It was the start of another routine day at Nickelodeon. "All right, gentlemen," the producer said as he walked into a large room where four men sat waiting to begin work, "we're ready for you."
"Remind me which episode we're recording today," said Tom, one of the four men, as he and the other voice actors got up from their seats.
The producer glanced down at the top sheet on the clipboard he was carrying. "It's the first episode of our surprise fourth season, the one where Kowalski accidentally turns the penguins into otters. It's called 'You Otter Know Better.'"
Tom cleared his throat and turned to his colleague, Jeff. "Kowalski," he said in the voice of his character, "you turned us into mammals! Don't you know how I feel about being turned into mammals?"
Jeff smirked, not missing a beat. "Now, now, Skipper, don't be so negative. You should use this as an opportunity to finally tell Marlene how you feel."
"Actually, 'Skipper,'" the producer spoke up, "we've recently added a scene like that to the script. The network thinks a 'Skilene' moment will be good for ratings."
Tom chuckled. "Kids these days." He and the others then made the short walk over to the recording room.
After the five entered the soundproof room, the producer handed each of the voice actors a copy of the script. "I'll give you guys about fifteen minutes to review the script and familiarize yourselves with the changes before we go live mic." He then left them and took his place in the nearby control room.
After skimming through the script for a few minutes, James, the voice of Private, turned to his right, where Rico's voice actor was still looking down at his copy. "So, what do you think, John?" he asked.
"I'm liking this one so far," John replied as he continued reading. "Rico gets to sing in his operatic voice again, which is always fun to do."
"A lot of people enjoy when he does that," James agreed.
Just then, a fly zipped past John's face and then landed in the middle of the page he was reading. "Hey!" he said as he shook the script to try to get the fly off. The pest quickly flew away, but only a few seconds passed before it returned, this time landing on John's left arm. He tried to squash the insect, but it narrowly escaped. It then buzzed in his left ear. "You're gonna die!" John yelled. He rolled up his script and began swatting around in the air with it.
"What's the matter over there?" Tom called over from the opposite side of the room.
"A fly got a little too close to John, and now he's out for revenge," James said.
"Ah, revenge," Tom said in Skipper's voice. "One of the few concepts that always make me feel warm and fuzzy inside." He, James, and Jeff then watched as John kept trying to hit the fly.
After a few more swings, John tucked the script under his left arm and then pulled out a small bottle from his shirt pocket. He began to spray its contents at the fly.
"So you just always carry a pocket-size can of Raid around with you?" James asked.
"It's not bug killer; it's breath spray," John said as he continued in his pursuit. "One that isn't yet available to the public. A friend of mine who works for a drug company gave it to me to test out." The fly then landed on a smoke detector on the ceiling, but it was too high for the breath spray mist to reach. John turned around and faced the others, gesturing upward. "A little help, fellas?"
"You don't seriously want us to pick you up just so you can try to kill a bug with breath spray, do you?" Jeff asked.
John nodded. "Yeah, I kinda do."
The other three sighed collectively, and James and Jeff began to walk over. Tom went for a nearby chair that John could stand on instead, but he set it down when he noticed that James had already lifted John up. He then began to assist Jeff with keeping the two stable.
Now high enough to reach the fly, John aimed the nozzle of his breath spray right at the insect. He laughed in a way that would frighten even Rico and then pressed the actuator down.
There was a small sizzle and then a louder thud as the four men were thrown to the floor. The peppermint mist tingled after it drifted down to meet them.
♦ ♦ ♦
Tom was the first to regain consciousness from whatever had happened. As he opened his eyes, everything around him was a blur. "Jeff! James! John!" he shouted for his friends and colleagues. "Where are you? Where am I?" He began to walk around the room frantically with his arms outstretched, hoping to find the others or at least the exit. With each step he took, he wondered why he hadn't even found a wall yet.
After walking for a few seconds, Tom rubbed his eyes, and the blurriness began to clear up. He then looked down and jumped up in fright at the creatures he saw lying on the floor. It was only because they were unexpected and unexplained that he was startled by their presence—he didn't ordinarily have a fear of penguins.
"What the—" he said as he took a few steps back. "How did you get in here? Is this some kind of joke? Am I on Punk'd?"
No one answered, and the three penguins lying on the floor didn't budge. After observing them for a few more seconds, Tom slowly approached the birds. "OK," he said as he bent down slightly and touched one of them, "cute and cuddly time is over. We have work to do here."
The penguin opened up its eyes and spoke with a charming British accent. "Tom? Tom, is that you?" The penguin looked just like the Private character from the television series he worked on.
Tom slapped himself to make sure he wasn't dreaming. "OK, what's going on here? Why can you talk? Why do you look exactly like a fictional character? And how the heck do you know my name?"
The penguin gasped. "Oh dear."
