g3rard's robot shouldn't have failed. Ray had checked it fifty times, nothing had snapped, and the damage dealt by deadmau5's 'bot should not have been enough to stop the receiver from picking up the signal.
g3rard was so busy crossing his arms that he almost missed when deadmau5's robot moved. It didn't help that the robot shouldn't have been moving. The fight was over.
It wasn't until he saw the joints glowing blue-green that he noticed the whole thing was coming down. He crossed his arms over his head and waited for the crash.
There was nothing more holy than the sound of crunching metal as small robots kicked the shit out of each other. If the arena was a church, and the spectators were the congregants, then Gerard was the priest.
It wasn't like any church he'd seen as a kid, long before the wars had laid waste to everything. But every time he hit buttons on his controller - carefully, no mashing - and got jostled by the crowd, it was like choirs of angels singing in his ear. The stench of his week-old sweat and the fresh sweat of everyone around him - including Mikey, who worked the entire round to keep anyone from bumping Gerard too hard - was holy water, and every night Gerard laid down the betting money, he was cleansed.
Saying his robot moved in the ring was an understatement; it danced to an unknown beat, avoiding swings and landing a couple of his own before turning out of range again. If Gerard had any technical skill whatsoever, he would have something like a dog-sized zombie instead of one of the blocky standard bodies that were repurposed BLind toys from out west. None of the other assholes in the ring had any imagination whatsoever - custom paint jobs were their idea of different - but they had technical skill, so their round fists punched off heads when they got close enough. Gerard's opponent was trying to get close enough.
"Rock 'em, sock 'em," he muttered, and dodged his robot out of the way.
See, they had technical skill. But they stayed firmly on their side of the arena, never so much as making eye contact with anyone. Gerard, on the hand, was in the dirt, glancing metal knuckles off metal cheeks, smashing glowing eyes until they went dark. He was the spirit...which probably didn't make him a priest, come to think of it. Danny the Street, his pink dress hiding the circuitry as he stomped around the ring, was the holy man. Gerard was the divine channeling through him.
The other robot pinned Danny, taking a few blows before Gerard jostled loose. The crowd oohed, but Mikey wasn't tensing behind him. No reason to. The end of round two had been the perfect opportunity to watch the delay between button pushing and fist flying on the other side.
The bell rang for round three, and Gerard went in for the kill.
Ray had put Gerard's tech together during downtime from the factory - he had imagination, but no time or money for frills - and he had laid it all out for him over the watered-down beer that everyone had access to: the delay between transmission and receiving on Danny was .98 seconds, ducking was better than leaning, and don't worry about how shitty it looked because Ray could replace anything with the scraps he snuck away. Gerard really did have little to lose.
Everyone else had something big to lose: their robots, with the spikes and fire and other upgrades that drained their winnings dry. Gerard had force and skill, so when Gerard got a square hit on the other robot's neck, and the woman across the way swore, that was it. Game over in everything but name, and it only took a couple more punches for the neck to crumple and the win to become official.
Mikey was already gone by the time the backpatters let Gerard out of the tent. Mikey had to collect the money fast; there was no infrastructure anywhere east of the Rockies that produced reliable ID anymore, and the fights weren't strictly legal in the first place. The first night Gerard won, they hadn't even gotten their basic bet back. They'd learned after that.
The pissing rain washed the stale beer and people smells off Gerard, and he was just a man again, mud sticking to his boots and wet hair flopping in his face. Turning up his collar did little to keep the moist out, and fuck, he had to win faster. Winter never waited for money.
A roar came from the fighter exit on the main arena. Gerard turned just in time to see a skinny guy in a printed t-shirt - a t-shirt, in whatever shit was coming down with the rain - emerge, smacking a one-handed controller a few times. Its lights flickered and brightened, and the man snorted and shoved it into his right pocket.
"The neural net is fucked," he said, digging in his left pocket for something. "And who do I have to blow to get some decent lighting in this shithole?"
It wasn't until he looked up from his ball cap that Gerard realized he was looking for an answer. "I...don't know."
"You know anything about 'bots?"
Gerard had to get out of the rain. It was starting to sting the skin of his neck a little. "How to run them, I guess."
"You win your match?"
The man nodded. "Be here tomorrow night with your rig. I'll see what you've got."
He trudged off with his hands in his pockets, seemingly unaware of the way the outdoors wanted to kill him, and Gerard watched him go until Mikey grabbed his arm and dragged him into the transport that passed by their apartment. It wasn't until they were seated and their drip-off moisture was rattling the metal floor that Mikey asked, "Dude, why were you talking to Joel?"
"I think he offered us main ring." Gerard had never seen the man before in his life. For all Gerard knew, it wasn't in Joel's power, and even if it was, there was no way Gerard and Mikey had enough credits between the two of them to put up for the main ring.
But Mikey knew everybody, and when he made absolutely no facial expression in the way that meant he was floored, that pretty much sealed it. "Good thing Toro's off tomorrow."
Gerard pulled out a cigarette. Maybe he could get a good jacket in time for the snows after all.
Gerard got a raised platform for the first time ever. It wasn't Madison Square Garden by any means, but as Gerard ascended, there were no elbows into his gut, no mud puddles to soak through his shoes as water seeped in from outside.
There was also no Mikey watching his back. Directly, anyway. He was in the VIP seats with Toro and his friend Frank from the factory, and Mikey had flashed Gerard a thumbs-up before Gerard had gone through the entrance. Mikey would probably talk with the financiers who were also in the seats, work the angles like he always did. Just not where Gerard could feel his breath on his neck.
The lights went down, and Gerard entered his box to the song Mikey picked. If Mikey was feeling low, it was Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want. Sometimes, when Ray was in the house, Mikey requested Sabbath or Queen.
But two seconds into the opening riff, Gerard swallowed. Cherub Rock. Mikey was going with the Pumpkins, which he only saved for very special occasions. Like when they were both sure Gerard was going to lose.
Gerard's hands only shook until Joel's corner lit up and the speakers blared the Zelda theme. Joel tipped his baseball cap to Gerard with a smirk on his face, and two could play at that game; Gerard twirled his fingers back in a flowery salute.
Spotlights illuminated their rigs in the same order on the ground. Danny the Street had a clean dress and shiny new parts, and Gerard's chest buzzed with fuzzy warmth. Ray had done some of his best work in just four or five hours.
Then the spotlight illuminated Joel's cat-shaped rig.
Other cats Gerard had fought were blocky; the circular heads on the usual repurposed toys lent well to triangular ears and whiskers. But this was more like an actual cat sculpted from metal and blue-green neon. It stalked in an easy circle after the rigs whirred to life and even sat back on its haunches. Gerard could have stared all night if the bell hadn't rung.
His extra seconds of watching paid off. Gerard's delay was .98 seconds. Joel's looked to be closer to 1.5, which made sense if the neural net was running weird.
It didn't help at first. It took about two seconds for the cat to rip off his rig's left arm and toss it in the direction of the screaming crowd. Gerard hissed, but two-armed punches were a luxury. He'd won with one arm before.
And actually, the cat didn't exert much force. It swiped at Danny a couple times, but it couldn't get at the right shoulder joint; Ray had reinforced it after their third fight, when a 'bot with an axe had taken out both arms. It was the perfect fix because it balanced the extra weight in the left foot, which was made of a slightly heavier alloy. All the better for kicking.
Still, even with the lag, the cat was light and fast. Wires stuck out of Danny in three different places by the time Gerard got a hit in. It was a good blow - the cat's chest was dented, and Gerard could hear something whirring loudly even from his platform - but it wasn't good enough. The cat was on its feet and moving fast.
That is, until Danny forced the cat near the speakers, and the lights flickered like Joel's controller had the night before. Gerard bared his teeth, and Danny kicked hard, getting the cat underneath the jaw. It didn't entirely get its head loose, but the cat fell on its side, twitching in no actual pattern.
Joel threw his controller on the ground. Gerard gave him a cheerful wave back.
"Do we keep the pot?"
Mikey blinked from behind his glasses. "Any reason we shouldn't?"
Gerard gestured toward the emptying arena. "There's no way we could afford main ring. Whoever put up the credits will want them back."
"You think so?"
Joel was standing by the barrier, arms crossed over his chest. Ink trailed up his exposed skin.
Gerard frowned at him. "You put up the money? Why?"
"Is it so weird?"
It was, but Gerard wasn't going to say it. He crossed his arms and shrugged.
"You ever feel like going west?" Joel said.
"To what?" Mikey asked. "There's nothing except..."
"Battery City. That's where I'm based these days."
Gerard shook his head. "It's hard enough getting out here every night."
Joel rolled his eyes. "Tell me about it. My transport got stuck in the mud most days this week. But it barely rains around Battery City, so there's that."
Gerard was completely lost. Luckily, Mikey seemed to be keeping up. "You want us to fight out there?"
"There's a scene in Battery City?" Gerard asked.
"Oh yeah. A little bigger than this, but you could pick it up." Joel huffed. "Better than the last three shits who left me with my thumb up my ass. The rig's a wreck, but you and your crew fix it, and it's yours."
