Throttle is out of hospital - and the only person he's willing to talk to is dead.
The next person was getting used to it. Charley was in the bike shed putting a new can on a Sylver Star 530K when she heard a familiar voice say her name and looked up.
'Need a hand?' said Throttle.
Charley smiled and made space for him beside the bike. 'Sure. Just changing the can on this one - warming up for the real challenge.' She jerked her thumb over her shoulder to an Extrastellar High Rider. 'Got to bring that up to standard, could certainly use some help.'
Throttle glanced at the bike 'I'll say. That thing looks pitiful.'
'Yeah. Not completely hopeless, though. I reckon I've saved worse.' She grinned at him and got a faint twitch of the lip in return. Christ, she thought, it's like getting milk out of a rock...
'So,' said Throttle, picking up a spare wrench. 'What happened to the Last Chance?'
'Oh, it's still going. Thriving, in fact. People bring me their bikes from all over the state. We're doing well enough that me and Vinnie can stay on Mars till we're sure you're OK.'
Throttle rolled his eyes. 'I'm fine/, for the love of cheese. Why the hell does everyone have to /worry this much?'
'Because everyone else remembers the old Throttle,' snapped Charley. 'You were like the big brother I never had - you ever consider that watching you fall apart might actually be painful for me, too?' Throttle looked at her for a moment, surprised, and said nothing. Charley was twisting a nut angrily, and didn't catch the look, and then she stood up, wiping her hands on a rag. 'Here,' she said, shoving the old can into his hands. 'Throw that away.'
Stoker's grave had a proper stone now, with an inscription: '/Hero, father, leader, friend. Stoker of Mars. Ride free/.' And two dates - one that was blazoned in sorrow on everyone's memory, and another that would come as a surprise to many who thought he was younger than that. The grey slab already had a decoration - someone had come and hung a couple of coins on a string off one corner of the stone. Throttle had no idea who that might have been, likewise the donor of the full bottle of root beer lying on the grave.
'It's kinda hard to see the point,' he said, to himself, or to Stoker's memory, or to the air. 'I mean, do they think you're gonna drink it? Still, it's a nice thought, I guess.' He sighed. 'I'm almost glad you're out of it, it's getting sickening up here. The only funny thing so far is getting Modo to say he'd shoot me. Huh. That'd be the day. A nice cool grave and no more worries - Stoke, man, you don't know you're... yeah. I'm surprised they haven't put me in a cell for my own good yet. Rimfire's the worst of 'em - oh, man/, that kid's got talent alright. Nag, nag, nag. Send him to the fish, he can talk 'em to death. As for Vinnie and Charley - well, they're OK as long as I don't have to watch 'em. They finally got their act together, I guess that's something. None of 'em will let me drink anything stronger than root beer. Mars, I'd /kill for some Ganymedian Knockout right now. I gotta get outa here. But I came to visit you, Stoke, like I said I would. I've done that. I didn't make it to the funeral and I'm sorry - but it was your show and you wouldn't want long-lost deadbeat stealing it. I just wish I hadn't made that damn stupid promise-'
Throttle wheeled round, anger flaring, but Carbine was obviously as surprised to see him as he was to see her.
'What are you doing here?' he demanded.
Carbine held up the plant pot in her hands. 'Came to plant this on the grave.' She smiled haltingly. 'Want to help?'
Throttle hesitated. 'I... sure. Why not? You lost the First Tribute race, though.' He indicated the coin necklace and the root beer.
Carbine examined the coins. 'Well, if I didn't know better I'd say Excelsior's been. Who'd have thought it.' She started digging a hole in the fresh earth.
'Excelsior? Mars, that was twenty-five years ago...'
'Right. Just goes to show, doesn't it? As for the root beer - that could have been anyone.'
Throttle took the plant, a graceful thing with pale, heart-shaped leaves and tightly clustered buds, and drew it carefully out of the pot. 'What is this thing, anyway?'
'It's called a Daughter's Tears plant. When it blooms there'll be lots of little blue flowers with purple dots and white stamens.'
'Yeah?' He loosened the root cluster and put the plant in the hole, and Carbine covered it up. 'Sounds pretty.'
'It's lovely. And very rare, of course.'
'What isn't, round here?'
Carbine watered the plant and stood up, wiping the dirt off her hands. 'Well... how are you doing these days, Throttle?'
There was a pause. Throttle filled it with getting to his feet and pretending to be very interested in getting his hads clean. 'I'm... better,' he said at last. 'Too many memories still, and way too many regrets - but better. Yeah. Could be worse.'
Carbine smiled. 'We've all got regrets, soldier. Take me, for instance. Biggest mistake I ever made was letting you leave in the first place.'
Throttle sighed, eyes fixed on the flowerpot in his hands. 'Oh, man... wouldn't it be good if you could take your life and live it again, without the mistakes?'