"'Oh dear' is not an answer!" Tom then grabbed the penguin off the floor, finding it a bit heavier to lift than he had expected. "Now you tell me what's going on and where my friends are. Do you understand me?"
The penguin nodded, then sighed. "Tom, we're right here with you. I'm James."
"Something happened and now I'm in Private's body," the penguin said. He pointed down at the other two penguins. "I'm pretty sure those two are Jeff and John trapped inside Kowalski's and Rico's bodies. And you're, well, you're Skipper."
Tom shook his head. "Impossible. The penguins aren't real. I know, I created them."
"Tom, I know this is hard to believe, but that's what somehow happened. It's as plain as the nose on your face. Or lack thereof."
Tom set the penguin down and then felt his face. "Aaahh!" he screamed. "I have a beak! Holy Madagascar, I have a beak!" A slew of "angry words" then followed.
As Tom continued yelling, the penguin resembling Kowalski opened his eyes and began to rub his head. "Oh, I've got such an ache in the cerebrum." He groaned.
Tom waddled up to him. "A headache is the least of your problems, Jeff," he said.
Jeff stared at Tom for a moment, squinted, then began to stare again. "You know," he said, "I think you're right. I'm seeing a talking penguin in front of me right now. I'm probably hemorrhaging."
Tom offered his friend a flipper to help him sit up. "Jeff," he said, "could you tell me which element has an atomic number of 17?"
"I believe that's chlorine. Correct?"
Tom shrugged his shoulders. "Eh, beats me. But I'm pretty sure you're not hemorrhaging. Something weird, freaky, and just plain not right has happened to the four of us."
"The four of us?"
Tom pointed one flipper at James, who was standing next to him, and the other at John, who was just beginning to get up from the floor. "The actors who play cops and lawyers and doctors on TV are rarely, if ever, real members of those professions, but today we really are the penguins of Madagascar. I'm Tom, this is James, and that's—"
"—our resident psycho, John. Better known as Rico."
"I'd better let him know what's up," James said. He then waddled over to John.
Jeff rubbed his right flipper up and down his left, still in disbelief. "I don't understand how any of this is possible," he said. "The last thing I remember—well, I don't even remember what the last thing I remember was. I just know that the idea of voice actors turning into the characters they play doesn't make any sense. At least outside the worlds of science fiction and fan fiction it doesn't make any sense."
"It doesn't make any sense," Tom said, "and yet, here we are." An unsettling thought then entered his mind. "Oh no."
"What is it?"
"What if we're not the only ones? What if Nicole is walking down the street and has just realized she's Marlene? What if Danny is driving his car in King Julien's body? What if—oh no!—what if Neil is just waking up as Dr. Blowhole?"
"Let's just worry about us for now," Jeff replied. "Besides, even if Neil is waking up right now in the body of a misanthropic supervillain dolphin, it's unlikely he'd share Dr. Blowhole's impulses. You don't see me reaching for an abacus or thinking about Doris right now, do you?"
"True, but then how do you explain your knowledge of atomic numbers a few moments ago or James's accent or John's only being able to speak in grunts like Rico?"
Jeff sighed. "I can't."
♦ ♦ ♦
"All right, guys," Tom said a few minutes later once the four began to accept what species they currently were, "let's think about how we're going to get out of this mess."
James raised a flipper. "I think we should just stay here and wait for help to arrive," he said. "I'm sure the producer will come right in to investigate when he doesn't get a response from us when he turns the mics on. He'll know what to do."
Tom shook his head. "I don't think that's going to work. We have no way of telling him who we really are. He'd probably just see this as a joke and call either animal control or the zoo. In the case of the former, we will be at the mercy of the Burbank version of Officer X; in the case of the latter, we will spend the rest of our lives shaking our tail feathers at tourists in hopes that they will throw a few fish our way."
"Wow," James said. "Was that you talking or Skipper?"
"Both, I suppose. You learn a lot by voicing a paranoid bird for eight years." A thought then came to him. He turned to Jeff. "Jeff, options!"
"That's not funny," Jeff replied. "We're in the middle of a crisis, and you're typecasting me as your options guy. I'm a real man, you know."
"You're a real man inside the body of a slightly mad penguin scientist," Tom continued. "A slightly mad penguin scientist who also happens to be a genius and my best friend in the unit."
"We're in uncharted waters here, my friend, at least as humans. I think the only way that we can escape this situation is to take advantage of the quirks we've been given—my desire to lead, your intellect, James's naïveté, John's . . . whatever—by fully getting into character and working together as the brothers we were hatched to be." He put a flipper on Jeff's back. "So what do you say, brother?"
Jeff thought for a moment but realized quickly that Tom's idea was likely their best and only hope. He nodded slowly and then raised his right flipper in a salute. "First Lieutenant Kowalski reporting for duty, sir."
