Limburger threw himself behind his desk and watched the smoke roll away from what was left of his office doors. A slim female humanoid wearing black flexible armor with large red stripes running down her torso, legs, and arms strode into the room through the hole. Her red helmet with an opaque face shield turned and gazed around the room as she holstered her laser gun. "Limburger, come out. I don't deal with cowards."
Limburger stood up and straightened his red tie. He pulled down the jacket of his purple suit. "My dear lady, when you are as a prominent person as I, you will find that taking precautions for your life is not cowardly--merely prudently intelligent." He sat down behind his desk. "I take it you are the unauthorized transporter user that Dr. Karbunkle reported."
"I also don't deal with lackeys." She dropped her body into a chair facing his desk and crossed her legs nonchalantly. "I'm here to discuss your bounty on the Biker Mice."
"Couldn't you have just called?"
"Then other Plutarkians would know I'm here. I want the Biker Mice. Their capture would be the biggest coup in the galaxy. They've defeated the Stalkers. I'll bring them to you alive for four-and-a-half million dollars in Earth currency."
"Four million, five hundred thousand dollars!" The Plutarkian roared, waves of smell blasting from his mouth. "I can hire the galaxy's worst villainy for less than that!"
She leaned forward and planted both feet on the floor. "You have hired the worst villainy. And they've failed. I've done the calculations. They've been costing you triple that in repairs." Her voice was digitally distorted and made identifying her species impossible. "But if you're not interested, I'll go to Detroit and find out how much your life is worth to Brie."
Limburger stopped himself from shouting. "Brie?"
"I'd rather have the Biker Mice, but I need the money. Brie would probably pay me for both."
"Now, let's not get hasty," Limburger soothed. "With a little reflection, four-point-five million is a small price to pay for the removal of the Biker Mice. And you won't go work for Brie."
"I won't suggest the idea to him. Now if he comes up with the right amount all on his own, I won't say no." The bounty hunter stood up. "Payment in full on delivery. In loose gems. No synthetics. I've done business before with Plutarkians. You counterfeit any currency you can get your fins on."
"All right, have it your way," he growled. "If you bring me the Biker Mice, I will pay you anything your heart desires. Do you have a name?"
"Benzine." She reached over the desk to shake his hand.
Charley lowered the binoculars from her eyes, then lowered herself behind the false top of the skyscraper across from Limburger's Tower. She picked up her portable CB. "The Big Cheese bought it, Throttle."
"Then I guess we'll see you next inside the Tower, babe."
"Be careful, guys."
"What's the fun in that?" Throttle's voice broke away.
Charley sighed and bit her lip as she left the rooftop.
They rode in silence through the warehouse district. Since they were supposed to treat Tala the same as any other of Limburger's hired thugs, Throttle didn't wanna take a chance of any civilians getting hurt.
Tala, Vinnie rolled the name around his mouth. What would it take to impress her? She wasn't very impressed with my earlier flawless rescues. And she dropped Throttle on his ass. The ole Vinnie charm should work. It always works.
The explosion in front of them broke him out of his reverie. A hole crumbled in the street in front of them. "Scatter bros!" Throttle ordered and he headed down a street to the left. Modo headed to the right.
Vinnie jumped the hole and continued straight ahead. "Come on, Sweetheart. Let's make this look good."
A black and red blur caught his attention from the corner of his eye. He turned his head to get a better look and found himself face to face with a solid red and black torso. A pair of vice-like legs wrapped around his chest under his arms. He was yanked up off his bike and into the air.
He looked up and grinned. "I knew you wanted me." They dangled above the street from a wire extending from the woman's left wrist.
"I could just drop you." She wore a red helmet with an opaque face shield that distorted the sound of her voice.
Vinnie wrapped his arms around her waist. "You can't get rid of me that easily." He looked down her torso following the curves of her form-fitting armor. "Too bad I'm wearing a helmet. This position has some . . . possibilities."
He could feel her muscles tense under the armor. "If you make another suggestion like that, I'm going to break your neck."
"Don't tell me you got something against mice?" He brought his tail up and ran its tip along the back of her thigh.
She blew out her breath through clenched teeth. He could make that out through the distorter. The knuckles of her right fist pressed against the left side of his throat. He could feel the end of the barrel of the gun mounted on her glove. "Are you suicidal?"
"Death by you is definitely the way to go. Though I would prefer it if you slew me with a kiss."
She drew her hand back. "Not my style." The stun bolt from the gun built-into the glove knocked him into unconsciousness.
Throttle and Modo reunited at a waterfront park. "No Vinnie. Everything's going according to the plan."
"I wonder how she took him down. Give us some idea of what to expect." Modo glanced around warily.
"He probably stopped to flirt."
"Yeah," Modo laughed. "He's fallen hard for her." A whistling filled the air and the grey mouse grabbed his upper left arm with a grunt. He pulled a dart out of it. "Oh mama." He swayed briefly then toppled from his bike, crashing heavily on his side.
"Big Fella!" Throttle started to leap off his bike when he saw the black and red figure step out of the shadows of a nearby building. She brought her gun up again. A metal net shot from it and wrapped around Modo's bike, immobilizing it.
