Disclaimer: You know, I was thinking (I know that must come as a
shock). In disclaimers, you're supposed to put that whole, "Any resemblance
to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental" thing. Well,
I don't know about you guys, but when I parody someone or make a pop culture
reference, I'm doing it deliberately! Ski Lewin isn't a Martian Monica Lewinsky
by accident! And that "Marilyn Hanson" reference was thought out
carefully and planned weeks in advance! These weren't coincidences!
Okay. Here's the rest of it:
I do not own "Biker Mice From Mars," and make no profit off this story. Zero, zip, nada. Got it? This was written for the fun of it. Enjoy!
Note: The characters and situations created in this story do belong to me (thanks to the copyright, ha ha!), so please restrain from writing any FanFics using them. All the subtle foreshadowing I throw in could go straight down the tubes with one little story. Please respect this wish and don't be mad. You're welcome to try your hand at sketching any of them, however!
We now join our episode of Biker Mice From Mars, already in progress:
In order to make a slightly-saddened young Throttle understand why he
would pass up watching a meteor shower with him and the other Biker
Mice to be with Jimmy and Chaos on this New Year's Eve, Stoker
decides to tell his protoge what happened exactly five years earlier on this night to so unite the trio.
Stoker's story begins on New Year's Eve, 1986. He's en route to the
dying mining city of Ash, where his best friend, Jamespolychrnonopolus,
aka "Jimmy", is waiting to see him. After a brief stop at the checkpoint
where he meets Scoot, one of his greatest admirers (read: fanboy), Stoker
is at last able to continue on his way...
Although the stop at the booth had warmed Stoker up, by the time he was under the blinking neon sign at Jimmy's Beer N' Stuff, the last remaining business on Cheers Street, he was completely numb again. The roads in the town, bordered on both sides by decrepid buildings and boarded-up windows, had somehow been worse than the icy plains he had crossed, and had made for slow going (not to mention several spills that left his right leg aching). Ash was also one of the few cities counted as being in North Polar Country--it had the advantage of plenty of liquid water, but its closeness to the pole made Ash colder than almost any other part of Mars.
Dammit, Jim, Stoker thought to himself, coaxing his bike into a small, secret room at the rear of the large, brick building Jimmy's was that had been reserved specially for his bike when he came to visit. You couldn't have built this place just a little closer to the equator, could you? Nooooo. You had to be "different."
Pulling his jacket tighter around himself, Stoker ran up to the front door and flung it open, practically throwing himself inside.
The warmth hit him like a wave, stronger than it had in the booth. Within seconds, Stoker felt as though he was baking in his ice-cold clothes. He pulled off his helmet and hung it on the nearly-vacant coat tree, along with his sopping-wet jacket. Peeling off his chaps, Stoker looked around, and was rather disappointed that no one had noticed him.
He's here, isn't he? Stoker wondered. Don't tell me I came all this way and--
"STOKER!" someone shouted.
Stoker turned to the sound of the voice.
He barely saw the yellow-furred yellow-haired mouse jump over the bar before he found himself in a tight bear-hug, scarcely able to breathe. A farmiliar smell filled his nostrils as he stood there, just before he wrapped his own arms around the mouse's broad chest.
"Jim!" Stoker laughed. "Geez, man, you're breakin' my ribs!"
Jimmy laughed and pulled away, his bright eyes twinkling as he did. There were a few tears at the corners of said eyes, and Stoker could see the tears in his own reflected in Jimmy's. The younger mouse's infectuous grin spread to Stoker instantaneously.
Stoker was pleased to see that his friend hadn't changed since they had seen each other in February. He was still just a scoche shorter than he himself was, a fact with Stoker had always prided himself on. Jimmy's arms were still corded with muscle, and if anything, he looked a little stronger than he had been last time. His curly yellow beard was just as long as it had been last time, trailing down to the bottom of his throat, and his short mustashe was perched just above his upper lip. The only obvious change was that he had let his hair grow longer--it now fell in soft waves down to the nape of his neck. Of course, his face was still the same chubby, jovial one that Stoker had always loved. He had a childish cuteness that was undeniable.
"Damn, man! Where have you been?" Jimmy asked, cocking his head to one side. His beard fell over the top of his shoulder as he did. Playfully, he slapped Stoker on the back.
"Just got back from the Leap," Stoker answered, hands on his hips proudly. He pointed to the medallion on his shirt.
The yellow-furred bartender's smile broadened.
"Another one?" he asked, grinning. "Man! But why didn't they give you a trophy?" He gestured to the wooden display case at the far end of the bar, filled with eleven bright gold cups, and several smaller silver ones. "I got an empty space ready for this year!"
"You'll have to fill it yourself, Jim," Stoker replied, shrugging happily. "They don't give out trophies anymore. It's all medallions now."
"Y'mean I gotta win Mortal Kombat again?" Jimmy whined.
Shrugging, Jimmy turned to the entire bar and shouted, "Hey, everybody! Stoke here just won the Crater Leap! Again!"
The entire place errupted into cheers. Mugs were lifted, heaved, in celebration. If Stoker had been a more humble mouse, he would've blushed.
"For the next hour, drinks're on the house!" Jimmy cried, which met with more resounding cheers for a moment until a voice said from the back, "I thought you said they were on the house already because it's New Year's."
Suprised, Stoker glared at Jimmy angrily, who simply shrugged and said, "It's all the same."
He put an arm around Stoker's shoulder and led him over to the bar, chattering jovially as he did.
"Siddown, siddown!" Jimmy crowed. "Man oh man! Twelve times! Damn, Stoke! I am so proud of you! Hey, you know what? Your dinner's on the house tonight!"
"Is that my Christmas present?" Stoker asked coyly, raising an eyebrow.
Jimmy smacked a hand to his head and cried out, "Dammit! I forgot to get you somethin'!"
"You say that every year," Stoker reminded him with a smirk.
"Yeah, but this year it's true!" the bartender moaned. "I been so busy lately--damn!"
He looked around the bar frantically, then suddenly dashed off toward the staircase that led to the private second-story with a wicked grin.
Stoker shook his head and smiled. Every year, he remembered to give Jimmy something--this year's present, the apron with the words "Hot Tamale" on the front over a little chilli pepper Jimmy was wearing now over his "Bikini Inspector" t-shirt--he had sent two weeks ago, to be sure that it arrived before Christmas. And every year, Jimmy claimed to have forgotten entirely, only to reveal a gift later with great flair.
This year, though, the jest was apparently true, which puzzled Stoker. Jimmy wasn't a forgetful mouse. Something else was on his mind, something which was obviously troubling him.
Stoker took advantage of the momentary lull to take in his surroundings
While Jimmy hadn't changed since Stoker had seen him last, his bar seemed different somehow. Oh, the interior was still all faux-wood (though amazingly realistic-looking), and the bar itself was still topped with an elegant all-around stained glass shade and decorated with brass. But the room somehow seemed emptier. The jukebox was still in the far left corner, near the row of booths which lined the right wall. Across the floor was another row of booths lining the left side of the bar. The television was still bolted to the far left corner of the room.
So where was this feeling of emptiness coming from?
The answer struck Stoker like a bolt of lightning. Instantly, he knew what was missing.
The mice who frequented the bar.
There couldn't have been more than ten patrons overall in Jimmy's, hidden in the shadowy booths. And these mice, it seemed, had all come just to drink. Where were the famlies coming to eat? Where were those here to socialize? Where was everyone?
This doesn't look good, Stoker thought to himself. This place is looking more and more like Arcadia every second.
Suddenly, Jimmy was back, and this time, he wasn't alone. He was pushing a girl in front of him, who was obviously not happy to be pushed. They stopped suddenly in front of Stoker.
"Here!" Jimmy said, presenting the girl to him. "You can have Chaos!"
For a moment, as he gazed at her, Stoker found himself unable to speak.
She wasn't exactly gorgeous.
At least, she wasn't gorgeous in any common way.
Okay, so she wasn't even vaguely near gorgeous. But she was cute, in a way. She was shorter than Jimmy, and that made her shorter than Stoker as well, a characteristic he liked in women. Her arms were slender, and although he could only see her from the waist up (and it was a nice waist, to boot), Stoker had no doubt that her legs were thin as well. The girl was flat-chested, completely so, but was clearly an adult. Her face said so. By the by, her face was also relatively plain--oval-shaped, with slightly fluffy cheeks hidden by her just above shoulder-length nut brown hair, but there was something in it that Stoker found interesting. Possibly her eyes--emerald green and shining beneath a few errant strands of hair. Something about her spoke of intelligence. But the blush in her cheeks added that she was also a little shy. If nothing else, she was puzzling, and Stoker had always loved a good puzzle.
"Jimmy!" Chaos shouted, pulling herself out of Jimmy's grasp. She was shocked and aghast, but not entirely unamused by his antics. "Quit it!"
"Aw, come on!" Jimmy begged, half-seriously. "I forgot to get Stoke a Christmas present! Please? Be my hoe!"
Chaos pushed Jimmy's arm off her thin shoulders and said, "I don't think so."
