Throttle is persuaded to stay at the base, but he's still not giving anything away. His mood swings are getting to those around him, Carbine is blaming herself and then Throttle is hurt...
'He could be anywhere,' said Charley. 'He could have left the planet.'
'We promised he could if he wanted,' sighed Vinnie. 'But I don't reckon he has. It's pretty late and a ship leavin' at this time of night's gonna be noticed pretty quick.'
'Right,' said Rimfire. 'If he'd gone we'd already have Carbine yelling at us for letting him.'
'Ah bet he just found another bar or another fight,' said Modo. He stood up. 'We better find him afore he hurts himself or somebody else.'
'OK,' said Charley, getting to her feet. 'No, Vinnie, I don't care what you say, I'm coming with this time. My fight too now.'
Vinnie shut his mouth. 'Whatever you say, babe. Guess we might be able to use a woman's touch, anyway. Rimfire, you coming or are you gonna stay back and intercept Carbine if she calls?'
'Coming,' said Rimfire. 'Come on, I'm second general round here, I gotta know what's going down.'
Throttle wasn't anywhere in the base, but once they'd established that it didn't take long to find him. They just had to follow the curses and, when they got closer, the lights. Throttle had got drunk again and gone out into the open to find some rats. He was outnumbered, outclassed and clearly already beaten but he wasn't giving up yet.
'Crap,' muttered Vinnie.
'Rats,' growled Modo.
Rimfire cocked his blaster. 'OK, ladies and gents, on the count of three? /Three/!' Four bikes whirled through the melee, the air filled with blaster fire and the guns blazed. Rimfire glared down the barrel of his gun into the eyes of the biggest rat. 'Five against one?' he said quietly. 'Not wise.'
'Hey, man, we was mindin' our own business, crazy dude attacked us!' said the rat desperately.
'Why should I believe the word of a rat?'
'Look, I /swear/, we was headin' for Old Cavern Top, it was Shrapnel's birthday, we was gonna have a party and he jumped us! The war's /over/, man!'
'You think? You're not that observant, then.' Rimfire spoke over his shoulder to Vinnie. 'You believe him?'
'This one's sittin' on a pile of gift wrap and the one Modo's got looks a tad too young for military, so I guess I can buy that. Any of 'em hurt?'
'Not enough that we gotta treat 'em,' said Modo. He looked down at his own captive, utter contempt in his eyes, and lowered his arm. 'Sling yer hook, kid.' The young rat, together with his companions, fled, and the mice turned their attention to Throttle. He was regarding them quietly, his expression unreadable.
'Come on, Throttle,' said Charley. 'Let's go home.' Throttle turned and walked back to the base, not even giving any of them a chance to offer him a ride. They'd just got home when Charley asked the question.
'Trying to get yourself killed?'
'What if I was?' said Throttle. 'They were just rats.'
'Rats or not, they were just /kids/,' said Rimfire.
'You don't have to herd me - in fact, I'd rather you left me alone. Man, I'd forgotten what do-gooders you all were.'
'Yeah? Well, kill yourself, then,' snapped Vinnie. 'See if I care.'
'I don't give a damn if you care,' said Throttle quietly, and shut the bedroom door behind him.
'Hell,' said Charley. 'Oh, god, maybe we should get Carbine to talk to him. I don't know if we can do this.'
Modo looked surprised. 'Charley-ma'am, won't that make him worse?'
'Could he get worse?' said Charley.
'Not without actually going into shock,' said Rimfire. 'Hands up for giving it a try.' His own and Charley's hands went straight up, then Vinnie's and finally Modo's. Rimfire nodded. 'OK, I'll sort it out tomorrow. Charley, we need to be able to lock the conference room door from the outside, can you fix that?'
'Sure. Tomorrow, then.'
It had been quite difficult to get Throttle into the conference room, but they did it in the end. They waited till the thumping noises stopped, then Carbine went in. Throttle froze, staring at her for a moment, then he turned to the security camera on the wall and yelled, 'You promised, you bastards - you dirty sons of rats, the instant I get out of here I'm gonna leave and make sure I never have to look at your foul faces again!' His hand went to his hip, but the blaster had been taken away for fear of what he might do. 'Fucking bastards/, I /knew I was right, I-'
He stopped. Carbine had stepped into his line of sight with a gun aimed right between his eyes. 'Stop that right now and listen to me,' she said, the slight tremor belying the calm of her voice. Throttle let the rage leave his body, seeming to shrink a little as he did so.