She turned the gun toward him, but he was ready. The laser bolt from his gun knocked it out of her hands. He fired again at her, but she dodged it and rolled behind the scant cover of a stone bench. "What did you do to him?"
"Fast-acting tranq. Also pretty effective against Regalian dragon mounts. Now it's down to just you and me."
"Yeah, lucky me." He revved his bike and drove straight for the park bench.
She rolled away and fired something from her left wrist. A thin cord lasso wrapped around his torso, pinning his arms to his sides. "Keep going," he ordered his bike.
She ran to a nearby tree, playing the cord out as they moved in opposite directions. She ran around the large oak twice, braced her feet against it, and stopped letting out cord.
His bike kept going. He jerked to a painful stop and fell to the ground. His bike turned, laser cannons beginning to emerge to blast him free. Throttle shook his head. "Go to Charley."
The bike beeped angrily at him but roared off the down the street.
Throttle turned. The black and red armored figure sauntered toward him. "Just give me a minute to get up."
She raised her right arm. He could see a small gun barrel mounted on the top of her hand. "Do you really think I'm going to let you?"
"Not really." He braced himself for the stun blast.
The female bounty hunter the Boss had hired was bending over the unconscious tan mouse. The goon sent to bring them back to the Tower frowned. "What are you doing?"
She straightened and turned her red helmet with a black face shield toward him. "Just making sure he's still alive. I don't get paid if he isn't."
The goon shivered as she sauntered over to check the grey mouse. Darth Vader isn't half as creepy. He watched her check the mouse's pulse, then she walked around his netted bike. "You caught one of their bikes. The Boss will probably pay extra for that."
She touched something on the net and it began to shrink into a cylinder she held in her hand. As soon as it was uncovered, the bike popped a wheelie and roared off down the street. "Well, we'll never know now," her distorted voice said philosophically.
Limburger grinned down at the unconscious Biker Mice. The day had finally come. They were at his mercy. And they were going to wish he possessed some before he was through with their worthless carcasses. He slid the solid Plutarkian steel door of their cell shut.
Benzine waited patiently in the hall. "If you are through gloating, I'd like to be paid."
"Of course you do. This way." He escorted her to Karbunkle's lab. The large-headed scientist carried a large aluminum briefcase forward. Upon Limburger's gesture, he opened it for her inspection. "Four-point-five million dollars in loose gems. And you have earned every penny, my dear . . . lady."
She ran a hand-held scanner over the contents of the case. "Amazing, you didn't try to scam me."
"I don't mind paying for a job well done. Well, I do mind, but good help is so hard to find these days. Would you be interested in a permanent position within my organization?"
"No." She closed the briefcase and took it from the lab-coated man. "I make it a practice to only work once for someone. I never know when I'll be paid more to hunt an employer."
Limburger gulped but recovered quickly as Benzine strode toward the transporter booth. "I trust your next stop is not Detroit?"
"Actually, I thought I would visit an Earth beach while they still exist. I have my money and I brought down the Biker Mice. I have no need to go to Brie unless he calls me." She stepped into the transporter booth and vanished in a bright blue flash of light.
Limburger pulled out a handkerchief, mopped his face with it, and sighed with relief. "A dangerous female, indeed."
Once all three bikes had arrived in the garage of Tala's building, Charley brought them and Tala's bike up the freight elevator to the top floor hanger bay for the ship. The ship was about the same size as the Stalker's ship. It was painted black with More Hot Stuff painted in white across its side.
The computer ran the lift into the cargo hold, and Charley had the bikes ready for the trip. Then she started working on the timers of the two dozen bombs, setting them for remote detonation. She sat on a bench set up near the workstation corner of the cargo hold and worked, trying not to worry about the Biker Mice.
The transporter booth in the corner of the cargo hold activated. Charley looked up from a bomb. A female figure in red and black armor stepped out of the blue light. She set down an aluminum briefcase, turned off the face shield, and pulled off her red helmet.
"I trust it went well." Charley folded her arms across her chest.
"Perfectly," Tala pushed her sweaty hair off her forehead. "Are you ready?"
"Just about. I still don't like this plan."
"It's not my plan. It's your friend Throttle's plan. I've gotten paid; you can trust me to keep up my end of the deal."
"You don't know how inspiring a comment like that is."
The blonde woman tugged apart the top of her armor. The seam split down her chest and she shrugged it off like a jacket. "I am one of the good guys. It's just been my experience that it's harder to be a good guy without a steady supply of cash. I'm going to change. Finish getting those bombs ready." She picked the briefcase back up and carried it out with her.
Charley resisted the urge to throw one of the bombs at her head. She had a point. This was Throttle's plan and when had one of Throttle's plans failed? She finished setting the timer on the last bomb as Tala returned dressed in the shirt and jeans she had worn earlier in the day. "All right, these things are wired for remote detonation. Now how are you supposed to transport me in and me and the guys out without Limburger finding out?"