Jimmy sighed mightily, then said, "Well, I'll introduce you anyway. If you decide to become his love-slave on your own, then it's none of my business. Just remember who introduced ya. Chaos McKlash, this is my best buddy, Stoker.
"Stoker, this is my pal Chaos. Cute, eh?"
The white-furred mouse smiled and extended one hand. She looked down and jerked it back suddenly, then extended the other, which puzzled Stoker, especially when he saw a slight amount of fear or tension in her eyes.
Must've gotten something on it, Stoker decided finally. Glue, maybe. Didn't want to get it on my hand.
Stoker took Chaos's hand, but instead of shaking it, he lifted it up and kissed the back of it, which clearly suprised her. It was an old-fashioned gesture, one Stoker loved. It disarmed women with amazing quickness.
Of course, if you tried it with men, they just looked at you funny or threatened to kill you.
Chaos blushed again, a bit more heavily than before.
"A pleasure to meet you," Stoker said, looking up into her eyes again. He was ensnared again in those emerald pools for a moment before Jimmy asked what he wanted for dinner.
"Soup," Stoker replied as Chaos disappeared. "When'd you meet her?"
Jimmy glanced back at the stairway as he opened his thermos and poured out a bowlful.
"A few months ago. She's a good kid. Very smart. Makes me feel like a dumb-ass. You'd like her."
Stoker chuckled, "I think I already do."
Secretly, he wondered, He's sleepin' with her? Geez. Looks a little young. Then again, Jimmy's tastes have always gone to extremes. Probably just a waitress or something.
Still, seems kind of a shame. She is cute....
"Here ya go," Jimmy said, handing Stoker the soup on a plate with a packet of crackers beside it. He plopped a spoon down beside it, along with a linen napkin. "The soup du jour!"
Poking through it curiously with the spoon, Stoker asked, "Which is....?"
"Soup of the day," the bartender replied, grinning.
"You're a jerk, you know that?"
Stoker shook his head and started on his dinner.
It wasn't too shabby--Jimmy's home-made chicken soup, with gigantic chunks of noodles and huge pieces of chicken strewn througout a slightly salty broth. Jimmy said it was a secret family recipe, something one of his ancient relatives had brought with them when they first settled in Ash, among the original settlers (that shouldn't suprise anybody). Not only was it extremely tasty, but it really warmed a mouse up on a cold winter night like this, sending what felt like a liquid fire all through the body, from the tops of the antennae to the tips of the toes. Stoker had always loved it, ever since Jimmy had first made it for him when they had been in college together.
It had been `Dayvit's favorite, too, as he recalled....
The brown-furred mouse shook the memory out of his head and concentrated once more on eating. The soup somehow didn't seem as tasty now, with his memories overshadowing the bouquet, but he still shoveled it down his throat. When all the noodles and meat were gone, he turned the bowl up and slurped the broth. Stoker wiped his mouth with his right arm (who needs napkins?) and burped loudly.
"Ahhh," Jimmy said, grinning. "A compliment to the chef!"
Stoker snickered, then sighed contentedly, finally relaxed after his long, arduous day of riding. He rested his head on the bar sleepily. His conciousness began to drift away as he sat there, safe and comfortable in his best friend's loving care......
Suddenly, Jimmy slipped his hand under Stoker's head and lifted it up off the bar. The bartender wiped underneath where Stoker's head had been, then pulled his hand out from under. Stoker's head dropped down and smacked off the bar, hard.
"OUCH!" he shouted, rubbing his temples. "Geez, Jim, if you don't want me sleepin' on the bar, just tell me to get a booth! Damn, that--"
It was then that Stoker noticed Jimmy was wiping out glasses, cleaning them to a diamond sheen, then placing them carefully in the cabinets inside the bar.
"Jim, what are you doing?" the brown-furred mouse asked.
"What?" Jimmy querried, raising his eyebrows.
"You look like you're cleaning up."
"It ain't clean-up time yet. It's not even nine-thirty."
Suddenly, a huge, burly mouse leaned across the bar, nearly squashing Stoker, and shouted, "'Polychronopolus! Gimme a Shlieffenweiser, pronto! Heavy on the foam!"
Jimmy dropped to his knees, rustled around in the small icebucket hidden in the bar's small refrigorator, and pulled out a small green bottle covered by a thin layer of water.
"There," he said simply. "$3.75."
The mouse narrowed his eyes and looked at the bottle in disbelief.
"I thought you said drinks were free!" the would-be orderer snapped. "And where's my glass?"
"You don't get a free drink or a glass," Jimmy said, hands on his hips. "First off, you were rude. My name is "Jimmy', or `James', `Jamespolychronopolus' is you're feeling particularly formal, but never just `Polychronopolus'. And second, we're closing in five minutes. You ain't got time for a glass."
Stoker's jaw dropped.
"You're closing in FIVE MINUTES?!" he shouted, eyes wide. "What do you mean, you're closing in five minutes?!?!?"
The mouse who ordered the beer turned to Stoker angrily and said, "Shaddup. I'm tryin' to talk to this loser."
Stoker leaned in between the two mice and said, "What's going on? You'd never close this place early on New Year's Eve, Jim. You've said it yourself--you'd lose too much business, miss out on too much fun! Don't you remember, two years back, when your appendix almost burst on you on New Year's? You couldn't even stand up, but you wouldn't let me call the paramedics until the ball dropped! Hell, you wouldn't let the `medics drag you outta here until after everybody had their second round on the house!"
"I'd rather not talk about it right this second, Stoke," Jimmy hissed out the corner of his mouth, staring the big mouse straight in the eye. "I'm kinda busy with weiner-schnitzel over here."
Stoker looked the agressive mouse over. He was huge, to say the least, taller than Stoker by a foot. Both his arms were well-muscled, as were his legs, but he had a beer belly that fell out over his belt. His angry eyes glinted in the light. As far as his clothing went, he wore a blue overcoat and navy blue pants over his pale gray fur. Stoker recognized the itchy, sweaty fabric both were made of as that used in standard Martian Armed Services casual uniform material.
Army, eh? he thought to himself. Looks like a Reserves uniform, sort that the checkpoint-guards wear. Hmmm. I wonder. What's your name, big boy?
There, on the black tag below all the young mouse's decorations, was the word BULL in white letters.
Ahhh. Well, it looks like it's time to repay Scoot for his kind hospitality.
Without warning, Stoker reach up and grabbed the collar of Bull's coat. He jerked the tall mouse down until they were eye to eye and said, calmly but firmly, "Now Bull, you haven't got time for a drink. Your little brother is waiting for you and you know it."
Bull, aghast, pushed himself away from Stoker and snarled, "How do you know about--"
"Never mind about how I know him," Stoker snapped. "Just get your tail back up there pronto. The kid's tired, and it looks like you've eaten." He snickered, then added, "Frankly, you look like you could afford to miss a meal or two!
Teeth gritted, Bull growled, "Get your nose outta my business, pal, or I'll send you home with a goddamn rupture."
Stoker rose from his seat and said, "Anytime, pal."
"Hey!" Jimmy snapped, leaping over the bar. "You two know the rules. No fightin' in my bar."
Jimmy hit Bull with an uppercut that knocked him halfway across the room. The big mouse flew through the air and landed flat on his back on a table. His weight broke it in half instantaneously. Despite this intrustion, the two drunken mice sitting there remained unfazed, taking no notice of Bull's less-than-graceful landing and continuing to drink themselves slowly to death.
"Unless I'm a part of it," the yellow-furred mouse concluded.
"You are such a hyprocrite," Stoker chuckled.
Jimmy suddenly turned to his friend and said seriously, "Shoulda just left `im t'me, Stoke. This guy's pretty strong. I've seen him break boards with his head."
"He some kind of karate master?" Stoker asked curiously.
"Nah. He just does it to impress chicks. Still, not a wise idea."
Shrugging, Stoker asked, "And since when have I been wise?"
"Good point. Whaddaya say we baste this turkey?"
"Why not? Warm up these bones. How's about Hangman 113?"
Jimmy pondered the question for a moment, then nodded.
Bull rose slowly from the ground, anger rising with every miniscule muscle movement. His teeth were gritted so tightly a razor blade could not be slid between them.
No, wait. That's certain South American pyramids. Never mind.
"You two are so dead, old man," Bull snarled.
"Prove it," Stoker replied, crossing his arms over his chest. Jimmy grinned and blew him a kiss.
"AGGGGGH!" the big mouse shouted, running full-tilt at the two mice.
Stoker didn't move an inch, however. If anything, he seemed to relax. He looked at his the tips of his fingers as if inspecting his nails (although he didn't have any) and rubbed them casually against his shirt.
A flash of yellow zipped past Bull's field of vision to his right.
Suddenly, his pants dropped down around his ankles, the belt holding them up sliced clean in half. The entire bar was suddenly treated to the site of his rather large Winnie the Pooh boxers (a gift from his girlfriend--he never would've bought them for himself).
"AH!" Bull shouted, stopping in mid-stride.
