"Aww, Charley. C'mon, baby, don't do that." Vinnie stroked
Charley's hair, rocking her while she bawled. He was more than confused,
but any excuse to hold her was a plus for him.
"Geez, Vin. Next time you drop a bomb on me, give me some warning." she sniffed, and he pulled a hankie from somewhere to dry her eyes.
"Sorry, sweetheart. I guess my timing sucks. But hey, will you marry me any way?" he grinned, going down on one knee.
"I-I-I, uh, well, yeah. I guess I will." She stammered out, eyes wide.
Vinnie picked her up off the bed and swung her around. "You just made me the happiest mouse alive!" he cried, pulling her close to kiss her. They were interrupted by a quiet knock on the door.
"Yo, cuz." Danni called, and Vinnie opened the door without putting Charley down.
"Modo `n Rave 'll be home in two days. Me, Stoke, n' Throttle 're gonna take the' remote and head out tonight. You guys cool with that?"
"Uh, huh." Charley giggled from Vinnie's arms, and he nodded like an air head, a big, silly grin all over his face.
"What's up?" Danni shook off her preoccupation.
"She said yes." Vinnie whispered, and Charley swatted him, blushing.
"Oooh, your mom's gonna faint." Danni grinned conspiratorially, to which Vinnie queried, "Is that a family trait?"
It was dawn in London, the city just waking, when two mice and one human appeared in a cramped little alley that was all too familiar to two of them.
"This the place?" Throttle asked, looking far too comfortable in his disguise. Stoker made a grumpy noise and fussed with the lapels of the duster, which was far too warm.
"Let's get indoors." Danni suggested, squinting. She made sure she had her passport and wallet, then led the way to the flat. It was still empty, probably because Aaron's remains were still in a noise some pile in the main room.
Throttle covered his nose and mouth with his hand and gagged, as did Danni. Stoker jerked the blanket from the window and covered the body. Or what was left of it.
"Way to gross." Danni commented.
"No way am I stayin' here," Throttle breathed thru his mouth, unwilling to accept a second noseful of that stink.
"Hotel?" Danni looked hopeful, envisioning a real bed, hot water and room service; things she hadn't experienced her last visit to England.
"Nope." Stoker shook his head, and said, "This ain't no pleasure cruise, girl. We got work to do."
"We could get separate rooms." she spat caustically, and they both turned to stare at her.
"Uh, let's not go overboard. Compromise?" Throttle tried to mediate.
"Whoo. Got bitchy again, huh?" Stoker shucked out of the leather trenchcoat. He flopped down onto the threadbare couch.
"I'm guessing, yeah." Danni allowed, then unbent, "Okay, a room near here. Cheap, tacky, no room service."
"Okay. Alright, you win. But we hit that club tonight. I wanna find Stevie, get some background on ol' Aaron."
By the time Modo brought Rave home, one of the garage bays had been converted to a gym. Sort of. There were walking bars, a treadmill, a heavy bag, and lots of free weights. Rave grinned a little crooked and said, "It's home, good to be." She frowned at herself and tried again, "It's....good....to...be....home."
Modo beamed like a proud papa and explained, "Th' doctor said she might be mildly aphasic for a while. Just something she forgot how to do."
"Welcome back!" Charley gave her a hug while Modo held her. She made a clumsy attempt at a hug back, and whistled when she saw Vinnie.
"Hey, girl. I guess you made it." he said, and kissed her on the cheek.
"Too bad this isn't a Steven Segall movie. You'd be kung fuin' inside of 20 minutes. Course then you'd have to date Kelly LeBrock..." Vinnie ducked an awkward swat in his direction, but Rave laughed.
Modo nestled her gently on the couch, and cast a stern eye at his woman. "You're gonna take it easy. You are an invalid this time."
"They're easier to control that way, humm?" Marcel melted out of a shadow and stuck a pose in front of Rave, bowing.
"Ass...hole." she said, quite clearly. Charley burst out laughing.
"Who are you?" demanded Modo, getting a fistful of Marcel's shirt front and lifting him from the floor.
"I'm your new roomie, Mars." the exile smiled, and clapped his hands across Modo's ears. Modo dropped him and fell to one knee.
"Oooh, rumble!" Vinnie couldn't resist, he dived into the fray.
When the dust settled, Marcel was sitting atop a pile of two mice. Charley goggled and Rave tried to scoot forward on the sofa.
"Are you glad I don't follow orders, yet?" Marcel laughed, hopping off them.
"Yeah. I'm glad." Vinnie groaned, and Charley helped him up. Modo just shook his head and laughed.
"I don't know you, but I may already like you." Modo slapped him on the back as he rose.
"That's one out of how many?" Marcel extended his hand, and Modo took it.
"He's Camembert's nephew, ya know." Vinnie had to throw in.
Modo's face fell. "But he don't look," he sniffed, "or smell like a damn stink fish."
"Half stink-fish, thank you." Marcel drawled, and released Modo's hand.
"Yeah. He was sent here to kill us." Charley controlled her hilarity.
"So y' gave him room an' board? No offense, Charley, but yer cookin' ain't good enough to buy off a hit man." Modo was staring at Marcel.
"He was a spy for Mars on Plutark. Carbine sent 'im here." Vinnie supplied, and Raven snorted derisively.
"She has a remarkable repertoire of disagreeable noises." Marcel noted, examining Rave minutely.
She stuck her tongue out at him.
"Raven got shot saving my life. She's just out of a coma." Modo was short, sweet, and to the point.
"Oh." Marcel dropped to one knee and stared up into her face with his blank black eyes. She drew back.
"How fast has she gotten back this much?" he asked Modo, reaching for Rave's hand.
"Ask - me, asshole." Rave made an effort to kick him, succeeding only in nudging him with her foot.
"Very well, answer the question, then."
"Very nice - excellent." Marcel glanced from Rave to Modo, "Have you ever done rehab like this?"
"No, but I can handle it. The doc briefed me." Modo's chin rose.
"Don't let her quit." Marcel walked away.
"What the hell was that all about?" Charley wanted to know, and Vinnie, who had a good idea, told her, "Later sweetheart."
"Stoker, I'm tellin' ya. It's two a.m. and I want to sleep." Danni yelled in his ear to be heard over a very bad band.
"He's gonna show." Stoker yelled back, throwing back his warm, brown, thick ale. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Obsess much, bro?" Throttle wanted to know from Stoker's other side, drawing a glare from the long haired mouse.
"We need to see this guy, Throttle. You got that? The manager said he'd be in tonight. We'll wait." Stoker snarled, on his way to a mean beer drunk.
Danni took that opportunity to lean in and bite Stoker's ear. He bellowed and jerked away. "Shit! What's wrong with you?"
"You're becoming a big asshole." She informed him, a very unfriendly look on her face.
"Sorry, you guys, I'm a little tense." Stoker rubbed his forehead. He nearly swallowed his tongue when he was goosed from behind.
"Y' made it too bloody easy, mousie" Stevie grinned into Stoker's outraged eyes.
"Motherf-" Throttle clapped his hand over Stoker's mouth and smiled at Stevie, "Hiya, how ya doin', citizen?"
"Good Lor' another one. Nice clothes, brother." Stevie flirted, met by a wall of Danni's anger.
"Back off. I don't share." she hissed, and he flinched away, while Throttle tried to sort out what had just happened. When he got it, he flushed.
"I went to the flat. Saw Aaron." Stevie spoke directly to Stoker, now.
"Not here." Stoke hushed him, and they hustled him out. There was silence all the way back to their hotel, The Edwardian on Grosvnor Square.
Once inside the room, Stoker plunked Stevie down at the table and then sat with the others on the bed. They stared at each other for a few seconds before Stevie spoke.
"Much as I like lookin' at ya, mousie, it's about as fulfillin' as flirtin' wi' a mirror."
"I'm not here fer playtime, boy. There's some problems attached to your old pal's attacks." Stoker leaned forward.
"I don't see `ow I can `elp. When `e started turnin', I ran. I hid from `im. What can I `elp you wif?"
"Where did his changes start? What or who was he into?" Danni pleaded, and Stevie took a closer look. She edged toward him and he winced away.
"You wuz bit, too?"
"Yeah. Kinda." Danni looked down.
"Go t' Piccadilly. There's a shop Aaron hung out at all th' time. It's called Pied Piper. Can't miss it." Stevie rose to leave, but was blocked by Stoker. No one had seen him move.
"Shit! Yer one of `em!" Stevie fell backwards over his chair in his effort to get away.
"I thought I was cured. Aaron's dead, an' I'm still --"
"Young. Yer young, ol' mousie. That's wot they do, an yer gonna drink me..." he panicked, trying for the window. Danni was there before him.
"Nobody's gonna be dinner, kid." Stoker said gruffly, and backed off. "We just need to figure how to get this - side effect - taken care of."
"Go to the Pied Piper, then, but leave me out of it!" Stevie was shaking so bad his teeth were chattering.
"We're sorry, Stevie, and thanx." Danni said sadly, letting him leave by the door. Stoker called after him, "We won't bother you again, kid."
Throttle had sat thru the whole ordeal, looking worried, but not interfering. Now he broke his own silence.
"That was, for lack of a better word, freaky." he stared at them both, "What other symptoms do you still have?"
"Sunlight bothers us, the unnatural quickness, and Stoker's age-thing..." she hesitated, then forged on, "and ther's this serious craving for really rare meat."
"That whole `meat food' thing." Throttle nodded, then, "Do you think you'd hurt anybody-to-to-drink?"
"It doesn't feel like it did when the albino was after me, Just a constant urge to eat bloody red meat for every meal." Stoker cleared his throat uncomfortably.
Throttle relaxed a bit. "So, Pied Piper tomorrow?" he asked.
Stoker nodded, and Danni stretched, heading for the bath. It was one of her stipulations: a private bath in the room.
Modo was discouraged, Rave was frustrated, and Marcel was just - watching. The spoon lay on the dinner table, next to a bowl of rapidly cooling soup. Rave had spilled three previous bowls in her attempts to feed herself.
"C'mon, Rave." Modo encouraged softly, and she made a grab for the spoon, getting her hand next to it. She finger crawled her way to it and grasped it. "Hah!" she exulted, then made a jab at the bowl. She got the spoon into the bowl with a splash, but pushed it a good six inches with the force of her jab. With a shaking, straining hand, she balanced the load of soup to her mouth, and in.
"You got it!" Modo was smiling like a Peter Max sun, and Rave grinned up at him in return.