'You gonna use that thing?' he said. 'Go ahead. Let me out.'
Carbine raised the gun so it pointed at the ceiling. 'Throttle - what happened?'
He shrugged. 'Hit the wall.'
'Remember that game Modo always used to win - Brodies and Bottles? Stoke told me once that life was like playing that game against a great big wall. And I crashed.'
'Oh.' Carbine holstered the weapon, looking at the edge of his ear rather than at his face. 'Throttle... I'm sorry. About... what I said. I mean, ending it. I did it for the best, it was holding us back, I-' She stopped, because Throttle had started to laugh. Not a pleasant laugh, just an ironic, my-god-what-morons-we-are guffaw. Hardly a real laugh at all.
'Holding me back/?' he said. 'God, Carbine, maybe you were never right for me if you could get me /that far wrong. Hell, it was what kept me /going/, knowing you'd be there when the war was over. Shows how well we knew each other. Get out - I don't need this shit. You certainly don't.'
Carbine's head dropped and she turned to go, but hesitated. 'Hey, Throttle?'
There was a pause, then when he spoke, there was the faintest hint of a smile in his voice. 'Yeah. Sure. Been fighting every damn thing I could find for seven years, can't be expected to fight you too. Now g'wan, get outta here.'
Carbine knocked on the door and it was opened. She caught the questioning look in Rimfire's eyes and nodded.
It had taken quite a bit of argument on Rimfire's part, with Modo, Vinnie and Charley and with Throttle himself, but Throttle was now staying with Rimfire. The others had admitted it was a relief to get away from the mood swings and the depression, and Modo no longer had to sleep on the sofa. Amazing, thought Rimfire. Twenty-eight years old, second general of the Martian Reformed Army and Modo still thinks I can't handle a belligerent drunk. Well, I'm less likely to shoot him through the head for insulting the family, I know that much...
Throttle, lying across both arms of the only armchair in the room, threw aside an empty beer can and picked up another. Rimfire frowned. 'Man, Throttle, I wish you wouldn't drink so much.'
'Wishes don't come true, kid, woulda thought you'd know that by now.'
'Sure, but why do it? You'll get liver failure.'
Throttle studied the design on the can with exaggerated care. 'Drowning the memories,' he said. 'You remember if you're sober.'
'That's pathetic/,' snapped Rimfire. 'It's a /temporary solution.'
'Huh, well, if you'd seen some of the things I've seen, even temporary's good.'
Rimfire's eyes narrowed. 'Try me. I've seen a hell of a lot and I've been through more than you think - you think you're fighting this war alone? Well, you're wrong.'
'Hey, I am not fighting your war anymore,' said Throttle sharply.
'Oh, so it's our war now? Our little war for sissies while you get on with armageddon by yourself? You make me sick.'
'You're such a big general now, huh? You little shit, I remember when you were still crashing ships.'
'Yeah? I saw your ship - you telling me all that damage was camoflage? So now you're a hypocrite as well as a violent, drunken waster?'
'That's what you think, huh? Why waste any more time on me, huh, Punk?'
'I got no idea. Hey, maybe I should shoot you right now. But that'd make Charley sad, so I'm not gonna. And you're gonna stick around, you fucking lunatic.'
'I say. I'll lockdown that junkheap of yours if I gotta but you are staying here till everybody agrees we can let you go. Don't make me put you in a cell.'
'Fine, torture me some more.'
'Maybe you deserve it!'
The sudden silence clanged like an alarm. Rimfire was standing over Throttle, finger poised to stab him again in the shoulder and the air between them sizzled with the intensity of their glares. If looks could kill, both would have been in the morgue already.
Throttle broke the stare first, turning away and downing the last of his beer. There was none left by the chair but he didn't go to the kitchen for more and he didn't say anything, either. Rimfire started to say something, but stopped and shook his head.
'I'm going to bed,' he said quietly. 'Don't stay up all night.'