Gerard leaned toward Mikey. Joel paused before fishing some cash out of his pocket. It was actual bills, not any of the arena IOUs they'd been using to get groceries.
"Are you trying to bribe us?" Gerard asked.
"What? No. This is your winnings." Joel shook his hand. "It's only toilet paper if you don't take it."
Gerard stared until Mikey cleared his throat, and then he took them, shoving them in his own pocket.
"But if you want me to bribe you..." Joel stepped closer. Gerard resisted the urge to scramble backward. "You might like the next part."
The crowd shook the prep room with their stomping and yelling. Some beat was playing distantly, but Gerard had his head bent over his tablet, watching the pre-show vid.
"...two-thousand came out to Battery City's canals to see the match-up of the year!" A shot skimmed the crowd, and a scroll at the bottom said something about the colorful view of the crowd.
It was colorful, in a way that Gerard hadn't seen since his arrival. Hairstyles weren't crisp and perfect, there was more variation in hair color than genetics could allow for, and clothes were bright and cropped, showing skin and tattoos and everything that Battery City hated.
Gerard smiled grimly. If they had to do it this way, at least it would be a hell of a party.
A hand shook Gerard awake. He jerked into a sitting position, pulling his sunglasses down. "Did I miss it?"
"No." Mikey smiled. "We're here."
His one time on a private jet - and a new one, not anything pre-war that was repurposed - and he slept through it. Still, he wasn't the only one: Ray's hair was flat entirely on one side, and Frank yawned and stretched as Mikey peered out the one window without the shade down.
"How's it look?" Gerard asked.
"Like a big wall with a blue bubble over it." When Gerard cocked his head, Mikey said, "Battery City was built during the war. They never took their shit down."
"I guess we can sightsee after we get inside." He grabbed his bag. "You think we'll have to wait long for a transport?"
The stairs opened when Frank pushed a button, and as heat blasted inside, they all flinched away. Gerard fumbled until his sunglasses were on again, and he sighed as his eyes stopped aching.
"Hope not," Ray said.
"Fuck." Frank pushed up the ratty sleeves of his shirt. "I thought it was fall."
Mikey, of course, was the only one who looked okay with the whole thing, even if the unrelenting sunlight made him look as pale as a vampire. Gerard didn't look much better, if his arm was any way to tell.
"Guess we're not in Jersey anymore, Dorothy," Gerard said with a straight face, and then he climbed down.
They definitely weren't in Jersey. It wasn't the line of guys with tattoos waiting by motorcycles that tipped it off; it was how sleek the bikes were and the way the bikers weren't stabbing each other. Between the colorful hair dye and the bright leather jackets, they definitely weren't the old-school biker gangs from back home.
"Gerard Way?" the biker up front asked. When Gerard nodded, the biker said, "Any of you know how to ride?"
Mikey and Ray raised their hands.
"Really?" Gerard asked Mikey.
"Ray taught me," Mikey said, walking off the steps and going for a pile of what looked like helmets and leathers.
"Great," the lead biker said as the rest of the group followed Mikey. "You four can double up, and I'll take you out there myself."
The motorcycles roaring to life masked any possible answer, so Gerard collected a set of gear with a sigh and threw his leg over the back of Mikey's bike.
"Arms around my waist, Gee." Mikey flipped down his visor like he'd done it a million times and revved his engine as Gerard slipped on his blue leather jacket. The second Gerard hugged Mikey, who had a red leather jacket on, they were off.
It only took a few minutes on the road before the bikes' use became obvious; most roads had potholes the size of arenas. No way the hover tech on the transports could cope. Watching Mikey weave made Gerard nauseous, so he stared out at the desert, empty except for the brush and sand. They passed a couple freeway signs on the way, bright streaks of paint cutting across the surface, but the bike was going too fast for Gerard to read.
After what felt like both an eternity and no time at all, something appeared in the distance. There was haze in the air - probably some combination of pollution and dust - so the shape looked like a weird monster at first, contorted and huge. But as they closed in, what looked like limbs turned into track, and his gasp echoed back to him in his helmet.
If there had been any doubt what kind of place this was, his questions resolved the second they parked the bikes on an old square of pavement and walked up to a decaying sign with a cartoon on it. Spray paint traced a new shape over it, but it didn't stop Gerard from touching the faded figure with his fingertips.
"I haven't seen Mousekat in years," he said as Mikey squinted at it. "Fuck, I didn't know there was a park."
"There wasn't, officially." That came from Joel, who was smoking by the locked front gate. He crushed the butt underfoot and walked up. "The open date was six months after the war started."
"Shit," Gerard said. He moved his fingers over the newly-painted figure, round ears and gaping eyes. "What's this mean?"
Joel grinned. "You'll figure it out."
Battery City was nothing like the ruins on the East Coast. Guards stood at the entrances, but Gerard was so busy looking at the tunnels that he only saw them out of the corner of his eye.
The car emerged into a city like the ones from Gerard's memory, shops and banks bordered by paved roads and sidewalks. The buildings were even taller than Gerard remembered. Joel wasn't the only one driving a car - a car, no hover parts or anything - and the transports stayed in the air without breaking down. It was unreal.
Gerard barely got a chance to look, just like he and Mikey had barely had a chance to see Ray and Frank go inside the amusement park. Joel had shoved them into his car with barely any pause and driven them on a direct, smooth road into the City. The fact they were in an underground garage just a couple hours after their plane landed was making Gerard dizzy.
Joel led Gerard and Mikey to an elevator, and they rode up in silence. When they reached the ground floor and the doors opened, Joel said, "This is you."
"You're not coming?" Gerard asked as Mikey pulled him out.
"I'm due up top. VIP's marked on the signs." Joel waggled his fingers. "Have fun."
The signs led to another elevator, guarded by a man who let them through before Gerard could so much as stammer his name, and went all the way up to level fifteen. The only thing on the other side was a room, silent and dark.
But it wasn't empty. A line of people in white suits and full-head masks lingered around the edges, barely illuminated by the house lights in the ring beyond. There were banquet tables behind them, but everyone was turned toward the center of the room. Gerard didn't give them a close look as he approached the seats; he was too busy staring at the white blasters at their hips.
"How are we supposed to see from up here?" Mikey whispered.
Gerard had no idea. Even though the floor looked like a small rounded rectangle from this height, he could still tell there were no seats around it.
Angling over the railing to get a better look was why he missed that the only other person in the room was a man in gray in the front row of seats. Gerard didn't see the man until he went to join Mikey in a seat at the end of the row, but as Gerard started to sit, the man said, "The view's better over here."
That was barely true, but the man was obviously the reason the guns were there, and if Gerard had learned anything during his time in the fights back home, it was not to push the guy with the weapons if he didn't have to. He walked further down the row and took a seat, leaving a buffer chair between him and the stranger. Gerard shook his head quickly when Mikey started to rise.
"How do you rank this box, even when I have it reserved?" the man asked, not looking at Gerard. There was something oddly deliberate about his speech, about the way he turned his head and took everything in. "What kinds of things have you done?"
Gerard's mouth went dry. "Nothing yet."
"Yet. Which implies you will." A cruel smile twisted his lips. "You must be the mouse's new protégé."
The house lights went down, and the crowd cheered as the floor opened up. Spotlights illuminated a couple of people on a platform just behind the growing hole, but Gerard couldn't see them until a holodisplay at the top of the arena showed their faces. Or rather, their lack of faces: one had a mask made up of three contorted devil faces, and the other...
The other was a fleshed-out version of the mouse graffiti on the Mousekat sign. The eyes and mouth flashed in time with the Zelda theme.
"Fuck," Gerard whispered.
But that was nothing next to what stood on the platform raising out of the floor. They were also shaped like mice on two legs, standing several stories tall. The seats had to be this high just so Gerard's vision wouldn't be overtaken by one of the robots.
Cheers more muffled than a few minutes ago came from around the arena. It wasn't until spotlights danced around the bowl part of the area that faces in other boxes appeared, softened by the protective shields crackling over the openings. The other boxes were both higher and lower than Gerard's, which had to be why this was VIP; they were close enough to see detail on the 'bots, down to the painted numbers designating them, but they could also see the entire floor space they would inhabit.
The mouse robots bumped knuckles - no wonder Joel's cat was so advanced, if his giant had hand articulation - and Gerard stopped breathing for a second. His heart thudded in time with the countdown on the display.
The number reached zero, and they leapt forward, much faster than seemed possible. The crowd roared.
After the initial shock wore off, the fight was weirdly close to the ones Gerard was familiar with. He could see Joel fiddling with a complicated board, but it was still a controller, and he was still trying to take the other robot out. The main difference is that the impacts shook the seats and thudded in Gerard's chest like really good speakers.
"Your friend's league has been very popular these last few years," the man beside Gerard said, his voice carrying even with the noise around them. "The UFC sponsorship was just added in the last month. Before, Mr. Zimmerman funded it himself."
"How..." Gerard shut his mouth before he could ask how he knew Joel's money sources.
But the man took it wrong, and he said, "How could he afford it? Interesting question."