"Tomorrow, walking?" she inquired, and he nodded, pushing the bowl back in front of her.
"So what was Marcel's deal? Or was he just being his usual obnoxious self?" Charley asked, rubbing Vinnie's back.
"He thinks Modo's not gonna be able to handle what it's gonna take to make Rave walk again." Vinnie replied, arching as she hit all the right spots.
"Hey, he loves Raven." Charley defended, and he leaned back into her arms.
"That's the problem. Walking is gonna hurt. Her tendons have shrunk, she's got nil mobility, and her muscles haven't held her weight in 7 months. Modo's gonna baby her, pick her up every time she cries, and that's not what she needs."
"Where did you pick this up?"
Vinnie just smiled serenely, "Research, sweetheart. Been reading up."
"You've been reading?" Charley was astounded.
"Had to do something when I finished my dirty joke book. Besides I needed to do something at the hospital all the times we spent the day."
My, my. You sure are a fount of knowledge." Charley nuzzled him, kissing his shoulder.
"Hey, will you appreciate me even more if I tell you how often I went down to the rehab room and watched?" Vinnie brought her hand to his mouth, nibbing her wrist.
Stoker awoke to pitch blackness, that same spidery sensation walking up his back as when Aaron was stalking him. He flung the single sheet off and was on his feet silently, trying to pierce the darkness with his gaze.
"We understood you were looking for us." a soft voice came from the direction of the windows.
Stoker stifled a gasp and whirled. The lamp over the table clicked on, and Throttle groaned, sitting up. He blinked, fishing his shades from the bedside table, and immediately shook Danni awake.
"Would you be happier if I said `Good Eeeveing' ?" the vampire seated on the hotel chair did a terrible Bela Lugosi impression, and laughed at his own joke, flashing a lot of fang.
"How'd you get in?" demanded Danni, glancing at the door.
"This is a public place, and you - people - made it a tacit invitation by searching for us."
"Us?" Throttle asked, eyebrows raised.
"Vampires." came the reply. Except for the fangs and paleness, the vampire looked like any other long haired young man, down to the ripped jeans and T-shirt.
"If you're here, you know why we were looking for you." Stoker was staring holes thru the visitor.
"You were half made by a monster. You started to make her." he gestured to Danni, all liquid grace, nothing like Aaron.
"Do we even get a name?" Danni put in, rubbing gooseflesh on her arm.
"You can call me Angus. What do you want with us?" he cocked an elegant eyebrow at them, somehow making his appearance mean less than nothing, as if he were in a thousand dollar suit instead of trashy rags.
"Aaron is dead. Why are we still affected?" Stoker barked, unable to hold back any longer.
"You killed the animal?" there was actual surprise on the pale face. "Then you are free. The taint is gone." he shrugged.
"Not quite. I'm still twenty years younger, we're both hurt by sunlight, what the hell's the deal?" Stoker growled.
"You were nearly dead when you altered. That's permanent. The sunlight and such, it's more like an allergy. I'd suggest sun block and shades. If you're craving meat, consider anemia; your bodies are demanding protein, you'll get over it. Anything else is permanent." Angus gave them another toothy smile, rising to leave.
"Please, wait." Throttle held out one hand, "You mean they'll be unnaturally fast forever? And why come to us and just answer questions?"
"Forever? No. Till they die, of course. And I came as sort of a professional courtesy. We should have dealt with the animal when he first came to our notice. You were almost turned against your will. We owe you information, at least." He bowed once, a sardonic expression on his face.
"What was he? Aaron, I mean. You're nothing like him." Danni was relieved and fascinated.
"He was a bored, stupid young man who played with fire and got eaten alive by it. He became a rogue, little better than a clever dog, ruled by thirst. We owed you for putting him down. Now we've paid. Goodbye." he said quietly, and was gone. They didn't even blink, and yet he was gone. The door closed softly.
"Wow." Danni blew out a breath, "I'm never gonna think we're fast again."
"Yeah." Stoker grimaced.
"So are we done here? Are you satisfied?" Throttle wondered, taking off the shades and snuggling down into the pillows.
"If I said no, would you feel the need to harm me?" Stoker asked with a grin, clearly amused.
"Of course." Danni answered for Throttle, and grabbed Stoker by the tail, dragging him to the bed, "We're not monsters! We need to celebrate!"
"You're just insatiable, that's all." Throttle jibed, and helped her topple Stoker.
"Lucky for you two."
Vinnie and Charley were both Holding Modo down. Rave was crying, and Marcel was standing over her, a sneer on his face.
"You're nothing but a baby. It's not worth my time to try and help you." He spat on the floor and walked away. It had been a week since they had seen Stoker, Throttle, or Danni, and four days since Marcel had been given the dubious honor of Rave's coach. Against Modo's will. Modo was so frustrated he was nearly chewing the furniture, because Rave would try, once, then give up, crying. It tore him up.
Charley was nearly standing on Modo's feet, Vinnie had his antennae in one hand and his left ear in another trying to keep him from ripping Marcel into little bitty pieces. Modo stopped at one word from Rave.
"Please..." she sobbed, in a heap on the floor of the walking bars. "Marcel, wait..." she called, one arm hooked over the bar. Her unshorn hair was all over, a white blond puffball, her face was red and tear streaked, and her body shook with effort. She pulled herself up into a mostly standing position and held it, clinging to the bar.
Marcel turned back a bit and demanded, "What do you want?"
"I need help." she finally said harshly.
"You need less help, and more work." he returned, stalking back toward her. "Get yourself together! Are you some helpless, useless thing? We've been working those muscles and tendons for days! There's nothing wrong with you!" he shouted in her face.
"It hurts!" she shouted back, some of her old fire returning.
"Of course it hurts! If nothing hurt, you'd be dead! Now work!" he snarled, and Modo settled a little, his hackles still raised, but less likely to cause damage.
The transporter hummed in the far corner, and Charley left Modo in Vinnie's hands to make sure what ever came thru was friendly. As it turned out, it was more than friendly, Throttle, Danni, and Stoker came thru arm in arm, laughing and bearing a whole lots of packages.
"We're baa-ack!" Danni sang, and danced across the garage, bestowing a kiss on everyone, Marcel and Rave included.
"What took you guys so long?" asked Vinnie, and staggered a tiny bit as Stoker came up behind him and clapped him on the back.
"There was a small matter of Danni flying back to New York to keep her passport legal, then transporting back to London on the sly to play a while -" Throttle grinned, and Danni interjected, "Not to mention the shopping!"
"So you guys're done? Everything groovy?" Charley wanted to know, keeping one weather-eye on Marcel and Rave, who were very slowly moving all the way down the walking bars.
"Yeah. We got a visit from a real vamp, and we're cool." Stoker was positively buoyant, rocking up on his toes.
"Spill it, Stoke." Modo ordered, a suspicious look on his face as he tried to split his attention between Raven and the brown mouse.
"The young look is permanent, and being really fast, but everything else will pass!" Danni stole his thunder, dancing again, unable to keep still. Stoker laughed and swung her around, then spun her off to Throttle, who twirled her.
"Ghaa. You three are too happy." Rave bitched from the end of the platform. Marcel handed her a towel and stepped away. Modo took his place at Rave's side and pulled her up, allowing her to stand while supporting almost all her weight.
"I see your speech has improved." Throttle was a bit stiff with Rave.
"Yeah. Mostly." Rave grinned with very little humor.
"I was made slave driver for obvious reasons." Marcel put his two cents in, a sour look on his face.
"You mean because you've driven slaves, or because of your loveable personality?" Throttle wanted to know.
"And here I thought Earth was going to be a totally unfamiliar experience." Marcel snapped, and vanished up the stairs.
"Hey, that was uncool, bro." Vinnie objected, and took off after Marcel.
"Was it something I said?" Throttle was genuinely confused, and Modo gave him `the look' that said he should get stuffed, and assisted Rave toward the stairs, then carried her up them.
"What?" Throttle demanded, and Charley just cold-shouldered him, heading for the kitchen.
"Eew. Looks like you really stepped in it, bro." Stoker said, one arm around Danni, the other hand on Throttle's shoulder.
"Huh. I guess things can really change in a week." Throttle rubbed the back of his neck.
"Apparently so." Danni disengaged from Stoker's arm and paced the floor, "So where are we supposed to stay?"
"Huh?" from both mice.
"There's three rooms. Vinnie and Charley. Rave and Modo. Marcel. Where are we in this equation?" Danni spelled out.
"Hmm. Guess we fake it." Stoker shrugged, and went off in search of a phone book. He trotted back with the book and a cordless phone.
"How much money you got, Dannielle?" he inquired, and she raised both eyebrows.
"Look, man, he hasn't been around. We got used to you." Vinnie started to reach out to Marcel.
"I tire of having to `prove' myself every five minutes. At least when I was on Plutark, I knew where I stood. Every one hated me. Here, I just get settled, and someone else starts in." Marcel was gloom itself, and sat with his elbows on his knees, head down.
"C'mon. Throttle's a real smart mouse. He'll get the picture quick enough. Modo knows what you're doing for Rave..." Vinnie trailed off.
"When he's not trying to kill me for making her cry." Marcel almost smiled.
"Well, yeah. Hey, chill out. Eventually, everything will work out."
"Okay, okay. You rest, I'll do it." Modo didn't hurry away, and he didn't look happy. Dressing down Throttle was not real high on his list of fun things to do today.
Rave nodded in satisfaction and settled into the big, over stuffed chair Modo had procured for her. He nodded back and close the door, heading downstairs. He met Throttle in the hall, hand raised to knock on Marcel's door.
"You got a talent for sticking your foot in your mouth bro. And my butt over an open flame." Modo said quietly.
"Apparently. I'm here to make amends. So consider me browbeaten, okay?" Throttle made a face like he'd eaten something very nasty, and tapped.
"Enter." Marcel called, and Throttle walked in.
Stoker wrangled on the phone, Danni hovering over his shoulder, occasionally saying something in his ear. He waved her away.
"C'mon, Dillon. We're only interested in buying in so we have a place to call our own. No way are we like Limburger. Look here, you draw up the contacts." he paused, listening.
"No way. No Huh uh." Stoker was shaking his head, then he relaxed, "Okay, cool out, relax. Twenty percent, the upstairs apartment, and silent partners. Are we solid here? Okay. Here's Danni." he handed the phone over to her.
"Yo, Dill! We straight?" she asked, and grinned, giving Stoker a thumbs up. "Sure! You keep the top slot, we're just outta room. We need a place to play house." she laughed.
