By the time the METS-Men arrived back at the Tops casino – one of the only remaining casinos left on the New City Strip, and their base of operations as well as the venue for their performances – preparations were already well under way for the evening's show. Despite the run-down, dilapidated look of the post-apocalyptic city, it was one of the only remaining centres of civilisation for many miles around, and it certainly showed tonight; cracked and flickering street lights illuminated the broken tarmac of the city streets, streets which had not seen a car drive down them for over two hundred years. Despite this fact they were far from empty, the road in front of the casino thronged with fans waiting to see the METS-Men performing live.
They had anticipated this far in advance though, which was why there was a secret back entrance to the casino which only the METS-Men knew about. Slinking through the abandoned backstreets as quietly as they could, the four men – MJ-II, Big-No and Ayber, still accompanied by a shivering Ninomiya Kazunari – slipped into the side door of an unassuming ruin, a house which had partly collapsed, and made their way to the trapdoor in the corner of the room. The rotting old rug which half-covered it concealed a rusted old keypad which, when pressed, unsealed the trapdoor to reveal an underground passageway which led back into the Tops casino itself. MJ-II entered first, closely followed by Ayber, with Ninomiya following next and Big-No bringing up the rear; this way he could keep an eye on the small man to make sure he didn't try to make an escape. Not that there would have been anywhere for him to go within the cramped confines of the passageway, but it was better to be safe rather than sorry.
Several minutes of walking through the passageway – a maintenance tunnel by the looks of it, bare concrete walls flanked by crumbling pipework and loose wiring, illuminated by fading, yellowed lighting – and they reached a small flight of steps leading up to a metal door with another keypad. Inputting the number MJ-II opened it and stepped through, the heavy smell of metal and engine oil washing out into the corridor, accompanied by what sounded like a subdued roar. Ninomiya's eyes widened, and his hair stood on end; what kind of monster was being kept in there? Suddenly panicked he turned to run, briefly forgetting that Big-No blocked his exit, and instead of being able to bolt for safety he was instead confronted by a smiling Big-No who appeared to find the situation somewhat entertaining.
“Oh, you don't know about Atsui?”
“The other METS-Man.” Big-No, still grinning, swept his hand back towards the doorway, into which MJ-II and Ayber had already disappeared. “He's not so good when it comes to singing, so he doesn't perform onstage with us. But when it comes to dealing with technology - fixing our lights, managing the sound system, making sure we can broadcast on the radio - there's nobody better.”
Ninomiya squinted into the shadows through the doorway, and he could swear he saw... fur?
“He's not bad with a sword either, so don't go getting any ideas.” Big-No, perhaps remembering that he was supposed to be a guard rather than a guide, gave Ninomiya a gentle prod with an armoured finger. “Anyway, get moving. We've still got a live show to prepare for.”
Not really having much of a choice, Ninomiya did as he was told and climbed the stairs to the doorway, his heart skipping a beat at the prospect of what he might find inside. A quick glance around the room showed the walls to be made up of rusty panels, upon which hung a wide range of tools – spanners, wrenches, a soldering iron, other implements he couldn't even name – and pushed against the walls were a series of workbenches holding a variety of half-finished projects. Dismantled engines, vehicle parts, what could have been the components from heavy weapons, all carefully laid out, some in the process of being cleaned and reassembled. And in the centre of the room, a huge, white-furred thing which seemed to be shaking hands with MJ-II.
“Atsui!” MJ-II was grinning up at the beast, seemingly unconcerned that the creature sported arms which looked strong enough to rip his head off at any moment. “Got anything new planned for us tonight?”
“Yes.” Big-No nodded in confirmation, entertained by Ninomiya's reaction, as he always was when newcomers found out about their bestial team-mate. “He won't hurt you. At least, not unless you annoy him.”
With what could have been a sound of greeting, the furry white giant known as Atsui turned to snarl – to smile? - at Big-No, who returned the gesture with a slight incline of his head.
“Rrrrrgh?” Atsui took a step closer and leaned down towards Ninomiya, sniffing him much in the same manner as a dog might smell a piece of meat. “Nnnnrrrgh... raaaarrrargh?”
