It’s hard sometimes, thinks Party Poison, to remember that people besides you have the right to put their lives in danger.
When Dr. D rolls in dragging Grace behind him, dusty and exhausted and grinning, all he wants to do is to forbid her from ever going outside alone again ever. Instead he takes a deep breath, leans against the edge of Dr. D’s desk, and holds out his hand wordlessly.
Fun Ghoul, Jet Star and Kobra Kid all pretend very hard not to be watching. Ever since Grace stumbled into their lives, nearly dead and owning nothing but a tiny piano keyboard she claims to have stolen from the house of her ghosted music teacher, she has somehow belonged more to Poison than to anyone else, as if she were a stray cat that they had taken in. Now Poison is clearly trying as hard as he can to not be Grace’s father, but there are some circumstances which make that kind of difficult. He raises his eyebrows and wiggles his fingers expectantly.
“I think you have something of mine?”
Grace looks sheepish. “Sorry.”
“You aren’t sorry at all. I’d be fucking disappointed if you were sorry. But I still want my gun back.”
Grace pulls the bright yellow gun out of the waistband of her jeans, then holds it behind her back.
“Only if I can get my own.”
“Only if you explain what the fuck you were doing out in the desert by yourself.”
“Only if you admit that I’m only following your example.”
“I don’t go Drac-hunting by myself.”
Grace hands over the gun. “Sure. Right.”
Dr. D lets out a bark of laughter. “Now we all know that’s a lie,” he said. “But don’t you think you maybe owe me a thank-you?”
Poison glares at Grace. “Yes. Thanks.”
“Good,” says Dr. D, picking the cane up off the desk and tapping it on the floor like a gavel. “Then I have a favour to ask of you boys.” He clears his throat. “Remember, before the Helium War, how you boys used to play in that shitty bar on the outskirts of the city--”
Kobra laughs. “The Bang Bang Bar! I remember that place.”
“Well, I’m of the mind to broadcast a live show. And I want you to play it.”
* * *
Five minutes later Grace has been suitably distracted with a sheet of paper and crayons and is happily designing her gun-to-be, and Poison, Kobra, Jet and Fun are sitting in a circle around Dr. D’s chair while Kobra explains vehemently why Dr D has just had the worst idea in the history of bad ideas.
“Do you have any idea how much time it takes to set all that shit up? If you want any kind of event that’s gonna draw more than a hundred waveheads-- and if you don’t, I don’t see the fucking point-- then there’s no way we can be in and out of any particular location in less than 24 hours. Especially if you want to record it for broadcast. And you’ll have to announce it far enough in advance for word to spread-- more than enough time for the Dracs to surround us like a fucking army.”
“Listen,” adds Fun gently, “I think it’s a good idea in theory. It would be fucking awesome and it’d be legend in a second if we could pull it off. But we didn’t even bring our instruments when we left the city. As far as I know, they’re still hidden in the cellar of the Bang Bang Bar-- but for all we know that place has been repurposed, and even if it hasn’t, I highly doubt there’s live music in bars in Battery City nowadays. Getting the instruments would be a quest in itself.”
“I have my keyboard,” puts in Grace from the corner.
“Okay,” concedes Fun, “We have a keyboard.”
“We’ll need a keyboard, actually”, says Poison thoughtfully.
Kobra turns to look at him incredulously. “You’re not seriously considering this.”
“Well, it’s all very well for him,” says Fun, “He’s not the one who’s going to have to go sneak two guitars out of the basement of a probably-defunct bar. Not to mention drum kit. Which nobody would even be available to play.”
“I know someone who can play,” says Dr. D. Four pairs of eyes turn to him expectantly, but he simply nods in Grace’s direction.
“Yeah!” she shouts, and for some reason one person grinning and shouting "yeah" is all that was needed.
Fun sighs, but it turns into a grin halfway through. Suddenly everyone’s smiling, cautiously, and after a minute Jet jumps to his feet. “We’re going to need to borrow the van,” he says.
* * *
Kobra and Jet agree to undertake the guitar-acquisition undertaking; Fun would never be able to pass himself off as a good medicated citizen of Battery City, and Poison has nothing to do with the instruments anyway. At the last moment Grace hops in the van. “I need to scope out my options with respect to hitting things,” she announces. “Besides, it’s always helpful to have someone young and innocent-looking with you when you go to steal stuff.”
Jet starts to protest, then realizes that she’s probably right. As they roll away in the van, Poison and Fun throw the radio into the Trans-Am and set off in the opposite direction. They need a venue; somewhere far enough away from the main roads that it’s not being actively patrolled, but not so far out that the motorbabies they’re looking to draw in won’t find it worth their while.