The man didn't speak for the rest of the fight. Gerard was too busy imagining himself a giant, twisting apart another giant with his metal hands, to care. Gerard's moves weren't the same as Joel's - there were many times during the three rounds that Joel zigged when Gerard would have zagged - but the match ended with the other robot down for the count.
As the screen announced deadmau5 the winner, the man next to Gerard got to his feet. "I can't wait to see your first bout, Mr. Way."
Before Gerard could so much as think of anything to say, the man had already swept out of the room, his guards flanking behind him.
The lobby was a crush of people. Gerard and Mikey were both used to making their way through crowds drunker and rowdier, and half of them were using the inner-city teleporters, so it only took a couple minutes before they were at their elevator again.
A couple minutes was still enough time for someone to shout. Again, shouting wasn't too weird...except this crowd wasn't shouting for the most part. Gerard had never seen such a quiet, orderly group of drunks in his life.
More importantly, he didn't see anyone wriggling or unhappy when he looked up. He just saw tufts of fake black hair heading straight for the front doors, and the crowd parted to let the block of white suits through. No sign of the man of gray, though; someone wearing neon was in the middle of the group.
The elevator dinged, and Gerard had to get on before he could see any more.
If Gerard hadn't been so intent on the line of people bordering the top of the canals, out of sight of the spotlights, he would have laughed at his first sight of the console. Joel had gone pure Thunderdome: metal cage, shirtless, tattooed announcer, spiky clothes. All they needed was Mel Gibson and Tina Turner to complete the set.
Gerard climbed the platform, and the lights brightened. The distant silhouettes also faded into the darkness. He stared in their direction a few more minutes like he could still see them, and then he sat in his chair.
It took only a minute before Joel sat beside him...without his mouse head on. It wasn't until Joel pulled out his controller and made a face in Gerard's direction that Gerard realized he was staring.
"Rock 'em, sock 'em," he muttered to himself, and he waited for the robots to turn on.
Gerard's first meal at the amusement park was at the foot of his robot in what looked like an old theater.
"What was the match like?" Frank asked while he devoured a piece of pizza. He'd barely stopped to turn off his blow torch and wash his hands; his face was still covered in grease and dirt smears.
"Big," Mikey said. He narrowed his eyes. "You know anything about the power structure out here?"
"You mean for the fights?"
Mikey shook his head. "I mean in general."
"I have a couple friends in the area, but they don't talk much." Frank shrugged, and then he yelled up at the robot, "It's going to be all gone if you don't get your ass down here!"
The metal ringing in the background stopped, and a motor whirred. For a split second, Gerard thought the robot was going to go for a slice of pizza...and then Ray appeared on a line, dropping down to the ground.
"This isn't going to fix itself," he said.
"Because you'll do a lot if you fall over from exhaustion." Gerard grabbed a plate for Ray and started filling it up. It was weird that Joel actually had things like kitchens and showers and beds in an old Mousekat park, but it wasn't much weirder than the fact that he was going to fight a giant robot for a living.
Ray shrugged. "I have to figure out what we need before the supply truck goes out to the airplane graveyard. It's not going back out for a while after today."
Gerard's eyebrows shot up. "The what?"
"That's what they use for scrap. It's about an hour out, I guess?" Ray wiped his hands before taking his plate. "The factory had something kind of like it, but I'm betting this one's bigger."
"Why the short window?" Frank asked. "Shitty weather?"
"No, I guess there's some people out there who get touchy about cars. If we don't go when they're down for the day, we'll—"
They cut off as a metallic shout echoed through the park. It repeated as Gerard got to his feet. "Weird."
"Noise carries like that here. I think it's just Joel screaming." Frank got up as well, grinning. "Wanna check it out?"
Ray and Mikey shook their heads, but Gerard followed as Frank ran out of the theater. He didn't necessarily want to stir shit, but it was usually better to know when things were happening.
The amusement park around him was still really bizarre. Some of the rollercoaster tracks were finished, but most stopped in mid-air, long-dormant cranes sitting underneath like they were ready to take on the next piece of construction. The walkways had some kind of red cover where the rides were finished and were wide enough to accommodate dozens of people, but since a lot of the park was half-done, the ground was only bare concrete.
Frank was right about the sound. While Gerard and Frank's feet slapped on the ground and Joel shouted with someone, all the noises echoed back, bouncing off the metal and off the shield that kept the dust and wind out of the park. By the time the echoing came back to Gerard's ears, they didn't sound familiar at all. He kept popping his ears like it would help.
By the time they reached the front of the park, Gerard half-expected to see Joel standing on someone's throat. But all Joel was doing was smoking. He gave them a what-is-your-deal look as they ran up.
"Yeah?" he said.
"You..." Gerard stopped himself before he asked if Joel had killed someone. "You're okay?"
"Fine, no thanks to the motherfucker who stabbed me in the back." His jaw was set. "I have to find a new second, and my next match is tomorrow."
Gerard had no idea what a second did out here; it wasn't like Joel had to keep the crowds off his back or collect money before it disappeared. But Frank giggled and said, "I don't know how good she'll be...but if it works..."
Joel stared at Frank like mouse ears were sticking out of his head. Gerard was probably doing the same thing.
As it turned out, a second in the UFC league got to be the face of the fighter. And Frank's friend was basically an inked version of old-school pin-ups, so she made for a very attractive face.
"Kat Von D," she told the camera as Joel and his headgear - yellow instead of the blue Gerard had seen - lurked in the bathroom. "And yes, that is my actual name."
"Kat and mau5," Gerard said to himself. "Real cute."
He would have shouted it to Frank, but Frank was too busy in the theater, hammering at the guts of the blue mouse like there was no tomorrow. Ray was out at the airplane graveyard for the third time in the two weeks since they'd gotten there. Joel had won three matches since then, so Gerard got it. No time to waste.
And Mikey...Mikey was out who knew where, just like he had been back home. Only back home, there were limited possibilities. Here, there was countless miles of desert that anyone could get lost in, and no teleporters to bring them back.
With a sigh, Gerard switched off the tablet. It was still kind of cool that the old pre-war technology still existed around Battery City - Jersey couldn't have anything close to tiny computers or teleporters - but it still didn't ease the itch under his skin to do something.
He picked his legs up from where they were dangling off the sky tower. The tower would have been an entry point for trams once the park was finished, but they hadn't so much as put up the cables before construction was abandoned. Still, the tower was the best place to get reception for Battery City's feeds and to see the full park.
On the other side of the shield, a dust storm kicked up, blocking the surrounding landscape from view. Gerard winced. Ray would have to take shelter, so it would take even longer to get back. Mikey too, if he wasn't in the city.
When the shields' noise filters kicked in and blocked the storm, Gerard heard thumping. It wasn't Frank's noises; the theater's soundproofing was complete, although Gerard didn't know if that was because original builders had finished, or because Joel had. The sound wasn't metallic enough to be Frank anyway. It was more rhythmic, cleaner.
Gerard climbed down and passed through the house-like building that everyone shared. Gerard's crew's half was dirty, if not cluttered. It didn't take a half-red, half-blue line to show where Joel's part started; his was pristine and full of a lot of expensive electronics. Gerard had never crossed the line before, but the thumping definitely came from the red side.
Gerard eased his foot over the line, winced, and waited. When lightning didn't come down from the sky to kill him, he continued walking.
The noise wasn't from the house itself, or from the amphitheater outside where the red 'bot was covered with a tarp. It came from what looked like an old gift shop, mostly boarded up and draped in blankets. Blue light flickered in time with the beat, and then, as Gerard walked up, Joel's voice came out.
"Fucking seriously? Goddamn—"
Gerard tripped over an empty paint bucket, and it rattled as it rolled toward the gift shop. The noise cut off, and Joel's head stuck out. "You spying on me, asshole?"
"No," Gerard said. "I just..."
"I'm kidding. Come on, I meant to show this to you days ago anyway."
Gerard ducked inside, and for a second, it was too dark to see anything. But Joel hit a light, and Gerard didn't know where to look first: the dozens of mouse heads hanging from the wall, or the giant console and screens with two chairs in front of them. Joel sat in one chair and pressed buttons like he'd been doing it all his life, and maybe he had. It looked a lot like the console Gerard had seen during the fights, at least.
"Is this a simulation?" he asked.
"It's an MMO," Joel said. "Sit your ass. The griefers are out in force today."
Gerard sat and picked up the handset automatically. At his touch, a second character appeared on the screen, and sure enough, it was a fantasy game; his dude had a broadsword on his back.
"Is there customization?"
Joel hit a couple buttons, and a character screen came up. Gerard didn't want to take long to fiddle, so he changed from a burly barbarian to a slimmer, androgynous rogue. It wasn't perfect, but it was better.
Just as they left the screen, something blue-green and illuminated circled Gerard's feet, purring with what sounded like some kind of cyber buzz. It bounced onto the console, and Gerard blinked for a second until Joel waved the cat robot off, and it bounced away.
Gerard hadn't thought it possible; the robot was creepy enough from a distance. But it was possibly even worse up close.
