they just sat back
laughing at the wounded city
each breath sucking in ashes and fumes
The trick is that it's a ten step process.
Step one is to be a fuckup in every possible way there is to be a fuckup, on every level, without regard for consequence. Can't be any kind of normal fuckup, is the thing, the kind that gets shitty grades and forgets what day it is and can't fucking think straight. Can't just be the kid that doesn't sit still and doesn't listen to any of the BLi-approved broadcasts, twitching beneath the smooth time signatures of their music that ain't really music but more a couple of tones sliding minutely around the scale at infuriatingly regular intervals, itching for a little noise. That's not good enough, see. You have to fuck up tremendously - go off your meds and go fucking crazy and pitch tantrums in public spaces, fling your headphones through windows so that BLi has to intervene and alter your dosage. You have to be more than just a freak. You have to be a menace, inconsolable. You can't just be broken all to hell; you have to be loud and frightening in your brokenness, so everybody pays attention. It's the meds, see. They haven't got the chemicals quite right, so they prescribe a new slew of oblong tablets to ease the jagged mountain-range days where your emotions spike and peak and tunnel down straight into oblivion.
Those weeks after are always the worst: when they give you new fistfuls of bottled emptiness, the most color you ever get to see, and you take them because you want to be better the way your mama and your brother need you to be better. And they snow your head in and turn the blood in your veins to static and make the air sharp and needle-pointed against your skin. Your body tremors under the strain of it, until your muscles ache and your skull feels stuffed with cotton, rendering you useless and slow and gray and stupid as you muddle through a life that's just as useless and slow and gray and stupid. They call it "baseline" when you start to feel...not better, but okay enough to go back to school and attend classes and not cause any trouble. At least until something else in you snaps and you go fucking haywire again and break things like the obscenity you are.
After the first couple times, it's just standard procedure. You're a little fucked up in the head, medically speaking, so it's gonna take them a bit to find the right combination of emotional dampeners that'll keep you down. But when it starts to veer a little too close to being a regular problem, well, then it's not a problem with the kid. It's a problem with the person raising them.
So step two is this: be the reason that your mama never comes home.
You don't know how it happens but you know when it happens because one day you wake up and your mama smiles too brightly and moves too efficiently and she smells wrong, like skin grafts and relay gel and disinfectant.
Kid brother's too doped up on BLi's chemicals to say anything about it - or maybe he just knows better. He's smarter than you, if he does, but you've already made a habit of being a fuckup and you're not sure you should kill your streak just yet. Instead, you contemplate your latest pill-bottle of deadeners and suppresents and wonder just how much better off you'd be without these things muting all the shockwaves firing on all cylinders in your brain. Maybe then, if you weren't shutting all the sound out, you could do something about the noise that lives in your heart, in your veins, just beneath your skin. Sounds like something, feels like something - you just dunno what it is yet.
Think of your mama.
Contemplate the hole she's left behind. Map out the edges, inch by inch. Recognize the vacancy that she's left in her wake. The thing that took her place doesn't fit back into it, not even remotely. Her smiles are plastic and her bedtimes are always exact to the millisecond and she doesn't indulge your questions about noise and why and how it happens.
So you don't know what to call the thing that balls its fists up in the pit of your chest and knots the thready fibers of your heart like a little kid seizing a handful of bedsheets and not letting go, but it leaves a lump in your throat and itches your eyes like you're sick and sweating out another fever.
Brother's already asleep, like he should be, headphones on, eyes shut, officially dead to the world. Because it feels natural, because it seems like a logical progression, your mind tips its focus on over to him and you try to contemplate what it might be like if it was him, next. If you were the reason he got replaced by something that walked and talked like him - but not exactly.
Examine the unfurling of something rank and horrible in the center of you, pooling in your stomach like effluvium and working up to the back of your throat like bile.
Your grip around your bottle of prepackaged numbness goes bone-white around the knuckles, and your teeth grit so hard it feels like the molars might crack.
So you've got iron in your veins and a hardness in your soul, and that's how you can hurdle the longstanding fear of the faceless masks of BLi-branded exterminators that guard all areas of the city, and embark on step three, and step three is you taking your kid brother's hand and prying his meds from his clenched fist. Step three is running for the city line and never looking back. Step three is being small enough to almost completely duck under the radar but so erratic and fidgety that you almost get your head blown off by some exterminator's raygun anyway, because even when you're trying to do something right you can't seem to stop fucking it up.
You make it out to the desert, just the pair of you, in the dead of night. You don't know it yet, but short of the early evening, that's the best time to cut and run: when the sands are still chilled by the midnight air. It's lucky, though it doesn't feel it. The night freeze chatters your teeth and bites into your fingers and toes so you grip your brother's hand tight and instinctively huddle as close together as you can. Battery City has perfectly conditioned weather; it's never too hot or too cold, but always a consistent and unchanging and average temperature.
It was also always white and gray and black, blank and monochromatic.
Even in the sweeping dark, the desert is full of color. There's a sky studded with stars and the flatlands are sweeping plains of indigos and deep blues underneath the spread of the night, and you're so taken with it that you can take heart that, even if you freeze to death out here, it'll be surrounded by colors so vivid that maybe you wouldn't mind if you did.
Dying freely, that is. Enveloped by a spectrum of blues.
You don't. Instead, you make it to step four, which is: almost get your brother killed.
It turns out that going cold turkey off BLi's meds is a bad idea. You had it easy. Your head never liked to take things lying down, so it shot off seemingly at random, never let you get too comfy around the chemicals developed to bring your boiling brain to a more socially acceptable simmer. Never got conditioned to things the way your brother did. So between the chills and the shakes and the sweating and the way he can't take to the cold at all, you end up giving him your shirt, wrapping it around his head to keep his face from freezing over, and you hold his hands tight and breathe warm air onto them and rub them between your fingers.
None of it feels like enough. Your brother's a quaking wreck, and you did this. You could've run off on your own, and let the thing that was and was not your mama raise him. He'd grow up under BLi sanctions until moving out at the age of sixteen to join the Battery City workforce. He'd grow up to be a part of the slog of uniform white, tiding in and out of their perfectly ordinary jobs, returning to their perfectly ordinary homes, tuning their headphones to the right frequencies and never needing to worry about feeling a thing beyond the same, endless gray.
Instead you took his hand, selfishly, and led him out of the City. Led him out here to die.
You're two for two on the list of family members you've doomed just by existing. Maybe more than that. Your mama never told you why she raised you both on her own. Never brought up whoever else was supposed to be with her. "Parental units," BLi calls them. That's how they refer to everything. Cold. Clinical.
Maybe you're the reason it was only ever just her, until the day when it wasn't even just her anymore.
Step five is the easy part. Step five you've been doing all your life. Step five is the reason you're out here.
Step five is that you hold tight to your brother and you never let go.
oh it bled all right
drier than Moore County
You have to stop frequently, both of you - you to get your bearings and ease the soreness in your arms, and your brother to catch his breath. His hair has been painted dark and mud-colored from sweat, almost black beneath the night sky.
In the moments when you turn slowly on the spot, the white blot of Battery City still rears up behind you. It's the only point of reference you have. The further away you move, the fainter the dim glimmers of moving lights get. Now that you've crossed the city line, no one seems eager to follow you just yet.
Maybe they expect they won't have to. What hope do two teenagers have in the desert in the middle of the night? Why waste time and resources on hounding their heels when they could just pry their stiff corpses from the sands and dress them up nice and pretty in white zippers and cellophane and plastic? The temperatures out here can be fatal without protection. That's one of the only things you actually remember them teaching you in school. That, and the rules that you should never set foot beyond the city line. They never taught you how to survive beyond the city's walls; only that you couldn't.
Press your lips to the underside of your wrist. It's cold, and your face is stiff and numb. It feels like your blood is congealing over. Your tongue peeks out, touching up against the sand-bitten saltiness of your skin. The inside of your mouth feels like the only real warm part of you left, so you hold it there until you can feel the frantic beat of your pulse jumping in your wrist.
Your head feels clearer out here, beneath the star-strewn sky, than it ever did back in Battery City. Your head still teems with sounds, like a million ants running through your veins. Even clearing the city line hasn't drowned it out.
You got nowhere to go and no place you're meant to be. Are you lost, or completely free?
You've stayed put too long. You stay here any longer, and your feet will start to feel like they've frozen to the sand.
"Come on," you tell you brother. He's still panting, and you know it's because his lungs feel like they're on fire. That's what the drugs do to you. They make you dependent on them, and when you cut ties, they make you hurt for it.
Take his hand, pull him to his feet. His eyes meet yours, shakily. There's still that fog of confusion glazing his eyes, but his grip is unwavering, even if his fingers are as icy to the touch as you're sure yours are.
BLi's synthetic leash wasn't enough to rip you apart. It tore your mama away from you, but it's not taking him. It'll never take him.
But it will if you don't keep moving.
You don't have any particular direction aside from away from the city, sprawled out behind you. So you go in the direction that makes the static in your heart sing. Like tuning a channel to the right station. Maybe it's all in your head. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it takes someone crazy to believe in something crazy.
You don't call it luck when you trip over the dead body, but that's what it is. It's luck, pure and simple - not because it's a dead body, but because of the bodybag that clothes it.
At this point, you're too cold and too tired to question providence. Your brother is huddled on the ground, shivering, and if you don't do something soon, you'll both freeze out here.
Slowly, laboriously, unzip the bag. Swallow, hard. You haven't eaten in hours, but the scent still makes your guts recoil.
When you've finished spitting up yellow traces of bile and whatever remains of your stomach lining, you don't have any choice but to wipe at your mouth with the back of your wrist, trembling, and get back to it. Jimmy the heavy cellophane composite down around the corpse, already gone hard and frigid from the rigor of death. Don't look too hard at the face beneath the heavy, crinkled fabric, too-pale lips stretched over bleached teeth and hollow eyes staring listlessly at the stars. There are dark, tiny things skittering over the skin and underneath it, marbled as it is with a riot of dark splotches and colors.
You're weak and shaking and trying not to be sick, and the weight of a cadaver is too much for your preadolescent, undernourished arms to lift.
Tears spring to your eyes, a mixture of exertion and exhaustion and something else you don't yet have the skill to name, but mostly it's the realization that you're going to die here. You're going to die here, and that won't even be the worst thing. The worst thing is that you're going to kill your brother, after you made your mama, your real mama, disappear, and it'll be your fault that he dies out here. You took his hand and made him run with you. You could have left him behind, but you didn't.
(But he came with you.)
Step five. Step five. Step five.
Step five is to hold on to your brother and not ever, ever let go. Not for anything. Tears are bright and stinging. They bite into the back of your throat and flood your lungs with nitrogen. Never felt anything like this while still on the pills, but it's the shakes and headaches and soreness - the consequences of refusing those fistfuls of colors in first place - that are sapping you of your ability to do the one thing that would save you both.
You're killing him. You're killing him just by not being able to do one thing right. You're killing him the way you killed your mama, the way you think you must have killed her because you wouldn't behave yourself, because that's all you're good at: killing things. Fucking things up. You're fucking poison is what you are - leaching into everyone's lives and bleeding them out until there's nothing left. Gonna kill the only good thing left in your life, and it'll be your fault. Again.
Another pair of arms slides underneath the back of the corpse's head.
Your brother doesn't look at you, doesn't say a word. He can't offer very much in the way of help, but he can lift the too-stiff arms and legs, since the joints won't bend anymore, and brace his shoulder against a bloated, fly-blown back to help roll it out of the bodybag.
It stinks inside. It smells of dried blood and decay, and the smell alone makes you gag.
You can't feel your fingers anymore. Your toes ache. Every part of you feels ready to curl up on the sand and simply close your eyes and stop trying anymore.
"Come on," says your brother. His hand is on your shoulder. His fingers rest there clumsily - he must not be able to to feel them either. You can feel the shivers that wrack every inch of him. He helps you into the bag, and climbs in after. It's your brother who slowly pulls the zipper up, leaving the tiniest gap at the top for the while of cold, fresh air, and huddles close. Gradually, painfully, the warmth starts to return. Ball up tight, even when the slow progression of body heat infuses every inch of you with a raw and trembling ache. Proximity and shared heat and protection from the elements, shelter in the form of a bodybag, keeps you breathing another day.
That's how you survive your first night in the desert.
all expatriate flames hurrying
to found new nations of blinding dust
The stench of death has worsened, and the body looks worse in the naked desert sunlight. Without the protection of the heavy sheathe of cellophane and plastic, the elements have eaten away at it even more throughout the night. The skin sags, distended with whitish bulges and whorls of color. Dark shapes crawl beneath the pale patches that still shine beneath the sun, scuttling over dead lips and between yellowed teeth. The skin has gone bruise-purple in some places, and an ugly green in others.
That's not what draws your eye. What draws your eye is the color of the body's hair, which is a lurid turquoise and shaved on one side. It hadn't showed up in the dark of the previous night at all.
You've never seen a color like that one before. Not anywhere, much less sprouting from someone's head. It would be striking, if it weren't attached to a corpse.
A part of you wants to touch it - to run fingers through the color where it lives in this dried-out, dead skin.
But you're already wiping trickles of sweat from your eyes. You're both far too pale for this heat and far too unprotected. In the homogenous dull colors worn by most of the residents of Battery City, you stand out.
Your eyes drift, again, to the body you evicted from its bag the previous night.
It turns your stomach just to think of it. But you've already done several unthinkable things in the past few hours. What's one more?
This is how you learn step six, which is this: do whatever it takes to survive. Even if it feels unforgivable.
The thought knots up your insides, and you think you might be sick again. You've already spilled this person out onto the sand and left them exposed to the heat. They're also long-dead; they won't feel much of anything anymore. But you whisper an apology to the sightless, jellied eyes regardless, when you start to ease their jacket down from their stiffened shoulders.
Your brother doesn't protest, or even comment as you pull the puffy, blood-darkened skin of their wrist free from their jacket sleeve. He just kneels, and starts unlacing their boots.
Both of you have already crossed too many lines, by now, for it to matter.
You need clothes, cover, and protection from the heat, and you need to blend in.
You need to survive, and the dead don't.
The boots don't fit either of your feet, but you end up wearing them because you're older and slightly bigger between the two of you. You make your brother take the jacket, which is thick and tough and crinkly, made of some kind of black material that shines under the sun. He takes the jacket but makes you take the shirt, which is just as overlarge but thinner and so worn that the fabric doesn't have any particular coloration anymore, though it must have once. The pants are too large for either of you, but there's a knife in the back pocket that you can use to cut them down to size so your brother can wear them. He helps you hold them still while you saw at the thick, blue-gray material. It leaves the new cuffs frayed and thready and white, but at least they won't drag in the sand anymore.
His hands still shake subtly while the two of you work, and his gaze keeps snapping up to the horizon and back down again. It'll take longer than one terrifying night to shake him free of the drugs' hold.
You know it's only going to get worse.
You keep the knife.
The bodybag is too heavy to carry, even dragging it behind you, especially with the heat beating relentlessly down overhead. There's no guarantee you'll find another before the sun goes down, but what choice do you have?