“Yeah, that's right.” Big-No smiled and nodded in response. Although both of the other METS-Men could understand the white creature's gestures and facial expressions, Big-No was the only one who had had any success in actually learning how to interpret its grunts and growls and turn those sounds into meaningful statements. “I don't think he's an immediate threat to us, though. Still, we're going to keep an eye on him anyway.”
Apparently satisfied by Big-No's reply, the large white creature nodded in acknowledgement and turned back to what he'd been busy repairing, a large piece of metal which could either have been a piece of armour or perhaps the metal plating from the side of a vehicle.
“...and you're all okay with this?” Ninomiya was trembling slightly, somewhat disturbed by the fact the METS-Men seemed perfectly happy to work alongside what seemed to be a large and dangerous walking carpet. “What is he, anyway?”
“Don't be rude.” Big-No cut Ninomiya off curtly, the pleasant manner in which he had spoken to Atsui apparently gone, and he hustled the small man after MJ-II and Ayber who were already exiting the room, leaving the furry creature alone to tinker with whatever he had been working on before their arrival. “He's a mechanic and an electrician of sorts, if that's what you mean. As for what kind of creature he is, well... he's certainly not human, and I'm not sure he ever was.”
“Do you even know where he came from? How old he is?”
“I have my suspicions, but he's not the most talkative of souls.”
“He seems intelligent enough...”
“He's good at what he does.” Big-No smiled, then checked himself. The exchange between the two of them was becoming far too friendly; Ninomiya was still a potential hostile, a captive enemy, and he needed to be treated as such. For all that he appeared to be harmless on the outside, he could be hiding any kind of danger within. They couldn't discount the possibility that the man had been left there on purpose for the METS-Men to 'accidentally' find. “Anyway... look, I'm sorry, but we're going to have to secure you somewhere.”
“Oh.” Ninomiya's face visibly fell. Like Big-No he, too, had forgotten for a moment the sheer gravity of the situation, distracted as he was by his meeting with Atsui. “I'm a prisoner now, I guess.”
“Something like that, yes.” Big-No came to a halt, calling for the attention of his fellow METS-Men. “MJ-II, Ayber – I'm going to make sure we put Ninomiya somewhere safe – and secure.”
“Got it!” MJ-II responded with a thumbs-up, Ayber with a nod. “We'll head on up and start getting ready.”
“I'll see you up there.”
After giving MJ-II a wave, Big-No led Ninomiya into one of the storage areas near Atsui's workshop, picking out one of the places where they sometimes stored old stage props, although the room was currently empty. Well, it wasn't a room as such; it was a secured area a few metres squared constructed of thick wire mesh, enough to be able to see in and out, but the metal was strong enough to prevent a human from breaking through it. It wasn't an ideal prison but it would keep Ninomiya out of any potential trouble until the METS-Men's performance was over – or so Big-No hoped.
He also made sure to grab a spare blanket from the pile which served as Atsui's bedding - as well as a packet of dry chips and a few bottles of drink from a cupboard which held a store of food – so at least Ninomiya would be a little more comfortable. He was their prisoner for now, yes, but they weren't even sure yet what they were accusing him of. Not only that, but Big-No couldn't help but feel sympathy for the man, despite the fact that he remained wary. He had his reasons. “Stay in here for now, and I'll come and see you after the show.”
Ninomiya nodded meekly, not seeing any options other than to do what Big-No was ordering him to do, stepping inside the small caged area and turning to watch as the door was locked behind him. Once inside he slumped down beside the blanket, watching Big-No through the wire mesh until he had disappeared out of sight; and then, captive and alone, he slumped down against the locked doorway and wondered at his fate.
Despite the events of the day and the knowledge that they held a potential enemy captive within the building, the METS-Men's performance that evening was as slick and professional as ever. True to his word – his growl, anyway – Atsui's management of the stage lighting went off without a single hitch, his choice of subtle mood lighting for the slow songs and bright, flashing colours to accompany their more lively numbers pleasing both the crowd and the METS-Men themselves. It was a satisfied trio which made their final bow and retreated behind the curtains at the end of the show, leaving the crowd – as always – cheering for more.
“Not bad,” MJ-II smiled, wiping at his brow with a small towel. “Nice work, everyone! I bet we're going to feel that in the morning.”
“In the morning?” Ayber winced, stretching his arms with a grimace. “I'm already feeling it now. I've almost forgotten what sleep is like.”