As the gray-furred mouse tried desperately to pull his dignity back on to the sound of the entire bar laughing at him, something wrapped tight around his ankles. Before Bull knew what was happening, that something pulled his feet out from under him. He hit his head against the floor as he fell. The second it smacked off the stone floor, Bull blacked out.
"Not bad," Stoker commented, grinning.
Jimmy, who stood on Stoker's left with his tail draped over a rafter (the end of it still wrapped around Bull's ankles), said casually, "Eh, it's an easy one. Of course, all you had to do was be the bait."
"Hey, I had a long day. Besides, if you hadn't been able to pull him up, I'd be dead. Ergo, I have the riskier job."
"Yeah right!" Jimmy shouted, sheathing the long, slender knife he had drawn. "I almost threw my tail outta alignment pullin' that fat-ass up off the ground! `S no wonder why he isn't in the Air Force--the planes wouldn't be able t'take off with him in `em!"
Stoker smiled as he wrapped his hands around Bull's thick wrists. He knew he had had no reason to fear. Jimmy would never let him down in a fight. It wasn't just their bond that made him think this way; it was the fact that Jimmy was a martial arts master.
Although most mice didn't know it, Jimmy had been trained in several different styles of martial arts, ranging from a Martian versino of Kung Fu to Tai Chi to that funky stuff Elvis used to include in his act, and the, secret, virtuall unknown to the general public warrior arts of Dumasian monks. He was actually the third generation of Polychronopolus to become a monk, and was the third to quit after less than a year in the service of God. Among other difficulties, he had found a life without carnal delights just too much for him to handle. Celibacy, Jimmy declared after a two-day orgy upon his return home, was just not meant for him.
The two mice both grabbed an end of Bull and carried him out the door into the chill night air.
"Heave ho!" Stoker shouted as the two mice tossed him into a snow bank. Bull sank through seven feet of drift and straight to the ground. "That oughtta do it." Stoker grinned and smoothed the stray strands of his hair back into place, adding, "Nobody calls me `old'."
Jimmy stretched and said, "I gotta admit, that felt good. Thanks for the warm-up, Stoke."
Raising an eyebrow, Stoker asked, "Warm-up? I take it this means you've got more ass-whupping to do later?"
Shrugging, Jimmy replied, "Well, truth be told, it'll probably be my ass getting whupped, but, yeah, you get the idea."
"You want some help?"
Biting his lower lip, Jimmy was silent for a moment, then said, "Maybe. Maybe. Look, I'll go ahead and close, and then we'll talk. Fair?"
Nodding, Stoker shivered and said, "Let's get inside."
Jimmy led the way, and told everyone that the bar was now closing, last call, no more drinks. No matter what. Had someone just said that alcohol was a cure for cirrohsis of the liver, Jimmy wouldn't have filled a single glass. Naturally, he was met with a hurricane of complaints, but was resolute that he was closing.
"But we always watch the ball drop here on New Year's!" someone who had obviously been drinking all evening moaned.
"You've never seen the ball drop, Thrush!" Jimmy laughed. "You always drink yourself into a blackout first, and you know it!"
"You don't have to rub it in!"
"Look, ladies and gents, I.......uh........got a meetin' tonight, and I can't afford to miss it. But....uh....hey! Tommarrow's nickel-beer night! All night, all you can drink for a nickel!"
Well, that stopped all the grumbling. All the remaining mice in the bar, save Stoker and Jimmy, got up, grabbed their coats (one actually taking Stoker's own), and shuffled out the door.
Once the the last of them had disappeared into the darkness of night, Jimmy hopped over the bar, then turned to Stoker and said quickly, "Lock that door and follow me."
Stoker nodded. He opened the door again, closed it tight, turned the upper and lower deadbolt, and thought himself finished when he noticed an exotic-looking computer keypad near the base of the door which said, in computer-type letters,
Puzzled, not just by the code but by the presence of the little box as well, Stoker turned and shouted, "Hey, Jim! What's the code?"
Jimmy looked up and replied, "six-nine-six-nine."
Stoker smiled to himself and typed the code in carefully. The message changed to
"How corteous," he laughed to himself.
Stoker joined Jimmy at the bar, where Jimmy was digging amongst its cabinets for something or other. The brown-furred mouse leaned against it and asked, "When did you get the new security system? Better question--why did you get a security system in the first place? God knows you don't have anything anyone would want to steal in this place."
"Ha ha," Jimmy snapped. "Here, funny-boy, carry this."
He handed Stoker a large, slightly old-fashioned laser rifle and several small handguns. Stoker looked them all over carefully, checking each one individually as Jimmy continued rooting around. They all seemed in to be in working order, and had recently been completely re-vamped.
As if Jimmy was expecting something.
"You're really are in trouble, aren't you?" Stoker asked, looking Jimmy square in the eye.
Jimmy looked around nervously, then said, obviously upset, "Yup."
"What kinda trouble?"
Cautiously, Jimmy hissed, "I can't tell you here, Stoke. Once we get upstairs, then I'll let you in on it."
Stoker looked at the guns and said thoughtfully, "One of your girlfriends get pregnant?"
"For once, it's not that problem," the yellow-haired mouse chuckled, running a dust rag over his laser thirty-ought six. "Although, havin' this many weapons around does remind me of the night when Spark's husband got back the paternity test results...."
Smiling, Stoker asked, "That was one Hell of a fight, wasn't it?"
"Glory days," Jimmy replied in nostaligic agreement. "That was back when I could be datin' and sleepin' eight girls at a time and still make it up by eight for work in the morning."
Grinning, Stoker asked, "And this is different from now in what way?"
"Well, now it takes me `til ten to get up after a night like that. But that's okay. All the hard-core alcoholics don't get out of bed until noon."
Jimmy hopped over the bar once again and said, "Come on. Let's go."
He and Stoker paced their way over to the door which led to the second-story staircase. As Jimmy opened the door, Stoker was struck suddenly by the inexplicable feeling that he was never going to see the inside of this place again. He couldn't explain it, but it was so strong it almost made him want to cry.
They walked up the staircase, Jimmy pausing to lock the two doors behind him; the one which led into the bar itself, and the other to the alley outside. It was Jimmy's quick-entrance to his loft upstairs, the one he used when he brought girls home, which was just about every night. He had explained the need for this fast second entrance once to Stoker years ago--in the heat of passion, you only have so much time before the girl gets bored and decides she doesn't want to sleep with you just yet; that she wants to build a solid relationship first. Since Jimmy detested solid relationships, he made certain to use the alley-entrance every time.
Stoker was more than slightly puzzled, though, as he followed Jimmy upstairs. It was not his friend's custom to lock both doors. As a matter of habit, he let the quickie-door open just a crack. Jimmy reasoned that if a thief or a murderer were to appear at his door, and they saw it was already open, they would think that someone had beaten him to the punch and would leave him alone.
And if that didn't work, well, then, Jimmy would just have to kill him first.
Jimmy opened the green door which led into his loft-- "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here" read the sign above it (it had been a gag gift years ago from a friend, one which Jimmy displayed with pride) and motioned for Stoker to enter.
"Nice to see some things haven't changed in the last year," Stoker said, smiling, as he entered the huge loft, eyes assaulted by the bright yellow walls and the garish blacklight posters that covered up where the paint was peeling (or where there was a small hole in the wall).
Indeed, everything was in its place. A few yards from the door was Jimmy's large brass-railed twin bed. Directly across the room from it was a huge bookcase containing, among such titles as "Catch-22", "The Importance of Being Earnest", and George Carlin's "Brain Droppings" was Jimmy's elaborate stereo system, which, all told, had cost him more to put together than purchasing and furnishing his entire bar. In the far left corner of the room was a small kitchenette, complete with a stove that Jimmy never used and an under-the-counter refrigorator that rarely worked. He used it to store his hot plate, which he used to prepare all his meals that absolutely positively had to be served hot, and kept his food either in a cooler or, in the winter months, packed in snow outside the window. Jimmy's dinnerware and utensils--the three plates, spoon, twisty straw, and corkscrew--littered the cabinets above the stove, along with such nutritional foods as Cheeze-its, corn chips, and a stale package of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. On the right side of the room was Jimmy's tiny bathroom. Stoker was well-aquainted with the chipped white toilet inside, the aftermath of some really kick-ass keggers Jimmy had put together. For a second, Stoker thought he heard the sound of the shower running, but it was gone before he could be sure. An access door between the bathroom and the kitchenette led to a storage area containing what was presently the closest thing Ash had to a library since the real thing had been closed down: twenty-seven complete years of Playmouse, sixteen of Hustling, and twelve of That Really Really Fancy Floor at the Top of a Building.
Still, something about Jimmy's room struck Stoker as wrong. It wasn't messy enough. Where were his dirty clothes, usually flung about wildly throughout the room? Why was the bed made? Why were there fresh vegetables on the kitchenette's counter? Was that a Glade Plug-In he smelled?
"Do you have a girl here?" Stoker asked, raising an eyebrow. "An unusually neat one?"
Jimmy grinned and said with a sheepish grin, "Kinda. You met her before."
The bathroom door opened suddenly.