'I don't know one mouse who hasn't thought that at some time.' She stepped forward and placed her hands over his. 'You know - we could still give our bit a shot. If you want.'
Throttle looked up, into the shy smile, the hopeful brown eyes - Carbine looked like a teenager again. Just a little closer... like /that/, and they were kissing, and it felt as good as it had years ago, when everything had been almost alright and she had been his future, before-
He broke away suddenly. 'No. I'm gonna get you killed.'
'What?' Hurt confusion flashed across Carbine's face, replaced quickly by anger. 'Throttle, I can look after myself-'
'No.' He shoved the flowerpot into her hands and left.
Carbine stood for a moment in disbelief, then threw the pot to the ground and went after him. She caught up with him soon enough - a running mouse will catch up with a striding one fairly quickly - grabbed him by the shoulder and forcibly turned him to face her.
'Throttle, stop right there and tell me what the/ hell/ you think you're doing?'
Throttle didn't resist - he stopped, but he wouldn't meet her eyes. 'I don't want you hurt.'
'You're hurting more than just me, you... you fucking fool - are you afraid to let me try and help you, or are you just trying to get yourself as many enemies as you can?'
'I'm trying to forget-'
'/Bullshit/! What you're doing is /brooding/. You're too damn scared to leave the past behind, that's your problem!'
Throttle turned away. There was nothing to say in the face of Carbine's fury. The silence lasted only a few seconds, and when Carbine broke it, her voice was low and tense. 'Well, you know what I think. The next bit is up to you.' Then she turned and stamped off.
Nobody stopped Throttle as he entered the dock and boarded his ship - when he tried to take off, he found out why.
'/This ship has been placed under lockdown for the foreseeable future. Appeals against this order should be taken to General Carbine. Thankyou/.'
Throttle snarled and punched the dashboard. How dare she/? How /dare she think she could tell him whether to come or go? He got up, stormed out and seized the nearest dock official.
'I need a ship,' he snapped.
'Oh... Throttle...' said the mouse, displaying considerable calm in the face of danger. 'I'm sorry, Sir, we're all under strict orders from General Carbine not to let you leave the planet...' The mouse flinched, but Throttle only threw him away and stamped off, looking for Carbine. It didn't take long. She was in her office, watching the monitor - watching him - and she looked up as he slammed the door open.
'Hey,' she said.
'Don't you "hey" me,' snarled Throttle. 'You give me back my ship. I've had enough of this place.'
'No can do, soldier. I haven't made sure you're OK yet.'
'Fuck you! Who gives a damn whether I'm OK?'
'I do, obviously. And a hell of a lot of other people.' Carbine stood up and walked around the desk to stand opposite him. She couldn't see his eyes - through all he'd been through in seven years, he still had his glasses - but his face was twisted with grief and anger.
'What's it gonna take?' he said. 'What do I have to do before you let me go? Do I have to make you make me leave?'
'Just try it,' said Carbine between her teeth. Throttle punched her, her head snapped to one side and the moment crystallised - so it had finally come to this. Not that the blow had been hard - more dramatic, than anything.
Carbine raised a hand to her jaw. 'You can hurt me if you want, Throttle,' she said quietly. 'I can take it.' She saw the punch coming this time, caught his wrist and brought her knee up - he doubled over and she cut his feet out from under him, laying him on his back. Sitting straddling his waist, pinning his arms above his head, she leaned down and said coldly, 'Only right now, you're not up to much. And if you don't calm down in the next five seconds I'll break every bone in your body.'
Throttle stared angrily up at her, then sighed. 'OK.'
Carbine smiled briefly and kissed him on the end of the nose. 'That's better. I never did like having to threaten you.'
'Yeah? When did that ever stop you?' said Throttle. Carbine shrugged, but didn't reply. Throttle let the silence hang for a moment, then said wearily, 'I don't know what you ever saw in me.'
Carbine thought about it. 'Um. Well, that's quite a puzzler, actually, now I come to think about it... if I hadn't known you as long it'd be the looks but back then you were all long and stringy and you didn't wash your hair enough.'
Throttle snorted. 'Oh, /thanks/.'
'Just telling it like it is. I guess it was the fact that you were more intelligent than most of the other boys - I mean, Modo and Vinnie've always let you do their thinking for them, up till you left. And then there was the fact that you would do that for them, or anything for anyone - you were always so good to everyone you met, and you hardly ever lost your temper even with rats.' She sighed. 'I wonder what happened to the Throttle I knew?'
'I think he died after they made me dismantle my bike,' said Throttle.
The silence clanged like a bell. 'What?'
'You know the mind-control thing? They did something so I knew what I was doing and I could hear it scream but I couldn't do anything to stop myself. And then they gave me my mind back.'
'Is that why...' Carbine glanced at the scars on his wrists. Throttle nodded. She rolled off him and lay beside him, her head against his shoulder and her arm around his waist. 'Oh, Throttle...' After a while he rested a hand on her hair and they lay like that in silence till the sun came up.
