Limburger sat gazing out his office window. Though it was late afternoon,
it was as gray as dusk outside; rain poured steadily from the heavy nimbus
clouds that covered the sky like the ridges of a freshly-plowed cornfield.
The weather fit his mood. During its last session, the Plutarkian Review Board had come down rather hard on Lord Camembert for the constant delays in the Chicago operation, and, as usual, the manure had rolled downhill, right into his lap. The Review Board had confronted Limburger directly only once, and it was an experience he had no desire to repeat. And, if that wasn't bad enough, Flounder's Day was rapidly approaching.
Generations ago, when the state of Plutark's dwindling resources had reduced even the wealthiest to conditions of abject poverty, High Chairman Edam had ordered the launching of the program of planetary piracy which had become a way of life for Plutark. Now even the lowest lived comfortably, and, as a result, Flounder's Day was celebrated each year with almost religious fervor, and the current High Chairman was showered with gifts from a grateful populace. His field agents naturally sent the richest gifts, in the form of real estate, mineral ores, and, sometimes, even slaves. Though such things were routinely sent to Plutark through the High Chairman's office, those sent for this occasion became his personal property. It was a perk of office each High Chairman guarded jealously, and woe to any field operative who neglected his annual duty.
In the past, Limburger had managed well, but that had ended when those rogue rodents had shown up. Last year, he'd been the only operative on Earth not to send any present at all, and Lord Camembert still wasn't letting him hear the end of it. Not that he ever let him hear the end of any mistake he made, however small. Now, between the Borad and the upcoming holiday, he had to produce something that would outstrip, in Camembert's eyes, even the carved likeness he had once sent to placate his superior into restoring his funding.
He frowned as he remembered that particular fiasco. His original objective had been to send him the whole of Mount Rushmore, with the extra likeness added, but the mice had caused the stone effigy to break off and roll alone into the transporter field. They had spoiled that plan as they spoiled everything, but not quite. In fact, they had done him a favor, he realized, shuddering as he thought of what the public's reaction would have been to find such an alien image carved on one of their national monuments, literally overnight, or to find the entire monument missing. As it was, certain sectors of the population were still buzzing, even now, over the chunk of stone that had inexplicably vanished from the mountain. The FBI had even sent two agents to investigate.
The sky darkened into true dusk as Limburger brooded. His funds were limited; ever since that miserable mouse-loving female had blown the whistle on him to the Internal Revenue Service, the agents had been going over his quarterly tax reports with a fine-toothed comb---and also watching closely to be sure his submitted them in the first place. He'd discovered that IRS agents were as "untouchable" as the rivals of his idol, Al Capone, had been, immune to every sort of bribery he'd been able to think of, and so squeaky clean in their private lives that blackmail was not a viable alternative. The involvement of the IRS also made it impossible for him to reactivate his counterfeiting operation. Without the cash flow he'd enjoyed before the mice's arrival, his options seemed to be extremely limited; he couldn't go back in time or even to another dimension without those miserable Martians tracking him. If they had been a nuisance on Mars, they were a mountainous obstacle here, where the Plutarkian invasion was still at the low-profile stage---wait a minute, he thought suddenly. Mountain! Greasepit's attempt to gift the entire Plutarkian Review Board with a whole mountain a few years ago had deeply impressed the lot of them before that attempt had been foiled. The elation faded as quickly as it had risen as he remembered trying that particular scheme himself, with no better results.
He turned his gaze downward, watching the stream of humanity emerging from the base of his tower as his hundreds of clerical employees---all of them completely ignorant of his true nature or that of the company for which they worked---left for the day. Perhaps he should wrap it up himself, he thought, keying his computer into the time clock function so it would sound an alert when the last employee had departed. Yes, that was it. He'd take a soothing soak in a nice, warm bath, perhaps go out and take in a play or an opera, then return to his quarters and enjoy a steaming hot cup of tea before retiring for the night, and perhaps his subconscious mind would present a solution in his dreams. Humans put a lot of store by such things, and, since Plutarkians dreamed, too, perhaps that stratagem would work for him.
The signal finally sounded; actually smiling now in anticipation of enjoying a relaxing evening, he set the proximity alarms and defense mechanisms and left the office.
As his limousine drove up the street later that night, returning to its home base, Limburger scrutinized his tower. It had been destroyed so many times already, he no longer counted on its presence when he came back from even the shortest jaunt. Many of its windows were dark now, but a few were still lit, most of them in the living quarters he provided for his enforcers. One set of lit windows belonged to the lab, and Limburger was not really surprised. When he really got rolling on an invention, Karbunkle frequently forgot things like sleep. He decided to drop in on his way to the penthouse.
Karbunkle turned from what looked like some sort of radio set as Limburger
entered the room. "Greetings, Your Buttery Richness," he wheezed.
"Your timing is most fortuitous."
"Oh, really? And what marvel of science do you have for me this time?"
He chose to ignore the sarcasm. "Something that will guarantee the elimination of the Biker Mice as a threat, Your Creamy Yogurtness. All I have to do is...."
The vast spaces of the scoreboard's interior reverberated with the sound of snoring as mice slept, unaware of the figure moving about in the darkness, making no attempt to be quiet. The shadowy silhouette moved to the end of the great room, where the motorcycles were parked; the sound of an engine roaring to life rattled the panes in their frames, but the sleepers did not so much as stir; the rhythm of their breathing continued uninterrupted.
Like most people living in "bad" neighborhoods, Charley had
long since developed that kind of constant alertness that persists even
in sleep, but continuous battle-readiness since the arrival of the mice
had honed it to near-feral sharpness. As a result, she woke to instant awareness
at a muffled sound. She had no idea exactly what she had heard, only that
it was not a normal part of the city's night song, and she lay still in
the darkness, listening intently. The faint sounds of footsteps in the garage
below reached her ears, and her first instinct was to call the police, but
she ditched that notion before it had even fully formed; the mice had made
such an impression on the local hoodlums the one and only time they had
tried to rob the Last Chance since the mice's arrival, that they had never
tried it again; in fact, they wouldn't even come near that street any more.
No; the present intruder was more likely one of Limburger's flunkies. Gripping
the laser pistol the guys had given her, she made her way to the radio set
she kept upstairs for just such contingencies. However, even when she threw
caution to the winds and shouted into the microphone, there was no answer.
Now that was odd; the mice never turned off the receiver in the scoreboard.
Even stranger was the fact that the burglar alarm was silent. Her heart
pounding in her throat, she checked the charge on the pistol and turned
the selector to its lowest setting, then slipped out the door and silently
padded down the stairs in her bare feet.
She could hear heavy boots on the concrete floor below, and something jingled softly with every step; whoever it was, was making no attempt at silence. The smell of slagged metal and charred wood told her that the lock had been hit by either laser or plasma fire, and, since no Terra government was yet admitting to having such weapons, the intruder indeed had to be in a certain rot fish's employ.
The next sound was one she'd come to know as well as her own voice or the sound of a finely tuned engine: the sound of clicking metal and whining servos as unique as a fingerprint, and she spun around toward its origin "Modo?!" she blurted in shock just before the lights came on to reveal the big mouse with his left hand still on the switch, then anger set in as she saw the charred hole in the wall where the back door had been. "You didn't have to blast my door in; that's what I gave you guys keys for!" she cried angrily; she finished descending the stairs and stood glaring up at him. "I swear, I spend more money on doors and windows around here since---" The rest died in her throat se he leveled his arm cannon directly at her. For a nanosecond she stood frozen with disbelief; then, realization hit her and she aimed and fired.
