2017. Zone Four.
Sheet-white sand goes on forever and ever.
In the City, those of them who’d dared to speak of it had had some vague romantic notions about the desert, the junk-punk civilizations of heroes and revolutionaries. In the desert there would be color again. In the desert there was life. Ray is twelve or fourteen miles south of anywhere in the hottest part of the year, and now there is only white and bleached sky and the creeping realization he’s dying out here. This. Fuck. This wasn’t how it was meant to happen. Find a gang, that was the first thing they’d told him. Safety in numbers is everything in the desert. Hook up with a crew at the first opportunity. They might not accept you at first but at least you’ll have some kind of protection. That was sensible as far as it went, but it turns out the first ‘crew’ Ray guessed he had something to barter with turned out to be not so much for the solidarity, and having been held up at gunpoint for everything he’d brought, he was out here on his own again. Minus water. Tent. Pocket knife. It wasn’t like he’d smuggled a treasure trove out of Battery City. Either his years in the sterile labs and corridors of BL/Ind had rendered Ray a poor, poor judge of character, or he just had EASY TARGET written all over him.
Thirst had started in the back of his throat and crept up and downwards, his tongue seemed to be stuck to the roof of his mouth and the headache had progressed so that he couldn’t see so well anymore. The sand was moving. It seemed to be getting dark, but that couldn’t be, because it was still morning, wasn’t it? The heat was sullen, flattening, sun edging inexorably to the hottest part of the day and the only thing to do was find shade, which meant walking. Keep. Walking. Ray felt kind of sick. Everything seemed to be getting heavier. Or maybe that was just his body and blood. That didn’t make sense though, because he was boiling, and surely when you were literally boiling, you should evaporate?
Could blood boil inside your body?
The sand flats were swaying now. Even the sky was moving. A vision of the rebel cities would have been nice, even if it was just a hallucination. Nice way to go out, in any case. Wait no. He wasn’t supposed to be thinking that, he was supposed to stay positive-
-the ground lurched abruptly. It was kind of rude.
“.....k dangerous to you?”
“....ke that. Korse probably didn’t look dangerous when....”
“.....stranger, then I don’t even know when the point of all this is.”
“....ourselves first...... t a charity, Poison!”
The Afterlife was weird.
Ray comes to with the sensation of being watched. He was an impression of large eyes and pale skin. Illegally colored hair. The watcher sits forward eagerly and opens his mouth. Ray passes out again.
A ceiling. There are wires hanging loose and a lot of dust. A few of the beams are hanging loose. He is lying on something hard and cool.
It’s cool and dark in here.
“Just so you know, I have a fully charged gun on my belt and anything you were packing is long gone. We searched you.” The voice is calm and matter of fact, coming from the shadows in a corner. It’s not particularly loud but still has the rough effect of a pneumatic drill applied to the space between Ray’s eyebrows. He grits his teeth and makes a sound that must betray the degree of pain he’s in, because the voice says, maybe a little mollified, “Water on your right.”
It takes Ray an inordinately long time to figure out which one right is. He finally gets it when his fingers twitch with the memory of a guitar. That was – old. He reaches across and gropes blindly at something cold and plastic which promptly slips out of his fingers.
“Oh for – Jesus. Here.” The voice is annoyed, but the hand that raises his head is almost gentle, and then water touches his lips and he can’t think about anything but swallowing as fast as possible: “Hey slow down or you’ll puke again!” Again? “Ugh, I am so not cut out for this Florence Nightingale crap.” Water has an amazing effect. Ray still feels like – well, utter shit, but now shit with the desire and ability to sit up and grab the bottle and drink as much as he can as fast as possible.
“HEY! WHAT DID I JUST SAY, DUMBASS?!”
Ray lowers the water bottle. He does feel kind of sick still, but now he’s distracted by the clear sight of his captor/guardian, and then he just starts laughing, because the thing is, this guy is tiny, and Ray’s seriously not doubting his ability to kill him seventeen ways from across the room or whatever but somehow that just makes it funnier, he’s like literally a pixie, all big eyes and small face and he probably comes up to Ray’s freaking belt buckle or something –
“Okay, you’re crazy,” says the guy, throwing his (tiny!) hands up. “That’s just great. Hey Poison, he’s fucking crazy, in case you were wondering! I’m not dealing with this!” This last is yelled to someone presumably in an adjoining room, or outside. There is no reply.
“I’m not-” Ray wants to deny it but he’s not entirely sure he can do so honestly, and in any case talking makes him cough. The guy just glares at him, arms folded across his chest. Now that Ray’s eyes are adjusting to the darkness he can make out the brightly colored motorbike leathers, the longish hair. Belt buckle was a slight exaggeration, but the dude is very short and small. And kind of - well, pretty, a fact he's done his level best to efface with a variety of punkish tattoos and piercings.
“So what were you doing out there?” the guy asks when Ray's finished coughing. “You had like – nothing. No water. That’s kind of suicidally stupid.”
“I got robbed,” Ray confesses.
“Huh. Well, it’s a good thing for you Poison’s kind of a bleeding heart. I figured you were a trap. Or a spy. I’m still not entirely convinced, by the way, though I guess the fact you nearly died and nothing happened means you can’t be a very valuable spy.”
“I – nearly died?”
“Sure. From dehydration and exposure. We gave you some water but you puked it back and I was like, this guy’s a goner, but Poison was like, no, we have to try for good of humanity or some shit, and well, we had space on a bike. So here we are I guess. ”
“....Oh.” Nearly having died would explain the encompassing feeling of being something squashed on a windscreen, as well as the burned-soreness he was starting to register in pretty much every inch of his skin.
“So you crew kicked you out? Pick a fight with the leader? Or are you just useless or something?”
“No crew.” Ray swallowed and lay back on the mattress. The ceiling blurred a bit. “I just got out.”
“Out of what?”
“Uh – the City.”
“You left Battery City. Voluntarily. And alone.” It’s a statement of scepticism, not a question, and Ray is annoyed.
“We’re not all – it’s not all the same in there. Some people are awake.”
“Yeah alright,” says the guy after a long pause. “Whatever you say. So. I have shit to do. There’s more water under the bunk and a bathroom –kind of – that way. And no weapons or communications equipment, so don’t bother looking. Poison will want to talk to you later.”
He leaves and locks the door.
Thanks for the Kudos, I'm glad you like it! All feedback including constructive criticism would be gratefully received. Also if anyone has a preference between updates this length every few days or longer updates more regularly, I'll take that into account.
The next time Ray wakes up he feels a lot better. He feels like getting up and moving and – like he really needs that bathroom now. He decides that must be a good thing – his body wouldn’t be wasting water if he were dying of dehydration, right?
It turns out that ‘bathroom’ was a generous term – there’s an old fashioned china latrine with a chain and one of those tiny sinks wedged into a corner. The water is brackish and muddy, but he splashes some on his face and anyway and wishes briefly for a razor. He determines to think only about the present moment. If he looks back, he’ll get lost there, and thinking about the chain of events that have brought him here makes him feel crazy and helpless and out of control. He can’t afford that. It’s enough to deal with the debt of gratitude settling heavily on his shoulders.
He goes back to the storeroom with the pallet bed, and tries the door. It’s still locked, so he knocks it and calls,
No answer. He coughs and tries louder but still nothing - his pulse picks up and he knows harder, adrenalin rapidly building to a minor freakout with alarming speed, when the door swings suddenly open. He’s face to face with wide hazel eyes in a cherubic face, the bright-dyed hair he remembers from his half-dream.
“Oh!” exclaims his rescuer: “Were you locked in?” His voice is melodic and he speaks rapidly: “I’m so sorry. Ghoul means well, he’s just kind of over-cautious sometimes, but you’ll love him once you get to know him. Anyway you look a lot better. Are you feeling better?”
“Uh...” Ray clears his throat again. “Yeah. Yeah I am. Thanks.”
“Come and sit down though.” The redhead practically ushers him out of the doorway, and into the front parlour of an old-style American diner. He gestures for Ray to sit in one of the dark red booths and slides a warm can of coke across the table to him. “Sorry it’s diet. I’m sure you could use the sugar and all, but my brother kind of has an addiction.”
“No this – this is great. Thanks.” Ray’s still staring around, kind of overcome, and his brain tries to catalogue the other people in the room. There’s a woman with red lips and black hair wearing a US army tee as a dress with a leather belt, and a skinny guy in a yellow jacket absorbed in an e-reader. A child with frizzy hair and round bright eyes is building a Lego city under a table. All of these people are alive, in living colour. His eyes are drawn back to the girl. She’s too old, but with that hair he can almost imagine her how she would look, maybe in a few years –
“Thanks for everything,” he elaborates, as the redhead slides into the booth opposite. “I guess you saved my life.”
Redhead’s eyes widen even further, apparent grief and compassion. Ray is slightly concerned he’s about to touch his hand.
“What were you doing out there alone?” he asks. “Wait – I mean – you don’t have to talk about it. But if you want to talk about it that’s fine too. I’m Party Poison by the way.”
“You’re Party Poison?”
“Our respected leader,” says the skinny guy without taking his eyes of his e-reader. It is utterly impossible to tell if he’s being sarcastic.
“’It’s not like that,” Redhead – Poison – assures Ray.
“It kind of is,” says the woman.
“But we all make decisions together and stuff. This is a democracy.”
“I’m Ray,” Ray says.
“Oh – dude,” Poison winces. “You don’t have to tell us your real name yet.”
“Um, – I don’t have any other name.”
That gets skinny guy’s attention and he looks up: “Well what did your crew call you?” Ray is struck by the odd resemblance to Poison: odd because hard to pin to particular features, they don’t have the same eyes or nose or jaw, yet they are obviously related. He guesses this must be the brother.
“I wasn’t in a crew,” Ray admits. “I just left Battery City like – I’m not sure how many days ago.” There’s a beat of silence, and he recalls the short guy’s wariness: “I’m not drugged,” he says quickly. “Or – hardly, if I am. I’ve been cutting down on the pills for months, went cold turkey before I got out, there can hardly be anything left in my system.” He spread his hands.
“We believe you,” says Poison. “It’s just – well – how did you get out? We don’t see that sort of thing everyday, you know.”
“I had help. There’s a sort of a, a network,” he draws it in the air, sketchy connection of undefined points: “but I don’t know that much about it. I only met with one person face to face. And she was wearing a mask. People have to protect themselves, you know we may not all be revolutionaries but we’re not all good little BL/Ind citizens either.” He stops. Poison looks at the skinny guy and they hold a kind of conversation through the medium of eyebrows.
“Okay,” says Poison at length. “Well, that’s Kobra Kid. He’s my little brother. Over there is Fuck Machine, and we call the motorbaby Grace.”
“We’re Killjoys,” says the little girl. She’s entirely unexcited by the profanity. “We fight dracs and one time Party and Ghoul got the kids out of a laboratory but I wasn’t allowed to come. I helped a lot though. And I can shoot. But I’m not allowed my own gun till I’m ten.”
“I said we would talk about it when you were ten, Gracie,” the woman says.
“How long is that?”
“You can figure it out. Do a take-away.”
Ray tears his eyes away as Grace holds up ten fingers, and assiduously starts counting down.
“Wait,” he says. “Did she says Killjoys?”
“Our reputation precedes us,” says Kobra.
“It – I’ll say!” Ray exclaims. His mind is spinning. Killjoys. Fuck. If there was one crew whose name was whispered amongst the discontents with reverence – and a side of fear – it was the Killjoys. Known for the ruthless massacre of Dracs and Crows as much for the liberation of political prisoners and experimental subjects, Ray had just expected them to be – scarier. Their leader ought to be bald and grim, maybe an eyepatch or a robotic hand or something. Right now Poison looks more like an earnest schoolkid than a ruthless resistance leader. “You guys are legendary.”
“Oh I’d dispute that,” says Poison thoughtfully. “I don’t think we’ve been around long enough to call legendary, that implies-...“
“So what did you do? In the city?” Fuck Machine asks Ray. “Can you fight? Build? Any medical knowledge?”
“I was a data analyst,” Ray admits. “And I know a bit about cars and bikes. But –“
“But?” Kobra looks at him. Ray doesn’t know why he’s saying this already, but he can’t the stupid feeling that this must be fate or something, that he’s found this crew,with this particular dream...
“Once,” he says quickly, “Before the Helium wars. I was a musician. I mean, I wasn’t good, I was only sixteen so I didn’t have time to be good exactly, but that was what I wanted.”
