WARS ARE WON BY THOSE WHO DARE
Shatter Your Illusions
Vinnie was the first down the ramp as soon as it was lowered to the surface. He took a deep breath. "Ain't changed a bit," he declared.
"Except people shootin at us, I hope." Modo said, warily glancing around.
"An armed response follows you wherever you go?" Tala asked lightly. "Why am I not surprised?"
Throttle and Charley descended the ramp silently. Charley looked past the underbelly of the ship and saw the two mice walking toward them. "Rimfire! Stoker!"
"Stoker!" Vinnie howled and pounced onto the older mouse. Modo joined into the wrestling fray and pulled Rimfire in with his tail.
Tala watched with amusement. "I'm always surprised by the many ways of greeting people you find across the galaxy."
"You should see them say good-bye." Charley turned to Throttle. He made no move to join in, instead gazed out at the city they parked the ship just outside of.
Stoker reached the top of the pile and pulled himself out of it. "Earth is makin you boys soft." He turned to Charley. "Hello gorgeous. You made this trip too?" The dark tan mouse with a mechanical tail embraced her in a hug and kissed both her cheeks.
"It's good to see you too, Stoke."
He released her and turned to Throttle. "Starin out there ain't gonna bring her runnin."
"I have to talk to her," Throttle said in a constricted voice.
"You can't. She ain't here. She's still gone on her honeymoon."
"Honeymoon?" Vinnie demanded. Modo started mouthing "oh mama" over and over again silently.
Tala darted to Vinnie's side and quickly stepped on his foot. "Keep your big mouth shut for once." She hissed at him, then turned to watch Throttle and Stoker.
Throttle's tail slashed through the air. His hands clenched into fists. "She went through with it."
"She sent that letter telling you she was. Since when does she not do what she says she's gonna do?"
"Does everyone know about that damned letter!" exploded from him.
"They do now. Whatcha expect, Throttle, to get here and talk her out of it?"
The tan mouse's shoulders slumped and his antennae and tail drooped. "I don't know."
Stoker swung his arm around Throttle's shoulders. "Come on, let's go hoist a few. Deal with it tomorrow." Throttle let him lead him away from the ship and down the street.
Vinnie waited until they were out of earshot. "Who got married?"
"Carbine." The mouse with fawn colored fur, dark brown hair with an orange streak down the center of it and dressed in a Freedom Fighter's uniform answered.
Vinnie chortled. He tried to stop the laughter from coming out but it managed to anyway.
Charley crossed her arms and glared at him. "It's not funny, Vincent."
"Somebody besides Throttle wanted her?" He managed to gasp as he doubled over.
"Better let him get it out of his system now," Tala advised. "So Throttle won't feel the urge to strangle him later."
"And she sent a letter to tell Throttle?" Modo demanded. "That's just dirty."
The white mouse stopped laughing with that and straightened. "The least she could have done was come and tell him. Throttle deserved that much. And they got a ship."
"He finally catches up," Tala said sarcastically.
"No woman can treat our bro like that. We gotta do something."
Modo's grey fur started spiking up with dread as he gazed down at Vinnie flabbergasted. "You wanna get in the middle of one Throttle and Carbine's fights? I know yer crazy, but suicidal?!"
"It's not a good idea," Rimfire said quickly. "Trust me."
"All right," the white mouse said grudgingly. "But if Throttle needs backup?"
"I think that's a given, Vinnie," Charley said softly.
"Gods, I need a drink myself," Tala said. "I hate being part of a soap opera."
Vinnie wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "Can I buy it for you, Doll-face?"
She grinned wickedly. "I never pass up a free drink." They started down the street.
Modo rolled his eye. "Rimfire, is there more than one bar around here?"
"Nope, only one, Uncle Modo. Not enough business for two."
"That's what I was afraid of." The grey mouse trotted after Tala and Vinnie.
Charley sighed. "Well, I'm not watching them all get drunk. Rimfire, where are we staying?"
"Stoker got a house set up for you. Come on." She repositioned her overnight bar on her shoulder and followed the younger mouse into the Martian night.
The two large moons hung together in the purple sky, looking like they were set on top of the giant volcano. Charley shook her head. It wasn't dark enough to be the middle of the night. "How long has Carbine been married?"
"Not very long. I think the ceremony must have been right after Tala left. It was over when Stoker found out and went and had things out with her. The General retired him from his training position and left on her honeymoon. That was about three days ago. She's due back tomorrow." He looked up at her with a guilty expression. "I probably shouldn't have told you. Stoker was pretty adamant about not telling Uncle and the others."
"I won't tell."
Rimfire smiled gratefully and opened the door of a two-story stone house. "Living room, kitchen, bathroom, five bedrooms upstairs. And I hate to run off and leave you, Charley-ma'am, but I got guard duty in five minutes."
"I don't want to get you in trouble, go."
Rimfire took off, promising to be back tomorrow. Charley sighed. "Some vacation this is turning out to be. Poor Throttle."
She explored the modest house and claimed a bedroom. The kitchen was stocked in Martian food, none of which was recognizable. She did find a stash of cookies in a cabinet and munched on them.
The easy chair in the living room was just the right size to curl up in. She pulled a book from the shelf on the stone wall, saw luckily that it was in English, and settled down to see who would arrive home first and in what condition.