Tala walked over the storage compartments set up in the workstation corner. She opened one cabinet, swung out a false back wall of tools, reached inside and pulled out two boxes. She handed them to Charley. Each black metal box had one button and a clip to hold it on a belt. "Portable transporter beacons. I only have two, so make sure you stay in pairs. Just hit the button when you're ready to come back. Do you have a gun?"
"Of course not. Those guys sleep with their weapons. You actually expect them to let me have one for keeps?"
She dived back into the cabinet with a sigh and pulled out a purple laser pistol like the ones the Mice use. "I hope you don't need it, but it's better to be prepared."
"Right." Charley set it down on the bench next to the bombs. She clipped the beacons to her utility belt and started packing the bombs into a bag. "Are you sure they won't sense a transporter going off?"
"Cautious, aren't you? I put a dampener on their own system. They shouldn't know anything unless they're in the same room with you. And that's what the gun is for."
Charley picked up the gun as she carefully slung the bag of bombs over her shoulder. "I guess that's it then. Time to go bust them out."
"Try not to get too excited." Tala grinned at her as Charley stepped into the transporter booth.
Throttle came to with a start. His hands were shackled together in front of him. Modo was snoring to his right. They were locked in a steel box of a cell. The door in front of them had a small window cut high in it and through it he could see an energy barrier in front of the door.
"You awake, Throttle?" Vinnie's voice came from the other side of Modo's bulk.
"Yeah." Throttle worked his mouth some more to get rid of the tangy metallic taste. "How long have we been out?"
"About an hour, more or less. So what comes next?" The white mouse scooted around Modo's legs to face Throttle. His hands were also shackled in front of him. "They took my flares."
Throttle curled his right hand and felt something sharp stick him in his palm under his nuke-knucks glove. "I think we got left a gift." Vinnie watched in confusion as he worked the tip of his tail into the glove and pulled out a lockpick tool and a small vial.
Vinnie grinned and cupped his hands under Throttle's. He caught the lockpick tool. "I knew she'd come through. Have I got great taste in babes or what?"
"Get these cuffs off me while I see what this does to sleeping beauty over there." Throttle pulled the stopper out of the vial. Wrapping his tail around it securely, he swung it under Modo's nose.
Modo's eye flew open as he sat up straight with a snort. "Get that stuff away, bro. It reeks." Throttle's shackles fell off his wrists. He recapped the vial and stowed it into the pouch on his utility belt before taking the lockpick tool and working on Vinnie's cuffs. "What'd she hit me with?" Modo continued.
"A tranq that is also very effective against Regalian dragon mounts."
Modo shuddered. "And I woke up?"
"Yeah, let's be glad the lady packed an antidote." A final twist and Vinnie was free. "See if there's a guard," Throttle ordered as he moved to work on Modo's restraints.
Vinnie bounded to the door. "Nah, no guard. Ole drippy drawers is gettin sloppy." A blue light flashed in the hallway and consolidated into a female form. "Hey, Charley-girl! Right on time."
"Are you guys okay?" Her worried face peered in through the window.
"Just dandy," Modo answered.
"Is our stuff out there?" Vinnie asked.
"Yeah. Let me get the door."
Modo's restraints fell away and Throttle stood up with a stretch. They joined Vinnie by the door. The blue energy field faded away and the door slid open.
Vinnie beelined straight for their weapons. Charley handed a small black box to Throttle. A matching one was clipped to her belt. "Tala called them portable transporter beacons. She also said we should stay in pairs and hit the button on them when we're ready to get out of here."
He clipped the beacon to his utility belt and caught his laser gun that Vinnie threw to him. "The bombs?"
She handed him the bag from her shoulder. "All rigged for remote detonation. The remote's back at Tala's ship."
"Okay, here's the plan. Me and Vinnie will set up the bombs. You and Modo find out what Limburger's up to with the orphanage. We'll rendezvous at Tala's transporter."
Everyone nodded and split up.
Charley and Modo eased quietly down the hall, pausing at an open door. She peered in. It was Karbunkle's lab. Limburger and the deranged doctor were inside talking to two aliens.
"Your shipment is on its way, Zekpith. Now where's my payment?" The Plutarkian disguised as a human bellowed.
The pink-skinned, willowy, tri-legged creature looked amused as it crossed both sets of its arms over its chest. "I've done business with Plutarkians before, Limburger. First shipment is confirmed and then we'll settle payment."
The beacon on Charley's belt beeped. She looked down as a bright blue glow began to surround her. Modo grabbed hold of her. The hall of Limburger's Tower vanished and was replaced by the cargo hold of Tala's ship. "What happened?"
Tala was strapping a gun belt around her waist. "That shipment Limburger was talking about is the orphans. He's sold them to Zekpith."
"How do you know that?" Modo growled.
"Did I forget to mention the beacons are bugged? Sorry, it must have slipped my mind. Now get out there before Zekpith's gang picks up the kids!" She grabbed hold of Modo's metal bionic arm and yanked him and Charley out of the transport booth. "Unless you want them to be slaves for the rest of their lives!"
Modo moved at that. He straddled his bike. "How do you get out of here?"