Poison and Kobra look at eachother, and do the eyebrow thing again. Then Poison turns back to Ray. He's smiling.
No one makes him say out loud: ‘so can I please be a Killjoy?’, for which Ray is grateful. It’s not like they’re obliged to let him keep the remnants of his dignity. Instead, Poison takes him by the arm and launches into an excited monologue on the crew ethos, of the radical potential of art for the awakening of consciousness.
“I mean they ban music for a reason. Like Athens and the poets. Even Plato was all for music in the service of the state, but BL/Ind just want blankness. The one thing they cannot afford is for people to remember. Hey is that why you got out?” he asks eagerly. “Did you remember about music or what?”
“No,” says Ray shortly, then: “ Well I mean. There were lots of reasons. I do remember music though. When you stop taking the pills you remember all kinds of things.”
Poison nods: “Sure sure. I get it man. I mean it’s the whole system, right?”
“Right,” Ray nods, relieved. They’re standing out the front of the diner now. The sun is sinking. It looks rather beautiful, red smeared to blue, not at all like the deathly hard white force it becomes at midday out here. There are a few vehicles, biks and vans, spray painted with mismatched bumpers and in various states of repair. Against the front wall is a disused vending machine, rows of empty metal spirals oddly menacing against the black background. Kobra told them to get out because he was trying to concentrate, and it turned out he wasn’t reading a book but some kind of schematics, the actual plans for a BL/Ind lab at the edge of Zones 1 and 2. The girl has followed them out and is crouched down, inspecting small stones for some desired quality. Whenever she finds one that suits her standards, she puts it in the pocket of her jacket, and then pats the pocket with satisfaction.
“Your daughter?” Ray asks Poison.
“Oh!” Poison says: “No.”
“My mommy and daddy are dead,” says the girl, absolutely matter-of-fact.
“I’m really sorry,” Ray says to her. What the hell do you say to a six year old?
“Well,” she looks at him like he’s slightly deficient: “I was only a baby then. I like being a Killjoy best anyway. Errch-POW!” She makes her two forefingers into a gun and shoots an imaginary enemy.
“Grace is a survivor of a Crow raid,” Poison says quietly, “Someone must have hidden her. Like she says, she was only a baby.”
“Reinforcements at ten o’ clock!” The girl –Gracie dispatches another invisible Drac, then makes a show of blowing smoke of her forefingers. ‘Children are resilient’, Ray remembers hearing somewhere, long ago, but he isn’t entirely sure that resilience is what he’s seeing here.
“So,” Ray says, “How do I – I mean, is there something you particularly need out here?”
“We need most things,” Poison says dryly.
“Well, like I said, I know a little bit about mechanics….”
“That’s certainly useful. But there’s no test,” he flashes Ray a grin, childlike. On closer inspection, he is not as young as Ray initially thought, but when he smiles it de-ages him. “We’re not going to haze you. We need every recruit we can get, and you’ve been in BL/Ind. Trust me, you’ll be useful.”
“I worked in a cubicle. Processing numbers. I probably know less about BL/Ind than you do.” Ray doesn’t know why he’s saying this. He ought to be talking himself up, not giving them a list of reasons to dump him. He’s just really not good at dissimulation.
“You’ll be useful,” Poison repeats, then: “Hey! They’re back!”
Apparently this is what – who – they’ve been waiting for. Dots appear on the horizon, and resolve into a pair of motorcycles. They pull up by the gas pumps outside the diner, spraying dust all over. Ray recognises the yellow and green leathers with a sinking feeling. Belligerent Short Guy pulls off his helmet and looks Ray up and down, raises an eyebrow at Poison but doesn’t comment. An attractive tattoeed woman gets off the back of his bike – girlfriend, Ray assumes. The other rides is a slender tan guy, flamboyantly dressed in silver trousers and a polka-dotted crop top.
“RICKYYYY!” screeches Grace, throwing herself bodily at Polka Dots:
“Hey motorbaby!” He catches her before she can faceplant and spins her around, then helps her climb on top of his bike so she can pretend to drive it.
“Names in front of strangers, Grace,” says Short Guy sharply.
“Ray isn’t a stranger,” Poison says brightly: “He’s a musician.”
“Oh – hello!” Polka Dots offers Ray a hand: “I don’t believe we’ve met. Show Pony.”
“Ray,” says Ray.
“Let’s get this stuff inside,” says the tattooed woman, and she and Short guy start unpacking things from the saddlebags.
“Antiseptic,” Poison says happily, rifling through with them: “And marker pens!” Grace makes gimme hands for the pens and he passes them to her before she can fall off the bike.
“And,” Short Guy holds up a finger, actually smiling at Poison, and tossing him a foil packet:
“Popcorn!” Poison exclaims. “Real popcorn! Where did you find this?”
“Ah, I have my methods,” Short Guy says, leans in and –
- Oh. So much Ray’s girlfriend theory. Poison and Short Guy kiss like teenagers for a minute, and Poison says,
“Fun Ghoul I love you,” and Short Guy – Fun Ghoul – looks positlvely emotional for a second. Then he glares at Ray, raising his eyebrows to clearly convey: ‘Problem?’ And Ray raises his hands, palms out and fingers spread. It’s not like you saw that kind of thing in Battery City, but then you didn’t see any display of emotion in public. Ray’s no homophobe. He’s more concerned with what he’s done to piss Fun Ghoul off quite so thoroughly with him, apart from being dumb enough to almost die in the desert. They bring all the supplies into the diner and then Fun Ghoul, Poison, Kobra and the tattooed woman disappear into the backroom with them. Grace takes Show Pony for a tour of her lego city, which he duly admires, and Ray stands in the middle of the diner, feeling lost.
“So can you cook?” It’s the woman from earlier, the one who calls herself Fuck Machine. He's gonna have to get used to that.
“No,” Ray admits.
“Well then you better learn.” She rolls her heavily lined eyes and drags him behind the counter. “Now, obviously, we don’t get a lot of fresh stuff out here and when we do it’s at a premium, but I’ve come up with a few ways to make canned soy mush slightly more edible…”
Ray can’t look back, he reminds himself. If he looks back, he’s lost. But just a couple of days ago, he was dying alone in the desert. Now he has shelter, food, is surrounded by people, and apparently is on friendly terms with god damn leader of the Killjoys. His life probably isn’t going to be okay. But he’s sure as fuck gonna be awake for it.
Kobra, Party’s brother, doesn’t seem to have any objection to Ray’s presence. Nor does he seem much enthused by it. He is hard to read, but he’s quiet and seems pretty unflappable, and Ray is kind of grateful that his first assignment, such as it is, is helping Kobra strip a van for usable parts. Kobra clearly knows what he’s doing, Ray is mostly there as an extra pair of hands, so at first they are silent beyond the odd request to pass a spanner or comment on the condition of a shock absorber. The problem is that Ray is not by nature particularly quiet, and there is too much he needs to know.
“So, what’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” he asks, and immediately wants to punch himself in the face. Agenda. Holy shit. Could he sound a bit more like an idiot?
Kobra’s expression doesn’t change though. He just says:
“Getting some ammo.” Ray waits for him to elaborate, but he doesn’t, and Ray realises that if you want information from Kobra, you have to ask specifically and directly.
“So how do you get that?” ‘We’ might be presumptuous.
“Credits, barter when we can.”
“Like at a market?” Ray squints against the light and pushes his hair out of his face, which just gets a bunch of grease on him mixed with the sweat.
“Sure,” Kobra says. Then, unexpectedly: “You should come.”
“Sure,” Kobra says again, then stands up straight and wipes his hands on a rag.
“You know I can’t really fight right?”
Kobra shrugs. “Hopefully there won’t be any action. If there is I’m sure we’ll cover you. Man, you got to learn to shoot though.” It’s the longest speech Ray’s heard from
“I know,” says Ray.
“While we’re there we could see about getting you a gun.”
“I’m pretty sure Ghoul will object to me having a gun,” said Ray gloomily. “That guy hates me.”
Kobra shoots him an unreadable glance from under his eyebrows. “He doesn’t hate you.”
“He’s doing a pretty good impression.”
Kobra gestures for Ray to hand him a screwdriver. Ray passes it over. Kobra focuses on his task for a long moment, and Ray thinks the conversation is over but then Kobra says
“Ghoul’s a good guy. He just takes a while to warm up to people. He has his reasons.”
“O-kay,” Ray says. He can well believe most people have their reasons out here.
In the morning, Ray, Ghoul, the brothers and Show Pony pile into the trans-am. Ghoul and Poison sit up front with Poison driving, and Kobra sits in the back, texting rapidly.
“You get a signal out here?” Ray asks him.
“Sometimes,” says Show Pony, sliding in next to Ray and slipping an arm around his shoulders. “Dr. D’s working on it. Actually that’s what some of the parts I’m trying to find today are for.”
“You know Dr.D?” Ray exclaims. The insurgent known as Dr.D was near the top of BL/Ind’s most-wanted list.
“Who doesn’t?” Pony asked, wide-eyed. “The man’s a hero.”
“Oh – I know! But I mean, you know him personally?”
Everyone in the trans-am looks a little confused.
“We’ll take you to meet him soon,” Poison offers.
“But – well -!” this doesn’t add up: “I sort of assumed he was like, in hiding. If he’s that easy to find, like, how have BL/Ind not killed him?”
All the Killjoys share a look, except for Poison, whose eyes are on the road.
“Well,” says Pony, “He moves around a lot. That’s the beauty of pirate radio.” Which Poison takes as a cue, and turns a knob on the dashboard. And then –
- Holy shit. Years and years without music, and then it’s everywhere, every cell in Ray’s body seems to light up, bass thrumming in time with his pulse and the slide of a jazz guitar across his nerves. He feels his jaw drop.
“Oh, man,” Poison says. “Sorry, I didn’t realize – I forgot you’re so new out –“ he reaches to turn the radio off, and Ray says,
Now he’s heard it he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to live without it again. Poison hesitates.
“Just maybe, turn it down?” Ray asks. Poison nods and does so. Kobra slides Ray an unreadable look, but Ray’s pretty much stunned into silence for the remainder of the song. It isn’t even that good a song, he judges from somewhere in the back of his brain, nothing he’d have picked out of a store in the vague years before the Helium Wars, but fuck, it’s been so long since he’s heard anything....
“That was Rogue Agent with ‘Shoot the Messenger’,” says the DJ.
“Their last one was better,” says Pony.
Ray just shakes his head and sinks back in his seat. He is silent for the rest of the drive.
At the borders of three adjacent Zones is a market. There were stalls set up outdoors, and also a rows of warehouses for storage and shade. It was bustling; shouts, laughter, crackling radios, people arguing and haggling over prices. Food, weapons and ammunition and medical supplies make up much of the barter, but there are also clothes, materials, children’s toys, miscellaneous bits and pieces and a handful of drug deals, openly conducted in broad daylight. Poison scowls when he sees that.
“Waste,” he says. “Why not go back to Bat City if that’s how you want it?”
“It’s their lives,” says Fun Ghoul, and Ray gets the impression he is just saying it to be contrary.
“No, it’s all our lives,” says Poison. “They’re exempting themselves from the revolution.”
“Warehouse twelve,” Kobra points out and consults his e-reader. “I want to check out their chargers.”
The warehouse is dim but Ray is grateful for the cool and respite from the sun. He’d been indoors so long and everything out here is still kind of a sensory overload. People are stacking crates, opening merchandise, and at the back of the room is a round table occupied by a game of cards. The players are all serious and intent, clearly a high stakes game: Fun Ghoul grinned a bit sharkishly and slips off to join it. Party Poison looks a bit concerned, but several of onlookers to the game recognise Ghoul and greet him with civil nods. Pony bids them farewell and disappears to attend to Dr. D’s list, so Ray follows the brothers to a table laid out with guns and ammo.
“A new one!” exclaims the guy behind the stall. He’s pretty short, with twinkly dark eyes and an infectious smile. “Where did you find it?”
“Half-dead in the Badlands,” returns Kobra, smiling slightly at the guy, which Ray assumes is his equivalent of a declaration of love. Clearly the affection is returned, because smiley guy comes around the table to give Kobra a hug and plant a smacking kiss on his cheek. He goes for Poison next, who looks slightly less comfortable with his embrace.
“Phoenix, are you molesting the customers?” asks a pale blond guy, who is also short.
“Pshht. You know perfectly well this place wouldn’t have any customers if it weren’t for me. I’m the customer relations.”