Tom smiled, then returned the salute. "At ease, soldier. You can call me Skipper."
"Kowalski" relaxed himself and then placed a flipper under his beak and stroked it, hoping it would help stimulate the thought process. After a few moments, he smiled. "Well, shake my nitroglycerin, I think I've got us an option!" he said. He pointed at Private. "James—er, Private—go get me your copy of the script we were going to record this morning."
Private nodded and then waddled away to retrieve his copy.
"Thanks," Kowalski said when Private returned and handed him the script. He then held it up with reverence, as if it were the key to all knowledge. "The way I see it, the problems of cartoon penguins can only be solved with cartoon-penguin solutions. If my reckless use of random chemicals turned us all into otters in this episode, then surely my reckless use—I mean, careful use—of random chemicals here can turn us back into humans." He paused for a moment. "Or at least there's an 88.46 percent chance that it can."
Skipper patted Kowalski on the back. "Great work, Kowalski! Your excellent thinking will be noted in the mission report I'm not going to bother to write, because no one would believe it anyway."
"Thanks, Skip—" A thought then came to him. He frowned.
"What? What is it, Kowalski?" Skipper asked. "Your expression suggests that my praise of your plan may have been premature, and that reflects poorly on my judgment as unit commander."
"Well," Kowalski said, "it's just that many of the random chemicals I used on TV are completely fake, the concoctions of our talented team of writers. For example, I highly doubt I'll be able to find any magnetohydrotrioxychloride here in the real world—getting my flippers on it required breaking into a government lab where space squid bile was being researched."
Skipper groaned. "Curse those writers. Why couldn't they have just devised a simple fix involving vinegar and baking soda? Every kid knows that one."
"I suppose it's because carbon dioxide is relatively harmless as far as chemicals go. There's more potential for lethality and mayhem with chemicals that have longer names and that are harder to pronounce. That's a scientific fact."
"So we're back at square one?" Private asked.
Kowalski sighed. "I'm afraid so. It's back to the drawing board, even though I don't seem to have my drawing board with me at the moment."
As if on cue, Rico opened up his beak and regurgitated a small whiteboard and a red dry-erase marker. The others just stared.
"Sweet Edmund Fitzgerald!" Skipper said. "I've seen you regurgitate things thousands of times, but this time it's just plain freaky."
"Considering Rico was human a few minutes ago, I'm sure some scientific law was just violated here," Kowalski said as he took the objects from Rico. "But I think I have to give it a pass. There are too many bigger violations around us to worry about a mere misdemeanor."
Just then, the four heard a familiar voice come through the speakers in the room. "All right, gentlemen, let's take it from scene 1."
Private gasped. "It's the producer!"
"Blast!" Skipper said. "Kowalski, hook me up with a strategic retreat."
Kowalski nodded. "I'm on it."
"Guys? What's all that racket?" the producer asked. "It sounds like a bunch of squawking penguins in there."
"Faster, Kowalski!" Skipper demanded. "Faster or we may never see our wives and children again unless they pay admission."
Kowalski pointed toward a grate in the ceiling. "Through the ductwork," he said. "It's a clichéd way to escape, but it'll have to do. If Private stands on a chair and then we all form our penguin ladder, we'll just reach."
Private sighed. "Why do I always get stuck on the bottom?"
"Because you're the youngest," Skipper replied.
"But I'm older than Rico in my human form!"
"Well, it's still a tradition! So don't try to argue your way out of it on a technicality, just get into position."
Private sighed and then slid a nearby chair underneath the opening in the ductwork. After jumping onto it, Skipper climbed onto his shoulders, followed by Rico and Kowalski.
"Almost there, almost there, got it!" Kowalski said as he reached for the grate and opened it. After pulling himself into the ductwork, he reached for Rico's flippers to pull up the others.
And just in time. Just as Private closed the grate behind him, the door to the recording room opened. "What's going on in"—the producer suddenly paused, surprised to find the room empty—"here?" He shut the door and then began to walk around the perimeter of the room to confirm it was indeed empty. "Huh," he said as he made it back to the door, "they must have gone on a coffee break or something. Reading through an eleven-minute episode's script is apparently more energy-depleting than I thought."
He was about to exit the room when a small object on the floor caught his attention. He walked over to the container and picked it up. "Dr. Refresh's Breath Mist," he said, reading the label. "Experimental formula—not for public issue." He sniffed the nozzle and then sprayed two shots into his mouth. "Mmm, minty." He then pocketed the container and left the room.
♦ ♦ ♦
Private sneezed. "Ugh. It's so dusty in here." He stopped for a moment and then sneezed again.
"Don't quit now, Private," Kowalski said. "We're almost to the roof. There we will face a danger far bigger than allergens and dust mites in the form of a fan that could easily slice us and dice us like so many as-seen-on-TV kitchen accessories."