"Charley knows," Tala answered from inside the transporter booth. "I'll keep the scum busy. Karbunkle's lab, MC." She disappeared in a blue flash.
Charley grabbed her helmet and jumped on the back of Modo's bike. "That's the cargo hatch," she pointed to a section of the floor to the left of where the bikes were parked. Modo revved his bike and quickly moved over it. "MC, open the hatch."
"Cargo hatch opening," an electronically-synthesized voice answered.
The floor lowered them into a two-story-tall hanger bay. "The elevator?" He gestured to the large freight elevator behind the ship.
"Yeah." She tightened her hold around his waist as the bike accelerated into the elevator car. Modo yanked the gate down with his tail and pressed the button marked "G".
They watched the floors go by. The next one was a catwalk leading to a closed door. A long wait and then the next floor was a hall with four closed doors staggered down its length. The elevator stopped inside a parking garage. Modo revved his bike and shot out the open street exit.
"Why didn't she tell us she was after slavers?" he grumbled.
"Maybe she trusts us as much as we trust her."
"I think Throttle trusts her. Vinnie wants to get into her pants. What do you think, Charley-ma'am?"
"I don't think she's used to working as a team. She's not used to trusting other people with anything but business deals. She says she's one of the good guys."
"I hope she is. I hope she is." They continued to the orphanage in silence.
Transporter sniper attacks were hard. The glow always warned your target that you were coming. But usually the first shot was a freebie and it had to count.
Tala waited until the blue glow faded. She was back in Karbunkle's lab. Limburger, his evil scientist lackey, Zekpith, and one of his gang stood in front of her gaping at the blue glow. Her gun snapped up and fired. The chest of the lizardish humanoid exploded, spraying blue blood. He fell back as the others scattered.
Tala dodged too; threw herself into a hole built-in the floor near the door.
"Guns, Karbunkle!" Limburger bellowed. "Where in hell are the guns?"
Time to take advantage of the chaos. Tala peered over the floor. The humanoid with dark goggles and a shaggy bit of sandy hair on top of his large head was inching toward a storage cabinet. A laser bolt exploding in front of him sent him scurrying back under a table with a yelp.
"If this is a double-cross, I will have your head, Plutarkian," Zekpith growled.
Tala eased up out of the hole. She shot the controls to the main door and it slid shut. "Limburger didn't have anything to do with this, Zekpith."
The triped alien crouched behind a computer console. "You psychopathic bitch! Killing me won't bring that slave back to life!"
She shot the computer console. Zekpith said something--probably not praising her aim--in his native tongue and scrambled away from the sparking equipment. "No, it won't bring him back. But it will keep others from suffering his fate." She stepped forward.
Zekpith stared up at the human female with a laser pistol slowly walking toward him. He then turned and looked at the transporter booth almost directly in front of him, only fifteen feet away. He glanced back at Tala and made up his mind. He scrambled forward on four hands and two knees, keeping his long thin body close to the ground and sticking his third leg into the air like a periscope.
The shot was too easy to miss. The laser bolt connected with Zekpith's elongated head. It split apart, scattering the brain tissue within across the floor of the lab. The body continued moving forward a couple of feet before jerking to a halt.
"Kalan te n'qu, Ntah, vapin sh'plor." (Translation) Tala murmured and kissed the braided scar on her inner right wrist. She scanned the lab. Limburger cowered under an examination table; his ass facing her. That's at least his third or fourth consecutive mistake today. She stepped silently toward him.
Limburger peered out at the lab through his white-gloved fingers. It appeared to be empty. He heaved a sigh. Then the hand grabbed his tie and the collar of his shirt. It yanked him from beneath the table and to his feet. A barrel of a laser gun jammed into the fleshy part of his third chin. He stared into the wrathful face of the human female.
"You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, Limburger." She pushed the gun further in. The Plutarkian gagged. "So I'm just going to warn you. Any more business deals with slavers, and you'll have to call the entire Martian army to save your scaly ass from me."
She released him and shoved him back. He flailed his arms but still lost his balance and fell back on his ass. Tala smirked and hit the transporter remote beacon button built into the buckle of her gun belt. The lab vanished in a blue flash and was replaced by the cargo hold of More Hot Stuff that could be seen from the transporter booth.
Tala stepped out of the booth with a sigh. "Hopefully, Charley and Modo managed to get to the kids in time."
Modo brought his bike to a stop next to the school bus parked in front of the orphanage. Charley slid off, glancing up at the bus. The orphans rushed to the windows to get a better look. "I'll get the kids; you find Mrs. Biddle."
"Right." Modo drove his bike up to the front door but not inside the building. He jumped off and ran through the main doors.
Charley jerked open the doors of the running bus and climbed up the steps until she could look down the length of the bus. "Hi, Miss Charley," Kara chirped from the front seat to the left. "Are you and Mr. Modo coming on the field trip too?"
"I think the field trip is going to be cancelled." Charley pushed up the face shield on her helmet.
"I don't think so," a silky feminine voice replied. "It would disappoint the children."
Modo ran down the hall of the orphanage to the director's office. He threw open the door with such force the frosted glass panel in it shattered. "Mrs. Biddle!"