Out stepped Chaos, fresh from the shower and brushing her hair. It still had that after-blowdryer bounce to it. She had on one of Jimmy's shirts--a purple button-down one that hung to her knees--and a pair of his old blue jeans, ones Jimmy had outgrown years ago (Stoker recognized the Martian flag sewn into the knees (and if the shirt wasn't covering it, on the butt)). A towel hung around her shoulders. Before she realized she was not alone, she had been whistling something--a song Stoker couldn't quite remember.
"Oh!" she said, suprised. "Jimmy....I....didn't know you had company. Do you want me to leave?"
Jimmy grinned and said, wrapping an arm around her shoulders, "And where the Hell is there to go in Ash nowadays? No, Chaos, you stay. If it wasn't for you, I woulda lost this place months ago. Besides, there's nothin' I can't say in front of Stoker that I can't say in front of you."
Chaos smiled proudly and said, "Thanks. I'm gonna go hang this towel up. I'll be back in a minute."
As she disappeared into the bathroom, Stoker thought to himself sadly, Damn, he is sleepin' with her. Figures. First girl I see in years that looks even vaguely interesting and Jimmy's already slept with her. I wonder if there are any girls left on Mars who haven't been with Casanova over there.
Better not hold my breath.
Stoker sighed and sat down on the side of the bed.
"Go ahead and take your boots off," Jimmy said, removing off his apron and hanging it up on a metal hook on the wall. "We're gonna be here awhile. At least, I hope so."
Chaos draped the wet towel over the shower bar carefully. She paused for a moment, then adjused it minutely so that it was hanging perfectly straight. She knew Jimmy wouldn't notice such meticulousness, but it didn't bother her. As long as she was living there, she was going to be civilized.
At the moment, however, her thoughts were not with Jimmy, but with his brown-furred friend.
That guy again, she thought to herself, tugging slightly on the towel's corner. Stoker. I doubt Jimmy would let him stay the night at a time like this, so I guess he's gonna tell him about what's been going on. They must be tight if he's bringing him into this. I know he wouldn't have told me about the letters if I hadn't seen them with my own eyes.
She looked in the mirror for a moment, self-conciously inspecting her appearance. She smiled at herself, then straightened her shirt. Chaos frowned, then grabbed the brush and quickly began tearing through her hair with it.
You're being silly! she decided finally, slamming the brush down on the counter after a few minutes of desperately trying to turn under several pieces which flatly refused. You look fine! Now go out there and say hi!
She began to walk out of the room, mentally rehearsing what she was going to say.
"Hello! Nice to see you again! How are you this evening? That's good. Oh, I'm fine, thanks. So how long have you known Jimmy? That's good."
No, that's all wrong! Crap! Why couldn't I be a decent conversationalist instead of smart?
A sudden flash of light to her left stopped her.
Whoops! Almost forgot my glove!
Chaos scanned the counter quickly and found a pale white kid glove, slightly fuzzy, lying next to the blow-dryer. She picked it up in her left hand and fingered it carefully with the right. She was slightly forlorn to find a wet spot on the palm.
Damp. I hate that. Oh well. Beggars can't be choosers.
With a sigh, Chaos slid the glove over her left hand. Slowly, her reflection on its mettalic exterior disappeared, replaced by the glove's matte surface.
She looked herself over in the mirror one more time.
Okay. Hair looks okay, arm's covered, hand's covered, leg's covered, foot's--
Did I remember my socks?
Chaos looked over her shoulder and lifted her right foot up and off the ground. It was indeed covered by a large blue sock that, beneath her blue jeans, went the entire way up her calf.
Okay! Foot's covered. That means I'm good to go!
Chaos took a deep breath entered the main room once again.
There, sitting on the side of the bed, was Stoker. He had taken his boots off, and looked more comfortable, although a little unnerved. His eyes kept darting around the room while Jimmy looked for something which he seemed to think was tucked away in the pages of one of his books. For a moment, Chaos was slightly puzzled by the expression on Stoker's face. Jimmy hadn't had time to tell him the bad news yet; what possible reason could he have to be upset?
Then she understood.
He knows something's wrong, Chaos realized. Seriously wrong. Wow. Must know Jimmy's moods pretty well. That, or he's really clever.
Suddenly, he turned and saw her standing there.
Chaos froze, stock-still.
"Hi," Chaos said, waving a little.
Stoker smiled, a bit less enthusiastic than he had been the first time, and said, "Hey. Chaos, right?"
Chaos nodded slightly and swallowed the lump in her throat.
Keep going! You're on a roll!
"How're you?" she asked.
"Okay," Stoker said with a dismissive sideways motion of his head.
"Great," Chaos agreed.
Crap. Give it up.
She sat down Indian-style on the floor next to the wall. She was already nervous enough--any closer proximity to Stoker and she might very well have exploded. And there was the off-chance that sitting too close to him want to make Jimmy's friend feel awkward or something.
Chaos looked up.
Stoker winked at her unabashedly, then turned away.
She smiled inwardly, blushing..
And I thought Jimmy was a flirt.
When she was certain Stoker wouldn't notice, she cautiously gave him the once-over.
Jimmy had a certain cuteness about him, enhanced by his charming nature, but Stoker was downright handsome. He was tall, and thin, but also muscular, the arms of his t-shirt bulging nicely and tapering into clever-looking hands. Dark brown fur, just a scant few shades lighter than his long, chocolately hair--which had nice body to it--covered his body evenly, with no splotches or birthmarks. It was just a little lighter than Chaos's own hair. When he moved to push one of the two long shanks that hung down on both sides of his face out of his way, Chaos could see his strong, slightly square chin, and his whisker-spots, something few mice had these days. His eyes were ruby-red and very deep.
He's Jimmy's friend, Chaos reminded herself. Cool your jets.
God he's cute.
"Dammit!" Jimmy snapped, throwing his arms down in disgust.
Chaos looked up, gladly diverted from Stoker, and asked, "What's wrong?"
"I can't find it!"
Stoker cocked his head and asked, "Find what?"
Ignoring Stoker, Jimmy turned to Chaos and said, "You know what I mean, don't you, McKlash? The whatchamacallits!"
Chaos pondered it for a moment, then asked, "You mean the letters?"
Jimmy nodded and dropped dramatically to his knees, begging, "Please tell me you know where it is! Please! Pretty please with sugar on top!"
"You're such a goof, you know that?" Chaos asked, smiling warmly.
"Yes. It's why I'm so enchanting!"
Shaking her head, Chaos walked over to the bed and knelt next to the side where Stoker sat. She peered beneath it, then reach one arm into the darkness, praying all the while that none of the small creatures she was certain dwealt beneath the bed would rip her arm off.
Her hand brushed something short, puffy, and rectangular, with a gritty texture.
Bingo! she thought to herself, grabbing it. She pulled out what appeared to be a green storage bag for something or other.
"What's that?" Jimmy asked curiously as Chaos pulled open a velcro flap.
"My lap-top bag," Chaos said, pulling out a thin black computer, which she sat aside. "I ordered it over the Planetnet about two days ago."
"How'd it get here so fast?"
"Got it delivered by Transporter Express."
Pushing his bangs out of his face, Jimmy muttered, "Ooooh, I can't wait to see my credit-card bill next month."
Chaos replied with a grin, "And who ever said I used your card?"
Jimmy chuckled and patted Chaos on the head, telling Stoker, "See? Not only is she cute, but she's also skilled in credit-card fraud!"
OOOH! Thanks, Jim! Chaos thought to herself, gritting her teeth. I'm sure that just endeared me to him!
Shaking her head, Chaos pulled out a small manilla envelope. She folded up the clasp and opened the flap. Reaching inside, she plucked out a small packet of papers, which she handed to Jimmy, who began to look over them.
"You're pretty organized," Stoker said, grinning.
Shrugging, Chaos replied, "I try. Besides, we'd have to wait an hour for Jimmy to find those things if I left keeping them up to him!"
"Too true," the brown-furred mouse agreed with a snicker. He turned to Jimmy and asked, "What is it, Jim?"
Jimmy handed the papers to Stoker over Chaos's head and said simply, "Read these."
Stoker took the papers, heavily creased as if they had been unfolded, read, folded, and put back in the envelope many, many, many times. They were actually several letters, unless Stoker's eyes deceived him. The letterhead was fancy, with foil and embossing on each seperate page.
But something about the letters disturbed him. Stoker could detect the faintest odor of something that smelled akin to rotting garbage which all the neighborhood dogs had chosen to mark with their unique scent.
"Plutarkians?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
Jimmy nodded and said, "Just read."
And so, he did, aloud.
" `Dear Mr. Polychronopolus, it has been brought to our attention that you are the owner of the establishment known as Jimmy's Beer n' Stuff in the city of Ash. We would like to take this oppurtunity to inquire as to whether you would be interested in selling your property to an interested landscape developer. Having taken the liberty of calling an appraiser, we feel confident that we can offer you a sum in the six-digit range, and possibly as high as seven.'"
"You're kidding me," he said, turning to Jimmy. "They'd offer you a million dollars for this dump?"
Jimmy nodded and said, "I thought it was a joke at first. I don't remember any appraiser stoppin' by, and even if they had, they probably wouldn't wanna pay more than a thousand for it. Hell, I'd be suprised if they'd gimme that."