Throttle and Stoker arrived first a few hours later. The younger mouse had his right arm around Stoker's slightly thinner shoulders, letting the older mouse support him. They both staggered coming in the door.
Charley jumped up and put her shoulders under Throttle's left arm. "Modo couldn't help you?"
"Modo has his hands full with Vinnie. I think the big lug's afraid he's gonna hurt Tala." Stoker chuckled. "She could wipe the floor with that punk." They stumbled through the living room and up the stairs, finally depositing Throttle on the bed in the first bedroom. "Put him to bed, Charley-girl." The mouse shook his lighter tan hair out of his eyes. "I'm getting too old for this."
"Can you get home okay?" She called after him as he started down the stairs.
"Yeah. I didn't have as many as he did."
She turned back to the bed. "How many did you have?" She pulled his boots off and dropped them next to the bed. She sat down on the edge next to his waist. She reached down to his face and gently pulled his field specs off, setting them on the nightstand. His face looked different without the shades, less of an enigma. She brushed the hair falling into his eyes away.
They opened. "Charley."
"Yeah, it's me."
His arms wrapped around her, pulling her down on top of him. She started to protest and he kissed her.
It was a kiss of hunger and desire. She could taste the alcohol still in his mouth, but the power behind his lips closed her eyes and curled her toes. His arms tightened around her when she kissed him back.
She kept her eyes closed, swimming in the sensations she felt. The pressure of his lips. The fur on his chest under her fingers. His breath hot on her cheek. His fingers pressing into her back. His rapid heartbeat under her hands. Her blood pounding in her ears. His tongue gently pushing against hers. Her tongue giving way to slip into his mouth. One of his hands moving up her back to gently run through her hair. Her skin tingling with his touch.
His hand moved down to her back again and he pulled his lips back, closing his mouth slightly. The top of her tongue scrapped lightly against his buck teeth as she pulled away. And that sent a tremor down her body ending at her vulva. He hugged her close and she laid her cheek against his chest. "I've wanted to kiss you for the longest time."
He had the strangest smell. Maybe she had never been close enough to notice before. "Why didn't you before now?"
"You and Vinnie. Nothing there now. Me and Carbine. Nothing there now either. Had dreams about you. Wanted to hold you so badly. Couldn't though; it wouldn't be right. Now everything's changed."
"I didn't realize I was so popular at the scoreboard." Her joke felt wrong. Her voice was too husky to hold sarcasm. She could hear his heart beating under her right ear.
"Modo's the only one who doesn't want to get into your pants. But Vinnie wants to get in Tala's pants now. So I guess it's just me. Stay with me, Charley." His fingers caressed her left cheek. "Stay with me."
Charley swallowed hard. "Not like this, Throttle. You're drunk."
"Very drunk," he corrected. "Stay with me. Make me forget Carbine."
"I can't stay." She fought against a surge of panic. Throttle wouldn't hurt me. None of them would.
"You don't want me either." He released her and she sat up. "It's okay. I understand. It's not like I have anything to offer you. Just me, my bike, and a war without end. Don't blame you. Still have my dreams. My dreams."
Charley stood up and looked down at the bed. He had passed out. She sighed and closed the door softly as she left the room. Voices drifted up from the living room. She hurried down the stairs.
Modo was carrying/dragging Vinnie through the room. Vinnie was singing the chorus of Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun" but substituting Tala for Janie. The large grey mouse looked at her guiltily. "We didn't wake you up?"
"No, but you might wake up Throttle."
"Can't have that," Vinnie slurred and started singing. "Rock-a-bye biker, on his motorcycle."
Charley darted forward and laid her hand across his mouth. "Shush, Vinnie. You can sing for us tomorrow." She pulled her hand back.
"Really, Charley-girl? Tomorrow?"
"Yes, but you have to be quiet now."
The white mouse heaved a heavy sigh. "Okay, I'll be quiet. I'll even be good boy and go to bed. Modo, where's the beds?"
"This way, bro." Modo lifted him mostly off his feet and carried him up the stairs.
Charley shook her head and went into the kitchen. Someone had stocked the refrigerator with root beer. She pulled one bottle out when Modo walked in and sat heavily at the table. She pulled out another one and passed it to him. "Thanks, Charley-ma'am. Throttle's out?"
"Yeah. He said some things that didn't make sense."
"That's what happens when Throttle has too much to drink. He starts talkin about stuff on his mind that he would never say if he was sober. What did he say?"
"That you were the only mouse in Chicago that didn't want to get into my pants."
She quickly ducked under the table to avoid the spray of root beer from his mouth. "He said that!"
"Yes, he did. And you're cleaning that up."
"He must have had more to drink than I thought he did."
"Is it true?"
"Yeah, you're just not my type, Charley-ma'am." He chuckled as he found a dishtowel and started wiping off the table. "He's gonna have a heart attack when he realizes what he said."
"Don't pick on him about it, Modo. Please. He's going through enough already."
Modo stopped chuckling when he looked down at her worried face. "I won't say a word. Biker's honor."
"Thank you. Should we wait up for Tala?"
"Nah, she told me not to when I was draggin Vinnie out. And I don't think she wants a babysitter."
Charley drained her root beer. "Good night, then."