Thumps came from another door behind the desk. He gingerly crossed the furniture-filled room and opened it. The matronly director of the orphanage was bound and gagged on the center of the closet floor. The grey-furred mouse reached in and pulled her out. He set her down in her chair behind the desk, untying her hands and undoing the gag. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
"That horrible woman," she spluttered, "dressed up like a cat. She's going to kidnap the children!"
Modo's eye blazed red. "Over my dead body!" He vaulted over the desk and ran out the door.
Charley turned slightly. A humanoid feline stood in the door of the bus, one foot on the first step and one foot on the ground. Her coloration matched that of a Siamese cat. She aimed a laser pistol at the human's back. "Well now, what do we have here? The driver?"
"I'm not letting you take these kids."
"There doesn't appear to be any way for you to stop me. Drop your gun, please. We don't want any of the children to get shot accidentally, do we?" Charley dropped the gun on the floor of the bus. The feline smirked and stepped completely onto the first step. "Very good." She pulled a remote control from a pouch on her belt and aimed it through the bus's windshield. A large blue energy field expanded in front of the bus. The blue rectangle grew large enough to allow the bus to pass through. "Now, you will drive."
Charley moved like she was going to get into the driver's seat but squatted instead, turned to face the door completely, and launched herself at the alien. She tackled the humanoid feline's midsection and the laser gun went off as they flew out of the bus.
Modo ran through the main doors of the orphanage. Charley and a humanoid feline were rolling together on the lawn. And the school bus was rolling toward a blue transporter field. "Oh mama!" He threw himself between the bus and the energy field. He dug his feet into the ground and pushed.
The bus's progress slowed, but it still forced Modo closer to the transporter field. His grey tail lashed from side to side and his eye blazed red. "Li'l Hoss! Yank the bus!"
Modo's bike beeped and roared to behind the bus. A grappling hook and line shot out from under the seat. The hook grabbed hold of the bus's frame. The bike popped a wheelie, bringing up the slack in the line, and pulled.
The bus stopped moving, but Modo could feel it straining to go forward.
The feline alien rolled on top of Charley with a snarl. Her right hand moved back and claws extended from the fingertips.
The human moved her feet onto the feline's stomach and shoved just as the claws came down. The sound of ripping cloth accompanied the alien flying over the human's head and landing roughly on her back.
Charley jumped to her feet. Modo and his bike were struggling to keep the bus from rolling forward into the transporter field. She jumped on board the bus.
The children bombarded her with questions as she looked down at the driver's seat. The laser bolt had shifted the stick into drive. She pulled it back into park and turned off the ignition. She grabbed her laser gun off the floor of the bus and jumped out.
The humanoid feline had reached her feet and hissed at Charley. Then she ran toward the transporter field. Charley fired but the shot missed. "Modo!"
The mouse yanked his tail to grab her, but she dodged it as she dived into the blue energy. "Missed!"
"It's all right." She sprinted around the transporter energy field and shut off the remote. "The kids are safe, that's what's important."
Modo straightened and turned to face her. He made a short squawking noise, blushed, and turned away. "Feelin drafty, Charley-ma'am?"
She looked down at her shirt. The feline's claws had left four vertical rips from her left shoulder to her waist. She wasn't scratched, but her bra was exposed. "Oh hell. I really liked this shirt, too."
Throttle and Vinnie arrived in the transporter booth with a blue flash of light. "Good, it worked."
"With the prices she charges, do you really expect her to have shoddy equipment?" Vinnie glanced over at his tan-furred bro and snorted. He stepped out of the booth. His bike, Throttle's bike, and Tala's bike were parked in the center of the room. "Hey, Modo's ride isn't here."
"Not good," Throttle responded as he knelt down to look out the open cargo lift in the floor of the ship. Skid marks covered the floor of the lift and the cement floor beside it. "Taking off at high speed was not part of the plan."
"Maybe Tala knows what's going on." Vinnie quickly headed through the door to the rest of the ship.
Throttle stood up and walked over to his bike. He hit the CB radio. "Modo? Where are you, bro?"
One of the older orphans had found a T-shirt that fit her. Charley had changed quickly. She tied the transporter remote down to Modo's bike and glanced over at the bus. The seven-foot-tall mouse had two kids hanging off each arm and the rest of them milled at his feet. She giggled; he was in his element.
The CB crackled to life. "Modo? Where are you, bro?" Throttle sounded worried, well as worried as he let himself sound.
She reached over and answered it. "He's getting mobbed by some impressed kids. We got to the orphanage in time to stop some slavers from kidnapping them."
"Son of a rat! That's what he was up to?"
"Yeah, we'll head back as soon as I can pull Modo away."
"All right. Just make sure you avoid the Tower."
"Will do." Charley signed off and turned back to the pile of kids and mouse. "Modo, we have to go!"
Vinnie peered down the hall. It was a straight shot from the cargo hold to the cockpit and all the doors leading off were open. He trotted through it, glancing into each room.
