Family, Friends, and Foes

Chapter Nine
Whoa! We're All on the Same Side

"He's gonna die!" Sparks wailed. "He can't die!" The young mouse broke free of Charley's grasp and lunged into Tala's medbay. Modo grabbed hold of him before he jumped onto Tala. "You don't let people who help you die! You gotta fix him!"

The blonde human woman looked even more tired. "Sparks, we'll do what we can, but I'm not a doctor, and neither is MC. I don't know what else to tell you."

His grey face crumpled, and he pulled away from the larger grey mouse's hands. He barreled into the ship's hallway, narrowly missing Charley and shoving Vinnie aside.

"Sparks!" Modo called out after him. He left Zack in Tala's care and chased his son, with no idea what to tell him to make it better. He found him in the ship's lounge, kicking the wall. "Don't do that." Modo said gently as he turned Sparks around to face him. He knelt down on one knee to be closer to eye level.

"It's not right! I was there! I should've stopped 'em! I should've done something!" Sparks was so close to tears his whole body shook with the effort to contain them.

Damn, I'm supposed to say something. What can I say? I don't know how to make this kinda pain go away for myself. Modo felt his words fumble away as he tried to say anything. A gentle hand touched his shoulder.

"You did everything you could, Sparks," Charley said quietly. "You got our attention twice in one night. Not easy to do with these three lunkheads. If it hadn't been for you, he'd still be in Limburger Tower."

A large tear started to roll out of his right eye. "But it's not enough."

Modo wrapped his arms around him and pulled him into a hug. "Maybe, maybe not. As my grey-furred Momma used to say, only time will tell." Sparks buried his face against his father's neck and shoulder. Modo looked up at Charley and mouthed 'thank you.'

The human woman with red-brown hair nodded sadly and placed her hand on the back of Sparks' head.

Tala's face twisted slightly as Modo left the medbay. "Hell, it's not like I want the kid to die."

Vinnie stepped closer to the door as Charley went after Modo and Sparks. "Don't take it personally, babe. He's just like Modo--can't stand to see anybody hurtin' unless it's Limburger."

"Whatever. Help me get him comfortable. Looks like he's going to be stuck in bed for a while."

Vinnie took a deep breath as his heart pounded. Show no fear, damnit! You'll never impress her if you freak out. He moved inside quickly, avoiding the robot arms as much as possible, and started taking off the human boy's boots. This ain't Karbunkle's lab! This ain't Karbunkle's lab!

Tala didn't say anything about his nervousness. "Does he have a name?" She started unbuttoning the boy's shirt.

"Sparks called him Zack."

"Well, Zack has nice jewelry." She started to pull a circular medallion--an intricately carved profile of a dragon's head with a purple gem for its eye--over his head.

The boy's hand wrapped around her wrist with surprising strength. "Mine!"

"I'm taking it off, not stealing it."

His grasp began to loosen. "Sis? Allie?"

Vinnie jerked his head and stared at the kid's face. Even disregarding the purple color his skin was taking, Zack didn't share any resemblance with the Allie he had met earlier.

"My name is Tala. I'm just trying to help you."

Vinnie felt a wave of jealousy. He wanted Tala to speak that gently to him, just once.

Zack dropped his hand. "You have her eyes," he said in an almost soundless voice. "Eyes that have seen a thousand pains and never shed a single tear. That's how Mike described her eyes in a song."

Vinnie looked up at Tala's face as Zack fell unconscious again. The color was different--Tala's eyes were a steely grey-blue--but the same haunting pain filled them. How had he missed it before? "He's right."

Her head jerked up so sharply, her short blonde hair seemed to bristle. "Turning into a poet, Mouse Scout?"

"No, I've met his sister. That means his clan name is Baker."

"They're called last names on Earth."

Vinnie shrugged off the information. Does she even know her brother is here in Chicago? Or was captured with Sparks? We need to radio Throttle, so he can tell her.

"Is she pretty?" Tala asked bitingly.

That tone got his attention. "Jealous, Doll-face?"

"I was asking for comparison."

"Good answer," he returned sarcastically. "She's shorter than you, with light blonde hair down to her shoulders and sky-blue eyes. Three scars across her cheek like this." He traced them against his own face best he could.

