Every danger has a rhythm to it. The key to survival is being aware of your surroundings and learning to dance within your circumstances.
Freak and the TNT crew had listened to the program, recorded the lists on the shop blackboard, then pushed through the night. When they stumbled into the kitchen for breakfast, they were filthy and giggling.
“Can hardly raise m’ arms,” chuckled Tumbler, his face black except where his goggles were fixed, “but that’s some o’ the best work we’ve done yet.” He fell down into a chair at the table, soot puffing off his vest in a small cloud. He tossed a cigar to Dax. Pointing a black finger at him, “And you better be grateful, by TGII, or I’ll weld yer eyes shut I will.”
Dax laughed and gave the old gnome a salute.
Telly leaned over and nudged Dax, whispering, “No, really. He would.”
“Get your behinds to the washroom,” Deloris squeaked as she entered the kitchen, “You’re all filthy!”
Tumbler lit his cigar and blew smoke into the air over the table. “I’ll do no such thing, woman. I earned this dust on me and I aim to keep it until I’m good n’ ready.”
Alhannah stepped in front of the grouchy female gnome and offered Tumbler a glass of juice. “I’ll clean up after them, Deloris.”
“As will I,” added Lili, “They’ve worked so hard…can’t we take care of them this morning?” She smiled at Nibbles, who looked like she was about to fall asleep, “What would you like to eat?”
Freak swaggered into the room with Socket under his arm. Both had huge grease splotches on their faces and clothes. “We are the backbone of the S.L.A.G. pilot!” he blurted out…and they all cheered.
Wendell laughed heartily. It was comforting, empowering even, to see everyone so cheerful even though they were exhausted. I wonder what they’ve been working on? The S.L.A.G.s already work. It made him curious. “So the S.L.A.G.s are ready for the games?”
Freak walked around the table to where Wendell sat and leaned down. Smugly, he said, “Well why dontcha finish eatin’ and I’ll take you on a tour of heaven.”
“Seriously?” Dax gasped, staring bug-eyed at Turnpike. The head had been lowered into the chest cavity even further, almost eliminating it as a target altogether. Huge plates of steel had been welded over the arms and legs to the point that the machine looked a lot like a great ape. “It looks like me!”
Tumbler scratched his head. “You been drinkin, boy? Don’t look nothing like you.”
“Ah, well,” Dax caught Nat and Alhannah shaking their heads. “Like I feel when I’m fighting, that is.”
“But that isn’t the best part,” said Freak. He walked over to a tarp and yanked. Lying against the wall were two crescent wedges. Each had a dozen or more square teeth jutting out around the edge. “What do you think, eh?” he beamed.
Wendell tilted his head, then walked up and ran his hand over the surface. “What are these?”
Alhannah nudged Dax, “Stop thinking about it so hard and look.”
His eyes popped wide when it sank in, “Brass knuckles?!”
“Made from a single, heavy duty gear,” Tumbler winked, “So you can put a bit more oomph into your punches.”
Dax tapped the metal, causing it to ring. “Nice. Thanks.”
“For Banshee, we made some serious modifications,” said Telly. He scratched the scruff on his face, “Installed secondary rotary joint motors. Because of budget, they’re not new, but the refurbished ones were pretty solid. It should help your reaction time.”
Alhannah grinned, “Excellent!”
Wendell listened to the lists of improvements rattled off as he wandered over to Gnolaum. It stood at its full height, waiting to go to battle. The crew had given it a paint job. HAH! They had painted the whole thing black, with the exception of a huge yellow smiley face in the center of its chest. Eyes narrowed to slits, the grin curled up over the eyes in a sadistic, crazed fashion. A psychopathic cartoon, that’s what it is. He couldn’t help but grin himself.
“You like it?” asked Socket, shuffling up from behind.
He kept his attention on the S.L.A.G., grinning even wider, “I really, really do.”
Socket threw her shoulders back in pride. “Ya know Freak has some special treats, just for you.”
“Don’t spoil it Soph…I want to tell him,” Freak clamored, but he stopped and nudged her softly with his elbow. “Sorry hun, you got just as much right to show him as I do.”
She grin up at him, “Naw. You go ahead.”
Pulling his goggles up onto his forehead, he wiped his eyes with a rag, “We saved the best for last, Wendell, on account that you’re the least experienced fighter. The goal is to make sure you get to the end of this competition.”
Dax, Alhannah, Nat and the others gathered around them.
“First off, we redistributed the power cells in the suit. Wanted to make it harder for your opponents to find how to kill your juice.” With a click of a remote, Gnolaum knelt down and then laid back with a thud onto the floor. Freak banged on its chest plate, “We hid eighty percent of your power in the cockpit with you.” He held up a hand as Wendell gulped, “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe. We insulated everything.”
Clicking the remote again, the chest plate opened up, revealing the cockpit. Wendell climbed up and crouched on the lip of the hole. Everything was spotless. Not a single cable exposed, dashboard shining bright. Very nice, he grinned.
“The controls have been calibrated so Gnolaum will respond almost instantaneously to your commands. Now this has advantages and dangers. You’ll be able to fight as good or better than you could in the video game, but too many combos in a row and you’ll drain your backup power supply.”
Wendell hopped into the cockpit and strapped himself into the chair. “Anything else I should know on the bad side?”
Nibbles climbed up and peered in the opening, “You’re more vulnerable to those looking to hack your machine.”
Wendell stopped fiddling with the controls, “What? Why would I be more…”
“Because Nat and Cryo had to simulate the moves from the game into this suit. That means it takes more programming, which means you rely more on software than hardware to pull off your maneuvers. Part of the games now has to do with warring hackers between RAT crews. If anyone were to gain access to your programming, then…”
Wendell gripped the controls firmly, “They could take it over?”