The real find is the rectangle you find in their other pocket. It's covered in buttons and brightly colored wires. Sometimes it spits sounds - little quiet bursts of static, and scattered collections of voices, seemingly at random - but you haven't figured out the configuration of buttons that make it talk for longer than a few seconds at a time. You pick it up and turn it over and over in your hands while the pair of you walk. It's something to take your mind off the heat, and the sweat, and the horrible dry thirst that clings scratchily to the back of your throat.
Your stomach feels like the shriveled up bodybag you left behind, but it's the thirst that's eating you alive. Your brother's intermittent coughing is enough to assure you that he's quietly suffering the same. He gets it worse than you, because the easing of the drugs from his blood strands him on his hands and knees several times throughout the day, dry heaving into the sand. You kneel at his side, rub his back and his shoulders when you have the energy to, but you've still got the aftertaste of your own bile sticking to the back of your teeth, and your mouth is so parched that swallowing hurts. Not helping is the shimmering in the distance that glitters like a wide body of water. You squint and blink and peer, and the illusion becomes a little fuzzier around the edges. You remember this. You learned this in school, too, on those rare occasions when they taught you something useful.
It's a mirage. It's not real. It's just something conjured up by your desperate thirst and the sun's rays boiling above your heads. It still ignites a phantom ache from your throat to your chest. Each heat wave's a shivering helix that makes your eyes water and your head ache.
Now it's not the cold that'll kill you. It's the heat, endless and searing and painful. It's the lack of water in your veins. Your piss is dark and brown, spotting the sand. You'd lie down beneath the bulk of the first dune to cast shade, but even then, the sand would scorch you alive. Your skin is already a raw and baking red. The two of you, ghost-pale and alabaster, were never designed to live out in extremes like this when you've only ever lived in the temp-regulated comfort of Battery City.
You only speak to one another in the form of clasping hands and quiet breaths. You have to save your spit and your sweat for the walk.
Inexorably, it claims you - the heat and the dehydration and the sweat and the way you eventually can't walk in a straight line. The two of you have leaned up against each other as you walk just to keep going, and at some point you trip, catch your heel on some soft slope of sand or misplace your foot, and down the two of you go, tumbling end over end to the ground. The sand burns against the skin of your arms and your cheek, but you lack the energy to move from it. You've still got your grip on the rectangle you filched from the dead body that saved you (that wasn't enough to save you now), and your thumb runs over the dials and wires with a lazy abandon.
The press of your finger on some switch you hadn't realized was there initiates a soft chime and a whir of lights humming to life, and it clicks on. There's a rush of fly-buzz white noise and a high-pitched, stabilizing tone, and then -
" - live from the Paradise Motel. Stay off the sand and outta the heat, crash kiddies, 'cause we've got crows combing our country lookin' to bring home some c's for scalps. Any dracs out there feelin' like they wanna kill this wave, they gotta pry it from my Cold Dead Hands."
There's a man whose voice breaks through the fog in your head, his voice tinny, unfurling from the object in your hands. There's something about his accent that pulls at you in pings of dust-gold and sunshine-warmth, like it's familiar. Maybe it's just because it's the first voice you've heard since yesterday. You and your brother have been conserving your saliva instead of wasting it on words, not that it's helped.
Whatever the voice is, it doesn't talk long. What unfurls from the static next is nothing short of poetry.
A cascade of psychedelic sounds, screaming and loud and pumping with heat and devastation. There are words layered over the strings, but that's not what draws your ear. Even warped by the wavering signal, it's blistering with an energy that slips into the dark corners of your heart and settles there. It ignites pops of burning crimson behind your eyelids, swims into a neon pink river. It's color and it's sound and it's like someone finally, finally understands the tinnitus-drill of noise that's been tap-tapping at the insides of your skull since the day you were born.
Roll your head back onto the sand and laugh.
Laugh, you crazy little tin-head, 'cause you're not the only crazy out here. There's people who understand that noise that never shuts up in your head, those vibrant pulses of color that flash-flood every corner of your mind. There's people who understand it, because how else would they be able to cause it to sing over pirate airwaves?
It's music, real music, music that Battery City would never allow to flourish, and it's bright and seething and joyous and reckless and angry and so, so, so alive.
Get up, and grab your brother by the shoulder. Shake him until he stirs, and grin. You know you look like a wreck - your hair sweaty and plastered to your head, your lips cracked and bleeding and staining your teeth pink, your skin reddened and burned. You finally must look as crazy as you feel.
You don't have the moisture in your mouth to tell him to keep going, and he looks at you like the heat is killing him, because it's killing you both - but he still rolls onto his side, he takes your hand, he lets you help him to his feet. You practically fall against each other just to stay standing. You try to laugh, and it chokes rustily in the back of your throat, like metal scraped over metal.
The radio's on, and there's music pouring straight into your souls. It's not water, not shade, not food, but it's still a shot of adrenaline to the blood, and it's enough to get your feet stirring again.
It's time to stop acting dead and start looking alive in time for step seven, and step seven is what comes naturally:
Follow the music.
but the two of them
they just squinted at the pipe-cleaner skyline
The sun's not even slunk low onto the horizon when the two of you find something to hide out in. It's a busted up old car, something that would never be able or allowed to run in the streets and alleys of Battery City, and the sun has made the metal frame scalding, baked the upholstery until it's cracked and melted over itself. But it's still better than trying to traverse the desert in the heat of the day. You both manage to fit yourselves not on the ruined seats, but underneath the car itself, where even that paltry shade will shield you from the worst of the sun's rays before they bake you alive.
Should've chanced the seats instead. Close to the ground like this, you'll roast before the shade can save you. But once you're on the ground, it feels like nothing's going to get you moving again. Your brother's still shivering, even if his skin is blistered in rashes of red from the sun, his hair plastered to his forehead and soaked to the back of his neck, and you can feel the feverish heat emanating off him in waves. Despite the crimson cast to his sunburned skin, the dark half-moons carved beneath his eyes highlight the ghostly pallor of a kid in withdrawal from BLi's chemicals. That's what they do. They suck all the color from you, so you're as gray and empty and dead as the rest of the city.
Reaching out to him feels impossible, even if you're inches apart. He's curled on his side, huddled on the spot, knuckles bleached from how tightly he's clinging to his dead man's jacket.
Open your mouth to say something. Remind him that you're still here, that he's still alive.
Step five is all you have left. Step five is killing you both.
Your head feels light, and there's a bright, buggish buzzing that's clamped around your ears since you woke to the daytime sun. You haven't eaten or drank in hours, now, and your bodies are beginning to pay the price. They've been paying it since you ran out past the city line and took your brother to die with you.
Now you both lack the energy to do anything but let the hunger and the thirst and the heat and the exhaustion slowly bake you out of your minds, and let sleep crawl over the pair of you: your biology's final, desperate defense against the encroaching sweep of death that will inevitably claim you both.
So maybe you should've known that a car parked out here would belong to someone. You blink drowsily awake to the sound of footsteps, and then the car chassis dipping down as someone clambers into it. You get a faceful of pipes and tubing and the car's metallic undercarriage as it sags mere inches away from your nose.
With a muffled croak of shock, you try to scramble to your feet, bash your forehead against a smooth line of piping instead. Pain is a dull throb of gray inflorescence soaking through the rest of your brain from the point of impact. Your hand jerks impulsively, strikes the radio lying in the sand beside you. It kicks back to life with an almighty blare of static and dead air.
"What in the name of - " A loud shout from above, and the scuff of battered boots hitting the dust. Then someone drops down onto all fours to peer beneath the vehicle. You glimpse dark hair, and large, dark eyes, a face shadowed and bearded. "Well, son of a raygun."
You try to say something, anything - help, you think. But the word is dry and formless. It doesn't qualify as a word at all. It's a rasp, pained and breathless.
The face disappears. A moment later, you hear the voice raised in a shout:
"PONY! When'd we pick up stowaways - ?"
The music is still buzzing in your ears when the world starts to tilt, but there isn't any music. There's only the blare of white noise and squealing tones. You're lying flat on your back, but the vertigo still sinks you into the earth. You're trying to hold onto it, regardless, that invisible, nonexistent tether that keeps you anchored to reality, but its power has waned since the further time you've spent being sapped dry by the sun. Cling to it anyway - the phantom memory of blazing guitars, a mic-cable that lashes you to this existence.
It's simply not there anymore.
You find your brother's hand just before the world goes dark, and squeeze it tight.
You think as loudly as you can, as if that would be enough to communicate to him without words: I'm sorry.
And then the sun, and everything around it, shuts out.
and it burned hotter in their oil slick pupils
one elbowed the other and said
'i’ve seen better'
Reflexively, you try to stand, but there's a callused hand resting on your shoulder before you can so much as twitch. The infinitesimal movement alone is enough to send a shock of an ache shooting from your complaining muscles to the base of your spine, and your mouth parts in an involuntary groan.
"Easy there, sunshine." Eyes that you'd initially thought were impossibly large turn out to not be eyes at all; they're sunglasses, dark and reflecting the tint of the guttering overhead lights. Slowly, other features swim into focus. Long, dark hair swept back by a bandanna. Mustache and beard. Skin creased with age and sunburn. Dark jacket, made of the same material as the one you pinched off the corpse that saved your life.
Blink at him. The walls behind him are just as eclectic, plastered with scattershot combinations of cut-out photographs and posters and letters and more things than you can reasonably name. Already, it's the most color you've seen in your entire life - all of it vivid, hued neon, even if most of the papers are weathered and yellowed with age. Under other circumstances, you might have been more appreciable of this.
At the moment, all you can think of is your brother. You try again to rise.
"I said easy." The grip tightens on your shoulder. Instinctively tense up and freeze. Someone who has you in their grasp can do whatever they want with you. They grab you, it's over. It's time for re-education, or getting passed into the hands of the doctors, or -
But he doesn't haul you out, or yank you up. He just keeps talking.
"You were all dried out by the time we dragged you out from under our old wreck. What's a pair of city undergrads like you doin' out here?"
Stare, eyes wide. He's not making you get up and pushing you toward some unknown destination. And then it hits you - he's not wearing all white. He's not like anyone on BLi payroll you've ever seen before. He's not a drac. He's not a crow. He's not an exterminator. He's ragged and rough, and he looks like he's lived in the desert his entire life.
Maybe he has.
If you had any moisture left to you, you might have cried with relief. Instead, you try and open your mouth to answer. The sound that emerges is little more than a rusted croak.
You get handed a bottle of water. It's slightly warm and it tastes like plastic, but it could taste like anything and it wouldn't matter.
"Sips." He sits back and folds his arms across his chest. Realize, the longer you look at him, that he's sitting in a wheelchair that looks almost as battered as he does. That doesn't cut the strength of his words. "Start with sips. Your body's still adjustin'. You and your friend's both."
Your friend. Of course - he doesn't assume you're related. You don't look too alike at first glance, and ravaged as you are by the heat and the exhaustion, you probably barely even look alive.
When you've drained the water bottle dry, you try to sit up, and this time he doesn't stop you. He doesn't have to. The fabric of your shirt scratches your back and shoulders and you moan, hunching forward into a sitting position. Realize, belatedly, that you've been laid out on some kind of couch. It's old and the fabric is scratchy on your skin and it sags, but it's better than sand and it's better still than a bodybag.
The details of where you are slowly draw into focus, piece by piece, in multicolored bursts of texture and revelation. Radios perched on old desks. The jabber of a muted voice issuing faintly from a pair of busted headphones. Notes and cards and posters and old records stacked on top of each other, pinned to the walls. A microphone with a stand that looks like it's only being held together by a silver band of duct tape. The immeasurable clutter crowding every available surface makes the interior of whatever building this is feel much more cramped than it actually is.
But it's cooler than outside, and you're being addressed by someone who seems, impossibly enough, like he actually wants to help you.
"Two of you were just about sun-fried by the time we got you inside. 'S gonna burn for a few days, then it'll itch worse'n hell. Trust me on that count. I seen a hundred undergrads just like the pair of you learn to live out here in the dust."
Your eyes latch onto his, you think, though the glasses make it hard to tell if he's looking at you. Despite that, despite the way that it ignites an absolute cataclysm of crackling agony down your back, down each of your muscles, from the bottom of your feet to the line of your jaw - you sit up, swing your legs to the edge of the couch, and lean forward.
Because in the end, you didn't die out here. He talks like you're going to stay here forever, and what choice do you have but to agree? You can't go back. You're not ever going back. You didn't die out here in the heat and the grind, even if you stink of death and sweat and adrenaline, and you're not going to die now.
"My brother," you whisper. That's the loudest volume you can manage.
If the word is a realization to him, it doesn't show. Those dark glasses give nothing away. He only calls for someone named Show Pony, who cruises into the building on roller skates with a dark-visored helmet astride their shoulders. It makes their expression equally unreadable, but they manage to communicate capricious nonchalance through the tilt of their head and the cock of their shoulders alone.
Your rescuer jerks his head at you, once, and Show Pony rolls back out without a single word exchanged between them.
When they return, they're leading your brother in by the hand. He's limping, and you can see up close the damage that the sun has done to his skin, scoring it red and peeling in weathered flakes. The parts of him that haven't been ravaged by UV rays are still slicked with cold sweat. Despite the jacket that someone has now draped around his shoulders like a cheap blanket, he's shivering.
He sinks onto the couch next to you and immediately the two of you share your weight, leaning against one another despite the way it aggravates your already damaged skin. You can feel him shaking against you.
Grasp his shoulder anyway, and squeeze it tight. Gauge by the pressure of his fingers around your wrist that the relief is mutual.
Look back at the man in the wheelchair as he watches you both, silently. Nod to him, and lean forward.
You listen to him as he tells you about rayguns and waveheads and Mad Gear and diesel and limeade and junkpunks and PowerPup and Tommy Chow Mein. You listen when he hands you back your box of sounds and calls it a radio and says he knows who it belonged to because he recognizes the gear you had on hand. He asks you for your name, and you give it. He tells you to find a new one, 'cause the one you wear now stinks of city life. He tells you how to know which Zone you're in and how to get to Route Guano, which is the fastest way to Zone Three, which is the prime place to find Tommy Chow Mein. The further out from the city you get, the safer you are from the scarecrows - but the harder it is to survive. He doesn't dip this close to the city on a whim, but there was supplies he needed in Zone One, and old friends he needed to check in on.
His name is Dr. Death Defying, and he's a pirate radio DJ, the voice of the Zones. He keeps an eye on things as best as he can, and the people who live out here tap into his airwaves if they want the latest - the latest news on the horizon, the latest confirmation of who BLi's sent to sweep the sands, the latest sounds. The job, by its very nature, requires a little risk.
Risk is the name of the game in the Zones. Out here, people live. They do more than live: without BLi's white latex hand crushing everything they are into ash, they thrive. The sun burns them up, the dracs comb the desert in search of easy prey, the night chills claim whoever hasn't found a warm place to bunk down, and the shootouts catch countless in the crossfire. Despite that, they live with open and reckless abandon. They dye their hair wild colors. They shout from rooftops. They burn gas with the roar of car engines and spinning tires. They chase thrills and highs and drown themselves in caffeine. They barter for food and fuel and scrap, trade carbons for battery packs. The paint their rayguns and turn scarecrows to smoking corpses and live loudly, loudly. They blare music from rolled-down windows at the only volume there is out in the desert, and they howl at the moon.
