Chapter Three: Exhaust
So Roddie had a crush on me all those years ago. What girl hasn't? Vinnie thoughtfully chewed on a finger sandwich. Too bad she's taken now. Then again, Throttle knows my rep. I don't want him mad at me for hurtin Roddie. And then there's Tala. If she ever shows up on Earth again.
Someone stood beside him. He glanced up at Axle. The cream-furred mouse with snow-white, curly hair was still dressed in her drab-olive green jumpsuit. "Hey, how come you're not dressed up?"
"I am still on duty." She dutifully scanned the crowd.
"Doesn't Roddie ever let you off?"
"Sometimes. Where is My Captain?"
"Sometimes. Where is My Captain?"
"On the dance floor." He waved a hand toward the crowd of moving bodies in the ballroom. "What's up?"
The strange pale mouse didn't answer, just moved into the crowd. Vinnie paused for a moment with his antennae twitching. Oh yeah, something's up. He found Throttle, Modo, and Charley, and trotted over to them. "Something's going on and not here."
"Whatcha mean?" Throttle asked.
Vinnie gestured to the door. Roddie and Lance were following Axle out.
"Are we gonna lend a hand?" Modo asked.
They caught up with the group outside of an elevator on the wall of the hold. Roddie shook her head. "Guys, go back to the party. This is just ship's business."
"What? And miss out?" Vinnie demanded.
"Which would mean less trouble? Us coming with you or leaving us at the party with no supervision?" Throttle offered.
The black mouse sighed. "All right, but I'm calling the shots. Got it?"
They surged onto the elevator. Axle worked the controls. Floors of hanger bays flew past the second door to the car. They smoothly rose to a stop and stepped out.
A strident female voice greeted them. "You can take that directive and shove it! Or better yet, bring it here and I'll show you where to shove it!"
Vinnie felt his heart pound. It can't be. But no one else in the universe sounds that way when they're pissed. "Tala!"
Roddie looked at him in puzzlement, but stopped herself from asking anything. Instead, she led the way around a group of ill-clothed and malnourished mice and into the hanger bay proper.
The black ship with More Hot Stuff boldly painted in white across its side was parked in the center of the hanger bay with its ramp lowered. Its human owner stood beside it, hands planted on her blue-jean-clad hips near her holstered gun, and she glared at the two mice in front of her. A thin grey-furred female mouse holding a green-skinned humanoid toddler in her arms cowered behind her.
"What's going on?" Roddie demanded.
Tala turned to her, relief visible in her blue eyes but her face still radiating anger. "Internal Security isn't letting this baby on board."
"It is in the child's best interest." The short mouse with white and black fur and dressed in a red and black military uniform smoothly interjected. "He should be raised among his own kind."
The blonde human bristled. "It's in his best interest to be raised among people who love him. And she does."
Roddie took the computer pad from the grey-furred mouse standing deferentially behind the white and black mouse. Her solid blue eyes scanned it quickly. "I never approved this. And I won't. Everyone who has been hurt by slavers and the Plutarkians is welcome on the Fury. That has always been our operating procedure and it will continue to be so as long as I am captain." Her black tail lashed angrily through the air. "And you know, Colonel Exhaust, that any directive you decide is beneficial for the ship must be approved by me."
"I apologize, Captain. I was under the impression that the directive had been sent to you. When I did not hear back from you, I assumed it was approved."
"It was not sent to me. And it will not be approved ever. So please inform your Internal Security officers to disregard it. And if anyone harasses this woman or this child, I will personally throw them in the brig!"
"And you would be perfectly justified for doing so. Excuse me, Captain, while I fix this fiasco." He bowed his head slightly and moved stiffly to the elevator followed by the other military mouse.
Roddie turned to the mouse holding the baby. "I'm so sorry for this. You are welcome on the Fury, both of you."
The young mouse nodded her head fearfully as she clutched the green-skinned toddler tighter. Another mouse from the group wrapped an arm around her frail shoulders and guided her back to the group as Axle led them from the hanger bay.
Tala seethed quietly as the group left. "Why hasn't a nice accident befallen the Colonel yet? Like getting too close to the airlock late one night?"
Roddie rubbed the spot between her eyes. "Because he would get replaced by someone just as bad. And they would have Exhaust as a martyr. Besides, that's his tactics. I don't play that game."
"Roddie, what's going on?" Throttle asked.
"It's my problem and my ship. I'll handle it," she snapped.
"Well, you guys are a bit far from your stompin' grounds," Tala said lightly, breaking the uneasy silence. "What gives?"
"Limburger gave us a one-way transporter ride." Charley answered, glancing at Throttle and Roddie. "Hey, wait a minute. You could send us back with your transporter."