Sunlight and the smell of cooking food woke Charley up earlier than her body felt was normal. I wonder if you call it "ship lag" when you travel to other planets. She quickly got dressed and headed down the stairs.
"I'm not dealing with that bitch, Stoker," Tala declared.
"I'm sure that's exactly how Carbine feels. Now keep your big mouth shut. Somebody's coming down."
Tala, wrapped in a robe, turned from the stove as Charley walked into the kitchen. "Charley can keep a secret. Carbine fired Stoker for sticking up for Throttle."
Stoker sat at the kitchen table and cringed. "Throttle has enough to fight with her about without draggin me into it."
"I won't tell." Charley sat down at the table. "What are you going to do now?"
"Dunno. I was just gettin into the whole training thing. Retirement could be fun though. Maybe I'll move to Earth with you guys, gorgeous." He winked at her.
"Do you really think Chicago could withstand all four of you?"
"Probably not. But being a worn-out, used-up soldier doesn't exactly prepare you for a non-war career."
Tala banged dishes on the stove. "You keep talking like that and pretty soon you will be worn-out and used-up." She started putting breakfast on the table. "I could use some experienced help."
Stoker shuddered. "Thanks for the offer, Tala. But I think I want to live to get bored with retirement."
Tala opened her mouth to respond, but shut it as they all heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. Modo entered the kitchen, yawning. "Food?" He blinked at Tala standing beside the stove. "You can cook?"
"Sit down and eat before I kick your ass."
Charley picked up a piece of meat that looked and smelled like bacon and tasted it gingerly. It tasted like bacon, too. Stoker laughed at her timidity. "I figured if Tala could eat it, you could too. Are those other two among the living yet?"
Modo filled a mug with coffee and inhaled its aroma deeply. "Real coffee. Earth coffee is crap." He sat down at the table and turned to Stoker. "Vinnie was begging for somebody to put him out of his misery. Throttle was still unconscious." He grabbed a plate and began serving himself.
Charley poured herself some coffee. It was spicy with a nutty flavor underneath it. Modo's right. Earth coffee is pretty bland compared to this. No wonder they stick to root beer.
Vinnie stumbled into the kitchen looking green under his white fur. Tala smiled sweetly, setting more dishes on the table. "Food?"
He glared. "Not funny."
"That depends on your point of view, punk." Stoker fixed two mugs of coffee and carried them to the table with a bottle of pills. He set the pills and one of the mugs in front of the younger mouse. "That should clear the fog out of your brain."
Tala helped her plate. "Is that possible?"
"Be nice," Stoker ordered. "He did buy most of your drinks last night."
Vinnie swallowed down some pills with the coffee and focused his eyes on Tala. "I don't get it. You had as much to drink as me."
"More actually. I shared a few more rounds with some guards that came in after their shift."
"How come you're not miserable?"
"When you get the brilliant idea to get a girl drunk to have sex with you, it would be wise to find out what makes her drunk first."
Modo burst out in hearty guffaws and Stoker joined him. Vinnie put his head down on the table with a moan. "Shot down in flames!" Modo roared.
"Crash and burn," Stoker added.
The rims of Vinnie's ears turned red.
Charley was still looking for a way to end his embarrassment when Tala beat her to it. She set her plate in the sink and leaned over Vinnie before she left the kitchen. In a voice loud enough for Modo and Stoker to hear, "It's not a nice way to play the game, which was your first mistake. Your second one is an easy one to make. Most humans haven't had their DNA altered to be unaffected by alcohol. But cheer up, I'll give you another chance." She sauntered out the door.
Stoker shook his head. "She's gettin soft."
Vinnie picked his head up with a smile. "I ain't complaining."
"Hello, anybody awake?"
"In the kitchen, Rimfire." Modo called out.
The mouse entered quickly, giving his uncle a light punch on his left arm. "Grandma says if you're not in her house by lunchtime, she's putting your tail in orbit."
"I was comin anyway."
Tala returned to the kitchen dressed in her black and red flexible armor and carrying her grey helmet in her hands. "Do the Sand Raiders still have their base in the Coprates region?"
"Yes, we haven't hit yet," Rimfire answered.
"What's up?" Vinnie raised his eyebrows as he stared at her.
"I woke up in avenging angel mood this morning."
"Want company?" His white tail slashed eagerly.
She smirked. "Are you sober yet?"
"Pretty close and nothing like a few dozen explosions to get me back to normal."
"The bikes are still at the ship. Come on."
"But," Rimfire started to say.
Stoker's mechanical tail quickly popped him on the foot. "Based on that information you gave us, they have to have a working transport booth. Try real hard to bring it back in one piece."
"Will do, coach." Vinnie replied and followed Tala out the door.
Stoker turned thoughtfully to Charley. "I thought he had a thing for you?"
"He did. We went out on a date and decided it was safer for the universe if we just stayed friends. Now, he's smitten with Tala."
"Gods help us all," the older mouse muttered.
"Better go wake up Throttle." Modo grabbed the bottle of pills and a glass of water and headed back up the stairs.
"They're gonna ruin all the surveillance we've put in." Rimfire protested. "And its suicidal for just two people."
