for at least an hour, given just how much fixing the bike needed. However, as he finished tightening one last bolt on the motor, he examined the bike to make sure he hadn't missed anything and was pleasatnly surprised to see he was done. He grinned.
"There," he said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. "All finished." He felt a little silly announcing that he was done aloud, especially with no one around to hear him. But the enduring quiet really bothered him, and he needed to hear something...even if it was only the sound of his own voice.
Tossing the wrench into a nearby toolbox, he picked up a rag off the floor to wipe the grease from his hands. Then he rose to his feet, taking a few steps back to once again study the bike. The only way to really be sure it operated properly was to test it, but he was satisfied with his work and was confident that it would run.
Of course, now that he was finished with the bike, he had nothing left to distract him from the situation.
Leaning against a wall behind him, Exile sighed and threw the rag aside. He let himself sink down until he was sitting on the ground, drawing his legs up so he could rest his elbows on his knees and bury his face in his arms.
He started to wonder how the others were doing, but he wouldn't let himself finish the thought. He didn't want to think about 'them'...because he didn't know which 'them' to think about. He wanted the other Rovers to complete their mission, of course, because they had to stop Parvo. If they didn't, who knows what the evil man would do?
But...he still didn't want his family to get hurt. It wasn't their fault that they were working for Parvo. They didn't deserve what was happening to them, and they didn't deserve to be punished for it. He worried what his family might do when the Rovers arrived, and what lengths the Rovers would have to go in order to win.
And he was afraid that, if he allowed himself to think too much, he would actually wish for the Rovers to lose...just for the idea to keep his family unharmed.
Closing his eyes, he let his hands drop to his sides and his head fall back to rest against the wall. This was exactly why he needed to remain here, to stay behind and let the other Rovers handle this. He couldn't get in the way again, and he didn't want to be the reason for their failure. But he still felt bad about asking the other Rovers to fix his problems while he stayed behind. Even now, he was wondering if this was the right decision. It just seemed as though he was making so many of the wrong ones, and he was afraid of making another mistake.
Because he was, after all, a coward.
There was just no other way to describe it. While he wasn't afraid of the danger, or facing the Groomer or Parvo, he was terrified of the thought of facing his family again. And thinking about it now, he realized that was all it came down to. He was scared to face his family, he was scared of letting the Rovers down...he was scared of messing things up any longer. And his fear kept him firmly rooted there, unable to help anyone.
He wanted nothing more than the chance to fix this mess. But he worried that he would only make things worse.
His eyes opened as a low rumbling caught his attention. Frowning curiously as he stared at the ceiling, his ears twitched trying to locate the source of the noise. Then he gasped when the walls and the floor shook around him. The toolbox rattled and clattered, and the bike rolled back a bit under the movement.
There was a sudden violent lurch that tore Exile away from the wall, and he barely managed to catch himself from sprawling across the floor. Then the jolt was gone as quickly as it came, and the tremors died down slightly, at least enough so that he could steady himself.
But he could still feel the vibrations against the steel of the jet, buzzing underneath his palms. Pushing himself up a little, he frowned in confusion as he watched the toolbox continue to rattle.
"What...?" he murmured, but the rest of the question was caught in his throat when the dog tag of his collar began blinking, and his eyes widened. That alert could only mean one thing.
The others...were in trouble.
He quickly jumped to his feet, his first instinct demanding he go help them. But it was the only thing he managed to do before he froze, suddenly uncertain. He wanted to help them, but his stomach twisted painfully as he thought of his family out there, reminding him of why he had stayed behind in the first place.
But he had to do something. The Rovers were in danger...and he couldn't help but wonder if he was to blame for that too. If he had gone with them as he was supposed to, would it have made any difference? Could he have done something to change the situation? Could he have been able to help?
Would he have been able to do it?
Reaching up with a shaking hand, he tightly grasped the flashing tag. But the light continued to pulse, visible even between his fingers and filling the room with its pulsing glow. He swallowed thickly, and he felt as though his heart was torn, pulled in two different directions between the Rovers and his family. Both groups needed him...but he could only choose one.
Now you must make the choice!
When the time comes...you'll make the right choice.
He shut his eyes and covered his ears, desperately and vainly trying to drown out the conflicting voices echoing in his memories. How in the world was he supposed to choose? No matter what he did, he was going to hurt someone important to him. No matter what he chose, something was going to go wrong!
Even now, as he stood trying to figure out what to do, he was risking the others' safety. The longer he took to decide, the more trouble the others could be in.
His eyes opened suddenly when he felt the room darken, and he looked down to see that his dog tag had stoopped flashing. If possible, his eyes grew wider then.
Just because the alert stopped didn't mean the others were out of danger yet. They could still need his help, unable to get out of whatever trouble they were in. Or worse...the abrupt stop of the alert could mean...that...
He shook his head. "Nyet!" he barked loudly, forcefully. He closed his eyes as he gripped the tag again. "That cannot be!" he said, trying to convince himself more than anything. "They can't be...they aren't...!" Opening his eyes once more, he looked down as the tag rested flat against his palm. And he knew what he was really trying to say.
"I can't let them."
Determination pounded in his chest, spreading through his veins and forcing him to move. Grabbing the last remaining coat - the coat left for him - he hastily pulled it on as he crossed the room, pushing the button that opened the hatch doors. Then, as they slowly creaked open, he went to the four-wheeled bike and pulled it to the center of the room, facing it towards the opening.
Jumping on the bike, he hesitated for just a second before turning the ignition. It stalled at first, its gears grinding in protest for being unused for so long. Then it roared to life, and he sighed in relief, glad that he succeeded in getting it working after all. Revving the motor, Exile barely waited for the doors to fully open before he shot out of the jet.
The bike hit the ice hard, but the thick tires held fast and allowed him to race off as soon as it touched ground. Reaching into his suit and pulling out the tracking device for the others' collars, he turned hard to head in the direction where the signal was strongest. Then he twisted the throttle, urging the bike to go as fast as it possibly could.
Honestly, he still wasn't sure what he would do if confronted by his family again, and especially if faced with Shurik. But with all the wrong choices he's made so far, he knew it was about time he set them all right.
And somehow, he would make things right.