They call themselves zonerunners and dust angels and motorbabies and killjoys, and they live in the blood-pulse scream of adrenaline, in a whirl of color and noise and every emotion that BLi tried to crush beneath its heel. They're children of the gun. They're devils born from the heat off a live motor.
Some of them worship DESTROYA, a god of metal and circuits and destruction. Some of them pray to the Phoenix Witch, who guides dead souls to rest. Some of them don't pray to anything.
The doctor doesn't have a medical degree. But he knows how to bring a couple of underfed, dehydrated teenagers back from the edge of death and not ask too many questions. He knows the rules of the desert, and he's got the time and inclination to teach them to you.
Step eight is to learn those rules, and most of them are simple.
If no one saw you take it, it's yours. If BLi saw you take it, it's definitely yours. Move your body when the sun goes down. Stay out of the direct heat. Sleep in the night and in the day; operate in early mornings and evenings. Dress in layers. Always know where to find water. Stay to the shade whenever possible. Never sleep in the open. Walking drains you fast; get a fast pair of wheels instead.
Don't run solo. Keep your gun close.
Keep your boots tight. When a DJ tells you to run, you run.
When you die, do it with your mask on. When your friends die, you take their souls to rest in the form of a mask slid into a mailbox.
You part ways with the doctor eventually, when he's changing locations - packing up to move somewhere not as close to the city. He doesn't have to tell you that you'd best be getting on your way, and you don't feel like he'd mind if you didn't. He doesn't seem surprised once you do, either. Maybe he recognizes the itch in your bones that has nothing to do with skin cracking and peeling from sunburn. He just tells you and your brother to stay tuned in to his freq if you want eyes in the airwaves.
Your brother tries to give him the jacket borrowed from the dead as thanks. The doctor asks if either of you saw a mask on body it came from. When you shake your heads, he waves it off.
"That old Skull's soul's long carried on. Take the gear. They'd want it to be put to good use." Don't ask if it belonged to one of the friends he intended to check on. You think you already know the answer. "So don't go seein' the Witch anytime soon, you got me?"
That's how you meet Dr. Death Defying.
knowing that they were paid to remember the past
he blew out a hot breath and said
'burn it all'
You start by stealing, because neither you nor your brother have carbons on hand, and what little you have to trade for them is all stuff you'll need. Tommy's not the only supplier in the Zones but he's the most well-known for a reason, so you mostly pinch from other zonerunners. When you can, you pick through bodybags. You try cracking open BLi-branded vending machines that sit abandoned in the dust and learn that you're not the first motorbabies to make that doomed attempt. Your kid brother gives each one the finger and swears he'll find a way in, until he's rolling in free protein and power packs.
The meds' residuum bleeds away from him gradually, over the course of weeks. The hard nights are still hard, but they cut into you both with less frequency. The headaches, the shivers, the cold flashes - you guide him through all of it. You've done it yourself often enough.
Then the days aren't hard because of any powders or pills still warping your brother's chemistry. They're hard because days in the Zones are always hard.
Live as vibrantly as the desert sky with its watercolor hazes of methane-yellow and brilliant sunset-pink. Chase highs and lows. Come to recognize the heat in your belly for what it is: anger. In the conditioned deprivation of all else, you sink yourself into the carmine mist of it eagerly, greedily, let it consume you utterly until you're a fountain of continuous outrage and hunger and irritation. Soak it in. Live in it for days, weeks on end.
It drives you as easily as any shot of adrenaline. Learn to identify the warm sun-orange rays of contentment, the hollow grayness of utter misery, the jags of black-on-white that make up resentment and loathing. BLi can't muzzle you down here, can't restrict the blur of every thought and feeling on a spectrum you've never needed to know.
Swing uncontrollably between extremes, riding the troughs and peaks of your own twisted-up neurochemistry. Live through it, even when your thoughts dedicate themselves to convincing you that you can't.
Live through it.
Steal zaps from dracs. Crib anything you can from their corpses. Raid bins of supplies en route to Bat City. Learn the value of dog food dinner. Learn that in the desert, anything can be food if you're hungry enough. Learn what meat is safest to eat raw. Accept that more often than not, it's water that will chase you from place to place, and a driving, desperate thirst that the blazingly unrelenting sun never abates. Your sleep schedules adjust to unholy waves of overhead radiation and blackout-cold nights. Your skin flakes and itches and comes away in crackling strips until gradually, over time, it reddens and burns less. Accept the pitfalls of living in the Zones: you will burn, you will get sand in every possible orifice and in every possession, and you will feel as though you will never be rid of the grains of it.
Make friends with the other gangs that frequent the Zones. Some of them threaten to shoot you on sight. Some make nice with chatter and trade carbons for parts and battery packs. Learn the difference between the two. Understand that sometimes you won't know the difference until there's the barrel of a gun jammed up against the small of your back and the scent of smoke in your nostrils.
Teach yourself how to treat a raygun burn. Learn that the heat of a laser doesn't always cauterize a wound.
Sleep in cars and in old blasted husks for buildings and, on the worst nights, BLi bodybags. The day you find a car that works is the same day you test its max speed by stealing from Tommy - sneaking out a can of bleach and hair dye. You linger long and thoughtful over the shelves and the color you'd like to have living against your skin. Muse over sun-yellow and consider bright turquoise, the same color as the hair from the 'joy that saved both your lives by dying in the right spot.
In the end, it's the red that beckons you. Red, the same color that sparked in your brain when you heard music, real music, for the first time in your life, and your neurons lit up in a haze of crimson and revolution. The same color as the slow-burning live coal in your guts that ignited when you couldn't distinguish between hunger and emotion, and has lived in your soul ever since.
Out here in the desert, impracticalities become practicalities. You live day to day, firefight to firefight. You're gonna enjoy the fuck out of what you can, when you can. You set off firecrackers and flares to taunt the dracs. You blast the strains of crunching guitars louder than anything, and scream your triumph to the fucking heavens because victory sounds like rock and roll and tastes like artificial sugar. You paint targets on your heads, and colors on your guns. One day you find an oversized Mousekat costume half-ravaged by the desert winds, and for no other reason beside the fact that you can, you separate its head from the body and take it with you.
And you dye your hair, even though you could be saving that water for better and more reasonable things. Even though it burns at your scalp - but what's the itch of dye when you've lived through flash rash and the relentless photon bombardment from on high?
First dye job is a mess, and it paints the top of your head a dark and bloody scarlet instead of the candy red you were aiming for. It stains your shoulders and your hands and arms and back with a madder flush that doesn't wash off for weeks. But the longer you're out here and more color you lay into yourself, the brighter and more vivid it becomes.
You're becoming who you were meant to be.
BLi calls you sick. But all deserts hide a well.
Others can spot you a mile off from the radioactive red of your hair and the sun-yellow mask over your face. Your brother gets into a tussle with a snake that decided to crawl into his boot and wins by biting it before it can bite him. The gang you're sharing the night with howls and whoops when he spits scales into the dust and throws the writhing thing into the fire. They call him the Kobra Kid, and the name sticks. His hair's not as yellow as your mask, but on the days when it's not sweat-dark and limp from exhaustion, it's almost as vibrant as the jacket, redder than cherries, that he trades for a fistful of carbons. He spends weeks shaking it out, touching up the color, fixing white letters to the black stripe along its side.
Out here in the desert, your name means everything. That's an unspoken law.
It's also an unspoken law of the Zones to never stay in one spot for too long. Your car's the only home you need. Kid starts hammering out the dents, laying on coats of paint, patching the upholstery. You broker for parts, or steal them.
You're becoming stories, legends in real time. The pair of you run the Zones without ever slowing down. It's unconventional. Most killjoys run in groups, but a pair is all you've ever needed.
Other zonerunners ask what they should call you. You don't have an answer. They call you 'Red' and 'Mousekat' and 'hey, asshole' but none of the names cling to you like so much dust. They're just shorthand for the real you that lives underneath, like the music that planted its roots in the trellis of your soul.
Be loud. Be unrepentant. Fall in love with Mad Gear and the Missile Kid. Fall in love with the crash of guitars and the smell of gasoline. When it comes to BLi, everyone tells you that they'll only listen if you speak in burning zap-holes and bled-dry bodies.
Test that theory with joyous abandon in the same act that earns you your name.
You do that by stealing from BLi.
Take directly from Battery City supply trucks in a move so bald-faced, so absurd, so fucking moronic that it takes everyone by surprise, even you. Most supply trucks move in and out under heavy guard thanks to the fucking entourage of white suits encircling them, carrying anything that BLi can't manufacture in the city itself, or carrying shit that's meant to be delivered to places unknown. It doesn't fucking matter. Not when the speed demons in the desert are starving and scrounging just to live day by day.
Dracs are cold and unrelenting, but they're mindless grunts. Can't strategize for shit. They do what they're told. Makes them easy targets. You and your brother start picking them off from a distance, and that's enough to start drawing their attention. They always fan out toward the direction of the shots, and you're always already moving in a wide arc to kite them away.
Best way to steal from BLi is to steal by skimming off the top. You're never gonna win a fight against thirty-plus dracs and a handful of exterminators, and as much labor as you'd save driving off with one of those heavily armored white trucks, the possibility of getting tracked down because of it ain't worth the risk. Shoot out the tires. Aggravate dracs, shoot them down one by one like flies.
It works the first few times. Then they start getting wise to your ways. The third run you make, a scarecrow traps you with a hail of plasma to the sand. Shoots you through the foot, leaves you limping, then takes the time to walk over to you as you try to crawl away with sole oozing red and belching smoke. Grabs you by the front of your too-large shirt, hauls you up. Kick against her grip. Struggle, despite the white-hot agony that unfurls from heel to spine with every single fucking twitch of damaged muscles.
You don't recognize her. She's got a chisel-perfect face and hair cut so evenly that it looks wrong. She takes your jaw between her fingers and turns your head to one side, like you're something that she owns.
"Now then." Her voice is silver and steel and pinches like her fingers dug up into the hollows of your starving cheeks. "I can't say I recognize you."
You're up against a wall of your own making and there's nowhere to go. Try and wrench your gun up to get it under her chin, against her temple, anywhere. Her hand snaps around your wrist and twists until the fingers go numb, and your weapon drops to the sands seemingly of its own accord.
Don't cry out. Bite the wall of your cheek until you taste copper.
"A shame." Her fingers slip lower and close around your throat, crimping your airway shut. She starts to squeeze at once, her tone one of absolute unconcern. "It'd be nice to kill someone worth a percentage increase."
It hurts. The scorch-mark burned into your foot hurts. Her fingers around your throat hurts. The pressure closing around your lungs is making it harder to breathe, and that hurts. In the desert, everything hurts.
"Not very efficient of you, sunshine." The words scratch at your throat, like breathing through nails. Her grip closes tighter, but you've still got enough breath to work the words out from between the feral arch of your teeth: "Thought crows weren't supposed to play with their food."
Keep her talking. Keep your body breathing.
A frown flickers over the ceramic-smooth contours of her features.
"You're right," the scarecrow breathes. "We don't."
"C'mon, baby." Your vision's starting to go fuzzy with phosphenes. Press your injured foot to the sand, hard as you can manage. Light up your brain with an explosive burst of white and orange until your nerves scream. But it keeps you awake. "We both know I'm too pretty to die."
Keep her talking.
Keep your body breathing.
Whatever it takes.
"Cute," says the scarecrow, coldly, "but your time's run out."
That's when Kobra shoots out her knee. Kick out at her other knee with your good foot, angle your body so you land on top of her, slam your elbow into her throat and leave her gasping. She gropes for her raygun, manages to yank it out and turn it on your brother. Smash your injured foot down on her wrist, even if the act shorts everything out, photobleaches your vision in black and white. Deal her a vicious kick underneath the chin that clocks her out cold.
Suck in one shaky, shuddering breath, and then another as she lays there, unmoving. The bruises of her fingerprints will be stark against your skin for weeks, and your foot will hurt for longer.
Take her gun from where it dropped in the dust. Steal from the trucks you bled for. Limp your way to the car with your throat still burning and your wounds still fresh, but with a brand new shiny fucking trophy for your trouble.
Steal gear. Steal food. Steal everything you can lay your thieving killjoy paws on, pile it into the back of the car. Have Dr. Death broadcast an open invitation for anyone in the vicinity to gorge themselves on that Better Living that was promised them. The raucous shouts of celebration and the way Kobra stands up on top of an old gas station and belts "PARTY" the sky - see, that makes the burns where the crow shot you, the ghost of her fingers around your neck, the ugly part your face where a streak of plasma seared off a chunk of your red fucking hair and scorched your cheek, completely and utterly worth it.
Other zonerunners tell you that the gun belongs to a scarecrow with a scary rep and a kill count to match. They call her Fume, and she's enough of a dark tale to tell around campfires that they look at you and Kobra with something approaching awe, to know that you stole clean away from her. You draw eyes and you draw whispers and when you stand on top of the car to thrust your fist into the air and call yourself the fucking enemy, people actually cheer. For weeks after, you hear murmurs in the dust about the killjoys that went up against Scarecrow Fume and lived, the zone-rats who crashed BLi's party and threw their own with the remains.
It ignites a spark in the pit of you, in that same place where the music lives - where the first creeping blot of crimson first spiderwebbed out across your heart and filled you with noise.
You, you've always known that you're poison. You touch countless lives that all wither and die and suffer just for having you in them.
Except Kobra. Snake that he is, he hasn't let you bleed him dry yet.
Make the best of the fuckup that you are. Crash BLi parties so you can pour poison into their water wells.
You're not just fucking poison.
You're fucking Poison.
So that's how you get your name. A blitz of glory and young maniacs setting pieces of the desert ablaze in the high of victory. You're Party Poison, they of the blisteringly red hair and the spitfire snarl to match, they of the appropriated children's television show mascot and tricked-out car and ruthless drive.
They ask you if you're going to take them to war. You're not, and you don't.
It's not enough to take from the people of the city, who live in misery the way your brother did. The way your mama did. The way you did. It's not enough to shoot down crows and demoralize the exterminators that try to put you down and fail. It's not enough to chase glory for its own sake.
It's not enough to be the enemy.
Party Poison, you're already becoming a story that bolsters people's hearts. You and your brother start to make a name for yourselves. You paint Fume's raygun so it's a glaring and neon yellow, a color with a vibrancy that you trust she would hate. Your brother paints his a cherry red, the same color as his jacket and the same color as the hair that hangs in wild spikes and dye-stiff strings in front of your eyes. You dress in contrasting colors, in jackets of leather, in fingerless gloves that make it easy to grip a wheel when it's burning hot. Party Poison and the Kobra Kid, who don't balk at BLi, who would rather stand and shoot dracs down than run - who can face crows toe to toe and come out on top.
But you're not really living like a killjoy until you run in a gang.
in unamerican apparel
Then he lights up two dracs aiming to mask the both of you in the dead of the night. The third nearly chokes him out until Kobra dusts the bastard.
"How the hell do you keep finding us?" he asks, somewhere between outrage and admiration.
The Ghoul shows you the tracker he retrofitted from a BLi surveillance tag and snuck underneath the hood.
Kobra gives him another black eye for fucking with the car.
You, Party Poison, ask him what else he can make.