"He doesn't bite unless I tell him to," Joel said. "Ready for some destruction?"
Gerard pressed his button. "Bring it on."
The game wasn't like the old ones Gerard had dabbled in long ago; all the buttons all over the console controlled something different on his rogue, from blinking eyes to finger movements. It was too much at first - Gerard couldn't even get his character to hold his daggers - but Joel stopped him from trying before long.
"Just run right now," he said. "I need to get somewhere. The daggers will regenerate."
Since the main joysticks controlled each of the legs, running was definitely easier. Gerard's rogue tripped a couple times, but he was in a groove long before they reached a glade where a mage was attacking other players.
"Is this a PvP server?" Gerard asked, the words stale on his tongue. He hadn't been much of an online gamer back when the Internet was more of a thing. These days, it felt like speaking a dead language.
But Joel said, "No, he's just being an asshole. Get on his other side, will you? And try stabbing."
The rogue went over easily enough, and the mage redirected the fire from his staff in his direction. But Gerard's health count didn't go down even as he got hit and the screen flashed red, so he tried pressing buttons to get the right grip on the daggers. He dropped them, but he was able to pick them up again and flail enough to get the mage to retreat a few steps.
At that point, Joel's warrior swung his one-handed sword, and the mage dodged to avoid him. Joel cackled as the mage got stuck in a piece of rock and twitched in the way only glitched characters could. "Take that, motherfucker!"
"You did that on purpose?"
"Hell yeah." Joel threw his controller down and made a face at the screen. "It's way more satisfying than banning them from my server."
Of course it was Joel's server. At least that explained why Gerard's health was still pristine. "What now?" Gerard asked.
"Now we grind. Feel like killing some ghouls?"
Gerard tried to get his character to twirl his daggers. It didn't work, and Joel snorted.
"I'll take that as a yes," Joel said.
He lifted his head off his arms at the sound of his name. Standing above his console, dust covered and glasses askew, was Mikey.
"You..." Gerard covered his mouth as he yawned. "You're okay?"
"Yeah. It was..." Mikey shook his head. "Where's Joel?"
Probably in bed like a rational person. He'd left Gerard to fight spiders hours ago, but Gerard had just gotten into the groove, so he hadn't wanted to stop leveling. It was totally worth the sore neck. He rubbed and said, "Dunno. Ray back?"
Mikey nodded. "The storm died off a couple hours ago. I was stuck in an old silo the entire time."
"There's silos between here and the city?" Showed what Gerard knew. He'd thought the whole thing had been desert even before the war.
Mikey offered Gerard his hand, and Gerard pulled to his feet.
"Ray thinks we'll be up and running in two days," Mikey said. "Think you can come up with some kind of mask in three?"
Gerard grinned. There was no better way to spend the next few days than to draw sketches.
"Absolutely," he said.
Round one went fast. Whether it was because Gerard was distracted or because Joel was just the better fighter, it was hard to call; their first fight all those months ago had gone the same way. But this time, Joel wasn't above making his robot gloat or raising his hands toward the crowd. Taking off his mask had made him ballsy.
Gerard just took a few breaths, centered, and waited for round two to begin.
"No mask?" Mikey had asked before they'd left the park. Gerard had only grinned and climbed into the driver's seat of Joel's car.
Joel wasn't going to be there - he hadn't wanted to take away from Gerard's big moment - so Gerard got to be behind the wheel for the first time in years, moving the stick shift and pressing the clutch like he'd never stopped.
Once they hit the city, Mikey gave directions, and Gerard followed until they were parked inside the gate of an amphitheater. A group of people in white and black - without masks, luckily - ushered Gerard and Mikey into a tent.
"Where's your mask?" one of the people asked, extending her arms and blinking like she was one of the BLind dolls.
Mikey looked expectantly toward Gerard. Gerard smiled at him, and, without looking away, said, "I'm not using one."
He typed his name into the waiting console as g3rard, and as one of the still-gaping assistants parted the curtain for him to walk through, Gerard gave Mikey a one-armed hug.
"No need to fix what isn't broken, right?"
Mikey grinned, big and genuine, and shoved Gerard toward the exit.
It was very different being on the floor - walking in, again, to Cherub Rock. There was some kind of muttering underneath the crowd's cheering as he approached the console, probably because of his lack of mask, but Gerard bounced up like he was used to it and took his seat.
His opponent's name flashed as ba7, and instead of a full face mask, he wore an eye-covering and a headband with flapping wings on either side. It meant Gerard could see his dropped jaw as he took in Gerard's look.
"What the fuck is your problem?" the guy hissed.
Gerard decided not to answer. He just waved toward the crowd and pulled out the cord for the hand controller.
"Are you ready?" the announcer roared into his mic.
Gerard really was.
"Is, uh..." The reporter paused, tucking a hair behind her ear. She didn't need to; her hair was perfectly in place, just like the rest of her outfit. "Is your fighter disappointed about his loss, Mr. Way?"
The Mr. Way she was addressing was Mikey. But Mikey looked at Gerard like he never considered the question was directed toward him.
"No," Gerard said, laughing. "I figured there might be a match or two where I find my legs, and ba7 really knew what he was doing. I'll just kick his ass another time."
The reporter lost all the color in her cheeks and hastily said, "Thank you. That was g3rard speaking about his loss..."
As Mikey tugged him away, Gerard said, "Was that really such a radical choice? It's not like I reinvented the wheel, going as myself."
"You weren't supposed to curse on-air." Mikey smiled just the littlest bit.
"But I didn't."
"You said 'ass'. That counts."
"God, it's not like I said fuck or—"
They stopped short of their car by several feet. They couldn't make it anyway; the car was completely ringed by people. Not fans. The bald man in gray stood in front, along with his bodyguards.
"We were never properly introduced last time," the man said, holding out his hand. "I'm known as Korse."
Gerard didn't hold out his hand. He didn't take off his sunglasses. He crossed his arms and said, "Could you move? I need to—"
"Run? Why might that be?"
It took a lot of restraint to not say because you're creepy as fuck. "Need to make my next appointment."
Korse tipped his head. "Gerard's a nice name. Very easy to check on, even back east."
At Gerard's shoulder, Mikey shook a little. "We have more press to do," he said.
"The press waits for me, Michael. Just like everything in this city."
"Not us." Gerard grabbed Mikey's hand. "We'll go the long way."
Before they could turn around all the way, a group of white suits moved to block the other exits. All their guns were still at their hips, but Gerard didn't want to see how fast they could draw.
"You weren't trying very hard out there," Korse said. "I assume you can do better?"
Gerard shrugged. "Guess you'll have to find out."
Korse straightened. "I represent Better Living Industries. Your interview violated paragraph three, line seven of our broadcast standards contract, to which you agreed when you registered for this event. If you'll follow me, we can issue the standard warning for first violations."
Gerard stared at the hand Korse was using to indicate the direction he wanted them to go. "No thanks."
Korse smiled. Chills danced over Gerard's skin. "I wasn't asking."
Gerard didn't get to see much of the BLind building, and what he saw was hardly awe-inspiring: blank hallways, blank floors, blank ceilings, and people in weird vampire masks everywhere. Or that's what he assumed they were.
Choosing to be creative with the Dracs made no sense. Even the interrogation room was bland beyond belief; it had a table, three chairs, and nothing else. Not even a two-way mirror like the old TV shows. By the time Korse walked in and sat across from Gerard and Mikey, even the differences in texture between the Korse's waistcoat and long jacket seemed to pop. The frilled undershirt vaulted into downright ridiculous.
"Before we begin," Korse said, "do you have anything you would like to say in your defense?"
Gerard and Mikey had talked in the van over. Not much - there had been Dracs against their shoulders and probably all kinds of bugs tucked away - but enough to make this part clear.
Gerard shrugged and said nothing else.
Korse pulled out a paper and went into a long speech about keeping the communal channels friendly and pleasant for everyone and used a lot of terms that made Gerard's skin crawl with their corporate ring. Then he moved into the punitive section for future violations: jail, rehab, corrective medicine.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Gerard asked. "Corrective medicine?"
Korse smiled. "I'm not required to disclose until such punishments are necessary."
He went on for a little while longer, and as menacing as it all sounded, Gerard couldn't help but zone out. If they were using boredom as a punishment, it was really fucking working.
It was only when Mikey nudged him that he realized Korse had asked a question.
"Mr. Zimmerman?" Korse said. "I understand he has a robotic rig in the shape of a feline. If you gave us some details, we would be willing to forgive your...infraction."
Gerard covered a yawn with one hand. It wasn't supposed to be a fuck-you gesture; he had been up all day prepping for the fight. But for the first time since they met, Korse's cool broke. He crumpled the paper he was holding until his hand shook.
"Do you really mean that, Gerard?" Korse asked quietly.
Mikey shifted in his chair. "We have nothing to say."
Korse's eyes flickered over to Mikey, and then back to Gerard, staring like he could crack open Gerard's skull with his eyes. Gerard was great at exhausted fifty-yard stares, especially at times like this when he hadn't had coffee in hours, so he zoned out just enough to take in the wall behind Korse.