“You’re a pain in my ass. Killjoys, what are you looking for?”
There’s some discussion of ammo, chargers and weapons Ray doesn’t really get: Kobra practices aiming with a few guns, which Phoenix uses an excuse to feel him while he ‘positions’ him. Poison looks a bit torn, clearly feeling like he should defend his brother’s virtue but not blind to the fact Kobra isn’t exactly objecting. Then someone shoves a ray gun into Ray’s hands (his brain registers the pun without his consent). It’s bright blue with a white stripe and he doesn’t know how to use it. But it feels good in his hands. Feels like he’s taken back a tiny bit of control.
“Very simple model, charge, point and shoot, you won’t get the range accuracy of the new ones but this would be my personal pick for a novice,” says the blond guy. “I should charge twenty credits-“
“But for you guys fifteen,” Phoenix cuts him off, “And some engine coolant if you have it.”
“Done,” says Poison.
“Also Kobra has to come and lubricate my engine.” Phoenix grins, pleased with himself, and there’s a general groan. Poison says
“Please spare me that mental image, I don’t want to know,” and covers his eyes like he’s afraid his brother is going to strip in front of him.
“So are they....?” Ray asks when Phoenix and Kobra disappear to see to the vehicle (euphemism or otherwise).
“Kinda,” Poison wrinkles his nose. “It’s complicated. Put it this way: Phoenix would definitely like for them to be a ‘they’.”
“I got that,” Ray observes and slides his new gun carefully into its holster. “Thanks for this. I’ll pay you back when.....” When?
“Don’t be silly,” Poison dismisses. “Credits are communal in this crew. Besides, you’d be rather a liability without a gun.”
‘Right now I’m a liability with it’, Ray thinks, but then his eye is caught when a pretty woman with green hair starts unpacking a guitar case. She tunes up, and he realizes he’s staring, averting his gaze quickly when she looks up at him. Poison notices him looking.
“There’s a festival coming up in a few weeks,” he says. “Not all the bands are good, but they’re all live and...” he shrugs.
“Anything,” Ray says. “Anything would be amazing.”
At that moment Ghoul returns, smugly flashing a wad of credits in Poison’s direction before pocketing them.
“Lucky,” Poison said.
“It’s entirely skill.”
“If you say so.”
Ray’s half-listening, caught up in the guitar and the tin drums a second woman has produced as an accompaniment. Stripped down folk-metal, stirring and wistful. The melody stays in his head all the way back to the diner. Follows him into sleep that night, the most peaceful sleep he’s had since he left the city.
For the first time in as long as he can remember, she is not his last conscious memory.
Show Pony and Metal are apparently responsible for Ray’s arms training. Metal is the tattooed woman he’d initially taken for Ghoul’s girlfriend and apparently the best shot out of the Killjoys, whereas Pony is the most patient teacher. Gracie follows Pony everywhere she can, so right now she’s sitting on the fence out back of the diner offering her comments on Ray’s efforts – naturally, the six-year-old can outshoot him, but in fairness their experience is not comparable. Ray is trying very hard not to feel anything about the child’s presence. Since they took her, he has tried to avoid children. Grace is difficult to ignore, though.
“I’ve ghosted Dracs before,” she tells him. “Have you?”
“No,” Ray says and practices sighting. She’s kicking her heels against the fence, and it’s distracting.
“I’ve ghosted tons. Probably a hundred hundred. That’s a thousand.”
“Gracie,” says Metal.
“Do you think Dr. D’s ghosted a thousand Dracs, Ricky? Or ten thousand?”
“Well,” Pony smiled. “I don’t know about ten thousand, motorbaby. But a lot.”
Ray could believe it. He’d been introduced to Dr. Death Defying the previous night, a black-bearded bear of a man dressed in dark leathers and with a slightly manic look in his dark eyes. He was confined to an electronic chair, missing most of one leg, but his arms and chest were built and he shook hands like a wrestler. He was presently broadcasting out of a trans-am, but apparently had temporary shacks dotted all over the Zones.
“What do they call you, Tumbleweed?” he’d demanded of Ray.
“Ray Toro,” Ray said.
“Not anymore. Take some advice from me sunshine and forget that name. You can’t afford to be Ray fucking Toro out here. Ray Toro is dead meat. Pick a new one.”
Ray had tried to explain in some stumbling way that he didn’t think he deserved one yet. Hadn’t done anything to earn an alias like the others.
“Ha!” Dr. D had snorted: “You think that’s how it works? That’s not how it works. Poison, you’re the poetic one, you explain it.”
“Well,” Poison bites his lip, sharp little teeth indenting pink. “It’s a Sartrean thing, I suppose. It’s not like the identity exists and you have to complete some trials in order to assume it. It doesn’t exist, prior to your becoming it.”
“He means you make it up as you go along,” Ghoul said.
“You have to kind of become your own hero,” said Poison earnestly.
“And we can’t keep introducing you as Ray. So pick a fuckin name.”
Ray thinks of himself as a creative person. Or, he used to. BL/Ind took a lot of that, and what’s creeping back is mostly musical, half-formed beats and melodies in the periphery of his consciousness. His eyes roved over the inside of the vehicle. In one corner was a gas canister with ‘Jet Fuel’ emblazoned on the side. On the table next to it was a CD labelled ‘Starshine’ in black marker.
“Jet - – Star,” he said abruptly, then: “No, that’s stupid.”
“No take-backs!” said Poison gleefully. “The point is, it doesn’t matter. It isn’t stupid. You are Jet Star, whatever you are, that’s what it means.”
Ray had told him he understood, but it’s gonna be a while before he can think of himself as anything but Ray.
“That’s it!” exclaims Metal, and he blinks back to the present. The can on the rock they’d set up as target is on the ground, singed and smoking. Apparently while Ray hasn’t been thinking so hard, he’s corrected his aim. Huh. “Feel it, don’t overthink.”
“Bullseye!” Grace cheers and claps her hands.
Don’t overthink. That should be his motto.
Days at the Killjoy diner have a sort of rhythm. There are variations, but a basic pattern underlies them. At least two people are awake at any given time, on guard for Dracs or other hostiles, and whoever’s taken the night duty rouses everyone around six so they can crash. The first order of business is coffee – Poison and Kobra are very serious about coffee, even when all they can get is the crappy powdered stuff. Someone turns a radio on. Over breakfast, they discuss the day’s aims and order of urgency - what supplies they need; what needs repairing; what they have to trade – and reports of BL/Ind activity and Drac movements, and listen to Dr. D’s updates on the state of the Zones and movements of the allied crews. Meanwhile they plan their next mission. BL/Ind is proto-testing a mood regulation implant, a technology that Ray’s seen aggressively advertised as more efficient than pills, cleaner and more reliable. By the end of 2018, BL/Ind promises, the chips will be ready for painless implant into the brainstem.
“There are several labs in the Zones where they’re testing on Tumbleweeds,” Poison is drawing sketch map on a napkin. “There’s no point in using Dracs. They’re brain dead anyway. Our key targets here are the lab and the computer system, but if we can get any prisoners out so much the better.”
Ray looks at Poison. Ghoul looks at Ray.
“I know,” Poison says. “I don’t like it either. My first instinct is to go for the cells, but sometimes you have to look at the big picture.”
“It’s the way we’d all want it,” Fuck Machine puts in: “If we were the ones captured.”
“This is the lab,” Poison tries to draw a diagram on the napkin and runs out of room. Kobra wordlessly produces a large sheet of paper from somewhere and spreads it out on the table. Poison keeps drawing without breaking his stride: “And this door, this door and this door are permanently guarded. There is however a fire escape, which is where Ghoul and Kobra will enter with the stuff while the rest of us distract the guards at the main entrances. The lab is here”, he adds a large red x to one of the rooms on the sketchpad, “And you can access the computer system from it.”
“What are you going to do to the computer system?” Ray asks.
“This,” Kobra speaks for the first time, holding up a yellow USB stick.
“It’s a virus,” Fuck Machine explains. “We’ve been working on it for a while. No doubt they’ll find a way to stop it but with luck it will destroy a fair bit of data first.”
Ray nods. It’s a smart plan.
“And the lab?” He asks.
“Trash it basically,” Ghoul grins. “What? Not everything has to be so fucking subtle.”
“I’m not sure whether to send you with Ghoul and Kobra or keep you with me,” Poison frowns, looking at Ray. “The truth is, it’s all dangerous.”
Well, Ray guesses it was coming sometime. He swallows hard.
“If it’s all the same to you,” he ventures, “I’ll take the lab. I’d like to....” Break some shit. Break some of their fucking mind control equipment.
“No,” says Ghoul. Ray turns to look at him. Ghoul regards him flatly.
“Nothing personal,” he says, “But we’re gonna have enough to think about without keeping you alive. You want to bring him, Poison, that’s on you.”
“Fine,” Poison glares at Ghoul. “Jet, you me and Metal will take the front entrance. Fuck Machine and Pony will take the back.”
“And me?” pipes up Gracie from across the room, where she is drawing flowers on the wall and apparently listening in.
“We’ll drop you off with Dr. D first Motorbaby,” Poison says. “Go grab your things. You want to play some records to the Zones, right?”
Gracie looks unhappy but eventually nods and goes to find her little backpack.
“Just to make sure you’re 100% clear on this,” Fuck Machine fixes Ray with a look. “You realize you could die today. We could all die today.”
“We could all die any day,” Ray shrugs.
“That’s the spirit,” Poison claps him on the shoulder. “Let’s do this.”
They approach by via the trans-am and two sets of bikes, keeping in contact through a set of very modified walkie-talkies. BL/Ind has blocked phone signals other than their own around all bases. The walkie-talkies go out as the base appears over the horizon, but by this time they’ve synchronized watches and are ready for the assault. Metal, Poison and Ray change are dressed in white suits, and at this point pull liberated Drac masks over their faces. It seems a bit late in the game to be getting into disguise, and Ray says so.
“Well duh,” Metal rolls her eyes. “If we’d changed earlier, some other crew would have ghosted us.”
“They wouldn’t recognise the van?”
Poison and Metal share an uneasy look.
“They might,” Poison says. “But then, they might ghost us anyway and say they didn’t. Killjoys are not universally popular, you know. There are people who find our methods kind of – reckless.”
“Well they work,” says Ray huffily, offended on Poison’s behalf. “People have heard of the Killjoys all the way in Bat City.”
“I know,” says Poison, and smiles his weird little smile.
Once they’re costumed up, Metal parks the van, Poison checks the time, and the three of them get out and head for the front entrance. Metal and Poison are experts in imitating the light robotic job Dracs move with. Ray does his best to copy them. The facility is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, which the duty guard lets them pass, and they approach the large front doors with the BL/Ind logo in stark black and white above them. Ray has never been inside a testing facility. He just crunched numbers. A horrible creeping sense that they must have taken her to somewhere like this, packed up like so much cargo, is threatening at the edge of his mind, but he blocks it out. If he thinks of it he’ll get them all killed.
The Dracs on the door wait expectantly for with their scanners. Metal and Poison start to extend their arms like they’re offering subdermal chips for scanning, then a the last second change the motion, draw and open fire. It’s blindingly fast and perfectly executed, clearly something they’ve done a thousand times. Speaking of exected, the door Dracs are now dead, collapsed like sacks with smoking holes in their faces. Dracs are neither fast nor smart but there are plenty of them, and at the sound of laser fire several more come lumbering up to the entryway to replace their fallen comrades.
This is of course exactly part of the plan. They are here to provide a distraction and draw out the lab’s defences. That doesn’t make it any less frightening when ten or twelve Dracs are suddenly bearing down on them, Poison and Metal are sidling into the building and firing back to back and – oh, they’re covering him too. That’s nice. Ray starts firing and hits a Drac in the shoulder, which slows it down, and throws off the shot that might otherwise have fried him. And now Poison and Metal have downed that little influx of Dracs and are heading further into the building. Ray keeps up.
An alarm is screeching now, and if color were permitted in these sterile corridors, Ray bets something would be flashing too. Poison and Metal are adept at using the doors and pillars to avoid fire and Ray copies them - they’ve both saved his life from incipient fire at least once by this point, and that’s just the ones he noticed.
And then the Exterminator is coming.
On the plus side, there are only going to be one or two Exterminators in a building this size, so if they’ve drawn one out, Kobra and Ghoul have a much better chance of completing their mission. On the minus side, the Exterminator is coming. It’s not exactly human and not exactly machine either, square pale face and grim mouth and roving eyes that remind Ray a little too much of searchlights. He freezes, and that’s why he gets such a clear full view when Metal’s ghosted.