To that, he grins again, through teeth rinsed as red as your hair and says he can make things go fucking boom like no one else can. His words.
The Ghoul is laughter and napalm and arsenic. He's long dark hair and an easy smile and skin tanned underneath the unrelenting desert sun. He has a quick trigger finger and an even quicker temper. He has an explosive bent that he sheathes in razors and a predatory flash of teeth that resembles a grin for all but those who know better. He's a rash of bad decisions scraped into a skeleton with black hair and a thrill for the flames, and he fucking loves every second of it. He stinks of cigarette smoke and motor oil and cheap rubber. He's a blister of a kid, a perpetual thorn in everyone's side, but he laughs louder and longer than anyone.
He says that your car's a real kickass hunk of metal, a pre-war Pontiac Firebird. A Trans Am. He says that a working model's a hell of a rarity. He could be making shit up for the sake of it, but you don't think he is.
So you repay him for saving your ass from dracs when he nearly gets shot up by a group of crash queens who take issue with Ghoul's sticky fingers. He pays you back by showing you how to make homemade fuel from methanol and oil and nitro, and that's how it goes for weeks on end. Just the three of you trading debts until it stops being a question of debt and starts being a question of doing a friend a solid. You still scrap and brawl. Kobra still darkens his lip with a bruise when things get heated, and sometimes you're the one to throttle him for fucking around when he shouldn't. He fucks you up right back, but never fucks off, and somehow that's what counts the most. You never tell him to go find some other crew to screw with, and that's what does it in the end, you think: the fact that he hasn't found anyone else willing to put up with him this long.
It's evident from the way he tenses up when things get squirrelly that he expects you to cut him loose when shit goes too far.
The story is that anyone who puts up with you is worth putting up with in turn. The footnotes don't include that you've laughed harder at Ghoul's shitty jokes than you have anything else, and that you're never gonna forget the look of elation on Kobra's face when Ghoul showed him how to sling a homemade bomb made from bottles and rags, something he calls a molotov.
He's Fun Ghoul, and he's a pain in the ass, but so are you, and so's your brother. The day you can fall asleep in the same room as him without waiting for him to knock out first is the day that you learn that, for better or worse, he's part of your crew now.
The following week, you tell him as much.
Ghoul only smirks and says, "no takebacks."
sometimes i know i'm just your favorite person's favorite person
and that's okay
may our futures never fade
You're not one for ditching grieving killjoys and leaving them to trek around the dust and ruin of the Zones on their own, so you offer him a ride to wherever he needs to go. He says he doesn't have anywhere he needs to go. His grip on his gun is just a little too tight when he says it, so you look him square in the eyes and say, simply, that maybe he'll figure that out when he gets there.
He looks like he's going to tell you no, his gaze already sliding away from yours, but then Ghoul leans out from the backseat and says that he found a free six pack of Jump Juice, see, so he needs someone to check and make sure it's not all gone flat. Fucking hates flat soda, see. All of them do. So could Jet save his plans to fill his head with lightning fire until after he's done them a quick favor?
It's always impossible to tell if Fun Ghoul's brazen irreverence is intentional wit or lucky idiocy, but he sells with a toothy grin and the hiss-pop of a cracked-open aluminum can.
Jet doesn't laugh at that, but he does get into the backseat. The four of you drive for days on end until the Trans Am's tank starts getting thirsty enough to whine for a break. Sometimes you catch Jet's eye in the rearview. More often than not, you survey him when he's looking out the window and into the gold-tinted horizon with an expression of complete desolation. His hair is long enough, dark and curly, to hide the worst of it when he angles his face away just so, but you can read the tautness in the veins standing out against his throat regardless.
He's a quiet passenger, but Ghoul talks enough for the both of them. The Juice turns out to be flat, but he drinks it anyway, and there happens to have been enough carbonation in those cans for Ghoul to belch long and loud and repeatedly, with enthusiasm. Kobra tells him to shut the fuck up. Ghoul leans forward and burps even louder right in Kobra's ear in retaliation. The easy cut and riposte of their repartee follows you into the dusk.
Drive until you can't. Stop when the sky is a pitch-dark expanse freckled with stars.
You don't get sights like this in the city.
Wait for Jet to make his departure. He doesn't. He's still there when you wake up the next day, and the next.
You learn that Jet Star can shoot a flattened can off the hood of a car at two hundred meters without so much as leaving a scorch mark. You learn that Jet Star can do long division in his head without thinking twice about it, and that he can tie a tourniquet in the middle of a clap without breaking a sweat. You learn that he knows how to prep a needle to draw blood in an emergency, how to flame-sterilize the nearest tool so it can cut away necrosing flesh, how to stitch a wound one-handed. You don't ask him how he knows any of it, and he never says.
You learn that he's got colors in his head, same as you, and that it's the drone of a guitar on the Trans Am radio that sets his soul singing. You argue for hours over the best record Mad Gear ever put out, and you learn that Jet's laughter is rarer by far than Ghoul's, but it's warm and rich and always worth it when one of you can coax it out of him. You learn that his anger isn't the sting of knuckles like Kobra's, or a knifecut grin like Ghoul's, but a stony face and a flat look. There are minute differences in the furrowing of his brow and the cast of his eyes, but it's paying witness to his glacial silence that tells you the most of you need to know.
In the end, Jet never reaches wherever it is he said he wasn't planning on going. Maybe he found out exactly where he needed to be when he climbed into the Trans Am's backseat. It's never decided in any official sense; like the case with Ghoul, he just ends up being one of you without any fanfare whatsoever. He watches your collective backs and laughs with you and bleeds with you and for a killjoy, that's more than enough to make someone family.
The thing about family is this: you can hate them more than you hate anyone else in the world, but no one else gets to fuck with them except you. Love is a swallow of flat soda cut with the taste of your brothers' mouths when they sip at the can and pass it along to you, and it's the sting of one of them grabbing a fistful of your shirt-front and hauling you off your feet to snarl in your face. It's knuckles on your lips and the taste of copper. It's the tang of adrenaline when you cut down two dracs about to fill your brothers with holes. It's sewing up Ghoul's arm mid-firefight. It's Jet hauling your ass behind the car before the next laser shot blows a crater in your jaw. It's Kobra learning how to crack open a vending machine with wires and technology and celebrating by emptying the first one he sees of power packs which Jet quietly inventories, all while Ghoul sets what's left of the BLi-branded thing on fire.
You're family forged in heat and dust and people will say that family isn't capable of destroying itself the way yours does - but what do those people know of family?
So you get to be a crew of four in multicolored leather - blue, red, yellow, and black. Jet's just as good as stitching clothes as he is skin, and helps you lay your symbol into the back of your jacket. You look over the red stencil of the pill's shape stamped across your back, and smirk. BLi's goddamned chemistry couldn't keep you on the chain. Why not make that your fucking legacy? No pill could choke down your shitty, messy, ragged feelings; no palmful of medication could keep you down, silence the music drumming away in your head.
Why not be fucking proud of it?
sometimes i smile
just to put some perspective on the pain
Ghoul is elbows-deep in one of the old fuel stations, and clearly isn't listening to much. You, you're busy slowly cutting away an old Dead Pegasus logo from one of the old employee bodysuits. Place is so old that anyone who used to run it is long gone - not even attending pumps in exchange for carbons, the way some people do. Jet, playing lookout at the side of the Trans Am, signals his attention with an upward flick of his eyes.
Kobra rolls his shoulders, and rips a page clean from the magazine with a flourish. The act is a sizzling line of turquoise in the confines of your head.
"Before the Helium Wars, anyway. They called it Death Valley."
A faint frown creases Jet's brows, and he looks back out into the desert. Ghoul glances up from his work and snorts.
"Thought BLi didn't believe in prophecy," he says, tongue stuck out between his teeth in concentration.
"You get grease in your ears? I said before the wars."
Ghoul huffs. "Then whoever named it was a real fucking fatidic motherfucker."
"Shut the fuck up," says Kobra. "You don't know what that word means."
"Prophetic," says Jet, with absolutely no prompting, not looking at either of them.
Pausing in your work is worth it to note the look Kobra shoots in Jet's direction, landing somewhere between disbelief and frustration. Ghoul barks out a mad cackle, head flung back.
"Pretty weird to put gas stations in the middle of a place called Death Valley." Your contribution is less inflammatory, muttered as you take your lower lip between your teeth, busy as you are sawing away at some stubborn threads latching the patch in place.
"Not here specifically." The Kid shakes his head with evident disgust, and turns his attention back to his magazine. "Never fucking mind. You all can forget I said anything if you can't appreciate history."
"What history?" Ghoul yanks the gas hose free from its pump and walks it over to the Trans Am, locks it in place. "Not a care in the world for the BL//Ind, right? History's all squeaky-clean now. Painted up nice and white."
"Painted black," you say darkly, thinking of the dark lines of redacted text in your history textbooks. It's been years since you thought of the school you attended in Battery City. Years since you've thought of anything besides life out here in the dirt. Feels more and more like looking back at someone whose life you watched, rather than someone whose life you lived. Like looking at your reflection in the hubcap of the car, twisted around and bent out of shape and rendered almost unrecognizable. A kid who ran by a different name, whose hair was a bland and ordinary brown, who tried to keep their head down and listen to the exterminators and take their meds and not misbehave.
Before they knew that misbehaving was the only thing they were any good at.
You can feel Ghoul's eyes on the back of your head, but you finish sawing through the last of your patch's threads and breeze past him without looking, flicking your prize between dirt-stained fingertips.
"Think you can help me get this thing on the dash?" you ask Jet, tapping two fingers against the car. It'll look shiny stuck up there, to match the dark blue of your jacket. Jet doesn't answer in so many words, but you read his consent in the faint inclination of his chin. You grin wide and clap him on the back in thanks.
"Y'know if I can scrounge any spare gas, I could make some real good shit with this," says Ghoul, tugging on the hose pump indicatively. "If y'don't mind stickin' around a few more hours."
"Do it." You don't look at him - only offer your assent in brief duplicate. Detect his triumph anyway in his quiet hiss and the vicious twist of the gas hose as he detaches it from the car.
Kobra rubs at the back of his head, bouncing at the balls of his feet. He scratches his jaw. He paces around toward the back of the car and then away again. He crams the rest of his magazine back on its old stand and pushes back inside the station proper.
You keep his fervent motion in the corner of your eye. He makes it easy. He's not as good about finding ways to burn off the shakes as you've gotten to be. It's enough for you to draw your gun from its holster and spin it, practice drawing quick and shooting from the hip. No real reason to shoot from the hip, when it's a far cry from those old-school guns that sprayed lead and cordite and not beams of heat and fucking plasma, but it feels good to land a hit when you're aiming low.
You do most of the things you do out here for one of two reasons: because you need to survive, and because you goddamn well want to.
In the box of the old station, Kobra paces. He doesn't want to sit still, doesn't want to stand still, strides between aisles picked clean but for the discarded fragments of a time when this place was full of cars and ordinary people and civilization.
Maybe it was a place called Death Valley, once. You've never thought to ask the doctor, who seems to know the actual history of most things better than anyone - none of that sanitized BLi-sponsored shit. But Dr. D commemorates the past in radio-waves and old songs that predate the Helium Wars. He archives it in offhand remarks and infrequent asides that no one has the memories to question him on.
Wonder if that's why there are so many old buildings out here, and so much old scrap buried in the sand. The Zones aren't just empty wasteland, though it feels like a good eighty percent of them might as well be. There was a world out here, once, even if it's long since been lost in a haze of sand and wind and radiation. The old magazines flapping in the hot breath of wind are all you've got to gauge the lives of whoever might have lived here, echoes of what used to be.
You can't miss something you never knew. You pluck one of the magazines from the stand anyway. Flip through it, idle and uncommitted. The rustling of the pages are flickers of pink, blurs of color and sound, but that's not what draws your eye. The headline is the word MURDER in red block letters, and the contents are all BLi. Old articles on exterminators, most of them unfamiliar to you.
Recognize Fume on one of the pages. Smile to yourself, grim and self-satisfied.
"Oh, milkshake." Kobra derails the texture of your thoughts by barging out of the station with laughter on his lips. The sound of the door banging open has Jet's hand flying to the raygun at his hip, tenses you up, elicits a snarl and a curse from Ghoul. Kobra only laughs, clear and bright. "Actual food."
Turns out that some group of motorbabies left a cache of supplies hidden out here, and didn't see fit to return to it in time. You don't take it, someone else will, so it don't take much prompting before you're loading it in the back of the Trans Am along with a couple of Ghoul's homemade bombs.
It also turns out that peanut butter and jerky can last until the end of days, and then some.
Leave the magazine in tatters on the ground.
i'm not here to restore any faith
and i make expensive mistakes
"Go suck it!" That's Ghoul, all brisance and laughter as he discharges his raygun into a drac that manages to hook an arm around his neck. He shoots off two streaks of light that flare wildly into the dusk of Zone One before he manages to angle it at the drac's temple and fire. You, Party Poison, are kept busy trying to pin down a couple of dracs circling you on motorcycles. One of them clips you across your upper arm and you go down silently, landing heavily on the ground. Crab frantically away from the follow-up shots, then roll onto your stomach and crawl on knees and elbows. You can feel warm red running down the front of your jacket, staining your skin. Every move burns, digs into your shoulder, but if you don't move you're dead, so move anyway. The hole punched into your arm froths gray and oozes red. Close your finger around the trigger and grimace through the resultant spike that cramps your fingers in agonizing palsy.
Switch your gun to your non-dominant hand, shoot out the tires of one drac's motorcycle. You got good at shooting through the pain, doing most everything that you do through the pain, the day you breached the city line.
The drac's pair of wheels flips and sends its passenger careening into the dust. Jet blasts the drac from one hundred meters back. Flip onto your side to keep another from nailing you in the skull, and Kobra is there to dust the drac with two point-blank shots to the throat, despite the slice at the side of his head that dribbles scarlet down the line of his cheek and onto his jacket.
Four of you, with enough strategy and focus, can take apart the dracs that guard supplies, because dracs are mindless and inarticulate things, and you're four rebels with a taste for destruction and anarchy. Kobra punches a drac's throat in while Ghoul pours a continuous stream of open-fire plasma into the back of its head. You cover Jet with the loosing of gunfire as he rips white strips of fabric from a dead drac's suit to wind around your fresh-bleeding shoulder. Most of those shots don't land, but they scatter the dracs and drive them to distraction so your brothers can pick them off, so they still do what they're meant to.
Remember seeing old pictures in Dr. D's station, old magazines, with strangers in wide-brimmed hats blowing smoke from a fresh-fired gun. Manage to nail a drac through the head with a shot from your left hand and then lift the gun to blow at the barrel, even if the muzzle ain't smoking, just to celebrate your improbable aim.
Victory smells like latex and blood in the sand. It also stings.
It feels like training yourself to shoot with your off hand in the weeks it takes for your shoulder to heal, and it sounds like dracs firing at you from stretches of road when you didn't do as thorough a job of cleaning out the supply truck entourage as you thought.
It tastes like enough canned food and gas to last you for weeks on end, maybe months. Earn a reputation for bold fronts on BLi's own turf, for flagrant defiance, for passing shit along to fellow 'joys who don't mind if you ripped your supplies straight from BLi's waiting hands.