"Okay! Tomorrow, 9am. We'll meet at the bank. We can get the money sorted, get the contracts notarized, yeah - like that. Bye." she hung up.
"We got a place, right around the corner. Danni, you're smart. Must be why I like you." Danni hugged Stoker, and he kissed her hand.
"I hope Throttle's got his shit together." he murmured, pulling at his hair. Danni surprised him by taking out his ponytail and brushing thru his long hair with her fingers. He relaxed under her touch.
"Hay!" she suddenly yelled, shocking him out of his drowse.
"What?" he twisted around to look at her, eyes round.
"Find me some scissors, and I'll tell you later." she laughed, and he sighed.
A tap at Rave's door. "Yeah?" she responded, and in walked Danni and Charley, electric razor and scissors in hand.
"Need a trim?" Danni dimpled, and Rave laughed.
"Looks that...lame, huh?" she asked, searching for the word.
"You've looked worse." Danni answered, and took her left side while Charley took the right, seating her on the floor.
"Leave the lock in front and the tail in back, buzz the rest." Rave directed, and let them do their work. Modo walked in on them somewhere near the end and squawked when Charley chased him out with a can of mousse, threatening to spike his fur.
"There!" Danni stood back, admiring her work. Instead of one braid, Rave's tail had become seven tiny plaits. Rave's eyes were encircled with grey kohl, and her lips were red. She was pleased.
"Feel better?" Charley asked, and she grinned, crawling up into the chair again on her own.
"Hey!" Charley was amazed. "You are getting better."
"I'm gonna make it." Rave affirmed.
"So did I tell ya we're movin' out?" Stoker mentioned casually to Vinnie, Marcel, and Throttle as he wandered into Marcel's room. He was met with dead silence.
"Come again?" Vinnie was caught flat footed.
"Me and Danni arranged a deal with Dillon. Danni's gonna buy into the bar as a silent partner, so we get the apartment over it. You in, Throttle?" Stoker grinned.
"Hell, yes." Throttle replied, hopping up from the floor.
"Wait, we got nothin' t' sleep on, eat off of, uh, do I sound like Ozzie or Harriet?" Throttle colored.
"Yes." Vinnie patted his back, exiting the room.
"I didn't know Danni was that rich." Marcel coughed, surprise on his face.
"Yup. Old inhertance, stunt work, things like that." Stoker grinned still, holding his breath.
"Well?" Throttle knew the look.
"We can move tonight. We move, she signs papers tomorrow."
"Shit! Move what?" Throttle looked around, focusing on nothing.
"C'mon, bro. We've got a credit card." Stoker dragged him out by his bandanna.
Throttle and Stoker stood outside a furniture warehouse, Throttle's bike and Charley's borrowed one parked by the front doors, the two mice by the loading dock.
"We came, we saw, we purchased?" Throttle asked, still feeling woozy about the volume of material they had acquired.
"Veni, vidi - what?" Stoke looked over at him.
"I don't speak Latin, boss." Throttle laughed, and walked over to the truck driver to give him the address. They followed on the bikes when he headed out.
Danni met them all at the front door of the bar with the keys.
"How broke am I?" she demanded, and whistled at the total.
"If I faint, catch me." she wailed, and Stoker swatted her - gently - with his metal tail.
"Hush, woman. We came in under budget."
"Barely." she glared, then relented with a laugh.
"You're right. I've just never spent this much all at once before." she hugged them both, then directed the warehouse delivery man around to the side of the building and the access stairway to the second floor apartment. The moving in began.
"We are so lucky Dillon ran short of funds for the rebuilding." she hugged herself, grinning.
By 10pm. A bottle of whiskey and a case of beer were the only things in their new fridge besides a pizza box, and their new belongings were in place, looking new.
"Small party?" Throttle suggested, feeling halfway between laughter and nervous breakdown.
"Yeah, we can have another with everybody when we're all settled in." Stoker broke the seal on the bourbon.
"Ooops. No glasses yet."
"Who needs'em?" Danni grabbed the bottle and took a healthy swig.
It was dark. It was way late. There shouldn't be anyone pounding on any door. Vinnie found his drawers in the dark and dragged them on, hopping on one foot. "Keep yer shirt on!" he hollered, then remembered Charley, who was no longer sleeping.
"Shit." she rubbed her eyes. "This better be important."
Vinnie glanced at the clock. 3:30. In the morning. He jerked the door open to reveal -- Carbine. Standing in the hallway. Upstairs at Charley's. Very pregnant.
"Uh..." he gaped at her. She poked a hard finger into his chest.
"Where's that son of a rat?" she demanded, pushing her way into the room.
"Carbine?" Charley yawned, clutching the sheet around her breast.
"Charley?!" Carbine colored to her ears and headed back out into the hallway.
"Look, Carbine, don't go and wake everybody else..." Vinnie pleaded, but Marcel was already in the hallway and Modo was peeking out of the door to his and Rave's room. "Too late." Marcel growled, leaning against the wall, the talons on his right hand gleaming in the hall lights. He retracted them and sniffed disparagingly.
"Might we continue this get together downstairs? Where I, personally, feel less inclined to toss the offending party over the railing." He vaulted the railing he had indicated, landing crouched by the sofa.
"Whoo, he's pissed." Charley mentioned, drawing her robe together over her nakedness and staring over into the living room.
"Not the only one." Glowed Modo, ducking back into his room to give Rave a ride down.
Vinnie just shrugged and headed down.
"Why the special trip, Carbine?" Charley asked, once they were all settled by the T.V.
"I came to get that insubordinate son of a rat Stoker. His damn freedom fighters won't take my orders and I can't have that." She spat and lurched to her feet, her hugely mounded belly making her awkward.
"Stoke's not here." Vinnie's voice was quiet.
"Get him here. Now." Carbine was livid.
"Now wait." Charley was getting angry. "You do not just pop into my place and start giving my guy orders. Back up the truck, Carbine."
"I said now! Don't interfere, Charley." Carbine's eyes blazed, her hormones out of control.
"I'll go." Marcel was gone, vanishing again into the shadows.
"I've got to get him to teach me that." Rave yawned, enjoying the show.
By four o'clock, Marcel was back, and following him was a trio of disreputable looking individuals. Stoker was first in, wearing the duster, the Oakleys, and his boxers, next were Throttle and Danni, staggering a bit, Danni in Stoker's vest and Throttle's boxers, Throttle in his pants only, the top button undone. They both wore shades as well. No - one had remembered shoes.
"Well. How typical." Carbine bit off.
"Piss on ya, General." Throttle replied, staring her down.
"Stoker, you're coming home. Now." Carbine ordered, but found she was without a leg to stand on.
"I am home. You cashiered me. You wanted to command my fighters - do it." Stoker stood in front of her, unmoved by her screaming and insults. Then she started crying. Everyone was yelling at once, so Rave took a deep breath and bellowed: "SHUT UP!!!!"
It was the proverable pin - drop moment.
"Is there something wrong with you people?" Rave wanted to know, arms folded, holding forth from her seat on the couch.
"Who are you?" Carbine wanted to know.
"Raven." Modo supplied, very unpleased with Carbine.
"So you're the one who messed up Modo's head." the black haired mouse looked down her scarred nose at Rave.
Modo immediately stepped between them, "She nearly died saving me. You wanna spit your poison somewhere else, lady."
"Well you're whipped, Modo." she snapped dismissively.
"Rain it in, Carbine." Throttle said quietly, from one side of Danni, Stoker now on her other.
"You don't have anything to say to me, Throttle. I need Stoker, and I want this done."
"You need, you want. D'you ever listen to yourself, girl?" Stoker sounded flat, uninflected.
"Go home, Carbine, and step down till your baby's born. You can't control yourself - how do you expect to control a fighting force?" Throttle turned his back on her.
"Don't you give me your back! Don't you dare!" Carbine howled, and surged forward, one hand grabbing a hank of his hair, the other raised to strike.
Nobody saw Danni or Stoker move, but they were suddenly across the room with Carbine gently but firmly between them.
"That's more than enough, I think." Marcel decided, and administered a soft looking tap between Carbine's eyes. She obediently went limp, and Stoker arranged her on the couch by Rave.
"This is your old flame?" Danni demanded, on fire.
"She's - changed a lot." Throttle blew out a breath.
"She's got a severe hormonal imbalance." Marcel informed them all. "She's nearly toxic. She needs a doctor."
"What?" Vinnie just stared at him.
"Look at her eyes. The whites are so yellow they're almost orange. Her gums are white, and she's wacko. Nobody noticed?"
"She probably ignored it all. She's way too driven." Stoker muttered, angrily lashing his tail, on his way to the radio.
"Gimme Wire." he barked when someone finally answered his hail up on Mars.
"What in Hell is goin on, boy?"
"Stoker?" came a wary, timid voice.
"Yeah, Wire. Pull yer head outta the R & D department and get a doctor over to the transporter coordinates. Your wife is sick as a banded rock mite. Get her some help and keep her the Hell away from me."
"But Stoker, Mars needs...." Wire tried, but was overridden.
"Mars needs someone to organize against the Plutarkian armada, not ground troopers like us. You got ships now, use'em." Stoker handed the microphone to Marcel, who shrugged.
"This is your old friend Blackjack. I can help, but not `till my obligation here is settled." Marcel was smooth, really smooth.
"Obligation? I don't get it."
"I've begun a task here. When it's finished, I'll come help you destroy the armada. If they've moved at all, they're hiding behind Jupiter at the supply depot trying to figure out their assholes from their elbows. They won't actually attack for a month or more." Marcel handed the mic to Throttle, who looked at it like an enemy.
"Hey, Wire." Throttle finally said. "We're sendin' her now. Put somebody stable in charge till she's set right. And keep her sedated or the medics'll never have a chance to help her. Your baby's life is in danger, too. The freedom fighters will follow her orders again when she starts making sense." he dropped the microphone and collected his partners, his head low. They left without saying goodbye.
Charley answered the desperate voice on the radio while Modo and Vinnie worked the transporter. When she signed off, she turned to Modo, an enquiring look on her face.
"Bad Craziness, Charley-girl. Bad Blood between Carbine and Throttle and Carbine and Stoker. Nasty guju all over." he shook his head and took Rave back upstairs.
"We'll sort it out in the morning." Vinnie said softly, his arm around Charley.
"It is morning," whispered Marcel.
At 8:30 that morning, after not sleeping the rest of the dark hours, and after conversing for a long time with the toilet, Danni rode off to cement the deal for their lodgings.