Trembling with reaction, she put the weapon on "safe" and slipped it into the belt of her robe. She knelt beside the still form on the floor and opened one of the service panels in the right arm.
She knew that wiring like the back of her hand; in fact, there were the two replacement capacitors she'd installed last week. So this really was Modo, after all. She closed her eyes and buried her face in her left hand for a moment.
"That's incredible, Doctor!" Limburger exclaimed in surprise
as they watched the tableau unfold on the monitor. "However did you
"With this hypnosignal generator, Your Cream Cheese Icingness; a second-generation version of the mind-bender beam we used on Mars."
"And your subject broke the control," Limburger reminded him in a sour tone.
"Yes, but not this time." His voice sounded particularly vicious. "With this device, I transmit a signal at a frequency their antennae pick up. That signal puts them into an hypnotic trance; then, I transmit instructions. For example, just before you arrived, I sent this one instructions to see me here, while telling the other two to remain asleep while he left." He chuckled wickedly. "Even if he started his motorcycle in the same room they were sleeping in, they would never have heard it."
Limburger studied the view as seen from what he guessed was somewhere on the gray mouse's left arm. "And while he was here, you planted a monitor device on him?"
"Precisely, Your Whipped Cream Fillingness."
"But I've heard it said that you can't make a person do something that's against his nature, even with hypnosis. Won't that be a problem?"
"There are ways around that. Observe." His gloved fingers tapped commands into his keyboard. "He now believes he is seeing one of your men, Your Roquefort Richness."
Limburger laughed aloud as they watched the Martian's bionic arm being aimed at the human female. "Oh, the irony of it!" he crowed.
"Oh, drat," Karbunkle muttered suddenly when she stunned the mouse.
"Won't he simply resume when he wakes up?" Limburger asked.
"I'm afraid not, Your Pasteurized Process Cheese Foodness. The device's one weakness is that anything which renders the victim unconscious interrupts the signal and breaks the control."
"And when he wakes up, that infernal intrigant will know how to stop them," Limburger snarled in disgust, anger born of frustration smoldering in his eyes. "You had better find a way to overcome that weakness if you wish to ransom your miserable hide, you----Hmmmm. Ransom." He chuckled evilly as he repeated the word which had suggesting the beginnings of a solution to all his current problems. He began to outline his idea, and Karbunkle cackled in diabolical glee as his fingers flew over the keyboard.
Charley lowered her hand from her face as Modo let out a soft groan;
reluctantly, she drew the laser once more as he slowly came to.
"Oh, Mama," the gray mouse moaned. "What a nightmare--- ---Huh?!" he blurted as he opened his eyes to see that he was in the garage. Charley stood before him, barefoot, and wrapped in a pink robe, leveling a laser at him. "Charley-ma'am!" His tone was shocked.
She scrutinized him carefully. "You mean you don't remember anything?"
"I remember dreaming that I was breaking into Limburger tower, and I was about to shoot Greasepit."
"You were about to shoot me, Modo."
She pointed to the burned-out door. "You broke into the Last Chance, and, when I came down to see what the noise was, you almost shot me."
He looked at the pistol still in her hand. "And you shot first."
She looked sheepish for a moment and slid the weapon back into her belt. "When you aimed at me, I figured there was no way it could really be you, because you'd never do that."
"You shouldn't've come down," Modo scolded her gently. "You should've called the others."
"I tried; they didn't answer."
His brow furrowed in puzzlement. "Something ain't right here," he growled. "I never walk in my sleep and---"
"Hey!" Charley interrupted him. "That chopper of yours makes enough noise to wake the dead! How come the guys didn't wake up when you left the hideout?"
She was sure the dark skin under his fur turned a couple of shades paler. "We better find out!" he said and whistled for his bike.
She put a hand on his arm to stay him when he would have mounted. "Wait a minute. I smell a Plutarkian stinkfish at the other end of that nightmare. Maybe we better look for some kind of tracer before we give away your hideout." They started with the motorcycle, going over every inch of it; then Modo borrowed a comb from Charley and started running it through his fur, scraping the skin beneath with it as if he were combing out lice.
A tiny black something popped off his left arm and fell to the floor; Charley picked it up and looked at it. "It looks like some kind of computer chip. Probably transmitting sound and picture."
Modo snatched it, threw it back to the floor, and ground it under his bootheel. "Show's over, chowder head," he growled as if Limburger could still hear him. The sky was beginning to lighten outside the window.
On the darkened front porch of an old house several miles outside Chicago,
a large figure kicked in the door and strode inside. The hallway was illuminated
by a small light at the base of the stairs; the walls were lined with framed
photographs. There was one of a man and woman in form-fitting leather jumpsuits
on a motorcycle, she standing on his shoulders as he rode the bike around
what looked like a circus ring; the woman's rose and black costume looked
familiar to the trespasser. Other pictures showed the pair doing stunts
that appeared much more dangerous; finally, there was a glass case whose
shelves were lined with trophies.
He wasted little time gawking, but headed directly for the stairs and tried to ascend quietly, but his huge, heavy boots made that task an impossibility, in spite of the thick carpeting.
In a bedroom upstairs, Trudy Davidson woke up with a start at the sound of a crash from downstairs. Had she truly heard it, or was it a dream-memory from some nightmare, she wondered, her heart pounding in her throat. It must have been a nightmare, she decided when several seconds passed with no repetition of the sound, but then she heard another, a heavy footstep in the hallway, muffled by the carpet. With no further hesitation, she reached for the bedside phone.
The door crashed open, and a behemoth of a man rushed in just as she was hanging up the phone. She let out a piercing shriek at the same time she rolled out the bed on the far side, slithered under it, scooted out between the man's feet, and darted for the door. Good thing she had kept in shape over the years, she thought with a mental grin as she made for the stairs.
"Oh, no youse don't!" the man said in a deep, heavily nasal voice as he caught the trailing tail of her pajama shirt. She whirled to face him, fists flying, but, unlike her daughter, the former motorcycle stunt rider's physical regimen had never included martial arts. He fended her blows easily, then backhanded her across the face, and she slumped to the floor, unconscious.
The front doors to the Last Chance were still closed when Throttle and Vinnie rode up in the pink glow of dawn; she glass of the office door bore a sign in Charley's writing which said, "Closed for Vacation."
Throttle and Vinnie looked at each other in consternation. "Funny, she didn't mention any vacation to us," Vinnie said.
"Maybe whatever happened to Modo..."
"I'm way ahead of you, bro," Vinnie said, veering his bike to the right and riding around to the back of the building, Throttle behind him. Both vehicles screeched to a halt at the sight of the hole in the wall; the two mice dismounted and crept toward the hole, weapons drawn.
Throttle peered around the edge, then lowered his gun at the sight of Charley and Modo sitting at the bottom of the stairs, Charley still in her nightclothes. "What happened, Charley-girl?" he demanded, worried.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she said, getting to her feet. "Modo was sleepwalking---Or should I call that sleep-riding?"
"Aw, go on," Vinnie scoffed. "Modo doesn't sleepwalk!"