"Ballsy motherfuckers." Riptide is one of those 'joys, blue-haired and ebony-skinned, and they slap your back with unmistakably companionable fondness when you say you've got fresh shipments for trade. They're the most reliable when it comes to the kind of shit that Dr. D needs most of - coffee, aspirin, anything sweet that keeps his motor running. They don't mind taking BLi heat for the freshest goods you can find. Their crew roams fast, never settles down; no crow's ever pinning them down for good. "Don't know how you pull it off."
"Good looks and better luck," is your easy reply, two parts pride, one part wry, and one hundred percent Party Poison.
"Mostly luck," says Kobra. Jet slides a box of battery packs from the car to the sand, and Kobra kicks it open. Riptide hunkers down over to rifle through the contents.
"'S 'cause we're morons," says Ghoul, sniffing an old package of instant coffee. Kobra wordlessly removes it from his hands and shoves it into his pocket without looking at him, valiantly ignoring Ghoul's answering glower.
"This shit's clean?" Riptide jostles the box of zap-packs, brow dimpling.
Ghoul breaks from his cursory grumble in Kobra's direction to hold up a different bag, rattling with BLi trackers. He likes to take that shit apart and see what he can make from it, it turns out, and not just when he feels like he wants to track a real flashy old car.
"Y'even gotta ask?"
"Doom'd kill me if I didn't," says Riptide, shoulders rolling in a shrug. "Give D's wheels my regards, when you see 'em. They still owe me a fresh fuckin' rebreather."
There's a story there you could ask about, but you don't. That's one of those things that you just learn the longer you're out here in the Zones: stay in your lane. Don't go stirring shit unless you can handle it. You don't owe anybody anything, especially if they start acting like they do. Debts are worked out between friends, or not at all.
Maybe the doctor's never said that you owe him, but you still go outta your way to slide him an assist when you can. It's the least you can do in exchange for him being the reason that you and your brother lived long enough to become Party Poison and the Kobra Kid at all.
It's getting harder to manage that now that BLi's starting to take notice of you, but when's a little discouragement ever been enough to put off a fuckup like you? You aggravate their delivery times, fuck with their punctuality and structure and perfectly coordinated schedules. You steal shit from under their noses, and feed it to the motorgoblins living day to day.
Party Poison, Kobra Kid, Fun Ghoul, and Jet Star start to become words in stories and shouts in songs. You're a spider sprawled across the front of a car hood, stars and stripes stretched out across the sides. You're the absolute maniacs who can engineer rocket launchers from stolen BLi tech and pieces of old scrap. You're untouched and untouchable. You don't just live like killjoys; you live just a little bit further. You live like children of the engine who don't know if they'll ever have a tomorrow. You light up the horizon and spit sparks into the dust you kick up with the spinning of tires.
You don't live beyond the dry skin of the desert sky. Not yet.
That only happens once Dr. D sends his Pony to ask you for help for a job, and that job is stealing the spark that will light the fires of revolution right under BLi's ass.
Dr. D provides you your step ten in the form of Show Pony, languid with charm atop roller skates, who asks you how far you'd be willing to go to ruin BLi's day.
Step ten is how you become a Fabulous Killjoy.
Step ten is that you steal a child.
but i only talk from the heart no matter what i say
the right line at the wrong time
They only realized in the aftermath that she was pregnant, though they never knew that her soul courses in that child's veins. They don't know the truest extent of the flare gun that will unmake BLi from the ground up. She's kept in their city, under guard, under watch, still too young for a medicated repertoire - kept, of course, unaware of her origins. They don't know what she is yet, but they know that something about her might be dangerous. In need of containment. In need of education. She has the desert in her blood. She has her mother's fire in her soul. She's beyond a symbol; she's extraordinary. She can take this world back from its megacorporate heart attack.
He tells you that they can't afford to let the cost of all it took to find her location go to waste.
If anyone can retrieve her, he says, it's the four of you, and he's not asking out of a sense of debt or obligation.
He says he wouldn't ask this of anyone else.
Your brothers all look to you.
Party Poison, you look at them right back.
Kobra shrugs and says he's been waiting for a chance to test that new power glove of his. Ghoul only grins. Jet doesn't say anything, but he claps your shoulder with a rough hand and squeezes, once.
Cement the circumstances of your collective deaths in the same moment that you assure the world that you'll never truly die: with jackal smiles and smoke bombs and the one ultimate fuck you to the sprawling megacorporation that four of you could never hope to take apart on your own.
You pull it off with a firebrand audacity that's become trademark. Blow down walls and fill immaculate city streets with the reek of exhaust fumes and the smell of napalm. Light dracs up with electromagnetic radiation and photons. Scream like banshees. Shatter every barrier separating you from the little girl you were sent to save, though she doesn't know it yet.
It's absolute chaos. It doesn't take much for disorder to spread in the streets of Battery City. Disrupt one routine, and pretty soon everything's out of balance. That's the jeopardy of trying to run a single well-oiled machine. One cog out of place makes the whole thing faulty. Shoot out a couple exterminators, and the reinforcements come streaming out after. Imagine their surprise when they don't find anyone to take in - just a street slicked with gasoline, and the hiss of Ghoul striking a match. The smokescreen of disarray, literal and otherwise, is the perfect cover to steal up to one of the central buildings and shoot through the glass windows and make a right mess of things. Alarms start yowling immediately, and there's a thicket of dracs sliding out into the city's night-darkened alleyways. The trick is that they don't shoot first unless they know where they're shooting; it's poor form to waste power, after all. So Ghoul piles on the smoke, and then there's the flash of raygun muzzles as the rest of you start firing.
The whole job is perfect for you, of course. All it entails is the fucking up of things. And that part is easy. That part is step one.
So you, Party Poison, are a goddamned natural. The sheer and shameless fucking insanity of this plan is as deliberate as it is strategic, and that just happens to be your specialty.
You find her exactly where Dr. Death said she'd be. Make short work of the exterminators guarding her, and break the door open with enough pressure in the right areas. She jumps and scrambles backwards when the door slams inward. The room is bare and nondescript save for one of the static-torn BLi screens fuzzing on one of the walls. The blandly happy logo occasionally flickers in through the black-and-white snow. The sight of it forces you to resist the urge to shoot it as well.
You're smarter than that. Save your ammo.
Don't scare the Girl.
Her breaths are short and rapid. Despite the blitz of lasers and the rumble of distant explosions and the shouts of the crows trying to marshal their forces, the room where they've kept her is almost entirely silent, save for the syncopation of her breathing. Her hair and skin are almost as dark as Jet's, but her eyes are curiously pale, and she trains them unblinkingly on you. Her expression is withdrawn. Impossible to read.
You stretch out your hand to her, wordlessly.
Maybe it's her mother's spark that reminds her that people gloved in color and masks are her comrades in arms. Maybe it's the fact that there's no one else in this small white room and you must be the first person to reach out to offer her help instead of simply grabbing her and taking her to wherever BLi wants her to go. Maybe it's the brightness to your hair that fascinates her.
Whatever the reason, her hand slides easily into yours. Focus on the look in her eyes: concerned, scared, confused, but most of all, curious.
You're not out of the inferno just yet, Party Poison, but you manage a brief smile, and that's what tightens her grip and cements the conviction in her gaze.
She comes with you willingly.
She's too small to run as fast as she needs to. So you pick her up, settle her gently against your hip, and she lets you. The dark frizz of her hair tickles the underside of your chin. Tiny fingers thread their way around the leather of your jacket and hold tight.
She's just a girl, like any other. But she's not.
Blast your way out of Battery City with a child on one arm and a raygun in your free hand. Jet lays down cover fire while Kobra sends the Trans Am careening over the rubble of a caved-in wall and kicks the backdoor open so you and your charge can pile into your getaway car.
You almost don't make it. One shot clips you on the shoulder, and another sizzles at the thick fabric of your boots, though it doesn't quite punch through. It doesn't have to. The pain at your scapula is secondary, but it's still pain, and it still makes you grit your teeth. Two more shots hiss through the car's window, and you instinctively ball around the Girl's smaller body when it showers broken glass over the pair of you.
Glance back, return fire with your good hand. A skull-pale face leers out at you from the smoldering slag of the devastation you've left in your wake. You recognize it in the half-second before it ducks behind the building wall its owner is using as cover, from posters hung on city walls and scraps of magazine articles that float out into the Zones and stories told around late-night fires and 'joys that've lost arms and half their crews.
It's a scarecrow. One of the very worst.
You can also recognize hateful vengeance at a look. You've made a mess of things, and this is the man who will be tasked with cleaning it up. You can see it in the ugly snarl set in features so stiff they may as well have been carved from marble.
You take aim again, and shoot, and miss. You look to Jet, but he's already firing three shots into the air in rapid succession.
That's the signal.
One of the Bat City broadcast towers buckles under the pressure of an earth-shattering BOOM that rocks the pavement under the tires. Jet barely manages to dive into the passenger seat. Smoke seethes over the bleached-white walls of the city. Kobra hits the gas with a screech of burned rubber and the roar of an engine leaping to life.
Ghoul's face is coal-black when he wobbles his way out of the wreckage and rubble of his own creation and yanks off his mask, an antique of green and purple, with strands of his hair sizzling like candlewicks and spitting snake-trails of gray and black into the air. He looks like he just about torched the sleeves off his jacket in the process of lighting up your distraction, but the rest of you recognize him by the white glaze of his teeth set into the soot-darkened blur of his face as you haul him into the backseat with you.
He tells you between erratic bouts of ragged laughter that he stuffed enough dynamite into that thing to blow out every window on the block. It needed to be big, see. It needed to be big enough for BLi to let five fugitives crawl out of the wreckage and see another day. You can only hope that no actual civilians were caught in the blast radius.
Killjoys don't deal in hopes, though. Can't afford to. You deal in the concrete. You deal in action. You take hold of what you can do and make it a reality. You have a want and you do whatever the hell you can to achieve it.
So hopes don't get you anywhere. People get ghosted all the time in the city. Each of you have your own body counts, and not all of them are mindless draculoids. It's for that specific reason that you angled for this caper to shake down after dark, once almost everyone is off the streets save for the exterminators.
That, and it's perfect cover. BLi expects a lot of things, see. They prep for almost every scenario. But they're not anticipating a quartet of rebellious, caffeinated teenagers with nitro in their hearts to come screaming through their walls, roll on up to their very front door, and steal something priceless from right under their noses.
More gunfire burns the painted the sides of the car a smoking and ugly black. Kobra, at the wheel, yells over the crescendo of fast approaching laser-blasts, "get the FUCK down!"
Ghoul's cackle is barely audible over the shriek of streaking electromagnetism and bursts of plasma, but you still catch Jet's growl between clenched teeth: "gas."
Kobra floors it. You hold the Girl's head down until the skid of tires over concrete outpaces the tide of white and black - wave after wave of dracs spilling after intruders.
You've overstayed your welcome, and you got who you came for. Don't return fire, don't look back. Just stay down until you've cleared the city line for the second time in your life, Party Poison, and then straighten back up again with your jaw locked. You're not out of the fire. Not really. This little stunt will ensure that you'll never truly be out of it again.
Brush shards of broken glass from your jacket and your achingly red hair, and then from the Girl's. She lets you do it.
Her breaths are still rapid and her eyes dart from person to person, taking in each other passenger of the car. She doesn't say anything as you rocket down the getaway mile. When she starts to stare at the blur of the desert as you speed past, you let her stick her head out of one of the windows - the one that's been permanently jammed rolled down, and that the four of you never really figured out how to fix.
She yells into the high-speed winds with her hands thrust up above her head. She almost tips out onto the road, still riding that adrenaline high, and Ghoul quickly loops an arm around her middle to pull her onto his knee.
She laughs when she spills back onto the cracked upholstery. Ghoul musses her hair with one dusty hand stinking of char and bomb-fumes, and she squeaks with joyful indignity when she sticks her hands into his smoking locks and musses his right back. Then she jabs hands smeared with black into yours. Her face is stretched wide into an elated child's grin, the smile of someone who's just embarked on a tremendous adventure, and Party Poison, you won't know it for a while yet, but this is the precise moment when you fall in love.
This is how you live forever. In the nighttime cries of a little girl who never knew her mother. In the shrill of raygun fire when you duck and take cover from swarms of dracs on the hunt for four outlaws who stole straight from BLi's doorstep. In the slide of a letter as it drops to the bottom of a mailbox.
In posters with mugshots of your faces slashed with red X's. Kobra rips his off a wall and holds it up, critically examining all the flaws the rendition made in imitating his facial structure with mock offense. Ghoul just tears his up and snickers at the scraps. Your smiles are a little too rigid and your laughs don't carry on for quite as long as they should, when you exchange a look with Jet; no matter how many jokes you make at BLi's expense, the heavy weight of unease has settled like stormclouds against your skin.
You made fools of all of them, and BLi won't let that simply be forgotten. They're itching for retribution. You drove into their city, stole away an asset, started raising her on hair dye and gasoline fumes and rock 'n roll.
That's not something that a megacorporation just lets slide.
The aftermath is secondary.
BLi immediately puts their chief exterminator on the job. You recognize him on the photographs and magazine covers, and from the day you stole the Girl from the city. It's his job to fix what you broke. Might be because it was his job to ensure that it was never to be broken in the first place. So now you figure he has a personal desire to take apart your legacy piece by piece before he kills you. Maybe it's his hope that he'll demoralize the rest of your anarchic kind in one fell swoop.
He's been set up to fail. Killjoys never die.
Your triumph paints targets on your backs regardless. It'd be wisest to hand the Girl off to another band of 'joys while you shake the heat or die trying, but BLi wants her back, and it wants her back alive. Show Pony offers to take her to another crew. You refuse them every time.
She stays with you.
The tightness of her fingers around your wrist is quiet assurance that the sentiment is mutual.
Step ten is to steal a child. It's also to keep her safe.
Somewhere among the breakneck, high-speed shrill of tires over asphalt, of close calls and getaway drives, of the fame and infamy you bring down upon yourselves by taking the Girl in of your own free will, you become a word hushed with awe, a story spoken in quiet undertone, a specter haunting city homes with the heatstroke of rebellion.
A Fabulous Killjoy.
but i'm so addicted to the nighttime
not the acid rain of the limelight
None of you teach her how to load a raygun or thread a needle through opened skin, but she learns anyway.
She adjusts to the life well. Like the pieces of her mother's soul are remembering that this is where she's meant to be, and bleeding phantom memory back into her little Girl's muscles. She learns fast. Her hands are already toughening with calluses, her legs growing stronger for running. She never complains about the heat or the way the sand gets in her hair and in her clothes and just about everywhere. She always keeps a radio on hand, and always keeps it running. She doesn't complain when scarecrows force you reroute or relocate quickly, helps keep Jet and Ghoul from toppling out of the car when they have to duck out the back windows and return fire at the white suits in pursuit.
The Trans Am's getting crowded between the five of you, but you wouldn't live anywhere else. You make stops at old fuel stations and defunct diners, artifacts of the pre-war days when the Zones weren't Zones and were actually habitable, but it's never for very long. You have places to be.