"What they're going to do is hit that place like I told Carbine we should hit it about a month ago. Those Sand Raiders ain't gonna know what hit 'em, we get a working transporter, Carbine looks stupid, Tala works out her anger, and Vinnie gets to try to impress her. What's the problem?" Rimfire didn't answer and Stoker drained his coffee mug. "I better take off before Throttle gets down here. The boyo ain't gonna like me much this morning."
Charley turned to Rimfire after Stoker left. "So what is there for me to do?"
Modo poked his head into Throttle's bedroom. The tan-furred mouse was sitting on the edge of the bed holding his head in his hands. "How ya feelin, bro?"
"I'm gonna kill Stoker."
"Well, as long as you don't kill anybody else. We were gettin worried."
"I still have to talk to her." Throttle took the painkillers and water Modo offered.
"I understand, bro. But you ain't gonna change nothin."
Throttle grimaced as he swallowed the pills. "I know. But I gotta know what happened."
"Yeah, well pull yourself together first. So you don't look like you spent all night gettin drunk."
"Last night." He jerked his head up with a panicked expression behind his shades. "I remember talking to Charley last night. I don't remember what I said!"
Modo stopped himself from telling him. I promised Charley I wouldn't pick on him. Besides, it's really between the two of them. "It must not have been too bad. She didn't go back to Earth and you slept alone. That's one thing Carbine can't throw in your face," he said brightly. "You never cheated on her."
"Somehow, I doubt she's gonna be real impressed. But thanks, bro."
Modo retreated so Throttle could pull himself together. He met Charley downstairs in the living room. "Modo, I don't have anything to do. Rimfire said your mother probably wouldn't mind me coming, but I'm not going to butt in on your private time."
"Nah, it's cool, Charley-ma'am. Mama's used to me draggin everybody over at least once. She's probably dying to meet ya." He scratched under his jaw. "Better go make myself presentable."
Charley stared in the window of the clothes shop across the street from their house. The motorcycle jacket displayed there was in her size and made of a red leather the same shade as the sands at her feet. But the price. Even with three million in loose gems back in the ship, she was not paying that much for a jacket. No matter how beautiful.
Throttle's reflection joined hers in the glass. "Window shopping?"
She turned around to face him. "The jacket caught my eye. But I'm not paying that much for it. I promised I wouldn't do the tourist thing and buy over-priced souvenirs no matter how badly I want them. How are you doing?"
"Like I'm sufferin from the worst toothache in history. Look, about last night. I don't remember what I said but I wanna apologize just in case I was out of line."
Can he handle knowing he made a drunken pass at me? No, he'd probably die realizing he lost that much self-control. And nothing happened but that kiss. "Throttle, it's okay. I know better than to take anything said while drunk absolutely seriously. Besides, all you said was some self-pity stuff."
"Really. And you assured me Modo wasn't interested in dating me."
"Well, I don't think that was a deep dark secret. Where's Vinnie?"
"He and Tala went to beat up on some Sand Raiders." Modo answered, rolling forward on his purple bike. Throttle's bike followed. "Me and Charley are gonna see Mama. You wanna come?"
Throttle shook his head. "No sense putting of what has to be done. Tell your mom hi." He climbed onto his bike and pulled on his helmet.
"Don't do anything you'll regret."
"Good advice, Charley-girl. Thanks."
Charley climbed onto the bike behind Modo as Throttle roared off down the street. "Think he'll be okay?"
"I'd feel better if we were back in Chi-town where he could whip tail on some of Limburger's goons."
Vinnie tried hard not to fidget. They were hidden above the large ravine that hid the Sand Raider fortress. The stone-walled fortress perched on the between the cliff face and the edge of the massive ledge that extended for two hundred yards from the beginning of the ravine. The ledge bordered a deeper crevice of the ravine that broadened to meet both cliff faces behind the fortress. The resulting narrow and deep canyon stretched to the horizon. Tala scanned the fortress with different settings on her helmet. "You're taking more time than Throttle."
"Some things get better with anticipation. Besides, we want to make sure they don't have any prisoners they can use as hostages."
"Okay, and how can you see that?"
"Energy signatures of weapons. Look for a big group of people that don't have any. Everybody seems to be armed. Large energy output in the northwest corner. That must be the transporter booth."
"Right. Don't blow that up." He used his helmet to zoom in on the actions inside the open courtyard. "Looks like they're gearin up for a raid."
"Famak!" She changed the settings on her helmet. "You're right. Well, we can't let them get away with that, can we? How do you like to play it?"
"I'm a fan of the direct approach." He grinned. "Two laser turrets watching the gate. Easy to avoid. And if the gate don't blow, the walls will."
"So you go knock on the front door while I hit them from above." Tala turned to face him. The face shield of her helmet tinted her face red. "That plan give you enough room to maneuver?"
"Rock and ride, Doll-face!"
Tala watched him ride down the point where you could safely jump down from the cliff to the ledge. He's gonna get himself killed, but he's gonna have a blast doing it. She moved her bike into position.
Vinnie jumped his bike off the cliff. The rocket jets brought them to the ground safely and they shot toward the stone-walled fortress. The gunners in the turrets set on each side of the gate opened fire. Vinnie easily evade their shots. "AOOOOW! Try some of this, sweethearts!"
One blast from Vinnie destroyed the left laser turret. The red stone wall beneath it cracked. Another blast hit the stone wall to the right of the large metal gate. The gate shifted, leaning more inside.