When Rimfire opened his eyes in the morning, the house was silent. He got up and staggered to the bathroom, passing Throttle's door as he did so - the door was wide open and the room beyond was a mess Rimfire wouldn't have thought possible in one night, but there was no sign of its occupant. Crap, he thought. But since he had grown a lot since the days when he would have stolen a ship and unthinkingly gone into a Plutarkian jail after a single prisoner, and also because he was dreading telling Modo he'd lost Throttle, he washed and dressed before picking up the phone.
He thanked whoever looked after precocious young soldiers when it was Charley who picked up the phone. 'Hello?'
'Hey, Charley, it's Rimfire.'
'Oh, hi, Rimfire - you want me to get Modo?'
'No!' Rimfire forced himself to calm down. 'No, that's OK. Just tell me - without letting Modo know, please - tell me if you've seen Throttle.'
'Oh. Hang on.' There was a whispered conversation off phone and then Charley was back.
'That had better not've been you telling Modo I lost Throttle.'
'Come on, Rimfire, what do you take me for? No, I was asking Vinnie. He says he saw him a few hours ago, heading for the gym. Apparently sober, although whether that counts for anything at seven in the morning is debatable.'
'Right. Thanks, Charley-ma'am, you're the best. See you.'
He glanced at the clock. It was nearly half nine - if Throttle had been up for a few hours already then he probably wasn't still at the gym, but it was worth a try.
The mouse on the front desk looked up as he came in and her face seemed to sag with relief. 'General! Thank the two moons for that...'
'Something wrong, Breva?' said Rimfire, trying to sound noncholant.
'It's that madman Throttle - he came in three hours ago as we opened and he's been working since - I told him he'd do himself an injury if he didn't take a break, but he won't listen!'
Rimfire sighed heavily. 'Yeah, that sounds like him. Don't know if he'll listen to me either, but what the hell, I'll see what I can do. Maybe he'll push me far enough to arrest him... Which room?' He followed Breva's pointing hand into the main weights room. Sure enough, there was Throttle, on his back on the bench, his fur dark with sweat. He was muttering between his teeth, and as Rimfire got closer he heard him counting: '/Two hundred and forty-six, two hundred and forty-seven/...'
He walked around so that he could approach Throttle's line of sight from the front. Throttle glanced at him, but went on counting. Rimfire watched for a while, then said mildly, 'Breva says you've been here three hours now and you haven't had a break. Testing yourself?'
'Nope. Two hundred and fifty.' Throttle put the weights on their stand and sat up, breathing heavily. 'What the hell do you want?'
'Want to know what you think you're doing.'
'What does it look like?'
Rimfire shrugged. 'Looks like self-harm to me.'
'Shows what you know, then,' said Throttle contemptiously. 'Now get out of my face.'
''Fraid not, Throttle - Breva's relying on me to make you take a break so you're gonna take a break. Don't make me arrest you, man.'
Throttle shot him a venomous look, but he stood up and slung a towel around his neck. Rimfire smiled, paying no attention to the look whatsoever. 'Attaboy. Come on, I'll buy you a root beer.'
As the days went by, Throttle started drinking less and training more. Breva's calls to Rimfire to make Throttle take a break were becoming routine as adrenaline started to replace alcohol as his main distraction. It didn't take long for Rimfire to get the call everyone was waiting for.
'Oh, hi, Breva - want me to come get Throttle again? I've just got to-'
'No, General, he's taking a break now. He's ruptured his triceps tendon and had to go to medibay. I thought you'd better know.'
'Oh... uh... Yeah. About time. Thanks, Breva. See you around, OK?'
Rimfire got to the medibay to discover that Carbine had beaten him there, but she was standing in the corridor impatiently listening to the head medic's explantation of why she couldn't visit Throttle just yet.
'-finished binding his arm and besides, he's asleep - exhaustion, we think. How hard has he been working lately?'
'Working?' said Carbine. 'He hasn't, that I know of. Why can't I just go in and see him? I won't wake him, Blackbird.'
'I'm afraid we won't risk it this time, ma'am.'
'/Ugh/!' Carbine caught Rimfire's eye over the medic's shoulder. 'Rimfire! You came to see Throttle? You're out of luck.'
'So I hear,' said Rimfire. 'He's finally getting some rest? Good - didn't you know I've had to personally drag him out of the gym every day for a week?'