"I did last night, bro," Modo told him, and described the nightmare, and what Charley had told him when he'd awakened.
Throttle's brow furrowed. "How'd you get out of the scoreboard without waking us up?"
"Beats the heck out of me," Modo replied unhappily. 'All I know is, one minute I'm dreaming I'm in Limburger Tower, drawing a bead on ol' Grease-gullet, and the next I'm here, sitting on the floor with Charley pointing that popgun at me."
"It gets worse," Charley put in. "When I heard someone moving around down here, I tried to call you guys, but nobody answered."
"That stinks worse than a Plutarkian in the Everglades in July," Vinnie said.
"Tell me about it," Charley agreed.
"So why the 'closed' sign out front, Charley girl?" Throttle wanted to know.
"That was my idea," Modo told him. "If Limburger is somehow behind this, then maybe Charley'd better hole up somewhere else and not tell us where."
"Not a chance," Charley said, and the look on Modo's face told the others that it had been the topic of conversation for some time when they had arrived., "I'll keep the garage closed so one of my customers doesn't get hurt if something does go haywire, but I'm not running out on you guys. Besides, if one of you does start to threaten me, all I have to do is knock you out to break Limburger's control."
"Charley-girl, it's you we're worried about!" Vinnie protested.
"You can't shoot all three of us at once!"
"The answer's no, and that's final!"
Throttle sighed. "Well, then, at least don't sleep here until we get to the bottom of this," he said. Green eyes snapped fire at him, and he added, softly, "Please?"
She relented. "All right. I'll do that much, just to make you feel better. Now would you do me a favor and fix that door?" she added, then turned and trotted upstairs to dress.
When she came back down, there was a piece of heavy plywood nailed in place over the opening, and the guys were nowhere in sight, though all three bikes were now inside. She heard a pounding on one of the garage doors and decided the mice must be hiding in the office, keeping out of sight of some poor unsuspecting visitor. "We're closed!" she called at the persistent pounding.
"Police!" came the call. "Open up!"
I'll just bet,, Charley thought sourly, going into the office.
The bathroom door clicked shut as she entered, and she suppressed a grin at the thought of the three of them jockeying for space in the tiny water closet.
Outside the door were two policemen whom she recognized immediately as the regular patrol for the area, even without the badges that they pressed against the glass as her face appeared in the window. Unhesitant now, she opened the door.
"Miss Davidson?" one of them asked.
"I'm sorry, Miss Davidson. Someone broke into your mother's house last night---"
"Is she all right?" Charley blurted, the color gone from her face.
"We don't know. You see, she's missing."
The patrol car preceded Charley along the suburban road where her mother
lived; the house was surrounded by yellow crime-scene tape, and police cars
lined the curb, their lights flashing. The air was alive with the sound
of radio conversation, punctuated by the characteristic sharp bursts of
hissing static. The heavy front door of the house was in splinters; a uniformed
policeman was standing in the doorway. Charley's escort, speaking in clipped
tones, identified her to the door guard and was informed that "they"
Beyond the shattered door, the living room looked completely normal; nothing seemed to have been disturbed. There was an acrid odor in the air, reminiscent of used oil long overdue for changing; she turned her gaze to the floor, afraid of what she would see. Immediately evident were the too-familiar black splotches, staining the carpet and creating an unmistakable trail up the stairs. Similar black stains appeared along the bannister, their presence putting her in a singularly unpleasant position. Part of her wanted to tell everything when the detectives started asking questions, even though she knew it would be useless. The investigators themselves might be more than willing to follow that trail, but their superiors would make them drop it.
As she and her escort neared the top of the stairs, two detectives came out of her mother's bedroom. "Miss Davidson?" one of them asked her; upon receiving an affirmative nod, he dismissed the escorting officer with a gesture. "I'm Detective Pete Ellington; this is my partner, Rick Scofield. We'd like you to take a look around and tell us if anything's missing."
"I can tell you already, nothing is. All the valuable stuff's downstairs, and nothing's been so much as moved. Do you mind telling me what happened here?"
"We got a 911 call from the victim, reporting a prowler. When the unit responded, she was gone."
She muttered an oath. This time Limburger had gone too far.
"Can you give us any ideas about who might have done this?"
Charley gave it a moment's thought. Should she risk it? There were, after all, some forms of law enforcement even Limburger couldn't buy off, and kidnapping almost always brought the FBI into the case. But what Limburger couldn't buy off, he declared war on, and the one thing she and the mice had been trying to avoid was escalating hostilities. Even the mayor agreed with them that the price in civilian casualties would be too high. "No," she said at last, trying to keep the regret out of her voice. It might be nice to get Limburger nailed to the wall on this, but then there was no telling who Camembert might send instead.
It was like Hogan trying to keep Colonel Klink in charge of Stalag Thirteen, she thought. His incompetence actually made him an ally of sorts. "I'm afraid not."
"Let us know if you're contacted with any ransom demands," Ellington told her.
Charley snorted mentally as she left. There were only four things Limburger would want from her---the mice and the Last Chance---and he already had one of the mice. If she couldn't figure a way out of this, he just might get the rest.
Her homeward route took her southward, past Limburger Tower; a few blocks south of that landmark, the mice sped past, headed in the opposite direction and giving no sign that they'd seen her. Whatever was going on here, it was getting crazier by the minute. What Modo had described earlier sounded suspiciously like some sort of hypnosis, but she knew of no way Limburger could have accomplished that except by remote control. She let out a quiet gasp as the significance of that conjecture hit her. He'd done something like it once before with insects---she shuddered at the memory of roaches in such great numbers, they'd actually moved a full plate. She knew that, in order to communicate telepathically with her, the mice had to touch their antennae to her head; she wondered if they could communicate with each other without touching. She did know that they could pick up a wide range of signals without any kind of physical contact, so it made sense that a targeted transmission at the right frequency could accomplish what this one seemed to be doing. If she could only find that frequency!
She glanced in her rearview mirror and bit her lip as she saw the trio enter the tower. Limburger now had all three of them, and she was in deep kim-chee.
The guys were right, she decided. She had to hole up somewhere other than the Last Chance, if only to buy time to come up with a way to shield the guys from those transmissions. There was only one place she could go, and getting there would not be easy---and would be more dangerous than any battle with the Plutarkians.
The street in front of the garage was, as usual, deserted. She parked the wrecker at the curb and went inside through the office door. In the garage she found the folding table set up. Three paper plates were laden with hot dogs long since gone cold; a bottle of root beer stood beside each plate. The sodas she recapped and put in the refrigerator; the hot dogs could only be consigned to the trash, since they would be science projects by the time the guys got back to them. That done, she went upstairs and packed a few changes of clothes into a small suitcase. As she came back down, her eyes rested on a black full-face helmet on a workbench amid a collection of electronic parts and tools.
Once before she had provided a helmet with a force-field faceplate like the ones the Martian helmets had, but that helmet, along with the rose-and-black jumpsuit it had complemented, was history---literally; she'd been forced to leave both at Camelot. Only last week she'd started work on another helmet; this one would have magnification and targeting capabilities similar to the mice's. On the wall over the workbench were several diagrams, schematics, and spec sheets, carefully designed after months of close study of the guys' helmets.
The decision was instantaneous. No way was she going to leave that lying around. The plans went into the bottom of her suitcase; she packed the tools and parts into a toolbox and loaded the three items into the passenger side of the cab.