Korse broke first. He stood fast enough to knock his chair over and swept out.
Gerard half-expected to be made to disappear after that, but instead, the door remained open, and the Dracs gestured for them to walk into the hallway. The Dracs surrounded them until they reached a lobby with glass doors, and then a pair of them led Gerard and Mikey across a bridge and to the street. The second Gerard and Mikey stepped off the property, the Dracs disappeared like they had never existed.
Gerard felt the urge to dust off his clothes like they'd thrown him out of a bar or something. He stared up at the building, gray and boring in the darkness, until Mikey nudged him. "We should find the car again."
It was as good a move as any.
Joel wasn't ready for Gerard's take-no-prisoners approach. Gerard barely waited for the round to start before launching his mouse forward, giving a one-two punch that Joel couldn't recover from before the round ended. Gerard laughed as Joel cursed from his corner.
And okay, he couldn't resist a little fake yawn, either. The win hadn't been as easy as he made it look, but it had been a long time since he'd gotten a one-up on anyone.
He snuck a look at the camera at his elbow. Hopefully, Joel wasn't the only one who saw the gesture.
Gerard lost two matches in a row, and a third after he'd scraped a win. After that, and after days of using Joel's console to help police the fantasy server, he didn't lose again. And every single time Gerard pumped his fists in the air and looked around the venue, he could see Korse staring from the VIP area.
Gerard wasn't like the others, who ventured out of the park a lot once the initial work had ended. If Gerard tried to go shopping into the city or just out on a joy ride, it made it that much harder to get back into gaming. No matter what Joel said or didn't say, it really was a simulator: the parts that moved on the characters were exactly what moved on the robots, and the console was exactly the same as the one for all the 'bot fights. There was no better warm-up than to leave for the arena from the game room.
Even so, Joel wasn't around much, either. He let Gerard into the game room on his own, though.
"It's too easy to pick up each other's moves," Joel had said. "There should be something new when we fight again."
"But we're in different tiers," Gerard had replied. "We'd only meet in the finals."
Joel had only grinned and left Gerard to gather a party for a goblin quest.
Mikey also stayed off his back - he was pretty familiar with the way Gerard worked - but Frank tried to get him to go out more than once.
"There's shows at this place further out in the desert," Frank said over breakfast one day. "It's too far for any cleanliness standards or whatever the fuck BLind tries to do. You should come."
Gerard had blown him off, but there didn't seem to be hard feelings. Frank still set off fireworks whenever Gerard wanted to see them - it felt like a real amusement park on nights like that - and climbed on his back during meals.
Ray also left Gerard alone for the most part, but he pulled him aside one day and showed him the body of a Trans Am he'd found in the airplane graveyard. "How do you think it'll look when it's done?" he'd asked Gerard when he'd showed him the first time.
"Like a tank," Gerard had said, grinning. "So much better than the bikes."
Ray had covered it up with a tarp. "I'm not sure I can fix it much before the championships. But you'll be able drive to the city on your own next year."
Beyond that, Gerard saw most of the group at the beginning of his day, retreated to his corner when everyone left, and repeated. The days didn't pass easily. But they did pass, and before long, the gentle warmth of winter was started to blaze into something hotter.
The evening after Gerard's thirty-fifth winning match, Mikey wasn't drinking coffee in the theater like he usually was the day after a fight.
"Oh, he's been here," Ray said, pushing his goggles up. It didn't matter that Gerard had gotten the robot away relatively unscathed; Ray had been elbow-deep in wires since the minute the 'bot had made it back. "But he thinks you'll be pissed."
"Why? Did something happen?"
Ray shrugged. "He's up in the sky tower."
Mikey was slumped in a black hoodie; it was hard to find any other color in the city, and black wore better in the desert. His legs dangled over the side of the tower, and as he dragged a finger over the screen on Gerard's computer with one hand, he took sips of his coffee with the other. It was probably the exact picture other people got when they visited Gerard.
After he made it to the top of the stairs, Gerard asked, "Why would I be pissed at you?"
"I didn't say that," Mikey said. "Is that what Frank said?"
"Ray." Frank was off somewhere unknown.
Mikey pushed his hood down, and...his hair was bleached. His glasses weren't perched on his nose, either. But Mikey's clothes were still the same ones he'd cycled through for weeks, and he still had a little acne on his chin. He looked like the city and nothing like it at the same time.
Gerard sat beside him. "Nice hair."
"Felt like time for a change."
A few years ago, right after all of Gerard's family and most everyone he knew were buried in mass graves that they would never find, Mikey would never have wanted change. He wasn't the only one. It was probably why Ray had gone into the factory job for a while, for instance; a grind, even a shitty one, had been better than uncertainty.
"Need to not be you for a while?" Gerard asked.
"I am me. Just a different me." Mikey sipped his coffee. "Not all of us can be like you."
Gerard tucked his legs up and rested his chin on them. "Season's almost over."
"Five more matches. Six, if you win."
Gerard smiled. "Maybe I'll dye my hair if I get to the finals."
"And wear a mask?"
He shook his head. The other fighters wore masks because it was the only place they could get away with being big without fear of arrest. Well, except for Joel, who had his amusement park and the desert all around. Joel just liked tinkering and big gestures that went with his mouse heads.
"They can't take away who I am," Gerard said quietly. Even if he wasn't the same guy that had left Jersey, or the guy that had been going to school before the war, he was still Gerard, through and through.
Mikey leaned against Gerard. Gerard slung an arm around his shoulders. Just like Gerard was still himself, Mikey was still Mikey. Even with different hair.
Kat was pretty cool. It was obvious why Frank liked her; the portrait of Frank's grandpa on his arm was definitely her work, and she occasionally inked little symbols into Frank's sleeve if they were in the park at the same time. Gerard gagged and never watched.
During one visit, Gerard asked why she was based in Battery City. She'd replied, "You can't get ink back east. Something about shipping standards or that kind of bullshit."
"But is there much demand here?" Gerard had asked. "Everyone looks so plain."
Her eyes had glinted. "Just where you can see."
Gerard could hardly blame Joel when he started bringing Kat back to his rooms every night, and really, they were the perfect power couple: the image of her kissing the deadmau5 heads after his victories was probably everything any fan could want.
But the fans didn't see the bad days. Sometimes, Joel threw his energy drink cans at Gerard's head if he went anywhere near his cat 'rig, and he would clam up at a single wrong word...if he didn't blow up in your face.
A blowup was definitely why Kat climbed in her car one morning before Gerard went to bed; the shield had crackled with their yelling. Gerard knew without talking to anyone that she had no intention of coming back.
Gerard knew he was tempting fate when he peeked in Joel's bedroom, but Joel was just lying on his bed with his arm thrown over his face. "She's gone?" he asked.
"Yeah," Gerard said.
Joel didn't move or speak when Gerard sat on the bed beside him. It was probably for the best. Gerard didn't particularly want to know what had happened; he'd fucked up enough of his own relationships to get the idea.
But after a while, Joel said, "I get up there during the fights, and I forget I have to live here."
Gerard bit his lip. "Do you want to live here?"
Joel lowered his arm. "Do you?"
It didn't seem like it should have been a special moment, even as the questions hung heavy in the air. But just like Gerard knew when Joel's warrior needed backup, he knew to lean in just as Joel did and brush their lips together. It didn't make anything jolt under his skin, and choirs of angels didn't sing, but for the first time in years, it felt like Gerard's shoulders were free of weight.
They kept kissing, and when Joel reached into Gerard's pants, he didn't stop him.
Gerard shoving Joel was just like the kind of thing he'd done in the old arenas, when his opponents had contested his victories or gotten in his face. Just because he didn't wear a mask didn't mean he wasn't into the theatricality part of the fights. But being put into a headlock was crossing the fucking line, and Gerard didn't feel guilty in the slightest about punching Joel in the gut. Maybe it was because he couldn't get a good angle on it, so the blows weren't hard.
The announcer pulled Gerard back, and Gerard kicked for a moment before going back for his chair. It was perfect, really; while Joel was getting chewed out for starting the squabble, Gerard could get the jump on the next round.
And he did: punching, headbutts, tackles, he had it all. Joel got a couple hits in, sure, but Gerard couldn't stop smiling just a little bit.
It wasn't over, of course. But if it kept going this way, Gerard had it in the bag.
The match where Gerard clinched his championship spot wasn't exactly thrilling. B1ndi was a good opponent, but her 'bot snapped a cable through no fault of hers, and the arms stopped working completely. It took Gerard less than a minute to get a KO, and the crowd's disappointed groaning felt like what echoed in his chest. He'd take the win, but it still felt shitty.
The deadmau5/4ngel match was the one where Joel clinched, and Gerard watched round one from the ground. Months of exposure had made sitting at the bots' feet no less ridiculous, but the rush disappeared the second he looked up at the VIP box, and it was full of faces that weren't Korse's. Korse hadn't missed a single fight since Gerard had moved west.
