Charlie's secrets.

By Camilia

December 14 1997

Copyright 1997 Camilia, all rights reserved

This is an extension of a book I'm writing, a part that's not going in because, unbelievably, some people have never heard of BMM, and I'd have to go and explain them and I don't want to do that. Plus all the copyright issues. So here it is-I hope it's not too confusing.

Harley leaned against the walls of her cage and sighed. Her latest escape attempt had led Mace to lock her up again. In an escape-proof cage this time. Damn Rat she thought absently. She wished he'd just kill her or let her go. She couldn't take much more of this imprisonment and constant moving about. She couldn't take much more of this uncertainty. She had no idea where she was. Hell, she didn't even know what planet she was on. She'd given up hope the freedom fighters would ever rescue her a long time ago. There was no way they could. With Mace's transportation device, they couldn't track her movements, and Mace's surveillance equipment was state-of-the-art. Any mouse got within two miles of them and he'd know it and be out of there before they had a chance to catch even a glimpse of them. Despair began to overtake her mind. Tracer echoed her sigh. The smallish male mouse had been captured shortly after her, and they'd spent the long, lonely months together, keeping eachother company when they weren't at eachother's throats. She looked at his profile across the cage, through the bars that separated them. His head bowed, he seemed to be napping, but she knew better. His senses were on hyper alert. His shaggy brown hair hung in front of face, obscuring it from view.
"Hey!" a low voice whispered. Harley looked up, startled. That wasn't Tracer's voice.
"What?" he asked her, raising his head.
"I didn't say that!" she hissed, looking around for the source of the voice.
"Over here! Be quiet. I'm getting you out of here." At first Harley couldn't make out the figure hidden in the shadows by her elbow, and when she did, she discovered she couldn't make out the woman's features because of the face paint she wore. And it was a woman. A human woman, with blue eyes and chestnut hair pulled into a tight bun on the top of her head.
"Who are you?" Harley whispered.
"Nevermind. It doesn't matter." The woman said firmly. With this dismissal she took a tiny vial from the pack at her side and poured the contents on the bars. They promptly melted. Harley looked at the broken bars in shock. The woman was already over to Tracer's cage, repeating the operation.
"That was Plutarkian glass steel! What is that stuff?" The woman gave her a wicked grin.
"Trust me. You don't want to know. Now hurry up and get out of there! We haven't got all day! That filthy rat won't sleep forever." Harley and Tracer obeyed as fast as they could. Harley scrambled to her feet, and followed the strange woman down a dark corridor. When they got to a blank portion of wall, the woman pressed on it hard, and it slid silently open. The passage inside was just as dark, narrow, cramped, and low-ceilinged. As they progressed, it got smaller and smaller, tighter and tighter, until at last they were crawling on hands and knees through the last part of it. They came to a few broken stone steps that led to an opening in the wall. There was light coming from it. The woman climbed through first, and reached her hand back to help Harley through. Harley's eyebrows disappeared into her hairline. Grasping the woman's forearm was like grasping granite. Her muscles were as hard as rock, and the skin on her arm gave just the slightest bit before being stopped cold by them. Whoa. Tracer followed them silently. He hadn't said anything. Which was odd. The light in the room illuminated their rescuer clearly after the darkness of the tunnels. That's when she got her first good look at her.
The woman was dressed in a cropped-top, sleeveless brown shirt and a very short brown skirt. She was also barefoot. No wonder she moved so soundlessly! On her forehead rested a plain silver circlet, and on her left arm was a silver armlet, some snake creature twisting around and eating it's own tail. She was wearing an excessive number of colored wooden rings as well. Harley saw that the light was coming from a lantern hanging on the wall opposite her. The woman straightened from the crouch she'd been in and glanced at her. Harley gasped.
The woman's body was riddled with scars. Her right thigh had a long, thin one slicing across it, her stomach a two inch wide strip that she saw when the woman turned away was matched by one in the same place on her back. Ouch. That had to hurt. Being run through probably wasn't any fun. Her back showed witness to having been on the receiving end of a slaver's whip, and several more, less distinct scars were evidenced between the angry whip marks. The woman didn't look too old, her own age in fact, but her wounds had obviously been inflicted a long time ago. The woman looked at her impatiently.
"Are you coming or not?"
"I'm sorry, you're back..." The woman turned and looked at her back, cursing softly.
"Don't worry about it, Harley."
"How did you know my name?" she asked as they continued walking down long, dark corridors. They seemed to be going slowly downwards.
"Why would I have rescued you if I didn't know who you were? Although I wasn't expecting you." She said, looking Tracer up and down. "But you're Martian, and a freedom fighter, so I guess you're okay. Now be quiet. We're not out of the woods yet." The woman answered. Harley was extremely confused, but she kept quiet as they jogged down endless corridors and passageways. They came out in what looked(and smelt) like a sewer. Here the woman stopped for a few seconds and was quickly joined by several other people.
They appeared like magic from various cracks and openings in the walls. They were all women, and they were all dressed like her rescuer, although the only ornaments they wore were those same colored wooden rings. A young, blond one came up to her rescuer and handed her Mace's transportation device. She looked up and said something in a strange language to the woman. The woman answered in kind. The girl, who couldn't have been older than Rimfire, looked her and Tracer up and down and said something else to the woman. She answered, smiling slightly. The girl pointed to Tracer and asked a question. The woman shrugged as she answered. The girl, too, was painted so that her facial features were unrecognizable. It was then that Harley noticed that it was only the two of them who were wearing the paint. Tracer was getting fed up.
"All right. If you two can talk, so can we. And I want some answers." The woman raised her eyebrows at him.
"What sort of answers?"
"Well, for starters, who are you, where are we, why did you rescue us, and where are we going?"
"Just for starters?" the woman asked, amused. She chuckled at the reaction she got from him. "Well, let me see. Some people call me Starfreedom, so you may as well. This is Junglepeace. You are on Earth, on one of the northern continents, in a city called Detroit. I have my own reasons for rescuing you, reasons I don't care to share with you. We're going to a city not far from here, called Chicago, to a place you will be safe." By this time the rest of the women had gathered around them. There were ten of them in all. Junglepeace was by far the youngest, but they treated her with the deference of a leader. Maybe the paint means something. She opened her mouth to ask a question of her own, but a shot from a blaster near her head silenced her. She spun and saw a bunch of goons forming a shield around Mace, who was pointing the blaster at her head.
"I want that transporter." He said, sneering at them. Starfreedom simply raised her eyebrows. She made a slight motion with her left hand, and in seconds her escort had disarmed them. Mace stared at his now empty hand in shock, an expression which was quickly replaced by anger as he looked up at Starfreedom and her entourage, which had returned to her. He signaled his goons.
"Attack!" he screamed, rage making his voice shake. He picked up a piece of flotsam floating in one of the puddles, and charged them, his goons following suit. Starfreedom shoved Harley and Tracer into the circle of protection provided by the warrior women, then she and Junglepeace turned to meet the oncoming goons. The outcome was inevitable. The goons and their rat master were no match for the battle trained and hardened pair. They bounced off the shield the two provided as if they'd run into a brick wall. The girl giggled as Mace struggled to stand, only to slip and fall into a puddle of stuff best left unnamed. There was murder in his eyes. It almost looked as though he were stupid enough to try again, but Starfreedom put a stop to that by taking his own blaster and shoving it in his face.
"I don't like slavers." She hissed. "So, if I were you, I'd get my filthy, stinking, slaver butt off this planet before I forget I don't kill anymore." The quiet, but extremely real threat in her voice shook Mace up far more than any amount of pounding would have. He scrambled to his feet and fled, his goons not far behind him.
"Coward." Junglepeace spat. The two mice looked at her, startled. They'd been under the impression she didn't speak english. Harley again opened her mouth to ask a question, but this time Starfreedom silenced her.
"Enough questions. There's nothing else you need to know. Come, we're leaving." With these final words, she turned and left, not bothering to check and see if they were following. Her escort followed. Harley looked at Tracer with raised eyebrows. He just shrugged and started after them. She followed. Wherever they were going, it couldn't possible be any worse than that stinking rat's company. They walked in silence for nearly an hour before they came out into the cool night air. They were in a barren, gray city, in front of some warehouses. Nobody else was around. The woman was talking to her escort in that same language. When she was finished they nodded their heads and took off in different directions, all except the Starfreedom and Junglepeace. The two mice walked over to them. Junglepeace handed them helmets and pointed to two bikes sitting in the shadows.
"Here. Take those and follow us." The bikes were old, but in fairly good condition. There were no weapons or computers, though, and Harley missed her own bike. The two humans got on their own bikes and revved their engines. Harley started hers, and Tracer followed suit. They pulled out onto a wide, deserted street, and began their trip. The ride seemed to take forever. The two humans were uncommunicative, and Tracer was still silent. Harley thought of nothing but getting somewhere where she could shower and sleep in a real bed. Eventually, they entered another city, and the women took them down several streets until they came to what looked like a ballpark. Over the entrance it said `Quigley Field'. Junglepeace stopped and watched as the three of them rode into the ballpark. Then she turned her bike around and disappeared. Starfreedom kept going. They went up the stands and towards a large scoreboard. She stopped outside a door leading inside it. She motioned them to the door.
"Knock." She instructed. Harley did as she was told. Nothing. She tried again. This time she heard movement from within. Tracer came up and stood by her shoulder protectively. The door was answered by the barrel of a blaster. A Martian blaster. She saw a very familiar looking freedom fighter holding the end of it.
"Throttle!" she shrieked in surprise and relief. He looked at her in shock.
"Harley?" Modo and Vinny poked their heads around the door.
"Harley?!" they asked together. She wasted no time in throwing herself at them, hugging and kissing liberally, tears of joy and relief in her eyes. They hugged her back, overcoming their shock at their joy in seeing her alive and well again.
"When'd you get here? How'd you escape?" Vinny asked. Harley looked around for Starfreedom, but she'd disappeared.
"She's gone! Tracer, she's gone! She was just here!" She exclaimed. The three mice looked at her curiously.
"There was a woman, she rescued us, she was really strange, a human woman. She brought us here, she has a chemical that can melt Plutarkian glass steel, and Mace's transporter device!"
"I didn't see or hear her leave, either, sweety." Tracer put in, speaking for the first time.
"Who are you?" Vinny asked Tracer, more curious than jealous, which Harley thought slightly unusual.
"This is Tracer. Mace got him right after he took me." Harley answered for him. For a few seconds the five mice stood outside staring at eachother. Throttle broke the silence.
"Why don't you two come inside and tell us your story." He said, leading the way indoors. They did, and when they were through, Modo whistled.
"We're really sorry we couldn't find you. We had no idea you were on Earth too!"