She took a long look at the building before she drove away, painfully uncertain it would still be there by the time she could return.
She dared not take the direct route, which passed in front of Limburger
Tower; instead,she drove up the west side of town. She had reached the northern
outskirts and was heading east when she spotted the helicopter. At first
she thought nothing of it; then its purple color registered, and she swore
viciously as she realized there was no escaping that kind of surveillance
on flat land devoid of trees. A moment later, the helicopter landed on the
road in front of her; she skidded the truck around in its own radius and
started heading the other way, only to have that route rapidly blocked by
three familiar motorcycles, in full battle mode.
"Hold it right there, petroleum-puss," Throttle's voice snarled over her two-way radio, routinely tuned to the bikes' frequency.
Wonderful, she thought drily. They thought she was Greasepit again.
A moment later, Limburger himself was standing beside the truck, peering in the window. "Going somewhere?" he asked, eyeing the luggage next to her. "How convenient." He gestured with his blaster. "Do be so good as to board my helicopter. Oh, and bring your bags; you'll be staying for a while."
"Do be so good as to drop dead," Charley snarled mockingly even as she obeyed.
"Inevitably, my dear. But not today."
"Hold it right there, petroleum-puss," Throttle snarled. The
green trike before them wheeled and took off, and the trio gave chase, but
before even the trigger-happy Vinnie could fire, they were just riding along
an empty road outside the city, enjoying the warm, clear day, unaware of
taking their bikes out of battle mode---indeed, completely incognizant that
anything was amiss. Well, almost. Throttle felt a vague disquiet in his
gut, akin to his danger sense, but nowhere near as intense; he dismissed
it as worry over the morning's events. Gone was any memory of the encounter
of a moment ago, or even of the lunch they had just settled down to enjoy
before leaving the garage.
"Hey, bros, my stomach's running on empty; why don't we get us some dogs?" Vinnie remarked.
"I could go for that," Modo agreed. "There's a---whoa!" he yelped, skidding his bike to a halt as Throttle stopped, without warning, in front of him. "What's got into you, bro?" he demanded.
"Something's not right here," Throttle said, his memory jolted by Vinnie's mention of hot dogs. "I could swear we were just chasing Greasepit a minute ago."
"Aw, you're dreaming, bro," Vinnie said dismissively.
"Maybe I am," Throttle said thoughtfully. "Like Modo dreamed he was breaking into Limburger Tower last night." Then he grinned, his misgivings gone as if they had never existed. "And maybe I'm just so hungry, I'm seeing things. Now, did somebody mention hot dogs?"
Karbunkle slumped back in his chair and drew the back of one hand across
his forehead in relief. For some reason, that particular mouse was the hardest
to control; he'd had to boost the signal to seventy-five percent of its
maximum output to overcome his resistance.
He turned as two goons came in, each carrying two folding cots. "What is this?" he demanded angrily as they started setting them up. "This is a lab, not a dormitory!"
One of them shrugged. "Boss' orders," he said. The other goon set the fourth cot next to Karbunkle's console.
"He can't be serious!" the scientist shrieked.
"I can, and I am," Limburger's voice came from the doorway. "You'll monitor the mice twenty-four hours a day; you'll sleep when they do, and where they do, so you'll know it if they wake up in spite of your gadgetry. Your other projects can wait. I intend to have the biggest shipment anyone has ever sent to a High Chairmann for Flounder's Day, and that will only be possible with those wretched rodents out of the way. When it's time, I'll ship them off to Plutark, too. In the meantime, you have your orders. No slip-ups, Karbunkle. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to see to my other guests." With that, he was gone.
Charley snarled an oath at the goons as they shoved her roughly through
the door one of them had opened; she was juggling her suitcase, the toolbox,
and the helmet as she stumbled across the threshhold, and the helmet strap
slipped from her fingers. Fortunately, the headgear didn't have far to fall,
and the floor was well padded with a thick, luxurious carpet---Terran motorcycle
helmets, unlike the Martian variety, were reliable only for one impact;
after that, their structural integrity was questionable. As she set down
the rest of her impedimenta, her eyes wandered about the room as the door
clicked shut behind her. Insanely, she could hear the chihuahua in that
Disney movie deliver his famous line about torture as she stared in overwhelmed
shock. "Awesome" wasn't even close to adequate to describe the
luxury that surrounded her, easily rivaling the best the Drake had to offer---indeed,
the decor might have been inspired by that classic luxury hotel. There was
a telephone---inside lines only, she was certain---and even a computer terminal.
She tried the door by which she had entered, not really expecting it to be open, and it wasn't. Four other doors graced the walls, one of which was a closet, empty at the moment. The other two opened into bedrooms, one of which bore signs of habitation, though its occupant was not currently there. She had just closed the door again when the last door opened, and her mother came out of the room beyond, her hair
wrapped in a towel, the rest of her clothed in a full-length terrycloth robe, every bit as plush as the rooms themselves. Limburger probably had provided her with a whole wardrobe, since she'd been snatched in her pajamas, Charley thought.
"Charlene?" her mother said in dismay. "Oh, no. What is he up to?"
The pronoun needed no elaborating. "I'm not sure, but it must be pretty big. He's got the guys, too."
"That must've been a good trick."
"You don't know the half of it."
"Speak of the devil," Trudy grumbled as a knock sounded on the door. "Get lost, you two-bit shark!"
"Please, my dear woman, I'm worth much more than that," came the oily-smooth tones from beyond the door, which then swung open to admit their corpulent captor.
"Beached whale is closer to it," Charley murmured, which very nearly sent both women into a fit of giggling.
"I see you've settled in nicely, madam," he said to Trudy, then turned to Charley. "I trust you find the acommodations satisfactory."
"Like it really matters."
"Please," Limburger said in wounded tones. "I do try to becivilized about these things."
"Yeah, right. Now let my mother go; she's got nothing to do with any of this."
"Oh, but she does. She is my insurance that you won't try to escape, or help your furry friends get away."
"And what's to stop me from taking her with me, since you so intelligently put us in the same suite?"
"I control your friends, remember? I could make them walk out a penthouse window and fall to their deaths, all the while thinking they were walking out of your garage.
"Your dinner will be arriving shortly. I may even allow your friends to join you. Good day."
"He's slimier in person than he ever looked on TV," Trudy remarked after he had left.
"The guys tell me that other Plutarkians don't think much of him, either," Charley said, picking up her suitcase and bringing it into the unoccupied room.
"What was that about controlling your friends?"
"I'm not completely sure how he's doing it, but he's got them under some kind of hypnosis. Modo almost shot me this morning, thinking I was Greasepit."
"So he wasn't bluffing; he really could kill them exactly the way he says."
"From what I've seen so far, probably, yes." Spotting a clock radio on the nightstand, she turned it to its loudest, then whispered directly into her mother's ear, "I don't think he'll do it, though. All he ever thinks about is killing them; I've seen him botch some really good schemes by letting that get in the way. If he hasn't already killed them, that means he needs them. I don't know what he's got planned, but they're part of it. When he doesn't need them anymore, then he'll kill them---and probably us, too---but not before."