'Really? That explains the tendonitis, then,' said Blackbird. 'Of course, if you'd come to me I'd have given you a note banning him from the gym on medical grounds.' She glanced at her notes. 'Except I understand the alternative was alcohol poisoning. Well, you're welcome to stay out here and wait for him to wake up - whereupon one of you may go in, if you think you can do it without making him angry. I'll check back in one hour.'
'Alright, Birdi,' said Rimfire. 'See you later.' Blackbird vanished in a swish of disinfected cotton, leaving Rimfire and Carbine to each take one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs and wait for Throttle to wake.
It took another half an hour before there was movement on the other side of the door. Both generals stood up, then looked awkwardly at each other.
'Go on,' said Rimfire. 'You were here first.'
'You've been looking after him all week,' said Carbine.
'That's probably why he won't want to see me. Go ahead, I can talk to him some other time.'
Carbine bit her lip and opened the door. Throttle was flat on his back, scowling at his left arm, which was practically bricked into place with the icepacks around it.
'Hey, Throttle,' she said.
Throttle looked round. 'Oh, great, I'm in five minutes and already they make me a captive audience. What do you want?'
'Just came to see how you were, that's all,' said Carbine, trying not to let the rudeness get to her.
'Well, you saw. Go /away/.'
She pulled up a chair by the bed and leaned on her elbow on the edge of the bed. 'What if I /don't/?' she said. 'What if I take this opportunity to talk to you for a bit?'
Throttle sighed heavily and glared at his arm again. 'Guess I can't stop you. So go on. Talk.'
'So... you did weights till you ripped a tendon? Nice move, wise guy.'
'Did you come here just to take the piss?'
'Nope. Actually I came here to ask you a favour. Normally I wouldn't bother but it's been keeping me up at night.'
Throttle turned his head to look at her properly, at the serious eyes, the fur the colour of storm clouds and coarse, coal-black hair. Carbine wasn't particularly pretty, he'd never thought that, but she had an intelligent, interesting face that he'd always felt he could look at forever. 'Go on,' he said softly. 'Tell me what in the galaxy I could possibly do for you.'
'Don't kill yourself. Please?'
Throttle smiled slightly. 'Tried that, babe. Twice. It doesn't work anyway.'
'See this?' He extended his free arm and Carbine saw, amongst the scars, a line running the length of the inner wrist. 'That was attempt one, while I was in the clink. But they found me and stitched me up. They don't like you to die too fast when they can make you suffer. And the second time was a few years later, off a bridge on Ganymede. I broke both legs, my jaw, my shoulder, two ribs and three fingers but I still didn't die. So I gave up. There's no point in being a damn fool about it.'
Carbine realised she was gnawing on her knuckles about the same time Throttle did. She brushed her hand off on the front of her shirt and took his hand, running her thumb over the long, well-healed scar. 'Oh, Throttle/...' she whispered. 'I'm /so sorry...'
'Hey. Stop that thought right there. You are not responsible for me, OK? Now, can we change the subject?'
'Sure. What do you want to talk about?'
'Something not me. I'm all out of distractions in here.'
'How's the new sidekick?'
'Rimfire?' Carbine's eyebrows shot up at the idea of Rimfire as her sidekick. 'He's... He's not bad. Took one look at the main database and spent three days recoding it so now only him and five or six others can read all the files. He says it's safer that way.'
'Yeah? What if he kicks the bucket? Who'll read your files then?'
'He left me a backup file, only that needs a key which he says is engraved in his right tibia. So if he dies, we really need to recover the body. Yeah, he's been useful. If only he wasn't so damn /polite/.'
'Oh, come /on/. After all those years of dealing with Stoke, you're telling me now you're not glad to get a break?'
Carbine shrugged hopelessly. 'Amazing what you miss, right? I could handle it if there was just a way to stop him calling me ma'am all the time!'
'Just tell him what you used to tell Stoke.'
'I used to tell Stoke a lot of things. It never did any good, either, no matter how reasonable I was.'
'Reasonable? Who said anything about reasonable? I'm talkin' about the time you said you'd rip his tongue out and strangle him with it if he didn't shut his yap. It worked, right?'
'Mostly cuz I had a screwdriver in each hand at the time,' said Carbine. 'But what the hell, I guess it's worth a try. Only trouble is, if I tell Rimfire to shut his yap, I bet you anything he will, and then I'll have no backup at all.' She sighed heavily. 'I can't win...'
'Welcome to the real world, kiddo.'