"That's okay, neither did we." Tracer answered. The small, wiry mouse was at least a head shorter than the Biker mice, about as tall as Harley herself was.
"What are you guys doing here, anyway?" Harley asked them.
"Crashed here escaping from the Plutarkians. Found out Limburger's here, so we're trying to keep Earth from being eaten up like Mars was." Throttle answered. He looked thoughtful for a moment.
"You know, we don't know anyone like the woman you described, or the girl."
"But she seemed to know about you. She planned to take me here all along. She said she wasn't expecting Tracer, but she knew he was a Martian. Not only that, but she recognized him as a freedom fighter. It seemed to make the difference to whether or not she trusted him. She must know you."
"Maybe Charlie knows her." Modo said. Harley looked at him questioningly.
"A human we met after we landed. She's a friend." Throttle answered her silent inquiry.
"Let's go ask her then." Vinny said impatiently. Throttle and Modo nodded in agreement.
"All right, then, let's go." Throttle said. Harley and Tracer just shrugged and followed the guys out of the park. Within minutes they were in front of a garage with a large illuminated sign that read `Last Chance Garage' over the doors. There was light coming from the windows and beneath the cracks in the doors. They entered unannounced. A human woman with shoulder length brown hair was sitting with her back to them at a workbench, tinkering with some machinery. A tall man with shaggy blond hair was seated next to her. He turned as they entered but said nothing.
"Hi guys." Charlie said without lifting her head.
"Charlie-girl, what are you doing up at this hour?" Vinny asked, concerned.
"Just finishing up this..." she murmured.
"Hey Charlie, we got some people for ya to meet." Throttle told her. This got her attention, and she turned around in her chair. When she saw Harley and Tracer, her eyes widened in surprise and she stood up. She walked over to them and smiled.
"Hi. I'm Charlie." She said, holding out her hand. There was a smudge of something dark blue on the side of her thumb. Harley extended her own hand and they shook. "This is Jack." She said, jerking her thumb back at the still silent man.
"I'm Harley."
"Tracer" Tracer piped in, taking her hand and shaking it as well.
"Harley! I've heard a lot about you. I'm so glad to finally meet you! But I thought you were a prisoner to some rat..."
"I was up until a few hours ago. I was rescued by this strange human woman. She knew all about the guys here, and she brought me to their doorstep and disappeared. We were wondering if you knew who she was."
"That depends. Why don't you describe her to me." she said, looking at Throttle, Modo, and Vinny, who just shrugged.
"She moved like an assassin." Tracer told them. Harley opened her eyes wide. This was the first time she'd heard that. "I knew there was something familiar about her, and I didn't realize what it was until just now." He explained.
"Well, since I don't know how an assassin moves, why don't you give me a physical description." Charlie told them.
"Well," Harley began, "She said her name was Starfreedom." Jack's head jerked up in surprise, and he threw a narrow-eyed look in Charlie's direction. She ignored him. Harley continued, not noticing the silent exchange between the two humans.
"She had brown hair, in a bun on top of her head. Her eyes were...the color of yours, and she was wearing face paint, a dark blue diamond that covered her whole face, so we couldn't make out any facial features. She was barefoot, and she was wearing a short brown skirt and a sleeveless, crop top brown shirt..."
"A silver crown," Tracer interjected, "and lots of colored wooden rings, and a silver armlet, and some sort of medallion around her neck."
"And she was covered in scars." Harley finished. Charlie thought for a minute.
"Nope, doesn't ring a bell. Sorry. Was there anyone with her?"
"Yeah, there were eight other women, all dressed like her, except without the crown and armlet." Tracer said.
"The blond girl, Junglepeace, had an armlet." Harley put in. "And face paint, too. None of the others did. And they spoke a weird language too."
"She was young. Younger than the rest." Tracer said.
"Yeah, only about Rimfire's age." Harley said, glancing at Modo.
"I don't know anyone like that. I only know two people Rimfire's age, my niece and nephew." She glanced at the clock on the wall.
"Look, it's late. Harley, why don't you stay here with me tonight. I bet you haven't slept in a real bed in a long time." Harley looked at her gratefully.
"Tracer can stay with the guys, but you look like you haven't slept in days."
"Thanks a lot. I really appreciate this." The pretty blond mouse said, yawning. Charlie turned to the biker mice.
"Go home, guys, let Tracer get some shuteye. Come back in the morning, though. I want to hear the whole story." They agreed without much fuss. When they were gone, Charlie took Harley to a room at the back of the garage. It was small, but comfortable.
"This is where Carbine stayed when she came here." Charlie informed her. She murmured a response, too tired to answer. Charlie smirked behind her back. She lay down immediately, and was asleep before her head had made an indent in the soft pillow. Charlie covered her with a blanket, and left, turning the light off on the way out. She walked back into the garage, where Jack was waiting for her with crossed arms.
"So you were just taking a little `look-see', huh?" he asked, his displeasure quite evident. " `Found' that device, huh? `No big deal', huh? `Nobody saw you', huh?"
"Y'know, I really don't care to discuss this right now." She answered. He ignored her.
"You were planning to rescue them the whole time, weren't you? Getting that transporter device was just an excuse. That's why the timing had to be just so." He accused her.
"And why not? I couldn't just let her rot there with him!"
"Look, Charlie-babe, I know you have this thing about slavers and all, but really..." she stopped him cold.
"You have no idea, Jack, so just don't go there, okay?" she said it so quietly he barely heard her. Which scared him. She usually got quiet only when she was extremely angry. He covered his discomfort by asking another question.
"So how long have you been planning this?" She gave him a sideways look, then sighed.
"The guys told me about her a few months ago. I wanted to help, so I put a tag out on her. It was a long shot, but it paid off. A couple nights ago I was informed that another mouse person had landed on the planet, accompanied by some prisoners, and was heavily guarded. It fit her description, so I decided to check it out. I was going to tell the guys about it and have them come to her rescue, until I saw his defenses. They wouldn't have gotten within a mile of her before he knew about it and took off. They just don't know how to sneak into places, and that rat knew it. He was prepared for them. He wasn't prepared for us. We were the only ones who could've gotten them out of there alive. Case closed. I don't want to talk about it anymore."
"You know, sometimes I think your heart is bigger than your brain." He said, exasperated.
"What, are you deaf?" she asked, annoyed.
"Do you realize what could happen if she recognizes you? You've compromised the safety of over a thousand people's lives." Her head jerked up, and she glared at him. She advanced on him, anger coming off her in waves.
"How dare you insinuate that I would put my people in that kind of danger! I am not a child anymore Jack. I never was. These are my people, and I am their leader. They are all I have left to love in this world. I would never, ever, put them in frivolous danger! How dare you dictate to me how to rule them! I have over a million years of combined experience stored in this head of mine, both in leading and following. I know what I'm doing. They won't find out. If they do, so what? I trust them. I trust them with my life. They would never do anything to harm me, or the people I care about. I've wanted to tell them the truth for the longest time, and only the council's veto has kept me from doing it. If she realizes the truth, I'll deal with that when it happens. If the council thinks it's too dangerous for them to have that kind of knowledge..."
"Which they will." Jack said, recovering from his shock at her burst of emotion.
"Then her memory can be erased. But I won't do that unless there's danger of her being captured and tortured. Which at the moment is slim to nil."
"At the moment." He said. She took a deep breath and turned away from him. They stood in silence for several long minutes.
"Charlie..."he said. She didn't move. "Look, I'm sorry I doubted your judgment. It's just that I keep forgetting who you are." She still didn't move. "Look, I'm just a human, Charlie, and unlike you, I wasn't raised with your people. It's hard to accept the concept of having more memories than your own. Especially when your body's so young." She crossed her arms. "And, I met you after you'd gone through all the junk that...well...hurt you, and even though I've seen the aftermath, you hide it well. And if you've been through everything they say you have, I don't know how you do it." He finished quietly. She stayed silent for several more minutes.
"I deal with it." She said, as quietly now as she was loud before. He looked at her. She finally turned to face him. "I deal with it because I have to. I don't have a choice. But none of that matters now. It happened a long time ago, and right now, I have more important things to worry about than my past." She sighed. "Look, you aren't of my people, and it's hard for me to tell you things simply because you're human." She stopped his protest with a raised hand. "I know I'm human too, but I was raised by them, and I have a natural distrust of humans."
"Except yourself."
"Of course except myself! I know who I am! I know my motives for doing things!"
"And you don't know mine." He said flatly. She looked at him sadly.
"Of course I do, Jack. My distrust of you is instinctual, not logical." He looked at her, trying to divine some other meaning from her words in her face, but came up empty. He sighed.
"All right. I'm sorry I keep trying to control your decisions. You are the queen after all. You've been doing this for ten years. I guess you should know what you're doing by now."
She sighed.
"I certainly hope so." She didn't sound as sure as she had. She looked at him again.
"Go home Jack. I'm tired. It's been a long night. There's a council meeting tomorrow night. Be there."
"Full council?"
"Afraid so."
"Uh huh." he sighed.
"All right, good night."
"Night." He left quickly, taking the transporter device she'd stolen with him."
"Jack!" She called after him. He turned just outside the door.
"I want a full report on that thing for the meeting." He groaned. She chuckled. When he was gone, she went to check on Harley. The mouse was still sound asleep.
"Good idea, Chiquita." She murmured, and quickly sought her own bed.
A few hours later, the day dawned to find the four male mice in Charlie's garage once again. Harley was awake and showered. Charlie lent her some of her clothes so that hers could be washed. Charlie made them all a big breakfast and they sat down and ate it together. When they were finished, they began to talk. Harley and Tracer repeated the story they'd told to the guys last night for Charlie's benefit, and the guys told their two newfound comrades what they'd been doing since they parted ways. Charlie remained silent for most of this, only adding a few words here and there when they left something out. Then they began discussing Starfreedom again.
"I wonder who she was." Tracer mused.
"She was an incredible fighter, her and that girl, and their escort was almost as good." Harley put in.
"What I want to know is how she knew about us, and how she knew about Harley being there." Throttle said.
"And I want to know if she's single!" Vinny added. Charlie and Harley rolled their eyes.
"We should at least thank her." Modo said.
"Yes, I would really want to do that." Harley said. "We didn't get a chance to last night."
"From what you guys describe, I doubt you're ever going to see her again." Charlie told them. "I'm sure if she wanted to be found, or thanked, she would have stayed."
"Yeah," Harley murmured, deep in thought. "Y'know, I really would've liked to get a look at Mace's transporter device."
"She took it." Tracer said. "I saw her hand it to one of her escort when Mace attacked, and the woman put it in Starfreedom's pack." He explained. "I would've liked to get a look at it too, but there was no way I was gonna bring down one of those women's wrath on me." Tracer stopped talking, thinking about the events of the last night.
"I wish she wouldn't have." Harley said. "The freedom fighters could've used that thing."
"Maybe she needed it." Charlie said.
"Yeah, but we're at war, and something like that could increase our chances ten fold." Harley answered. Charlie just shrugged.