When she pulled away, Trudy gave her a brief nod, then went over to the radio and turned it down. "Still playing your music too loud, I see," she said critically, though her wink belied her tone. "Wait till you see dinner. If I have to stay here very long, I'll be as big as he is. Breakfasts that would make your grandmother's look like a starvation diet; huge dinners at midday, and supper not much smaller. And that's not all." She beckoned Charley to follow her; in the sitting room, she walked over to a drape incongruously hung against what had to be an inside wall and pulled it aside to reveal a doorway into a small kitchenette. "In case you get the munchies in the middle of the night, I guess. It's fully stocked."
Curious, Charley opened the refrigerator. "We could live on what's in here and still eat better than we do at home!"
Trudy drew her robe more tightly around herself. "You could get used to this," she said unhappily.
It was suddenly far too clear how someone could continue to work for the Plutarkians, even knowing their raison d'etre.
It wasn't the High Chairman this time, but Lady Ricotta herself, head
of the Review Board, and Limburger's heart nearly stopped when her haughty
features filled the screen. He didn't dare show the least bit of reluctance
to give the traditional greeting this time, but all the while his mind was
conjuring up nightmare visions of everything that might have delayed the
stench carrier with his latest shipment.
But Ricotta's face broke into a smile when they were done, though it didn't quite reach her eyes. "Congratulations, Limburger," she said without preamble. "Yours was the largest shipment from Earth for this quarter. Your bonus will arrive with the next courier."
"Thank you, my lady. And, may I add, I am honored that you have delivered this news to me yourself."
" Lord Camembert should have done it, but he was taken ill rather suddenly. I'm told he collapsed in his office while he was tallying the shipments."
I'll just bet he did, Limburger thought, struggling to keep from laughing aloud. He probably had apoplexy. "Please send him my condolences," he said.
"I will, thank you. By the way, if you haven't read the latest Mars report yet, you may want to make it a priority. Developments there may have a direct bearing on Earth operations."
"I'll see to it immediately."
"That's all, then. Good day, Limburger."
Limburger had no illusions that his status was one bit improved in the eyes of the hierarchy; the mice had made him look like a fool too many times. Ricotta's contempt for him was no less than Camembert's; she was just better at concealing it. Truth to tell, Limburger's private opinion of his superiors was no better. If their praise engendered none of what Terrans so quaintly called "warm fuzzies," it did give him a feeling of spiteful satisfaction to think of how it must gall them to have to give it.
His gloating, however, was marred by trepidation at what had sounded very much like a warning of trouble to come, and he leafed through his papers, looking for the report in question; when he read it, found its contents troubling indeed.
The Martian mice were doggedly determined to rebuild their world, were tenaciously surviving despite critical shortages of resources, and despite severe weather and the depletion of atmspheric oxygen due to the long absence of foliage. Their birth rate was showing an increase; the mouse population was growing, even in the face of an apallingly high infant mortality rate. With the return of some water to the planet---Limburger personally blamed Greasepit and Karbunkle for that---Martian flora was making a steadily increasing reappearance.
Worse was the news of technological recovery, though Intelligence was at a loss to explain where the mice were getting supplies. An increase in the number of motorcycles had been observed, and there was evidence that what the Plutarkians called "smart bikes" were making a comeback, though the new models did not carry the armament their forebears had.
But perhaps the most disturbing news was the industrial growth which had begun with the construction of that first new Cycladrone, still impounded on Phobos. There were indications that more were being built, though the location of the base had yet to be discovered.
Those motorcycles had been the worst obstacle of the war. With the AI (artificial intelligence) units, each bike and rider became as two distinct warriors, effectively doubling the strength of any assault force. It had taken a concerted effort to eliminate those bikes from the equation, and, in the end, even that had not saved the Plutarkians from defeat.
The current Mars operation had far more limited resources than the last, as the Plutarkian government saw no reason for such high expenditures on a planet that had already been largely stripped; the new occupation force was mostly to observe mouse activity and, where possible, sabotage any technological recovery.
The latter, the report-writer complained, had become impossible. The mice put their primary reliance on live guards, and their sensitive noses could ferret out a Plutarkian at considerable distance, making it impossible to breach security. A Sand Raider would fare little better. Only the rats could successfully infiltrate mouse forces, but, without the funding to pay the mercenaries, the Plutarkians had lost their support. Because of this, regrowth was progressing virtually unimpeded.
The ramifications were potentially disastrous. Limburger had learned his lessons vis-a-vis Martian mice well: they were fiercely determined fighters, apt to cause significant damage even if they didn't win the battle outright, and even when greatly outnumbered; the three he faced here on Earth were no different from the rest of their race, just somewhat better at it.
On the one hand, Terrans were too busy bickering among themselves to recognize a common danger, but, when it was pointed out to them graphically enough, they had an uncanny ability to set aside their differences long enough to deal with the problem. Add reinforcements from Mars, with their technology, and Plutark could be in serious trouble. If he could see that, surely Camembert and the Review Board must see it, too.
But they were every bit as corrupt as the Terran officials in his own pocket; he had suspected as much since he'd been old enough to understand the intiricacies of politics and had seen it in the evidence Provolone had presented during his last trip t Earth. Bribery and blackmail might be acceptable practices in Plutarkian statecraft, but embezzlement was not, and he was certain that Camembert was not the only one guilty of it.
Those blasted motorcycles. The cyber-bikes had some features that the Martian superbikes did not, but they were not capable of independent action. They could be analyzed and duplicated---and, in fact, had been; the Martian bikes, on the other hand, wouldn't stand still long enough. He had attempted it once. Not only had he not succeeded, but the bike had stored information it had "overheard" in the lab and passed it to the mice. If only the plan had succeeded. With "smart bikes" of their own, his goons would stand a far better chance; the odds would be much better even should the Martians and Terrans unite---of course! He didn't have to analyze the bikes; he had someone who had probably already done so! Grinning wickedly, he got up and left the office.
The TV was tuned to some old movie; Trudy divided her attention between
it and her daughter, who was carefully installing microchips in a helmet.
Neither spoke, not caring to have their every word subject to scrutiny.
Finally, Charley slid the padded lining back into place and donned the helmet. The faceplate worked properly; going to a window, she activated the magnification. Instantly a figure standing at the snack bar far below seemed close enough to touch; she could see the fine wisp of smoke rising from his match as he lit a cigarette. The targeting function caused a small red square to appear in the center of the faceplate. Intended as an aid for from-the-hip shooting, it gave the eye a zone to lock onto, which, except in a total klutz, would bring the weapon on target without any need for sighting. Satisfied, she deactivated the faceplate and set the helmet aside; she had just finished putting her tools away when there was a knock at the door.
LImburger was not alone this time; one of his goons was with him---the only one, besides Greasepit, who had survived every encounter with the mice so far. At a nod from his employer, he dragged Trudy from the couch and stood behind her, his weapon pressed to her back.
"What is this?" Charley demanded.
"A little insurance," Limburger said smoothly.
"For you to put your skills to work for me."
"You've got the fairy god-doctor; what do you need me for?"
"I need plans and programming instructions for a motorcycle computer."
Charley snorted. "So do I," she said drily.
"I warn you, do not try my patience."
"I'm telling you the truth! You think Mars uses the same computer languages we do? I might be able to duplicate the hardware, but programming it's way out of my league!"
"I will make Karbunkle's laboratory facilities available to you."
Charley's eyes widened at that offer; her mind raced as an idea began to form.