Tala took the medallion and set it carefully in a small, box-shaped shelf mounted on the wall near the head of the bed. "Do you give such detailed descriptions of guys?" She asked as she crossed her arms over her chest. Which pulled the fabric of the robe in interesting ways, Vinnie noticed.

"Not hardly. But really, you don't have anything to worry about. I could make her swoon if I tried, but I'm not getting between whatever she and the mysterious Mike have going. Any guy that can see her that well deserves her." He turned away so he wasn't directly facing her but could still see her face. "Sides, it would mess up what we got goin'."

Her face shifted to that vulnerable look she didn't use often. "We don't have anything."

"Yes, we do. It's just not official yet."

"You are the most deluded mouse I have ever...."

The feminine electronic voice of the ship's computer interrupted. "We have intruders in the building."

"Throttle's back?" Vinnie turned to the computer terminal.

"No, these are two unidentified humans. They transported onto the third level. Somehow they managed to elude the detectors."

Tala turned back to the computer terminal and gave Vinnie an eyeful of her bare leg. How much is she wearing under that robe? He eased closer to her as she split the computer screen between Zack's health readings and the security camera. His tail inched under the hem of her robe.

"Unless you want it in a sling, your tail better not be anywhere near me." Her hands moved over the keys and zoomed the camera in.

He jerked back his tail. "Who me? Grope you with my tail?"

"Drop the innocent act. Subtlety ain't one of your talents. Have you ever seen these people before?"

Vinnie stared at the two bikers. A huge man with dark skin, taller and wider than the Pit Boss, stood behind a skinny woman with long black hair who held a laser rifle. "Nope, never seen them before. But they're armed."

"Yeah and I'm not. And there's still monitoring to be set up on Zack. Think you and Modo can find out what they want?"

"Do you doubt it?" Vinnie grinned cockily at her.

Tala sighed. "Just don't start a firefight, okay? That floor supports the rest of the building."

"Aye, aye." He gave a choppy salute and bolted out to find Modo. He found him, Charley, and Sparks in the lounge of the ship having a group hug. "I hate to break up a Kodak moment but we got trouble, Big Fella."

Modo released Sparks and stood up. "Throttle?"

"No, Tala's got some uninvited visitors. Wants us to deal with 'em since she's in her robe and all."

"You two watch the kid. Let's go, Vin-man." They left the ship through its underbelly ramp and headed to the freight elevator. "How many?"

"Two, armed. But the guy is twice as big as you are. I'm talking Andre the Giant category."

Modo grinned. Probably as ready to pound someone as I am, Vinnie thought. "This should prove interesting," the grey-furred mouse rumbled.

"Tail whippin' time."

Trash headed out of the last empty and partially renovated apartment on the floor. "This is a complete bust. We should go back to that Limburger building."

"You'll go back," an angry voice answered her. And Eight couldn't talk.

She swiveled around to face the other end of the hall. The freight elevator's wire cage door was thrown open and two male furries stepped out. Deliciously sculpted males that resembled giant mice close to seven-feet-tall. But Mickey never looked that yummy. The second thing to register was that they were both armed and looked pissed.

Eight lumbered out of an apartment from the other side of the hall and stood behind her.

The shorter one with white fur and some sort of shiny chrome Phantom of the Opera mask on the right side of his face brandished a purple handgun built along the same lines as the laser rifle she had commandeered. And his fuse had been lit. But what did we do? We didn't hurt anything. He continued speaking, "You'll go back in a couple of pieces!"

Trash glanced up at Eight and found her you-gotta-be-kidding expression mirrored on his face. She turned back to the two mouse humanoids. "So we're just going to skip the introduction and explanation bit and get right to the fun. I can handle that. Come on, big mouth. Let's see if you've got the fists to back it up." She tossed the laser rifle to Eight and settled into a boxing stance.

He glanced up at his companion, a grey-furred mouse a foot taller than himself and sporting an eye patch over his left eye and a boxy, metal right arm. "You ain't gonna get mad if I hit her?"

"Not if they work for the Big Cheese," he rumbled back.

"What's a matter, afraid a girl's gonna kick your ass?"

The white-furred mouse growled through clenched teeth. "I'm gonna make you eat that!" He charged forward, tossing aside his own gun.

Eight stepped back and cleared almost six feet. The mouse swung a punch that she easily ducked under. Then she grabbed hold of his hips and lifted him over her head. She heaved him into his pal. They both went down.