"Who knows. She could be at war too." Modo said. Charlie glanced at him, but she saw his insight was only idle speculation in an effort to defend the heroine of last night.
"Charlie's right." Throttle said at last. They looked at him. "That woman's long gone, and there's no way we're going to track her down now." Several heads nodded in agreement. They were all silent for a few moments, each absorbed in his or her own thoughts. Tracer broke the silence.
"Hey, Charlie?"
"That man with you last night..."
"Yeah, him. Who was he?"
"A friend."
"You don't suppose he knows anything about Starfreedom, do you?"
"I don't think so, why?"
"Because of the look on his face when we mentioned her name." Damn him. He's always had a lousy poker face. Now I remember why I don't tell him anything.
"What look?" she asked.
"He almost jumped, and then he glared at you."
"Glared at me! Why would he do that?"
"You tell me." he said, almost suspiciously.
"I don't know. Why don't we ask him?" she said. She swore silently. Don't make me regret rescuing you, mousie. You're almost too smart for your own good. Or my own good anyway.
"Do you really think he knows something, Tracer?" Harley asked. Tracer wasn't usually wrong. She didn't actually know where he'd come from, or what he'd done for the freedom fighters, but she knew he was unlike most Martian males she'd known.
"Maybe. I'm just takin' a shot in the dark, but, who knows," he said, glancing at Charlie, "I might hit something." That's it. I'm going to tell them. Tonight at council I'll tell those old sticks to...nevermind. I won't do that. But I will override them. I want the guys as my allies. Lady knows we have few enough of those. And maybe we can help eachother.
"Well, why don't I call him right now." Charlie told him, looking him square in the eye.
"Why don't you?" he replied, locking his eyes onto hers. The other mice looked kind of uncomfortable. They weren't sure exactly what was going on, but all of a sudden their breakfast table discussion had gone much deeper than it had started out, and they had no idea why or how. Charlie picked up the phone and dialed the number from memory. She was silent a few minutes, and then,
"Are you still asleep?" she asked, laughing at him. She listened for a few minutes, and then,
"Good. Listen, y'know the two new mice who showed up last night?.....Yeah, whatever, Jack...Listen, they think you might know something about this Starfreedom that you're not telling us.....Well, Tracer says you were acting oddly when you heard her, I don't know how he knows how you usually act, but....For heaven's sake, Jack! Just answer the question!......Huh....uh huh....well, try and remember!...yeah....all right, thanks anyway." She put down the phone and turned back to the waiting mice.
"He says he once heard the name somewhere, but he doesn't remember where. That's why he didn't mention it last night. He didn't think there was a point. He never knew anyone by that name anyway. Sorry guys." She told them, looking at Tracer again, only this time her look was soft, almost patient. At the disappointment in their faces, she sighed. What's the use hiding it now? she thought.
"Look, guys...There's something I need to tell you. Its about..." She was cut off as two people walked through her door unannounced. The blond girl and the dark boy walked in as though they'd done so a thousand times.
"Hi, Aunt Charlie!" The girl said cheerfully. The presence of five man-sized mice in the room didn't seem to faze her one bit. The boy, however, raised his eyebrows slightly.
"Rora, Jason! Aren't you two supposed to be in school?" Charlie exclaimed, rushing to give each of them a hug. The girl's long, blond hair was in a ponytail that nearly reached to her knees. Her brother's black hair was neatly trimmed at shoulder length, and his dark eyes were warm as he returned his aunt's hug. Aurora's blue eyes sparkled.
"I knew there was something we forgot to do today." Rori said.
"Very funny. You two can explain yourselves later. There's some people I want you to meet." She turned to the mice, who were impatient to find out who these intruders were.
"Guys, this is my niece, Aurora, and my nephew, Jason. Rori, Jason, this is Vinny, Throttle, Modo, Harley, and Tracer." She told them, pointing to each mouse as she named him.
"Hi!" Aurora said perkily.
"Hey." Jason said. The mice returned their greetings.
"I don't mean to seem rude, but you two don't seem all that surprised to see us." Throttle said, looking at them curiously.
"Oh, Aunt Charlie's told us all about you!"
"Yeah, she had to explain why her Bike kept getting trashed." Jason added, grinning at them.
"Uh, yeah, well..."
"Nevermind, guys." Charlie came to their rescue. "Aurora, Jason, did you con your teachers into letting skip class?"
"Us?! I'm insulted Aunt Charlie. It wasn't any kind of con!" Rora exclaimed, faining hurt.
"Yeah, they would've paid us to get out of their class!" Jason told her, laughing.
"They're letting us do our work for the week ahead of time, and turn it in at the beginning of the week. Then we don't have to go to class."
"You two..." Aurora laughed. Eventually Charlie joined her.
"All right, so what're you here for? Just decide to visit me?" Aurora pursed her lips and turned serious.
"Actually, we needed to talk to you." She glanced at the mice. "But we weren't expecting you guys to be here so early. It can wait." But not for long, her eyes said. "Sorry to've busted in on you like this."
"Hey, you two don't have to go." Modo said. Aurora looked at him, then smiled.
"We probably should. But don't worry. You'll be seeing a lot more of us real soon." She told him.
"Hey, Rora," Charlie asked her, " Are you singing tonight?" The girl grinned at her.
"Yeah. You wanna come?"
"Wouldn't miss it, sweety." The two walked out the door, and the occupants of the garage heard two motors start up, and their bikes roar away. It was like a whirlwind had just come and gone, so fast they barely knew it was there before it was gone. The mice sat silent for a few seconds, trying to remember what they'd been discussing before the two teenagers walked in. I'd better wait to tell them until after I hear what Rora wants.
"What were you saying, Charlie?" Tracer asked.
"Hmmm? Oh, nothing." She answered.
"Y'know, Charlie, those two don't look related at all." Harley mused. Charlie chuckled.
"That's because they aren't." The mice raised their collective eyebrows.
"Come again?" Throttle said.
"Are they adopted?" Harley asked.
"Yeah." She answered."
"How long have they been together?" Harley asked her.
"Since they were six. Their parents were killed in a fire. They watched their families consumed by the flames."
"They must be close, then."
"They are. Incredibly close. Ever since that night, they've been inseparable. There's a love between them deeper and stronger than anything I've ever seen before." She added very quietly. "Almost anything."
"Anyway, if they weren't born brother and sister, it's only because someone up there messed up, because they are, whether they were intended to be or not." She said, shaking off old, painful memories.
"Well, they seem to've adjusted well." Harley said. Charlie smiled.
"I'd like to think that's because of me, but I know better. Together the two of them are stronger than they could ever be separately, and if I'd never come along, they would've been fine."
"Surely.." Harley began to protest, but Charlie cut her off.
"I know they would've been. Anyway..." She herself was cut off by the radio crackling.
".....Throttle, come in, dammit!" an impatient voice said. Throttle grabbed the radio.
"It's about time, handsome. Is the lot behind Charlie's garage still empty?"
"Oh, good. I would've hated to hurt anything."
"What's your ETA?"
"Right now." The mice jumped up and ran outside. Sure enough, an old cruiser was landing behind the garage. Carbine, Stoker, and Rimfire jumped out of the ship.
"Geez, people are popping up all over the place!" Charlie said. Carbine hugged Throttle and Modo hugged Rimfire, much to his chagrin. It was then that Carbine saw who was hiding behind Charlie.
"Harley!" she exclaimed. Stoker jerked around to look. Carbine ran to her old friend and hugged her hard.
"This is amazing! When'd you escape? Why didn't you let us know!" Harley laughed.
"We only got out last night, give me a break!" She turned to Stoker and hugged him too.
"I was real worried about you." He said.
"I know." Stoker saw Tracer leaning against the building.
"Tracer! Did Mace capture you too?" Tracer nodded.
"Wrong place, wrong time."
"Well, get your tail back to Mars, boy! We need you, and you need to clear your name."
"I figured they'd think I deserted." Stoker looked at him sadly.
"I tried to stick up for you, boy, but, well, you know how it goes."
"Yeah, Stoke," Tracer sighed. "I know how it goes."
"You're different, and you're dangerous, and that means they won't trust you, no matter how many times you prove yourself."
"Whoa!" Carbine said, catching this last bit. "Wait a sec. Why wasn't I told about him?"
"You were. Carbine, meet our `secret weapon'." Stoker said, introducing Tracer with a flourish. Carbine stared.
"Hmph." she said, for lack of anything else to say.
"So," Throttle said, to break the silence, "what brings you three to earth all of a sudden?"
"We heard Mace was here, and we thought maybe we might get lucky this time." Carbine said, and grinned at Harley, giving her another hug. "I guess we did."
"So how'd you two get out?" Stoker asked, looking at Tracer for answers. He was busy looking at Charlie.
"This woman rescued us." Harley told them.
"Woman?" Stoker asked
"Yeah, we don't know who she is or where she came from, but she just sort of appeared. She had some sort of chemical that melted right through plutarkian glass steel. She seemed to know everything about the building we were in, because she led us through hidden passages and into a sewer, where we were joined by nine other women. One of them was a girl, about Rimfire's age," she said, pointing to the young mouse, "And apparently she'd relieved Mace of his transporter device. The woman said that her name was Starfreedom, and the girl was Junglepeace. They were the only two who talked at all. The girl began spouting some gibberish in some strange language, and they began talking about us." Tracer broke in.
"They were wearing dark face paint. We couldn't make out their features, and they were the only two wearing extra jewelry."
" `Extra' jewelry?" Carbine asked.
"Yeah," Harley said, "All the women were wearing medallions and colored wooden rings, but Starfreedom and Junglepeace were also wearing silver armlets, and Starfreedom was wearing a silver crown of some sort. It wasn't very big. And they were the only two wearing facepaint, too."
"Some sort of symbol of rank?" Stoker asked.
"That's what I thought." Harley said.
"Or because they didn't want to be recognized." Tracer put in.
"Look," Charlie said. "Why don't we go inside and sit down? We can continue this discussion over root beer."
"Thought you'd never ask." Carbine said. The eight mice and Charlie went in and found more chairs. Soon they were all sitting around the table with cans of root beer in their hands. Charlie cleared the table of their breakfast dishes and went into the kitchen to wash them. She put them into the sink, looked at them forlornly and sighed. She rubbed her temples. Lady, my head hurts. Tears began to gather in her eyes. A knock on the floor kept them from spilling over. I hope she has good news. Like a miracle maybe. She left the dishes in the sink and went back out into the living room. She climbed the ladder into her room. She'd just gotten up there when she heard,
"Hey, Charlie! Where're you going?" She stuck her head back down.
"I'll be down in a minute. I've gotta get some things." She pulled the door closed and went to sit on her bed. Within seconds her closet door opened and her two wayward children walked through.
"Well?" she asked, looking at them and daring to hope for good news. Jason shook his head. She groaned.
"We've got the latest reports from the scouts. It's official. We're blocked in." He told her, his face downcast.
"We stopped by uncle Jack's before coming here. He hasn't made any progress duplicating that thing. It'll still only work if the subject is touching whatever she wants to bring along with her." Aurora told her, her face equally downcast. They sat across from her on the bed. The three sat in silence for a few moments before Aurora asked,
"We're not going to make it out of this one, are we?" Charlie sighed.
"I don't know, love. I just don't know." The two teenagers' eyes widened. Aunt Charlie always knew what to do. Jason said softly,
"We're in more trouble than we thought, aren't we?" Charlie moved her head slightly, her nod barely perceptible. The silence that followed was almost palpable. They gazed at eachother, each knowing now the truth, and none wanting to say the words.