Tala shook her head. "Can't let him have all the fun. Flight mode!" Her bike beeped and launched off the top of the cliff. The wheels split apart in the air. First thing is to cut off their exits, mainly that transporter. She shifted setting on her helmet and followed the energy signatures. Her missiles hit the inner building's roof, angled to leave the northwest corner undisturbed.
Two more blasts to the wall and the gate fell inside the compound. Vinnie drove over the slab of metal with a howl. Sand Raiders scrambled for their weapons and stilt-walkers. The remaining laser turret turned and started firing inside the courtyard. "Guys, guys, I know you love the Volatile Vinnie Van Wham but you got to wait to get your autographs like everyone else!"
Tala dived toward the ground in a tight spiral. Her laser bolts hit the remaining laser turret. It exploded in a fireball, casting shrapnel in all directions.
Vinnie dodged a large piece of twisted metal and fired at the stilt-walkers. The first three of the parked vehicles exploded in a massive fireball.
Tala landed behind a group of Sand Raiders. The dog-like humanoids had finally grabbed their laser rifles and were beginning to shoot at Vinnie. "Now is that anyway to greet guests?" She opened fire. Most of the group scattered but a few were impaled by laser bolts.
Vinnie howled again and drove into the building. Tala had already put a pretty gaping hole in it, but there was no sense leaving the job half-done. His missiles and lasers cut apart sleeping quarters and slave pens. We should've brought Throttle. Nothin like blowing something up to cheer up major emotional crises.
The remaining Sand Raiders managed to get the remaining stilt-walkers running. Five of them hopped through the ruins of the gate. Tala gunned her bike. "You're not getting away that easily, you shitty slavers!"
The last stilt-walker in line exploded under her laser fire. She zipped around its stilled metal legs.
Vinnie shot out of the ruined building and saw the fleeing stilt-walkers. "The party's just gettin started! Not time to make a beer run yet!" He accelerated after them.
Tala shot the cord from her left wrist. It lassoed around the last stilt-walker, the one that was veering to the right.
The stilt-walker jumped further to the right. The edge of the ledge it landed on crumbled. The two-legged platform tumbled into the deeper ravine. The cord yanked Tala off her bike and into the air.
"Shit! Tala!" Vinnie gunned his bike after the figure sailing through the air.
"Shit!" She cut the cord, but she was already falling into the ravine. She spread her limbs trying to slow her descent. The bottom was so far down, it was cloaked in darkness. "The explosion from the crashing stilt-walker should light everything up before I hit. Yeah, that's a cheerful thought." She twisted in the air. The left cliff face was so close, just grab hold, stop falling.
The rocks were just beyond the reach of her fingers. She shot her cord. It found nothing to wrap around and snapped back. "No!"
A white tail wrapped around her wrist. Her fall jerked to a stop and her left shoulder protested with a sharp pain. The ground began to crumble under the tires of his red bike. "Come on, sweetheart," he coaxed the machine. It fired its rocket jets and accelerated from the edge.
Once safely on solid ground, he wrapped his arms around her. "Are you all right?"
Tala opened her face shield and took a deep breath. The explosion echoed up from the ravine behind them and she wrapped her arms around the white mouse's neck involuntarily. She shuddered. "Too close. Great rush but damnit, that was too close."
Vinnie turned off his face shield. "Third time's the charm, beautiful."
She turned her head to look at his face and he brought his lips down on hers. The pressure between them sent a pleasant tremor through her body. A kiss. He's kissing me. And I like it! She tightened her hold around his neck.
His hold around her tightened as her lips parted slightly. His tongue rushed inside her mouth. His hands moved, one down her back to squeeze her ass, the other to her front. He brushed against her breast, immobile under the armor. He moved his fingers up to the seam at her neck. Her tongue was inside his mouth now and her lips pressed harder against his.
His fingers found the seam to the top of her armor and slowly unfastened it. His bare fingers caressed her skin, working their way down her chest. And her body reacted.
Tala exploded from his arms with a cry. Vinnie gaped as she dropped to the ground. She doubled over, holding her stomach, shaking, and couldn't seem to breath. He knelt down beside her. Shit, we're too far away to get help from the city. And I'm no medic; Charley's the medic. "Tala? Tala, what's wrong? Tala, talk to me, Doll-face!"
The pain was subsiding already. She could hear Vinnie's panicked voice pleading with her to be okay. Relax, relax. He's not going to hurt me. I can kill him before he can hurt me. Her breathing was returning to normal. She straightened. "I'm okay."
"What the hell just happened?" His red pupils looked small in his wide-opened eyes.
"A panic attack. I get them sometimes." She closed her armor.
"Just like that?"
She wiped the sweat away from her eyes. "Pretty close. Can't breath, get the shakes and sweats, think I'm gonna die. Boom then it's over."
"That's not what I meant. What causes them? Or is it you just can't handle my incredible kissing?"
"I don't know. And I'll have to take your word on the incredible kissing." Tala stood up and started walking toward her bike.
"Wait!" He came running behind her and turned her around. "You've never been kissed before?"
"I know this is going to blow your mind, but no I haven't."
"A great babe like you still cherry?"
"I said I hadn't been kissed before. I didn't say I was still a virgin."