Trash howled in utter delight. "Share the fun!" And she dived into the fur pile, hitting one's stomach with her fist and the other's stomach with her knee. She checked her strength. I wanna have a little fun, not find their guts around my fists.

Charley and Sparks gaped at the portion of the computer screen showing the fight. The biker girl was mopping the floor with Vinnie and Modo at the same time. Charley couldn't tear her eyes away, no matter how badly she wanted to. I've never seen a human that could take them in a straight fight, without using martial arts or something!

Tala's face was grim. "What the hell is she on?"

"I gotta help!" Sparks bolted out of the medbay.

"Sparks, no!"

Tala grabbed Charley's arm. She skidded to a stop as Sparks disappeared. "Stay here with Zack. I'll go break that up."

Her anger flared. "Who in the universe decided I needed to be surrounded by chauvinists?"

Tala looked mildly amused and annoyed. "They came from Limburger Tower. Probably chasing after the kid. If we can't stop them, you're it." She reached into a cabinet under the computer terminal and brought out a laser pistol. She tossed it to Charley as she left the room. "Good luck."

"All this for one sick kid." Charley glanced at the form in the bed. Throttle, where are you?

Trash had the white mouse humanoid pinned down with her legs. The grey one underneath her arms was reaching to lever her off with his metal arm. If we were all naked, this would be really fun. She snickered at that dirty thought and bent the metal arm away from her throat. He tried to stifle the grunts of pain.

A flash of blue light lit the hall behind her and someone jumped on her back. A pair of legs wrapped around her waist, a pair of arms and something rope-like snaked around her throat. And they all began to squeeze. "Get off my Dad!"

Her vision began to swim. She let go of the grey one and started trying to pry off the arms. But the grip was established and she couldn't find a way to break it. Her lungs burned. Suddenly, her feet dangled in the air. The mice humanoids scrambled to stand up.

"Let me go!" The shrill voice cried behind her head. A violent shake followed that demand. Another shake and Trash was released. She landed on her hands and knees and gratefully gulped down air. She looked over her shoulder. Eight held a smaller grey mouse humanoid by the base of his tail.

She turned back and coughed. The other two had reached their feet and the larger grey one's remaining eye glowed red. "Let go of my son!" A boxy portion of his metal arm lifted up and pointed at Eight.

The larger black man's eyebrows lifted up higher on his shaven head as he stared down the barrel of the weapon. He wrapped his left hand around the mouse's waist, let go of the tail, and handed him to the father. The red eye's glow faded as his face grew more confused, but he took his son and set him down beside him.

Trash cleared her throat. "Oh man. See me later tonight for some S&M."

Eight laughed in deep hoots. The white-furred mouse humanoid snickered loudly. The large grey-furred one spluttered. And the voice of the one who had grabbed her demanded. "What? What is she talking about? What's so funny?"

Trash took a good look at him as she stood up. The kid was about four feet tall--a little shorter than Zack--and obviously younger than his strength had led her to believe. "Oh crap, you haven't even hit puberty yet!" Her face grew hot.

Eight hooted louder. Trash whirled around to glare up at him. "If you tell anyone about this, you are dead!"

His white teeth gleamed as he grinned. He tapped his temple then pantomimed a talking mouth with his hand.

"Oh that's cute. Real cute."

"Excessively," a new female voice added. Eight turned and Trash peered around his bulk. A human woman with short, tousled blonde hair and dressed in a red and black, rigid jumpsuit, held what looked like a tranq rifle. "Good job breaking it up, Sparks."

"Thanks," the kid replied doubtfully.

"Now," she focused on Eight and Trash. "Who are you and why are you in my building? And if that fat fish sent you, he sure didn't pay you enough."

Trash looked up at Eight. Eight shrugged, pointed to himself and folded his arms across his chest, then pointed at her, and shadowboxed with his fists.

"Oh sure, blame it all on me." Trash sighed. "I'm Trash, and this is Eight. We're not working for anybody. We're here by accident."

"You said you came from Limburger Tower!" The white-furred mouse interjected.