Charlie's Secrets

Part Two

Charlie put her head in her hands. The threatened tears rose to the surface once again and spilled over, making long, silent tracks down her face. She whispered to nobody in particular,
"I failed them. I failed to protect them. It's all my fault. I should've tried harder...." The depression Aurora had been sinking into vanished the moment she saw the tears and turned to fury. She jumped up off the bed and threw the bedside lamp through the window.
"It's not fair!" she exclaimed. "Why won't anyone help us?! They shouldn't be allowed to do this to us!" she was screaming now, her voice shaking with rage. Three Martian heads, drawn by the noise she was making, jumped through the trapdoor, weapons ready.
"What's going on? What happened?" Throttle asked. By this time all eight of the mice had squeezed themselves into her room, and were looking at Aurora and Jason in astonishment. Charlie glared at her niece, quickly clearing her face of all trace of tears before they had a chance to notice it.
"Where'd they come from?" Stoker asked. Aurora looked chagrined.
"Oops." Was all she had to say. Charlie sighed and Jason smirked.
"My niece has a slight problem controlling her temper. This is Aurora and her brother Jason. Rora, Jason, this is Stoker, Carbine, and Rimfire. I think I told you about them too, didn't I?"
"Yeah," Jason said. " He's the leader of the freedom fighters, she's a general, and he's Modo's nephew."
"Right." She said.
"Hey," Modo asked, "how'd you two get in here anyway?" Aurora grinned her aunt.
"Well?" she asked. Charlie thought for a second.
"The little monkeys climbed the drain pipe." She told them.
"Why didn't you just use the door?" Harley asked.
"Yeah," Tracer added, "Didn't you wanna see us?" She beamed at them.
"Yeah, but climbing's more fun." she told him.
"Besides," Jason said, "there was a strange spaceship in her back lot. We didn't wanna walk right into another of your fights."
"Smart boy." Carbine said. "So what made you lose your temper like that?" she asked.
"Her football team is losing for the third straight season, and she got a trifle emotional about it." Charlie said. Rori glared at her.
"Hey," she said, "Don't knock football. It's the backbone of this country's entertainment!" with those parting words, she grabbed Jason by the wrist, brushed past her aunt, and left via the window, sliding down the drain pipe to the street below. Charlie sighed again.
"Sorry to've scared you, guys." She led the way back down into the living area of the garage. Once again she disappeared into the kitchen. She read the note her niece had slipped into her hand carefully. It said `Don't do anything stupid till the meeting tonight.