The first one on his left was a bathroom, empty. The next doorway on his
right had to be Tala's private quarters. He paused to take a good look. The
walls were painted in a muted blue-green color, matched by blue-green carpet on
the floor, and a blue-green bedspread draped over the bed. The only things
spoiling the underwater feeling was Tala's black and red armor thrown carelessly
onto the bed and a framed painting on the wall of a
young human girl walking away from the fiery destruction behind her. Vinnie got
the impression that she had caused the mayhem. Oddly disconcerting.
The door next to Tala's quarters led to a medical bay. Vinnie passed it quickly. The inanimate robot arms hanging from the ceiling over a examination table; a shiver went down his back and through his tail. She isn't Karbunkle, she isn't Karbunkle.
The door on the left side of the hall opened into a large combination room--a galley, a table to eat at, and a lounge section arranged in front of a vidcom unit on the wall that looked like it was wired to a VCR.
The next three doors all led to sleeping quarters. The room next to the medical bay had three single bunks. This would be where he and his bros would probably sleep. The two rooms between the cockpit and the rest of the ship each had a double bunk in them. Charley had already claimed one by leaving her overnight bag on a bunk.
He peered into the cockpit last. Empty as the rest of the ship. He jogged back to the cargo hold. Throttle clicked off the CB and looked up from his bike. "Tala ain't here, bro. But her ship's a beaut."
The transporter booth activated. The blonde woman stepped out of the receding blue glow dressed in her faded black jeans and a maroon long-sleeved shirt. "Where did you go?" Vinnie demanded.
She looked at him crossly as she holstered her gun. "I just remembered that I left a coffeepot on at my other place of residence. So I bipped over there and turned it off before I burned down the house. Or I bipped over to Limburger's to execute what members of Zekpith's gang I could find. Give me a few more minutes and I can come up with a few more scenarios for you to pick from if you like." She turned to Throttle. "Did Modo and Charley make it in time?"
"Yeah, the kids are safe."
Tala's stance shifted, relaxing slightly. "Good. Then all we have to do is blow Limburger's Tower."
Vinnie laughed. "Just show me the button, Sweetheart!" She walked over to the work station in the corner of the cargo hold and picked up a remote control. She tossed it to the white-furred mouse who caught it easily. "All right! Light my fires for the Big Cheese tonight!"
"We can watch in the lounge," she offered. Vinnie quickly jogged down the hall. Throttle trailed after Tala. "Is he always this eager?"
"Over explosions?" Throttle replied. "Usually."
Charley finally pulled Modo from the kids and got him back on his bike. In the distance inside the city, they saw the tan skyscraper of Limburger's Tower crumble to bits in a deafening explosion. "Next stop Mars."
"Yeah," Modo answered. "But I'd feel better if Throttle would tell us why we're going."
"It can't be something too serious. Otherwise, they could have radioed or sent somebody in the Stalkers' ship. Maybe it's something with his family?"
"Throttle ain't got any family left on Mars. Except Carbine."
Charley frowned. The exchange between Tala and Throttle in the garage earlier; his reluctance to share what was in the letter. No one else could read a letter unless the receiver let them. More private than a radio message. More distant than a face-to-face. "It's a 'dear John' letter!"
"A dear who?" Modo eased his bike around a corner.
"A break-up letter. Carbine's breaking up with him. It's the only thing that makes sense."
"Oh mama." The large grey mouse sucked in a deep lungful of air. "I should've seen this comin. Carbine ain't exactly the type to sit around and wait."
"And Throttle ain't the type to go back home when there's a job to do. Do you think he's got a chance of getting her back?"
"I hope not. Those two fight more than they ever get along. There was a pool running among the Freedom Fighters over who would kill them first--the Plutarkians or each other."
"But Throttle's not going to give up."
"And Carbine ain't gonna let him win a fight. Man, there might be something left of Mars when they get done."
"Is it really going to be that bad?"
"Carbine's pretty vindictive. She tried to kills us last time we went home."
"But that was over that stuff that Brie sent, trying to say you guys were traitors."
They turned onto the street that led to Tala's building. "Not all of it, Charley-ma'am. Not all of it."
Vinnie sighed. He had forgotten how boring space travel was. Here they were, halfway to Mars, and he had nothing to do. Throttle had commandeered the cargo hold and snarled at anyone who came in. Something in that letter sure bit him in the ass, but Vinnie didn't really want to push him to find out what. When Throttle got upset about something, he was scary. You didn't know how long he was going to stay upset. If Vinnie had a choice, he preferred Modo's temper tantrums. At least you knew when they were over.
Modo was worrying over Throttle. Charley was sleeping. So that left Tala. He grinned. Hopefully, she ain't in her quarters or the cockpit. Cause I think she was serious about tossing anybody out of the airlock if they broke the off-limits rule.
He stuck his head in the lounge. Luck was with him. She was curled up on one end of the couch writing in a notebook propped against her knees. The radio set on the end table behind her back played softly.
You pack your
You take control
You're moving into my heart
Into my soul
Get out of my way
Get out of my sight
I won't be walking on thin ice
To get through the night
Hey where's your work?
What's your game?