"The tan and blue skyscraper with the Limburger name on it? Yeah, that's where we were before Eight got us here. We were ambushed coming into town, and some friends got nabbed. They ended up at that Limburger Tower; we went in to get them out, but seriously underestimated the amount of firepower needed. And then Eight teleported us here and left everybody else back at the skyscraper getting shot at." And we've been in worse spots. Ryan'll get out. He better get them out!

Eight shrugged with a resigned expression.

"Wait a minute," the owner of the building interjected. "We'd be able to detect energy signatures from Plutarkian transport booths."

Trash flipped her black hair over to the left side, exposing the shaven skull underneath it. "Transport booth? We didn't use whatever the hell that is. Eight poofed us here."

She shook her head in disbelief. "Humans can't do that."

What is this lady's problem? She lives with fuzz balls and still commutes to denial land? Guess I'll have to spell it out for her. "We're not human, not anymore."

"Are you Mutates?" the kid named Sparks asked.

Trash turned to look at the kid and his dad and their pal. "You're not?"

"We're Martians."

"You know it's not always a good idea to tell everyone on Earth that." The woman in the jumpsuit informed the kid in a weary voice.

"What are Mutates?" his dad asked him.

"I don't know, but Zack thought I was one."

"You have Zack? Here?" Trash nearly leaped with glee. Sparks nodded cautiously. "Wahoo! That's one accounted for! Do you have Donnie or Di?"

The kid looked slightly disturbed by her enthusiasm. "No, who are they?"

Trash waved it off. "Way long story and doesn't matter since we have to account for the rest of the group." But Zack is the important one. Don't know why that norm is so important, but he's safe now. One less thing to worry about.

The white-furred Martian's finger jerked back and forth between Trash and Eight. "You're the friends he said couldn't visit him in a hospital?"

"He was probably talking about the Turtles. But we shouldn't go to a hospital unless you want to freak out the doctors."

"I'm going to scream or shoot somebody. Both options are looking really good right now." The blonde woman glared at everyone in front of her. "Someone better tell me what the hell is going on and I mean right now!"

"Where do you want us to start?" Trash asked sweetly.

Eight rolled his eyes and moved into the apartment behind them, getting out of the line of fire.

"From the beginning," she answered.

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Unless you're not a creationist, which in that case, there was a Big Bang."

"You got a death wish." The large one-eyed mouse said.

"No, not exactly." Trash said quietly. "But seriously, it is a horrendously long story. And the others are getting captured or shot as we speak. So what's it going to be?"

Eight howled. It was an eerie, hair-raising copy of another howl. "Oh shit!" Trash ducked into the apartment with everyone following and found Eight staring out the windows at the street in front of the building.

"Limburger hiring Lon Chaney impersonators now?" The woman in the jumpsuit asked. She glared down at the shaggy-furred, canine humanoids filling the neighborhood.

"Maybe we poofed to London and didn't realize it," the white Martian suggested. "Grab the stakes and crosses."

"That's for vampires, not werewolves." The large grey mouse replied.

"Those aren't werewolves," Trash said quietly. "They're Val Tech Hounds."

"And Val Tech is..." the woman prompted.

"The guys that messed up Zack," Sparks answered.

Trash look down at him, alarmed. "They messed with him? Val Tech's been chasing him from New York. What is so special about that norm?"

Sparks shrugged helplessly. "What are asking me for? I just met him!"

"Those things are not coming into my building," the owner declared. "Sparks, go upstairs and help Charley protect Zack."

"But Tala!"

"Somebody has to protect the wounded," his father added. "Now go."

"Why does it always have to be me?" The kid grumbled as he left. Soon the freight elevator began making running noises.

Tala shot the large grey Martian an amused look before looking back out the window. "You seem to be catching onto fatherhood pretty quickly, Modo."

He shrugged, shifting the armored shirt over his chest. "Mama always said it was like survival of the fittest."

"Did they follow you here?"

The still-nameless white Martian shook his head. "No. Nothin was leavin' Limburger Tower when we booked."

Trash sighed. "They probably followed the tracking signal in Zack. We'll have to move him."

"Not an option," Tala retorted. "What kind of tracking signal?"

"A chemical that makes you slightly radioactive. It wears off eventually and doesn't cause any long term damage, but you have to have some high-tech equipment to scramble the signal."

"High-tech we can handle. MC?"

A disembodied, electronic voice with a decidedly feminine tone answered. "Already taken the steps necessary to neutralize the signal. Should I implement evacuation procedures?"