"We're almost to the roof."
When they arrived at the rooftop air handler, the penguins—especially Private—were relieved to find that the spinning blades of death contained within it were still. Through the principle of extreme squash and stretch, the four squeezed themselves through the damper and then emerged on top of the building.
Private took a deep breath. "Ah, sweet clean air."
"Well, we made it," Skipper said. "Now what?"
"Well," Kowalski said, "since the random chemical experimentation option is out, I suppose I could try building a laser to blast us back into human form. But I'll need parts."
Skipper stroked his beak. "Hmm. The word 'blast' concerns me, but the rest seems promising. Change it to 'zap' and I think we've got ourselves a plan."
A thought then came to Private. "Hey, Kowalski, wouldn't it be easier and, with all due respect, less risky to instead figure out what actually caused us to turn into penguins and then do the opposite of that? You know, rather than build new, untested things that 'blast' or 'zap' or whatever you want to call it?"
"Less risky, yes," Kowalski replied. "But easier? Well, I don't know where to even begin thinking about how we ended up this way. But I will promise you this: if I can figure out what caused the species change before I get my laser built, I will try to work out a better solution."
"But for now," Kowalski said, "our next stop is the hardware store."
♦ ♦ ♦
"Are you sure this helps us blend in, Skipper?" Private asked. "We look like the type of person that most people should cross the street to avoid."
To avoid detection as they made their way down the busy streets of Burbank, the penguins had swiped a hat, a trench coat, and a pair of boots from a now–temporarily unconscious man sitting at a bus stop bench. He wouldn't be making his 11:20 connection.
"Then all the better," Skipper said as he stood on top of Private's shoulders underneath the coat. He and Rico formed the majority of the torso while Kowalski acted as the head of the faux human. Private, once again, got stuck on the bottom.
As the four continued to walk down the sidewalk, a car traveling down the street came to a stop at a red signal. The loud music playing inside became a bit louder as the window on the vehicle's passenger side then partially opened, just enough to allow the twentysomething male passenger to toss several pieces of garbage out onto the sidewalk.
"Hey!" Kowalski yelled, but he was in little position to do much else.
"Hey, eyes and earholes, what's going on up there?" Skipper asked.
"Oh, just some punk tossing garbage from a car. Stupid litterbug." As the car pulled away, Kowalski glanced over at the trash the passenger had thrown: a Big Mac box, a crushed-up cigarette pack, some soiled plastic utensils, and a small green object. "Hmm," he said. "Guys, let's move about twenty feet forward."
Private carried the foursome until they were right over where the green object had landed. "Private," Kowalski said, "reach down and pick up that green container, would you, please?"
Private reached down and picked up the object carefully so as not to drop his friends in the process. He shook it, but it was empty. "It's just an empty bottle of breath spray," he said. "At least that's what I think it is, as I can't really make out the words."
"That's what I thought it was," Kowalski said. "Why do I feel that it means something?"
Skipper chuckled. "Breath spray? It means something? How hard did you hit your head back at the studio?"
"Well, it just does, Skipper! I have a gut feeling that it's somehow linked to our predicament. Aren't you always telling us how we should listen to our gut?"
Skipper sighed. "I'm sorry, Kowalski. You're right. If breath spray means something to you then breath spray means something to me. Let's all take a moment to try to figure this out."
Private moved the creepy trench coat fellow down a nearby alley, where the penguins jumped out of their disguise and assembled behind an overfilled Dumpster.
Skipper looked over at Rico and shook his head. "Was that really necessary, man?"
"Well," Private said, "at least he waited until we got the trench coat off."
Rico grunted as he pointed toward the rotting refuse in front of them, but his friends weren't buying it as the source of the sudden odor.
"So, breath spray," Kowalski said as he took the empty bottle from Private. "Who has a theory?"
"Hmm," Skipper said. "Maybe the government, in a desperate effort to finally control entitlement spending, secretly tainted all breath spray sold in the United States with a chemical that turns humans into penguins."
"OK, who has a theory that isn't a conspiracy theory?"
Private massaged his forehead. "Well . . ."
Suddenly, Rico slapped Kowalski on the side of his neck. "So, you've got a theory, Rico?"
Rico shook his head. "Buzz, buzz—splat," he said, his flipper gestures reenacting having just killed a fly that had landed on Kowalski.
"Oh. Well, thanks, Rico." A moment passed and then Kowalski threw a triumphant flipper into the air. "Sweet calculus! I know how it happened!"
"Oh, that's wonderful!" Private cheered. "Bless you, Kowalski!"
Kowalski smiled. "Thank you, thank you, but it's all in a day's work for a genius like me." He pulled his whiteboard and marker out from wherever he had stashed them during the flight from the studio and started drawing as he began his explanation. "The first thing that must be said is that what happened to us was not my fault. No reckless chemistry, no laser malfunctions, no pressings of the wrong buttons. The blame is entirely Rico's."