The Girl is sunshine and an atom bomb. She likes to stick her head out of the windows of the car and scream into the sun, and sometimes she and Ghoul see who can scream the loudest or for the longest. Even with the specter of strain pinned beneath each of your smiles, the uncertainty of how long you can keep up this nonstop chase, she manages to make you laugh, and when she grins it splits her whole face wide open and sends electricity spinning out. Her hair starts to grow out now that BLi's not trimming it short to suit their preferences, until it's as wild and flyaway as Jet's.
BLi could kill you tomorrow, but when she leans her head up against one of your shoulders, or tries to fight back tears when she scrapes her knee, or laughs, loud and infectious, when Kobra high-fives her and watches her cheeks dimple with a wide grin, when Ghoul makes faces at her from the passenger seat and sends her into fits of giggles, when Jet picks her up and sets her on his shoulders, you catch yourself thinking - it would be worth it.
She's worth every clap you get into for her sake. There's a thickness in your blood, a pulse in your marrow, a hardening to your bones. She pulls smiles out of you without thinking.
There's a power to her, and a power to being needed. Now more than ever, Party Poison, the Fabulous Killjoys need you to lead - she needs you to lead. She needs you to keep her alive. Never mind your youth. Never mind that you're children fighting a war that's so much bigger than any one of you. She needs you to fight and live and lead and keep breathing for that bulletproof future, so you do.
She's not just the future of the Zones, of the city, of the people within it. She's the Girl. She's one of you.
Dr. D checks on you more often, now. He becomes your beacon, slipping coded speech into your radios to let you know when Korse has decided to crawl out of his hole and make another effort to snare him some killjoys. Sometimes he sends Pony with gear, with water, with something for the Girl. Sometimes he only sends them when the airwaves aren't safe to go juggling messages by. You stop at his station with increasing frequency.
He never tells you why the Girl is special, and you never ask. He only says that she's sowing seeds among the dust angels and zonerunners. There's whispers bouncing between crews and threading through the Zones and hanging in the air. Girl's special. Girl's gonna set us all free.
Nothing he or anyone else says about her would ever close to touching who she is out here in the dust. You could feel the strength in those little fingers the day she took your hand, and you trust that above all else. But even if you didn't, Dr. Death is the DJ who saved your life; not once has he steered you wrong.
Others move in and out of his station, when he has one, when he isn't clearing out in preparation for a white suit tide. By habit you don't ask any names, but you look at one of them a little too long, which for you is what passes for a question, because the skin on his shoulders and neck is patchworked with rashes and radiation burns. His hair's undyed, his face unmasked. There's no hiding what he is. Taking in a wavehead is a pretty questionable move for someone who spends his days serenading killjoys. Dr. D only calls him Cherri Cola and says he's an old friend, and leaves it at that.
Cherri seems to stay there on a semi-permanent basis, you learn the next time you visit, and the next time, and the next. There's only so many times you can run into him before the unvoiced questions start to thicken the air between you and him.
"Atom baby!" Show Pony is as delighted to see your baby Girl as ever, happily sweeping her up to spin her around over their head. The Girl laughs and sticks her arms out like she's soaring. It's practically routine at this point, but the way she acts, you'd never guess it. They've taken a shine to her, the way most do; if her grin doesn't pull at someone's heart, then her firecracker spirit does.
The Girl grabs at the Pony's helmet, and they let her slide it off so she can plop it onto her own head. She's the only one who can, though by now you've seen Pony without their gear enough times for it to not take you off guard.
Pony sets her back down and cocks one hip.
"Old enough to learn to skate across car-tops yet?"
"No," you and Jet say simultaneously. Jet is watching the pair of them in his periphery, just like you're watching him watch them in yours. The majority of your attention, currently, is tunneled in on Cherri Cola himself, watching him fidget with a chain around his neck and pretend he hasn't realized that he's getting stared at. Takes a minute to register them as dogtags, but sure enough, that's what they are. Looks too young to've fought in any war, but no one's got a readable age out here, not in the Zones. Living like a killjoy carves decades out of your skin in scar tissue and flash burns and sun-rash and lines set into your face.
Show Pony is having the Girl play a game of guessing their age, which as far as you can tell is a running bet of theirs. She guesses right, they take her skating down the length of the getaway mile. The problem is that Show Pony's age, much like everything else about them, is difficult to discern. Might as well be a gliding gray area. They could be naturally dark or sun-tanned over time, in their thirties or no older than any of you, and that ain't even touching the fluidity of their presentation. You've gathered that Show Pony favors the ambiguity. They like to keep people guessing. Dr. D went and let Kobra believe that they were some kinda cyborg for months on end before he gradually wised up to the deception, whereas you're pretty sure they forgot that was even the story they fed him until he got vocal about the fact that he'd been played.
The Pony taps the Girl's nose with a shake of their head at her bold guess of "five hundred."
"Mm, little off the mark with that one. Better luck next time, fizzbit."
You acknowledge the exchange in only the most perfunctory sense. Mostly, you're watching Cherri hook his thumb around the chain for his dogtags and studiously pretend that he hasn't realized that you're looking at him. He keeps darting sidelong glances in your direction, swallowing, and looking away again; it's apparent he's noticed.
That's around the time that Dr. D rolls in and orders you all find somewhere else to crash if he's gonna broadcast anything worth sending along the airwaves before the day's out.
Sunset meets the mess of you parked out on and around the Trans Am in varying stages of organized indolence, letting the heat suck you dry. Ghoul and Kobra are sat cross-legged with the Girl as they show her how to repaint a raygun. Jet leans up against the car while you sit on its roof, watching. Show Pony is off running some errand or another at the doctor's behest. You weren't privy to it, so you didn't ask. That's another one of those rules of the Zones that no one tells you.
Cherri is off to the side, looking all the world like a man who desperately does not want to be there but simply has no other place to go. No other cars or motorcycles out here. He's well and truly staying with the doc, full time.
"D trusts you," you say without preamble, and you can hear the slight squeak of leather on metal as Jet shifts his position incrementally. That's the only indication that his attention has slid over to you and your incipient conversation; he still gazes evenly out at the rest of your crew.
Cherri startles. It's not an easy thing to miss, considering how his hand jumps up to his dogtags and he jerks on the spot like someone who was just grabbed from behind. He steadies quickly. Even if you hadn't picked up on the way his nerves seem to've been strung out since you got here, there's a shortness to his breath that indicates you've spooked him, that he didn't expect to be addressed.
"He's a friend," he says at last.
"D's friends with a lotta people." Tilt your head, look at him through the eyeholes of your mask. "He's friends with us."
Cherri doesn't meet your eyes. "But you're...you."
He doesn't need to elaborate on that. But you're you. But you're the Fabulous Four. But you're the killjoys who drove straight up to Battery City and lived to breathe about it after. With that little stunt, and others, you've netted yourselves a reputation.
So who's he, then? Someone who lives in the Zones, if he's heard stories of you by now, and a former wavehead if those scars are any indication, sure. But Dr. D's kept him around for a reason, and it's hard to say if friendship is a solid enough foundation for that sort of thing.
Maybe it is. You were just some lost city undergrad when he saved you and Kobra both, and didn't ask anything in return.
"And you're you," you say, drawing your knee up to drape your elbow across the ragged tear in your jeans. "Don't explain why you're staying with him."
Cherri doesn't say anything to that. He only runs his fingers up and down the chain that keeps the dogtags around his neck.
"He saved my life," he says at last.
That seems to be the pattern. You eye Cherri off for a minute.
"You owe him?"
Cherri breathes out, a soft little huff of air. "He doesn't think so."
"But you do." Cherri's eyes dart, briefly, to yours at the summation. Then he looks away again. The more he sits under the spotlight of your gaze, the less he seems to want to stand still. Might be it's the need to itch at those wave-burns peeling his skin. He has an addict's twitch. You'd bet fifty c's on the spot that if you pressed a finger to his neck, his pulse would be jumping and thready.
"It doesn't matter," says Cherri, quietly. "You don't last as long as he does out here without making some enemies. He needs someone to watch his back."
"You never seen Show Pony in a fight?" That cracks your expression, twists your lips into a look just south of a smirk.
"Pony can't watch him twenty-four-seven." Cherri's thumb digs at the corner of one of his tags, pressing down until the pad bleaches bone white.
"And you can? What, you think D can't handle himself?"
His eyes snap to yours and his teeth flash under the dying sun.
"Worry about yourself. Worry about the Girl."
So he does have a spine hidden somewhere under the pink-red burns spotting his neck and shoulders. You bare your teeth. People don't like it when you act the way you do, all feral and strange and full of wild laughter, like you're not quite human. Cherri doesn't flinch. His fingers still twitch and shiver at the chain around his neck, but when he meets your gaze it's with an unyielding resolve.
"You threatening my Girl?" you say, low and soft.
She's the easy target. The weak point. Target her, and you get on the bad side of every member of the Fabulous Four. She's obvious. Not many crews run with children, but they're the simplest to nab and the best to use as bargaining chips.
So far, no one's been that goddamned stupid to say it to your face.
Immediately, that does it. Cherri swallows hard enough for you to see the muscles working in his throat.
"What? No, I - "
Your hand's already sprung to the dandelion-yellow raygun at your side. You can draw quicker than anyone you've met, and Cherri ain't even armed. His hand jerks like he's about to reach for a gun on reflex, but there's nothing to grab. He doesn't run, either. He only tenses on the spot and closes his eyes as the color drains from his face.
"Easy, hotshot." Dr. D don't have to speak loud to be heard. Something about his friendly drawl commands everyone's attention in the vicinity. A real voice for radio. He rolls out of his station to park himself next to Cherri, who glances down at him with a look you can only describe as "pleading." The doc jerks his head. Cherri immediately makes for the station.
"He thinks you can't handle yourself?" You watch him go with hooded eyes.
Dr. Death Defying sighs, and rubs a hand along the edge of his bandana.
"It's more than that," he says at last, the words a low and gravelly pull. "Complicated."
That's code for none of your business. That much, at least, you can parse for yourself.
Slide your gun back into the holster at your hip.
"I can't say much, but I will say this." Can't for the life of you tell how the doctor does it, how he looks at you with sunglasses on and you can tell that his dark eyes are drilling right on into you. "Weren't for him, your Girl wouldn't be here."
He doesn't point. He doesn't have to. You can still see her crouched busily over Ghoul's gun, applying a careful fresh coat of paint. Kobra is watching you. Probably has been since you drew your zap, if not sooner.
You look back to him. Dr. Death's mouth tightens into a thin line.
"We're all on the same side here, sunshine."
Introductions don't decide if a man's trustworthy. The doctor's judgment is solid, but you're gonna need more than his word that Cherri Cola is a zone-rat worth trusting. An ex-wavehead with addict's jitters doesn't inspire a whole lotta trust, see. Killjoys don't root their faith in the spoken word alone when action's the only currency with any clout. Action's the only thing that gets BLi's attention, and anyone else's, out in the dust.
So the next time you're at the doctor's station, you watch Cherri give the Girl his dogtags to play with, and you watch her fall asleep on the same couch as him without a worry.
"You want me to shoot him for you?" says Ghoul, yawning, like he hasn't been watching you watch Cherri Cola with a warning in the taut line of your spine.
Snort, Party Poison, but don't answer.
"I can fuck him up." Ghoul's digging a chunk of something out from underneath one fingernail, pretending like he isn't invested in this conversation. Pretending that he doesn't notice the tension in your clenched jaw and the stiffness to your back. But he nudges your elbow, and leans his head up against your shoulder with that characteristic boneless indolence of his. You let him. Your brothers are the only people in the world who can get away with scrambling all over you. "Seriously. This guy bothering you?"
Shift very slightly so that Ghoul's careless slouch against your shoulder doesn't result in him sliding off and falling on his ass.
"D said he had a hand in getting her out." You don't have to specify what you mean by her.
Ghoul digests that for a moment.
"Huh," he says. "Funny. Don't remember seeing him there."
"We were pretty spectacular. Might not've noticed even if he was." Feel Ghoul's shoulders quake in a silent snicker, and smile. "But not everyone's on the frontline."
The doc was right about one thing: Cherri complicates things. Given how he acts around the mess of you, all nervous twitches and shakes and side glances, you'd guess that he's not one for frontlines.
You end up guessing wrong, you learn, when he and Jet spend a day shooting cans off cars. Not only does Jet tell you that he's got a raygun - electric pink, neon as anything - but he's a damn good shot.
An assurance from Jet is the surest commendation that any 'joy can ask for. At the end of the day, Cherri runs with Doctor D and Show Pony both, and he needs a place with a semi-regular roof over his head to shelter him from the temptation of a radiation high. All three of them know why the Girl is here and how to keep her safe, if and when your lives get cut short.
Sooner or later, your time's gonna catch up to you.
Sooner or later, you're gonna need a fallback plan.
you gotta lose everything but yourself
and maybe i've still got time to become a better version of myself
Who doesn't want to rise above the obstacles in their pathway?
Who wouldn't want to go down in flames?
Your days become a breakneck scramble of staying ahead of the bleach-white BLi tide. Korse is relentless. He's your shadow, hungry and tireless. Weaseling your way out of claps goes from an infrequent occurrence to the semi-regular. You deal in close calls and regroupings and pulling favors with your fellow dust-birds with streaks of color in their hair. Thank them for their help with cans of PowerPup and bottles of water when they live. Leave their masks to the Witch when they don't.
Catch Riptide's crew gunning their motors in Zone One, aiming straight for the city line. They slow their unerring shot for Battery City when the Trans Am rolls close, but their engines still purr hungrily, idling in the dirt. Read in a quartet of faces knotted with grief and stained with sweat that they're making a run on the city for a reason.
Ain't hard to guess what the reason might be. You only count four 'joys, and Riptide runs a gang of five.
"They got Storm," says the 'joy at the head. It's a spike-haired crash queen you've met before. Nitro Spice, you think. You remember her for her rainbow-swirled half-mask and the fact that, unique for anyone who's lasted this long out in the Zones, she can call herself a cyborg. You know from experience that her homemade prosthetic leg, fixed up from cannibalized pornodroid parts and scrap, hides a spare raygun. "Bastards masked him."
It spools your heart up in your chest, the mere thought of it. Masked. That's worse than death. Worse than pills, worse than bog-standard BLi brainwashing. They might as well shoot you dead at that point. Shoving a drac mask over someone's head is the point of no return. Never seen it up close, but they all walk stiffly, shambling and silent, and when they talk it sounds like something's wrung all the heart out of them. You've shot enough dracs to know that there's nothing left by the time you plant a burning hole in the backs of their skulls.
"You make this run," you hear Kobra saying quietly, "you're not coming back."
"You did," snaps a dust angel in dark green with streaks of orange in his hair. You don't know his name.
You had help, you don't say. You had a DJ in the desert serving as your eyes and ears. You had Cherri Cola, evidently behind enemy lines.
"And BLi'll know you're coming, now," says Kobra. "None of us can pull a stunt like that again."
The 'joy in green swings his leg off from over his bike and starts stalking forward, hand springing to the zap at his hip.
"You think you can stop me, Kid?"
Jet wordlessly steps forward until he's standing shoulder to shoulder with Kobra and pins the 'joy with a steady look. He don't need much more than that. Something about the evenness to his gaze and the set of his shoulders is enough to stop anyone dead in their tracks.