Comprehension dawned on his face. "No wonder you've been giving me the brush off."
"I give everybody the brush off. Don't feel special."
"Damnit, I want to be!" He grabbed hold of her hand. "There isn't anybody else, is there? Just me and the bastard who . . . ."
Go ahead, say it. "The bastard who raped me."
"Who hurt you?" he finished.
"How could there be? Nobody wants traumatized goods."
"Trauma can be healed. Or at least covered up." He shifted his face to the right making it harder to see his mask. "This is the part where we should be riding off into the sunset together."
"I don't think that's gonna happen with us."
"Why not? I'm game. Aren't you?"
"I can't even get kissed without my body freaking out!"
"So we have to go slow. Don't like it but you're worth it. Give me a chance to prove I'm worth it."
"Will you never breath a word of this to anyone?"
"AOOOOW!" He picked her up and spun her around once and put her down quickly. "You won't regret it, Doll-face!"
"Back to business. Those Sand Raiders have been getting away."
"Nah." He pointed to the group of bikes throwing up dust. "The Freedom Fighters got 'em. Gee, hope they're not mad at us."
Tala snorted as she stepped back from the white mouse. "We got 'em a working transport booth. They better be grateful."
"That hussy doesn't deserve the heartbreak Throttle's feeling."
Charley grinned and decided she liked Bola.
"Now, Mama," Modo protested.
"Ain't no shame in callin something what it is. And Throttle should've had a clue when she could believe you boys would turn traitor." The grey-furred female mouse passed Charley a glass of root beer. Her long grey hair with long streaks of white was pulled back into a bun on the back of her neck. "What do you think, my dear?"
"I think it's dirty not to tell the guy in person. Especially when you're getting married to someone else."
Modo's mother nodded. "Exactly. It's one thing when you think your man is dead, quite another when you know he isn't." She sat down in a chair next to the couch Charley and Modo sat on. "I bet Throttle's been true to her."
Charley didn't think Modo could look any more embarrassed. "It ain't like we've had an opportunity since we've been gone."
"Humph. Three years with this good-lookin girl and you haven't had an opportunity?"
Her son looked scandalized. "She's our friend! We wouldn't make a pass at a friend."
"You still have feelings for Stella. Throttle wouldn't. But Vinnie?"
Charley laughed. "Vinnie tried. But it didn't work out."
"No, it wouldn't," Bola replied shrewdly. "You're looking for something more than a hyperactive pretty boy."
The vidcom in the hall beeped. Rimfire stopped laughed and jumped up to answer it.
"You're right," the human smiled. "But he's chasing Tala now, so I guess I don't have anything to worry about."
"I doubt that comes to anything. The man who gets her is going to have a lot more patience than Vinnie. That boy always had an unhealthy Morrison streak."
Rimfire returned to the living room. "It's Vinnie and Tala."
"They didn't get hurt, did they?" Modo stood up.
"No, but the command center just figured out what they've been blowing up and they're pissed. Stoker said he wants some backup available when he convinces them everything is cool."
"Which means Stoker wants my son to glower at everyone till they do what he wants."
"I'm pretty good at it, Mama." Modo pointed out as he stooped to hug her. "But no sense in letting them spend the night in jail."
"Not if we want to have a jail in the morning. Bring them to dinner tomorrow. Throttle and Stoker, too. No excuses. You can go back to Earth after eating a good meal."
Charley said good-bye and they straddled Modo's bike, following Rimfire to the Command Center. "So who's Stella?"
Modo squirmed. "I wish Mama hadn't brought that up."
"If you don't want to tell me, it's okay."
"Nah, it's no big secret. She's just the girl I probably would've married. But we had a big fight, then things got really bad with the Plutarkians. Throttle, Vinnie, and me decided to join the Freedom Fighters. Stella got on board a refugee ship that was gonna get civilians out of the way." He swallowed hard. "The Plutarkians destroyed the ship."
She hugged him tight from behind. "I'm sorry, Modo."
"It's been a long time, Charley-ma'am. But I ain't over her yet."
Throttle parked his bike beside a house nearby a set of barracks and the Command Center. He pulled off his helmet with a sigh. I've come thirty-five million miles for this showdown. Can't get cold feet now. He walked up to the door and knocked.
The raven-haired mouse answered it. She was dressed in her Freedom Fighter uniform with alterations around her larger stomach. "Throttle," Carbine said flatly.
It hit him all at once, like Modo hitting him in the gut without checking his strength. Getting hit by Modo would probably be better, at least his larger bro would be apologizing for it. He tried to smile at her. "I hear congratulations are in order. Apparently for more than one event."
"I told you not to come."
"Well, that's always been one of my problems--never doing what I'm told."
"Shouldn't that be my line?"
She let him into her house. The living room was sparsely lit and furnished. "I thought you'd be pleased. You could fight all the damn Plutarkians in the universe without any obligations here."
"Yeah, just what I wanted to hear. My girl's getting married to someone else. So where's the lucky bastard? You're not gonna introduce us?"
"He's not here and no, I'm not. This is between you and me since you had to come."
"Damnit, Carbine! What else did you expect me to do? Throw a party?" Throttle started pacing back and forth in the room.