"Eh? Whatcha talkin' 'bout?" Rico mumbled, shaking a flipper at Kowalski.
"Sorry, Rico, but it's true." Kowalski held up his whiteboard and pointed the tip of his marker at a quick doodle of a man being lifted up by another man. "You see, Rico, back when we were human, Private lifted you up so you could reach a fly that had landed on a smoke detector on the ceiling. You were trying to kill the fly with your breath spray after it had annoyed you in the recording room."
"Ah, I remember that now," Private said. "But, um, Kowalski, weren't you and Skipper helping to stabilize us? If something happened because of that, aren't you a little to blame, too?"
"Quiet, genius speaking." Kowalski then drew the breath spray bottle in the hand of the man being lifted up and some mist being sprayed out onto the smoke detector. "The smoke detector in the recording room is a battery-powered ionization smoke detector, which contains a trace amount of the radioisotope americium-241. Something in the breath spray must have reacted with the americium, with the result being the reassignment of our molecules to those of our fictional friends."
"But why our penguin characters?" Skipper asked. "Why didn't we turn into frogs or leprechauns or"—he shuddered—"hippies?"
"Ah," Kowalski continued, "that's because Rico was holding a copy of 'You Otter Know Better' in his armpit and we were all in contact with him. The proximity of the script, combined with our professional relationship to our characters, caused us to become one with them."
Skipper nodded slowly. "Uh-huh. And you can prove all this . . . how?"
"Well, I, uh . . ." Kowalski put his whiteboard and marker down and began to fumble behind his back with his flippers. "Oh, where is it? Where is it? I'm Kowalski, I should be able to find my own—Ah, here it is." His appendages emerged from behind his back with his trusty abacus in flipper. He slid a few of its beads around and then smiled confidently. "The abacus says it is so!"
Skipper shook his head. "Not good enough."
Kowalski tossed his abacus aside. "Then, um . . . cartoon physics?"
"Works for me!" Skipper placed a flipper on Kowalski's back. "So, Kowalski Nye the Science Guy, how do we get ourselves back to being mammals again, which is something I never thought I'd hear myself say?"
"Simple," Kowalski said. "All we need to do is get our flippers on a bottle of breath spray and then huddle together while one of us—and by that I mean either Rico, since he caused all this, or Private, since he's the only test penguin we have left after the loss of Manfredi, God rest his soul—sprays it at another ionization smoke detector. That same penguin will also have to hold a photograph of the four of us in human form underneath his flipper, just as the script was held in the studio."
"That's all?" Skipper said. "Breath spray, a smoke detector, and a photograph? That sounds too simple to be one of our plans. This'll be a piece of cake."
"Well," Private said, "the plan certainly sounds safer than firing some sort of beam at ourselves, even if just a little. But where are we going to get a photo of the four of us together? I have one at home, but I'd scare my wife to death if I went back there looking like I do. Though my kids would probably find me soft and cuddly and might never allow me to leave again."
"Have no fear, Private," Kowalski said. "I've got it all figured out. If we head over to the local Target store, not only will we be able to procure our needed breath spray and smoke detector, but I can use a floor-model computer to download a photo of ourselves from the Internet and then have it printed at the photo center."
"Ooh, maybe we can have some mugs made, too," Skipper said. "Imagine, our mugs on a mug. And maybe some keychains!"
Kowalski shook his head. "Let's just focus on the essentials, Skipper."
Skipper sighed. "Fine. But we've got to at least get an 8×10."
♦ ♦ ♦
It was less than a two-mile walk to Target.
"All right," Kowalski said as the four entered the store, once again inside the trench coat man, "let's head over to the electronics department first. After I download the photo, we can have it printed up while we gather the other two items."
With that, the penguins proceeded to the electronics department and quickly located the aisle where some laptop computers were on display. Kowalski was about to stick his flippers through the coat to type on one of them when a Target employee came over. "Welcome to Target," she said. "Anything I can help you with?"
Kowalski lowered his head so the brim of the faux human's hat would hide his penguin form from showing. He shook the hat to indicate that her assistance was not needed.
"Well, I'll be around here if anything changes." She was about to walk away when her curiosity about what the man was wearing got to her. "Um, aren't you hot, sir? It's like 71° out today and sunny."
Being without their Speak & Spell–type computing device, the penguins had no way of responding to the employee's question in any way that she would be able to understand. Instead, the four just remained silent and still until she gave up and began to walk away.
The young lady shook her head. "Why do the weird ones always come to my department?"