Sure they all knew they could die today. That was part of the goddam strategy. But she’s just there one second and gone the next, flung backwards by the blast of the Exterminator’s raygun, from a person to a slumped blank doll in less time than it takes Ray to register anything’s happened. She’d torn her mask off when the fighting started, the better to see, and her eyes are glassy and inanimate. There’s a charred hole where her chest was. Poison lets out a cry of grief, and then in the next second Poison shoots the Exterminator, removing most of its face, but the awful thing keeps on moving forward, hindered but not down, and then Ray is raising his gun and he shoots it too, and that kills it.
“Let’s get out of here,” Poison yells over the alarm. Ray glances once at Metal, but she’s long gone – probably didn’t even feel it. Bile rises in his throat. Poison grabs his arm and propels him back towards the entrance. They’re ducking fire as they cross the front lot, returning where possible, but it’s a smallish lab and between them and the damage Fuck Machine and Pony have done they have clearly put a severe dent in the base’s populace. Dracs shoot after the trans am – Poison’s driving, but he still turns and flings something out of the window, which explodes behind them and takes a few more Dracs with it. He’s removed his mask too, and there are tears on his cheeks.
That night Kobra approaches Ray.
“Heard you ghosted an Exterminator,” he says.
“Yeah I – guess I did.” To be honest Ray has almost forgotten.
“Nice shooting man.”
Ray shrugs. The expression ‘hollow victory’ was never more apt. But Kobra and Ghoul trashed the lab and the virus is busily wiping key information from BL/Ind’s database, and this is what they’e all committed to.
It has to be better than the alternative.
There’s a short ceremony for Metal the next day. They have no body bury, but Metal’s jacket and motorcycle helmet are committed to the earth. They keep her gun – Metal would have been mad as all hell if they wasted a perfectly good weapon, Show Pony explains. The remaining Killjoys and those guys from the market and Show Pony and a few others Ray doesn’t know yet have gathered out back of the diner, and Fuck Machine lights a candle and everyone stands around and Poison ‘says a few words’, really a lot of words, about how Metal was a brave, loyal person who loved the cause, a true friend and a true Killjoy. He doesn’t go into details about her past, or how she came to them: Ray has gathered that’s not something you do out here without explicit permission. Grace is holding Pony’s hand and standing half behind his leg, looking sombre but not particularly grief stricken. Ray hasn’t seen her cry, and he wonders if she understands that Metal isn’t coming back. Kobra is silent and pale behind his sunglasses, leaning slightly on Phoenix who has an arm around his waist. The height differential would be cute under other circumstances. When the service is over the pair disappear together and Ghoul says,
“Well, who’s up for getting wasted?”
“Me,” says Fuck Machine.
“Me,” says Phoenix’s blond buddy, whom everyone calls Novacaine.
“I’m in,” says Pony. He hands Grace off to Poison, who apparently isn’t partaking. Ray wonders if he should go with him, but something about Poison stance says to leave him alone. Ghoul hasn’t exactly invited him, but he hasn’t exactly not invited him either, so he joins them and indulges in an altered state for the first time since
In the middle of the night, someone is crying quietly, but Ray doesn’t know who and pretends to sleep through it.
There may or may not be an update next week as I have kind of big-deal job interview on Friday in another part of the country, which I have to prep for in addition to my actual job, and I'll be freaking out as this might possibly possibly possibly be a major career move for me. But the week after for sure.
Go on then, have another. Don't say I never did anything for you kids.
The festival is unbelievable – quite literally, Ray is there but having trouble believing such an event exists, he just wanders around open-mouthed and overwhelmed by melody and beats everywhere – blending and battling, chord and discord and color and light and laughter. It’s a three day event, bustling in the early morning and evening, and quiet in the heat of the day and the cold hours of the night. Tumbleweeds, as Dr. D calls the zone dwellers, adjust to the rhythm of the desert. There’s a main stage rigged up of wood and metal, but it seems like anyone with an instrument feels free to start up a side act at any time, wherever there’s a free patch of dirt or an appropriate rock formation. Between songs there are speeches, mostly light spirit-raising stuff about the good fight, a few in commemoration of a comrade or tirades against BL/Ind latest atrocities.
Dr. D oversees the proceedings, regal and eccentric in his chair at the side of the main stage, introducing new acts with his famous voice and keeping people updated on the weather and traffic. Exactly how he gets this information Ray is unsure – he is wearing a headset, which he sometimes appears to listen to, so perhaps he has a whole network of assistants spread out across the desert and connected by a radio system. At other times, Zonerunners approach him to whisper in his ear. Show Pony stays close, but the other Killjoys are all over the place: Poison wants to hurry Ray around and introduce him to everyone, Ghoul has bummed a guitar off someone and is absorbed playing, and Kobra has gone off with Phoenix again. Phoenix and Novocaine, whose crew is called the Young Bloods, have a band. They’re pretty good (though to be honest, Ray’s standards have probably dropped through the floor after so long without any kind of music, anything sounds good) and Kobra spends their sets sitting on a speaker with his long skinny legs folded up, smiling secretively at Phoenix. When the Young Bloods’ set is over, Phoenix saunters over to Kobra suggestively, grabs the front of his shirt, and pulls him into a dirty stage kiss. The crowd roars approval. Ray can see Kobra blushing even from this distance. Poison frowns and huffs ineffectively.“They seem pretty happy together,” Ray offers.
“Now, maybe,” Poison says.
“You – don’t like Phoenix?”
“Oh I like him fine. I just don’t like him all over my little brother. He’s....” Poison considers and looks like he’s trying to be fair but still suitably serious. “He’s an unstable influence.”
That seems a bit rich out here in the Zones, given the circumstances of their everyday lives. From his few interactions with Phoenix, Ray’s found him a bit loud and attention-grabby, but fundamentally he seems a decent guy. Ray says something to that effect before he can stop himself. He immediately wants to slap himself, but it’s too late. Poison doesn’t seem offended, though. He’s still looking at the stage, even though the Young Bloods have left it now:
“That’s what Fun Ghoul says,” he tells Ray. “But the way I say it, it’s like – our lives are dangerous and unstable enough already, he doesn’t need any complicating factors. Plus you know. Older sibling stuff. I can’t help it.”
Ray just nods. He is not an older sibling and has no context for this. Perhaps if they hadn’t taken her away, if he’d had a chance to get to know her as a person not just a concept he’d have a better idea of what Poison is talking about. At that moment Kobra pops up next to them, sans Phoenix, but smiling a little secretive smile and clutching his phone in one hand. “Having fun?” Poison asks him archly. “That was pretty exhibitionist for you, dude.”
“Shut up,” Kobra mumbles and shoves the phone in his pocket. Then to Ray he says: “Phoenix has a guitar you can borrow if you wanna jam for a while.”
Ray stares at him. “Wh – are you serious?”
“Sure,” Kobra says.
“I – but – I couldn’t.” He’s desperate to, dying to, but years of de- and re-conditioning aren’t something you can overcome in a heartbeat. His fingers twitch despite himself.
“You said you played,” Kobra frowns.
“I do. Did. But – it’s too long ago.”
“No-one’s expecting a concert, man,” Poison claps him on the shoulder. “It’s just – if you want to.”
He wants to. God he wants to. But when he tries to adjust his mind to it, the blare of silence that comes down in his mind courtesy of the Industries stops him. He’s probably break the strings.
“Well, maybe some other time,” Poison says, watching Ray. At that moment they’re distracted by the screech of feedback from a mike, and everyone turns to the stage, wincing.
“Sorry!” calls the girl who caused it. She has bleached blonde hair stuck up in spikes and an electric accordion slung across her body. “Sorry everyone! Oops. Okay so we are Neon Starfish, and this song’s called Horizon. Sing it with me if you know the words. ONE TWO THREE FOUR!”
The last night of the festival, everybody’s warm and tired and generally buzzed from the atmosphere and the pot that’s being passed around in the spirit of generosity. Once again Poison abstains, and Ray decides to follow his example for the sake of looking responsible. Fuck Machine takes Gracie off to visit with some other crew, claiming an urgent need for ‘girl-only time’ and saying they’ll be back in the morning. Ray’s dazed and happy enough without drugs and he wants to express his gratitude, so he waits until he and Poison are sitting up near the entrance to their tent, and the others are spaced out and sleeping. There’s some pretty tight security around the festival, so no-one’s on high alert, though Ray hasn’t forgotten Metal’s comments that not every crew loves the Killjoys. The desert stars are bright and crystalline against a purple sky. Ray draws in a breath and says,
“Thank you. Seriously, thank you Poison. For everything.”
Poison looks across at him and smiles softly, all big hazel eyes and tell-me-your-feelings, and he says quietly but firmly,
“My name is Gerard. You can call me Gee. In private, you know. Or in front of other Killjoys.”
“Oh! Um, okay.” He waits to see if Poison – Gee – will reveal the others’ names, but apparently it’s a personal thing and Gee doesn’t elaborate. “Thanks again.”
“You’re gonna have to stop thanking me sooner or later,” Gee points out.
“I really have a lot to thank you for.”
“You killed a Terminator,” Gee says quietly.
“Finished it off.”
Gee shrugs. “As good as.”
They are silent for a few minutes.
“Well I’m gonna turn in,” Ray says after a few minutes, “Unless I should -...?”
“Nah it’s fine,” says Poison absently. “We’re well guarded.”
Ray nods and retreats to his bedroll.
When they get back to the diner, it’s been robbed.
“FUCK!” exclaims Fun Ghoul. “Fuck it. I KNEW I should have stayed.” He kicks a wall ineffectually, then curses again.
“It could be worse,” says Gerard calmly. “They didn’t take the bottled water, just weapons mostly.”
“Oh just weapons mostly. Just fucking weapons. Just our fucking survival.” He pulls at his hair a little bit and makes it stick up crazily.
“Hey,” Poison says, grabbing his wrists to stop him. “It’ll be alright. We’ll figure it out.” For a second Ghoul looks like he’s going to say something belligerent, but then he sighs and deflates a bit and they lean their foreheads together. Gee’s not exactly tall but he still has to bend down significantly.
“Antiseptic and antibiotics are gone,” says Fuck Machine shortly. “That’s our first restock priority.”
“We can still assemble some grenades from what’s left here,” says Kobra, rifling through some boxes. “Or well, Ghoul could.”
“Fine, give that to me,” says Fun Ghoul wearily. “I know what I’m doing tonight.”
And somehow Ray ends up assisting him, on the grounds that he ‘needs to learn this shit sooner or later’. Ghoul keeps up an impersonal commentary on what he’s doing to the small pieces of hardware all over the table, though he keeps his eyes on his work. His hands are small, capable and heavily tattooed, written over with letters and intricate curling designs.
In the back room, the brothers are arguing. Ray can’t make out what they’re saying, but Kobra’s voice is raised in defensive protest and Poison is going for calm but authoritative. Ghoul looks up and catches Ray’s eye for a second, and there’s possibly a second of droll humor there.
“-thing I say seriously anyway!” finishes Kobra over his shoulder, storming back into main room with more emotion in his voice than Ray’s ever heard in his voice, and an actual flush in his cheeks. He brushes right past Ray and Ghoul, grabbing his helmet on his way out and they hear the sound of his bike starting up.
“Should we....?” Ray tries, but at that moment Gee emerges from the back room, looking angry and worried and comes to slump down next Ghoul. Without breaking his wire-stripping rhythm Ghoul pats him on the leg and says,
“Let him cool off.” Then he looks at Ray directly and says, “The apocalypse came and fucking went, but some things never change.”
“Like families,” says Poison unhappily.
Ray doesn’t comment on that.
Over the next days and weeks, Ray helps out in two lab raids, three reconnaissance missions, and the destruction by explosive of a BL/Ind cruiser. He’s improving every day with the gun, and even thinks that if it came to that, he could probably build a grenade now. He still dreams about her every few nights – this concludes with him jerking awake, heart lurching, and swallowing down the adrenaline before he can shout her – not name. There wasn’t time to name her. He’d had some romantic notion he should meet her first, and in any case, the he’d thought the mother might have wanted a say in it. How little he knew.