"Charlene, don't---mmmph!" Trody broke off in a grunt as the goon dug the gunbarrel into her kidney
"I won't have you killed over a piece of machinery!" Charley shot back, then turned back to Limburger. "There's only one way for me to test what I do manage to come up with. I'll need a motorcycle and time to modify it."
"My dear Miss Davidson, I was not hatched yesterday."
Could fool me sometimes, Charley thought as she explained. "You're asking me to duplicate a computer programmed to operate a fully equipped Martian motorcycle. Bench-testing is only good for so much; eventually you have to install it in the real thing and take it on the road. To get anything like reliable results, I'll have to build a Martian-type bike to test it with."
Limburger frowned. He didn't like it one bit, but her reasoning made unfortunate sense. If he didn't want his piece de resistance to be a flop, he would have to give her that much latitude. "Very well. And I suppose you'll want to acquire the parts yourself."
"Considering the fact that no factory on Earth makes parts to the exact specs I need, so I have to get what I can modify, I think that would be wise, yes."
"Then make up your list," he finally replied grudgingly. "I'll provide an escort."
"You've got my mother here," Charley snapped. "What more insurance do you need?"
He ignored that. "I will expect complete plans for the motorcycle, as well, when you're done," he said. With a jerk of his head, he dismissed the goon and left himself. Behind them, the human women looked at each other, hope burning in their eyes for the first time in days.
The next few weeks sped by. Charley would never have believed it possible
essentially to build a bike from the ground up in such a short time, but
Karbunkle's lab was filled with state-of-the-art equipment, and what it
didn't have was hers for the asking. The mice were allowed to help, which
they did with a will, laughing and carrying on as if there were nothing
abnormal about the current situation, probably thinking they were in the
Perhaps the hardest part of the arrangement for Charley was to keep up the facade of normalcy, for, if she allowed herself to give in to her feelings, her fears would take over and rapidly degenerate to despair. Trudy offered what support she could, but it seemed to be of little help when the mice, normally pretty well attentive to her moods despite not understanding them half the time, weren't even permitted to notice, their perceptions always being controlled by that whacked-out weasel and his console. Her only solace lay in enjoying the irony in the fact that, if her plans succeeded, she would come out of this with a new battle bike at Limburger's expense.
Limburger basked in a level of self-satisfaction he had not enjoyed in a long time. For a second time he was going to deliver the Biker Mice to Plutark, intentionally this time, and this time they would not escape; and Ordnance would get the plans needed to build "smart bikes" for the Plutarkian forces---he was convinced that the feisty female would succeed where Karbunkle had failed simply because the bikes allowed her access, but would not let him anywhere near them.
In the meantime, with the mice safely out of the way, the strip-mining of Chicago and its environs was proceeding at an unprecedented rate. He had already filled two orbital holding bins and was halfway through a third, and the next scheduled shipment would be for the Flounder's Day presentation. Limburger's gift ought so to impress Camembert that the High Chairman would be forced to return the planetary governor's crown to him. "Oh, frabjous day!" he quoted aloud to the empty office; the shark was very nearly in his grasp.
The motorcycle quickly took shape, with a four-cylinder engine modeled after Throttle's and all the equipment standard on the original super bikes, along with many of the modifications she had added. It could do almost everything the guys' bikes could do, but Charley had been unable to duplicate the computers' programming. Not even Karbunkle's computer had been able to make sense out of it, despite the fact that it "spoke" several Martian computer languages. She suspected that the one in question had been designed especially for the bikes and kept a carefully-guarded secret from the outset. The best she could do was make her new bike respond to a remote control unit she wore on her wrist.
But that remote was the whole key to her plan. Limburger Tower had massive energy requirements, many times those of any other corporate building of comparable size, even one containing research facilities. To avoid drawing undue attention to himself, Limburger used the grid only to power six great step-up generators, two in the lab and four in the tower's deepest sub-basement, thus officially using no more power than any other office building. The controls for those generators were in the lab, and Charley had carefully chosen the frequency for her remote's second channel, a channel that only she knew it had.
At last the bike was ready, and Charley picked up her new helmet.
One of the ever present goons eyed her suspiciously. "What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
She sighed tiredly. "The bike needs a test ride," she told him flatly. Didn't Limburger tell his people anything?
This was one time Karbunkle wasn't going to go along with the boss' mistaken decision. The keyboard in front of him rattled as his fingers danced over it.
"One of us can do that for you, babe," Throttle offered.
"No way, Mr. Nobody-Rides-My-Bike-But-Me. This is my project, and I have to test it myself. No arguments," she added firmly, and Throttle, though he recognized the validity of her statement and could tell that her temper was a hair's breadth from exploding, had to exert every bit of control to resist the sudden, overwhelming urge to go into command mode. The three had learned very early in this partnership that one did not try to order Charley around---not if he wanted to keep his whiskers.
Worried, Karbunkle increased the output, to no avail; none of the mice would move to stop her, though all three were visibly sweating with the effort to resist the impulse.
Charley fastened her helmet. "Ready, Mom?" she said softly into the pickup.
"Ready," came the terse reply.
The bike started readily by remote and ran smoothly; Charley pressed another button, and it rolled toward her. The mice cheered, though not as vociferously as usual. Gyro operational, she thought with satisfaction as she mounted. She pressed a tiny stud on the side of her helmet and zoomed in on Karbunkle's console, scanning the settings and committing them to memory as she checked the bike's controls.
Desperate, Karbunkle fed another command, but, whether because of stress or fatigue, he neglected to alter the illusion.
The mice watched the preliminary tests as eagerly as Charley herself, cheering when the bike rolled, though their satisfaction was damped by an inexplicable compulsion to stop her from leaving, at any cost. It was her bike to ride; Throttle was deeply embarrassed by his earlier suggestion and had no idea what he'd been thinking to say such a thing.
"Way to go, sweetheart!" Vinnie whooped, then stopped short as the compulsion suddenly became so intense that his hand, seemingly of its own volition, was moving toward his sidearm. He firmly thrust it into a pocket instead and stole a sideways glance at his companions to see if they'd noticed, only to find them in similar straits. Modo was staring at his bionic arm as if he had never seen it before, and Throttle had both hands clasped tightly behind himself, his face displaying the same look of embarrassed innocence he'd worn the time he'd tried to hide a bazooka behind his back. Each realizing the others had just experienced the same thing, the trio exchanged horrified looks. Suddenly the familiar surroundings of the Last Chance vanished, to be replaced by Karbunkle's lab.
Modo was the first to overcome his startlement; almost faster than thought, his arm cannon was deployed and firing at Karbunkle's equipment. "Go, Charley-ma'am!" he called. "We'll cover you!"
"Blackout maneuvers!" Charley called back just before she activated the remote's second channel.
It was no maneuver in their repertoire, but the meaning was clear enough, and the mice were ready when the lab, along with the entire tower, was suddenly plunged into darkness. The only illumination came from their headlights and the laser fire that bathed the room in eerily flickering red and blue light as they burst through the doors and made a screeching turn in the corridor beyond.
Though Charley had built weapons into her bike, she had not been permitted to arm them, leaving her now entirely dependent on the mice's covering fire. Surprise worked to their advantage, however; they encountered no opposition en route to the rooms which had been the Davidsons' prison.