Throttle, alarmed at Danni's illness, had not slept either, leaving Stoker in sole possession of the bed, snoring to wake the dead. He tried pacing, but that just left his mind free to wander over the fiasco with Carbine again. He stuck his hands in his pants pockets, and discovered Danni's credit card all over, an awesome notion forming. Throttle flung on his vest, grabbed his boots and helmet, and headed out, determined to find out whether shopping was really a sure cure for major bumness.
Rave had been doing very well at the weights, and even better at walking, and was celebrating at the lunch table when Stoker dragged in to join them.
"Hey, Stoker!" Rave was appallingly bright and cheery.
"Huh." was his reply, then he spied coffee on the counter, flung his shades off, and groaned, "Saved!" as he poured himself a big cup. He downed it black, gagging, then refilled.
"Even if I am 20 years younger, it still leaves me too old fer an insanity fest like last night's." he sighed, seating himself across from Rave.
She went slightly pale and set down her sandwich, bending forward. Stoker set down his coffee with a slosh and was at her side immediately.
"What is it?" he asked, worried.
"S'nothin'. Just cramps." she gave him a reassuring smile.
"Are you gonna be sick?" he remembered Danni throwing up just before he went to sleep.
"Wrong cramps, Stoke. I get'em every month," she laughed, and he relaxed.
Modo walked into the kitchen, asking jovially, "Makin' time with my lady, bro?"
"Not, I got enough on my plate with Danni, even sharing." Stoker laughed back.
"What're you doin here alone? I thought you guys were super glued together." Vinnie queried, entering to find food. Charley followed, Marcel wandering along behind her like a dark shadow.
"Yer one t' talk, boy. You and Charley are joined at the hip." Modo chuckled, and Charley swatted him.
"So where are Throttle and Danni?" Rave wanted to know.
"Danni went to sign papers with her pal Dillon, and Throttle's gone Gods alone know where." Stoker finished his black coffee with a disgusted look, rinsed the cup and leaned against the counter.
A loud beeping brought them all out, Modo assisting Rave, though she insisted on walking.
Throttle was beaming. He was practically giddy. No one had ever seen Throttle giddy.
"What have you done?" Stoker demanded, eyeing the makeshift trailer attached to the back of his ride.
"I went shopping." Throttle grinned, resembling a somewhat evil child about to the spring a surprise.
"Oh, my lord." Charley had her hand over her eyes. "Danni finally did it. She passed on the shopping virus."
"No, it's cool. We needed dishes, and silver ware, and stuff for cooking, and bathroom stuff - uh- and stuff."
"Help." Stoker made a pantomime of fainting.
"No, you help. We gotta decorate before Danni gets back." Throttle hopped on his ride and headed around the corner.
"Before she kills us both, more like." Stoker took off at a trot.
Danni returned that afternoon, looking a bit out of sorts, but satisfied.
She stopped just inside the door and stared around. Then she screamed. Throttle and Stoker appeared out of the kitchen, wiping hands and grinning. She just stared in amazement. The apartment looked like a small explosion in a Harley Davidson shop.
There were Harley tapestries on the walls, pillows on the couch, rugs on the floor, a model on top of the new T.V., and framed prints on the mantel. Hooks adorned the walls in between the decorations, and leather garments hung from them. Danni's jacket, Throttle's vest, Stoker's duster, and a few new additions, a pair of chaps, a small cap with goggles, and engineer boots sat beside the door.
"What did you do?" she choked, and Throttle laughed.
"Clearance sale! We needed the stuff, an' wait till you see the bathroom!" he crowed, and she sat down tiredly.
"Credit card." she held out her hand.
"We're still under budget." Stoker reminded her, before she could explode.
"Uh, huh." she glared, and Throttle withered a little.
"He got dishes, glasses, silverware, pots n' pans, towels, wash clothes, an toilet paper. I think he did okay." Stoker defended, and faded back into the kitchen and whatever dangerous cooking project he had begun.
"Under budget, still?" she cocked a brow at Throttle, who brightened again.
"Yeh. People're still recovering from the Limburger destruction, so everything's real cheap." He assured her.
"I guess you did pretty good. For a guy." she hugged him after rising and doing a walk around. She couldn't wait to see the rest.
Stoker's cooking didn't kill them, but hot Texas chili took on a new identity from that evening on. Even Stoker was chugging water, milk, beer, and anything else in reach.
The next two days passed very fast, with Rave improving in leaps and bounds, and Charley sinking into a mood blacker than Marcel's eyes. Vinnie consulted the calendar, and winced. He knew what was coming.
"Dammit dammit dammit!" Charley yelled, and Vinnie ventured close to the bathroom door in the master bedroom to inquire, "Charley-girl? What's wrong beautiful?"
"I'm not beautiful! I'm fat! And I need you to go to the store." she yelled back thru the door.
"Uh, oh." his face fell, his antennae drooped, and he cringed.
"I need a box of tampons." she said the most dreaded words imaginable.
"Aww, Charlene...." he moaned, "you can't...."
"Vinnie, I can't go. If I could go , I wouldn't send you." she snapped, and shoved a ten dollar bill under the door at him.
"Just go down to the pharmacy on the corner and bring me back a box of Tampax. It won't kill you." she directed, and he moped out into the hall.
Modo wore a similar expression and had in his fist another ten dollar bill.
"You gotta...?" Vinnie and Modo spoke in stereo.
"Aww, shit. Estrogen house." Vinnie sulked.
Modo had a brilliant idea, "Hey, bro, why don't you just go for both of us? I can..."
"No, no way, I don't think so. If I gotta go, you gotta go."
Stoker and Throttle both loitered outside the bathroom door, listening to Danni up chuck for the third morning in a row. They glanced at each other, worry on both faces. Then Throttle's expression changed from worry to panic. He knocked on the door.
"Danni, Honey?" he called, and she appeared with a towel over her mouth, eyes bloodshot.
"Uh?" she grunted.
"How long since you...uh...you know - had your - you know?" Throttle was slightly freaked.
"That's vague." she mumbled, looking green, then got it. "Oh. I'm a little late, okay?" she disappeared again, the door slamming.
"Uh, oh." Stoker caught on, and dove face first on to the monstrous bed they had concocted out of a California King sized pedestal frame, several futon mattresses, and a ridiculous number of pillows.
Throttle was in shock. He just stood there, dazed. "Is that possible?" he whispered.
"Guess we shoulda thought of that a long time ago." Stoker growled from under a pillow.
"Okay, macho dudes. I'm not movin' from here right now. Go get me a test from the pharmacy." Danni said as she opened the door, tooth brush in hand. She looked awful.
"But Danni...." Throttle looked horrified. It was only a bare step away from being sent out to fetch feminine hygiene products. He shuddered.
"Get over it, boy. Y' want t' play, y' got t' pay." Stoker got up and shuffled over to the bedroom door. He looked pensive, but not disturbed like Throttle, who fell into step with him.
They found the aisle in question, and they found Modo and Vinnie, both faces red, their expressions identical ones of pain and consternation.
"You too?" Vinnie burst out, but Throttle hung his head, giving his bro a look out of the corner of his eye. "Not quite, bro."
He and Stoker continued on to the home pregnancy tests. Modo lost his jaw.
"Whoa, really?" was the jubilant question.
"Dunno." Throttle muttered, and grabbed two tests at random. He then handed them to Stoker, who took the boxes, the aisle, and it's contents in stride.
"Wow." Vinnie and Modo chorused to Throttle and Stoker's backs as they beat a retreat.
Stoker rapped on the bathroom door again. Throttle paced. Rapidly.
"I said five minutes. Not 3!" Danni yelled, and Stoker desisted, coming to a stop beside Throttle.
"Yer makin' me dizzy." he announced, and Throttle stopped pacing, then started drumming his fingers.
"And to think, I wanted a vacation." Stoker said to himself.
Danni exited the bathroom with two tests, one in each hand.
"Well?" Throttle pounced.
"Still dunno. One says yes, one says no." she admitted, and tossed both into the trash can, then marched out the door. Both mice trailed her.
"Where ya goin' Danni?" Stoker asked, grabbing his shades to follow her out of the apartment.
"Gonna go use Charley's phone." she answered, and took off on foot.
"Phone?" echoed Throttle, as he and Stoker tore after her.
By the time Danni walked into Charley's, she was mobbed by two women and two mice. Only Marcel stayed in the background, seemingly unable to stop laughing. Danni waved them all off and made for the phone, her two beaux entering as she dialed.
When she turned back to her audience, they could all see the dazed stare. "Going." she informed them, and tried to brush past, back out the door.
Stoker detained her. "Without us?"
"I can handle it." She looked at him without really seeing him. But Throttle double teamed Stoker.
"Look, we're in this together, right? We go with you." he paused, "where are we going?"
"We'll go with you, too." Charley volunteered, but Marcel asked, in a dry tone, "Invading, are we?"
"No." Danni put her foot down, "There is more than enough for this jaunt."
Throttle paced again in the waiting room, leafing thru a pamphlet on reproduction. He kept muttering about "possible" and, "maybe possible,". Stoker just watched him from his seat on a very hard couch, a little piece of paper and a pen on his knee. He was casually examining the possibility of fatherhood by trying out names.
"Bro, yer gonna wear a path in the carpet." he admonished, and Throttle's head came up.
"Is this really possible?" Throttle was still on a single tract.
"Look at Marcel, then ask. Damn. I hate waiting." Stoker was pretty laid back. Too laid back, as far as Throttle was concerned.
"How can you just - sit there?" he demanded, doing his best to stay in one place.
"What else is there to do?" Stoker rebutted, jotting down another name.
"What're you writin'?" Throttle was a bundle of nerves.
"Just passin' time, bro. Just passin' time."
Danni came out a half hour later, her face carefully blank. The mice were expectantly waiting.
"I'm a perfectly healthy example of a woman who's..." she paused and took a deep breath. Throttle was crawling out of his skin, and even Stoker was on the edge of his seat.
"Not pregnant." Danni exhaled, and studied their faces. Throttle's was fluctuating from relief to disappointment, but Stoker looked a bit let down. Then he smiled, and crumpled the list he'd made, and walked over to hug her.
"Hell of a false alarm, beautiful." he nuzzled her neck and made room for Throttle, who hugged her.
"So why're you late? And sick?" Throttle demanded.
"Anemia. And a touch of the flu." Danni was a bit let down her own self, but rallied quickly, holding up a packet of pills. "Just so nothing unexpected happens." she explained.