The buzzer on Carbine's desk went off, startling both her and Throttle awake. At first she didn't know why she was lying on the floor of her office with his arms around her and his nose in her hair, and she would have liked to stay there longer, but Throttle sat up, clutched at his head and snapped, 'You gonna answer that already?'
Carbine got to her feet, ignoring the protests from her joints after a night spent lying on concrete, and pressed the com button.
'General Carbine,' she said. 'What's going on?'
'General, I got some bad news for ya...' It was Vinnie, sounding like a puppy who was anticipating a kick. 'We've lost Throttle. Been looking all night, can't find him anywhere. Charley says the last she saw he was leavin' the garage heading towards the Garden - but nobody's heard a peep since.'
'That's because he's with me,' said Carbine flatly. 'He has been since just after sunset last night. Don't any of you ever use your heads?'
'Oh...' Vinnie sounded genuinely surprised. 'Well... Rimfire suggested we ask you but Modo was scared of what you'd say when you found out we lost Throttle- /ow/!' The sudden cutoff sounded as though Modo had taken exception to the accusation of fear of Carbine, and the line was picked up by Charley.
'Hello, General? Sorry about that, thirty-seven years old and he still hasn't grown up... So... you've got Throttle?'
'Yes, Charley. He's here and he's...' She glanced over at Throttle. He was leaning on the wall with his arms crossed, watching her. '...I think he's fine.'
'Oh.' There was a pause. 'General, I hope you don't mind me asking this, but... how fine? Fine as in "not drunk or fighting anything" or fine as in "well on the way to full recovery"?'
'Somewhere between the two,' replied Carbine. 'You're missing Earth, aren't you, Charley?'
'I... Yeah. I guess so. And I've got a business to run and everything.'
'You should go home, then. Everything will be OK now, I think.'
'You're sure?' Charley sounded distraught - Throttle's wellbeing versus that of her garage was obviously tearing her up.
'No, but if I waited till I was sure about everything we'd have lost the war years ago. Just don't go before we get to say goodbye.'
Modo was helping Vinnie and Charley load their luggage into the cargo bay of Rimfire's ship when Carbine and Throttle joined them.
'Hey, Carbine; what'd you do if I stowed away on this ship?' said Throttle.
'Well, first we'd have to bring you back, then I'd have to have you electronically tagged,' replied Carbine. 'How does that sound?'
'Smartass.' He raised an eyebrow at Vinnie. 'What the hell are you staring at?'
Vinnie blinked, shoved the crate he was holding to the back of the cargo bay and grinned. 'That's the Throttle I remember.'
Throttle snorted. 'Yeah, in your dreams.'
Carbine sighed. 'We're getting there.' As if to prove it, she slipped an arm around Throttle's waist; he only glanced at her, but he didn't shake her off.
'So, you're under General Carbine's personal supervision, huh?' said Charley. 'Lucky you.'
'And Rimfire,' said Carbine. 'And Modo, of course. So you remember that, soldier - any mutiny and you got three of us gonna whup your ass.'
'Oh, Mars...' Throttle looked sick. 'Look, Charley, how much do I have to pay you to put me in one of those crates and take me away?'
'No can do, my man,' said Charley cheerfully. 'You're on your own.
Modo had finished securing the bikes and stepped out of the ship. 'Hey, bro - don't be sad. We gonna get you a new bike when you're all better again. That sound good?'
'Yeah,' conceded Throttle. 'I guess it does.'
Rimfire strolled out from the bridge of the ship, wiping his hands on a rag. 'All set and ready to go,' he said. Vinnie and Charley started saying their goodbyes; Charley giving hugs all round, Vinnie and Modo exchanging blows that would have floored a human - and then they both reached Throttle. Charley hugged him without giving him a choice in the matter.
'You come and see us when you're OK again, yes?'
'I'm not /ill/, Charley.'
'Alright - when Carbine gives you clearance, come and see us. Better?'
Vinnie held out a hesitant hand. 'Still bros?'
There was a pause. Then Throttle grasped the hand firmly and said, 'Yeah. Ride free, bro.'
As the ship took off towards Earth, Throttle watched it go. There was still a long way to go - it would be a fight on the part of everybody concerned to bring back someone who even resembled the old Throttle. He draped an arm around Carbine's shoulders and reflected that now, at least, he had something to fight for. A future, he thought. Yeah. Maybe one day we can all go out to Mecharus with the whole Martian Reformed Army and blow the whole shit heap sky-high... Now that's a happy little thought...
POSSIBLY NOT THE END
Postscript: There have been questions as to what exactly happened to Throttle in the preceding seven years - here I have mentioned the end of the relationship with Carbine, four years in a Plutarkian jail on Mecharus, being made to torture his bike, and two failed suicide attempts. What I haven't done is go into any detail. There is actually a story planned - why go into detail here when I can write another story and we can watch it happening, up close and personal?