Nevada, North America, 2281. Following a series of catastrophic nuclear strikes which devastated the Earth, the desert around what used to be Las Vegas had become unsafe territory indeed; over the intervening centuries the area had become the hunting ground of wild beasts and hideous monsters, not to mention dangers of the more human variety. Las Vegas itself was now known as New City, a last bastion of humanity in a barren wasteland, a town over which the ruling factions of Johnny's Entertainment and the LDH Corporation battled for superiority not only of the crumbling casinos and music halls but also over the city itself.
But it hadn't been only the atomic bombs which had laid waste to humanity. As well as the Feral Ghouls and Super Mutants which had emerged as a result of humans being over-exposed to radiation and other chemicals, many people had fallen victim to the crippling dehydration of the wasteland and become Thirst Ghouls, forsaken husks willing to literally kill for their next drink. Some said the Thirst Ghouls had been created by the LDH Corporation as a bio-weapon, a means to gain the upper hand over Johnny's Entertainment; some said they were the product of a failed experiment on unsuspecting music fans centuries before. Either way, the only way to defeat them was to rehydrate them before their bodies became too dried out to function properly any more. To become completely dehydrated was to greet only death.
Amidst the ruins of this dry future existed Matsumoto Jun, Ohno Satoshi and Aiba Masaki – known as MJ-II, Big-No and Ayber - three men with special abilities allowing them to rehydrate the world. With the power of METS, the refreshing liquid brewed by Johnny's Entertainment, only they stood a chance of stopping the Thirst Ghouls overrunning New City. By night, they performed onstage for Johnny-san; by day, they ventured out into the wasteland on their quest to protect what remained of civilisation from the wrath of the Thirst Ghouls. They were the METS-Men.
MJ-II dropped into a crouch, blowing the last few drops of moisture from the barrel of his METS-pistol and grinning, then turned with a flourish to face the two men standing on the roof of a ruined building a short distance away; he'd just finished blasting a sizeable gathering of Thirst Zombies with the hydrating liquid from his METS-pistol, restoring the zombies to their former humanity. A thin veil of sand, the dust stirred up from MJ-II's energetic battle, drifted across their silhouettes as the men on the roof watched their companion settle his fight. One of the men was dressed in faded leathers and armed with some kind of staff, his body tense and poised as if ready to spring into action; the other man was framed with a ragged cloak, his hand encased in what appeared to be an armoured gauntlet, a faint light glowing within its steel-plated palm.
“Finally. I was beginning to wonder whether I should take a nap.” Big-No, the one with the power glove, theatrically stifled a yawn with his free hand. “If I'd known I wasn't needed, I could have stayed in bed.”
“And miss seeing me make one hell of a big splash?”
“I wish you had a more dry sense of humour sometimes.”
“Aww, Big-No! Don't be so wet.”
“It's still good practice for us to be here.” Ayber frowned, one hand poised at the ready over his staff; he'd been prepared to leap down and join in the fray if needed. He was always the one who worried the most about their encounters, balancing up the odds, keeping an eye out for potential danger and covering his team-mates' backs. “Although your puns are getting worse, MJ.”
“What's that, Ayber? Don't tell me your sense of humour is starting to desert you.”
Smirking at his own – admittedly terrible - wordplay, MJ-II watched the other two men as they made their way down to join him; Big-No leapt from the roof in a single jump to land on one knee, his cloak billowing around him, whereas Ayber vaulted down into the sand using his staff to steady himself as he did so.
“Enough with the jokes. These people need help.” Ayber swept his arm out to indicate the dazed crowd of former Thirst Zombies now sitting before them, their faces and hands dripping with the welcome refreshment which MJ-II had provided. “You saved them before they could be turned into zombies permanently, but they're still going to need assistance getting back to the city. There's no way they were living here already; this place is far too run-down to be habitable.”
“I called for help before I even hydrated them.” MJ-II, nonchalant as ever, held up a small device which acted as a kind of long-distance walkie-talkie. “Johnny-san is sending out medics and a scout to bring them back to the city, so we're free to move out.”
It was a similar scene every time the group fought Thirst Ghouls. Once they had been rehydrated and regained their humanity, the victims were often confused and disorientated, weakened by their ordeal; they usually needed aid and time to recuperate, which the METS-Men often helped with as much as they could. Tonight, however, they were due to give a live performance, and if they stayed with the rehydrated victims they wouldn't even make it back to New City in time for the interval.
“Not bad.” Big-No made a face and nodded. Despite his dismissive comments earlier, he always was quietly proud of his companions' efforts. “I suppose we'd better get going, then. I want to do a practice run of our third song onstage before we---”
“Wait.” MJ-II suddenly stopped, holding up a hand as if asking for silence. “Do you hear that?”
“I can hear you talking.” Big-No delivered his words with such a deadpan expression that Ayber couldn't tell whether the man was being serious or not. “And I already have to listen to that often enough.”
“Ssssssh! Over there.”