"Right." Stoker nodded, suddenly feeling his true age.
"Maybe, when we're all less likely to have coronaries over a skipped period, I'll get rid of the pills; see what Mother Nature says." she said softly, and slipped the case into her pocket.
They left the clinic grinning, arm in arm, till Stoker said, "Y' know there's still a lot of chili left. Maybe we should share with the rest of the gang."
Throttle high fived him, and Danni chuckled, "I like the way you think, Stoke."
Marcel was wrestling with Vinnie when the threesome showed up with the huge pot of left over chili.
"Well? Well?" Charley was bouncing, but stopped at a head shake in the negative range.
"Maybe later we'll give it a shot." Danni nudged both her males with her elbows, and smiled slyly.
"We brought dinner." Stoker was at his blandest, his best poker face on.
"Somebody mention food?" bellowed Modo from upstairs on the landing, hovering over Rave as she made her way down alone.
"Oh, yeah. Surprise." Throttle intoned, wondering if Charley had a large stock of drinks in the fridge.
Vinnie was for the moment, his frenetically immature self, bounding over to make attempt on the three gallon sized pot.
Marcel saved the impending mess by dragging the white ball of adrenaline back by his tail, saying, "Not till it's in a bowl, Martian."
"Buzz kill." Vinnie sulked, but grabbed a chair. When everyone was seated, the chow doled out, and all spoons were raised, Danni cleared her throat. They hesitated.
"It's a trifle spicy." she mentioned nonchalantly.
"C'mon, Danni! We're so cool, nothin' can over heat us." was Vinnie's proclamation.
"Famous last words." Throttle grinned to Stoker, who smothered a laugh.
The first bite brought a small squeal of surprise, alarm, and agony from Vinnie, and he grabbed frantically for his glass, downing it at a gulp.
"Haw haw..." Stoker couldn't hold back any longer, he fell from his chair, laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes, his tail swiping Danni's out from under her. She landed on him, and Modo, who got up to help, was dragged into the giggling, guffawing mass.
"Hot sauce, anyone?" Throttle asked sweetly.
Throttle and Modo looked on unhappily as Rave went thru her paces with
Marcel, moving fluidly, both of them looking graceful and deadly.
Then Raven over reached, and Marcel whacked her sharply across the back of her head with his open palm, sending her tumbling. Modo tensed, Throttle glancing at him, but neither mouse moved to help her.
"Never leave yourself open, grasshopper." Marcel smirked, having become overly fond of watching `Kung Fu' late at night.
"Bite me." laughed Rave, and swept his legs from her position on the floor. He landed hard, and began laughing as well.
Modo shook his head and looked over to Throttle, who flung up his hands in a gesture of : "Can't blame me", and left.
"Well, she'll never make the Academy, but she's good." Marcel looked up at Modo, who walked forward to loom over them.
"Thank you." the big grey mouse said, very quietly, very seriously, then strode on to Rave, a hundred watt grin shining just for her.
"Humph." grunted Marcel, turning away from their happiness. He glanced back, then rose and slunk away. Rave's eyes followed him, then she stood, dusting herself off.
"I think he's jealous." she finally said quietly, for Modo's ears alone.
"He has a thing for you? Has he said...." his brows drew into a scowl, and his steel hand closed into a fist.
"Whoa! Slow down. It's the other way around." she soothed, and Modo's shocked gaze feel on her.
"You mean YOU ?!!" he left the sentence hang, and she picked it up desperately, "No, you great doofus! I mean he fancies you."
Modo was totally blank for a moment, then he sputtered, "Whaaa?"
"I don't have the right set of chromosomes to flip his switches." she elaborated, and her lover shuddered.
"Eeeww." he said quietly. Rave had to laugh, she couldn't hold it back.
"Come on, darlin'. That's creepy." he grumped, and she went on, "Hey, I don't think it's personal. He look at you guys a lot. I think he's just stuck here with a bunch a' studly guys, nobody to pursue, and eye candy galore. Everybody's got somebody but him."
"Yeah, okay. Whatever, but I ain't gonna walk around in my drawers no more." he vowed, heading toward the kitchen.
"It's been a month and a half since he got here. He hasn't propositioned any of you. I figure you're safe." she said, following him.
"Hey!" Stoker broke in, striding in the open garage door.
"Hiya Stoke." Modo and Rave said in unison.
"Heard from Danni?" Modo inquired, waiting for the brown, long haired mouse to catch up.
"Yeah. She called last night. Still in Mexico, and probably two more weeks till she gets back. I am personally less than pleased."
"Come on, Stoke. She said you guys could go with her." Modo grinned, and Rave patted his shoulder as he preceded them into the house proper.
"Yeah, but I don't think I'm up for movie shoot."
Charley spotted them trooping in and made frantic shushing motions, her other hand holding the phone up to her ear in a white knuckled grip.
"No, mom. No." she gutted thru clenched teeth. Everyone remained dead silent.
"Yes, mother. I am. Yes. Engaged. Yes, we're living together." she practically snarled. Her free hand pounded a staccato beat on the counter, her foot viciously kicking the side of the refrigerator.
"Okay. Fine." she hung up the phone, blowing a gusty sigh.
"Should we even ask?" Stoker looked poised between conversing and fleeing.
"Oh, please. I have to drag Vinnie to Connecticut to meet my mom and stepfather."
Modo was, if not exactly worried, at least concerned. "How bad is it gonna be?" He asked, glaceing from Charley to Rave, who was grabbing a handful of cookies from the jar on the counter.
"Bad. My mother has always been.....conservative." Charley looked away, arms crossed over her chest.
"Hoo-boy." Stoker breathed, and chose flight over conversation.
Marcel peered around the corner and asked, "Will she make you choose?"
Charley seemed to deflate in front of their eyes. Her hands covered her face and she sank into a chair. "Yeah, I'm afraid she will."
"Y' don't wanna hear my advice, but I will say this;" Raven began, and Modo made an abortive attempt to stop her, to no avail.
"Yer mom gave you life, but she can't live it for you. Don't let her." she tossed her braids over her shoulder and stalked out, cookies in hand, Modo following, making a low, grumpy growl at her tactlessness.
Marcel sank to his haunches in front of her, taking her hands in his.
"Are you afraid?" he asked, his voice soft.
"Yeah." she breathed, his grip on her fingers containing her shaking.
"Are you strong enough to go against her?" he captured her gaze with his unblinking, blank black eyes.
"I have to. I won't give him up." her temper started to flare, and she pulled her hands away from him, straightening in her chair, "We've been thru too damn much, survived too much to be parted by someone else's say so."
"Good. Remember you said that." he stood up and moved to the fridge, rummaging in the freezer section till he found the ice cream.
"You better stop counseling me, or I'll have to start paying you." Charley sighed, rotating her shoulders to ease the tension.
"Nah. Consider it rent." Marcel shrugged, taking off with the carton and a spoon.
"Are you freaking high?!" Demanded a very irate Danielle LeCroix, rounding on the brass of her current film shoot.
"Look, hot shot, if you can't do it, we'll find someone who can." the balding, paunchy producer sneered, dismissing her.
"Oh, I don't think so. I already called the union. You're trying to pressure me and my team into a suicidal gig with a very low chance of us saying no. Well, NO. Our contract is up. We're done. Pay us and we go." Danni had her hands fisted on her hips and an uncompromising fierce glare directed at everyone.
"Uh, LaCroix, let's all just cool down here..." one of the brass hats began, but she over rode him.
"No way, not again. We're already six days over the time limit, and we don't for work free. Any more talking can be done thru the Union lawyers." Danni barked, and headed toward her Harley with a determined stride.
Throttle shook his head again, dipping his finger into some arcane sauce Stoker was preparing.
"Y'know, poisoning is against the law, Stoke." he reminded, putting off the actual tasting of said esoteric liquid.
"Just open your face and taste it, junior." Stoker laughed, assisting by joggling Throttle's elbow.
Throttle winced as his finger smeared the concoction across his tongue, then he straightened in surprise. "Hey! That's good?"
Stoker smirked, arms folded, and informed his buddy, "Look'a here boy. Out of eight of us, only Marcel and Charley can cook more'n a T.V. dinner without causing mass destruction. I learned how `ta do a lot more questionable things than cook along the way. Now I learn t' be a chef."
"Sure, Stoke. One good sauce makes you a chef." Throttle guffawed, and his darker counter part knocked him off his feet with a sweep of his shiny tail. It didn't stop the laughing.
With an amorous white mouse wrapped quite tightly around her person, Charley was finding it difficult to be morose.
"Come on, sweetheart. It can't be all that bad." he murmured, nuzzling her neck.
"There's a reason you've never seen me call or write. It's the same reason I didn't contact her when the garage was destroyed.
Or even when you guys first showed up." she grimaced. "The woman disapproves of me. Yeah, she loves me, but -" she sighed, and Vinnie obligingly held her tighter.
"So she disapproves. It hasn't stopped you yet." he encouraged.
"You don't get it. She can guilt me like nobody's business. If I call her, her first words are generally," Are you still wasting your life?" Charley looked as down as humanly possible.
"I have something that may cheer you up," he cleared his throat, rummaging in his pocket. He pulled out a tiny silk drawstring bag and dangled it in front of her eyes. She leaned back into his chest as he opened it and produced a gorgeous ring. Charley gasped in delight, offering him her left hand. Vinnie dutifully installed it on her ring finger, and she swallowed hard, admiring the two carat green sapphire in sterling silver.
"Oh, Vin, it's beautiful," she breathed, enraptured.
"It reminds me of you." he kissed her shoulder, and she leaned into him, family troubles momentarily forgotten.
* * * * * *
High Chairman Lord Camembert was in it up to his neck; it being hot mud. He fondled his newest concubine, a Martian, who was chained hand and foot to the rim of his mud bath.
"You're not cooperating, little mousie." he taunted, running one webbed hand across her breast and down ribs to rest above the swell of hip. The Martian, a young, pretty grey and white female, shuddered and gagged in disgust.
"I understand your father is finding it very difficult to breath in our sulphur mines. You can change all that."
He stretched luxuriantly and leaned in close to her face, his stench making her nauseous and light headed.
"If he knew what you were doing, he'd gladly kill me and himself to prevent it." she spat, her flesh crawling under the fur he stroked.
"I'm sure he would. However, you aren't that strong, are you? You're too weak to just let him die." he chuckled, and heaved his corpulent mud coated bulk out onto the tile near her. He licked his ugly, flabby lips and covered her body with his own. She struggled, choking on her bile, her head craned as far from him as possible.