Stoker's jaw dropped.
He couldn't have.
He wouldn't have.
"You didn't--" Stoker started to ask.
Shaking his head no fiercely, Jimmy snapped, "Stoke, what d'you take me for? I knew they were Plutarkians right from the start--you can smell it on the letter--and I didn't have, don't presently have, and will not ever have any intention of selling to them or to anyone else!"
Stoker breathed a sigh of relief.
"You think bs was good?" the bartender asked. "Keep readin'."
Jimmy watched as Stoker flipped through the pages. He didn't listen to his old friend's voice as Stoker read through the various letters. What was the point? He knew how they went by heart after spending dozens of sleepless night reading them over and over again, until his fingers bore tiny calluses from the constant reading..
The first letter had been relatively nice. Jimmy had been suprised by the offer, and had actually been a little bit tempted--with that kind of money, he could move to Hellfire, for crud's sake. Now there was a city that was alive! Full of promise and potential--for anyone who had money enough, which Jimmy most certainly would if he followed through on this deal. Plus, it was the only city on Mars where prostitution was not only legal, but where the girls had to undergo physicals to receive licenses and offered sales and two-for-one offers (those won't be described here, you perverts, although I will mention that the two acts were performed at the same time), but, all the same, wrote back telling them that he wasn't interested.
The second letter had been even more of a suprise. The writers were still interested, even more interested, it seemed, and not only were willing to go into the seven-digit range, but would also pay Mr. Polychronpolus's moving expenses! How sweet a deal was that?
Still, in spite of the increasing temptation, Jimmy couldn't do it. It had been his dream all his life to own a business, not specifically a bar, and not specifically this bar in this city, but it was what Jimmy was good at, and Ash was where he had grown up, where he had made all his nearest and dearest friends. Jimmy couldn't bear to desert it now, even now that Ash was a ghost town and everyone else had left. Jimmy loved Ash, and he loved the mice therin. It was too farmiliar. It was home.
So, once again, he told them no.
The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth letters had gotten steadily less friendly and more and more insistent that Mr. Polychronpolus should rethink his refusal, and the seventh had been downright nasty. It had warned that there might be trouble should Mr. Polychronopolus not sell immediately.
Finally, the eighth had come.
It said that several "representatives" from the "landscape developer's" office would be stopping by on December 31 at approximately eleven P.M. to "discuss their offer in further detail", to try and convince him one last time to accept their incredibly generous offer. If he didn't accept this last time, which they would sincerely regret, then they would "stop all correspondence with Mr. Polychronopolus" and would bother him no longer.
Naturally, Jimmy could read between the lines.
So could Stoker, who looked up from the papers and said, "They're gonna kill you."
Jimmy nodded. He had always admired Stoker's perspicacity, whatever that was. The bartender was also keen on Stoker's intelligence, which had lead him to the aforementioned conclusion. If Jimmy would have had to explain the meaning of the letters to his longtime pal, then they were all, quite simply, screwed.
"I can't believe this," Stoker whispered, shaking his head.
"That's because you've still got some idealism left in you, Stoke," Jimmy said simply, sitting down beside him. "Me, I stopped believing in everything when I was fifteen, and look where it's gotten me!"
"You mean, in a fish-face's targeting scope?" Chaos asked, raising an eyebrow and smiling.
Jimmy looked at Chaos and said, "You, my dear Chaos, are a smart-ass.
No wonder I get such a kick out of you.
Stoker looked the papers over again, obviously searching for something to build a plan off of. All Jimmy's hopes and prayers rested in those fuzzy hands. Not the first time this had happened, of course, and there were times when the stakes had been higher.
Please, Stoke, he thought to himself desperately, praying to the only beings he every prayed to--living mice who he knew and trusted. It was a fragile belief system--he was constantly changing who he prayed to--but most times, it got better results than any organized religion Jimmy had ever been a part of.
Please, figure something out. I can't lose this place, not now.
After a few minutes, Stoker put the papers down and said thoughtfully, "I don't know what to tell you on this one, Jim. This is a big problem."
"You're tellin' me?" Jimmy asked, finding it harder and harder to stay positive. "Stoke, they're willin' to do anything to get this place. Anything. And before you even suggest that `discretion is the better part of valor' bullshit, I won't just leave and let them take this place. Never. They want it, they're gonna fight for it."
There was an uneasy silence.
Please please please please please.
"You do realize," Stoker said finally, "that those `representatives' are probably gonna be a couple of professionally-trained killers. Plutarkians or Sand Raiders or Rats or something, and all armed to the teeth."
Jimmy nodded and said frantically, "Stoke, you gotta think of something. I'm--I'm not letting the fish-faces take my bar away from me!"
Stoker pushed his bangs away from his face and sighed heavily.
"If we just had a little more time...." he muttered.
Chaos said softly, "Actually, I might be able to arrange that."
"Chaos?" Jimmy asked, kneeling beside her. "You've got an idea? Please tell me you've got an idea!"
"Well, actually, I--"
Jimmy suddenly wrapped his arms around her and shouted, "You do! You've got a plan! Oh, you wonderful, wonderful woman! I love you so much!"
Clearly a little unwanting of Jimmy's sudden burst of attention, Chaos pushed him off her and snapped, "Like I was saying, I have an idea. But the best I can do is delay them, not stop them from coming, if it even works."
"Well, the fish-faces were stupid enough to leave their web-page address at the bottom of their stationary. I should be able to get into the server, and from there, I may be able to alter their schedules internally so that their hired guns don't know to come here, or when, at least. I mean, eventually, they'll figure it out, but--"
"That's impossible," Stoker cried from behind.
Chaos and Jimmy both turned to see the doubtful mouse standing behind them, hands on his hips. He looked slightly peeved, almost annoyed, as he looked down on the twosome.
"What d'you mean?" Jimmy asked, puzzled. He assumed Chaos could do what she said. Of course, Jimmy didn't know what she was talking about, either. He honestly didn't know heads nor tails about computers. As far as he was concerned, RAM was a zodiac sign, and multimedia was what happened when you had more than one reporter in the same place.
Crossing his arms, Stoker snapped, "There's no way you'd be able to alter their schedules from here. I mean, assuming that their corporate website is even at their main offices, and that it isn't just a front, that there actually is a site, and even if there isn't a firewall--and Plutarkian firewalls are the hardest to crack--you couldn't alter their schedules unless you could crack their hard drive and find the program they write them in!"
Chaos's eyes widened in suprise.
Jimmy just smiled and said, "Well, well, well. Looks like we got us two hackers here, eh?" He turned to Stoker and said with a grin, "You're good Stoke, but you've got some stiff competition from McKlash here. She's the best at this freaky cyber-stuff. Heh. You should see her ar--"
Chaos's left hand suddenly clamped on Jimmy's shoulder. She began to squeeze, and Jimmy swore he could feel blood vessels rupturing.
"Shut up," she whispered, "or I'll rip your arm off like a drumstick."
"Drumsticks are legs," Jimmy reminded her.
The pressure increased.
Jimmy got the message quickly and replied under his breath, "Not another word."
She released, and walked off.
Damn, she's strong, Jimmy thought to himself, rubbing his sore shoulder.
Jimmy watched as Chaos began to explain her plan to Stoker, her words filled with all sorts of techno-jargon that he didn't understand (mainly because The Writer, who barely understands HTML, wouldn't know what to put down for their dialogue).
But even with his throbbing shoulder, Jimmy couldn't help but think to himself how perfect they looked, standing there together. Somehow, they seemed to compliment each other. Maybe it was just the difference in their coloring. Chaos was pale as the snow blowing around outside, and Stoker was.....well, not midnight black, but a good deal darker. And Stoker was larger than she was. Maybe it was just their looks.
No, that's not all, Jimmy decided thoughtfully. They are a good match. They're both smart, they're both thoughtful, both into computers, books......Course, Chaos is quieter, and Stoke can go nuts on that bike o' his, but....
"The Ultranet?" Stoker shouted suddenly, aghast. "Are you insane? No one can get into that!"
Then again, Jimmy thought to himself bitterly.
"It's impossible to get into the Ultranet unless you're using a computer directly linked to it!" Stoker snapped crossly. "I should know! I've been trying to get into it for years!"
He was slightly annoyed with Chaos McKlash. He still found her interesting, moreso now that he knew she was a hacker, like he was in his spare time, but he couldn't believe she would lie to Jimmy at a time like this! His life was on the line, and she was telling fairy tales about the Ultranet?
Chaos pushed a stray piece of hair out of her eyes and said, trying to rustle up some courage, "But I can get into it."
Eyes narrowed, Stoker tapped Chaos's laptop with the corner of his foot and asked skeptically, "What? With that?"
"Basically," Chaos replied. She carefully hooked the computer into a phone line, and then pulled a black cored from a small storage space in the back of the computer, which she plugged into an average-lookiong receptacle.
She paused for a minute, then looked at Jimmy with a questioning face.