They keep the radio on, although Dr. D has signed off for the day. Fun scans idly through the channels, and the messages from BL/ind go from “Did you take your medication today?” to “You are starting to feel tired!” as the sun begins to set. He switches it off. They mark off a few possibilities on a map; a spot on the western side of Zone Five with trees with leaves that are almost green, a spot in in Zone Two next to a frankly amazing little pond, and a place in Zone Six just outside of an agricultural commune full of people crazier than any wavehead or motorbaby, trying to grow tomatoes and fighting off Dracs with ancient firearms. The inhabitants of this town agree cautiously to a concert somewhere near them, and give Poison and Fun a few pieces of roundish, yellowish fruit-or-possibly-vegetable that are still quite impressive, considering the growing conditions.
By the time they get back to the car it’s dark and late and cold. Fun had half-hoped that the woman who seemed to be more or less the leader of the commune was going to offer them a place to stay for the night, but although the farmers were friendly they still seemed wary of the two strange men who came talking about music and radio waves and equipment and crowds. So Fun climbs into the back seat of the car and settles in leaning against the door.
“Let’s just stay here,” he says. “It’ll be safer than driving back. We couldn’t spot a Drac in this dark if it were riding on the windshield.”
Poison gets in beside him and munches cautiously on the food-object from the commune. He doesn’t seem inclined to answer, and after a few moments his eyes drift closed. Fun remembers to turn on the radio before he drifts off, tuned to the static on Dr. D’s channel.***
At some point in the slow process of transition from sleeping to waking, he realizes that his leg is asleep, probably because of the dead weight still pressing on it. He takes a moment to focus on what parts of his body are doing what and realizes that Poison is slumped against him, head resting on Fun’s stomach, and that his fingers are tangled in Poison’s hair. Perhaps, if he doesn’t open his eyes, they won’t have to do the inevitable whose-limbs-are-whose and losing the warm body--
Bad news from the zones, tumbleweeds.
The radio static is broken by Dr. D’s voice like a bowling ball splashing into a swimming pool. Fun’s eyes snap open and he feels Poison twitch into consciousness.
“Fuck,” says Poison eloquently, and sits up suddenly, looking around for the radio. Fun open his eyes and looks at his fingers languidly; they're stained pink. Poison is crawling over his knees, reaching for the radio in the front seat, presumably to turn it off, as Dr. D continues: "It looks like Jet Star and the Kobra Kid had a clap with an exterminator that went all Costa Rica and, uh..." Dr. D falters, and suddenly Fun is wide awake. He grabs Poison’s hand just in time to hear Dr. D say, "...got themselves ghosted."
"Hey, what?" says Poison confusedly, his knotted hair obscuring his face and his knee poking painfully into Fun's thigh. Poison isn't great with mornings.
"Dusted out on Route Guano," continues Dr. D. "So it's time to hit the red line and up-thrust the volume out there, keep your boots tight, keep your gun close, and die with your mask on if you've got to..."
"Wait!" shouts Poison, grabbing the radio and pulling it back into the back seat. "No! Wait! What about Jet and Kobra? Where did you hear that? Where are they? This was your fucking idea! Shut up, I don't give a flying fuck about the traffic!"
He turns the radio off and turns to Fun wildly. "Fuck--" he says helplessly.
"Can't be right," says Fun, rubbing his eyes and leaving smears of pink on his forehead. "We'll go check on them. That can't be right."
"Dr. D's fucking got it wrong," snarls Poison. "We’ve got to get to Route Guano.”
They reach Route Guano from the north, swooping out almost outside of Zone 6. Route Guano extends all the way from the city out past the Zones, so they play it safe; it'll take longer, but since they had no idea where Jet and Kobra were, it's better to be safe and go through all the zones.
They’re mostly silent until they reach Guano. Poison drives and Fun fiddles with the radio, trying to call back Dr. D's voice into the car as if he were tempting a small animal. Only static.
"He didn't mention Grace," says Poison, his voice cutting through the thick atmosphere of a few hours' accumulated silence.
"What are we going to do if they're dead?" he continues.
"They won't be dead," growls Fun. It's not particularly reassuring. "They don't want us dead. They want us Dracs."
"I think," says Poison, "They would take dead in a pinch." he hums a little under his breath.
"Remember, in the days right after the war-- when we were all still in the city? That fire."
Fun frowns. "There wasn’t a fire. BL/ind hates fire. Fire is black and hot and gets shit dirty when it’s done."
"Yeah, but it was a book fire. Remember how everyone was supposed to go watch and cheer?"
"Oh, yeah, I remember that."