"What did you expect from me?" Carbine's brown eyes flashed with anger. "You're never coming back to Mars. Even if you beat Limburger, you'll just start fighting with the next Plutarkian that comes along. I need someone here to help heal Mars. And that will never be you."
"You never gave me a choice."
"You could have stayed when you came back! You could have come back with me when I got the pink seed plant! But stopping Limburger means more to you than I ever will. Probably more than any woman."
"Why didn't you tell me?" He turned and stared down at her sitting in a chair. "If you were so unhappy, why didn't you say anything?"
"Would it have changed anything? You have your job and I have mine. Accept it, Throttle. It's over."
"You haven't left me much choice, have you?"
Carbine sighed and turned her scarred face away. "This would have been easier if you had just stayed on Earth."
"But I don't take the cowardly way out." Throttle shoved his field specs down his snout and glared. "And don't give me any bullshit about not wanting me to show up. You could have sent that letter to me by transporter. But instead you chose the way to have it delivered to give me a way to get my ass back here. For what? Some sorta power trip? To see how well I was wrapped around your finger? Got so used to being in charge, you couldn't stand that I wouldn't pack my bags and come back. And this is your way of getting back."
"That's not true!" She surged up out of the chair, bunching her hands into fists. "I love him! I'm having his baby!"
"All part of your plans, huh? Healin Mars is gonna take centuries. Someone has to lead the fight after you're gone."
"You bastard!" Carbine raised her hand to strike him. Throttle caught it easily and pushed her back down into her well-cushioned chair.
"You never did want a partner, Carbine. Everybody told me not to get involved with you. Even Modo's mama. I figured it was because you were Army. Guess they all saw what I couldn't." He shoved his specs back into place. "Congratulations for the baby. Congratulations for the wedding. I hope you two are real happy together." He grabbed hold of the doorknob. "I also hope labor's a real bitch and you accidentally yank your husband's tail out." She started saying something, seething anger making her words incoherent. He pulled the door open. "Thanks for a swell ride, Carbine. It was fun while it lasted."
He slammed the door shut behind him. He was on the bike before it hit him like Modo's fist again. Home is where your family is. And I don't have any family anywhere.
His bike beeped at him. He shoved on his helmet and kicked it into gear. There was still his bros and Charley. But that won't last forever. We'll kick the Plutarkians off Earth and they're gonna wanna come back here. And I hate this goddamned, friggen planet and its wars. Blood flows quicker than the water, even before the Plutarkians took what little water we had. The humans were right on the money naming it after one of their gods of war. And I don't want any more to do with it. He turned his bike toward the bar Stoker had brought him last night. He wanted a drink to relax the gut-twisting pain he felt.
The mouse in charge was close to developing an aneurism. Tomahawk bellowed at Tala and Vinnie threatening them with insubordination, a military court martial, a trip to the Pit of Everlasting Doom.
Tala brushed non-existent sand off her armor-clad arm. "Piss off. I'm not in your military. I'm not even a citizen of this planet."
"Then you can be thrown in the brig for interference with military operations!"
Her lips twisted in a smirk and she chuckled under her breath. Carbine's second-in-command took a step back and decided to move onto Vinnie.
Stoker grinned at Modo, Charley, and Rimfire as they entered the command center conference room. "Sorry to cut your visit short, but I figured you wouldn't want to miss the show."
Modo grinned. "That's okay. Mama invited you to dinner tomorrow."
Stoker groaned slightly. "Can't disappoint your mama, can I?"
"General Carbine left specific instructions on how that installation was to be hit!"
"You and Carbine can both piss off," Vinnie snarled. "I don't take orders from either of you." He turned and looked behind him. "Bros, do I take orders from him?"
Modo straightened to his full height of six-feet-nine-inches and took a stance behind Vinnie and Tala. "Not if you don't wanna, Vin-man."
Charley turned away and hid her smile. Modo's glowering was in fine form.
"Ya see, I don't know what they're complainin about. Sand Raiders ain't takin anybody else as slaves. They got a working transporter booth in one piece. And Tala almost took a nose dive into the canyon. For what? Them to bitch at us because we didn't do it the right way? Seesh, and I thought Throttle was a perfectionist."
"They're just upset because we two just managed to do what twenty regulars couldn't." Tala planted her hands on her hips. "Sometimes there's just no pleasin some people. Now will you let us go already? You're cutting into our celebration time."
"Listen, merc," the military mouse growled.
Tala's hands dropped from her hips. "This merc just brought your kid sister home three months ago. Not to mention medic supplies last week. So unless you've got the guts to start flying through the blockade without a ship, you better show some respect."
His antennae drooped. "The General's gonna have my tail over this."
"Blame it on me," Stoker offered with a grin. "I already lost one. Now let the kiddies go so we can get out of your fur."
Tomahawk glanced from Stoker to Tala and Vinnie. He then looked up at Modo. "Hell, it ain't worth it. Get 'em out of here, Stoker."
"Time for drinks," Tala announced as they surged to the exit.
"No gettin smashed," Modo ordered. "Mama's expectin everybody for dinner tomorrow."
"Ah Modo," Vinnie begged. "Anything but that."
"You wanna tell my mama you didn't wanna come?" Vinnie wilted under his cyclopean stare. "You're invited too, Tala-ma'am."