I know your business
Don't know your name
Vinnie leaned over the back of the couch. "You keep a diary, Sweetheart? Whatcha say about me?"
"Don't call me Sweetheart. And it's a letter home to Mom actually."
"Really?" He peered down at the page. "What kind of language is that?"
"One most people can't read." Her blue eyes didn't look up.
"So what did you tell your Mom about me?"
She sighed. "Dear Mom, I finally killed the bastard who killed Father. He decided to come out of hiding to do business with a Plutarkian on Earth. With clan honor restored, I took a nice safe job of ferrying some mice to Mars and back to Earth. One of them seems to have a crush on me, but he's the type you've always warned me about: a hot-headed egotist just looking for a good lay. Your daughter isn't looking for a roll in the hay, but he doesn't seem to take no for an answer. Please advise." She straightened her knees and set the notebook on her lap, turning to look at him in the face.
"Harsh, babe. I like to go out a few times before third base. Or at least once." He smirked at her.
"I'm not interested in one night stands. Or steady
Hold on tight
You know she's a little bit
"Have you ever had either?"
"That's none of your business. Why?"
"Maybe you don't know what your missing." Vinnie suggested as he rested his chin on his crossed arms on the top of the couch.
"I'm doing just fine without it." She snapped at him. "And even if I was going to chance it, it wouldn't be with someone like you."
"Why? What's wrong with me?"
She's got what it takes
To make ends meet
The eyes of a lover
That hit like heat
You know she's a little bit
"The ones who talk the most have the least to talk about. It's a type of compensation. I think you've got a mega case of it."
Vinnie raised his eyebrows. "I don't need to compensate for anything, Doll-face."
"Well, I guess we'll never know cause I don't need to find out." She turned back to her notebook.
"The ones that say they don't need it usually want it the
You turn around
So hot and dry
You're hiding under a halo
Your mouth is alive
Get out of my way
Get out of my sight
I'm not attracted to go
Go deeper tonight
Hey what's your word?
What's your game?
I know your business
But I don't know your name
Her head snapped back up. Her eyes were icy with anger. "How dare you say something like that!"
"Must've hit a nerve."
"You don't know anything about me!"
He cocked his head to one side. "I know you got burned once. Used and abused.
And you're still bitter over it." The anger was fading from her eyes, leaving
her face vulnerable, accessible. "Maybe you oughta take a chance on doing
the burning once." He leaned further over the couch and reached out with his
right hand. He gently ran his fingertips down her jaw, drawing her face closer
Hold on tight
You know she's a little bit
She's got what it takes
To make ends meet
The eyes of a lover
That hit like heat
She was breathing quicker. He could feel her rapid pulse under her jaw. His
own blood pounded in his ears. He tilted his head to kiss her and closed his
Hold on tight
You know she's a little bit
Tala yanked back before their lips met. Vinnie felt her face slip away from his fingers and opened his red eyes. The blood had drained away from her face leaving it a very pasty color. She snatched up her notebook and scrambled off the couch. She fled the room narrowly missing Charley in the hall. All he could do was turn his head to watch.
"Whoa," Charley said as she walked into the lounge. "What did you do?"
"Nothing," he said emphatically. "She ran out first." Charley was frowning at him. He straightened his back and walked around the couch to the vidcom unit and VCR. "Think we can watch movies on this set-up?"
Tala slid the cockpit door shut and sat down in the pilot's seat. Damn that mouse! No one should be able to see me that well. Especially not some hot-headed idealist that thinks with his trigger finger. Damn him!
She took a deep breath and stared out of the cockpit windows at the endless night. Mars was visible as a planet now, rather than just a reddish star.
She needed to finish her letter to Maytre. She looked down at her notebook. (Translation)
Honored Maytre, mother-by-choice,
The one responsible for Ntah's death walks in the shadows. As a warrior, as a daughter, as the savior of Ntah's soul, I sent him to the Dark Valley.
He who was called Zekpith came to Earth to ply his trade. I followed your advice and trusted other warriors with loved ones at risk. I was able to complete my task and Zekpith's warriors were prevented from completing his plan.
One of the warriors I have trusted is the lover from my dreams. I know you have told me to trust the dreams, that they will lead to the healing of my soul. But this mouse isn't interested in healing my soul, only possessing my body.
Tala sighed and picked up her pen.
Yet, he is able to see my soul and read the pain it holds. Almost without trying. Or is he just able to say what makes others trust him? I would not normally credit him with that much guile, which probably shows how badly he has wreaked my balance. But then he seems very good at wreaking things.
I feel that your advice would be to give the mouse a chance, to treat him as a prospective suitor. And I will try as well as I am able.
She sighed her given name with flourish and pulled the paper from the notebook. The envelopes were inside the folder built into the cover of the notebook. She was pulling one out when she heard someone at the door of the cockpit.
She sighed, putting down the notebook, letter, and envelope on the console's empty space. She opened the door and found herself looking at the red, blue, and black chestplate. She craned her neck so the seven-foot-tall mouse could see her scowl. "Off limits, remember?"