Electrically-powered magnetic locks had automatically sprung open when the power had died; Trudy, wearing her daughter's old helmet, was outside the door and easily leapt onto the back seat as Charley briefly slowed. The rear shocks bottomed out with the impact and recoiled a little sharply, but the gyro held the bike upright as Charley smoothly shifted gears, and the bike seemed to dig in as it accelerated.
"Nice to know I can still do that," Trudy remarked, a little smugly.
"Yeah, well, hang on tight," Charley warned her. "Dad never rode like this."
"Oh, dear," Trudy murmured as she remembered Charley's tales of dizzying speeds, disorienting wall and ceiling rides, and stomach-wrenching free-falls, and she clamped her knees tighter on the saddle.
Ahead, the corridor ended in a T; Charley knew that the facing wall was an exterior one. "Vinnie, I need a door there," she said, pointing; the words were hardly out of her mouth when a missile streaked past on her left to pierce said barrier. She took the bike up the wall to her right to avoid the debris, then out the impromptu exit and down the side of the building, the mice with her.
Limburger's goons came pouring out of the parking garage below; the mice sped down ahead of her to draw their fire.
"Triple Split Four!" Throttle ordered, and they took off in three different directions, but the goons did not follow.
"Guys, regroup! They're staying with me!" Charley's voice came over their helmet speakers.
Then a new sound drew their attention, and the mice looked up to see Limburger's helicopter taking off from the roof of the tower.
"Oh, Mama," Modo breathed. "Ol' Blubber-Butt's not leaving anything to chance, is he?"
"Vincent! Ditch that bird!" Throttle snapped.
"I'm on it!" Vinnie heaved back on his bike's handlebars, bringing the front end upward, and fired his jets. He approached the helicopter from directly beneath; only when he was almost too close to maneuver did he bank to one side. He fired his missiles at the main rotor and streaked back to earth as the damaged helicopter plummeted into the lake. Had Plutarkians been warm-blooded creatures, Limburger's frustrations might well have boiled the water.
Charley adopted a serpentine course through the streets, taking turns at random, depending on the bike's greater maneuverability to enable her to shake the more sluggish ATVs. Under other circumstances, she would have thoroughly enjoyed the ride. The bike handled better than any other bike she'd ever ridden; the gyro let her take the 90-degree turns at previously impossible speeds, and the combined action of the stabilizer itself and the gyroscopic effect of the wheels made recovery from the steep lean a matter of minimal effort. As it was, her blood sang with an adrenaline rush that had nothing to do with the chase. Jack's cyber-bike might have its advantages, but this was more fun. She found she could almost understand Vinnie---now that was a frightening thought.
The mice rode interference, delaying the following goons and keeping them from getting too close, until they were sure Charley had enough of a lead; then they did evasive maneuvers themselves.
Not knowing where else to go, they headed for the garage, only to be thoroughly stumped when they found it still deserted. Throttle laid a restraining hand on Vinnie's wrist when the younger mouse would have used his bike's sensors to track Charley's radio signal. "Let her go," he said. "We don't want to know where she is; we're not out of the woods ourselves yet. I'm pretty sure Karbunkle has a portable model of that gizmo of his; he could start punching our buttons again any minute."
Reluctantly, Vinnie stopped resisting his bro's grip.
Modo was gazing ahead speculatively. "You know," he said pensively, "ever since she pulled that masked motorcyclist stunt on us, I've wondered what she could do on a Martian bike."
"Oh, man," Vinnie moaned. "Now we'll never be able to keep her from following us!"
"Afraid she'll out-ride you?" Modo teased.
"Hey. Nobody can out-ride Vinnie van Wham," came the matter-of-fact reply. "But we can't let civilians into the fighting!"
Throttle sighed as he finally forced himself to face the truth. "I think it's about time we all realized she's not a civilian."
"What?!" Vinnie's jaw hung in dismay.
"This is her planet, Vincent. She's not a civilian," he repeated. "She's Earth's first Freedom Fighter."
Charley brought the bike to a stop; the incessant CB chatter in their
helmets died as she turned off the radio.
"What if your friends try to call you?" Trudy asked.
"Right now, that's not important. What is important is that Karbunkle's got a portable unit and can use it to get control of the guys again; the last thing I need is for them to track my radio signal. I don't want them to know where we're going."
"Where are we going?"
"The Pits. It's the only place I know of where the guys wouldn't think I'd go alone."
"Are you sure that's a good idea? I've heard stories about that place that'd give anybody nightmares. And yours were some of the worst," Trudy added pointedly.
"Four-By pretty well has things under control. You up for one more bit of fancy riding?"
"What do you have in mind?"
"There's only one way directly into friendly territory, and that's straight down."
"But even the mice can't make that jump; you told me so yourself!"
"I know; that's why all these bikes have wings now," Charley replied and started the bike rolling once more.
Her heart climbed higher into her throat the nearer she drew to her destination. Despite the display of confidence, she wasn't at all sure she could manage the jump. She'd never used jets or bike wings herself and had hoped for a chance to practice before she actually had to employ them, but circumstances left her with no choice. Even without their leader, the Pit Crew was bad news. There might not be as many of them as there once had been, but she was not about to ride through their territory. It would have been risky enough in the wrecker.
She slowed as the chasm yawned ahead, steeled herself---she could almost feel her mother doing the same behind her---and rode over the edge, deploying the wings as she did so. The bluff on the other side loomed hair-raisingly close; she gently nudged the tank with one knee, and the bike turned, easily banking sharply and seeming to pivot on its wingtip, then righting nearly effortlessly with light pressure on the other side of the tank. Now parallel with the walls, she pulled the nose up as the ground neared, and fired the jets. The rear wheel hit hard, and the bike bounced once, threatening to unseat both riders. Two pairs of knees gripped with bruising force, and Charley knew that the gyro was the only thing holding the bike up, though she'd never admit it.
"A pilot, you're not," Trudy said, her voice shaking a little.
"I never claimed to be," Charley replied, unable to keep a tremor out of her own voice as she retracted the wings. "Just don't tell the guys." She halted the bike and looked around to get her bearings. A hand-lettered sign was being mounted over the cleared trail that served as a road:
The acrid smell of cordite hung heavily in the air; indeed, the smoke
was still visible, floating like wisps of fog as Fourmen loaded securely
bound Pit Crew men into the beds of large pickup trucks and the wounded
into covered pickups, all of them the oversized-tired, four-wheel-drive
vehicles Four-By and his men had found most practical here. On the other
side of the border marker, other Pit Crew men crouched behind piles of stone,
watching the Fourmen set up their border security emplacements. "Looks
like the free territory just got expanded a bit," Charley remarked
to her mother as another Fourman approached.
"That was some fall," he said. "Are you two all right? Do you need any help?"
"We're fine. We're looking for Four-By; can you tell us where he is?"
"He's around here somewhere; there's his truck." He produced a radio from a pouch on his belt. "Four-By, it's Colby. There's two ladies on a motorcycle looking for you, just down from the surface---one of them says her name's Charley," he added as she gave the information.
"Have them wait for me by Mo," came the reply.
The wait wasn't long; within a few moments, Four-By approached, a broad grin spread across his tired features.
Trudy nodded as Charley made the introductions. "Nice to meet you at last," she said. "Charlene and her friends have told me about you."
"Speaking of those furry vigilantes, where are they? Or does that have something to do with why you're down here?"