“And you weren't even doing any fighting today!” MJ-II playfully chided Ayber with a flick of his towel. “Maybe you're just getting old.”
“Hey!” Ayber responded by swatting MJ-II's hair, Big-No shaking his head with mock disapproval.
“Well, I'll leave you two old men to fight things out between yourselves.” That was some fine talk coming from Big-No, seeing as he was the oldest one out of all of them. “In case you'd forgotten, there's a man locked in one of the rooms downstairs for some reason we don't know about, and I want answers.”
“Sorry, you'll have to take care of that without me for now.” MJ-II managed an apologetic smile. “Believe me, I'm very much looking forward to hearing what Ninomiya has to say, but tonight I've got another appointment to keep.”
Both Big-No and Ayber raised their eyebrows at that.
“Is it a woman, or...?”
“No, it's one of my contacts.” MJ-II's expression hardened. As well as his combat capabilities, he had proven to be something of an expert when it came to gathering information too; it wasn't always what you knew but who you knew, and Matsumoto MJ-II seemed to know a lot of people in the New City Wasteland. “I've arranged to meet them in Gomorrah tonight, and...”
“Gomorrah.” Ayber's nose wrinkled in distaste. The casino called Gomorrah served as the centre of operations for the LDH Corporation, and it was located just down the New City Strip from the METS-Mens' own base within the Tops. Anything and everything was for sale in Gomorrah, provided you had the means to pay for it, and money wasn't the only source of currency used there either. “Are you sure you're going to be okay?”
“I'll be fine. I've been there more than once before.” And I hated it every single time, MJ-II thought, remembering the brazen way in which Gomorrah's more physically-talented employees had always flaunted themselves in front of him. He could certainly appreciate the appeal of naked skin, but it was no secret that the people selling their bodies in Gomorrah were often those who were just plain out of luck; in many cases they had lost all of their money at the casino's gambling tables, and their bodies were all they had left to offer. “Besides, the LDH wouldn't dare to mess with us so openly.”
“Let's hope so.” Big-No, although less prone to concern than Ayber, still showed his discomfort. “If you're not back by the morning though, we are coming to look for you.”
“You worry too much.” With a confident grin, MJ-II finished towelling down his face and headed for the elevator which led to the penthouses at the very top of the casino, the place where the METS-Men had made their homes. “I'm going to clean up and get changed, then head straight out. Don't wait up!”
MJ-II wasn't the only one who had work to do. Having got changed himself, his METS-glove and goggles now back in place, Big-No had returned to the storage room where Ninomiya Kazunari was being held captive and had begun to question him. He was tired not only from a day of travelling and from performing the show, but he needed some answers, and he needed them now.
“So where are you really from?” Big-No flexed his armoured hand slowly, deliberately, emphasising each word with the curl of an iron-clad finger; the muted white light from its armoured palm bathed his face from below, which only served to add to the menace of his expression, whether intentional or not. “You're telling me you really can't remember anything?”
“I've already told you I don't remember!” Ninomiya winced and clutched at his head, the effort of attempting to recall his memories apparently causing him considerable pain. “You know I was working for Johnny-san, I can remember that much. I told you that. Check the database, I must be on the records!”
“You still are working for Johnny-san. I've checked the records already.”
“So why am I still locked up in here?”
“Because you're not telling me everything.” Big-No crouched down beside Ninomiya, not speaking unkindly, but his voice sounded firm nonetheless. “Why did you run away? What were you so afraid of that you'd risk a horde of Thirst Zombies rather than face it here alone? And why didn't we even know you existed?”
“I can't answer that because I don't know!”
“You don't know why you ran away?”
“No, I don't know why he chose not to tell you about me!”
Even Big-No was beginning to feel regret now; Kazunari was obviously close to tears, and Big-No hadn't meant to scare him this much. Sighing, he sat back on his heels, considering his next move.
“Okay then, let's take things one by one.” Big-No was taking care now to talk more quietly, to not sound so accusative. “So we don't know why Johnny-san didn't tell you about us. We'll ask him ourselves, next time we meet with him. But about you trying to escape...”
“I ran away because I was being kept like a slave.” Ninomiya's voice was small, almost apologetic, although if what he said was true, he was the one who had been a victim. “I wasn't allowed to leave the building. I was only given food and water if I behaved. And none of you saw me because he made sure to keep me out of the way whenever you were granted access.”