Gerard pulled Mikey out with him; they had the bike that night, and Mikey was a lot more cautious than Ray, who had driven Frank in to second for Joel. Mikey still didn't waste time driving back to the park, and it wasn't quite as bad when Gerard couldn't really see the road around him.
He did get a little sick when they got close enough to see smoke rising from the walls. But that wasn't because of the bike.
It was a stroke of brilliance, blowing a hole in the concrete. The shield wasn't meant to keep people out, but most people didn't know that; the ruse was why Dracs manned the tunnels going into Battery City. Still, the shield was up, so at least the park wouldn't be lost to the elements. Even if Gerard could see what looked like fire flickering through the wall.
Mikey pulled a gun from his hip after he parked. Gerard hadn't even noticed him strap it on.
"It looks deserted," Mikey said.
"But you don't have any backup."
Mikey squeezed Gerard's wrist. "Go back to the city if anyone else shows up. I'll be fine."
With that, he climbed over the hole and into the park.
It was the longest hour of Gerard's life, watching the wind blow the dust around the parking lot and hearing no sign of Mikey. It wasn't hard to choose between watching the roads and watching the park: his eyes never left the hole in the wall.
When an hour passed, Mikey still hadn't appeared. It was probably the bare minimum of time that Mikey would need to check the whole park, but Gerard swung off the bike and made for the hole. He grabbed a chunk of rubble - there weren't really any good makeshift weapons until they made it to the tools in the back, and Gerard couldn't wait that long - before slipping into the park.
The power was off in the whole place, and fire licked the buildings in the front, as if the blaster that had destroyed the fence hadn't just stopped at the concrete. Gerard only had orange light to go by at the front of the park, and he only had the softer blue from the shields - which were on different generators - in the middle. He reached the center pavilion, stood with the Mousekat statue at his back, and looked around the place.
"Mikey?" he called. No one answered.
Gerard waited another couple minutes, breathing hard. He was ready to give up when a barrel slid against his temple. He sucked in a shaky breath.
"Jesus, Gee." The gun lowered, and Mikey appeared in front of him, eyes wide. "Why didn't you stay by the bike?"
Gerard dropped the rubble to the side and hugged Mikey hard. "I couldn't leave you behind."
Mikey tensed, but he didn't pull back. "Is there anyone outside?"
He relaxed, and Gerard let him go. "I think they're gone. I didn't see anyone."
"Fine. I don't think they even touched it."
Gerard rubbed his fingers over his hands. "We should get the power back on. We can't call Joel otherwise."
"I told Ray there might be an emergency before we left. They'll skip all the press and head straight back."
The generator was the only thing in the place that was completely trashed. It looked like most of the pieces were still scattered around, so maybe someone could fix it, but neither Gerard nor Mikey had that kind of know-how.
They could put out the fires, though. By the time those were out and they'd climbed back out of the wall, Joel and Ray were driving up. Frank had his own blaster in hand as he climbed off the bike, and Gerard swallowed. He'd never seen Frank packing before.
"What the fuck happened?" Frank said.
Gerard shrugged. "Someone broke the wall, destroyed the generator, and left. We don't know besides that."
"The robot?" Ray asked. Joel was already climbing over the wall.
Mikey nodded. "Not even touched."
"So it wasn't sabotage," Frank said. He holstered his blaster. "Not for the fights, anyway."
Ray scratched his head. "Maybe they wanted parts off the generator. That can be harder to find deeper in the zones."
Making it back to the generator didn't tell them anything. Not because there wasn't anything to discover - Frank and Ray only got to sift through the wreckage for about five minutes - but because Joel appeared, face pale.
"Who was it?" he said in a low voice.
"Who was what?" Frank asked, rising from a crouch.
Joel raised a gun. Everyone took a step back, and Mikey and Frank reached for their holsters.
"Whoa!" Gerard stepped between them. "We don't know what you're talking about."
Joel's jaw set. "Korse took you in. That's when it happened, isn't it?"
"We didn't say anything," Mikey said, coming up around Gerard's shoulder. His hand was still on his gun, but Gerard pushed it away. "Wouldn't something have happened months ago if we had?"
Gerard flinched. "What?"
Joel pointed the gun in the direction of the theater. "Take your 'bot and fucking go."
Without thinking, Gerard took a step forward. He heard everyone behind him inhale hard, but he let go of his own breath and stepped forward again.
"Are you going to stay here alone?" Gerard asked, hopefully too quiet for everyone else to hear. "You'll be vulnerable."
Joel's eyes met Gerard's without blinking. But he didn't lower the gun, and after a second, Gerard eased back, hands up.
"That's my fucking problem," he said. "You've got an hour, or I'm blowing your 'bot up."
A lump rose in Gerard's throat as they went to collect their things. The lump was still there by the time they climbed in the supply truck and drove away.
"I found this place when I got caught in the dust storm a few weeks ago," Ray said, shoving a board aside. "What do you think?"
As Gerard ducked under the board and went inside the diner, it was hard to tell. It was still the middle of the night, and the only light in the place was from the headlights of the empty supply truck. They'd had to leave the 'bot in the silo Mikey had found in the same dust storm, which was miles away, but at least it was covered. They would just have to hope no one else would find it.
"It'll work," Mikey said, brushing dust off one of the booths. "At least to get a little sleep before we make any decisions."
"Lots of scavengers out here," Frank said. "Do you think we should keep watch?"
Gerard snorted, but Ray nodded seriously. "Everyone who can shoot. We'll rotate."
As Ray and Frank argued about who would go first, Gerard leaned toward Mikey. "Am I the only one who doesn't have a gun?"
"We couldn't risk you blowing your hands off," Mikey said. "You use those to fight."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
Mikey shoved him a little. "You never came out here. You didn't need to."
"I need to now." As Mikey's smile faded, Gerard stood in front of him. "You'll teach me when the sun's up tomorrow, won't you?"
It took Mikey a second, but he nodded.
Gerard hadn't woken up at dawn in a long time; he usually went to bed around that time. But a booth wasn't very comfortable to sleep in, and the whispers that came every couple hours for people to switch watch woke Gerard whenever he dropped into a light doze. By the time the sun came up, he gave up and found Mikey leaning against the front wall.
"Target practice?" Gerard asked.
Mikey put his sunglasses on. He was wearing his red leather jacket and his gun on his leg, and he looked absolutely nothing like the slouching, layered kid who'd come out with Gerard the year before. But he didn't look like Battery City, either. He was something else entirely, something that belonged out here.
For a second, Gerard missed Mikey like he wasn't in front of him.
"I found some old cans," Mikey said. "Come on."
Two rocks had a can each on top of them, not a few feet from the building. Gerard frowned as Mikey handed him his gun. "Won't we need more than that?"
"You think you'll actually be able to hit them?"
When Gerard tried, he was proven right. The blaster bolts hit the dirt more often than not, and one time, he even set some of the brush on fire. Mikey stamped it out with his foot before it could spread.
"You're holding the gun too tight," Mikey said, tapping Gerard's trigger hand with a finger. "It's more of a squeeze than a pull."
But Gerard hadn't thought that was the problem. No, it was that he was shooting at a can. He stared until he could see Korse's face grinning back at him, and then...
"Whoa." Mikey retrieved the can and held it up. The sun went right through the middle of it.
Gerard laughed. Not because he was excited. He'd pictured killing someone, and just like that, he'd been able to fire the way he wanted.
"Maybe we can get back to this later," he said.
Mikey nodded. "I have some friends coming anyway. I managed to get in touch last night."
He slung his arm around Gerard's shoulder, and together, they walked back to the diner.
A wheelchair whirred up to the door about an hour later. The owner had mirrored sunglasses and a grin on his face.
"You're looking good, Kid," he said to Mikey. It sounded like he was addressing Mikey without actually using his name. "And who are the other party animals?"
Frank shoved his hand out. "Mikey didn't say he knew you. I listen to your show all the time, dude."
The man shook Frank's hand, and he shook Ray's hand when Ray stuck his out eagerly. It wasn't until he turned to Gerard that his face solidified and he dropped his hand. "And you're the one who goes around without a mask."
"Yeah." Gerard crossed his arms. "That a bad thing?"
The man didn't have a chance to answer. Someone in polka-dot tights and roller skates came up behind him, skidding to a stop as he flipped up his motorcycle helmet. "Food's out in the van, babies. And we've brought the router, Kid."
Gerard grabbed his computer and joined the other three outside. Ray was sitting inside the van already and opening a can, and Gerard couldn't blame him; he hadn't eaten since they'd left for the fight nearly a full day ago, and it was probably just as long for everyone else.
Mikey snagged the tablet from Gerard, and after he poked around for a few minutes, he whistled under his breath. When Gerard craned his neck to look, he paused the vid on a frame of a robotic cat.
Joel's robotic cat.
"No wonder he thought we gave him up," Gerard said. "Shit."
Mikey rubbed circles on Gerard's back with his free hand and played the rest of the video. A Japanese woman was speaking, and Gerard couldn't understand her. Unfortunately, he understood the man next to her just fine.