With scaly, taloned hands, he forced her to look up at him, and she screamed as his mouth closed over hers.
* * *
"Okay. Okay! So you can cook." Throttle conceded, stuffing huge bites of food into his face, unwilling to let a morsel escape. If he never saw a T.V. dinner again it would be too soon.
"Yep." Modo concurred around a mouthful, and Rave nodded whole heartedly.
"Now if only there were some way to instill table manners into these barbarians..." Marcel drawled, slapping Modo's hand as he reached across the table for another helping of stew. The mouse retracted the offending appendage with a grunt, "Wouldn't `a worked if that were my right hand."
Stoker passed the dish around the table, and Rave made an effort to politely belch with her hand over her mouth.
"Where's Charley an' Vinnie?" Throttle stopped eating long enough to ask, "They're gonna miss some good eats."
"Oh, the praise..." Stoker basked, until someone threw a roll at him.
"Quiet, cook." Marcel chortled, and gestured to the closed bedroom door upstairs.
"We'll save `em some." Assured Stoker, taking the bowl away from Modo, who became grumpy.
"You already had thirds." Stoke reprimanded, and spirited the rest of the food to the kitchen.
"Oh, yeah. Danni called earlier. Boy is she pissed. She's comin' home tomorrow, said she was so mad she's already halfway here from Georgia." Rave mentioned, and Throttle stared at her, awaiting more info. Raven shrugged, one shoulder going higher than the other since her recovery.
"That's all, man She was more'n quick." Rave was apologetic.
"Huh. Well, I guess we'll know tomorrow. I better tell Stoke." Throttle headed toward the kitchen, Modo calling out after him, "Hey, If they don't come down soon, I'm finishin' that chow!"
Two of Camembert's guards dragged the limp form of the grey and white concubine away from the mud room as the High Chairman adjusted his robes.
"Stop." he bellowed, and the guards stopped as if frozen. "Take what's left to the barracks and give it to my elite house guard. It won't last long, but they may enjoy what's left. Then, when it dies, ship the remains to the sulphur mines and leave it."
They bowed, silent, and continued on their mission.
"Ahhh. I do so enjoy the privileges of rule." Camembert sighed, lifting his robe to scratch at his groin, then smoothed it down again, ambling toward his throne room, a smile on his unpleasant features.
"Greetings minions," he sang to the remaining members of the council, his "board of subordinates."
After the mass of executions and "accidents", the few who survived smiled nervously, one choking out, "I-It's good to see you happy again, High Chairman..."
The fixed smile on his scaly visage became a rictus of agony as Camembert whirled and fired a tiny blaster hidden up his sleeve, destroying the sycophant's upper torso.
The others laughed nervously, and Camembert turned to them with a bright grin. "Are we ready to crush Mars definitively?" he demanded, and was rewarded with a chorus of bleating affirmatives, the grin never changing on his face.
"Very Good. You all get to live a little longer." Camembert ambled to the newly installed command screen, punching in a direct link to the flagship of his armada, waiting behind Jupiter,
A superiorly ugly Plutarkian filled the screen, saluting.
"Ah, Admiral. How nice to see you."
* * *
Throttle and Stoker had long since headed home, or rather, to the bar under their home, to take over their `jobs' as bouncers. It was late, and a cold wind had come up, reminding Modo, who was creeping up on the fridge that his birthday was again drawing near.
He had just eased open the door when a throat was cleared behind him and he jumped.
"Y'know, I realize you're still putting on all that weight you lost up on Mars, but if you keep going at this rate, you're gonna start pushing `maximum density'. Charley scathed, Vinnie leaning against the counter behind her.
"Heh heh. Uh, oops?" Modo blushed furiously, closing the refrigerator door delicately.
"Nailed ya, bro. Busted." Vinnie grinned, and Modo gave a weak grin, then bowed out of the kitchen, leaving them in possession of the leftovers.
Vinnie chuckled, low and nasty, "I liked that maximum density part."
"Blame the `Breakfast Club', not me." she giggled in return, and jumped, a little sqweak escaping her as Marcel appeared out of the shadows with the tart remark," Actually, I rather think he'd look charming with a bit more . . . substance."
"Shit! Don't do that!" Charley nearly swung on him, her heart in her throat.
"You've gotta teach me how to do that." Vinnie marveled, but Marcel shook his head `no'.
"It's not a matter of teaching, Mars. It's genetics and coloring." he sniffed, and collected his bottle of important German beer.
"Too bad. I could get a hell of a lot of juicy gossip with a trick like that." he ducked as Charley swatted at him, and grinned.
The radio signaling buffered the jollity, but only slightly. Marcel answered it: "Morgue. You stab'em, we slab'em."
"Very funny, Black jack." crackled the response, a dry, ironic voice.
"Tracker?" Marcel wore a surprised expression for a moment, then grinned, "I thought you were in irons for rigging the betting pools."
"Yeah. I'm shackled t'the damn radio now." Tracker replied, no anger in his tone. "We've got troop movements on the far side of Jupiter. Massive. Maybe thirty battle barges, about a hundred troop carriers, dozens of smaller ships. Command wants to know, what now?"
"If they can't figure it out, we're all doomed." Marcel was less than flattering. He sighed heavily. "Look you. They're ridiculously well armed, ready to annihilate you, and about to head your way. What's your best guess?"
"Is run like hell an option?"
"Chained to a radio? I think not. They'll be readying formations and final supply lines. They're big and strong, but incredibly stupid and much slower than your light cruisers. Best bet for preemptive strikes is to come in stealth if you have it and from cover of Europa and Io. Behind the big gas ball they won't be thinking of shielding or preparing for a counter offensive. You'll have to be quick, though, or you'll lose the opportunity. I'd also suggest using your transporter, which they don't know about, to gut their ships from home. Transport big grenades or something else explosive directly into the drive sections of any ships you can target. Cheat." Marcel instructed, then paused for breath. Charley and Vinnie waited tensely, then Vinnie was gone, sprinting out the side door and headed for Stoker. He returned with both brown mice at a dead run.
"I've given all the strategic I can from here. I'll head to the transporter now, if you don't mind." Marcel gave Stoker a half-bow, and turned on his heel.
"Who'm I talkin' to?" Stoker barked into the pickup.
"Tracker, you slippery son of a bitch." the other barked back, and Stoker laughed.
"Buddy! Are there ground troops assembled to mop up whatever might get there?"
"Yeah. Carbine's back in control, even if she's commanding' from an infirmary bed. Twins, y'know. She had complications."
"Yer shittin' me." Modo bellowed from the stairs, a sleepy Rave following.
"Naw. Boy and girl. Wire's insufferable, he's already got about fifty pictures he keeps shovin' under ever'body's nose."
"Hey, can we get back to the war for a second `r two?" demanded Charley, and all eyes in the room swivelled to her.
"Huh." commented Throttle, cracking his knuckles. "Y'think they need us?"
"Out of the several thousand of us left, about two thirds is some kind of military. Naw, we could use you there, tho. You got all that fancy, upgraded Plutarkian gadgetry. Why don't you do some long range targeting for the transporter bombs? Or better yet, why don't we send down a big supply of ordnance and have two `porters setting th' fires up their backsides?" Tracker asked, and Stoker shrugged.
"Why not? We're ready whenever M- uh Blackjack gets to you." he acceded, and Marcel's voice came from the garage, "I'm on my way." the blue glow flashed and died in a heartbeat, then began rapid fire.
Charley dashed off, then reappeared, "My garage is full of things that make really big booms." she announced, and began turning all the lights on.
"Makin' coffee." Rave yawned, then hustled into the kitchen.
"Hey, Raven!" Stoker yelled after her.
"Can you make the Plutarkian ships think incoming transports are coming from their own supply vessels?"
"Uh, could be, if we still have all those fish dishes we pulled when you setup the tech station in the garage."
"Vin?" Stoker questioned, and the white mouse was gone with a flick of his tail.
"You troopers on?" came Tracker's anxious inquiry, and he was answered with definite `yes' from all of them.
* * *
"All of our Navy and ground troops are committed, except, of course, for my personal elite guard. By the time our forces have eradicated all life on Mars, we'll have the whole damn planet at our disposal. Land, minerals, polar caps, everything. Then on to Earth." Camembert exulted, grinning gill to gill.
"But Chairman..." one terrified council member began, "what if they fight back? What if..." he was silenced by his fellows, one on either side.
"Nothing will impede my dominance." Camembert waddled his way over to stand behind the withered, old-looking Plutarkian's chair, his fingers resting atop the subordinates gills.
"Isn't that right, Cheshire?" he cooed, wrapping the speaker's own necklaces tight around his neck from behind, using them to suffocate him. He flailed helplessly, his eyes bulging frantically left to right, but his companions looked away, unwilling to draw attention to themselves.
When Cheshire' life was well and truly extinguished, Camembert stepped back, breathing heavily.
"So. Any other nay-sayers? No? Good. Then it's on to new business. I've decided to disperse the council. This planet only has room for one despot. Me. My brother can be my heir, of course, and all of you..." he paused for effect, walking to his throne and seating himself, "can die." His webbed hand smashed down on a button hidden by hangings, and a clear glass steel bell covered him. Simultaneously, the room began filling with gas.
* * *
The garage and the Martian transporter had been hopping, running flat out for three hours when, with no warning, Marcel screamed over the open radio mic, "Stop the bombs! Halt!"
Vinnie screeched to a stop, arms loaded with primed munitions waiting for Rave's detonation command from the computer.
"What?" Demanded Modo, lugging a huge `reactor bomb,' one of six, four of which had already been used on the Plutarkian dreadnought barges to monstrously good effect. When the massive bomb went off in the ships' main reactor, the whole thing went, as well as what ever was near it.
"This part of the counter offensive is scrubbed. Repeat, abort." Tracker was back.
"Relay more data." Raven demanded, fingers flying over the newly restored Plutarkian controls. Then she hissed with displeasure. "We're hosed but good. The remains of the armada have made out our plans. They're shielded, shut down all transporter, and are in evasive. Hold for losses..." her attention snapped down to a readout.
"Tell me this did us some good." Stoker begged, pushing sweat damp hair off his forehead.
"Wait for it..." cautioned Throttle, tension in his every line.