"Have them on stand-by. Charley has final say, should anything happen to me."


Trash felt her mouth drop open. "Wow, you have a talking house?"

Tala smiled sardonically. "Something like that. What are these Hounds weaknesses?"

"They're pretty stupid but strong. And they can work together as a team." Trash struggled to figure out how to explain the things that were just a fact of her life. This is why I don't do recruitment. "The Hounds are just cannon fodder really. They're used to overwhelm the opposition while their controllers complete their objective."

"Which is regrabbin' Sparks and Zack." Modo's eye began to glow again.

"That won't happen," Trash declared. "Not while we can stop it." The three glanced at each other uneasily. "Please, trust us. We can help."

"Don't see where we have much of a choice," Tala sighed. "Your friend, Eight? He can hear?"

Eight nodded, pointed to his ear, and then circled his thumb and index finger into the "okay" signal.

"All right." Tala led the way to a nook at the other end of the hall that hid a stairwell door. She headed down, Trash and Eight followed, and the two Martians brought up the rear. "MC will coordinate. If it says someone is breaking in, break off and deal with it. Understand, Vinnie?"

"Why single me out?" The white Martian sounded hurt.

"Cause I know how easy it is for you to get carried away." They emerged in a parking garage. Tala made a slight turn to the right and opened a cabinet. She hung the tranq rifle inside and pulled out a laser pistol similar to Vinnie's. That was tucked into the holster on her right thigh and she reached into the cabinet again, tossing headsets with attached microphones to Eight and Trash. She looked up at Eight. "Gun?"

He grinned in sheer delight and pointed to a cannon rifle double the size of the rifle Trash had. "You always have to have the biggest." Trash shook her head in mock-pity.

Tala nodded, passed it to him, and shut the cabinet. "Let's mount up."

"AOOOW!" Vinnie and Modo ran for the group of bikes.

"Leave the still-standing buildings standing!" Tala yelled after them.

"Whatever you say, Doll-face!" Vinnie jumped onto a red crotch rocket, popped a wheelie, and shot out of the quickly opening garage door. Modo followed him just as fast on a purple Fatboy.

A bright blue crotch rocket almost identical to Vinnie's drove itself up to Tala, who hopped on and accelerated out the door. Trash gaped and looked up at Eight. He looked down at her with an equally stunned expression. "How much do ya have to pay to get one like that?"

Eight shrugged bewilderedly.

"Please exit through the street door." The computerized voice from earlier spoke into Trash's ear. "The exit of the bikes has attracted the attention of those life forms."

"Right." Eight was already making his way to the regular door next to the already closing garage door. Trash cast a wistful eye at the other bikes parked in the garage. "You think she'd mind if I borrowed one?"

"Yes, she would." MC answered.

"I hate being a pedestrian!" Trash jogged after Eight. The Hounds turned their snarling faces to the closing doors.

He lifted the cannon to his shoulder and fired, clearing the street.

She chuckled appreciatively at his work. "That should keep 'em away from the doors for a while. Let's go." She ran to the throng in the middle of the street.

Tala glanced over her shoulder when she heard the explosion near her garage doors. To her relief, the doors were still intact and the two strange bikers were wading into the fight. "Maybe they are on our side. Whatever side that is." She muttered out loud. "Somebody is gonna give me a straight answer tonight. I'll tie them down and torture them with polka music if I have to!" She turned her head back to the fight in front of her.

The shaggy-furred creatures stood a little taller than Modo on their slightly bowed legs. Their long snouts held snarling, salivating, toothy mouths. Their fur was a myriad of shades of white, black, and brown. And on most, the pointed canine ears stood near the top of their heads. They reminded Tala of hominid versions of Earth dogs.

They snarled and snapped their teeth as they inched closer to her bike. She gritted her own teeth. "Don't think so, pals." She flipped a switch and the laser canons popped out of their hiding places on Hot Stuff. She turned the front end of the bike in a tight arc while firing. The Hounds that weren't hit scrambled away from the perimeter she laid down.

"Well, you're smart enough not to eat laser fire. Guess that's a sign of intelligence." Tala felt her shoulder sag slightly. I'm really too tired for all of this shit! I'll have to tell MC from now on, we don't land on Earth until I've caught up on my sleep.