"Yeah, but not yet," Vinnie interjected quickly. "We have a party to get back to."
"Yes, please come, Tala," Roddie added. "It's the least I can do for you having to deal with Exhaust."
Tala sighed. "Thanks but I'm not really in a party mood."
"How can you not be?" The black-furred mouse grinned.
Vinnie had a brain wave. Tala would hem and haw and fight her way out of coming to the party. And he hadn't seen her for a month. And bringing her to the party would be like a date. And she had agreed to go out on some with him. "If you don't come, I'll tell everyone what happened at the ravine."
She stiffened and stared at the white mouse. "You promised!"
"So did you."
Various expressions crossed her face as she glared at Vinnie. Finally, she sighed with resignation. "All right, I'll go change." Vinnie's grin stretched from ear to ear as she disappeared into her ship.
"What did happen at the ravine?" Modo asked.
Vinnie winked his metal encircled eye. "Can't tell, bro. I promised. Get back to the party. I'll make sure she gets there."
Roddie shrugged. "Your call, Vin-man. Let's go."
Vinnie leaned against one of the More Hot Stuff's landing struts as he waited for Tala to reappear.
It didn't seem like anyone had missed them from the party. Lance led Roddie out to the dance floor. "A bit harsh on your cousin." He felt inclined to like Throttle. The tan mouse's leadership qualities were hard to miss. And he had quickly picked up on the tension caused by Exhaust.
"I'm a big girl now. I can handle Exhaust without those three blowing up everything in sight."
"That's not the issue, my love."
Roddie pulled his head down and shut him up with a kiss. "I don't want to talk about it now." She threw herself into dancing.
Lance sighed as he matched her moves. It was no good to fight her stubborn streak; six months of marriage had taught him that. Did it completely escape your notice that they brought an alien with them? One your cousin is very undeniably attracted to? He sighed again. Maybe they wouldn't be here long enough for Exhaust to try anything.
Throttle chuckled as he and the grey mouse sat down at one of the tables set up to one side of the ballroom. "Well, he's gonna be insufferable to live with for a couple of weeks. Have to wish him luck. He's gonna need it with the mood she's in."
"Do ya think it's gonna work out for him?" Modo asked between sips of root beer.
"I hope so. But Vinnie's track record ain't real good. First Harley, then Charley."
"What about me?" Charley walked up to the table and stood between them.
"We were just discussing Vinnie and Tala's chances." The large grey mouse explained.
"Well, she hasn't tried to kill him yet."
"But that could be 'cause she doesn't know him yet." Throttle pointed out.
"I think they'll make it. If Vinnie doesn't screw it up."
"So it's Vinnie's fault it didn't work out between you two?" The tan mouse arched his eyebrows over his field specs.
"It didn't work out because it didn't work out. Modo, do you want to dance?"
He gulped as he looked up at the human woman. "Only if you want yer feet broken, Charley-ma'am. Graceful, I ain't."
"I'll dance with you again." Throttle stood up and offered his hand.
"You don't have to."
"I want to."
Modo watched them move out to the dance floor. They have been actin' weird around each other ever since they had that "talk." Hell, Throttle never did like openin' up to anybody. He shrugged and watched the dancers.
Tala took a deep breath that did nothing to ease the nervous fluttering of her stomach. She smoothed the long purple silk skirt over her hips. You'd think I actually give a damn about what that mouse thinks of me by the way I'm acting.
"Don't you?" she whispered to herself. She angrily shook her head and descended the ramp.
Vinnie dressed in a form-fitting black tuxedo straightened from leaning against a landing strut. He growled audibly. "Maybe I won't mind doing this once a month if you look this good."
She felt her cheeks grow hot. It's not like I have a big wardrobe choice. This is the only dress I own. She nervously smoothed the white leather bodice and pulled at the cuffs of the long purple silk sleeves. "I told you my work comes first when you decided to start this experiment."
"That wasn't a complaint, Doll-Face. You're a professional. I can dig that. 'Sides," he grinned cockily, "once you have tail, you never go back."
"I haven't had tail yet."
"Detail, detail." He waved it away and offered his arm. Tala raised her eyebrows. "It's the clothes. And I've been watching how the other couples show up."
She sighed and linked her arm with his. "Geez, this is startin to feel like that Prom thing I missed out on. You hiding a corsage behind your back?" MC, the AI in charge of the ship, locked up the More Hot Stuff as Vinnie led the way to the hanger bay elevator.
"I'd have to know what you're talking about before I could hide one behind my back. Prom thing sounds familiar." His white snout crinkled as he concentrated. "Yeah, Charley blew away that Rod Van Ham for dumping her at the Prom!"