Once the aisle was clear, Kowalski proceeded to use the computer to access the Internet as planned. Although being in penguin form made it difficult to read English, he was able to understand enough to make it to a Penguins of Madagascar fan website, where, after a minute's search, a photo of them as Tom, Jeff, James, and John was located. "Found one!" he said. "Hey, Rico, do you happen to have a flash drive in your scientifically perplexing stomach?"
Rico answered by regurgitating the requested device and passing it up to Kowalski. Kowalski then saved a copy of the photo to the flash drive, removed it, and then had Private carry the foursome over to the kiosk at the photo center.
After using the machine to submit an order for a single 8×10, the penguins headed toward the front of the store and obtained a bottle of breath spray from the impulse items near each register. On the lowest shelf, something else also caught Private's eye. "Ooh, Cloud Cakes!" he said, looking at the Little Debbie product as his mouth watered. "They're not as good as Peanut Butter Winkies, but I could still go for one right now. Can we get a box, please?"
"Private," Skipper said, "now you're getting a bit too into your character. Please don't make me have to get too into mine by having to slap you."
The four then headed to the home improvement section to pick out a smoke detector.
"Let's see," Kowalski said once the penguins had selected a model that included a nine-volt battery, "it's $12.49 for the smoke detector, $2.99 for the breath spray, and $2.89 for the 8×10, plus tax. Rico, check our finances, please."
Rico opened his beak and proceeded to regurgitate a one-dollar bill and $2.56 in change. He reported the total through a grunt.
"That's more than a little short," Skipper said. "Are you sure, Rico?"
Rico grunted in the affirmative.
Skipper sighed. "Great. Now we're going to have to apply the five-finger discount. Or, given our current condition, the eight-flipper discount."
"You mean stealing?" Private asked.
"I'm afraid so," Skipper replied. "But don't fret over it too much. When we get back to human form, I'll mail the store the difference, and we'll all help an old lady or two across the street. That should offset any bad karma, and it might even give us a slight credit on the next time."
The penguins then left the aisle, with the trench coat man carrying the breath spray in his right hand and the smoke detector in his left.
After walking around the store for a while to kill time, it was nearing the time that the 8×10 would be ready. Before heading over to the photo center, Private moved the trench coat man next to a display of Doritos so that the items to be lifted could be slipped into the pockets of the coat without drawing the attention of store security. The penguins then went to pick up the photograph.
After paying the cashier at the photo center, Kowalski felt a hand tap him where the shoulder of the trench coat man would have been if he were real. "Excuse me, buddy," a man said from behind in a way that was both calm and authoritative.
Kowalski asked Private to turn the disguise around so that he could see whoever had tapped him. There stood a man who on first glance might have been mistaken for a cop if it weren't for the Target logo on the patches on his sleeves.
"I'm Sean Hudson with Target's loss prevention team," the man said as Kowalski again used the brim of the hat to hide himself. "Is there anything in your pocket that you would like to tell me about?" Another man wearing the same style uniform then appeared from what seemed like nowhere.
Despite their best efforts, the penguins had been caught shoplifting.
"Skipper," Kowalski whispered, "what do I do?"
"You do nothing," Skipper replied. "This is a job for Rico."
Rico immediately knew what to do. Suddenly, a smoke bomb came flying out the middle of the trench coat, giving the penguins cover behind a smoke screen.
"To the emergency exit!" Skipper yelled.
Sean and his colleague ran into the smoke to try to grab the shoplifter, but he had already disappeared. When all the smoke had cleared about thirty seconds later, the only sign that the man had been there was the empty trench coat, hat, and boots that the thief had left behind.
♦ ♦ ♦
Following the excitement, the penguins regrouped in the nearby parking lot of a furniture store that had long gone out of business.
"That was a close one," Private said after catching his breath. "We still have our three items, right?"
"I've got the photo," Kowalski said, pulling it out from behind his back.
"And I grabbed the breath spray and smoke detector before Rico's smoke bomb even hit the floor," Skipper said. "We're good."
Skipper handed the objects to Kowalski, who proceeded to take them out of their packages. He inserted the included battery into the smoke detector and pressed the test button; the sharp beep confirmed that it was in good working order. "Well," he said, "it's science time. Private, Rico—who wants to do this?"
"Not it!" the young penguin said almost immediately.
Kowalski chuckled and then handed the smoke detector and breath spray to Rico.
Skipper cleared his throat. "Well, boys," he said, "this is it. I know I've never been one for sappy speeches, but I think I can make an exception right now. Although we've been on thousands of missions together—or at least enough to fill 149 episodes at present—it feels like this is also our team's very first. Heaven only knows what our fate will be mere moments from now, but if it has been decided that we are to meet our maker—and by that I mean God, not Eric and me—at least we will be slipping the bonds of Earth as brothers. It has been an honor to command this unit these past few hours."
Skipper then raised his flipper in a salute, which his subordinates returned. After the others made a few remarks of their own and exchanged potential goodbyes, Kowalski tucked the 8×10 under Rico's left flipper.