"Save your heat for the pigs, Benzo," says Riptide shortly. Their eyes meet yours. "Don't try and stop us."
Benzo still glowers at the four of you, bristling under the dying sun's heat. He can't be much older than you. You're mere kids, all of you. Kids with guns, playing conquest.
Ghoul draws up steady with the rest of you, and folds his arms across his chest. Jet gauntlets one hand in another, and presses until knuckles crack, dry and brittle over broken glass.
It's been years since you made the conscious choice to weigh the risk of death against getting out the city with you and your brother's life, Party Poison, but you've lived with the understanding that every member of your crew carries a piece of your heart.
Know without question that the loss of any one of your family would prompt the same from you. You'd tear apart the city, piece by piece, just to deal back a fraction of the pain that BLi's inflicted on you and your kind. You'd ride to your own death.
You know better than to try and stop them.
Instead, pass Riptide whatever zap-packs you can spare, and in the act mutely wish them luck with their imminent death weighing against the noose-coil of your soul. Commit all four of their remaining crew to memory as they speed off, kick up a long line of exhaust fumes and clouds of sand in their exit from this life and on to the next. Let the Girl fall asleep on your lap in the backseat, and don't think about what kind of hole she'll leave behind if they ever get her.
If. Not when. Never when.
You were right about Riptide and their crew. No crow was ever gonna pin them down for good. In the end, they meet the Witch on their own terms and that night, Jet whispers a prayer into his bad luck beads, kisses them five times. One for each fallen 'joy.
No one's gonna be able to retrieve their masks, once they die in the City. Prayers will simply have to be enough.
Out in the Zones, even in Zone One, there's nothing but utter silence out beyond the tumbleweeds. If Riptide and their gang go down screaming, you don't hear it. You don't hear anything but the hiss of the wind over the sand, and the soft sounds of your own crew settling down for the night.
Silently join Jet Star in beseeching the Witch to guide their souls to wherever they need to go next.
Kobra breaks the news to Dr. D when you rendezvous with him next.
"They masked Storm Brio," he says, ripping the sleeves off an old shirt to get it down to a size that the Girl can wear. "From there, it was dead ahead to Battery City. Didn't stop to chat for long."
"Masked?" Cherri's near enough to be listening in. You don't recall inviting him to join in on this conversation, but that doesn't seem to matter.
"You know." Ghoul mimes tugging something over his own head. "The draculoids. They put that mask on over your head, and - fft." He makes a wiggly-fingered gesture with one hand by his temple to signify the loss of pretty much all higher brain functions. Fun Ghoul: poetic as ever.
"They didn't try and get him back?" Cherri frowns.
Everyone looks at him.
"You joking, zoneboy?" says Ghoul, finally. "Masked. You know. Once you're a drac, that's point of no return."
Cherri's mouth parts like he's gonna answer, and then closes again. Thing about Cherri is this: near as you can tell, he don't have an insincere bone in his body. You didn't know him better, you'd guess that he was playing dumb.
But that's what you've gathered about Cherri Cola. He's not.
"It's not," he says quietly. "The point of no return. They're masks. They trap the soul. They don't tether it."
"Cola," says the doc, the word low and heavy with warning.
"You weren't there!" Cherri blazes back, with more fire than you've ever seen him exhibit. "You haven't seen how they are, up close. I have. I know how they think. They're still in there."
"You know how they think?" Kobra's frown has an audible component. "The hell's that supposed to mean?"
"They're dracs," says Ghoul. "Point is that they don't think."
"Haven't you ever tried pulling the mask off?" There's a note to the words that rings close to desperation. "They're still under there. Trapped."
"And I said," growls Kobra, advancing on him, "the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"They're people." One of Cherri's hands springs up, runs through his hair. "They're still people. Their souls don't get lost there until they die like that. They're not gone. Not until they're dead."
"How do you know?"
The question is Jet's. It's low and quiet and intent, but, like anything Jet says, it's enough to draw everyone's eyes and ears regardless. The rarity of his words mean that they're always spoken with a clarity of purpose. With four flat words, he says more than anyone. And right now he has his arms folded across his chest, and he lifts his head until he looks Cherri Cola dead in the eyes.
He doesn't repeat the question. He never has to.
Cherri doesn't hold his gaze. It skitters away, and hands drop to hug at his own arms. Watch his fingernails tear tiny red crescents into his skin and agitate old rashes. He's picking and tearing at old burns, ripping up chunks of scab. Half the scars that pock the skin of recovered waveheads ain't from sunrays; they're from the struggle that comes after.
"I used to - after the Wars." His hand jumps to his tags again, squeezing the metal hard into the center of his palm. "I hunted them. The city line. I was..."
"Cola." Dr. D rolls up until he draws steady with him. "Come on, sunshine. It don't matter anymore. Those crash queens went down swingin' last week. 'S what they wanted."
Cherri's brow shimmers with a thin sheen of sweat. His breathing is coarse and heavy and uneven, and when Dr. Death nudges him back toward the station, he stumbles like he's all outta balance. The DJ pins you all with a flat and steady look.
"Don't go chasing down that boy's demons, all right?" says the doc. "He'll say what he needs to when he's good 'n ready to. Not before."
Ghoul snorts. Kobra's lip curls. Jet turns away.
In the end, Dr. Death Defying is right: it don't end up mattering very much at all. When Korse bombards an old gas station not thirty miles from your current location and murders a dozen zonerunners, dresses them up sleek in black and white cellophane for all to see, arguments about draculoids and their collective state of personhood are the furthest thing from any of your minds. Instead you gun out to the furthest Zone you can reach in the hopes of lying low.
It's a simple mistake, but you really should've known better.
You should've remembered that killjoys don't deal in hopes.
give me something to have faith in so i can leap them
i've been sorry but i'm not anymore
so all those apologies you can keep them
Try and remember the last twelve hours, Party Poison. Your head feels like it's been split open and every muscle in your body aches like you've got the shiver shakes, but the sun's no longer roasting you overhead and you can still smell the charred patches of your skin sizzling against the sand. Get up, Party Poison. You're not done fighting yet. You're not done fucking fighting, so get up and get back to it.
Roll onto your side. Bite back the moan that strangles its way out of you. A persistent ringing hums away in your ears, fuzzy and atonal. There's words seared into the gray matter in your skull, uttered between teeth gritted with hatred and victory: keep running.
Wasn't you that said that. Was it?
The Girl. Your brothers.
Grope at the sand in an attempt to push yourself to your feet. Your hand strikes plastic. Helmet with a lightning bolt down the side, though the symbol's flaked and cracked with wear. Jet's been meaning to redo the paint job for weeks now.
Jet. Fuck. Where's Jet. Where's anyone. No sign of of the Girl. No sign of Kobra.
But you find Ghoul first, sprawled face-up in the dust not five feet away from you. One half of his face is startlingly red, rinsed in crimson. Crawl on your elbows and knees until you make it to him with your heart in your throat. Bleeding from the mouth is bad; you ain't even a doctor and you know that much. Bleeding from the mouth means bleeding internally, and the red dribbling from his lips into the sand can't mean anything good. Work a hand up to his mouth once you reach him, until you can hold two fingers in front of it and detect the faint hiss of breath against your fingertips.
Up close, it's more apparent that the blood isn't coming from his mouth. It's coming from the gash carved into the side of his cheek.
The mockery of the symbol the Ghoul wears is so overt that it coils up your guts like dying snakes.
Focus. Focus, focus, focus. The slice across Ghoul's face is long but it's shallow, and he starts to wake slowly once you shake the sand from your bandana to press it over the worst of it.
Jet unaccounted for. Kobra unaccounted for. The Girl - fuck.
Did you take your eyes off her? You must have. If she's gone, she won't be lying here with the rest of you. If she's gone, it's not because she ran, or got lost. If she's gone, it's because they took her.
Why didn't they take you?
Close your eyes. Focus. Try and remember.
Remember that your good luck ran out the same moment they found you skulking out in Zone Six. Didn't think dracs ever combed the broken glass this far out, but evidently they do. A knot of dracs cornered the Girl. Remember barreling over the nearest bluff, raining plasma and hellfire down on each and every one of them.
Remember the four of you squaring off. Straight shot. No misfiring. The Fabulous Four up against Korse and a line of dracs.
Remember blinking, muzzily, when Korse sneered at you: keep running.
Remember waiting for the flash-blast that would light up your nerves in a symphony of noise. Remember waiting for everything to shut out. Remember waiting - waiting for dying to hurt.
It didn't, but not because it didn't hurt; only because it didn't come. There was only dead silence the whistle of the wind threading through dead stalks of grass, because everything's dead out here in the Zones. Dead and empty and dying.
Lie there next to Ghoul, trying not to fry beneath the boiling sun.
You can taste red, but everything about you is red.
Almost everything, save your head. Your head, like so many other things, is silent. There's an emptiness opened up in the pit of you. The sensation is the bitter tang of familiarity. You hadn't wanted to take the time enumerate the value of each of your crew, but without meaning to, without thinking twice of it, they've all set up housing in the bright spots of your soul. There's a sickening void where the Girl is meant to be, the absence that forces recognition of grief. It's the same kind of hole that your mama left, when they took her.
Leading the Fabulous Four is never as simple as making the decisions. You make decisions together, as a family, dependent on who needs what and where and when. It's a question of prioritizing. It's a question of taking responsibility. When shit goes wrong, Party Poison, you're the one who walks up and takes the fall for it, because you're the one who agreed to the chain of decisions that led everyone to that point.
Step six. Step nine.
Survive. Survive, and find the rest of your crew. Find the ones that are still left.
"Stay here," you tell the Ghoul. He's still rousing, slowly, but he's with it enough to blink his assurance to you. Presses one hand over your bandana to keep it in place, and inches the other down toward the streak of green and black in the sand at his side. Nudge his raygun into his reach, wait for him to grasp it by the handle, and then trudge across the sands to start looking.
You find Kobra in the shadow of a bluff something like twenty feet away. His power glove is a charred wreck of scrap. He must've thought to give the rest of them trouble when the shootout started going Costa Rica. His fingers are burned black when you finally loose the locks on the gauntlet, ease his hand out of the smoldering remnants, but he's breathing, same as Ghoul.
Alive. Shot up to hell, and shaken, and coming to slowly, like you did - but alive.
Finding Jet takes the longest. Fanning out in an ever-widening arc around the site of disaster churns your guts, and it's hard to walk when your head still feels light and you've still got a continuous tone buzzing away in your ears. With each bluff that you clear, scan the horizon, frantically. Brace yourself to be the one who has to peel Jet, stiff and sizzling, from a black-and-white bodybag.
You don't find him dead. You don't even find him knocked out cold like the other two.
Find Jet crawling on one hand and both knees, teeth gritted through the mask of dried blood caked over one half of his face.
"Jet." Relief tastes like burned flesh and lasersmoke and the chill of the setting sun. Half run, half stumble to Jet's side, more or less trip and fall beside him. He flinches away. He has one hand crooked over the right side of his face. The mass of burgundy-brown glistens darkly when you ease his hand away from the wound, and Jet hisses, his remaining eye screwed shut.
Where the other should be, there's a dark pit, a cratered incident that used to be Jet Star's right eye. A black trail still runs wetly from the place where a thumb must have pressed down and pried it clean from its socket.
"Korse," says Jet softly. The word is trembling, nearly inaudible, but you catch the close of the "s" between the ragged cadence of his breath.
There's no one else who could have been responsible.
"C'mon," you whisper. Ease Jet's arm over your shoulders, and stand. He lets you lean into him, despite the fact that you're supposed to be the one supporting him. Never seems to matter with Jet. He's leaning into you right back. Two fucked up, shot up, damaged killjoys, keeping each other afloat.
Walking unsteadily back to the other two, just as fucked up and shot up and fucking broken as you.
Korse left you alive. All four of you - he could have killed you. He didn't. He could have made an example of one of your number, torn one of you apart and left the other three to ache. He didn't. Consider that, maybe, he sees this as something drawn out. Consider that, maybe, he sees this as an opportunity. No. Yes. Definitely an opportunity. You made yourselves symbols, carved yourselves into the story the Zones had to tell. Korse means to make you symbols again, in his own way.
No. No, he doesn't want to kill you.
He wants to crush you beneath the weight of your own inadequacy to do what you set out to become. He wants to make it clear to all of your kind: you cannot touch us. He wants everyone to know on every airwave: fighting back will make things all the worse for you. The official story is that he's hunting you to put you down for good, to end your threat to the well-being of everyone in Battery City. What he wants, though, and what you assume BLi has ordered of him, is to demoralize you. Humiliate you in real time. Shatter your legacy before it ever gets a chance to take root. If you're idolized now as the Fabulous Four, he intends to make you an example as to why one should never deify the dying.
He means to make you failures.
BLi underestimates you, though. They don't understand the value of succeeding out of spite. How could they? That's the thing with muting all emotion: it leaves you incapable of understanding it.
You remember how that feels, even now, and you'll take the hot-penny tack of your own blood in the back of your throat over muted nothingness, any damn day of the week.
You'd even forgo it for the yawning devastation of your own failure that rocks your blood.
The four of you smoke and cough and hemorrhage into the dust, with a hole the shape of your little dust-angel engraved into each of your hearts.
Know without question that you fucked this up.
Know without question that you are the reason, again, that someone important was stolen away.
Just like that, Party Poison, you're back to step one.
always thought i'd live and die
on the town i was born and raised in
This isn't your pity party, Poison. You have work to do. The Girl is gone, not dead, because BLi didn't destroy her when they had her then and they won't destroy her now.
They won't destroy her now, not when you're still breathing. She's the perfect bait for four Fabulous Killjoys to come rocketing into BLi's crosshairs. They know that you're crazy enough to move on the City and do the work of an army with just the four of you. You've already done it once.
They're counting on it.
You adhere to that expectation, you play right into their hands.
Does that matter?
Does anything matter, other than her?
The answer to that is on your teeth, in the cut edge of your snarl as you spit blood into the sand and climb into the Trans Am. You're the only one who's fit to drive, so you drive. Drive, while your brothers try not to groan every time the tires hit a bump or cruise over an uneven patch of road. Drive, while Kobra presses an old shirt to the gaping hole in Jet's face. Drive, while Ghoul watches your six from the passenger seat.
Killjoys die young, they always do, but in that, they live forever. You've never feared death even once in your life, Party Poison. You only ever feared life, and what it could do to you - what BLi would make of your life by feeding you fistfuls of meds designed to suck you dry, by stealing your brothers away or stealing you from any of them entirely. A life without your brothers, a life without the Girl - that's the only thing in this entire, twisted car crash of a world that could gut you alive. But dying - there's nothing scary about dying. Not when it's living that's killing you.
Dust storms blow away. You don't.
You've never run from death, Party Poison.
You've been running toward it since the day you were born.
So you have to get up. Get up, Party Poison, and go, and start moving.
(Drag yourself, bruises and all, out of the Trans Am. Your brothers don't need further instruction.)
(Scrub away rust-red streaks of blood and char from your face and arms with the butt of your palm. Shake your hair from your eyes, scaldingly red and cherry-bright.)