Modo was down the block to her right, herding the Hounds to the center of the block. Vinnie was doing the same to the left. It'll keep any from this group sneaking around the back of my building. But there's so many of them.

Tala let loose another volley of laser fire. It left a large dent in the furry wall but more kept pressing closer. The girl biker with black hair, Trash, tossed her wrecked rifle aside and slugged the Hound in front of her. Its head twisted to an unnatural angle and its body crumpled.

"We've got the wheels; it's time to use them!" Just as she gunned her bright blue bike, a loud report from a canon filled the night. A grey bundle shot from a roof across the street. It spread out and revealed itself to be a net that landed on Modo and cinched tightly around him.

The large grey mouse's yell carried over the radio link. "Plutarkian shrink steel!" He struggled against the impossibly strong bonds, but the Hounds just turned away from him.

"Modo!" Vinnie yelled. He popped a wheelie to fire his jet boosters. The Hounds grabbed hold of him and hauled him off the back of the bike.

"Vinnie!" Tala revved her bike and plowed through the bodies. She saw his white tail fling one Hound into the air. Two more jumped on his back to replace the missing one. No other white fur was visible and the pile of Hounds moved closer to the ground.

"Getoffme!" Vinnie's muffled voice carried over the radio link.

"Vinnie! Hang on!" Tala cried back.

Suddenly, the bike underneath her bucked. She flew off, landing face down on the street. What the hell! Hot Stuff has never thrown me before! She fought against the dismay the disloyalty caused her as she jumped to her feet and turned.

Her bike strained against another Plutarkian shrink steel net. Its mousehead-shaped headlight flashed as it beeped angrily. Tala took a step toward her distressed vehicle when a burly Hound tackled her.

Its snarling face dripped saliva onto the red-tinted faceplate of her helmet. Tala grunted and swung her left fist. Its head pulled back to avoid the punch. The movement pressed her shoulder blades harder against the asphalt. Its teeth clamped around her left forearm before she could pull back the arm.

She felt the pressure on her arm but the armor held. The Hound looked down at her with a clearly puzzled expression. "It's called armor, you dumb mutt." She jammed her right fist against its side. "And this is a stun blaster." She depressed the palm trigger.

She heaved the unconscious body off and climbed to her feet. This time, she started running toward where she last seen Vinnie. She shoved a Hound out of the way and a large mass tackled her from behind.

Her vision swam as the breath was knocked out of her. The Hound above her snarled as it pushed her flat against the asphalt. Its mouth closed around her neck. She fought down a surge of panic. The armor will hold, forget that the neck can snap, forget the teeth getting between the armor and the helmet! She tried to buck the Hound off but couldn't get the leverage. Its teeth clanged against her helmet. It pulled back with a disgusted growl.

A howl completely different from the Hounds' interrupted. The Hound on top of her shifted its attention quickly. It yelped and its weight was jerked off of her. Tala rolled onto her back and leaped to her feet.

Eight dropped the Hound that now had a badly twisted neck. The large black man looked down at her worriedly. "I'm okay," Tala said quickly.

He gave her a terse nod and a tentative smile before a snarling Hound leaped at him from the side. Its claws ripped through the black leather jacket. Eight howled and tried to grab the Hound. It leaped back out of reach.

Tala moved behind it quickly. She jumped up and wrapped her arms expertly around its neck and head. Her knee braced against the small of its back and she twisted quickly. Bone crunched against bone. The hound slumped out of her grasp. She shifted so not to land on its body when her feet hit the ground. She panted heavily as she stared down at the body, still unnerved by the ease of it. I'm not a gladiator anymore!

She could hear the contorted breathing from a struggle over the radio. "Vinnie!" Tala shoved Hounds aside and could feel Eight's bulk behind her. They reached the pile of Hounds intent on keeping something underneath them underneath them. She grabbed one Hound and pulled it away. A swift kick to its head insured its unconsciousness. Eight just grabbed one and heaved.

In a short time, the white-furred mouse exploded free, throwing punches in a blind fury. Eight stepped back and let him have the last two Hounds. He knocked them both out before they could blink, then he whirled around for a new target. Tala ducked his swinging fists. "Whose side are you one, Mouse Scout!"

He stopped, still breathing heavily, and the rage faded slightly from his red eyes. "You okay?"