MJ-II raised his finger to his mouth, asking for silence, his hand then pointing towards one of the buildings on the other side of what had once been the town square. Squinting, both Ayber and Big-No followed his gaze – Big-No removing his goggles in order to do so – only to catch a glimpse of movement across the empty windows, the shuffle of footsteps, and nod in agreement that yes, they had indeed heard something.
“Another Thirst Ghoul, maybe?” Ayber offered his suggestion as a hushed whisper. “Maybe one of them had trouble getting outside?”
“No. It was moving too fast.” MJ-II started to walk slowly across the sand, heading towards where they had seen whatever it was stirring in the shadows. “I'm pretty sure I got all of the Thirst Ghouls out here, and there was enough METS to have drawn any remaining ones out of hiding. This looked more like a normal person.”
He paused, waiting for Ayber and Big-No to catch up, before edging closer towards the small structure which might once have been a shoddy bar or a cafe. Much of the paint had peeled away from the crumbling bricks, the once brightly-covered advertising boards which adorned the outer walls now faded and almost unreadable, although some of them may have been proclaiming the thirst-quenching properties of soft drinks or the pleasures of freshly-baked pastries. Several of the rehydrated humans moaned and stirred when MJ-II passed by but he did his best to ignore them, knowing at least that help would be on the way for them soon. No, his focus right now was on whatever awaited them inside this building, and he stepped up and pressed his ear against the ramshackle door which was by this point little more than a few warped boards hammered together to stop the sand getting inside.
One of the METS-Men's greatest strengths was their ability to work as a team. They had lived and fought alongside each other long enough to understand unspoken cues, to recognise hand signals and body language without needing to utter a single word. That was why MJ-II gesticulated silently to Ayber and Big-No as he took a position to one side of the door, indicating that they stand aside and be ready to move as he---
In one fluid movement MJ-II booted the door, kicking it aside, and sending the smaller man on the other side flying backwards onto the floor in surprise. A small cloud of dust rose where the man landed, but not enough to cover the tracks of his footsteps - he had clearly been moving slowly towards the door as MJ-II had been fighting, as evidenced by the line of boot prints which stretched along the length of the room. The stranger certainly didn't look like a Thirst Ghoul, however; slim and unassuming, dressed in a faded white shirt and shabby trousers which showed stains from both sweat and dirt, his skin appeared to be just as smooth and as normal as any other healthy human. His brown eyes stared with surprise from beneath an unkempt thatch of messy hair, his body trembling as he looked up at MJ-II, his hands scrambling for purchase on the bare floorboards as he attempted to get to his feet.
“Don't try to run.” MJ-II smiled down at his potential opponent, his METS-pistol held at the ready. It was currently set to 'hydrate' rather than 'ballistic' - the mode which would allow it to fire normal bullets - but the man on the floor had no way of knowing that. “We're not used to people leaving the show without at least waiting for an autograph.”
“Wh-who are you?” The man stammered, his eyes widening as he stared at the barrel of MJ-II's pistol, fear showing plainly on his face. “What are you doing here?”
“Shouldn't we be asking you that?” Big-No stepped into the room, wasting no time in taking his place beside MJ-II and holding out his armoured METS-gauntlet in the direction of the newcomer. The palm of his gloved hand shone with an eerie light, bathing the man's face in a pale, ghostly glow. Whoever he was he clearly had at least enough sense to know when he was in danger, freezing in place and no longer trying to get to his feet or back away. "Who are you?"
“Me? I... I'm just looking for junk to sell!” As if to demonstrate this fact he started to reach slowly for a nearby bottle of Nuka-Cola which had been knocked off a shelf during his fall, and clutched onto it like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood. “Junk, like this bottle! People always want to buy this kind of stuff, right?”
“You're on your own in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Thirst Ghouls, yet somehow you manage to survive without a scratch – and you expect us to believe you're a harmless scavenger?" With a subtle gesture - one which the so-called scavenger wouldn't have noticed, but which both MJ-II and Ayber did – Big-No flicked the setting on his gauntlet from 'hydrate' to 'ballistic'. "I don't think so."
“Stand down, Big-No.” MJ-II's words held a note of warning, his eyebrow raised in a subtle expression of caution. The last thing they needed right now was for Big-No to kill an innocent man.
“You're not my boss, MJ.” Big-No risked a quick glance at his team-mate before turning his attention back towards the man on the floor. “This thing could be dangerous.”
“He's not a thing.” Now it was Ayber's turn to defend the newcomer, deliberately moving to standing in the way of Big-No's outstretched palm. MJ-II had always said that mercy was Ayber's weak point, but in this situation, it was something of a blessing. “Let's at least give him a chance!”
“Thank you, Ayber.” Breathing a sigh of relief, MJ-II moved a little closer, allowing the supposed scavenger to sit up properly, if not get to his feet just yet. “What's your name?”
“N-N-Ninomiya. Ninomiya Kazunari.”