"All right," Kowalski said, "here we go. Everyone put your flippers on Rico." He waited a moment for the others to make contact with Rico and then continued. "Now, Rico, on the count of three, spray the breath spray onto the smoke detector." He took a deep breath. "One . . . two—"
Private suddenly pulled away. "Wait," he said. "I just have one question before we do this. We're all going to be dressed when we turn back into humans, right? Because if we aren't, it will be more embarrassing than that time I molted and lost my cute factor."
"Never fear, Private," Kowalski replied. "Our clothes weren't left lying on the floor in the studio when we turned into penguins, so they won't be missing when we return to our proper selves."
"Thank goodness," Private said, making contact with Rico once again. "OK. Carry on."
Kowalski nodded. "All right, Rico. One . . . two . . . three!"
"Try it again, Rico," Kowalski said.
Rico gave the device a second spray. Nothing. A third. Still nothing. A fourth. A fifth. He then pulled the cover off and sprayed a sixth shot directly onto the ionization chamber, but there was not so much as the faintest sound or the slightest indication of a chemical reaction.
Angry, Rico let out a yell and then chucked the smoke detector a good thirty yards until it came crashing down upon the asphalt.
"Rico!" Private shouted, his eyes and beak wide.
"Kowalski, analysis," Skipper said.
"Well, it's possible that the reaction we induced was so great that instead of returning us to Homo sapiens, it stopped the passage of time around us, much like my chronal curbulator. Er, stopwatch."
Skipper rolled his eyes.
Kowalski sighed. "You're right. It just plain didn't work." He then gazed up into the sky. "Oh, Professor Einstein, I have failed you—again." A tear or two trickled down his face.
Private placed a flipper on Kowalski's back. "Oh, forget about Einstein," he said as he patted the scientist reassuringly. "Even if all of them have not worked quite as well as you intended, he could never have even conceived of some of the things you've invented. You're still a hero to me, and you're still our best hope at getting out of this mess."
A few moments later, Kowalski pulled out his whiteboard and began constructing equations and formulas to try to figure out what went wrong. There were so many numbers and letters involved that the math would have appeared Greek to anyone else—and some of it was.
Sadly, however, after about twenty minutes, it became clear that the jumble of 1s and 2s intertwined with Xs and Ys and deltas and omegas wasn't going to yield an answer. Kowalski sighed as he realized all he was basically doing now was throwing random symbols in random places and hoping for the best.
"Is there truly no way out of this?" he wondered aloud, wiping another set of failed equations away with a flipper. "Everything made perfect sense before. An ionization smoke detector powered by a nine-volt battery. Americium-241. Breath spray. The script. Our relationship to our characters. Our contact with Rico. Cartoon physics. I've taken everything into account."
Suddenly, Rico gasped as he remembered something that had been left out. Through a series of mumbles and grunts that could only be understood by his friends, he reminded them that the breath spray he had had at the studio was of an experimental type not available to the public, its ingredients unknown.
Kowalski quickly scribbled down an equation that took this new variable into account. He double-checked his work and then smiled. "Archimedes's beard, it works!"
Skipper groaned and threw his flippers up. "Rico! Where was that tip earlier when it could have saved us some trouble? Now we're going to have to make our way back into the studio and find that breath spray before someone calls Officer Y or Z from animal control."
"Actually," Private said, "I already know exactly where it is. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but soon after closing the grate in the ductwork in the recording room, I remember seeing the producer pick it up and put it in his pocket. He even tried it first."
Rico made a disgusted face. "Eww."
"Well, that complicates matters," Kowalski said.
"Not necessarily," Skipper replied. "Kowalski, what would you put our lovely Mr. Producer at? Five ten? Five eleven? That's probably around the same height as that guy at the bus stop."
Private gasped. "Skipper! Surely you can't be considering knocking out our own producer!"
"Well, do you have a better option? We need that breath spray, Private. Desperate times call for desperate measures." He paused for a moment. "Besides, he parked in my spot last week."
Private hung his head and sighed. "We're all fired."
♦ ♦ ♦
The producer always took his lunch at 1:00 p.m. sharp. Being Wednesday, it was his day to head over to the local Subway shop to try one of their five-dollar footlongs. It was a routine he never broke.
Until today. Although it was more broken for him than by him.
"This is so wrong," Private said. Rico had just tripped the producer in the parking lot with the line from his grapple gun.
Skipper gave the man a quick flipper to the neck. "Relax, Private," he said, the producer now out cold. "He'll be fine. You know, in twenty to forty minutes. Six hours tops."
Kowalski reached into one of the producer's pockets and pulled out a small clump of lint. He placed it back and then reached a flipper into the man's other pocket, pulling out the bottle of breath spray they were after. "Got it!" he said. He gave the bottle a quick kiss and then held it up triumphantly. "Oh, sweet human-restoring fluid, I love you more than a Higgs boson!"