"There was this one book that just fell off to the side, and I picked it up. I must've lost it somewhere, but I remember it was about this girl. Her brothers had killed each other, and one of them was left rotting in the desert, or something, and the king said that nobody could bury him. She tried anyway, and the king killed her for it. I think it was some mythology shit or something, it was weird, but I kept it for a while. I guess that means it was the last damn book left in Battery City."
"You're not going to be burying your brother today, Poison."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
Around Zone Four, Poison starts fidgeting as he drives; as they enter Zone Three he starts fooling with the radio dial, scanning over station after station of static mixed with occasional snatches of propaganda. Dr D seems to be broadcasting the inane chattering of some sort of outdoor meeting. Fun slaps his hand away and turns the radio off after a few minutes of this. They speed into Zone Two, where you can just barely start to see Battery City poking over the horizon, and Poison says "What are we going to do if--" and Fun says "Look!" and points to a speck up ahead-- far away, but clearly a human form, sitting and leaning against the dirt-coated sign separating Zone 2 from Zone 1.
Poison leans forward, squinting. "It's only one person," he says. His voice takes on a panicked edge. "Shit. Fun, what if it's one of their bodies? Fuck. It's Jet Star, I swear, I can see his hair."
"No," mutters Fun, and he flips his feet onto the seat of the car and swings his entire torso out of the window, shading his eyes and squinting at the figure slowly drawing closer. Suddenly he laughs, and pops back inside the car.
"Poison," he says, "It's not Jet Star. It's Grace."
As they watch, four people-- three on rollerblades, one on some sort of silly-looking scooterboard with handlebars sticking up like a bicycle-- roll up beside Grace. She jumps up and stretches out her hands for high-fives, which she receives, then leans in towards them. After a minute one of them punches the air and Grace points towards a patch of trees off the side of the road. They set off at top speed in the direction she indicated.
“What the fuck?” mutters Poison.
Suddenly Grace sees the car and starts jumping up and down, waving excitedly. Poison rolls down the window to wave back, cautiously. As he does, he hears the sounds of a crowd drifting form the patch of trees that Grace had indicated: talking, singing, laughing, guitar chords, a high-pitched wild whining. They pull up beside Grace.
“What the fuck is going on?” asks Poison. “Where are Jet and Kobra? We heard they were dead--”
“My fault,” says Grace. She’s fiddling idly with the butt of the brand-new ray gun stuck into her back pocket and she looks so fucking proud that Poison can’t help but smile. “BL/ind are monitoring the waves. We couldn’t just radio for everyone to get their asses over here pronto for a shiny concert, because then there would be a massacre where we promised a show. Here you came expecting the aftermath of a massacre, and get a show.”
“A show?” says Fun.
Grace smirks. “Not my idea. But go talk to them, if you want to believe they aren’t dead. I need to stay here and direct people.” She waves her arms in over-here motions at a group of kids, barely older than her, who are struggling down the road carrying battered duffel bags that probably hold absolutely everything they own.
“Right,” says Poison vaguely, and they set off towards the trees. As they approach, the concentration of people becomes thicker. The high whining, they see, was coming from some kind of recorder-like instrument that seems to have been constructed out of grass and garbage; the man playing it is at least sixty, and has attracted a few others who are crowding around him with their own instruments-- guitars, mostly, although Fun grins as he spots a middle-aged woman with a banjo-- and attempting to harmonize with the otherworldly screeching he’s producing. Some people recognize them and wave; some are old patrons of the Bang Bang Bar, most just recognize them from descriptions of Dr. D’s crazy friends. Finally they spot Jet Star. He sees them and grins.
“Sorry about the being-dead thing,” he shouts. “Grace’s idea. Smart kid.”
“We had a little talk about it as we were driving”, he continues. He’s following D. D around, placing microphones where the DJ indicates, mapping out a triangle around a patch of sand. “We decided that if we made it out alive, we weren’t gonna wait around. We’re playing right here, right now. Caught a wavehead right on the outskirts of Zone Two, told him to radio Dr. D and tell him to get over here with whatever he needs-- and to let the whole fucking world know that we had a clap with an exterminator.” He waves his hand at the crowd, which was growing each minute as people rounded up friends, enemies and acquaintances however they could. “It’s nice to know that when we do get ghosted, there are plenty of people willing to fight for our bodies. Anyway. We made it out alive. So here we are.”
“And we’re going to play--”
“After a few years--”
Grace runs up to them, bouncing on the balls of her feet excitedly. “Are we ready?”
“Yes”, says Dr. D, before any of them have a chance to answer. He makes his way to the microphone first, looking back at them just before he addresses the crowd.
“You’re welcome”, he says.