"Five dreadnought remain, four in battle ready; thirty six troop carriers, one hund- no 86 supply vessels, twenty seven atmosphere-capable cruisers, and an even thirty one-man fighters." Rave reeled off, then fell back in her chair, rolling her shoulders to bleed off some of the stiffness.
"Some progress. Not enough. We've only got forty light cruisers. On line, and some of those're iffy." Stoker grumbled, looking up at nothing.
"What about surface to air emplacements? Are there any of those left?" Vinnie called from his chore of deactivating the ammo.
"Only three, and those're only good fer the northern hemisphere." Modo reported.
Charley looked distracted, and went to the radio again. She got on the headset and demanded to talk to Marcel, on a private channel.
"This is gonna get ugly." Throttle grimaced, and crouched down beside Raven at her station.
"Is there any way to access the self destruct commands on any of those barges?" he asked her, praying that her knowledge of Plutarkian security systems could help lower the death toll for his planet.
"I dunno. Take me a while t' decipher an' decode. I'll get on it." she acknowledged, and Vinnie popped up.
"Wouldn't Marcel know those?" he asked, but Stoker shook his head negatively.
"Naw. He's a trained spy an' assassin. Not military. He could've found out b'fore he defected, but I guess th' idea never struck him." Modo mumbled, watching Throttle pace and wishing he could enjoy that small release.
"Marcel's gone by now anyway." Charley came into the room with a fresh pot of coffee.
"We came up with an idea. It may not work, but it's worth a try." she hedged, and refused to elaborate.
"Fine. Whatever. I'm for goin' t' Mars and pitchin' in." Modo rumbled, sitting on the deactivated reactor bomb.
"Not without me." Raven said flatly. She flipped the decoder into auto and stood.
"No way. We need you here to run the programs. There are no other available Plutarkian consoles to pirate. This is the only chance we have at gettin those dreadnoughts out of commission. If any one of those orbit Mars, Kiss the whole race of Mice goodbye."
Stoker growled, and was met by Rave's cold, blank grey eyes.
"Shit." Vinnie fumed, then, "Okay. Here's a thought. Rave, Modo, and Throttle stay here. Rave to run the computer, Modo and Throttle to move the ordinance. The rest of us go to do what we can up there."
Throttle had whipped his shades off when his name came up to stay. He was blinking, squinting in the glare of the fluorescent.
"What the hell's wrong with you?" he bellowed, and Charley came to the rescue.
"He's right. You and stoker can't both go. Stoke's been in command, you haven't! And if both of you go, both of you could die. Danni couldn't lose both of you." she said softly, and Throttle turned away, furious, but unable to come up with a rebuttal.
"Danni couldn't stand to lose either of `em." Danni stood with arms folded, in the shadows, looking like she'd been dragged face down thur hell. Her leathers were travel-filthy, her hair was dirty, and she had a black eye and a split lip.
"You're back!" Charley cried, and ran to hug her cousin.
"Yeh. Been here about 10 minutes. I guess the party started without me." she sounded exhausted.
"Yeah. No rest for the weary. Let's do this." Stoker pocketed the transporter remote and waited for the others.
"I can't be of any help fighting, but I've been trained in advanced first aid and triage." Danni suddenly said, and the dam broke. Everyone was shouting at once, till Stoker bellowed, "Silence!!"
They froze, staring.
"Okay. Nobody can get it together, I'm gonna settle the deal. Draw Straws. Short straws stay. Long goes."
Vinnie was nearly apoplectic with anxiety and fury.
Throttle and Charley were silent and taut, while Modo fumed silently, resigned but angry.
Stoker headed to the kitchen and returned with a handful of soda straws, cut to different lengths. He thrust them into Rave's hand and waited while she turned away, shuffled them up, and turned back. She offered them to him first, but he declined.
Vinnie bounced directly to her and grabbed, all of his acquired maturity evaporating in the heat of his angst.
"Damn! Dammit!" he howled, flinging down the short straw. Charley breathed a sigh of relief and reached for the straws, but drew back at Vinnie's incendiary glare.
"Yeah. Here goes." Throttle breathed, and drew. It was long. As were both Stoker's and Danni's
They were silent a moment, then, shoulders squared, stepped up to the transporter. As they activated and stepped into the blue light, they faintly heard Rave call, "Don't get dead."
-------- * ------------
Marcel was alone, just the way he liked working. He'd never been much of a team player. Slinking along the outer balcony of Camembert's private compound, he thought about Charley's idea, and smiled. Smart girl, that.
He heard voices and crouched, melting into darkness. It was the Lord Chairman himself, deep in conversation, but Marcel could hear no responses to his uncle's words. He crept closer.
He could just see Camembert's back, and the shape of another Plutarkian seated across from him at the Chairman's council table.
Silent as a spirt of the dead, he glided closer, entering the chamber.
"So you see, brother, it's all for the best. What's good for me is good for Plutark, since I am Plutark, after all." Camembert was positively jolly, his tenuous grasp on reality finally gone.
Marcel, just behind his uncle now, looked over the gold bedecked shoulder and into his father's dead face, no longer green, but mottled blue and black, the skull distorted into a flattened oval. He stank worse dead than when he lived.
"I don't think he's listening, uncle." the shadows spoke, and Camembert whirled, searching. Marcel stepped into the light, his head spines rattling a warning, his talons extended.
"Whelp!" sneered the elder, and glared, "do you think you mean anything?"
"I mean to thank you for saving me some work." marcel nodded toward his father's corpse, then advanced, "And I mean to finish what I started years ago."
"You can't stop me , you misborn, vacuous fop. I'm invincible." Camembert spat, the blaster dropping from his sleeve into his webbed hand.
Marcel slid back into the shadows, letting his uncle fire blindly into empty air.
Behind him now, Marcel used nothing but the lethal claws at the ends of his fingers to disable his uncle's gun arm, then spun him. Slowly, painstakingly, he dismembered him by hand, making sure to keep him alive. Camembert screamed for a long time.
* * *
Upon arriving on Mars, Stoker took a quick look around, directed Danni to a group of medics, and, with Throttle in tow, dove into the midst of a few hundred infantry, mixed army and freedom fighters.
"Squads! Form up!" he roared, and the voice of authority snapped them into formation, eager to protect their world.
"First ten squads, assemble on me, next ten on Throttle," he bellowed, gesturing to his right hand mouse.
"The final fifteen, choose a commander and head out to the North Butte surface to air emplacement. Keep that big mother on line no matter what. Throttle, you take west, I'll take east. Move out!"
"Son of a bitch!" screamed Rave, bringing Modo on the run. Vinnie staggered, trying to balance a huge crate of equipment on his own. He finally dropped it and ran to find out what was wrong.
"What?" he barked, framed in the doorway.
"I couldn`t do it," Raven looked defeated, hair sweat-lank, eyes like pissholes in the snow. Modo supported her, a grim, sad look on his face.
"So we've got five dreadnoughts on the way?!" Vinnie was very near hysterics.
"No, I got four, but that last damaged one has no comm, there's no way to contact it and tell it to self destruct," Rave mourned, thoroughly disheartened.
Modo and Vinnie appeared to have swallowed their tongues for an instant, then they glanced at each other, and simultaneously grabbed Rave, hugging her tightly.
"Air! Breathing here!" she gasped after a minute of being in a mouse sandwich. They released her and stood back, grinning.
"Don't you get it? This is bad! They still have weapons, they could decimate your planet..."
"They'll be about two years gettin' Mars, darlin'." Modo assured her, and she gaped at him, falling back into her chair with a sigh of relief.
"They've only got minimal propulsion, and they'll probably die of asphyxiation or starvation before they reach anything except the Jupe depot. You did it!" Vinnie lauded, and surprised Charley as she came in from outside by spinning her around and kissing her.
" I thought I heard screaming," Charley began, but was distracted by the radio. She wriggled away from Vinnie to answer it.
" It's started!" she called, and began relaying transport destinations for the remainder of their accumulated weapons and supplies cache. The mice hopped to- putting their backs into the hauling while Rave manipulated the controls. Charley manned the radio constantly, her heart in her throat.
* * *
Chaos. Fire and screams echoed across the face of the red planet, the frantic infantry battling house to house in the settlements and cities, stemming the tide of Plutarkians flowing out of the landed troop ships. Nervous Martian elders herded pregnant females and children too young to fight into fortified buildings on the outskirts of towns, trying to keep them safe, and moved the injured or invalid to medical sites, hoping to protect them as well.
In the air, the single man fighters rained death down, strafing any targets that dared show themselves, until they, in turn, were blown into their component atoms by the anti aircraft guns defended by the howling squads commanded by Stoker, Throttle, and their comrades.
Flame scorched and blaster gone, Throttle led his soldiers by example, wading into the surging mass of Plutarkian grounders intent on taking out the massive air defense cannon in the Western territory.
With nukeknucks and a metal prybar, Throttle led his mice, holding the line. In one small, compartmentalized part of his brain, he counted the dead and dying, but couldn't let it come to the fore, couldn't let it matter- yet. He would weep and mourn later, if he survived.
The stench of burning flesh was thick in Stoker's nostrils, his regiment pinned down by a dual attack, from the ground, and from the air, the latter from desert Raiders. His people were valiant, but valor couldn't stand in the face of a flameout.
" You! Take ten fighters, steal something fast and knock out those desert shits!" Stoker roared to one burly looking black furred mouse, who nodded and disappeared into the boiling smoke.
Wire, his ginger colored fur matted and stained, limped into the control center. The fight had come to the very entrance of the caves, but finally the tide was stemmed. He dropped gratefully into an empty chair, dropping the antique bronze sword in his hand with a clang.
"I'm a damn tech," he kept muttering to himself, trying to wipe the blue-green blood that stained his fur away.
The caves were bombarded where the med centers were, till the orbital cruiser firing on them was destroyed, the battle in the upper reaches of the thin atmosphere almost mythic, like a great sea campaign on old Earth, each side sizing up the other, devastating weapons blasting away amidships, the explosions visible from the planet's surface.
Nothing was sacred, nothing was safe from the savage hand of conflict. No city escaped unscathed. No settlement or cave complex was ignored by the ravages of battle, but eventually, slowly, the pace slowed- the numbers became finite, and the invaders lay, dead or wounded. The quick fighters became brightly burning pyres, and the remaining cruisers, with no dreadnought backup, surrendered.
Mars let out a brief collective sigh of relief that was more than half sob. This battle was over. Time to lick wounds, let the tears of release flow, and count the dead.