"Huh." she said, crumpling the paper and throwing it in the garbage can. "All right, I'll play. I guess one more day won't hurt." She walked back out into the living area of the garage, meeting the stares of the mice sitting around her table squarely.
"So what is it you're going to do now, Harley?" she asked. Harley sighed and looked at Tracer.
"I don't know actually. Go back to Mars, I suppose, and pick up where I left off." She was still looking at Tracer. "Are you coming back, too?" she asked hopefully. He pursed his lips, and shrugged. I suppose I should, just to throw those arrogant peacocks I'm still alive." He answered.
"And to clear your name." Stoker said firmly. "I won't have you letting them defame you just because you're too proud to argue with them." he said, his look saying quite clearly he would not take no for an answer. Tracer just shrugged, not promising anything. He didn't have a chance to, even if he'd wanted to because the door to the garage was blown off it's hinges at that very moment. All eight of the mice jumped to their feet, pulling out blasters, and firing at the door. They stopped firing when they'd gotten no response, and waited for the dust to settle to see what was going on. Only when the last of the smoke had cleared were three figures sillouhetted in the doorway. One was unmistakably Limburger, and he was pointed a blaster of his own at the figure in front of him.
"Anyone moves and he dies." He said calmly, motioning the figure forward into the light with his gun. At the sight of him, Charlie's heart sank. Oh, Jack. She thought despairingly. You need to be more careful! It was Jack, and he did not look happy at having been captured. The figure behind the two stepped forward. Mace. Perfect. The Rat was cackling with glee.
"Nobody gets away from me, girly. Nobody." He said, looking straight at Harley and glaring.
"What do you want from us, Limburger?" Throttle asked angrily. Carbine and Stoker came to stand beside him. The fish just laughed.
"From you, my dear mouse? Nothing." He turned to Charlie, who was trying to look inconspicuous behind Vinnie and Tracer. "But from her..." he laughed, and his goons came up from behind them and grabbed her arms, dragging her forward. Limburger shook his head and clucked his tongue.
"You know, when Mace came to me with a wild tale about a barbarian woman and her entourage stealing his transporter and his prisoners, I thought he'd been playing with too many of the chemicals in his lab. But then he showed me the pictures his cameras took of the mysterious woman, and I looked at them and began to think."
"Did you hurt yourself?" she asked sweetly. Mace came up and backhanded her across the face. Vinny jumped up and tried to get to him, his face a mask of fury, but was stopped by more goons, and Limburger shoving his blaster into Jack's face. Charlie didn't seem to feel the blow, although her face reddened where he'd hit her. She simply looked at him calmly. He harrumphed loudly.
"Now, as I was saying, I began to think that maybe I knew that woman from someplace. Really, you have gotten careless. If you'd simply restrained yourself to taking the transporter and left the prisoners alone, you never would have been caught." He took a picture out of his breast pocket. It showed Starfreedom as she stood and looked over her shoulder at Harley. "Anyway, I had Karbunkle run a computer program to enhance her features, and remove the face paint, and look what we found!" He pulled another picture, the same as the first one, only without the paint, and the face was lit up more. It was unmistakably her face. She raised her eyebrows and quirked her mouth, but said nothing. The mice were in various states of shock, all except Tracer, who looked oddly pleased with himself.
"I knew it." He sad gleefully. "I knew she was the one. She tried to hide it, but she still moves the same way Starfreedom did. You can't undo that, it's instinct and training that's been ground into you from birth, isn't it?" she looked at him and sighed.
"Something like that." was her only reply. Limburger harrumphed again.
"To say the least, I was as shocked as you are now. To think the little mechanic friend of the biker mice was something entirely other than what she appeared to be!"
"Cut the small talk, Limburger." She said impatiently. "What so you want?" he chuckled.
"We'll get to that in a moment. First, I think I have something you'd very much like to see." At his signal, Greasepit and Karbunkle pushed a large viewscreen and control panel into the doorway. Karbunkle pushed a few switches, and the screen flipped on to a highway not far from the Canada border, and a lone bike with two humans on it. The long blond hair flying from beneath the driver's helmet was unmistakable. Charlie stifled her gasp. Her face darkened.
They watched, and noticed they could hear everything said as well. Aurora laughed and shook her head at something Jason had said. It was winter, and the roads were icy, and it was snowing hard, but she didn't seem to care. In the distance ahead of the two they could see a bridge. Aurora looked over her shoulder at Jason and pouted at him. He only laughed.
"Well, she could have explained why we were there without making me look like an airhead!" she exclaimed.
"She wouldn't have had to explain if you would learn to control your temper!"
"I couldn't help it! I can't stand to see Aunt Charlie cry! It's not fair! She thinks its all her fault, that she didn't do enough! She did more than anyone had any right to expect, more than she should have been capable of! She doesn't deserve this, she doesn't deserve all the pain she has to shove into tiny corners of her mind while she deals with one crisis after another! She's not dealing with the hurt, and it's tearing her apart, and there's nothing I can do to help her! She won't let me near enough to see all the rest of the pain, the stuff that just began with her sisters' murders. It just makes me so mad to know that they're going to get away with killing every last one of us, and there's nothing we can do about it! And don't tell me it doesn't make you mad too!" she exclaimed.
"You know it does, Rora, but think what would happen if they decided her friends knew too much and eliminated them, too. Or if they got caught in the crossfire trying to save her. She doesn't deserve to have to deal with the pain of losing the only people she's allowed herself to love in ten years! I'm not entirely certain she can deal with it." He answered.
"She can handle anything." Rora said stubbornly. "What does it matter, anyway?" she asked irritably. "She won't have to deal with it. She'll be dead too."
"Do you think she would ever forgive herself in a thousand lifetimes if they were killed because of her?" She had no answer for that one. The bridge was looming up fast. She heard a loud honk behind her, and whirled. There were four eighteen wheelers getting uncomfortably close to her tail end. She tried to speed up, but her tires were slipping on the ice. Two of them got into the other lane and passed her. One got in front of her, one stayed just even with her, and another went into the right lane, forcing her into the middle lane of the highway and effectively boxing her in. Her eyes went wide.
"What do you think you're doing!" she screamed at the trucks. She saw the bridge coming up fast. The trucks were forcing her over to the edge of the road. They maneuvered so that she had nowhere to go but straight ahead-into the side of the bridge. She looked around wildly for a way out, but there was none. Then she noticed the wide space underneath the trucks.
"Slide!" she screamed at Jason, jerking their bike almost parallel to the ground and sliding under the huge monster on her left, the bike's momentum sending it off the road and down to bank of the frozen river. The two teenagers were flung from the bike, Jason landing in a snowbank and Aurora slamming into a tree and sliding slowly down the broad trunk. The trucks had stopped, and goons poured out.
"Stop it!" Charlie cried. "Leave them alone! They're of no use to you!"
"Oh, but they are. Already they've given me more information than I ever hoped to be able to gather on my own." Was the oily reply. She favored him with a glare that could have chilled a volcano.
Jason dug himself out of the bank frantically, freeing himself just in time to slam his fist into a goons face. Aurora got to her feet shakily, having slightly more time because she was farther away. The snow began to come down harder, and the wind whipped through her hair. The trucks on the deserted highway were barely visible. They were on the edge of a national park. She joined the fray quickly, taking out the clumsy goons with ease and precision, wasting no movements. They were doing all right, but more goons were pouring from the trucks, come to assist their failing comrades. Jason saw that they were going to be overwhelmed in this weather, injured as they were, so he grabbed his sister's arm and hauled her towards the trees. For once, she didn't argue, running deeper into the trees without so much as a parting shot at the goons. She must have been hurt worse than she was letting on.
Snow was coming down even harder than before, and the wind picked up soon, they were thoroughly lost, and couldn't see more than a foot in front of them. Aurora wave at him and motioned at him, her voice lost in the howling of the wind. He soon got her meaning when a shot from a blaster landed nearly at his feet. They began to run again, not caring where they went, somehow keeping together. They ran long past the goon's exhaustion point, and only stopped when they were too cold to go on.
"Now what?" Jason shouted at her over the wind. She shrugged, and then she disappeared. Jason launched himself at the spot where she had just been, discovering that she'd slipped and fallen down a small hill, and was sliding to the bottom. He followed her. She stood up, helping him to his feet as she went, her ear cocked, listening for something. How she could make anything out in this wind was beyond him, but he followed when her face glowed with excitement, and she took off running.
"I know this place!" she said excitedly. "And...yes! There it is!" It was the river, and it had gone down a respectably sized waterfall. The river was frozen solid, but that didn't stop her.
"Don't you remember?" she shouted. "There's a cave under that waterfall! We saw it last summer!" He still had no idea what she was talking about, but he trusted her memory better than his. She ran out onto the ice, and looked at the frozen waterfall. Then she grinned, stepped back, and kicked it as hard as she could. The sound of ice tinkling to the frozen ground filled his ears. She was right. There was a cave back there, a small one, but there nonetheless. At least they could get out of the weather. She led the way in, and once inside, the noise from the wind virtually ceased to exist. She plopped down on a rock and crossed her arms, annoyed now that they weren't out in the blizzard. They had nothing to start a fire with, no blankets, no nothing. They'd be lucky if they didn't die of hypothermia.
"I hate being cold!" she exclaimed. "Why these northern continent have to be so damned cold I can't imagine!" He sat down next to her.
"Who were those guys?" he asked. She shrugged.
"Not His anyway. Too stupid."
"You think that dumb Rat was stupid enough to try and get his transporter back?" She shrugged again.
"I don't know. He's not gonna get it though. We put it with the `special' stuff before we left, remember? Uncle Jack couldn't find anything to do with it, anyway."
"Well, if he found us like that, then he's probably found Uncle Jack and Aunt Charlie too." He told her. From the look on her face, he gathered she hadn't considered that.
"If we could just get to the Bike, we could let them know what's happened." She said, shedding the pouting adolescent mask as quickly as she'd donned it back on the highway.
"We can't do anything until this storm lets up. We'd get hopelessly lost. We have to wait." He told her, used to her mood swings by now.
"I know," she said quietly. "But why do I feel like time is the one thing we don't have right now? I just have this urgent feeling, like we should be moving now. Like we can't wait. Something's wrong. If those goons weren't sent by Him, then he's gonna know about them soon enough."
"And if he knows about them, he knows about us." He confirmed for her, sadly. She nodded her head, whispering very, very quietly,
"And then it's over." The statement had more finality in it than anything else she could have said.