"This'll be a novel experience. I've never been invited to a family dinner before."
Stoker sidled up to Charley as they walked down the street to the bar. The bikes trailed behind their owners. "So how has Mars been treatin ya this time, beautiful?"
"A learning experience. They've been on Earth three years but it takes a trip to another planet before they'll tell me about old girlfriends or having no family."
The dark tan mouse looked at her quizzically. "Modo told you about Stella? I may have reevaluate your position with 'em, Charley. Plutarkians almost killed us all in the trenches before I found out about her."
Dark twilight settled over the scenery. Charley looked up the deep purple sky. The stars shone brighter. Neither moon had risen yet. Stoker held the door of the bar open for her.
The bar was filled with Freedom Fighters and civilian mice. A group mobbed Vinnie and Tala demanding the story about the Sand Raider fortress, which Vinnie supplied with gusto. Surprisingly, every other sentence featured Tala's deeds. And he wasn't making fun of her. Charley shook her head with a smile. Rimfire started introducing Modo to some young Freedom Fighters who looked in awe at the large grey mouse.
Stoker sat down beside Throttle at the bar proper and ordered a beer. "Well, yer not throwin yerself into Olympus Mons. That's a good sign."
Throttle grimaced. "She ain't worth it. You could warned me though, chief."
"About the bun in the oven? Would ya've believed me?"
"Nah." He took a healthy swig from his bottle of beer.
"Go easy on that. Modo's mama ordered everyone to come to dinner tomorrow."
Throttle groaned and laid his head on the bar. "So much for leavin tonight."
Stoker made room at the bar and pulled a stool out for Charley. "Can't leave so soon. You boys ain't even showed Charley all the sites. A beer for the lady."
The barkeeper filled the order as Charley sat down. She listened as Stoker told her about some places to see. Vinnie and Tala's escapade was getting retold as new customers wandered into the bar. Modo finally remembered, finished walking to the bar proper, and told Throttle about dinner. Throttle glumly replied that he would go but not to expect him to be happy about it. Modo looked upset but backed off, rejoining Rimfire and his newphew's friends. Throttle winced, turning back to his beer in disgust.
Someone turned on the jukebox, possible to shut Vinnie up. He had managed to
find listeners for the fifth straight time.
There goes my old girlfriend
There's another diamond ring
And, uh, all those late night promises
I guess they don't mean a thing
So baby, what's the story?
Did you find another man?
Is it easy to sleep in the bed that we made?
When you don't look back I guess the feelings start to fade away
Steve Tyler and Aerosmith crooned on while Throttle stared down at his beer, looking like he wished his bionic eyes were equipped with lasers.
Charley got down off the bar stool. A little wobbly but she made it. Martian beer was stronger than the stuff back home. She touched Throttle's arm. "See me home?"
"I don't think I should. I even upset Modo."
"Modo knows you didn't mean that."
"I'm not very good company right now."
"And I won't be very good company if I got to listen to Vinnie one more time."
A ghost of a smile touched his tan face. "All right, let's make tracks."
Modo's worried expression followed them to the door. She smiled reassuringly at him before and stepping out into the cold.
And it was cold. She hugged herself and wished she had packed her parka. It didn't seem to be bothering Throttle any as he looked up. "Gonna be a double moonrise."
"Is that special?"
"Bout the only thing on Mars I wanna look at right now. Present company excluded from that."
"Are you up for it? You have to get out of the city to get the full effect."
Charley blew on her hands. "I was just getting you out of there before you decided a bar brawl was a good way to relieve stress. So I'm up for it as long as I don't freeze."
He looked down at her and put his hands on her upper arms. "You didn't bring a coat or something?"
His hands were warm. "It isn't this cold in Chicago. I didn't think about it."
"Yeah, and we live in ours. Hold on a second."
He left her next to his bike and disappeared into the darkness. She stomped her feet, but that didn't help warm her up. She got her helmet off Modo's bike.
Throttle returned quickly. He unfurled what he carried, the red leather jacket. "Here. This should do the trick." He helped her into it.
It was her size and it was warm. The leather had been worked until it was as soft as suede. The zippers and buckles were made of a shinny chrome. "The price, Throttle. I can't accept this."
"It looks good on ya, babe. Besides, it's my last chance to spend Martian money and you wanted a souvenir. Come on."
They rode to a hill outside of the city limits in silence. Throttle parked his bike at the top just in time. The two orbs pushed their way above the horizon like a pair of dancers easing across the sky. The larger one with a striped pattern pulled away from its smaller partner. Charley's breath caught in her throat. "They look close enough to touch. Like we could ride right on top of them."
"Hard to do on a bike."
"What did you mean this was your last chance to spend your Martian money? Won't you need it when you guys come back?"
"I don't want to come back." He took a deep breath and continued in a artificially lighter tone. "Think I can become a citizen of Earth?"
"The immigration authorities would probably freak once they figured out you're really a mouse."
"Not to mention the whole from another planet thing. I'll figure something out."
"Isn't it a little harsh to give up your whole planet because of an old girlfriend?"
"Not after the way I told her off. I don't really wanna talk about it."
"Okay." She slid her hands around his chest and hugged him briefly. "But I'm available when you do."
They watched Phobos and Deimos rise higher into the purple sky, reflecting
light onto the red sands.