"Better Living Industries is committed to further improvement of your home life," Korse said in a smoother tone than Gerard had ever heard come from his mouth. "With this, we hope to further expand access to services for the average resident of Battery City and beyond, and once that's finished—"
Mikey turned off the vid with a rough poke.
"You'll make everyone who doesn't listen disappear," Frank said around a mouthful of food. He nodded at Pony. "This is some high-quality pup."
"I only get the best contraband," Pony said with a smile. "Just because we don't have permits to live doesn't mean we can't eat like we own the place."
"So what now?" Ray asked. "Joel was our only friend out here."
Mikey patted Pony's shoulder. "We've got a few more."
Everyone looked at Gerard. They still saw him as the leader somehow, even though they'd all moved past him months ago. Either way, there was only one path that Gerard could see from here.
"We have to win," he said.
The points were in Gerard's favor. The round was going his way. And then his controller just stopped working.
It wasn't a coincidence. It couldn't be. But there was no blaster fire from around the canal, even though tonight had to be the night that Korse was going to strike. Everything pointed to it: the relaxed clothing standards, the exposed setting, the lack of safety checks. And then the controller failure.
His robot tumbled on its face, arm gone, dead as a doornail.
Gerard crossed his arms and slumped back in his seat. Joel was too busy gloating to look around him, but Gerard wasn't. Frank and Ray had fought their way to the front of the crowd, and they were screaming at Gerard and Joel and pointing up.
Up at Joel's robot. The joints were glowing blue-green, just like the cat that BLind had stolen, sold, and recalled for the faulty logic chip.
Korse hadn't come personally. Why bother when he could use Joel's own tech to bring him down?
Gerard took off his sunglasses as it tipped. "Fuck," he whispered.
There was no time to run, even though Ray and Frank were pushing the crowds back as best they could manage. Gerard assumed Mikey was rallying the other zonerunners at the top of the canal, not to fight Korse and the Draculoids like they'd originally planned, but to get as many people to safety as they could.
Gerard covered his head with his arms just as he saw Joel do the same. The robot crashed into the dome.
And then everything went black.
"But if you want me to bribe you..." Joel stepped closer. Gerard resisted the urge to scramble backward. "You might like the next part."
He pulled out a tablet and pushed a couple buttons until a BLind ad started to play. A woman spoke in Japanese, but Joel talked over her.
"They've taken control of Battery City in all but name," Joel said. "I moved out there from Canada a few years ago with a couple other guys who thought it would be an interesting place to rebuild. Then BLind patented their radiation recovery pills."
"And then what?" Gerard asked, crossing his arms as a family went frolicking through a grassy field. Typical pill ad, really.
"And then all my friends disappeared."
Gerard frowned. "Did you check with their other friends?"
"I tried, but they were gone, too. And so was everyone else in the city who wasn't a builder, health professional, or someone who could keep their mouth shut." Joel smiled tightlipped. "They brought survivors from the other regions to fill the gaps."
"So what," Gerard said. "You want to do the same thing?"
"Exactly." Joel tapped the tablet until robot blueprints showed up. "We've got a league of these bad boys kicking the snot out of each other. I'm funded by the people who live outside the city. I'm sure you're not surprised there's a lot of dissenters who don't want to live inside the walls."
"Not really," Gerard said, smiling a little.
"You come in, bring a team who can help me stay in touch with the 'runners out in the zones, and get rich in the process. Sound good?"
Gerard rolled his lips into his mouth for a second. He spun the blueprint of the robot for a second.
"It sounds like you want anarchy," he said.
"No. Just for the public to see what's happening." Joel gestured at the empty arena around them. "Nothing out here works because no one gives a shit. You think BLind will stop in Battery City once they get it right?"
Gerard turned to Mikey, who was staring at the ground like Joel and Gerard weren't even there. "You're being awfully quiet."
"I heard this a couple days ago," he said quietly. "He tried talking to the other seconds, and everyone else blew him off."
Joel nodded at Mikey. "He said he was up for it, that he could get others on board, and that you would be the right guy to really make something happen. Was he right?"
Gerard would have liked to say he felt something soar in his stomach. Something brave. But all he saw was the pleading look on Mikey's face turn into something longing when he looked at Joel, and Gerard knew Mikey would go with or without him.
Maybe it was the impulse to stay with his brother that made Gerard say yes. But as they went to find Ray and Frank and double-check to make sure they were still in - Mikey had been busier this week than Gerard had suspected - it didn't feel that noble.
He couldn't lose Mikey. Not when he'd lost everything else.
Gerard didn't see anyone wriggling or unhappy in the lobby of the arena. He just saw tufts of fake black hair heading straight for the front doors, and the way the crowd parted to let the block of white suits through. There was no sign of the man of gray, though; obviously, the girl in the neon-green shirt had tripped over some rule, and her friends would probably never see her again.
The elevator dinged, and Mikey tugged at Gerard's army jacket until he climbed on.
"Why did you do that?" Gerard said.
Mikey put a finger to his lips, and it was fair; they were in the middle of an elevator with a bunch of strangers who could do anything to them.
Gerard dropped his voice. "We could have helped."
"We would have gotten arrested, and it would have been over before it started."
"Because it's better that we survive than that kid?"
Mikey's eyes were miserable behind his glasses, but he said, "We have the connections and a distraction. Korse knows you're here for a reason, and it's better if he keeps thinking that way."
Gerard wanted to kick the side of the elevator. He didn't, but the fact that Mikey was right didn't make the anger go away. It only made it worse.
"Ray thinks we'll be up and running in two days," Mikey said. "Think you can come up with some kind of mask in three?"
Gerard grinned. "Absolutely."
He followed Mikey out of the game room and into the park itself. "You get in touch with who you needed?"
Mikey nodded. He was knocking sand out of his hair as he walked. "Joel was right, though. Gary fucked up that interview on purpose. All the big spots past Route Guano got hit, and nobody out there was happy to see me."
Gerard swallowed. Gary had been Joel's second, and during a solo interview, he'd dropped the f-bomb more than once. And then he'd had the nerve to show his face back at the park like he wanted to be around for the next fight.
"Fuck that motherfucker," Gerard said. "He'd better hide behind fucking Korse, or—"
Gerard did his best not to scowl, but it probably wasn't working. "If he'd pissed off the wrong person, you would be dead, and not because of the dust storm."
"I can handle myself, Gee." Mikey stopped in place, a shower of dirt falling to his feet. "If you're going to be like this..."
"I'm worried about you. You think Mom or Grandma—"
It was Mikey's turn to scowl, and he balled his fists. "I love you, but shut up."
Gerard sighed. Don't talk about what came before. It was etched in every survivor's bones. "Sorry. I...I just can't, you know? I need to do something."
Mikey nodded a couple times. "You're right. I'll stop talking about my stuff."
"That's not...no. You should tell me."
Mikey stepped closer. He looked around like they weren't alone in a mostly-abandoned amusement park, the street lights buzzing in harmony with the weather shield.
"I don't want you to be like before," Mikey said quietly. "I got you into the fights so you wouldn't do this to yourself. It's not your fault you survived and they didn't."
Gerard's eyes stung, and he swallowed hard. Mikey saved Gerard, and he kept saving him. He had been too young when he'd started doing it, and he was too young to keep doing it.
But Gerard couldn't make the words come out, so he hugged Mikey hard instead.
Something was scratchy against Gerard's cheek. A seat, probably. He bounced a couple of times, but his head didn't go free of the chair; he was sticking to it for some reason.
He opened his eyes enough to drag his fingers against the part of his skin that wouldn't move. His fingertips came back bloody.
"Kobra Kid said not to touch."
Gerard blinked. A girl's head bobbed into view, her curls framing her dirt-smeared face. She smiled.
"Who..." His voice creaked out.
She reached out a finger and put it over his lips. "Go back to sleep."
Gerard's lids were heavy enough that he couldn't help but comply.
"I've been meaning to ask you about the mask thing."
Gerard looked up from the hologram of his character to where Joel was leaning on his chair. "Mask thing?"
Joel flicked the ear of one of his mouse heads. "I killed a lot of time in the early days making these. I thought you would have wanted to do the same. It's not like you have to help me with my server."
Gerard quit the game for a minute so he could look at Joel more carefully. "It's training. I thought that was the point."
"Part of it. But dude, the first month I was here, I nearly stripped out of my clothes and went streaking in the desert just to see if it would get the itch out of my skin." Joel smiled. "The mask doesn't have to cover everything. You saw what ba7 does."
Gerard shook his head a few times. He opened his mouth a few more times, and then closed it again. Finally, he said, "They go out there every day. Frank nearly got killed at a concert the other day, did you know that?"
"The Dracs are going further out. They're looking for my friends. My..." No one said the word anymore because so few people had biological kin. But Gerard wasn't just talking about Mikey when he said, "My family. They can't even use their names. I figure going by mine in the ring is the least I can do. That I can show my face when they can't, and I can be me when I'm arrested, strategically or not."
"Die with your mask on," Joel said quietly, nodding. Then he straightened and said, "You want to borrow one of mine, just let me know."
Gerard laughed despite himself. "So you can get one of my wins? Thanks."
"Hey, if I want to win, I've got a PvP server right here."