Kobra’s real name is Mikey and Fuck Machine is Lindsey. Pony is indeed called Ricky, and Dr. D is Steve. This has all come out piece by piece, not so much revelations of trust as people gradually letting their guard down around Ray and not bothering to employ aliases. Phoenix and Novocaine's real names are Pete and Patrick respectively - Mikey drops it in conversation by accident and Fun Ghoul gives him a look, but Mikey says,
“Like Pete would care,” and there's a sort of general acknowledgement that Pete, at least, wouldn’t particularly care, and everyone goes back to eating their mushed soy. When they’re on missions, they use their aliases. People call Ray Jet. He’s starting to think of himself as Jet, if only in those moments, those ferocious seconds where he’s fighting or running or dismantling property....when he watches dracs fry under his gunfire. They’re not exactly people after all, but they’re not exactly not-people either, and killing them is something Jet can do.
When he’s not being Party Poison, Gerard is the sensitive creative type. His favorite luxury item on reconnaissance missions is blank paper, which he shares with Grace, and the two of them decorate the interior walls of the diner with elaborate drawings and murals. And of course he's musical. They all are, including Gracie. Gerard has an amazing voice and isn't the least bit shy about singing in public, which is strange for a guy who blushes and gets embarrassed at compliments. Phoenix lets Kobra borrow his bass whenever he feels like it, which Poison looks upon suspiciously as a form of bribery, and Fun Ghoul actually has his own. He claims he never has time to practice these days, but from what Ray has heard he's very, very good.
“Shame we don't have a second guitar,” says Gerard, looking calculatingly at Ray one night.
“Pete and 'Trick might be getting one next week,” says Mikey. “They'll cut us a deal.”
“Guys I can't….” Ray says.
“You don't have to,” Gerard says, “But it would be nice to have more instruments around.”
“I need drums,” Grace tells the diner at large.
“I know motorbaby,” Gerard says. “We're working on it.”
“I just really need the kind with clashers.”
“Cymbals,” Lindsey corrects, “And you don't need them, motorbaby. That's a want.”
“I do need them,” Gracie says under her breath, and cuts her eyes angrily at Lindsey. She looks like she wants to argue the point but knows it won't anywhere. Ricky pats her on the shoulder on his way to the kitchen. The doorbell chimes over the diner:
“Speak of the devil,” says Fun Ghoul, as the Young Bloods pile unceremonisly inside, Pete immediately glomming on to Mikey and attempting to climb him. Such is the height discrepancy, he almost can. Everyone else greets each other a bit more sedately, and then Patrick says
“So you heard the bad news?”
“What bad news specifically?” asks Fun Ghoul.
Patrick nods to the radio. Gerard turns it on.
“ - onfirm that the BL/ind project codenamed Cleanser is a radar that will tap into Tumbleweed networks, letting them track and pinpoint for extermination missions. Hate to tell you this cats, but if this thing goes ahead, you me and everyone you care about is gonna be exposed like a bug on a windshield, so tell your friends, your crew and start figuring out how to take this thing down, because staying undercover equals staying alive, meanwhile stay shiny, stay mobile, and keep the Zones fr-”
“Well, shit,” says Lindsey.
“Right,” says one of the Young Bloods, the one with the zillion tats. Gerard dials the radio down and says,
“So we're gonna hit up the main labs outside Bat City, they've been shuffling some undercover equipment back and forth and seem to be building something, it looks like it could be a radio tower, so like that needs to die-” Pete's talking mile and minute and Gerard holds up his hand -
“Okay hold up. We need a plan.”
“There's no time for a plan! You heard Dr. D! Where's that reckless Killjoy spirit, Poison?”
Gerard glares at him, very much not-Poison at that moment.
“Well I'd say that the first thing we need is to scope the area,” Patrick says. “I mean, I get the urgency and all. But BL/Ind have been working on this for months, realistically – that hasn't changed just because we know about it now. They're not gonna unleash the radar tomorrow.”
“They might,” Pete scowls.
“But we did kind of figure you guys would want in on this,” Patrick says, addressing Gerard, who nods. “Do you still have those specs of the city walls?”
“Right here,” Mikey is already logged onto his laptop and bringing up a diagram. Pete leans in and and hangs over his shoulder. “I'm sending them to everybody now.”
“So, wait, we're doing this?” Ray asks.
“You can stay and babysit if you want,” Fun Ghoul offers, right when Ray thought they were making progress.
“Well, 'Trick is quite right,” Gerard says reasonably. “Someone should go out first and scout the area.”
“Me and Mikey will do it!” Pete yells.
“Well,” Gerard says.
“Gee you know we're good at this,” Mikey says without inflection.
“Why don't Kobra and Phoenix take the south wall area and you and me can take the east,” says Patrick, slipping into Novocaine and addressing Gerard as Poison. Gerard hesitates, then nods.
“Alright lets do it,” Pete springs up. So far as Ray can tell there is very little difference between Pete and his Zonerunner identity: he doesn't switch the way most people do, so Ray
has mostly just started thinking of him as Pete now. Conversely, the others visibly assume their aliases: it's subtle, just these shifts in posture and expression and the way they look at each other, but now that Ray has learned to look for it it's evident. They are reaching for jackets and helmets and guns and phones, then Poison turns to Fun Ghoul and says:
“I don't want to piggyback of BL/Ind's networks unless we absolutely have to, so don't worry if you don't hear from us before tomorrow night.”
Fun Ghoul nods and yanks Poison down for a rough kiss. He growls something under his breath and Poison grins, cupping his cheek briefly and nodding.
“Okay hurry up and let's do this, bitches! You can suck each other's faces off later!” Pete is on his way out the door, Kobra and Novocaine are in the van already, and with a last, gauging look back at the occupants of the diner, Poison follows them.
Ray hangs out with Lindsey and Grace the next day, because Fun Ghoul is tense and quiet with Poison being away. He helps Grace with the rebuilding of her Lego city which, she informs him, got flattened last night by a radiation bomb. He wonders if Grace has any games which don't involve violence, though considering who she spends all her time with it isn't exactly surprising. They should probably try to find Grace some playmates her own age: she spends a lot of time her in head, and sometimes Ray worries about what goes on there. He'd noticed a few other kids at the festival, but they were mostly older than Grace and Ray in any case, their chief topic of conversation was guns.
“You're very good with her,” Lindsey observes the next day. Ray shrugs and looks across to where Grace is eating lunch – reconstituted 'peanut butter' on BL/Ind nutri-crackers and orange juice from concentrate. Ray's tried the reconstituted stuff before – to call it peanut butter is a travesty, but he supposes Grace has nothing to compare it to.
“She's a good kid,” he says. “Strong.”
“Hm,” says Lindsey, then pauses. “Were you – do you have a family?”
“No,” says Ray.
“I'm sorry,” she says. “I shouldn't pry.”
“No that's – that's okay. I just don't.”
“You're quite a rarity you know. I don't think any of us have ever met someone who just walked out of Bat City, alone, and without contacts on the outside.”
“Is that a polite way of saying I'm idiot?” He smiles at her so she knows he's not offended.
“No,” she says. “Or – I don't know, maybe a bit in a purely practical sense. But I think it's brave. It must have been terrible withdrawing from the drugs.”
“Well it wasn't fun. But - I did it gradually. You know – tapered.”
“It's impressive,” Lindsey says.
Ray looks at her and raises his eyebrows like 'that's impressive?', and looks all around the diner for emphasis.
“So how about you?” he asks after a minute.
“I was born out here,” Lindsey says. “Well not here exactly – I suppose it would be Zone 1 now. My parents saw the way the winds were blowing before the Helium Wars and got out of the cities before the lockdown. I've never known anything else.”
He nods, digesting that. She goes on:
“After they died I moved around a lot. Changed crew a bunch of times. I met Poison and Kobra when a bunch of us were scouring the debris of a crow raid….that's how we ended up with Gracie. I guess we subconsciously thought she ought to have some kind of family structure because, well, we all stuck together.”
Ray just nods again. He doesn't know what else to do. He spends the afternoon working on his shooting and trying not to think about where Poison and Kobra and the Young Bloods might be right at that moment. Ghoul disapears – but he's back by dusk. There is still no word from the others. Grace is restless, sensitive to the anxious mood in the diner. She protests her bedtime and whinges and complains and tells Lindsey 'I don't like you, I want Poison to tell me a bedtime story, he tells way better stories than you' and Ray watches Lindsey work not to show the hurt in her face.
“Well Poison isn't here,” she says matter of factly. “So you're stuck with me. Come on now, be a big girl.”
“Jet can tell me a story,” Grace whines, face down on one of the booth seats, “I don't want youuu.” Lindsey looks questioningly at Ray. He shrugs, supposing he might as well make himself useful. So Grace washes up in the sink goes to change into the adult-sized shirt she uses for a nightdress before wriggling down in her sleeping bag. He tries telling her a fairy tale – something he vaguely remembers from his distant childhood - but princesses in towers and obedient step-daughters are incomprehensible to Grace, so instead he tells her a story about a little girl who runs away to the desert, becomes the leader of a crew and infiltrates the S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W unit.
“Was her name Gracie?” she asks.
“Sure,” he says. She's pretty sleepy by this time, so it doesn't matter when he starts running out of steam, just lets the story trail out and gets up as silently as possible, heading back into the main room of the diner. Fun Ghoul is sitting with his legs drawn up, fitting compactly in the corner of a booth, scowling and chewing on his fingernails. His phone sits open on the table in front of him.
“No word?” says Ray.
“Well,” says Ray. “The signal could be out. Or, I mean, they probably have a lot to think about.”
“Hey Ghoul, how about you lose the attitude?” Lindsey says sharply. “You aren't the only one who's worried you know. If you need to keep busy you can go work on my bike.”
Fun Ghoul looks up, looks to Ray and says,
“Sorry,” in a way that manages to be both grudging and sincere.
“Worse than the kid sometimes,” Lindsey mutters, but she doesn't sound angry. She's stressed too – its obvious from the lines of her mouth. As the evening progresses into night with still no word, all three of them move around the diner quietly, sometimes exchanging a few words, terribly aware of the weight of time passing with no word. At some point Ghoul goes out, slamming the door as much as a diner door will slam, and the bell above tinkles and echoes into the silence. He comes back an hour later, dirty and with bruises on his hands. He goes into the back room to dry off, and no-one comments.
Grace wakes up around 2 a.m, and comes wandering into the main room fisting her eyes and asking for Poison.
“They're not back yet honey,” says Lindsey tensely. No-one is trying to sleep. Gracie tugs at her hands and climbs into her lap, saying
“I'm sorry I was mean earlier.”
“That's alright.” Lindsey rocks her.
“I had a bad dream.”
Grace beckons for Lindsey to lean in and whispers something in her ear. Lindsey grimaces and says
“It's just a dream, baby, it isn't real.”
“It might be,” says Grace absolutely matter-of-factly, and Lindsey doesn't comment.
Ray dozes off around 4, and awakens a couple of hours later to find Fun Ghoul packing a backpack.
“You're going after them,” he says. “Have you heard….?”
“No. Are you coming?”
“Safety in numbers and all that shit,” Fun Ghoul shrugs. “'Machine's staying with the motorbaby.” He zips up the pack and hoists it over a shoulder, checking the gun at his belt.
“Yeah,” says Ray. “I mean – yes, I'm coming.” He scrabbles out of bed, finds his gun, and thankfully finds it charged. He grabs a bottle of water and downs most of it, then follows Fun Ghoul out to the bikes. His mind is trying to re-map the locations, figure out the routes Poison, Kobra and the others must have taken. Fun Ghoul starts his engine and takes off with barely a glance back. He's peripherally aware that he's tired – he's had maybe five hours of sleep in the last 24, but the adrenalin is taking care of that for now. Fun Ghoul, however, hasn't slept at all. They're not halfway to battery city when one of Ghoul's tyres blows, snagging on a jagged piece of glass and exploding. The bike screeches and squeals as Ghoul struggles for control, turning the handlebars sharply to counter the skid. He comes to a stop and swears violently, half-tripping off the vehicle.
“You okay?” Ray calls, pulling up.
“Fine. FUCK!” Ghoul yanks off his helmet. They don't have a spare, and attempting to repair the tyre will take valuable time. On the other hand, they don't actually know the others are in trouble – they could just be incommunicado. Bikes are an extremely valuable resource and they can't really afford to leave it for scavengers. More pressingly, Ghoul absolutely should have seen that broken bottle. He is pale beneath his tan, red-eyed, and the tattooed hand his runs through his hair is shaking visibly. Ray recognises the signs of an adrenalin crash. It's not surprising. Considering that Ghoul was up on watch the night before the others left, he has now been awake for over 48 hours.