“Well then, N-N-Ninomiya,” MJ-II grinned, “You'll have to excuse us for a moment while we decide what to do with you. Ayber, Big-No – with me for a moment.”
With a flick of his head MJ-II indicated that the three METS-Men should confer in private, or at least in more hushed tones; they retreated into the corner, occasionally glancing back at this Ninomiya to make sure he didn't do anything foolish like trying to make a break for it.
“He's lying.” Big-No didn't even bother trying to keep his voice down. “I say we leave him here.”
“He's scared.” Ayber was as concerned as ever. “And I can't blame him for being scared if he was holed up in here surrounded by Thirst Ghouls. Can't we at least hear him out?”
“He's a complication.” MJ-II reminded them that their mission today had been to clear the town of Thirst Ghouls, not rescue any hostages. In their brief, nothing had been said about anyone other than the people they had been sent to rehydrate. It didn't mean that they wouldn't help the man – it wouldn't have been the first time the group had given aid to others without being asked, or paid – but it wasn't something they had expected, and that was unusual. Their boss normally gave detailed mission briefs, and for him to neglect to mention the presence of a human amongst Thirst Ghouls was a concerning oversight indeed. “Do you suppose Johnny-san even knew he was here?”
“Wait! I do know you.” Ninomiya's voice interrupted them, the man still sounding nervous, yet sure of his facts. “You're the METS-Men, aren't you?”
“And if we are?” MJ-II turned back towards him, Ayber and Big-No also following suit.
“You work for Johnny-san... don't you?”
It was certainly no secret that the METS-Men were on Johnny-san's payroll. If anything, their affiliation with him being public knowledge brought good publicity as well as the opportunity for some impressive photoshoots. Johnny-san was openly funding a team who could take down Thirst Ghouls - no wonder the METS-Men were popular, at least with Johnny's fans. The followers of the LDH Corporation were somewhat less enthusiastic, claiming that the heroics of the METS-Men were just a gimmick to cover their lack of musical talent, but that hadn't stopped Johnny-san's proteges from becoming the most popular celebrities in New City.
“Well then... in that case...” Ninomiya's shoulders slumped and he sighed heavily, as if resigned to some kind of dark fate. “You've come for me, haven't you?”
“What?” That was unexpected. “What do you mean by that?”
“I should have known I wouldn't be able to get very far.”
“You're not making any sense.” Ayber attempted to sound soothing. “You wouldn't be able to get very far from what?”
Dammit, Ayber! thought MJ-II. If you'd kept quiet, perhaps he would have told us more!
“I've said too much.” And with those words Ninomiya Kazunari drew himself into a small ball, his lips drawing into a thin line as he clamped his mouth tightly shut.
“Oh, great. Now we're going to have to take him with us.” Big-No rolled his eyes in exasperation. “But that doesn't mean we have to escort him back ourselves. Why don't we just leave him here to get picked up by the medical team?”
“Because we can't risk it.” Now it was MJ-II's turn to seem suspicious. Whatever Ninomiya's secret was, they couldn't trust the man not to run away before back-up arrived. “He comes with us. That way we can make sure he can answer our questions... and believe me, I have questions.”
“Okay, then.” Big-No nodded, eventually. “But I don't have to like it.”
"At least this way, we can be sure that he's safe." Ayber was smiling, perhaps the only one of them actually pleased by this arrangement. "Whatever he's running from, we won't allow him to come to harm, right?"
"He's running from us, Ayber." MJ-II looked grim. "He's running from Johnny-san, anyway - at least, that's what I think he meant."
"He... oh." Ayber's face fell. "Well... we can at least make sure he's treated fairly, can't we? Johnny-san is a good man."
"Yeah, that's what I thought, too." MJ-II glanced over at Big-No, then back down to Ninomiya. He held out a hand and touched Ninomiya on his shoulder. "Hey. Get up. You are coming with us, but we're not going to hurt you."
Ninomiya nodded mutely, then slowly rose to his feet, although he refused the offer of MJ-II's hand. The bottle he had picked up rolled away from him in the dirt, forgotten; he didn't even seem to have a weapon on him, his belt empty of any gun holsters or sheathed knives, his dirty clothes holding nothing but his small body. He appeared to be quietly resigned to his fate.
"Come on, METS-Men.” MJ-II sighed. The triumphant victory he had gained over the Thirst Zombies seemed to have evaporated like so much wasted METS, the appearance of this Ninomiya Kazunari casting a shadow of unease across the day. “Let's get going."
And with those words the four men - led by MJ-II, the three combatants flanking their possible captive - headed out once more onto the burning hot sands, beginning their walk back together towards New City.
But the small group making their way across the wasteland were not the only ones aware of what had just happened in that ruined town. Not too many miles away a lone man watched their progress on the grainy screen of a battered old monitor, apparently amused by the actions of the METS-Men, smiling to himself as he considered his next move.
So, they caught Ninomiya Kazunari. Good. This should make things a lot more interesting.