"You can trust `im, McKlash," the yellow-furred mouse said casually. "He ain't gonna tell nobody. An' if he does, well then, I'll kick his ass for ya."
"Thanks, Jim," Stoker hissed.
Sudddenly, Stoker found himself drug aside by Jimmy to the far side of the room. When they got there, Jimmy whispered firmly, "Stoke, Chaos's been through alot, okay? She doesn't know when to trust people, and you're sendin' out a real bad vibe here, okay? If she does decide to trust you, then I swear to God, it's the deepest trust you'll ever know. She will never betray you. But you gotta give `er the benefit of the doubt for the time bein', okay?"
"What's she been through?" Stoker asked, stealing a brief glance back at Chaos, who, still sitting on the floor, was lifting the hair up off the nape of her neck.
Jimmy tugged on one of Stoker's ponytail, drawing his attention back to him, and said simply, "If she wants you t'know, she'll tell ya."
"Do you know?" the brown-furred mouse hissed, slightly annoyed.
"Then tell me!"
Putting a hand on Stoker's shoulder as if to quiet him, Jimmy said softly, "Okay. Then how about, when I'm done spillin' the beans, I tell her all about you and Affidayvit and that time you spent in prison and all your other dirty little secrets?"
Aghast, Stoker snapped, "Why in the Hell would you tell her about that?!"
"I wouldn't. I'm just proving a point. You wouldn't want me runnin' airin' your dirty laundry. Same deal with Chaos. If she wants you to know, she'll tell you. I imagine she will, anyway. Or she'll give me the okay t'tell you. Just give `er some time, okay?"
There was a pleading look in Jimmy's eyes, one Stoker couldn't ignore.
He's really hung up on this one, Stoker thought to himself. I've never seen him this worked up over a girl. She must be special.
"Well, what about this Ultranet stuff? Can she really get into it from here?"
Jimmy shrugged and said, "Beats the Hell outta me. All I know is that she can do things with that little computer--and sometimes without it--that should probably be impossible. She's good, Stoke. Real good. She even put in my security system when the letters started comin'."
Despite this high praise, Stoker was still slightly sour.
Security system. Hmph. Still sounds t'me like she's tryin' to change him. Makin' him lock his doors. If she turns him into a clean-living decent citizen, she's dead meat. I swear.
Stoker broke Jimmy's grasp and said, "I gotta know how she's doing this."
He walked over slowly to where Chaos sat, heel-sitting behind her so he could look over her shoulder. Chaos showed no sign of noticing his presence. Indeed, she sat stock-still, unmoving, which puzzled Stoker slightly.
What really suprised, him, though, was the fact that the computer's screen was completely black.
What in the--?
Despite this, the little laptop was whirring with activity. It sounded like it might be on the verge of exploding. Chaos's fingers tapped the tops of the keys, but never actually pressed them down. It was as if she just using the keyboard for a reference, that if she were only a little more certain of her typing skills, she wouldn't even need the laptop.
Something weird is going on here, Stoker thought, looking over the computer carefully. He was disappointed to find that it was completly normal, with no particularly salient features. It was a little on the old side. That was the only thing that really stood out about it.
Stoker looked around Chaos's side again. Perhaps it was something about how the computer was hooked-up.
Let's see. The power cable's connected to the wall socket, check. The modem cord's connected to the phone line, check. Hmmm. Where's this one go?
The mouse traced the line with his eyes, from the back of the computer, around its side, past Stoker's knee, up Chaos's back and into--
Stoker very nearly jumped out of his fur.
"Dear God!" he whispered, scrambling to his feet. "I must've fallen asleep and landed in Johnny Mneumonic!"
Jimmy grinned and said, "Please don't even ask. I have no idea what it is, or how it works, or nothin'. I had to hire a guy to come hook up my cable, remember?"
"Chaos?" Stoker asked nervously, leaning around her shoulder. "Why is there something plugged into the back of your neck?"
She didn't answer.
Stoker scooted around the side of her so he could shout out her name in her face (rude, but it should get her attention), but the word never escaped his lips. He was shocked into silence.
All the character had disappeared from Chaos's face. It was blank, like a mask. Her mouth hung slightly open. Those eyes, which had so caught his interest earlier, were completely vacant, like the glass eyes of stuffed squirrel-bats. Hollow. Empty. All the life and all the sparkle in them was gone.
"Chaos?" Stoker asked, by this time thoroughly creeped-out. He waved a hand in front of her eyes, but they never changed.
"Jim," the brown-furred mouse said quickly, rising to his feet, "we gotta get a doctor. I think she had a stroke or something!"
Shaking his head no gently, Jimmy said, "She's fine. She does this all the time. This is what happens when she gets on the Ultranet, s'all. Just kinda zones out. She can't hear a word, or see a thing. I could have the wildest, loudest, most passionate sex right over there--"
He pointed to the bed, just two feet away from where Chaos sat.
"--and she'd never know."
"Real sweet of you, Jim," Stoker snapped.
Geez, cheatin' on a nice girl like that.
"I didn't say that I have," Jimmy snapped, slightly annoyed. "I only said that I could. I wouldn't do that in front of Chaos. She'd probably wake up right in the middle of it, and wouldn't that be an awkward situation?"
Shaking his head, Stoker watched Chaos silently for a moment, her fingers sporadically typing, then stopping, then typing again, then stopping, typing, stopping, typing.
"Jim," he said, straightening up, "if this doesn't work, or even if it does, we need a back-up plan. What time are those fish supposed to show?"
Stoker checked his watch.
"Ten-fifteen," he said, biting his lip.
"Doesn't leave us much time, does it?" Jimmy asked.
"Assuming the worst--that Chaos's idea doesn't work--and the best--that the fish-faces don't show up until eleven--we've got forty-five minutes. Hmmmm."
Jimmy looked between his two friends, then said softly, "Please, Stoker, think of something. I'm begging you."
I don't wanna tell him, Stoker thought to himself sadly, that this is hopeless. I really, really, don't want to. Jimmy's done so much for me, I can't let him down.
But it's the truth. They're gonna send a small school of fish after this place, with more guns than the entire Martian army has in its armory. There's only three of us, and that's assuming that Jimmy lets Chaos stay to fight. I doubt he does. He wouldn't want to risk something happening to his girlfriend.
Doesn't really matter, though. If the fish-heads want this place bad enough, they're going to get it, one way or another. This place is gonna be bulldozed with or without Jimmy's consent.
"Stoke?" Jimmy whispered hopefully.
Sighing, Stoker put his hands on Jimmy's shoulders.
"Jim, as much as I hate to say it, this place is a lost cause," he admitted softly. "Even if Chaos can change the schedule, they're going to come sooner or later."
Jimmy turned his eyes away.
Stoker knew why instantly.
He doesn't want me to see him crying. Amazing. I've bawled my eyes out in front of this guy, on several occasions, but he doesn't want me to see him cry.
Stoker turned his head to the side and handed Jimmy a tissue from a nearby box. He waited for his friend to dab his eyes and blow his nose, then turned back.
"I can't believe you're just givin' up!" Jimmy snapped, eyes red and wet, with more than a slight warble to his voice. "You, of all mice! You never give up! Never!"
"Jim, listen to me. The Plutarkians have bought up every other property in Ash." At least, they're close, right?."
Nodding, Jimmy asked, slightly shamed, "How'd you know?"
"They're doing the same thing in most of the small towns I came though on my way here. Grail, Detsunu, Frigaire, Amana, Whirlpool, you name it. When I went through Arcadia, the entire town was empty. Everyone had been bought out. Everyone. And you know what they did as soon as they had the land? They bull-dozed every building, dug up all the land, and shipped it off to Plutark.
"That's what they're doing to Ash. Don't you get it? You're going to lose your bar, no matter what. We can't save it."
Jimmy bit his lip sadly.
"The most we can do," Stoker continued, a slight grin spreading across his face, "is send a message to Plutark."
"A message?" Jimmy asked, raising an eyebrow.
Nodding, Stoker continued, "A message that, if they keep trying to buy up Mars like this, they're gonna pay."
"You do have a plan," the bartender said, starting to smile.
"Well," Stoker confessed, fingering Jimmy's laser-rifle, "it's not so much a plan as just blowing all those fish to Kingdom Come."
Jimmy snickered, "And in what way to you mean `blow'?"
Stoker glared at his friend.
"You are such a damn pervert, you know that?"
With a devilish grin, the bartender chuckled, "Hey, you said, `blow' and `come' in the same sentence. Whaddaya want from me?"
Stoker looked over to Chaos, who was at present removing the cable from her neck, and asked his yellow-furred companion, "What about her? This could be dangerous."
Shrugging, Jimmy walked over to Chaos and asked, "Hey, McKlash, me and Stoke're gonna either waste those Plutarkians or perform oral sex on them, he hasn't been clear on which. You in?"
Chaos tucked her chin in hand and said, "For the wasting part? Yeah. The oral sex part, uhhh, I think I'll leave that up to you two."
Curiously, Stoker asked, "Are you sure? Chaos, this is gonna be dangerous. You could get killed."