"I didn't think Charley was that violent. Must be a big deal."
Vinnie frowned. "You missed it because you were in space?"
"My last trip to Earth was in 1990 by its calendar."
"Sheesh, babe. How do you expect us to date if you visit my current address every five years or so?"
"With Plutarkians on Earth, I'll probably be around more often." The elevator finally reached the ground floor of Olympian City, and Vinnie led her to the large ballroom. "I don't know if I'm up to this." The nervous fluttering in her stomach combined with the worrying in her mind was making her feel nauseous.
"The music's good, and we can just eat and talk if you want. Come on." He led her toward the buffet table and tables set up for eating.
"Is there something between them?" Roddie gestured in the direction of Vinnie and Tala's table. The couple had settled about five tables away from the larger group.
"The usual Vinnie infatuation," Modo said.
"Vinnie'll chase anything in a skirt. But how does Tala feel?"
"Nobody knows and she ain't tellin," Throttle answered. "But she does seem willing to spend time with him."
Charley covered a yawn with her hand. "Roddie, you throw a great party but I'm beat." She stood up, and Modo, Throttle, and Lance stood up as well. "Good night."
Modo and Lance sat back down but Throttle offered her his arm. "I'll see you back."
And then what? Shake my hand, make sure I'm safe like a good friend would? "You don't have to. I'm sure you and Roddie still have catching up to do."
"We're doing that tomorrow," Roddie said. "If you macho mice are sticking around that long?"
"Yeah, but not much longer." Throttle turned back to Charley. "I brought you to the party; I'm supposed to see you back. Modo might complain about my manners but I do have some."
"Which puts him a step above Vinnie." Modo grinned at the dirty look from his tan-furred bro.
Charley sighed and took hold of his arm, ignoring the part of her that wanted to grip it tighter. "I'm too tired to argue. Let's go."
Vinnie sighed. "Some date this is turnin' out to be."
Tala slammed her fork down on the table. "Look, I told you I wasn't in the mood."
"Then show me who to beat up so I can put a smile on your face."
She frowned. Her blue eyes focused on something past Vinnie. They snapped back to attention quickly. "How well do you guys know Roddie?"
"We grew up with her. She's Throttle's cousin, but they act more like brother and sister. We ain't seen her for eight years, when the Fury took off."
"I've been running supplies and people for them for about a year. Since I've started and Colonel Exhaust took over Internal Security, the non-mouse population has been leaving. Nothing very obvious, nothing you can trace back, but Internal Security has encouraged them to relocate."
The white mouse frowned. "That sounds like something humans would do."
"We don't have an exclusive on bigotry, ya know." She picked up her fork and stabbed it into her food.
"No need to get your panties in a knot. Even you gotta admit your species ain't the most open-minded."
"If you're trying to pick a fight, you're on the right track."
"Okay, okay. You think this Colonel Exhaust clown is behind it?"
She brushed her fingers against the short blonde hair on her temple. "Probably. It's not a good situation. And I don't really like leaving a baby in the middle of it."
Vinnie shrugged and the tight black jacket moved with his shoulders. "So stick around till you can make it right. It's not like you gotta schedule to stick to."
"I have to get you guys back to Chicago."
"You can transport us back. No time limit. 'Sides, Roddie may need back-up." He looked up to see her staring at him quizzically. "What?"
"It's just disconcerting when you make sense."
"It's the same no matter where I go. No respect for the baddest mammajammer in the universe."
Throttle and Charley had decided to walk back to their suite bypassing the wheeled transports waiting outside the ballroom. The main lights of the hold had been turned off and streetlights lined the streets and the paths through the park.
"Are you okay?" Charley asked.
Throttle sighed. "Was I gettin moody?"
"Not really. You just looked concerned."
"If my little sis-cuz is in trouble, I wanna get her out of it. But I can't help if she won't tell me what's going on."
His throat tightened. She's already seen me at my worst and she didn't run away. And she deserves to know something about what we've dumped her in the middle of. "My parents died when I was four. My father's brother and his wife took me in and raised me. Roddie was born a few months later."
"That explains a lot. But Throttle, she's been on her own for eight years and she's the Captain of the entire ship. Maybe she can't afford to look like she's depending on you guys."
"You're probably right, babe. But that scene at Tala's ship still kinks my tail." Roddie was seething. I could feel it pouring off of her. And it's true we don't know Tala very well, but she doesn't seem the type to suggest throwing a guy out of an airlock just 'cause he's got something against a baby. Not for free, anyway. He frowned to himself.
Charley squeezed his arm slightly to get his attention. "If it's bothering you so much, why not talk to Roddie about it?"
"That's a good idea, thanks."