"Well," Private said, "even though I wish we had used a different approach, at least we got it. But we're still without a smoke detector."
"Well," Kowalski said, "since we're back at the studio, we might as well brave the air handler and go back into the recording room to use the original one. Besides, it will probably be better for us to be inside the building when we return to human form anyway because we will not be suspected of knocking out the producer once he is found or comes to."
Skipper patted Kowalski on the back. "Hey, great alibi, Kowalski. I've trained you well."
"Thank you, sir."
And with that, the penguins left the producer behind and headed for the roof.
♦ ♦ ♦
"Well, this is déjà vu," Private said as he stood on a chair in the recording room, forming the bottommost rung of a penguin ladder.
"I can't see how, Private," Skipper said. "The other two times Kowalski was on top, and now Rico is. This is completely different."
As Private sighed, Kowalski looked up as best he could at the penguin he was supporting. "Ready up there, Rico?" he asked.
Rico nodded. "Uh-huh!" He was already holding the breath spray over the smoke detector, and the photo was in place.
"Good," Kowalski said. "Now even though I am the only one in actual contact with Rico, we should still be all right since we are acting like a chain. Any final concerns?"
"Men," Skipper said, "the words I said earlier still apply, so I won't repeat them. Let's do this."
With that, Kowalski began the countdown. "On three, Rico, you know what to do. One . . . two . . . three!"
There was a small sizzle and then a louder thud as the four were thrown to the floor. A peppermint aroma filled the air as four men awoke heaped on top of each other.
Skipper—or rather, Tom—rolled off the others and then opened his eyes. He smiled and then felt his face to confirm it. "Yes!" he said as he sprang to his feet, his hand having made contact with his nose. "We're back! Ha-ha!" He reached down and took Jeff by the hand, helping him up. "Jeff, you wonderful, wonderful man!"
Jeff chuckled. "Just playing my small part. The real credit for our success should go to you for suggesting that we embrace our characters to the fullest."
John sat up. "I can speak again!" he said. He glanced down at his stomach and patted it. "Ah, what a relief. It feels pretty good to no longer be carrying around all that extra weight of bombs, weapons, and everything else the writers crammed into me."
James, who was no doubt on the bottom of the pile, was the last to get up from the floor. "We're alive!" he said. He took a step toward the others and forced them all into a group hug.
After a few more moments of celebration, Tom cleared his throat. "Gentlemen," he said, "I'd like to just say a few final words about our experiences today. I am proud of each and every one of you for the role that you played in resolving our most unlikely predicament, but I am even more proud of all of us working together as a team to get the job done. We brought the spirit of our characters into an unscripted situation and performed our roles with the type of flawless talent worthy of nothing short of an Emmy. Though they surely would have complicated matters and would have had to have been knocked out at some point, it's a shame that the good folks at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences could not have witnessed us in action. But regardless, our experiences today have forged a bond that can never be broken, not only between us as men, but between us and our feathered friends, even long after we part with them professionally."
"Hear, hear!" James agreed.
"So before I relieve you of your duties," Tom continued, now speaking in the voice of Skipper, "there is only one thing left that we have to do." He smiled and then held up his right hand. "Up high, boys."
No sooner had the men's hands met in a high-five than the four heard the sound of a clearing throat across the room. They stopped the celebration abruptly when the producer walked up to them.
"I've been looking everywhere for you," he said. He looked pretty good for having been tripped and knocked out by some of his own cast earlier, but his tone still had an air of irritability about it. "What are you guys talking about? What are you guys doing?"
As the others stood there with worried expressions on their faces, Tom simply turned to the producer and slowly moved his hands in front of him. "You didn't see anything."
♦ ♦ ♦
Manhattan, New York
Skipper climbed out of his bunk as a new day began at the Central Park Zoo. It was an hour before sunrise—or, as he called it, sleeping in. "Rise and shine, boys," he said to the others as he stretched his flippers. "Time to find out what the Concrete Jungle will throw at us today."
Private turned his head toward Skipper from his bunk. "Morning, Skipper. Sleep well?"
Skipper chuckled. "It's funny you should ask. I slept fine, but I had the strangest dream. We were all in it, but these strange men were trapped inside our bodies. They all seemed to think it was their job to speak for us in some fictional world, a profession they called voice acting."
"Wow," Private said, "that is strange."
Just then, Rico set his stuffed toy aside and began to climb down from his bunk. After his feet hit the floor, Rico cupped a flipper in front of his beak and exhaled a few breaths of air into it.
Skipper's eyes widened and his beak dropped as he observed Rico regurgitate a breath spray bottle and then spray two shots into his beak. "Oh, you gotta be kidding me!"