She slipped the computer back into its bag and replied simply, "Of course it's going to be dangerous. But you're right. The Plutarkians need to be taught a lesson. Besides that, I owe a little something to Jimmy, don't I?"
Jimmy clasped Chaos's hand in his and said, looking deep into her eyes, "Thanks, McKlash."
"No problem," she answered, smiling.
Talk about loyal, Stoker thought to himself. Jimmy was right about this one. Risking her life for him, of all mice. Now that's a real stand-up girl.
I hope she doesn't get hurt too bad when Jimmy starts sleeping with someone else.
"Did you have any luck changing the schedule?" Stoker asked. He still wasn't sure that she had actually gotten into the Ultranet, but something creepy had been going on.
Chaos nodded and said, "I changed the time of their little visit to next week. The e-mails are on their way. If we're lucky, they won't be here until next Wednesday. If we're lucky. On the other hand, if someone logs on and finds out the schedules have been changed, they're apt to try and change them to tommarrow or tell them to attack immediately.
"Of course, they won't be able to. I've crashed their hard drive."
Stoker gave an appreciative whistle.
If she's telling the truth, he thought to himself, she may be the best hacker I've ever met.
"I don't suppose that means we've got time enough for you to come up with a brilliant plan to save my bar, do we?" Jimmy asked hopefully.
Stoker shook his head no and said, "Nothing's changed, Jim. You'd better start packing up all your favorite stuff and get it outta here pronto. After those fish come, something tells me we won't have time to come back for the stuff you forgot."
"Gotcha," Jimmy replied, nodding. He opened up the storage space at the back of the room and began digging through it, as if hunting for buried treasure. Chaos, having put away her computer, joined him, and after a minute, so did Stoker.
I can't believe he couldn't think of anything, Jimmy thought to himself sadly as he picked through his old vinyl records. As he added Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club to the "keep" side, he chided himself, Why didn't I tell `im sooner? If I just woulda wrote `im a letter or somethin' a few months back, he'd probably have the greatest scheme in the history of the world all thought up by now! Somethin' with all kinds of nifty little underpinnin's and that sorta thing. But no, I waited, and what do I get? We're gonna kill the fish, then abandon the bar. God. I've been waitin' for this place all my life, and now I gotta let it go because of some greedy-ass fish. Damn.
Jimmy wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and continued searching through the records. He plucked one from the pile he couldn't remember buying and looked at it curiously. It was Billy Joel's Turnstiles.
"Hey, Stoke," he asked, praying silently that Stoker wouldn't see the tears in his eyes, "is this one of yours?"
Stoker looked up from the boxes of photo albums he had been leafing thorugh and took the record from Jimmy, looking it over carefully. Jimmy was slightly embarassed to have had almost thirty records, tapes, and CD's Stoker thought he had misplaced over the years in his posession, and wanted to make an effort now to return them, even though most of them were in such bad condition they couldn't be played.
"Nope," Stoker decided finally, handing the album back. "I'd recognize something like this if I bought it."
"How's that?" Chaos questioned, adding Jimmy's copy of Action Comics #1 to a small pile at her right, where several other nearly-discarded comics, including X-Men #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15, sat.
Motioning for her to look, Stoker explained, "See the guy on the cover? He's human. This was imported from Earth. Not a bootleg copy, either. This is the real thing. Very expensive, especially since Mars hasn't officially made contact with the humans. This thing is illegal contraband."
"Why haven't we made contact, anyway?" Jimmy asked, curiously. "I've heard this disk before; if all humans are like this Joel guy, they're a pretty okay bunch."
Stoker shrugged and said, "As I understand it, no planetary race is allowed to make contact with those of another planet which has yet to achieve nuclear power and inter-planetary travel."
"Damn prime directive," Jimmy snapped.
"Of course," Stoker continued, "there are those stupid little grays running around anal-probing everything in sight. They keep saying it's for `scientific purposes', but....."
"I get it," Chaos said thoughtfully. She added, almost as an afterthought, "I had a bootleg of that one for awhile, come to think."
"Really?" Stoker asked inquisitively.
Chaos nodded and said, "But I lost it on my way to Ash. It's a pity, really. I loved that album. Should've told me you had it, Jim!"
"Any ideas whose it is, then?" Stoker asked, as Jimmy examined a broken lava lamp. "Did it belong to one of your girlfriends, maybe?"
Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, Jimmy said, "None of my girls ever listened to this, except Syne. She liked this Joel guy."
Stoker's chin dropped through the floor. Jimmy had known even before he spoke the words of the last sentence that it would. He smiled secretly to himself, just waiting for Stoker to ask the particular question that always followed when he mentioned that particular partner.
"You slept with Auld Lang Syne?" he shouted, eyes wide as saucers.
There it was.
"Yup," Jimmy said triumphantly. "Now there was a good shagger. Hell of a looker, too. Man, that Syne could turn a guy on at a hundred yards. And we were usually closer than that, so you can imagine the effect....."
"You......slept....with.....Syne?" Stoker whispered, still in shock. He was shaking with envy and disbelief (think Vinnie at the beginning of "Biker Knights of the Round Table Part One", and you'll get the idea).
"Who's this `Auld Lang Syne'?" Chaos asked curiously.
Both mice looked up at her, more shocked than Stoker had been when Jimmy announced that he had been sleeping with this venerable mouse.
"You don't know?" Stoker shouted, mouth agape.
"No," Chaos admitted.
Stoker looked at her, amazed, and shouted, "How could you not know?"
Chaos bowed her head a little, somewhat ashamed.
Jimmy put a hand on Stoker's shoulder and said, "Ease up on `er, Stoke. Syne was.....a bit before Chaos's time."
Stoker looked up, unable to be any more shocked, and shouted, " `Before her time'? Syne hasn't been dead four years yet! Chaos has gotta be--what, eighteen at least! Were you livin' under a rock or something for the last decade?"
Maybe I oughtta let `im know, Jimmy thought to himself. Might make Stoke act a little more civil t'her. He didn't believe her about the Ultranet; maybe this could make `im trust her a little more, if nothing else. God knows that the last thing I need right now is for these two not to trust each other.
He looked up at Chaos, who nodded, as if she knew what Jimmy was thinking. Frankly, it wouldn't have shocked him in the least if she did know. Chaos was just full of suprises.
"Go ahead," she whispered. "He'll find out sooner or later."
Nodding, Jimmy said, "Siddown, Stoke."
"I am sitting."
"Oh, okay, well then, stay there so I can sit down next to ya."
Jimmy indian-sat next to Stoker, then turned to ask Chaos to sit down with them.
But she wasn't there anymore. She had left the room without so much as a word.
"Where'd she go?" Jimmy wondered aloud.
Stoker shrugged, then said, "She seems sensitive about whatever this is about."
"Well, this is important, and pretty personal. Chaos hasn't had an easy life. At least, I don't think she has. But then again, I can't be sure. And neither can she."
"Well, you asked how Chaos couldn't know about Syne, who just died not that long ago. And then, you wanted t'know how old she is."
"Well, the fact of the matter is, I don't know the answer t'either of them, especially the age thing. And I have asked her. The reason that I don't know is because she doesn't know."
Stoker looked at Jimmy curiously.
"How," the biker asked skeptically, "can she not know how old she is? That's impossible!"
Sighing, Jimmy said, "Lemme give it to ya from the top.
"I met Chaos about two, three months back. It was a windy, cold night. Rainin', thunderin', the works. Little warmer than tonight, but oh well. It was still a terrible night. No soul shoulda been out in that. Not even a Plutarkian.
"But then again, they like water...
"Well, whether or not many of the fish-faces were out, not many mice were. The bar was just about empty. Not even the hard-core drunks were in. It was me, a few mice back in the corner, and the juke box. `The Stranger' was playing."
Stoker grinned and said, "Sounds like The Writer's settin' up the scene for a mysterious young mouse to appear."
"Pheh. `The Writer.' I don't believe in The Writer."
Suddenly, a horde of zombies burst through the floor of the loft. Flesh dripping from their bones, they began to circle around Jimmy, who tried desperately to get away, but to no avail. There were just too many of them, and only one Jimmy. And despite the fact that these hideous creatures were dead, they were strong as oxes. A few of the more intrepid ones quickly pinned Jimmy's arms and legs to the ground with their rotting hands. The smell of their decaying flesh overwhelmed Jimmy as he screamed for help.
But Stoker did not come to his friend's rescue.
The zombies suddenly began to tear at Jimmy's flesh with their rancid teeth, biting through the flesh of his neck and clawing at his chest.
"I take it back I take it back I take it back!" Jimmy screamed. "There is a The Writer!"
"You say something?" Stoker asked, looking away from the September 1969 issue of Naked Women Soon to Join the Cast of Baywatch.
"Nothing, nothing," Jimmy whispered, examining his throat and arms, which were completely unharmed.
"You were saying?" the brown-furred mouse asked.
"Anyways, I'm polishin' the glasses, standin' there, listenin' to the music, and all of a sudden, the door flies open and hits the wall. SMACK! It was more the wind than anyone pushin' it. McKlash doesn't make big entrances. `S not her style.