Modo looked pensively over his shoulder. But the door to the cargo hold was closed. "I want to call Mars. Without anybody else knowin'."
"And warn them that he's coming?" Tala gestured toward the cargo hold. "Don't you think it would be more fun to sit back and watch?"
"My grey-furred mama always said 'never make fun of someone else's pain.' And Throttle's in a lot of pain. Let me call somebody who can help him."
"All right. Make it quick." She grabbed her notebook, letter, and envelope; pointed out the radio; and kept watch outside the cockpit door.
He made it quick, stepping back out in about six minutes. "Thanks."
She shrugged it off. "Thank me if it works." He ducked into the lounge. She put her letter into the envelope and sealed it.
Throttle looked up from his bike's engine with a scowl but looked back down quickly when he saw who was at the door. Heavy metal boomed out of the radio built into the workstation.
"I'm not here to interrupt your angst session." She walked over to the transporter booth, entered the coordinates, set the envelope inside, and sent it away.
"Is that how you deliver all your mail?" he asked.
"Only my letters home to mother. And before you ask, I offered to transport your letter but the sender didn't like the idea."
Throttle grimaced. "When you care enough to send the very best," he quipped bitterly.
Maybe Modo had the right idea. The mouse had turned back to his bike and she left the cargo hold. Sounds of movie explosions echoed down the hall from the lounge. She ducked into her quarters.
She sat down on her bed and shifted through the contents of the briefcase. The fiery beauty of the cold stones caught her breath in her throat. Had Limburger even seen their power? She thought not.
She slid the smooth, multicolored stones through her fingers one last time, then stood up and gathered a portable scanner for MC and a calculator.
Four and a half million dollars minus her fee still left three million seven hundred fifty thousand dollars. She plugged the numbers into her calculator and divided by five. She took her share of seven hundred fifty thousand dollars out of the briefcase and closed the remaining three million in gems inside it.
She eased off the bed and lifted the blue-green bedspread. A drawer built into the metal base of the bed had a fingerprint scan-lock on it. She opened it quickly and scooped her gems inside. Closing it locked the drawer and after pulling the bedspread back in place, Tala picked up the briefcase and left her quarters.
Two mice sat on the couch with the human woman between them completely engrossed in the car chase on the vidcom screen. "This movie gets better every time I watch it!" Vinnie gushed.
"And this is only what? Your eighth or ninth time?" Charley grinned at him.
"More than that, babe. But it's a classic. You never get tired of watching a classic."
Tala stayed by the door. The metal mask on the white mouse wrapped around the back of his head. He's lucky that whatever caused needing it in the first place hadn't taken his ear off as well. She shook her head. Hell, what's wrong with me? "Charley, could I talk to you?"
Everyone on the couch turned at the sound of her voice. "Sure," Charley answered easily, standing up.
Tala didn't linger at the door. Instead she moved down the hall to the sleeping quarters Charley had claimed.
"Is something wrong?" She asked as she joined Tala in the room.
"No, I need to talk business and Throttle doesn't seem to be in the mood. Here." She handed the chestnut-haired woman the briefcase.
Charley sat down on the bed placing the aluminum monstrosity of luggage on her lap. She opened it and gasped. "Holy shit! Are they real?"
"Completely. It's amazing how scaring the shit out of a Plutarkian first helps business negotiations. Anyway, I already took my fee for taking you to Mars and back to Earth and my share out. So that's for you and the mice."
Charley jerked her head up. "How much?"
"For the four of you? Three million. Here's the name of the guy in Chicago I've used for turning gems into currency." Tala gave the stunned woman one of her business cards with a name and address wrote out on the back. "He won't stiff you."
"I've never seen three million dollars worth of anything before. They're beautiful."
"And they're valuable on just about every planet in the galaxy. Much safer than doing business in currency."
Charley looked up with puzzled green eyes. "You could have kept all this?"
Tala shook her head. "That wouldn't be fair. It's a personal goal of mine to bleed Plutarkians--either literally or financially. You guys actually ran the risks, you deserve a share of the profits. Besides, it's easier to be a good guy when you've got the funds. And I've seen how those guys eat. If you ain't broke yet, you will be in a few more months."
"The guys being able to pay for their keep. Without having to get jobs. They'll like that."
"Can you wait till you're back on Earth to tell them?"
Charley looked up with a slight smirk. "Don't wanna ruin your reputation?"
"Reputation? Nah, what you see is what you got. I don't try to hide who I am essentially. I just don't want Vinnie to try to woo me with a display of wealth."
"All right." She closed the briefcase. "I'll wait. There's nothing between him and me," she added nonchalantly.
"Is that the reason he came up with for my sudden departure?" Tala could feel the heat rise from her chest to her cheeks. Now, I'm blushing! Goddamn that mouse!
"No, he hasn't said anything about it. It was my reason."
"I just had the sudden desire not to be kissed, that's all. I better go check on our progress." Tala fled from Charley's quarters and into the safety of the cockpit.
Kalan te n'qu, Ntah, vapin sh'plor. = Rest your soul,
Ntah, Father by choice.
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Letter translated in text on account of its
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