Charlie's secrets

Part Three

They sat in silence for a few moments, shivering miserably. Aurora had had just about enough. She stood up with a determined look on her face.
"Rora, don't..."Jason started to say, but didn't finish because he didn't really want her to stop. She closed her eyes and reached out with mental fingers, sealing off the entrance to the cave and warming it considerably.
"Nobody's gonna see us way out here." She saw some wood in the corner where some kids had probably been playing `fort' or something, and gathered it in the middle of the cave. She stared at it, thinking.
"Too bad I'm not the third priestess. She could light this without any help."
"You're not in charge of physical stuff, and you know it. But I may have a lighter in here somewhere." He began digging through the pockets of his jacket, finally coming up with a book of matches.
"What are you doing with those?" she asked suspiciously. He shrugged.
"Snagged em from the club when you were doin' you're tryout. Figured they might come in handy sometime. But how are you gonna light this thing without kindling?" he asked. She grinned.
"I don't need kindling, just a flame to begin with." She struck one of the matches, holding it over the wood, but not trying to light the wood. Instead, she stared into the tiny flame, directing it with her will. It responded by flaring up hotly, catching the semi-dry wood, and filling the cave with light and warmth. She took a knife from her boot and cut a lock of her hair, throwing it into the fire as thanks.
"I will never understand how you do that." he told her, his dark features lit by the warm glow of the fire. There was virtually no smoke from it. She shrugged and grinned at him, the fire making her skin appear as golden as her hair.
"You could do it, too, if you tried. Although not fire for awhile. It's dangerous and hard to control. It's also very touchy." He looked at her doubtfully. Then he changed the subject, as he always did when he didn't want to argue with her.
"Y'know, sometimes I think it would be nice to be like aunt Charlie, to be able to be as hard and cold as she can be sometimes." Rora stared at him as if he'd just suggested newborn babies might be interesting foodstuffs. She shook her head, slowly.
"But she's not." She said. "She pretends to be, and she's very good at getting people to think things like that about her. That way she doesn't have to deal with uncomfortable questions, or people trying to comfort her when she's trying to forget things ever happened. I know better, because I'm as much her sister as her niece, and I have the memories of someone who knew her better than anyone else ever has."
"Her sister?" she nodded.
"Alethea, Catrina, and her were closer than any of the Three have ever been, because they were triplets before they became priestesses, and had that extra bond. She hurts in ways I can only imagine, but she's stronger than us. She gets through the days, and most of the nights, and she carries on. You think she's cold, that the things she's had to do to people didn't affect her, but I've seen her crying when she thought nobody was there to see her. I've heard her sob like her heart was broken into a million pieces, and then put on her mask of coldness when anyone came into the room."
"She is good at wearing masks." Jason said. "I can never tell when we're seeing the real her."
"I can. And we don't, not usually. When she's on a mission, and when she's in her capacity as queen and ruler, she wears the Starfreedom mask. Cold, hard, calculating, fanatically dedicated to her people, unwilling to let us die quietly. In the other places, the places we've hidden before, when she's pretending to be a normal seamstress, or secretary, or something quiet and unassuming, she wears that mask. She pretends to be whatever character the people around her think she is. And when we leave, she leaves the friends she's made without any explanation, any warning, letting them think they've offended her or that she's been kidnapped or something. She even made that one guy in Lebanon think she was dead, and I think he really loved her."
"Than does she ever show her real self?" he asked, just out of curiosity.
"She does to those mice." He looked at her in surprise. She nodded. "I don't know how I know, but I do. The Charlie she shows them is the Charlie she would have been without all her responsibility, without all the death and pain. And I don't think she would ever leave them the way she left the others. She'd make them leave her." She laughed sadly.
"It's funny, really. They have a part of her we can never have. She cares for them deeply, and they get to see her without all the walls and shields and bitterness. Without the aura of commander. They see her without any masks. The way her sisters saw her. In a way, I envy them."
"And they don't even realize what they have." Jason said. "Y'know, I think we saw a glimpse of her this afternoon. In her room. She seemed to forget we were there."
"She's so filled with guilt, she can't see that there was nothing she could do. He's got an almost inexhaustible supply of troops, connections in places we could never hope to, he controls the police and the information supply in every major city in the world. He knows who comes and goes and why. There's no place for us to run to, and if we stay in Chicago, he's gonna find us soon."
"And the people won't go to another planet where the same things will happen to us, and they won't return to the homeplanet in disgrace. I wish they'd be more flexible. We'd have more options."
"I can't help thinking Aunt Charlie's got one more card up her sleeve. She always has a backdoor. She must have one for here. I have a feeling that no matter what the people want, she's going do whatever's necessary to keep them alive. If that means wandering the stars for the rest of time searching for a planet that'll accept us or an uninhabited one, than she will. If it means admitting defeat and returning home in disgrace, than she will."
"What if she doesn't, Rora?" he asked. She looked at him stubbornly. But he continued before she could respond. "I had the feeling she was hiding something from us when we talked to her. And she was in an awful hurry to get us out of there."
"What are you saying?" she asked him, looking into his eyes and not being able to divine what he was thinking.
"Do you remember a couple months ago, out of the blue, she told you to stop checking for the Third priestess? That it didn't matter anyway?"
"It doesn't matter. It's too late for the priestesses to do anything, even if we were all together and up to full strength. Which we aren't."
"Ok, just suppose for a minute....she doesn't want you to even check out the possibility of the third priestess being anywhere, when everyone knows aunt Charlie grabs at all resources, no matter how useless they may seem. So, suppose that she's already found the third priestess, and she doesn't want us to know about it."
"Why are you thinking about this right now?" she asked him, exasperated.
"Because there's nothing else to do. Now listen-what would be the only possible reasons she wouldn't want us to know?" he asked, his long black hair falling over his eyes as he stared into the fire. She thought for a minute.
"Well....because it would be dangerous for us..............because she was planning on doing something with her we wouldn't approve of...............because she was being contrary........"
"Rora, be serious!"
"Listen anyway. Why would it be dangerous for us?"
"Any number of reasons, Jason!"
"Fine. What wouldn't we approve of, then?"
"Like I said....wait, maybe not us but the council! Something the council doesn't approve of!....No....that's everything."
"Not necessarily. The only reason I can think of is that she discovered the priestess all right, but it wasn't anything like we were expecting. The only thing that would be is if the priestess were..."
"One of the mice! That Carbine woman, it has to be! She fits the profile perfectly, and she was there at the same time Aunt Charlie told me not to look anymore! That's brilliant!" she exclaimed, comprehension lighting her eyes.
"So what else have you come up with, Sherlock?"
"Well, for one thing, the council barely tolerated a human as priestess. Can you imagine a mouse?" he looked up at her. She burst into laughter. When she'd gotten a hold of herself, she gasped,
"A m-m-m-mouse! C-C-Cats and M-mice!" she collapsed in another fit of giggles.

"What's so funny?" Limburger asked, looking at Charlie apprehensively. She did not look pleased with her nephew's insight.
"Damn those kids." she muttered to herself.
"What's she talking about Charlie?" Carbine asked, confused. "What's a priestess, and why do they think I'm it?" she stepped forward, pulling away from her guards. Jack glared at Limburger.
"Don't tell em, Charlie. They don't need to know." He told her.
"Apparently we do." Limburger said, shoving his blaster into the scruffy blond man's back. "Please, enlighten us."
"Why don't you wait for her to?" Charlie said, pointing at the screen.

"Hahahahowwwwwww." Rora groaned as the pain in her shoulder heightened. Jason jumped up, concerned.
"Are you all right?" he asked, feeling her shoulder. She nodded her head yes, tears stinging her eyes.
"Liar." He probed her shoulder with his fingers. "You dislocated it. I'm sorry, I should have noticed before...."
"It'll be all right, I guess." She answered. He shook his head.
"No, you have to let me push it back in." This time she shook her head.
"That involves being a bit more mature than I feel like being at the moment." He grinned.
"Brace yourself." She groaned. He took her arm and shoved it, hard. She stifled a scream.
"Ow ow ow ow ow ow OW!"
"There, all better." He said, grinning at her as she cradled her arm.
"Has that storm stopped yet?" he asked.
"Of course not! Has anything gone right yet?" she asked irritably. "Now, what, other than the obvious, is so wrong with having a mouse as one of the three most powerful people in the government?" she said, stretching her arms above her head, ignoring the remaining throb from torn tissue in her shoulder.
"Well, assuming the Lady has a reason for everything she does, than why in the name of all the heavens would she do something like this?"
"I don't know! Quit asking questions and just tell me what you think!"
"All right, fine. I think she chose the mouse as the priestess because she plans to give the priestesses to the Martians." He watched as the blood drained out of his sister's face.
"Oh." She said faintly. "I...I guess I should be happy for them..." he shook his head.
"It's all right. I know how you feel. I never really thought it was truly over until now. I thought something would surely happen...I thought She wouldn't let us just die off....but I guess there's nothing even She can do...."
"I can't believe She would just abandon us!" Aurora exclaimed. "I can't believe She'd just give up on us like that! I'm not giving up! I don't care what She thinks...." she was stopped as Jason moved over to sit next to her. She collapsed in his arms, sobbing. She shook her head, denying everything.
"I don't believe you. You're wrong."
"I hope so. But maybe she's given us a way to live on, after all."
"What do you mean?"
"Aunt Charlie will make sure the mouse woman doesn't figure out who she is until it's too late. She'll give her the histories, and the artifacts, and make her promise to keep our memory alive. She might even make her bring the things back to the homeplanet eventually, let them know what's happened. Somebody will know the truth." He told her, stroking her hair as her sobs quieted.
"They deserve it." She said quietly.
"The mice. They deserve to have the protection of the Priestesses. Their people have gone through nearly as much as ours have. I'm glad it's them. They'll appreciate them, an they truly deserve them. I'd much rather see them get it than, say, the Plutarkians."
"No wonder you're the first priestess." He said, amused. "You're not supposed to be happy for them, you're supposed to be resentful. I know I am. Imagine...mice having our priestesses!" she smiled indulgently at him. She closed he eyes, and her body shimmered as the illusion around her melted away. She sat next to him in her true form, and he grinned.
"Well! What brought that on?" he said, closing his own eyes and reverting to his own natural form.
"There's nobody here to see us, and I'm tired of wearing skin. I miss my fur." She said, purring at him. She twined her tail around her wrists and began to clean it fastidiously.

The mice and the plutarkian looked at the viewscreen in shock. In the space of a few seconds, the two human teenagers had turned into two giant jungle cats! Aurora, identifiable by her quantities of long blond hair, had the gold fur of a lioness, her ears poking up between her hair. He fingers were still the elongated fingers of a human, but they saw as she flexed them the retractable claws of a cat. Jason still possessed his raven locks, too, but you could hardly tell it because it blended so completely with the black fur of a jaguar. Aurora yawned, displaying a mouthful of teeth that could only belong to a carnivore. Charlie was definitely not happy now. She silently cursed the Plutarkians, the rats, Karbunkle, Jack, Limburger, and anyone else remotely involved in her own private little fiasco.
"All right, Miss Davidson. I think now you'd better do some of that explaining."
"It's none of your business." Jack said stubbornly. Mace gave him a lovetap with the butt of his blaster and he sank to the floor in a haze of darkness.
"That was uncalled for." she said mildly. "What do you want, Limburger? There's no profit in us for you."
"I'll be the judge of that, thank you. Just answer the question, please, or something nasty might happen to your friends." Her face was expressionless.
"What you're seeing now is Aurora and Jason in their true forms. All my people are born with the ability to create the illusion that they are human, but that is all it is, an illusion. My people are Cats, not from this planet originally, but we've been living here so long it might as well be our homeplanet. We were here before the humans, by the way. The ability to create the illusion was evolved, over time, as it became more and more dangerous to be different. We have been at war with a certain group of humans for three centuries. They seek to annihilate us, and they are succeeding. They are very powerful, and they are led by a man who has a personal grudge against me. I am their queen and their second high priestess."
"High priestess....?" Limburger asked,
"We have been gifted by our goddess by three high priestesses. Together they are the most powerful people on the planet. They each have separate spheres of influence. The first priestess's realm is the heart. She is in control of our people's spiritual evolution, and she is a counselor of sorts to all of them. She's the head of the Church, and, at the moment, only sixteen years old. The second priestess's realm is the spirit, the soul. She is the leader of the people in the absence of the monarch, and she's a soul-healer. The third priestess's realm is the physical. She's the commander of our armies, and she's a body-healer. She can heal anything short of a death wound. All of the priestesses have the memories of all the priestesses who came before them. I have the memories of every second priestess that ever lived, and all of her experience to draw upon. That's why we're such a gift to the people. We can protect them in ways no one else can." She sighed.
"But not even the priestesses can combat centuries of hatred. Our numbers have dwindled to little over a thousand. Ten years ago, I made the decision that the jungles of our home were no longer safe, and ordered the evacuation. We've spent the last ten years moving from place to place, blending in with the population, and trying to avoid detection by the lackeys of the man who hunts us. We've managed to keep two steps ahead of them until recently. We've found ourselves trapped in Chicago, with nowhere left to run to, and no way out. We have no choice but to stand and fight, and no matter how good we are, we are going to die, because he outnumbers us nearly a hundred to one, and he doesn't care how many of his people die to destroy us." she said simply, her eyes ages older than they had been a day ago, her stunned audience speechless. The mice had been silent for some time now, watching and listening without saying a word. She wondered what they were thinking of her. Oh well. I knew our friendship was too good to last. But in her heart, she wept, hoping against hope that they would forgive her, that they wouldn't hate her for lying to them.