"Yes, you?"

"I'll live." His gaze traveled over the battleground. She looked too. A lot of the Hounds had joined the non-moving category but a small army still swarmed over them. The loud report echoed again followed closely by another report. "Look out!" Vinnie tackled her and they rolled over the asphalt. Eight leaped back almost ten feet.

A Plutarkian shrink steel net encased a nearby Hound. It snarled and began to fight the tight bonds, further tightening them. The second net landed on Vinnie's red racer.

Vinnie choked back a snarl. He pushed himself up till he was kneeling, which gave Tala enough room to sit up. He turned back to face her and they both asked at the same time, "Where the hell is Throttle?"

Michaelangelo felt elated, euphoric, and--least surprising of all--whole again. He knew a piece of his soul had left with Allie, but he hadn't realized how big that piece was. Got a little too good at hiding how much I missed you. I even managed to hide it from me.

The caravan headed away from the skyscraper from his dream. Ryan and Smarts were in the lead ahead of the tow truck. Allie kept the trike they rode near the rear where Throttle was keeping an eye on the trailing dune buggies. Mike kept his arms wrapped loosely around her waist, partly not to get poked by anything on her belt. He still couldn't resist giving her a slight squeeze just to assure himself that she was here and it wasn't one of his crazy, too-real dreams.

Allie's gloved hand left the handlebar for a moment to take hold of his and squeeze it. He sighed contentedly. She had meant what she had said earlier, as well as everything it implied.

Then why is she tensed up like it's all gonna fall apart? Is it Raph? Damnit, why can't he leave my girl alone? But it wasn't just his brother's surly attitude; she knew how to deal with that.

She wasn't ready to see us. She's still working things out. And she probably thinks we got dragged into this Val Tech mess because of her. Mike's face twisted with concern. His brothers thought he never worried about anything. Truth was he worried about a lot; he just figured there was no point in further bumming someone out. And now he was worried about how to keep his girl in one mental piece. Whatever's botherin' her is buried. She's not gonna think about it till we're safe. And they say Allie's unpredictable.

But it doesn't matter what bad thing you think you've dragged us into. You're not pushing me away for my own good again, he vowed silently.

The dune buggies behind them sped up and started letting loose laser fire and missiles. Allie swerved the maroon trike and increased their speed.

Throttle shot two missiles from the rear of his bike. The two dune buggies in the lead swerved, avoided the missiles and the holes blown into the asphalt, and fired more missiles. The mouse's jaw dropped briefly before he snapped back into battle mode and fired missiles to intercept theirs.

Another missile almost hit the bed of the tow truck. Leo's quick swerve prevented them from flipping over. Throttle swore under his breath and accelerated to come alongside the truck. Allie drew the trike up beside him. Ryan left Smarts in the lead and fell back to join them.

"This ain't workin'. You get out of here; go back to the garage. I'll draw the goons off and meet you there."

"Right," Leo nodded.

"We're running again?" Raph demanded from the passenger's side of the truck cab.

"We can't take him anywhere," Mike muttered in Allie's ear.

"Sounds good to me," Ryan answered. "Are we the only ones in this city without weapons on our rides?"

"You and a few million civilians. Get going," Throttle ordered. They broke apart the conversation formation. Ryan eased his silver bike to ride behind the truck. They reached an intersection and Smarts led the turn to the right that Allie didn't follow. Instead, she turned the massive trike to the left and managed a U-turn in the intersection.

Throttle glanced at them as they faced the uglies. "Which part of get-out-of-here don't you understand?" His voice and expression showed his annoyance.

"The leave-you-alone-to-deal-with-it part."

Mike didn't bother hiding his grin. "She really hates to be left out."

"I'm beginning to realize that," the tan-furred mouse said dryly. "But you two don't have guns, and they do."

"Oh, we need guns? I can get guns. Tally ho!"

Allie accelerated the trike straight for the bank of dune buggies. They decided this was the go signal and surged forward. "You have a plan, right?" She called over her shoulder.

"I actually do!" Mike laughed at the obvious oddity of that statement as he stood on the back of the trike. His three-fingered hands gripped Allie's shoulders for support. "I'm getting a gun... from that guy!"