(Steal her back.)
but my dreams did their damage
couldn't be kept caged in
There's a missing moment where you looked at your crew and they looked you right back, and there was the silent question of whether they were consenting to this - to riding into the mouth of hell with no hope of return. BLi knows you're coming. Korse wants you to come. He wants to bring your call to fame tumbling down around your ears. Mock you, by bookending your greatest victory with the assault that will end in your death. Shave away the triumph, and leave only the dead and the dread.
You don't have to ask them. It's in the frost in each of their gazes, and when you trade quick looks, you read vengeance shod in iron in every single one of them. Ghoul is a toxic simmer and lips curled back over his teeth; Jet is eerily efficient, expression locked, despite the new slowness to his movements to accommodate his injury; Kobra is coiled-wire tension balled up between his shoulders and a jaw clenched so hard that it twitches the muscles in his neck.
There's never a question of what you're all willing to do if it keeps her safe.
She's the Girl.
She's family. She's not just family.
You'd batter down the gates of BLi itself if it would get her back.
The premonition of your own death tastes like acid. You woke up with its stink in your mouth the first night you spent out in the desert, and now it's back to collect. It kept its promise to you in a bodybag. The part of you left over from that very first night, the part of you that still has your brother's sweat on your palms from gripping his hand too tight and the sour tang of withdrawal seizing at your bones, has never really forgotten it.
You don't ask the Witch for a little more time. She'll come for you when She's ready.
Dr. D spins a tale for the Zones, in case anyone's listening. Calls it a clap that halved the Fabulous Four and left them in a right state. Bad news from the Zones, tumbleweeds. Turns out no one's invincible. Turns out that even the Fabulous Killjoys can be shot down like dead flies. Turns out, tumbleweeds, that no one lives forever.
No one lives forever, but killjoys never die.
It won't be a surprise, anymore, that you don't all make it back from your last party. It won't be a failure, anymore, that your combined might could not dismantle BLi for a second time. There's a chance that BLi won't be expecting all four of you to breach the city line with rayguns blazing - not when you're missing Jet Star and the Kobra Kid.
Jet and Kobra fought the hardest, and were punished hardest for it. It makes sense that it'd be them.
Kobra scoffs quietly from the corner. He's trying to fix his power glove, and you can tell by the short, frustrated jerks of his fingers with every tiny movement that he's failing. He's rinsed the worst of the soot and char off his hand, but there's still a perpetual nervous tic motion of his fingers, the jarring of damaged muscle and spasming nerves, that forces him to set the whole thing down and walk away. In the corner, Jet is silent. He looks out the window into the purple-dark desert night in a way that reminds you of the day you met him. The trench dug into his head has finally stopped oozing sluggishly, but he tenses whenever someone approaches him from his newly acquired blind side, and he keeps touching the dark blot of the eyepatch on the right side of his face. Ghoul checks everyone's ammo for what feels like the dozenth time, counting cartridges and how many detonations you have until you run dry. You had to do the stitching that drew the apposed edges of his skin back together; Jet didn't trust the loss of his depth perception, and Kobra's hand is still too unsteady.
There's no room for flash or putting on a show. No room in your souls to pretend you'll make a game of dodging gunfire or taunting dracs. When they took the Girl, she took your laughter with her.
You meet Dr. D's eyes evenly when you hand him all four of your masks, and tell him to meet you at the city line.
It's not a promise. The fact that you passed him your masks is a solemn prediction of how far you expect to make it.
That's why he needs to meet you there, you see. It's important that someone's there to make sure the Girl gets out properly when the smoke comes pouring in.
There's no need to cover your faces anymore. There's no need to carry your souls on your face.
BLi knows you're coming.
Out in the desert, you don't need burials. The wind and sand does all the work for you. But BLi won't do you the kindness of funerary rites. If they kill you quickly and efficiently, that would already be more mercy than you'd expect from them. So hand off your masks to the doctor, leave the summation of everything you are and all that you intended to be in his hands, and tell him to meet you at the city line. That's your assurance that he'll carry your souls where they need to go, when you don't return.
Drive into the night, tires spitting dust and fumes in your wake. The roar of the engine isn't so loud that it drowns out Cherri's call for you to stop! Wait!, but you don't stop, and you don't slow down.
Like you said: he was your fallback plan. He and the Pony and the doctor. Now he's your only plan.
So you don't stop for anything.
my reaper is not grim
'cause he knows i never sleep
and that i fear only him
It's silent now. There's only the straight drive up to the city line in the Trans Am's soot-streaked shell, and then past it. A picture of what you're fighting for taped to the dashboard, and the hollow, wounded quiet of four killjoys nursing their bruises. The only hope you have to play against expectation is the speed with which you can recover and retaliate, so there's no time to redo stitches or do much of anything besides that which you can do on the move: slap bandages over ray-burns, tighten boots, and keep running. No guarantee that any of you can shoot or plan like you should - not with Jet missing an eye and Kobra's hand tremoring worse than a weed in the wind and with Ghoul's every word risking his stitches tearing open.
That'll kill you faster, but you're dead anyway.
The first time, you all took care not to expend too many shots, not to catch innocent lives in the crossfire. You can't worry about that now. It's another unspoken assertion between the Fabulous Four; you'll carry the weight of whatever it is you have to do to succeed. If you're lucky, if the Witch is feeling kind, it won't burden you so much that you'll never make it home.
Barrel through city streets. Crash through their arbitrary limitations. Time your shots perfectly. Cut down exterminators before they even get a chance to raise their weapons. Aim for their heads and throats; you can't afford to have anyone shooting you in the back. Kick up gasoline fumes through the tunnel that takes you right to where you know without question that they're holding her - the biggest building in Bat City.
Also the most fortified.
They've spared no expense for your homecoming.
Exterminators seize their guns, jerk them up to point at you. Barrel straight through and over them with a spraying of sparks.
Don't go gently. Make some noise. There's no point in pretending to be anything else. Someone, some pig you didn't do a thorough enough job of ghosting, has hit an alarm, and ignites the dark with an emergency shrill and a howling red light. They know you're coming, so do everything you do the way it comes the most naturally: loudly, rudely, furiously, radiating brightness and color and volume. Take every shot you can. Burn through every power pack you have. Better use it now, or you never will.
Most important of all: don't stop.
Don't stop for anything.
Shoulder to shoulder with your brothers, the Fabulous Killjoys breach Battery City and thunder straight into its heart.
Bring the Trans Am screeching to an arcing halt and make an unerring line for the glass doors of the tall, proud building. It stands out from the glittering cityscape that stretches out around it - set apart on its own pedestal. It's compact and stately and monochrome and exactly the same as every other building in Battery City.
More exterminators unfurl from behind the low barricades they're using as cover. They're fast, jamming rifles to their shoulders to take aim, but you're faster.
No time for flash, or fun. For the first time in your life, Party Poison, you're unsmiling as you blitz through each pig that stands to counter you. Not a single one of you needs to say a word as you file in.
Building interior is laid out in shades of blacks and whites. It's a maze of hallways and a blindingly white walls. Can't hear the ambient static-buzz of the cameras and mics mounted in every corner, but you don't have to hear it to know they're still watching. The alarm wails loud enough to vibrate in the very fucking foundations. The lights are an excruciating fluorescent overhead shine that leaves colored blots spotting your vision.
She has to be in here. She has to be in here. If she's not, if they've moved her, if they're keeping her anywhere else -
You and your brothers are the brightest thing in here, Party Poison. You're beacons. You're the flare guns aimed at the fucking sky. And it's worth every drac you shoot, it's worth every painful step of the way, if it means that you find her and get her out. This can't be nothing. This will not be for nothing.
Work your way to the building's center. Know by the increasing number of dracs that you're getting closer to where you need to be.
Turn a corner. Behind the pane of a glass door stenciled with the S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W symbol, sequestered away between banks of monitors alight with electronics and buttons and switches, you see her.
Dracs spring from their seats, groping for weapons they won't reach in time. The blaze of buzzing, bursting plasma fire hasn't even died down before you're ducking around the corner and running for her.
Impossibly, you reach her. Drop immediately, hold her close. Feel the desperation and relief in her grasp.
You made it.
You made it.
Try not to come to pieces, Party Poison, when you wrap her in your arms and make that silent promise to get her out, even if it's the last act of the Fabulous Killjoys. The alarms are wailing, and in your head they blister lightning-white. Doesn't matter. None of it matters, save her.
You don't have long.
It's time to go.
You make it as far as the lobby before the hissing of elevator doors reaches you. Laser fire darts over your shoulder.
The Girl covers her ears, immediately, and retreats. Kobra's at your back in less than a blink. Remember every clap you fought with him. Remember that you and him took down crows that made other killjoys shiver. You and him, you breached the city line together. You held him together when he was wracked with med withdrawals, and he grabbed you by the hand and never let you go spinning off into the dark and lose your mind. You move and he moves with you, turning, firing, cutting down swarms of white suits as they come pouring out at you. Ghoul's taken cover behind a wall, ducking out to shoot at any dracs the pair of you miss. Jet's against the doors, trying to keep your exit route covered.
It's just that there are so many more of them than there are of you.
You're locked in by sheer numbers. You have no cover. The Girl's in the building lobby with you, in the middle of the firefight, with nowhere to hide. A stray shot could ruin her. Anyone could just take her. Tell her to run, Party Poison. Now. Now, tell her to run -
A drac takes aim at Jet. Step forward, Poison, and seize the back of its mask by the hair and slam the muzzle of your raygun into the small of its back and fire. Light it up with electromagnetism and static for thinking it could get a shot off on one of your brothers.
The momentum rips the mask from the drac's head as it falls, limp and unresisting.
It hits the ground.
Party Poison, you recognize the face that stares, glassy-eyed and dying, at the ceiling.
Benzo Mori looks wrong with his hair and clothes robbed of color. The fight's been all scrubbed away from him and his hair is a dark and ordinary black and he looks smaller in white, smaller still in death, but there's no mistaking the fact that it's him. It's him. Remember the set of his snarl, cold teeth bared beneath a setting sun. Remember that he stalked toward you for the mere suggestion that his crusade was worthless. That he would die in the attempt.
They're still in here, says Cherri Cola.
They're still people, says Cherri Cola.
They're not gone, says Cherri Cola. Not until they're dead.
Jet runs for you.
There's a mask in your hand. It's no killjoy mask. It's no brightly colored streak of rebellion hiding out in the dust. It's white and it stinks of the city and you need to move, Party Poison, you need to keep fighting because the most important person in the world is not safe and she's still in this room with you, waiting for you to chase away the bad men so you can take her home, and you can't think about what you've just done, Party Poison. You can't. You can't think about draculoids, about every masked shape you've shot and maimed and slaughtered in your short and reckless and idiotic life. You can't think about anything but the feel of synthetic hair in your grip - no. No, you can't think about anything but getting her out.
You told the doctor to meet you at the city line.
Hope to DESTROYA he's coming. Hope to DESTROYA he's already here.
Keep fighting. Keep shooting. You can't stop for this. You can't stop for a dead 'joy on the floor. You can't stop for wondering who else you might have hurt. You can't stop for anything but the rancid taste of your own hatred for the world that's made this of you, that's made you this thing that's shot apart old friends without thinking there was anything but hollow void underneath.
Your shots streak harmlessly over moving heads, spray sparks from where they strike windows and building walls.
The mask slips from your hand.
It's not the point of no return, says Cherri Cola.
Reach down. Reach down to grab the mask. Don't have a killjoy mask to take away to the Witch so this is the next best thing. If you're lucky if you're not already ruined for having done all that you've done and thinking you could get away with it if you're not already lost you might be able to take whatever fragments of Benzo's soul is still left and deliver it to Her because if She won't take you back why would She take you back then maybe at least She'll take someone else instead.
You're wasting time, Party Poison. You can't save what's already dead.
They trap the soul, says Cherri Cola. They don't tether it.
You did this.
Stoop to retrieve that mask. It's important - it feels important that you hold onto it.
But you've forgotten, haven't you, Poison.
You've forgotten that you were never meant to make it to the city line.
Your shots career wildly away from their marks. The room feels shrunken, somehow, which is funny because despite that Jet still hasn't reached you. Kobra. Where's Kobra - he was right at your back and now he's not and the reason that he's not is because instead of Kobra it's a white skull of a face sliding out from the chaos and the cold clench of a hand around your shoulder and the thud of your head against the wall.
The muzzle of Korse's raygun presses up against the underside of your chin. Slowly, deliberately, his head tilts to one side, his dark eyes slitting into pleased half-moons as his expression splits into a wide and satisfied smile. The first time you've seen him look at anything with any expression other than cold and unrelenting disdain, anger muted by pills and suppressed by static signals.
Your head's gone silent. There's a ringing that could just be the aftershock of lasers sounding off beside your ears. The raygun digs into the skin of your jaw, cold as the first night you spent out in the desert, when you thought that your stupid, stupid choice would be the death of you, the death of your brother, but instead you hid away inside a cellophane sleep-hammock and lived for another day, and another.
Your brother -
Your brother who is screaming, racing toward you. As if he could stop what's going to happen. As if anyone could.
Can't tell him to run. Can't do anything but look at Korse, eye to eye, as he smiles at you.
It would be nice, Party Poison, if your last moments were something of unyielding defiance, one last spit in the eye of BLi.
But you're pinned against a wall in the middle of a clap, and you're trembling, and you look at him like the fucking kid that you are. You don't know anyone's status. You don't know if Ghoul or Jet are still alive. You don't know if the Girl is here, if she's still watching. You don't know if doctor is on his way. You don't know if all of this, all of this, will have been for nothing.
You've never been afraid to die.
You've never had to consider whether you were afraid that you might die for nothing.
Korse lights you up in sparks and electromagnetic radiation and plasma. The shot illuminates your brainstem in a conflagration of burning flesh and igniting nerves and it shorts out every neuron. It only hurts in the first instant and it only hurts because it's in that instant that you hear her scream and you hear your brother make a tortured, wrenching, agonized sound, a sound that no human being alive should be capable of making.
In your last moments, Party Poison, you can feel your hand stretched out for the dark fuzz of the Girl's shape, a beacon amidst a thicket of shadows. Slide down the wall with your fingers groping hopelessly for something you'll never see again.
"Run," you whisper, the last word frozen on your tongue in the moment when Korse's shot fries your brain in your skull and sears the nerves into deadened numbness. It tastes like blood dribbling down your throat and plasma fumes pouring from an open wound.
You're dead by the time you hit the ground, Party Poison. You never see the Kobra Kid take several shots trying to reach you, or Fun Ghoul closing the doors behind Jet so he can grab the Girl's hand and run. You don't witness Ghoul's willing sacrifice in the face of two smoldering corpses on the lobby floor, and the precious seconds he buys so that Jet can get the Girl to the car. You don't see Jet eat several rounds that leave him sprawled atop the Trans Am.
None of you see the Girl as Dr. Death Defying's van roars up in time to pull her into the backseat despite the lightshow pouring out from BLi's glass doors, and go hurtling back out into the Zones.
The sad fact of becoming a Fabulous Killjoy is this:
They never really know if their sacrifice was worth it.
They never really know if they live forever.
They never really know if the day was ever saved.
Killjoys aren't meant to deal in hopes, but that's a lie.
Hope is the only currency a Fabulous Killjoy has.
i wanna be a conduit for your love
i just wanna breathe your C02 in