"So there's this girl standin' there in the doorway, lookin' like a drowned rat. No, I take it back. Like a drowned rat run through a blender. She looked scared, nervous, like she was gonna get yelled at just for coming in. Caught my eye the second she started down the steps.
"I mean, it was partially all that stuff I just said, but mostly because she's got nice legs. You gotta gimme that!"
Stoker nodded slightly. He had noticed them himself, and was impressed.
"Well, she comes up to the bar but she doesn't sit down right away. She kinda looks around at everyone else there, then finally hops her little butt up on one of the stools.
"I leap right into my little `welcome' spiel. I'd seen girls like what I thought she was tons of times--runaway teens, on the road, alone--and I think it does `em good to let `em know they're welcome at my place.
" `Welcome to Jimmy's Beer N' Stuff, kid,' I says ebulliently, `the finest and, coincidentally, only, bar in Ash, featurin' not only the finest brews from all over Mars, but good, hot meals that'll stick t' your ribs and warm you up toute suite. Please remember that, as there may very well be a federal agent here and I can't afford another fine right now, I need t'see I.D if you want anythin' alcoholic. All that said, can I help you?'
"She bites her lip and digs thorugh her pockets for a sec. Came up with a handful of change. Mostly pennies. She counted through it, then looks at me and says, `What've you got for forty-seven cents?'
"Well, you know how I feel about charity cases. I'll be corteous t'the poor and unfortunate, but I don't give out free meals."
Stoker smiled slightly to himself. Jimmy pretended to be a hardass, but he was a softie at heart.
"Maybe it was somethin' about how bad the night was, but I couldn't help feelin' bad for her. Same way I feel bad for any kid who runs away and ends up in Ash. I mean, wherever they left can't be any worse than here!
"So I reach under the bar and pulled out one of the baskets with the crackers in it, the ones I give out with soup, and slid it to her. Filled up a glass fulla water and put `em in front of her. I know it wasn't much, but profits ain't exactly been through the room the last couple of months. Besides, she looked pretty grateful for it regardless. She expected t'get thrown out on her ass, so I guess gettin' a meal, even this one, was a boon. Said `Thanks' and gave me the coins. I told `er to keep `em. But she insisted that I take all of it. So I did.
"I still haven't spent that change.
"Anywho, a little later, I start closin' the place up, last call and everythin', but the whole time, the kid just sits there, even after she finished up. I didn't have the heart t'make her leave or nothin', so I just let `er sit.
"Finally, though, I was ready t'go t'bed, and I said to her, `Kid, I'm closed. You gotta go.'
"She sighed and got up, started toward the door.
"When I heard the knob turning, I thought about her makin' me take the coins. That was all the money she had, or at least, that she'd give me, but I suspected the former. Maybe I'm gettin' soft, but I just couldn't make her spend the night out there. Terrible, terrible night."
Stoker looked at him curiously and said, "I thought you didn't believe in taking in boarders. Especially since you don't have any spare room."
Odds t'even says he's thinkin' `Except in your bed', Jimmy thought to himself with a smile. `S a pity we're in the part where I'm the main character, or we'd know for sure.
"You're right," Stoker said, smiling.
Shocked, the gold-furred bartender shouted, "How'd you know?"
"I read the last paragraph. So what made you compromise your firm morals?"
Pushing the hair back from his face, Jimmy sighed, "Beats the Hell out of me. Frankly, I've never been sure why I've ever done anything. You always ask me why, and I've never known.
"Anyways, I turn and ask her, `Do you have a place to stay tonight?'
"She paused for a minute, thinkin', and then shakes her head no.
" `You want one?'
"She turns around and says, with this look of conviction I didn't expect in her eyes.
" `What do you want in return? I'm not willing to go that far, if that's what you're thinking. I'd just as soon sleep in the street as whore myself out in return for a warm bed.'
"Well, that impressed me. Most times, if I ask a runaway if she wants t'stay the night here--and I do, on occasion--she assumes the worst and just asks, `You wanna sleep with me?' And of course, I could never turn down such a heart-felt invitation, so I always accept. But this girl, she says she won't sleep with me right off the bat, which, while it made her more enticing, really amazed me.
" `No, no!' I tell her. `Look, I'll make a deal with ya. You got anywhere you absolutely gotta be before tommarrow night?'
" `Okay, then, here it is. Tommarrow, you're my waitress. Go around to the tables, get orders, maybe do a little bit o' cookin'. In return, you can stay here tonight, and I give you three squares tommarrow. No pay, but you won't get frostbite on those pretty little feet of yours. Whaddaya say?'
"It didn't take a minute before she agreed. Before I showed her upstairs, she insisted we shake on the deal. So we did, and she told me her name was Chaos McKlash. I told her it sounded like the most made-up name I had ever heard. And she agreed completely. But instead of arguing with me, like I expected, she asked what my name was. Should've seen her laughing when I told her `Jamespolychronpolus'. I thought at first maybe I'd slept with her before and forgot, or that I'd slept with her mother and had been told about me, and she was suprised t'meet the guy who she assumed was her father. Yet another illegitimate kid, y'know?
"When she finally stopped laughing--and we're talkin' milk-shootin'-outta-
the-nose type laughin' here--she said it wasn't any of that, to the best of her knowledge--
she just thought it sounded funny.
"And she's absolutely right, of course."
So, Stoker thought to himself, trying to digest it all, Chaos isn't a runaway, and she wouldn't sleep with Jim, at least, not right away. Nothing novel there. Some girls turn him down the first time and still end up with him later. Still, I wonder....
Jimmy was saying something Stoker didn't catch about Chaos's thorough lack of waitressing skills (she had apparently spilled two entire tray-loads of beer after a less than corteous patron had tripped her) when Stoker interrupted him.
"Cut to the chase, Jim. She agreed to work for you the next day and then leave. That was two or three months ago. Why's she still here?"
Jimmy scrunched up his eyebrows and asked, "Why? Don't ya like her?"
Stoker's face blanced.
Oh, I like her, all right.
"No, no! It's not that! I like her fine! She's not bad! I'm just wondering why she stuck around is all!"
"Oh, okay! You had me worried there for a second. You two didn't seem t'be hittin' it off too good earlier, and I was afraid you didn't like her."
Shaking his head no, Stoker explained, "She just caught me off-guard with the whole Ultranet thing, that's all. No, I like her. She seems okay. A nice girl."
"Good! I wouldn't want my two best buddies to hate each other!" Jimmy laughed, secretly relieved, as he punched Stoker lightly in the arm.
`Best buddies?' Stoker wondered. He's never referred to a girlfriend as a "buddy" before. On the other hand, I've never known him t'be in a relationship that's lasted this long. I've never seen him with the same girl for more than a month before. Crud, I've never seen him with the same girl for more than a week before!
"The long and short of it is," Jimmy explained, "Chaos didn't have anywhere to go, and I liked having her around. I didn't really need her to waitress, but she said it gave `er something to do during the day. I let her keep it up, but I had t'make her stop and just stay here for nothin' when she broke my collection of Fabrege eggs."
"But why didn't she have anywhere to go?" Stoker asked. "Did her family disown her or something? And what does this have to do with her not knowing how old she is?"
Jimmy sighed, and looked his friend square in the eye.
"Stoke, she's got amnesia."
Stoker's jaw dropped, almost as far as when Jimmy had mentioned sleeping with Auld Lang Syne, but more slowly.
"You're kidding me," he whispered. "She's really got amnesia?"
Nodding, Jimmy said, "I didn't believe it at first, t'be honest with ya. I thought she was jokin', just didn't want to tell me where she was from. Somethin' like that. And I told her as much.
"Well, it'd been a few months after we met, and by that time, she trusted me enough to lemme plumb her memories.
"I knew even before I let `er antennae touch my head that she was telling the truth. Somethin' about Chaos....I dunno. Maybe I trust her too much, but I knew she wasn't lying.
"But I checked all the same. I went back as far as I could--t'where she woke up on some other planet, and all of a sudden, it blanks. Like it does if you go far enough back in any person's memories. Difference here is, for most mice, the blank hits when their memories are at the point where they're just a baby. With Chaos, it's four months ago. It's really all the farther she can remember back. It's her earliest memory."
Man, Stoker thought to himself. Poor kid.
"Apparently, she came to Mars t'hunt for whatever family she might have, and whatever money she'd had ran out here in Ash.
"Well, natch, she struck a cord with me. E flat, I think, but it doesn't really matter. I couldn't turn her away after that. I didn't have the heart, or rather, the lack thereof.
"And that, in a nutshell," Jimmy concluded, rising to his feet and stretching, "is why neither Chaos nor myself knows how old she is. She's got no leads as to who she really is, which I think is a shame. Wonderful kid like that's probably missed by her family, if she has one."
Jimmy shook his head regretfully.
I guess I was a little harsh with her earlier, Stoker thought to himself sadly. Amnesia. God. I gotta remember to apologize, let her know I'm sor--
"JIMMY! STOKER!" Chaos shouted, running into the room suddenly, eyes wide and panicked. "Get dow--"
OTHER WORDS WHICH CAN BE USED TO DESCRIBE EXPLOSIONS!