"It's got everything to do with it," Charley said sourly. "Limburger's got them working for him."
She explained the situation to him. "I think I can built a scrambler to block the signal, but my equipment's at the garage, and I can't go back there right now. I was hoping you could help."
"Sounds like you're looking for some radio equipment."
"For starters, yes."
"In that case, Will is the man you need to see. Follow me."
Will turned out to be a rangy young man in his thirties who was missing one foot. "Limburger, huh?" he snarled bitterly when he heard the story. "Count me in; I owe that cold-hearted son of a---gun," he quickly substituted, with an apologetic grin. "I lost this," he waved his stump, "in one of his unannounced demolition jobs. When I had my lawyer file suit, suddenly I was grabbed out of the hospital and dumped down here. Lucky thing Four-By and his people were nearby when it happened. Feel free to use anything here." He swept an arm around the living room, which more closely resembled a communications center, with wall-to-wall radio and computer equipment. "If I don't have something you need, I can get it."
"Thanks." She immediately began programming a receiver with the parameters she'd noted at Karbunkle's console. The video monitor came to life, the screen divided four ways. Three views showed Limburger Tower approaching at a rate of speed consistent with the legal speed limit; the fourth showed the Last Chance approaching at a similar rate. She guessed that the former was the reality and the latter, what Karbunkle was telling the mice was there. Alongside the receiver, an oscilloscope unit spewed a strip of paper that showed a hard tracing of the patterns displayed on the CRT. Her eyes blazing triumphantly, she sketched and scribbled frantically.
"What do you mean, they escaped?" Limburger roared.
"Not to worry, Your Fresh Creamery Butteriness. I anticipated just such a development and concealed a tracer on the motorcycle. My scanner shows that she's in the Pits."
Charley swore viciously; she'd have to find that tracer when this was over. Her hands moved faster as she assembled a device no bigger than a pager.
Greasepit's swarthy complexion turned several shades paler at the mention of the Pits. "But we's can't go there no more, Mr. Limburger, or them mice's pals'll puts us in jail!"
Limburger scowled; the half wit was right, for once. The Pit Boss was out of the picture, and his fanged second-in-command absolutely refused to deal with the Plutarkian. Then his face brightened. "We can't go in there, but the mice can."
"Will, are you almost finished with that scrambler? They're on their way here!"
"Got a WAG on the ETA?"
She glanced at the screen; the mice thought they were chasing Greasepit again, and they weren't wasting any time. "They just left the tower. They're moving at a pretty good clip, but they're heading for the north entrance." That was where Limburger's old access ramp remained, but it would take them through Pit Crew territory.
"So we've got at least an hour, by the time they fight their way past Fang's boys," Will observed.
"He's going into the Pits!" Modo cried.
"Hey, let him go," Vinnie grinned. "If the Pit Crew doesn't get him, Four-By will. Either way, he'll be out of our hair for keeps."
Throttle shook his head. "No can do, Vincent. If he's going down there, that's probably where Charley is. We follow him. Battle mode."
"Hey, Boss, the Biker Mice just rode in," a voice came from the speaker.
Fang took a long swallow of his beer. Being the new boss had its advantages. He didn't have to take risks any more, nor did he have to lift a finger unless he wanted to. He had underlings to take the risks and slaves to do the drudgery. He let out a contented belch. "If they don't attack us, let 'em go," he drawled lazily. He was enjoying the Pit Boss' castle and had no desire to see a single stone so much as nicked.
"Anything you say, Boss," came the relieved reply.
"Better revise that ETA," Charley said after a quick glance at the monitor. "The Pit Crew's ignoring them." Sweat poured down her face as she soldered the last part onto a circuit board.
"That gives us ten, maybe fifteen minutes at best," Will told her.
"You almost done with that one?"
"Last screw going in the case now."
"Great. Four-By, better warn your people there's likely to be shooting; they think they're chasing Greasepit." She finished the scrambler she was working on, then set all three next to the computer and began typing commands.
"They're ignoring us!" Vinnie said incredulously, then grinned. "Guess they figured out we're badder than they are."
"Good. That means all we have to do is drive old Grease-gullet across the border and let Four-By lock him up," Throttle said. "With our help, of course," he added, indulging in a rare moment of egoism.
Charley moved to the transmitter and programmed it; she had just entered the last command and left it poised for activation when the door flew open with a bang. The mice charged toward her; she managed to depress the final key as she dodged their flying leap. They landed in a tangled heap, then slowly sat up and looked around, more than a little confused. The receiver screen was flipping and gyrating like an improperly tuned TV, or a VCR whose tracking was out of whack.
"Hey, where'd he go?" Vinnie demanded.
"I don't think he was ever here," Throttle realized.
As they disentangled themselves and got to their feet, Charley handed them the scramblers. "Here; these will keep Karbunkle's signal from reaching you," she told them.
Limburger folded his arms as the signals from the monitor chips dissolved in "snow" and static. "She's done it again, hasn't she?" he asked flatly.
"I'm afraid so, Your All-Natural Yogurtness."
"No matter. I still have three full holding bins and the plans for a Martian super bike." Limburger waved the papers he had found lying scattered across a desk in the suite his prisoners had abandoned.
"Um, do you mind if I have a look at those?" Karbunkle asked, a nagging suspicion worrying at the back of his mind.
"There isn't time. The stench carrier is already in orbit, and I'm on my way up there to deliver these personally. Now get this place cleaned up!"
"I think an evacuation might be more in order at this point," Karbunkle muttered as Limburger stepped into the transport chamber and vanished.
"You mean you actually took that jump?" Vinnie said incredulously.
"I was supposed to ride through Pit Crew turf, maybe?" Charley shot back.
"Or maybe you wouldn't have thought she could do it?" Trudy added in a challenging voice. She turned to her daughter. "Don't let the Great White Ego over there get your goat," she said. "It was like riding with your father again."
Vinnie's eyes were sullen as he bit somewhat harder than necessary into his hot dog.
"You know," Throttle grinned, his eyes dancing merrily behind his shades, "there's only one thing missing from this caper." He waved his hot dog in Charley's direction. "You didn't trash Limburger Tower."
"No; I had something different in mind," Charley told him airily.
"Well, Limburger, you actually came through for once," Camembert said, his tone anything but pleased. He stepped out of the pickup's field, to reveal a lab similar to Karbunkle's, with a motorcycle in the middle of the floor. Off to the side, a technician was soldering components to a circuit board, carefully consulting a set of written instructions before installing each one. "As you can see, the motorcycle itself is finished. All that's left is the remote control, and Jarlsberg here is almost done with that."
The technician so named seemed to start in his seat and began looking back and forth between the circuit board in his hand and the instructions. Behind him, another Plutarkian approached the motorcycle, a half-helmet on his head. Jarlsberg suddenly spun his chair around and said something the pickup couldn't catch; the other looked over his shoulder as he continued to mount. Limburger thought Jarlsberg's mouth formed the word "don't" just before the bike collapsed under the would-be rider's weight, parts flying in all directions, leaving the Plutarkian sitting on the floor, looking very confused. Jarlsberg shrugged helplessly in Camembert's direction, holding up the circuit board; the lines of solder across it clearly spelled the word "sucker."
"LIMBURGER!!!" Camembert roared in a voice that the victim of that bit of engineer's revenge swore could be heard all over the city.