Charlie's secrets

Part Four

While she was talking, Karbunkle turned the view screen off. At Limburger's protest, he explained simply, "It needs to recharge."
"This new development is most...unsettling." Limburger finally said. "But I'm sure there is some way in which I benefit from this. My dear Greasepit, please secure our guests at the Tower while I figure out what to do with them."
"Uh...Okay boss." They were taken to the tower without much of a struggle. The mice were still trying to reconcile the Charlie they thought they knew with the one that had just revealed herself.

Aurora stood up, regaining her human form quickly. Jason followed her cue and reverted as well.
"Something's wrong." She closed her eyes and reached out through her heart, locating the heart that was so familiar it might as well have been her own. She jerked up and began cursing, scuffing the fire out with her feet.
"Aunt Charlie's in trouble. She's been captured." Jason jumped to his feet and promptly hit his head on the top of the cavern.
"Owww. Rora, what are we supposed to do? We can't go out in that!" he said, pointing to the howling storm outside the entrance to the cave. As he said it, the storm stopped. It just died off, as if it had never occurred, and the silence was so complete it was as if nature was just as shocked as they were. Aurora grinned.
"And She works in ways known only to Herself, and it is not for us to question Her actions." She quoted. "In other words, let's not look this gift-horse in the mouth, hmmm?" She exited the cave slowly, gathering up the strands of energy she'd released and bringing them back into herself. The sky was a dazzling blue, and it was as if their had never been so much as a wisp of cloud in the sky a few moments ago.
"Jason, love, can you find our way back to the Bike?" he raised his eyebrows and bowed to her comically.
"Your every whim is my heart's desire, my princess." He said. She punched him playfully.
"Pig." He chuckled, and started out in the direction they'd come from. The new fallen snow made walking hard, and the cloudless sky made it bitterly cold. Jason was chattering so hard he was scaring the wildlife. Aurora handed him her jacket wordlessly, and he accepted it just as silently, looking at her with gratitude shining from his eyes. She grinned and put her arms around him.
"I love how un-macho you are, brother-mine."
"I'm too cold to be macho, and you don't need as much warmth as I do. Still, that was very...gentlemanly." he ducked as she aimed a blow at his ribs. She chuckled.
"Whoever finally bags you had better be very special. It's not often you find a guy sure enough of himself that he doesn't have to be macho."
"It's not often guys are surrounded by people who will let him not be macho. I'm not a fighter, Roar." He said, using his pet name for her. "I'm a tracker, a hunter, and a saboteur. I'm just as happy leaving the warrior stuff to the women as women are happy being the warriors."
"I'm glad. You'd make a terrible warrior. You're much too scrawny." She grinned as he glared at her.
"Excuse me? Take a look in the mirror, toothpick!"
"Toothpick! Why you..." he silence her by grabbing her arm and pushing her ahead of him.
"Look! The road!"
"O, thank the Lady! I thought we'd never get back!"
"You doubted?"
"Of course not. Everyone knows you're the best tracker on the planet." They hurried up the road to the bridge and their abandoned Bike.

The mice were put into separate, adjoining cages, all except Jack, who was taken to another room. Charlie was placed in the middle, with Carbine and Harley on either side of her. Throttle was in the cage beside Carbines, with Vinnie and Modo next to him. Tracer was next to Harley, followed by Stoker and Rimfire on the end. Charlie sat with her back to the wall, her face obscured by the hair which had fallen into it. The silence continued until,
"Charlie?" She didn't look up.
"Why didn't you tell us, babe?"
"I couldn't tell you, Throttle. You shouldn't know now. You are in so much more danger now because of me."
"You would never have gotten caught if you hadn't gone back to get us...." Harley said.
"Harley, I got caught because I missed that stupid camera, not cause I went back for you. You really should learn not to take what Plutarkian's and Rat's say at face value." She sighed and looked at them funny.
"Harley, believe me. If I'd thought that going back to get you would've gotten me caught, I never would've risked it. I'm sorry, but I have too many people counting on me to take that kind of risk with outsiders. I would've called in a few `favors' some people owed me, and they would've gotten you out. For an extortionate fee, of course. And they probably would've tried to hold you for ransom or sell you to a lab or a freak show when they saw what you were, unless I could...uh..'convince' them to leave you alone."
"Why didn't you just let us take care of it, Charlie-babe?" Vinnie asked.
"I can answer that one." Harley said. "Mace's surveillance was good. He was prepared for anything that so much as smelled of Martian. He would've been long gone before you'd gotten within ten miles of us. Charlie's way was the only way."
"Oh." There was another long silence.
"Charlie?" Carbine finally asked. At the sound of her voice, Charlie looked up for the first time and sighed.
"Carbine. Carbine, Carbine, Carbine. What am I going to do with you?" she asked, more to herself than anyone else.
"Charlie, what's all this about priestesses? I don't feel like a priestess. I don't understand." She looked at Charlie through the bars, her dark hair falling into her face. Charlie met her gaze and caught her breath. She chuckled.
"You are the third priestess." She said wonderingly. "Incredible." She shook her head and focused again. "Carbine, becoming a priestess is a choice. It can only be done voluntarily, which is why you don't feel like a priestess now. You aren't the priestess, not yet."
"Wait a minute. Why me? Why not one of your own people?" Charlie looked at her and tears gathered in her eyes.
"I...I don't know. There's a good chance that what Jason said was true. It's not something you wanna do, Carbine. There's nothing even the third priestess can do to help my people now, and you're better off...not knowing."
"Not knowing what?" Charlie looked at her uncertainly.
" will be flooded with the memories of an eon of third priestesses. You will feel their hurts, their pains, you will feel their injuries, rheumatism's, and deaths. And Carbine, most of those deaths were not pretty. Some of the priestesses lived long, happy, peaceful, fulfilling lives, but the vast majority of them died horrible deaths, in battle, of sicknesses, of wounds, of heartache, and of torture. Those aren't memories anyone should have. There's no need to put yourself through that." Carbine thought for a few moments.
"Charlie, what's the real reason you don't want me to be the priestess? Is it because I'm a mouse?" Charlie's head snapped up as if she'd been stung.
"What! No, of course not! It's not....It's because...that's not what I meant...I mean.........Oh, I don't know!" She sighed, searching for the right words.
"Carbine, my sister was the third priestess before you. She....her death...she was tortured to death. And before that, she watched our other sister, Alethea, die in agony. Aurora has Alethea's memories, but Thea was the first to go...and it wasn't so bad." She finished lamely.
"You were there too?" she asked. Charlie swallowed and nodded.
"Oh. I'm....I'm really sorry."
"Don't worry about it. In a few weeks it won't make a difference one way or the other anyhow." She sighed and pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. She laid her head down on her knees so she was looking at Carbine rather pathetically.
"So you're just giving up?" Stoker asked accusingly. She swung her head around and leveled a glare at him.
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"Maybe not, but I know when a soldier has lost their fire."
"I never had fire. I was trained to fight, so I fought."
"No way. No one ever fights and doesn't get the fire. You just don't wanna try." He told her evenly. She looked at him with murder in her eyes.

"I have not given up! But not even I can find anyway to hope that we'll SURVIVE A BATTLE WITH HUNDRED TO ONE ODDS! WE AREN'T THAT GOOD!" she was shouting now, her face a mask of rage and frustration. "I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU EXPECT FROM ME! I'VE BEEN DOING MY BEST FOR TEN YEARS AND MY BEST HASN'T BEEN GOOD ENOUGH! WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT ME TO DO?" It was the first time they'd seen her lose her temper since they'd found out she was Starfreedom. Stoker chuckled.
"It's nice to have you back, Charlie. Starfreedom holds too much in." He told her, grinning from ear to ear. She looked at him, her mouth opening and closing as she tried to think of a response.
"" her face grew angry, then cleared abruptly. She began to laugh with him. "You furry wrench head! I guess I needed that. Thank you."
"No problem, sweety."