“We're gonna have to stop,” Ray says. “You need sleep.” He expects Ghoul to resist, and a flash of belligerence crosses the other man's face, but then the fight seems to go out of him and he sighs.
“How are you gonna help anyone if you're all….” Ray wants to say 'You'll get us killed', but something tells him that would be pushing it too far.
“Okay,” Ghoul blows his breath out. “Okay. Two hours.”
“Four,” Ray counters.
Ghoul shoots him a dark glance, considers, and then says, “Three,” just for the sake of arguing.
“Fine,” Ray rolls his eyes. Ghoul flashes him something that might almost be considered a smile.
Ghouls sleeps like the dead for two hours solid and then wakes up like he's been timing himself. It's pretty impressive. Jet's used the time to patch the tyre up, and when Ghoul sees it, he looks at Jet and goes,
Jet shrugs. “It should hold. Gonna have to replace it after though.”
“Yeah uh,” Ghoul clears his throat. “Thanks.”
Jet shrugs again.
“So do you need to sleep or….?
“Not yet. Tonight I will.”
Ghoul nods and sets to work re-fitting the tyre.
“You don't owe us anything you know,” he says abruptly, reverting to his defensive tone. “If you ever did, you can consider ghosting the Exterminator as payback.”
“I know,” Ray says, though it isn't what he means.
“So what's with the whole loyalty-until-death act?” Ghoul stands up and narrows his eyes against the sun, spanner still in hand. “You realize crews don't work like that. It's an arrangement of convenience.”
“Doesn't seem like that,” Jet points out.
“Poison and Kobra are brothers,” Ghoul holds up one finger. “Poison and Fuck Machine have, by circumstance, a kid together, even though they didn't have a kid together, if you get what I mean. Me and Poison – well you've seen.”
“It's a family affair,” Jet summarises.
“Pretty much.” Ghoul stares at him, challenging.
“I can understand that.”
“You act like it. Which is….” It's Ghoul's turn to shrug. “Well, most people don't, is all I'm saying.”
“Maybe I had a family.” Oh. Ray hadn't known he was going to say that. He didn't mean to. Ghoul gives him an odd look.
“You came straight from Bat City.”
“Yeah….BL/Ind needs to get its citizens from somewhere. Still not quite at the point of growing them in test tubes.”
“But they don't….” Ghoul shakes his head. “They take the kids away, right? Before anyone gets attached?”
“For training in the facilities,” Ray confirms. There were white rooms and the impassive face of his procreation partner, medicated into painless childbirth and painless separation. In the bad old days women suffered in labor. Now, Everything is Fine.
“You got attached,” Ghoul says.
“It happens sometimes,” Ray says quietly. “I guess the human brain is still - … I guess they haven't accounted for everything.”
“Hence the chips.”
“Hence the chips.”
'Attached' isn't the word. Attached replies long term. For the thirty seconds he'd been in contact with his daughter – thirty seconds he wouldn't have had if not for the DNA check – it was more like revelation. Clarity.
“So uh. Wow.” Ghoul runs a hand through his hair, leaving a grease . “So you have a kid out there.”
“You realize he or she's…..by now,” says Ghoul.
“I know,” says Ray sharply.
“Okay,” Ghoul holds up his hands. “I'm just saying.”
“Okay.” Ray feels a pained expression cross his face. “Let's – Fun Ghoul, we can't talk about this right now.”
Ghoul nods and wipes his hands on a rag, then puts his helmet on.
“Frank,” he says shortly.
“My name is Frank. Or Frankie. Not when we're on missions though.”
“Oh – okay.” It suits him.
Fun Ghoul turns the key in the ignition and the noise drowns out further conversation.
Zones 1 and 2 are emptier, Tumbleweeds giving the City as wide a berth as they can, and more labs and com towers sprout at intervals. The desert is divided by barbed wire fences. There's no point in donning Drac masks when their bikes will give them away, but Ghoul produces a couple of weird cartoon masks, the kind kids used to play with before the wars. His face his known as a terrorist, after all, and Jet's will be soon enough. Every few miles they check their phones, sometimes dodging a Drac march or lying low till an unknown crew passes. Ghoul grits his jaw, tense and silent, checking his phone for the millionth time. Then as though his will has activated it, it buzzes.
“Poison?” he whispers frantically, holding it to his ear.
The line is bad: “...kay…..nd Phoenix are...re you? Is the…..eet us. -ordinates.”
The line cuts out and Ghoul immediately attempts to reconnect. He can't, but a second later the phone beeps and a message comes through from Poison. It's a map with co-ordinates highlighted. They're close. It looks like the others have gone to ground in a warehouse near one of the labs.
“Let's go,” Ghoul is up immediately, buzzing, Jet Star steps up to cover him, do his best to make sure they don't get shot or caught by a secure-i drone. They enter the warehouse with guns drawn, but there's no need.
“It's them!” - Poison springs up from behind a pile of boxes, dishevelled and dirty. There's a singe on one sleeve of his jacket but his movements are smooth as he lowers the gun he has drawn in return. Novocaine pops up across the room and likewise lowers his gun.
“They have Kobra and Phoenix,” Poison says shortly before anyone can ask anything. He is absolutely Party Poison in that moment.
“What? How?” Seeing Poison alive and more-or-less unhurt, Ghoul seems to have released the breath he's been holding since they left the diner.
“There was a firefight,” says Novocaine, who has a heat burn on the side of his face, the absolute definition of a close call. “We saw them get shoved in a truck and then...”
“They'll want to take them to cell block 1,” Poison says: “High profile prisoners.” He paces around in a little circle, almost betraying for a second the way he's barely holding it
together. “We'll never infiltrate that, it's a fortress, we have to get them in transport.”
“Okay, so, the holding cells,” Fun Ghoul says calmly, physically halts Poison and grips his forearms. “There are holding cells outside the City near the convoy. Hey,” he says intently. “We'll get them back alright? They're valuable prisoners.”
Jet doesn't know what the night convoy is, but he gathers the subtext of 'they wouldn't shoot them outright'.
“There's enough stuff here that we might be able to rig some smoke bombs,” Novocaine indicates some of his finds from the packing crates: “Or at least, we might now that you're here.”
“Stand aside, kids,” says Ghoul, and it's kind of tragic how he's put aside the asshole act and is trying to act lighthearted. Jet decides to stand back and let Poison help put the stuff together – he clearly needs to be doing something.
“Do you know the cells?” Novocaine asks Jet. “You're from the City right?”
“Yeah,” says Jet, and to his surprise, he does actually know where they are going. The holding cells outside the South Wall have been used for prisoner transport for years.
They're primarily manned by Dracs, whom a smoke bomb should take out pretty effectively, but they need to move fast – prisoners of Kobra and Phoenix's rank will be rushed through to a high-sec facility as soon as they can get transport. Jet watches the door while the others assemble the bombs, but it's quiet. Poison and Novocaine done their Drac masks, and get on the back of Ghoul and Jet's bikes respectively. At the holding cells, Jet and Ghoul park the bikes out of sight, sheltered by a stone wall, and wait tensely as Poison and Novocaine approach the gate. A camera whirrs and clicks over them, and the pair of Dracs at the gate pause, look at each other in slight confusion – they're not getting any further without fighting so Poison throws a smoke bomb and yells
In the end the firefight doesn't last that long. There are several Dracs manning the holding cells but the pair of Exterminators manning a door give away the location of high profile prisoners. Jet has shot one before Ray has time to process it. He didn't even know he was that good a shot. He got it in the chest, but it's still coming, these fuckers don't die easy. He shoots shoots again but misses and then is forced to break off, ducking behind a water keg as it realigns its aim and returns fire. Laser fire hits the keg and the metal crumples in, Jet gets one clear look at the Exterminator that's about to ghost him -
- before Ghoul blows its face off with a shot that shouldn't possible, and its body crumples. The other Exterminator has been momentarily blinded by the smoke bomb, Poison manages to disable it while Novocaine spends a shitload of charge holding the Dracs off and Jet springs up to join him before his gun can hit the red line. Speaking of hit, Jet is bleeding. There is blood seeping through his pants leg and he can feel wetness, but adrenalin is completely covering the pain. It's extremely weird. And now there's path to the cell door and Poison is yelling
“STAND BACK WE'RE TAKING THE DOOR OUT” and if there's any response Jet doesn't hear it. But when they blast the locks and most of the door collapses in under the combined force of Poison and Novocaine's guns (seriously that must be some kind of special model) Kobra is hunched at the back of the cell over Phoenix's prone form, shielding his body.
“Fuck,” Jet whispers when he gets a look - Poison grabs his brother and hugs him tightly, mask slipping:
“I'm fine – Gee – I'm fine. Pete protected me.” His voice breaks and he turns back to where Fun Ghoul is making a rapid assesment of Phoenix. He's unconscious, and there's a deep burn in his right side, blood and singed flesh and white, gross stuff all visible through the remains of his shirt. Novocaine goes completely white and looks like he might throw up for a second, then pushes it down and goes to help Ghoul. Jet keeps his gun on the door. Fun Ghoul apparently knows what he's doing, he's saying
“Pulse weak but steady, respiration's good, unresponsive. Mikey you did great.”
“He took the shot for me,” Mikey whispers, speaking to his brother who hasn't quite managed to let go of him yet.
“Okay that's – okay. Let's get out of here,” Gerard says, slipping back into Party Poison, as an alarm screeches, and then Jet can't afford to focus on anything but the fresh wave of Dracs descending on them.
They sacrifice the bikes. The best way to get out is by commandeering a trans am – BL/ind's electronic vehicles are fast, lightweight, disposable and easy to steal. Jet ends up in the shotgun seat as Poison drives, still firing backwards at the Dracs who are tailing them:
“You're good,” Poison tells him with a glance sideways.
'Lucky,' Ray thinks. In the back, Mikey cradles Pete's head in his lap while Ghoul efficiently cuts away the remains of his shirt. Ray doesn't know Pete very well, but he still finds it disconcerting, seeing him still and silent and pale beneath his olive complexion: the antithesis of every other time Ray's met him.
“Jet, how're you doing?” Fun Ghoul calls.
“Huh?” Ray is confused.
“You were bleeding pretty good out there.”
“Oh!” Ray kind of wishes Ghoul hadn't said that, because now – fuck! His leg hurts! It's a sharp, piercing sensation but he's been running all over the place so obviously the muscles and nerves are all intact, and the bleeding has slowed to a sluggish pulse that has nonetheless soaked his pants leg. He rolls the material up, hissing when it sticks to the wound, and reveals a long gash and some blistered skin, clotting dark red. “It's okay,” he says. “Just like – skin and stuff.”
“Use this,” Novocaine leans over and hands him a small bottle of something alcoholic, and holy shit, if you'd ever told Ray he'd be dousing his own wounds with booze in a stolen getaway trans am – he puts Ray away and lets Jet Star attend to business. Shit that burns.
“Frank,” he hears Mikey say quietly. “Is he-?”
“I don't know Mikes. I'm gonna try my best, okay? You did a great job.”
There's a small, tight noise of grief Jet has no business hearing, so he turns his attention to his phone, trying to figure their location.
“Some of the Decaydance crew are in Zone 3,” Novocaine is apparently doing the same. “There's a safehouse near the water tower. They have med facilities.”
“Thank fuck,” says Ghoul.
“Co-ordinates?” Poison asks.
“Coming through now… l65.230, 23.1209.”
“Tell them we'll make it in an hour.”
That's really optimistic, so far as Jet can judge, but Poison drives with intent, pushing the speed and taking every turn as a hairpin. After one particularly hair-raising stunt, Jet has to lean out of the window and gasp some air to prevent himself puking. The trans am smells like blood now, and sharp-sweet burned flesh, and his leg pulses in time with his heartbeat. He tries not to look over his shoulder. It won't do any good, and it feels like an intrusion. Pete starts to come round at one point, and the expression in Mikey's voice as he says
“Baby it's okay, we're safe now, you're gonna be fine okay?”
Is rather more than he can hear and keep his equilibrium.