He somersaulted off the trike and landed neatly on the back of a dune buggy, grabbing the kick bar as the driver overcompensated for the added weight. The Turtle beamed down at him when he stared up. "My turn to drive!" Mike grabbed the ugly's collar and tossed him over his shoulder. He vaulted into the seat, found the firing controls, and blew up two dune buggies heading straight for Throttle.

After that, the fight didn't take long. Allie borrowed a laser pistol from Throttle and shot tires--that caused wrecks--while lounging on the sidelines. Mike and Throttle plowed through the vehicles until they were the only things moving on wheels.

Throttle still had an unconscious ugly in his grasp when his black bike stopped. "What planet is Limburger hiring from now?" He dropped the ugly in a heap and wiped his hand on his blue jeans.

Allie stiffened. She jumped off the trike and turned the nearest unconscious ugly over to take a good look. "Oh hell. They're mutated."

"Mutated? Like that BatWing girl? So that's why their driving is better."

"But what did this Limburger promise Val Tech to get a mutated army?"

"Mutant Ninja Turtle DNA?" Mike idled his dune buggy near them. "Guys like these, with stuff like this, were our welcoming committee to Chicago. And Di seemed to think we'd be a nifty catch for 'em."

"The old lets-trade-enemies deal," Throttle muttered as he grabbed the chin guard of his helmet thoughtfully.

"Di was captured too?" Allie asked in a dismayed tone.

"Yeah, but Donnie's not going to let anything happen to her. He's sweet on her."

"This is turning into a bigger mess by the minute." She took a deep breath.

There she goes, Mike though to himself. Switching topics, hiding what she doesn't want to think about. But I guess getting back to the others comes first.

"I thought you were just getting a gun." Allie said as she walked back to the trike.

"I accessorized." Mike grinned, determined to make her smile under that hood or die trying. "I think it has potential. Squeeze in 'nother seat, rig up a surfboard rack on the back, and we can go find all those beaches the Beach Boys sing about."

Throttle gunned his bike. "They blow up real easy."

"Take all the joy out of life."

They headed the rest of the way in silence; Allie and Throttle each lost in their own thoughts. Mike figured he liked the Martian. A little on the serious side, but it looked like he could cut loose and have fun. Too bad Leo never could remember that.

The garage door was up again, and Mike followed Throttle inside. He fitted the dune buggy behind the car. Leo and Raph both gave him a strange look. "Where did that come from?" Leo asked first.

"Would you believe the guy just gave it to me?"

"No," Raph and Leo chorused together.

Mike stuck his tongue out at them and trotted back outside. Allie sat on the idling trike, staring into space. "Babe... er... Ronin?" She still hadn't taken off the hood.

She returned with a start and looked at him ruefully. "Why can't we have vacations like normal people?"

"We're not normal?"

Her gloved hand caressed his cheek. "Always trying to get me to see the bright side."

Mike inched closer and wrapped his arms around her. "Well, you already have lookin' at the gloomy side perfected."

The other bikes peeled out of the garage and Throttle cleared his throat. "If you two aren't too busy, we're going to find my bros now."

"Right," Allie turned back to the trike's front. Mike answered with a sheepish grin and climbed on behind her.

Throttle smirked as he shook his head. "What you said about Area 51 makes sense now." He shot off down the street.

Leo looked at them curiously from behind Ryan. "What did you tell him?"

"That I wasn't in the habit of turning people in to the government." She quickly followed after Throttle's lead.

"You made some crack about me being green, didn't you?" Mike gave her a little squeeze.

"He's Martian, I couldn't resist."

Sounds of fighting got louder as they moved through another practically deserted neighborhood. A dog's howl--only deeper than any dogs' howl Mike had ever heard before--was joined in a chorus of answering howls. Mike shivered in spite of his determination not to. "What is that?"

"They've sent out the Hounds," Allie answered. She accelerated the trike to catch up with Throttle.

Before he could ask what a Hound was, they turned a corner and found the fight in the middle of the street. Shaggy-furred extras from a werewolf movie swarmed the block. There seemed to be a few pockets of fighting scattered within the larger group. Another Martian mouse was netted to his motorcycle on the fringe of the invading army. Loud reports drew his attention to the roofs on the right side of the street. More nets like the one covering the mouse fell down into the fray.

"Does this mean we're the cavalry?" Mike finally asked.

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