Aurora and Jason pulled into the Last Chance and screeched to a halt. "They're gone."Jason said.
"No kidding. It doesn't look like they put up much of a struggle though."
"Shoot. I wish we'd come around more often. I have no idea where they might have been taken."
"Neither do...." She was cut off by several engines roaring to life around them. "What the..." One of the bike's began making frantic noises. "It's the Mice's Bike's! And I think they know where they are! Don't ya, guys?" she said, bending down to Modo's bike and stroking the leather as if it was a pet. They revved their engines.
"I'll take that as a yes. Will you show us?" she asked them. Again, they revved their engines. "Great! Let's go!" she said hopping back on her bike.
"Wait a sec." Jason said.
"Do we have enough room to get everybody out?"
"We have our bike, and there are three other bikes that can each seat two, right?"
"There are eight mice, plus aunt Charlie. How are we gonna fit all those people on?"
"Maybe we should take aunt Charlie's truck?"
"Where are the keys?"
"Dunno. Maybe we could hot wire...." A new headlight lit the room, and a strange bike turned over its engine.
"More bikes?" Roar said incredulously.
"Must be Stoker or Carbine's."
"You comin' too?" It nodded its handlebars. "All right. You take Aunt Charlie's bike, and we should be fine. Can we go now?" she asked him impatiently. He motioned her thru the door. The bikes took the lead and led them thru the city streets. They pulled up a block from Limburger's tower. Rora took her helmet off and shook her hair out. Jason looked at her and grinned.
"So, what'll it be? Sewers or vents?" he asked. She made a face at him.
"Definitely air vents. I've had enough of sewers to last..." she was cut off as the bike's revved their engines. She looked at them open mouthed. They pulled up on their rear wheels and screeched forward.
"No! No wait! We can't..." they ignored her and roared down the street. She shrugged, pulled her helmet back on and followed. Jason grinned at her when he caught up.
"I think we've been out voted." He told her. She laughed.
"Yeah! I always wanted to try things their way! Slash n bash!" the bike's smashed through a side door and roared up a set of stairs. They raced down several hallways with the two teenagers close behind. Vinnie and Throttle's bikes blasted open a door and all three of the guys bike's leapt thru the opening and began firing on the cages. When Jason and Roar caught up with them, their lasers were bouncing off the steel bars and the mice and Charlie were standing there with open mouths. They recovered quickly, however, and began grinning.
"About time!" Vinnie shouted. Roar ran up to Modo's bike and began talking to it.
"Stop, stop! It won't do any good!" she shouted, pulling it's handlebars around to face her. When L'il hoss stopped firing, the others followed suit. Jason jumped off the bike and tossed a vial to Charlie. He and Roar poured more of the stuff on the other bars. When the bars were melted thru, the mice lost no time gettin out of their cages. Roar grabbed Rimfire by the shirt front and yanked him down behind her on her bike. Jason gave up his bike to Tracker and Harley, and got on the new Bike behind Stoker. Modo, Vinnie, and Throttle greeted their bike's enthusiastically, and got Charlie and Carbine on behind them. Roar looked around the room quickly.
"All right! Let's go!" she pulled up to the door and waited while everyone went past her. As Charlie and Vinnie passed her, Charlie put a hand on her shoulder.
"Your Uncle Jack's still in here somewhere. I want you and Rimfire.....and Modo, to find him. We'll keep the goons busy. And Rora?"
"Good work." She smiled at her niece, who beamed at her. Charlie turned to Mode, who was waiting behind her. "Take care of em, huh?" she asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. He nodded and grinned at her.
"No problem, Charlie-maam." The others took off for the exit while Roar, Modo, and Rimfire went deeper into the depths of the building. Vinnie, Throttle, Stoker, and Tracker turned their bikes around and faced the outside of the building. Within seconds goons came pouring out, firing at them from all directions.
"OoooWwww!!!!" Vinnie cried. "Let's get it on!" Charlie squeezed him around the waist and pulled out a very big gun. She grinned wide as she showed it to him. "Hoohoo! You know what I like, babe!"
"Mine, sweet. You just drive."
"Aw, c'mon Charlie...."
"Look out!" he turned just in time to miss hitting the side of a building. He turned and used his bike blasters to shoot through the circle of goons surrounding them while Charlie showed them just how effective that big ol' gun could be.

Charlie's secrets

Part Five

Secrets Revealed

"What's it like to be alone, momma?"
"Oh....sweet, my heart.....why would you want to know something like that? You'll never have to be alone. Not while there's breath in my body, or in the bodies of any of the greater priestesses."
"Please, momma, I want to know." the little girl looked up at her with entreaty in her eyes, and after a moment of hesitation, her mother gave in.
"It's like...standing in a crowded room, with people you recognize and people you don't, people you love and people you hate....but nobody can see you. You can scream and cry and shake them and slap them, but they'll never even look up. And if by some incredible miracle someone does notice you, they forget you within a few moments. Your chest is painfully tight, and your mind sinks into despair, and there doesn't seem to be any purpose to your existing at all because nobody knows you, and if they don't know you, how can they really miss you when your gone? And they can't know you, either. Because you won't let them. If they know you, they can hurt you, so you deliberately withdraw to a place where, even if they did wake up and would've seen you in that room, they can't find you. When you've given your heart away before, and its been rended from you, the most difficult thing in the world is to build it back up again. And more difficult than that is to give it away again."
"Are you alone, momma?"
"Not anymore, my love. How could I be? I've got you." Charlie smiled down into her daughter's sweet, heart shaped face. The little girl snuggled closer into her mother's lap and stared off into the night. Charlie's forehead wrinkled. "What's wrong, baby? What's bothering you?"
"Promise you won't get mad at me?"
"Of course I do."
"But I did something I wasn't supposed to today."
"And what was that, sweetheart?"
"I watched you dance at dawn."
"I know we aren't supposed to watch other people's dawn services...and especially not one of the priestesses...but I wanted to see if you did the dance different than the rest of us....."
"And what did you find out?"
"That you do it better than anyone else at least...and that you do more than us."
"I've been doing it a lot longer than anyone else has. You already knew that. And that's not what's bothering you, is it?" her child shook her head.
"I looked....I've never seen anyone so sad before, momma. And I thought you must be unhappy here with us, and I asked aunt Roar and uncle Jason, and they said that you'd been through `more than the gods have the right to put anyone through'-that's what aunt Roar said anyway. And I asked them what it was, but they wouldn't tell me. So I asked uncle Jack, but he wouldn't tell me either. And daddy said you never told him, and everybody I asked kept avoiding it."
"What is it you want to know, Raina?"
"Are you unhappy here with us, momma?" the little girl asked, wrapping her tail around her mothers wrists and staring earnestly into her eyes. Charlie looked down at her and shook her head, grinning ruefully.
"I don't know where you got that stunning intellect, Raina. Or that insatiable curiosity. Certainly not from your father or I. You're only nine years old, girl! You shouldn't be asking about this already!"
"What happened, momma? Back on Earth? Before you met daddy?"
"The history of our people is pretty straightforward, sweetie. You already know what happened."
"I don't know what happened to you, momma."
"Oh. Well...I don't suppose I truly wanted you to know...."
"Please, mommy. I want to know." Raina said, her heart in her mouth. She knew, in the very pit of her stomach, that she'd asked her mother to tell her something she'd never told anyone before. She held her breath not daring to even breath lest that affect her mother's choice. Charlie stared straight ahead of her, her eyes distant and unfocused. She looked down at the innocent, earnest face of her daughter and cringed.
"You're too young, sweet. Tell you what. When you're a woman, you come to me with that question, and maybe I'll answer it then. It's too close right now. Too soon, and you're too young."
"No buts. They stole my childhood. I won't let them steal yours. Come on now, time for bed." She picked her daughter up and placed her under the covers. She gave her a kiss goodnight and turned off the light. "Goodnight Raina. I'll see you in the morning." The little girl sighed in dissapointment, but let it go. There was no changing her mind once her mother had made it up.
Charlie wandered through the rooms of their apartment, looking for someplace to think. She finally decided to take her troubled thoughts to the roof, as she had so many times before, on this world and off it. She climbed through the attic to the trapdoor that allowed access to the roof, grateful now that they had taken top floor rooms in the huge condominium complex built into the face of a cliff that housed all the offworlders and the natives who had wed or befriended them. Some had even converted, a situation she still didn't know quite how to deal with.
The `roof' was actually the top of te cliffs, and the soft summer breeze blew through her hair as she took in the clean, pure scent of the martian valley below they had made their own. With the help of her people, the Retni cat people, the martians had been able to breathe life back into their dying planet. The valley was as green and verdant now as it had been dusty and desolate before. But overhead, a tiny blue speck in the night sky made her heart ache with longing and homesickness. Had it really only been twenty years? It felt like eons since she had last set foot on terran soil. Mars might be green again, but it still had no large bodies of water, and godess, she missed the ocean. And the trees, the huge, ancient trrees that had covered whole countries. Mars had little that was ancient besides soil, and few trees even now.
The Retni and the Martian freedom fighters had beaten back the plutarkians fifteen years ago. The gargantuan ship that had belonged to the Retni people for millenia was now buried safely beneath the soil of this very valley. They had used it for those uncertian, terrifying years between when they had fled earth until the plutarkians had been beaten and the martian people had invited them to settle on their world. Those had been hard years. Battle conditions most of the time. Uncertainty the rest. Never knowing if they were ever going to find a new home, unwilling to return in disgrace to the homeplanet they had left millions of years ago. It was possible to live on the ship indefinetly, but not comfortable. Certainly not an inviting prospect for people who were used to roaming free wherever they chose.
The `lights out' horn bellowed beneath her. Carbine had moved her freedom fighters to the base of the cliff that housed her friends and family, and now, her people, strange as that was to her, being a mouse. Charlie gazed out across the barracks of the martians to the training grounds of her own people. THAT horror was a nightmare of twists and turns, poles and pikes and jungle gym like equipment that stretched far into the sky with a wierd sort of beauty to it all. It was supposed to simulate forest fighting environments, or any environment that required care and had little room to spare for mistakes and none for any kind of outright attack. It did that quite nicely.
She turned from the edge of the cliff and strolled back across the huge expanse of land that had been given to the Retni people to do with as they liked. They had built a temple there, but nothing else. They had chosen to leave the area free to grow wildly. There was even the barest trickle fo a stream running through it.

To be continued.