Zone 3 is crowded. Lots of tents and more permanent buildings, a bustling market and an impromtu children's play area. They zip through and arrive at a water tower. In its shade is a building that might once have been a military bunker or a large storage facility. In the dirt out front, someone has planted a flag made from a bedsheet, spray painted with the word Decaydance in blood-red letters. A woman with glossy brown hair is standing near it. She waves anxiously when she sees the trans am, and runs inside. She returns a moment later, just as they're braking, with a very tall lanky guy and a slightly shorter, even skinnier girl – wait no, he's a guy. Double take. Jet is 90% sure he's a guy. Of course everyone seems to know everyone else and there's a general rush to get Pete inside (tall guy and extremely feminine guy are way stronger than they look) and everyone is distressed yet efficient and communicating in a code Ray isn't part of. Then the girl looks at his leg and says,
“Come on, you should get that cleaned up.”
“Oh uh, it's fine,” he lies.
“Yeah well it won't be when it gets infected and your leg rots off,” she rolls her eyes. “I'm T.”
“Jet,” he says. There's something familiar about T, but he can't imagine where he might have seen her.
“Yeah, I've heard. Let's go,” she puts a hand on his arm and guides him inside. It's a big compound. There are a whole lot of people running around, and the Killjoys have disappeared with Phoenix and Novocaine. T leads him through to a space that might once have been an office, taps the desk for him to sit up on, then produces a scissors, thread, antiseptic and a needle.
“So are you like, a doctor?” he asks stupidly.
“Oh - no!” she laughs. “But I'm pretty good at this stuff. Now watch, cos you're gonna have to do this yourself someday.”
It's pretty difficult to watch someone stitch you up without anasthetic, but he guesses they can't afford to waste the good stuff on little things like flesh wounds. T has a nice voice – low for a girl, and good-humored, and she chats to him as she works, then shows him a scar on her right arm which she claims to have stitched herself, left-handed.
“So I guess you're a real Zonerunner now,” she says cheerfully, going to wash her hands. “Scars and all.”
“I don't know if I'll ever be a real Zonerunner,” he confesses. He didn't mean to say that, didn't even know he was thinking it.
“What is a real Zonerunner?” T shrugs philosophically. “We all feel like that, I think. It's easy to get caught up in the mythology. God knows, before I met Poison, I thought he was some kind of superhuman….at the end of the day, we're just people. People who couldn't or wouldn't go along with it.”
“'A generation that didn't agree'” Ray quotes out of nowhere. To his surprise, T beams at him:
“You liked System?”
“It was a song. You just quoted a very old song, from before the Helium Wars.”
“I – didn't realize.”
“They took a lot away from us,” T nods, turning to put away her equipment. “They can't take music though. Not completely, I don't think. I'd go crazy if I didn't have music. I have this idea that it keeps our brains more resilient to conditioning. Like without it I'd be way more obedient.” And then it clicks, he realizes where he's seen her before:
“You played at the festival, right? You and that other guy…”
“Sure did. I know, we're not very good, but we're getting better. Pete uh, Pete helped us out a lot in the beginning. Instruments and stuff.” She clears her throat, then claps her hands together, clearly not willing to go down that avenue of conversation right now. “So! You hungry?”
“Not really.” He should be – but he's too worried and hyped up to think about food or sleep.
“Well, come have a drink at least.” T offers.
“Thanks,” he says. “You don't have to – I mean, if you're busy or something.”
She brushes him off: “Nah. Killjoys may not be the most popular crew in the world, but with us and the Young Bloods...it's like one big dysfunctional family. I'll show you around.”
WTF suddenly half of bandom shows up. I didn't plan for that to happen! Any suggestions for codenames for Bill and Gabe gladly received. I didn't mean to include them but suddenly I needed more allies and it made sense.
The safehouse is like a warren, but there's a sort of central room, with a large table, chairs, a small TV, maps and plans pinned all over the walls and a large if eclectic sound system. The extremely feminine guy is sitting at the table, smoking in a way that manages to be both anxious and elegant at the same time. He offers Ray a quick smile then returns to his contemplation. There are several kids hanging around – and they really are kids, eighteen or twenty tops – wearing skinny jeans and guns on their belts and quietly worried expressions. Decaydance is apparently an inclusive crew. By the open doors, Novocaine is fiddling with his phone and scowling:
“I have Animal,” he says abruptly, and then into the phone: “Hey, Andy, hey can you hear me? No we're at the Decaydance place. The water tower. What? You're breaking up…..no uh…..look just get here okay? Fast?” Pause. “What? You're sure? Well that's – uh, that's good news. Great. Tell Joe I said that's great.” Pause. “I'll tell you when you get here okay, not over the phone. Okay bye. Bye.” His voice is a bit unsteady at the end. He hangs up. “Joe and Andy found the radar,” he says and there are weak cheers from the room. Feminine guy gives that same tight smile.
“Andy says it's guarded to hell,” Novocaine goes on. “Which I guess, no surprise, but we're gonna need some serious co-ordination to infiltrate...”
“Pete can-” says one of the kids, a pretty boy big Bambi eyes and skinny legs, then looks stricken and cuts off what was obviously an automatic response. Ray is starting to understand Gerard's reservations about Pete – it seems he is regularly found at the center of semi-organized high risk scenarios. Everyone gets quiet again. T and Bambi-eyes make coffee from some crappy instant grounds. Ray tries to call Lindsey a couple of times, just to let her know what's going on, but he can't get through. He thinks about Gracie, and all the adults that keep disappearing from her life. Then he tries Pony's cell, but apparently the patchy coverage here just won't stretch across the zones.
The room has the uncomfortable feeling of a waiting room at a hospital – an extremely poorly equipped hospital that allows guests to openly carry weapons, but still. When the lanky guy who apparently serves as the medical authority here finally reappears with Fun Ghoul, everyone's eyes go to them and there's a collective breath-intake. Lanky guy looks exhausted: feminine guy opens his arms and lanky guy slips onto his lap, leaning his head against his shoulder and closing his eyes. Ray is really gonna have to learn some names for them. Everyone looks at Fun Ghoul instead, who just says,
“He's stable,” and everyone breaths a sigh of relief. It's really impressively co-ordinated.
“So he's gonna be fine right?” demands one of the kids.
“I hope so, but no promises,” says Ghoul, and a few weeks ago Ray would've thought 'dick, reassure the kid' but he's starting to understand the way things are in the desert.
“Andy and Joe found the radar,” Novocaine updates Ghoul. Ghoul brightens and gives him a thumbs-up.
“When can we see him?” demands another kid.
“Maybe tomorrow. Kobra's with him, and anyway, he's very very unconscious.”
“Which is a good thing,” adds Poison, “Believe me.”
When he gets a minute, Jet pulls Poison aside and expresses his concern about contacting Lindsey.
“I know,” Poison nods. “I was gonna go wander about for a bit, try to find a signal, but Mikey's pretty freaked out. I should be here for him.”
“I'll do it,” Jet says.
“Really? That would be great,” says Poison with big eyes, grattitude out of all proportion to the offer. “Oh but is your leg okay for that?”
“Yeah – I think it's better actually, not to stiffen up and all.”
“Well don't go alone.”
“I'll take him,” T offers, and does so: she's apparently taken Jet under her wing, or perhaps this is flirting, and he's too out of practice to remember. They wander around and T chats to him about the compound, the Decaydance crew - lanky guy and extremely feminine guy are code-named Hot Mess and The Vamp, so at least he can stop with the awkward epithets - and T was in another crew with Hot Mess before they disbanded after a mission went bad. She doesn't want to talk about that. Jet finally gets reception and lets Lindsey know what's happening. She's extremely relieved and grateful to him for calling:
“Oh hang on, Grace wants to speak to you.”
“JET STARRR!” screeches Grace down the phone, and he's surprised and oddly flattered to be the cause of such excitement. “Did you blow the spying thing up?”
“Not yet motorbaby,” he says. “We're working on it.”
“Well hurry up, or we're gonna be squashed like a bug on a windshield….did you ghost some Dracs?”
“Was there blood? Did it spray?”
“Uh, Gracie, why don't you put Lindsey back on now.”
“I want to talk to Poison.”
“He's a bit busy right now.”
“Not too busy for me! He said he's never too busy for me – he promised!”
“I know, but….”
There's air and a thudding noise, and he hears Lindsey exclaim: “Grace!” Then: “Sorry about that Jet, she threw the phone.”
“Oh,” he says. “So. Uh, I'm not sure when we'll be back. Probably in a couple of days.”
“Okay, thanks for calling. Be safe.”
They hang up. T and Jet head back to the diner and it's suddenly hitting Jet how tired he is – T notices and says
“Want to crash for a while? We have bunks in one of the back rooms.”
And he says,
“Uh, I'm not sure if I should-”
“It will be fine, I'll let the others know.”
So he says, “Yeah. Yeah that would be good,” and then he's suddenly so exhausted he can barely remember getting to the bed, vaguely registering some sort of dormitory setup, and T might have said there's a bathroom attached but he's asleep before he can think about cleaning up.
Jet wakes up and it's dark. He blinks a couple of times and the shape in the bunk across the aisle resolves itself into Kobra, fast asleep with his mouth open and snoring lightly. He looks very young. Jet has the prickling sensation of being watched, so he turns his head slightly, then nearly jumps out of skin because Poison is right there, sitting up against the wall near the door and about three inches from Jet's face.
“Fuck!” Jet exclaims in whisper. “You scared me dude!” He puts a hand to his chest, and takes a few deep breaths to try and stop his heart from racing.
“Sorry,” whispers Poison, eyes widening eerily in the dark. “Sorry man. I was just -” he waves a hand vaguely. “Thinking.” He's gotten cleaned up and his hair is damp. He is watching his brother.
“Better. He woke up long enough to drink some water and make some gross sexual joke to my brother so I guess that's a good sign.”
“You know, for a rebel outlaw, you're actually kind of a prude.”
Poison frowned at him. “This is my baby brother we're talking about.” He paused. “Though I suppose I kind of have to give them my blessing now. The way Mikey tells it, Pete protected him.” Pause. “I guess I have been pretty hard on him.”
“You were just looking out for your brother,” Jet says. They've raised their voices a bit, unthinkingly, but Kobra is out like a light and it doesn't seem to disturb him.
“If anything ever happened to Mikey, I couldn't take it,” - that was very much Gerard. Poison is dropped: “I'd probably kill myself.”
Ray doesn't know what to say to that.
“So much for the legendary Party Poison, huh.”
“Hey,” says Ray, sitting up. “You are Party Poison.”
“Well,” says Gerard after a long pause, and does his high pitched weird little laugh: “I guess someone's got to be.”
Jet, Ghoul and the other half of the Young Bloods head back to Zone 6 a couple of days later. The Young Bloods are Joe and Andy, code-named Deadly Instrument and The Animal. They aren't shy with their real names, however. Jet used to think of them as Quiet Tat Guy and Fro Guy (or occasionally Fro Brother, when he was feeling generous). Andy looks like he lifts weights, is generally serious, and has full sleeve tattoos on both arms that extend into a chest piece. It's kind of intimidating until he opens his mouth. Everything he says is calm and measured; but also, his voice is kind of comically high and soft for his appearance. It's almost like he and Patrick should swap voices.
Much to Jet's surprise, it came to light the previous day that Novocaine is the leader of the Young Bloods. He'd just assumed it was Phoenix.
“No...Phoenix is more like the public face,” T had told him. “Trick's more of a behind-the-scenes guy by nature but he definitely keeps things together. It's a weird setup, I don't entirely understand it myself.”
“All these kids act like Phoenix is their spiritual leader or something,” Jet had gestured to the Decaydance crew.
“Yeah well….,” T rolled her eyes: “Give them a break. Most of them aren't even twenty.”
Patrick, Pete, and Mikey are staying with the Decaydance crew until Pete is strong enough to travel. Silently Ray thinks it will be a while. Pete is trying to play it off and act like it's no big deal for the sake of the Decaydance kids. But he still looks very pale and washed out, moving as carefully as an old man, and Ray's seen the pain and exhaustion in his expression when he thinks the kids aren't watching. Mikey, to be fair to him, is handling the whole thing with a strength and maturity Gerard clearly hadn't been expecting. Jet expected him to stay with Kobra, but at the last minute he'd announced that he was heading back to the diner:
“Gracie will be missing her bedtime stories,” he'd said to Ray as they hung out by the water tower.
“I don't even have anything to bring back for her.”
“You know,” said Frank, popping up from behind the tyre he was fitting to Bambi-eyes' bike: “You don't have to have an excuse for coming back with us, Gee. You don't have to justify it that someone else needs you. It can just be because you want to come.”
Gerard stared at him and Frank widened his eyes like 'what?' and then Gerard sighed.