- * -
For Vinnie and Modo, who had come up with Charley and Rave with the last load of supplies, it was more like mopping up than being able to join in with a unit. They had helped Wire with the defense of the command post, while Rave and Charley had covered the wounded, moving them back from the fighting in front and, in Raven's case, picking off any Plutarkians that slipped thru.
In the aftermath, they assisted in securing the base, finding medics for the injured, and dealing with the enemy wounded.
"What do we do with the prisoners?" demanded a black and brown brindled mouse, leading a phalanx of chained stinkfish, who were flanked by the remains of the fifteen squads sent north by Stoker.
" How the hell should I know?" replied Wire, jolted out of his fugue state by the commotion.
"You're in charge till we can get communications up again." Modo said quietly in his ear, looming behind his shoulder.
"I say we stuff `em all in a stench carrier and send `em back to Plutark C.O.D." volunteered Vinnie, walking by supporting a freedom fighter with a large burn where his left leg should have been.
"Hey, that's catchy." Modo grinned, and Wire shrugged, willing to be led, rather than lead.
The brindled mouse, Vec, turned to and began herding the smelly prisoners away, just as Stoker limped in with his own merry band. He had fewer prisoners, and half of them were raiders. He also had fewer surviving fighters.
"Y' can take these too. Throw the desert scum in with the fish. Maybe they'll eat each other.' he commanded, and Vec gave a weary salute, adding the sullen, defeated newcomers to his bunch.
"How're we doin' ?" Stoker demanded, and Wire looked at him morosely.
"Comms are down. All I know is the battle's over." he replied, and tried to give Stoker his position as temporary Head Mouse In Charge.
"Yer Top till somebody else is available." Stoker grunted, waving a newly arrived team of medical personnel toward his soldiers.
"Where's Throttle?" asked Modo, worry creeping into his tone.
"I saw him `bout an hour ago, flingin' frag grenades into the hatch of a crashed cruiser, maybe halfway between here and the western cannon." piped up one of the medics, tending to a flash-burned mouse.
"Okay. Let's get organized." modo intoned, pushing Wire gently from behind.
"Yeah. Okay. We need data. Anyone still ambulatory form teams and find out how bad the damage is. Report back with hand held radios, they're still functioning. I'm still a tech, I'll work on getting the main comm working again." Wire looked to Stoker, who gave the barest of nods.
"You heard him!" Stoker barked, and those soldiers still standing snapped to attention.
"Two medics and two fighters each team. One radio. Try to find vehicles or use the transporter." Stoker flung the remote to Charley. "Move it, people. We need to know where we stand.
Modo and Raven found themselves mashed with two Martian medics into a very cramped two man sand sled, bounced and thrashed over the unforgiving, alien landscape; alien not because of its location, but because of its devastation.
"We're here." the taller of the med-team announced, halting the headlong speed of the vehicle and prying herself out. She stretched long white arms to the sky and helped her partner out, letting Modo and Rave extricate themselves as best they could.
The second med tech was short, stocky, and all muscle. He looked rather like he should have fur and smallish ears, not to mention the battle scars on his pug nose and permanent scowl.
"C'mon, Tessa Time to dig for survivors." he croaked, and his tall, willowy partner nodded, her absolutely opposite body type and personality seeming to compliment him perfectly.
Watching them, Modo suddenly understood why Rave referred to them as the Troll and the Angel. He tried rubbing the circulation back into his legs, and when that failed, began stomping around. Rave just looked at him.
"Finished?" she giggled, when he was finally still, and he nodded, looking sheepish.
"They went that way." she pointed toward the more heavily damaged side of the street.
"Awright. I'll take this side, you go that way." he pointed her to the far end of what used to be a public square, and she moved off at a trot toward a big, sturdy looking one story grey building.
Marcel sat at the council table, his feet up, the remains of his father on one side and the bloody, stinking pile of guts that used to be his uncle on the other, a tall cup of wine in his gore encrusted hands. He didn't even twitch when a member of the elite guard - the only armed force still on Plutark - burst in.
"My Lord! Please excuse ---" he stopped, only the harsh breathing thur his gills the only sound.
"There's a new sheriff in town." Marcel spoke slowly, still coming down from his exertions.
"Half-breed..." sneered the guard, drawing a bead on Marcel, who stared at him out of half- lidded, dead black eyes, like a shark's.
"Careful, little guppy. I own you. I own this whole shit - can of a planet." Marcel warned, and the guard hesitated.
"In fact, I think some renovations are in order." he continued in a slow, lazy drawl.
"You're the - the -" the guard couldn't quite grasp it.
"The new boss. Keerect. Brain trust. Got it in one." Marcel got up gracefully, his uncle's blood and flesh coating his clothes. The guard stepped back, dropping the gun.
"The heir. Now the Lord High Whatever. Find me whoever is left of the council, or just find me whoever is in charge of the governing the populace. One from each district Oh, and while you're at it, find some administrators and start emptying the slave pens, prison satellites, and mining colonies."
"You want them burned or vaporized, Lord?" the guard blubbered, eyes huge.
"Neither. I want them freed."
A bare fifteen minutes after they had separated, Modo was jerked out of his search by a sound he had never heard, a high, keening wail that seemed to go on forever. And it was in Rave's voice. He was out of the debris of the house before he had even acknowledged the movement, in the square and sprinted to the source of the sound faster than he had ever moved in his life, cannon out, hackles raised, and fear coiling in his gut.
The med-techs, farther away, were pounding up the street at a dead run, and veered toward him, following his path.
He crashed thur the door Rave had entered, and stumbled to a halt. The setting sun cast orange light thur the wreckage of the massive building, revealing the fact that only the facade remained. The rest was a bombed out ruin. Ray and Tessa burst in a moment later, and peered about.
For a moment, it didn't register. Then the details began to sink in. This was the strongest structure in town. The residents who couldn't fight had huddled together here, hoping and praying to be safe. The ground was littered with the broken, lifeless bodies of children. There were a few old timers, one or two pregnant women, but mostly children. Dozens of them, some cuddled together, some who had tried to hide, all dead.
The sound choked off abruptly, and Modo's head snapped around to locate his mate. Then he saw her. She was holding one tiny Martian girl, no more than six. She was grey-brown mottled, and her fingers clutched a rock in a death grip.
Rave rocked the dead girl, crouched over on her knees, as if trying to give comfort to the fled spirit. Crying, Modo tried to call Rave, but only made her hunch away further.
His hand on her shoulder, he eventually got thur, and Rave laid the little body down, turning her eyes to him. They weren't cold anymore, they burned, red with tears. He glanced toward the other members of the team, and received a negative. No one survived.
Desolate, silent, the four left the mass grave, each wrapped in their own thoughts.
Stoker glared around him, searching for Wire. As pro tem leader - until they could get organized enough to nominate and then elect a leader - he was needed.
"Damn, where is that boy?" he ground out, shuffling paperwork across a desk, looking for a destination note or some clue. He glanced up as Throttle came dragging his tail and his company in from the ranges.
"Heard you had some fun, junior." Stoker grinned, holding out his hand to Throttle, who was reaching out to grasp it when a mouse shaped orange blur knocked him down. He was up in an instant, looking around for his attacker, when Wire filled his vision.
"You! It's your fault!" Wire screamed at him, fists windmilling, striking air more often than not, but pummeling the tan mouse with a fury, accusations and venom flowing from Wire in a ceaseless torrent, tears pouring down his face. Throttle was so amazed at the fierce attack he just stood there and took it, adding to his already numerous bumps, bruises and wounds.
Stoker and a few other just stood watching in wonder, while Throttle let the smaller, less combative (usually) mouse whale away, even when he scored a lucky blow, knocking off Throttle's shades and staggering him. As he shook his head to clear it, Wire suddenly wound down with a shuddering sob, collapsing just in time for Throttle to catch him, and ease him to the floor where he rolled up into a ball, wailing in earnest now, in Throttle's arms.
Light dazed without the protective lenses, Throttle blinked around while trying to get some sense out of Wire's babbling.
Stoker, who caught the words "Carbine" and "Baby", rapped out a curt order that sent one of the spectators sprinting away. He then retrieved throttle's shades and plunked them on his face.
"Junior, I think we've got - trouble." he pitched his voice for Throttle's ears only.
"Yeah. Call for a sedative." Throttle managed around the bump in his throat, trying his best to rock and comfort the hysterical Wire, who had subsided to moans and sobs.
"Some body find me a damn set `o wheels!" bellowed Stoker, straightening, and Charley appeared, dirt smudged and worried looking, tossed him her keys and said, "in the supply cave" before kneeling by Wire to administer an air-hypo of sedative.
"While I'm gone, find out what's with Marcel." he instructed, and strode off.
Stoker piloted charley's bike at a breakneck pace toward the infirmary cavern, some eight miles away. As he neared it, it looked the same, until his eyes tracked the column of smoke that bled into the sky.
"Aw hell." he muttered, speeding the last few hundred yards, skidding to a halt with a shriek of brakes. He rocked it onto it's kickstand and ran for the cave entrance. He was met by sad eyed techs and medics, all of whom backed off from him. Except Danni.
"We could only save one, Stoke." she said quietly, her hands on his shoulders. "We got everyone we could out, but the strafe took out the maternity unit. We were lucky to get the three infants we did.'
His eyes closed in grief and anger, then opened again. "I'm not gonna explode." he assured her, and she sagged with relief.
"How many lost?" he queried, looking hard into her eyes.
"Forty two, including Carbine and her son. The daughter is mostly just scraped up. She'll survive. We've got 28 rescuers injured saving those we could.: she reported, and he finally noticed the rough cast on her left leg and foot, and the crutch.
"I'm - uh," he cleared his throat. "I'm glad you're safe." he coughed and she gave him a quick, hard hug.
"Me, too. We've all been getting reports from the incoming wounded, so I knew you two were - " she looked away.
"Yeah." he cleared his throat again.
"Yeah." she repeated, and dropped her crutch, flinging her arms around his neck. He caught her and held her.
The other mice in the cave let out a collective sigh, having heard horror stories of Stokers in a rage. They closed in, clapping both Stoker and his human on the back, murmuring condolences, congratulations on stopping the Plutarkians, and thanks to Danni for her efforts.
A nod from Stoker made them disperse, and he swept Danni up, carrying her to a stone bench.
"Throttle and I need help. We need to pull Wire out of his funk so he can deal. He's a people person. I'm not. He's leader. I'm not. Ideas?" he asked, crouching down in front.
She hung her head, sunk in gloom, till a baby squalled and her head jerked up.
"Yeah. Matter of fact, I do."