“Is... is that true?” Now it was Big-No's turn to look worried. The METS-Men had worked for Johnny-san for years now; granted, he no longer had a body like a normal living person, but he had never given any indication that he could literally be inhuman. For Big-No to suddenly find out that his employer was not the kind man he'd thought he was came as a cruel revelation. “Did he really keep you locked up like that?”
It was hard to say whether Ninomiya was telling the truth, but if there was one thing Big-No had learned from his years of surviving in the New City Wasteland, it was never to doubt a possibility. With that in mind, Ninomiya's fate was certainly not something he could decide on his own.
“Okay. Maybe you are telling the truth.”
“So you say. But we both know I can't just take your word for it.” Getting to his feet, Big-No took a step back. “I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to leave you here for the night. We'll meet with you in the morning to make a proper decision.”
“You're not... not going to punish me...?” Ninomiya seemed genuinely relieved.
“It's not my job to do that.” For the first time since Big-No had been alone with Ninomiya, his expression softened. “It's not up to me to choose what happens to you from here. Look, you've got food and water, and some bedding, so... just try to get some rest and we'll sort this out in the morning, alright?”
Ninomiya appeared to have calmed down a little, at least. This was far from being an ideal situation for him – a cold, bare room, back in the clutches of the organisation he'd been trying to hard to escape from – but he did believe Big-No when the man had said he wouldn't be punished. Not yet, anyway. He was still glum, but at least he wasn't in any imminent danger. Satisfied that Ninomiya would stay put for the night, Big-No closed and locked the door behind him. Hopefully there would be more answers in the morning.
Ayber's claims about being tired hadn't been completely untrue, but his need for sleep wasn't the main reason why he had chosen to retreat to his penthouse after the show rather than accompany Big-No in interrogating their unexpected prisoner. No, he still had work to do before he could rest – work he would rather carry out in private.
Without even bothering to remove the jacket he'd been wearing onstage, he sat down in front of the old radio which Atsui had repaired for him after he'd found it abandoned in one of the derelict rooms downstairs. It sat on a rickety old desk half-covered with bits of paper and mildewed notebooks, several chewed pencils, and faded maps which looked like they'd seen better days. The radio still functioned normally for the most part, although when in use it crackled as though a small lightning storm was playing havoc with its inner workings. No matter; it would do what Ayber needed it to do.
“Kimitaka-kun? Kimitaka, can you hear me?” Placing a set of headphones over his ears, Ayber picked up the battered old microphone and raised it to his mouth. “Kimitaka, we've finished now. Sorry I---”
“Where have you been, Masaki?” A male voice crackled from the speakers, distorted by distance and the dubious condition of the technology; the use of Ayber's real name indicated some kind of connection between the two men. “I've been waiting more than half an hour for you to turn up!”
“Ah, I'm really sorry!” Even though the man couldn't hear him, Ayber still found himself bowing towards the radio in apology. “The encore went on for longer than I expected – I've only just been able to get away.”
“Huh. Well, then. I suppose it can't be helped.” There was silence for a few moments – perhaps Kimitaka was having a drink, or checking that he couldn't be overheard. But then he spoke again: “Are you alone there, Ayber?”
“Yeah, it's just me. Why?”
“Okay. Just making sure. You got any more tip-offs for me?”
“Of course.” Scrabbling for one of the loose scraps of paper on the desk, Ayber picked it up and began to read off the details. “There's still most of a shipment of tinned beef in the loading bay of the Super-Duper Mart by that junction of the old I-15 highway, if that's any use; and if it's bottled drinks you're after, the sarsaparilla bottling plant at the---”
“I want some METS.”
“I can't get you METS, Kimitaka. We've talked about this already. The supplies are kept under lock and key, and we have to keep a record of every single vial that we use.”
There was the sound of a heavy sigh, perhaps a sulky huff, from the speaker.
“Maybe you can't get any for me yet, Masaki. But you know I'm going to need some eventually. That was part of the deal."
"We never had a deal!" Ayber sounded distressed, cornered. "We're friends, not business partners!"
"And friends help each other out." Even through the distortion of the radio, Kimitaka managed to sound smug. "You are going to help me, aren't you, Masaki-kun...?"