“You know me too well,” he admitted. Frank got up and walked past them into the complex, squeezing Gerard's shoulder on the way. Since that first dramatic kiss, which Ray can only assume was some sort of statement, Gerard and Frank haven't been much for PDA.
“I guess I have some thinking to do,” Gerard admitted to Ray. Ray went back inside and thought about what Gerard had said, then wandered around until he found some of the Decaydance kids in a back room, working on their music. Bambi and the one with the cute round face had guitars and the other one had an actual drum set (God these kids are look so similar, Ray has trouble keeping their mental nicknames straight). It's the first drum set he's seen in the desert, not counting the festival, eclectic bits and pieces obviously bought or scavenged from different places, painted wherever possible so they looked more like a set. Drummer-kid caught him looking:
“Took me three years to assemble that,” he said proudly.
“Yeah he says it like he did it all himself,” cute round-faced kid rolled his eyes. “I got half that stuff. Nearly took a laser for that cymbal!”
That made Ray think of something, and he asked, “Where did you get it?”
“Why?” Cute round-faced kid looks a little suspicious.
“Oh just...kind of asking for a friend.”
All the kids looked at eachother and apparently held a silent conversation. Combined with their physical similarity it was a bit creepy – Jet could half believe they'd all hatched from the same pod somewhere. Then:
“Wait here,” said Bambi and disappeared while all the others stared at Jet and made him uncomfortable, then reappeared holding a cloth-wrapped bundle. “You can have this,” he shoved at it Jet and shrugged indifferently. “For your friend.”
Caught off guard, almost dropped the thing – it was hard and pointed and heavier than he thought. A tinny discordant series of notes chimed out. Jet lifts a corner of the cloth and draws his breath in. It's – he's seen this before. A very very old instrument. He's seen one, or heard one, but the name is gone – it's a series of metal keys set into a small wooden frame.
“Oh – wow!” exclaimed Jet. “Wow – this – are you guys sure?”
The kids all looked at each other again and then nodded, pretty much in unison. He wished they’d stop that.
“You helped get Pete out,” Bambi shrugged: “You’re okay by us.”
“Xylophone,” Ray’s brain supplied abruptly, from some time long before Jet:
“Uh, bless you?” Cute round-faced kid raised his eyebrows.
“No, no,” Ray shook his head. “That’s – what this is called. It was a xylophone.”
“If you say so,” said Bambi.
“It’s pretty cool anyway,” said the drummer kid: “We don’t have the sticks though, so you’ll have to find something to play with it.”
When they get back to the diner, Grace flings herself into Gerard's arms and he picks her up, groaning:
“You're getting way too big, motorbaby.”
“I am?! Have I grown since you went?”
“I think you might have.”
Lindsey comes out of the back room, looking tired, and does a double take: “Where's -?”
“With the Young Bloods. He's fine, he just wanted to stay.”
“Hm,” Lindsey says, looks at Gerard, looks at Frank, looks at Gracie, looks at Ray for some reason, then goes back to the storage room. “Well, I'm gonna take a nap. Four days of single parenthood is enough for me thanks.”
“What did you bring me?” Grace asks.
“Nothing,” Gerard smiles.
“Don’t lie!” she punches him in the shoulder with her tiny fist and he pretends like he’s agony for a while, then puts her down and says,
“Okay,” and opens his bag: “Now I know it’s not a drum kit, but….”
Later, when the plink-plink sounds of the xylophone have been resonating for hours, Gerard says to Ray,
“You could have given it to her yourself, you know.”
“It meant more from you,” Ray says, and knows it’s the truth, watching Gracie engaged with rapt attention by her new instrument, which she’s playing with marker pens and a pencil.
“It’s not fair though,” Gerard angsts. “You’re the one who like – acquired it.”
“No,” Ray shakes his head. “It’s what she needs.” And who knows, maybe this is what it would have felt like if his daughter had – if the child had – maybe love is just the little everyday sacrifices that make someone happy even though they’ll never know about them. Or is that parenthood? Who knows? BL/Ind has changed the order of things, even here.
“We are gathered here today,” Poison says, then – “Wait, no,” as Phoenix and Kobra start snickering, and Fuck Machine yells,
“That’s WEDDINGS!” from somewhere in the back.
“We have called this general assembly,” Poison says, glaring at everyone, “To address the problem of the BL/Ind scanner.”
The mood in the warehouse drops. Everyone settles into something like order. ‘Everyone’ being the Killjoys, the Young Bloods, the Decaydance crew, a bunch of other miscellaneous people Jet has never seen before, Show Pony and Dr. D. Rather than running the proceedings, as Jet might have guessed, Dr. D. is sitting regally at the back of the hall, one eye on Poison and the other on the crowd.
Poison’s really gonna have to up the consistency of his speech game. There are times when he’s brilliant and inspiring, and other times awkwardness gets the better of him, particularly in front of larger crowds. This is one of those times.
“So, uh, Animal and Deadly Instrument have seen this thing,” Poison is standing on a packing crate to be heard, he gestures to the side and it wobbles dangerously: “Oops. So I’m gonna uh – I’m gonna ask them to show you what they have and then we’ll talk about strategy.”
“Poison’s shy,” remarks Grace, from her perch on Jet’s shoulders.
“Sometimes,” Jet agrees.
“He shouldn’t be shy, he’s Party Poison. I’m not shy, am I Jet?”
“That you are not, motorbaby.”
Fun Ghoul grabs Poison’s hand and helps him down, supressing a fond smile that completely ruins his tough guy image, and Deadly Instrument calls,
“Okay look!” from one side of the warehouse. An enormous pad of paper which Grace has been eyeing covetously since they entered the building is propped up by one wall. An artistic map and diagram is drawn across it. “So far as we could tell, there are guard towers here and here.” Decaydance, these are your targaets.”
“What, all of us?” pipes up one of the kids indignantly, evidently feeling like they’ve been pawned off on a safe job.
“There’s a Exterminator posted at each tower,” says The Animal. “Maybe two.”
“So we can blow them up.” – it’s Cute Round-Faced kid, who can get quite the ferocious scowl going when he feels he’s being slighted.
“You’re gonna have to get near enough to blow them up,” counters Phoenix. He’s still looking pretty tired after a day’s travel and is sitting on a side-table between Kobra and Novocaine, resting his head on Kobra’s shoulder: “This isn’t a baby job, okay Ry? We really need you to do this.”
The kid looks at Phoenix, looks torn, looks slightly guilty, huffs a bit and then settles down.
“We still have a lot of material we can use for explosives back at the compound,” T offers, looking at Fun Ghoul, who gives her a thumbs-up and a nod.
“This is a barrier circling the prototype,” Instrument indicates a ring on the map. “We think it’s reinforced titanium. Sustained laser fire will probably melt it, but it will take time. We’re gonna need a distraction.”
“On it,” says Show Pony, tapping away on a laptop: “BL/Ind are gonna receive a transmission from Dr. D that ‘accidentally’ gives away his location.”
“But-!” Poison protests.
“Kid, I’ve been dodging Dracs since before you were a grain of sand in BL/Ind’s proverbial eye,” Dr. D. says. “Thanks for the concern and all, but really. Don’t sweat it.”
“Plus we’ll be guarding him,” says Novocaine, indicating himself, Kobra and Phoenix. In reality it’s all Phoenix is up to doing and its obvious that Kobra and Novocaine will be doing most of the work. Fun Ghoul is going to co-ordinate bombing the towers. That leaves Poison, Jet, and the other Young Bloods to take out the scanner.
Ray is kind of silently astounded that he missed the moment Jet became a candidate for that.
“If we fuck this up,” he said quietly to Poison afterwards, when everyone’s sort of milling around catching up and discussing their role in the Plan:
“If we do, we’ll think of something else,” Poison says. “It’s not the end of the world.”
And Jet looks at him and starts laughing because really. That is a terrible joke.
“But anyway first,” says Phoenix, even though no-one was talking to him. “Jet we have something for you.”
“Huh?” Ray says.
Phoenix looks at Novocaine with his eyebrows raised and winks really obviously like ‘let the top secret plan commence!’ and Novocaine smiles and rolls his eyes and disappears into a back room. He comes back holding a guitar case, puts it down and unsnaps the catches with a bit of a flourish. It’s an electric, dark and with some kind of intricate design on the body.
“I can’t-“ Ray starts.
“Oh blah blah blah I’m alive it’s all good we’re all friends now, Killjoys need another guitarist take the god damn instrument,” Phoenix glares at him. “It’s a present. We expect to see you guys at the next Festival. No excuses.”
“I really don’t know what to say,” Ray says.
“It’s cool, man,” Novocaine offers him a smile. “Enjoy it,” and pats him on the back a little awkwardly.
“Hm,” says Fun Ghoul when he sees the guitar: “Pretty nice.” He tries it out the pitch and pronounces it sound. Then he hands it back to Jet, looks him in the eyes and says, “Looking forward to playing
“Uh ohhhh,” says Phoenix obnoxiously, and everyone groans.
“Pete, it’s great to see you up and all, but please stop talking for a bit,” says Gerard.
“Hey! I saved your brother! You can’t be mean to me!”
“Ugh.” Gerard waves his hands. “Is that like - gonna be a thing?”
“That is definitely a thing.”
Gerard says to Ray: “After this mission, we’re gonna start the band properly, right?”
“Yeah,” says Ray. And what the hell. If Jet can take out the BL/Ind scanner, Ray can play in a band. He’ll be shit at first, it’s been too long, but the muscle memory has been seeping back into his hands as the music around him has been seeping into his brain. He’s ready.
“Alright everybody, let’s move out!” Poison turns and addresses the hall. There’s a flurry of chatter and movement, people grouping up and turning towards the door, and Dr. D. wheels himself over
with Gracie on his lap and says,
“Time to hit the road, cats.”
“Be safe,” Kobra tells them as he helps Phoenix down from the table they’ve been perched on: “Call us when you can.”
“Yeah, we’ve got sweet music to make together!”
“I’m gonna be the DJ!” Gracie tells them. “Dr. D. said.”
“Play a song for us, motorbaby,” Poison ruffles her hair.
“I’ll play three,” she promises. “For Poison and Fun Ghoul and Jet Star you can have a special one.”
“Thank you,” Ray says, and leans down to hug her goodbye. She is not his daughter. She is nobody’s daughter, and yet, at the same time, she’s all of theirs. She clings so he has to pick her up but then sets her on the floor, and she runs off to find Ricky.
“She is the future,” Poison says. “It’s best not have any illusions about this Jet – we won’t see the revolution.”
With people moving and talking and planning around them all brightly coloured and energized, that almost feels like too fatalist.
“You’re so sure,” he says to Poison.
“I am. We’re too well known, we’ve been doing this too long…one way or another, BL/Ind is going to kill us. I’m thirty-three next month,” – suddenly, frankly. “What do you imagine the average life expectancy of a Zone Runner is, leave alone one with our level of visibility?”
“I’m guessing - not long.”
“Yeah. Not long.”
“I’m fine with that,” Jet says.
“Well, good,” Poison smiles. “Bit late now if you weren’t. But well – Grace, we named her that for a reason, you know? There’s a generation – born out here, raised out here – there’s a change coming. We’re not it. But we’re….” he considers. “Is it too grandiose to say we’re maybe the predecessors?”
“I hope not.”
“Dr. D. used to say – on the radio, whenever he announced someone got ghosted, he’d say, ‘in the desert, your shadow lives on without you’. I guess that’s it. That’s what we can hope for. Until then we have to keep them safe – Grace, and Pete’s kids, and all – and help them grow up, and know that music and art and all the shit of actually living is worth fighting utopia for.”
“Well hell Gee, why didn’t you say all that when you were making a speech just now?” Fun Ghoul complains.
“I know right, I always think of the best stuff right after I could have said it. I should write that down.”
“Well I liked it,” says Jet, and to his surprise he’s laughing.
“Then come on,” says Fun Ghoul, and stands on the absolute tips of his toes in an attempt to put one arm around Jet shoulders and the other around Poison: “Enough talking. Let’s go blow this fucker into a zillion pieces.”
And as they head out, something makes Jet turn, and he catches a last glimpse of her upturned face, perched on Show Pony’s shoulders and smiling, expectant and happy.
Phew! Well, there you have it. Thanks for reading along, and I hope you enjoyed this imaginary prequel. I'm moving across the country with 2 cats next week, so drop me a line letting me know your thoughts so I have something to look forward to amid the chaos! Until next time - J xxx