Gerard gestured to Joel's chair. "Let's go."
"Nah, it's too easy to pick up each other's moves. There should be something new when we fight again."
"But we're in different tiers," Gerard said. "We'd only meet in the finals."
Joel grinned. "Someone's getting ahead of himself. I think you have a goblin quest you need to finish first."
"Nothing wrong with a little co-op!" Gerard yelled as Joel left the room. Gerard snorted and spoke a little quieter. "Nothing at all."
Joel started to lean forward, and Gerard met him the rest of the way, letting their lips brush together. It didn't make anything jolt under Gerard's skin, and choirs of angels didn't sing, but for the first time in years, it felt like Gerard's shoulders were free of weight.
They kept kissing, and when Joel reached into Gerard's pants, he didn't stop him. He arched into his touch, giving Joel some friction for his own boner, and rocked until he came in his jeans. Joel was just moments behind.
Gerard flopped onto his back, and they laid in silence for a while.
"Don't say thank you," Joel said finally.
"I wasn't going to."
Another few minutes of silence followed. Gerard had never seen so much of one ceiling in his life.
"I lost it." Joel rubbed his face. "Kat got arrested, and it wasn't her fault, but...fuck, all I could see was Gary, and I went off on her about the plan, and..."
"No. It's not."
Gerard rolled over and leaned on his elbow. "Maybe it's better. You don't want her around in the canals, do you?"
"We don't even know that we'll make it to the championship yet. It could be 4ngel and B1ndi."
"Because we'd leave the kids alone if it was?"
Joel shook his head. It had been Joel's idea to have the championship more open, more accessible. The UFC had loved it, and on top of their national broadcast, they were letting the kids in for free. In a place where there could be no protective shields to block the robots.
"I can't stand it," he said, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes. "That all this shit happens, and all we can do is wait."
"Yeah," Gerard said. "I know."
A lump rose in Gerard's throat as he went with Mikey, Ray, and Frank to collect their things. But Joel also followed. He didn't keep the gun trained on them, but Gerard's eyes kept falling on it.
While the others hitched the 'bot up to the truck, Gerard moved closer to Joel. Gerard couldn't say much - who knew what kind of bugs Korse had left behind - but he said, "If you need anything, I'll be there. You know that, right?"
"I don't want your fucking help." Joel's voice cracked.
Gerard's eyes stung. Everything had gone to plan so far. Why would Joel change his mind like this and not even tell him?
"Just so you know," Gerard said, slinging his bag over his shoulder.
The lump in his throat was still there went he went back to the truck. Mikey raised an eyebrow, but when Gerard shook his head, he just helped him inside the cab.
Gerard's face stung. He winced as pressure increased with the stinging, and when he let his eyelids flutter open, he couldn't see out of one of his eyes.
"Easy." Something moved, and light streamed into both eyes, making them water. It was only when a hand cupped over Gerard's eyes that Mikey's shape came into focus. "You're okay. You just got a few cuts we have to take care of."
Before Gerard could so much as nod, Mikey grabbed a bottle with a straw and put it to his mouth. "Sip."
The water was so cold it hurt his teeth, but it felt amazing on his throat, so he sucked until he could hear nothing but slurping. Mikey continued wiping at his face with the cloth, and trickling water tickled Gerard's face.
"There," Mikey said. "It's not so bad."
"After the robots?" Gerard nodded. "We got as many people out of the wreckage as we could until S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W showed up. We barely got you loose before the laser bolts started flying."
Mikey paused, mouth screwing up.
"Is he..." Gerard couldn't make himself finish.
Mikey sighed and jerked his head to the side.
Joel was on a cot next to Gerard, hooked up to an IV and some kind of respirator. He was as pale as a ghost.
"They don't have him," Mikey said quietly. "They don't have any of us."
Gerard squeezed Mikey's hand. Mikey squeezed back.
"In light of the recent accidents, the Battery City Council is suspending all non-essential recreational activities." The suit took a break to wipe sweat away from his forehead. "After a probation period of one month has passed, interim activities and city security will be outsourced to Better Living Industries. The company has long been known for its exceptional operation practices..."
The camera cut to a wide shot, which showed the real reason the mayor of Battery City was sweating. It was hard not to when Korse was standing over your shoulder.
A beer bottle shattered on the screen over Korse's face.
"Drink this, motherfucker!" Frank yelled, giving the TV the finger.
The rest of the 'runners in the room rumbled agreement. Gerard couldn't help but smile. After weeks of knowing Korse was watching him and not really having anyone to talk to about it, it was nice to see he wasn't alone.
Mikey eased through the crowd and tapped Gerard's shoulder. He didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. Gerard went behind the counter of the diner immediately and went back to what used to be the kitchen and was currently a makeshift hospital. Mikey didn't follow.
All the cots in the back were empty except one. The occupant of it was sitting up, an oxygen cannula under his nose.
"Victory's mine, motherfucker," Joel said, a quiet wheeze in his voice.
Gerard laughed. "It was your fucking faulty cat that crashed your fucking robot, asshole."
Joel's smile was a little sad as Gerard sat down. "I guess that's something to keep in mind. Stick to one sabotage project at a time."
As Gerard sat, Joel coughed a little. He thumped his chest. "Something else to keep in mind, recently reinflated lungs fucking hurt. Shit."
"It isn't your fault," Gerard said. "There was no way to know that they would figure out the logic chip problem the same day as the match."
Joel waved a hand. "I paid a lot for this fuck-up. I won't beat myself up too much about it."
Gerard doubted that. But he said, "I really wasn't the one to leak the cat thing early. It wasn't any of us."
"Does that really matter now?" But when Gerard kept staring at him, Joel said, "I figured out it was Kat a week before the championship, man. She got arrested again right after we broke up, and it was the way she got out. She didn't get the message to me in time to plant it in the city."
Joel nodded. "I treated you guys like crap. Why would you ever come back?"
"I told you we would," Gerard said. "I would. You're my family."
"Only family I got left," Joel agreed. Then he started coughing again, and he reached for his water. Gerard handed it to him.
"Guess I'd better let you rest." Gerard got to his feet.
"You can't go anywhere for a while, and we're coming up with our next move." No need to tell Joel that Gerard was still healing stitches on the back of his head. It didn't really matter, anyway. "I think we'll run into each other."
The Trans Am was at the front of the diner, solid as a fucking tank. The paint could use some work, but Ray had just finished putting it together. It wasn't like Gerard didn't have time.
"What are you thinking?"
That came from Grace, the girl who Gerard had met in the van. All the other people that had been rescued from the fights had gone back to their friends. But Grace had been with her mother when the robot fell, and her mom hadn't walked away. One of the few people with blood ties left, and Gerard was part of the reason she didn't.
He swallowed away the tightness in his throat like he did every time she spoke and said, "You ever play fantasy games? You usually have to kill a lot of spiders, but they always come back."
Gerard spread his hands so they spread over the hood of the car. "So I'm thinking a spider with really big legs. Something you can't ignore."
Grace grinned up at him. "Can I help?"
"Totally. Painting's a big job."
"I'll go get the paint!"
"Not now! I—" Gerard dropped his hand as Grace ran inside. There was no point in trying to stop her.
"Can I help, too?"
Gerard grinned and turned to Joel, who had come out on his crutches at some point. Most everything had healed except for his broken leg. "Can you hold a paintbrush?"
"Fuck you." It came out mild and with a half-smile. He walked forward. "So you're really doing it?"
Gerard fussed with the collar of his leather jacket for a second. "I have a 'runner name now. Can't back out."
"You think it'll work better with you guys as the target?"
"We'll stay out in the 'zones for the most part. Keep away from the civilians." He nodded a little to himself. "Maybe S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W's influence in the city will lighten up, too."
"Dream on." But Joel sighed. "It's a better plan than mine."
"I don't know. We'll probably all end up dead."
"Yeah. But you'll get to shoot shit up before you do." Joel nodded toward the trunk. "Did you see my present?"
Gerard laughed. "Seriously?"
Joel's smile faded. "I had to go to the park to pick up my heads. I got lucky; the 'runners only trashed the front."
"It's fine." Joel pointed. "Seriously, go look."
Gerard did. He laughed with surprise as a Mousekat head stared up at him from the trunk. He lifted it and looked back at Joel incredulously.
"I had to estimate the fit, but if it's wrong, I can fix it."
Gerard tipped his head over and slid Mousekat over it. It was perfect. The rebreather on the inside didn't even make him feel claustrophobic, and he loved how squeaky his voice came out when said, "Mine now, motherfucker."
Joel laughed and reached out a hand to help balance the head when Gerard pulled it off. "Maybe I should write your new name in it, Party Poison."
The wind ruffled Gerard's hair as he grinned back. He touched it just as Mikey yelled, "Gee! You ready?"
"Yeah!" he called back. When Joel raised an eyebrow, Gerard said, "My hair isn't bright enough. We're fixing that."
As Gerard started to go inside, Joel hurried to catch up. He swung on his crutches like a pro. "Can I help?"
Gerard smiled. "Definitely."