She shrugged, “Maybe.”
“But we won’t let that happen,” Nat called out.
Wendell grinned, “Thank’s Nat.” He looked back at Nibbles, “This is awesome, thank you.”
She rapped her knuckles on the door, “Ain’t over yet.”
“Start it up Wendell,” called Freak.
With a press of a button, Wendell started up Gnolaum. Nibbles slammed the door shut, which locked automatically. The ground rumbled more than he remembered. The chair, now modified to support his head and neck, vibrated down his spine. With a firm hold of the controls, Gnolaum rocked forward and stood upright. Ohhhhh, this feels goooood! If only his friends back on Earth could see him now. Going from being a chased and ridiculed geek in high school to piloting a twenty foot warrior robot was a heck of a comeback.
“Follow me!” Freak shouted, then walked over to the corner of the hangar. Leaning against the wall was something covered by tarps.
“I know we didn’t have the credits left to get you fancy weapons—but that didn’t mean we had to let you go without. Oh no! We scavenged a few parts from the abandoned buildings around here and brought them back to see what we could make ourselves. That is what we came up with.” And with that, he yanked the tarp off.
For a moment, Wendell wasn’t completely sure what they were. They looked like old scraps of metal. Junk. One object was long—which looked lot like a steel beam used in large building construction. It was long, almost as long as Alhannah’s sword, but the sharp edges were…
“I know it may look odd,” said Freak, through the com-link, “but Tumbler made it just for you, Wendell. A hunk of metal with not one or two sharp edges—but four.”
Gnolaum reached down to pick it up. It was an ‘I’ beam. The giant mechanical hand brought the weapon closer to the face camera. It was cut to a point at the top, but each edge of the beam had been sharpened. The end was ground down to fit perfecting in the grooves of the giant metal fingers.
“You can cut, stab and bash with it,” the mechanic beamed.
Wendell curled the joystick as he clicked two buttons simultaneously. Gnolaum instantly lunged forward and pierced the hangar wall with the beam. The weapon sunk in at least five feet into the metal wall.
All the gnomes but Alhannah scattered at the sudden movement. She laughed and clapped out loud as the screech of metal against metal tore at everyone’s nerves.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” she yelled.
“What’s the other piece?” Wendell asked, turning Gnolaum back around.
Freak and Telly peeked out from behind a stack of crates.
“T-that’s a shield,” the TNT leader squeaked. “You kept eating through the ones we made from scratch—so we thought we’d try something simple. One of the factories had a liquid hydrogen tank in perfectly good condition. So,” he looked over at Tumbler, who shrugged, “we permanently borrowed is…and cut off the high pressure door. From there we welded a couple straps to it and BAM—an eight inch thick shield with ramming nub!”
Gnolaum set the sword down and lifted the shield, sliding it over its left arm. Refitting the sword, Wendell practiced a few swiping motions and block combinations. Stepping close to the initial hole he’d made, Wendell yanked the joystick to the left and strummed his fingers over the buttons. Gnolaum’s left arm shot out to the side—slamming the nub of the shield into the wall. The shockwave shook the hangar.
“Oh my,” whispered Dax, impressed.
Wendell pulled the shield free…revealing a four foot hole.
Alhannah smiled, “Perfect.” She turned and bowed to the RAT team, “Absolutely perfect.” Looking up at Gnolaum, she yelled, “Come on Wendell, it’s time to meet the public!”
It took a little time to find something Wendell could wear and feel comfortable in. It took even longer to find something Dax would even consider. Morty had some old suits he’d used for funerals and meetings with government officials, but they were retro at best. Each time either flinched, Alhannah would promise them new dudes as soon as they got the next round of funding.
Wendell ended up with a black suit, a thin black tie and a snow white button down collar shirt. He looked int he mirror and cringed. Dad would be so happy to know that they still have Disco on the other side of the universe. Dax finally gave in to a flower print shirt with a bright red tie, but there were other problems.
“I’ve never worn shoes a day in my life and I ain’t startin now!” he complained.
Alhannah zipped up her leather jacket. She wore black leather pants, a red athletic top and spikes around her wrists and choker. Her ponytail held her red hair out her face—which now had a solid black stripe across her cheeks and eyelids.
Dax smirked, “Besides, look who’s talkin. Ya look like yer about to go to war!”
She shrugged, glancing down at his ten digit, pink toes. “You’re gonna look odd, Uncle Dax.”
He scoffed, “Yeah? Well just imagine how odd I’d look if this charm farted out on me, huh?”
Chuck had begged to go with them, complaining that the deepest conversations he’d had in weeks was with a book, a yellow notepad and a fern named Gerald. He pleaded and begged, but Alhannah had to explain that it was important for Wendell and Dax to be noticed…and that Chuck was simply too cool. It would be nearly impossible for the wizard to not steal the limelight—and that would be very bad for Wendell. His ego soothed, Chuck assured both the boys that when they had more time, he’d show them where the term ‘party animal’ came from.
“Do we really have to do this?” Wendell moaned. The cab was packed, both Dax and Alhannah on either side of him. Shamas sat up with the driver.
“It’ll be fun,” Alhannah assured him.
“Fun is relative,” Dax grumbled.
She winked, “Trust me. It’ll be fun.”
The cab exited the express tunnel and was forced to stop almost immediately. People were everywhere. Streets packed between buildings, bodies flowing to the dance halls. The public lamps were low, neon club signs blazing overhead. Wendell could feel the energy in the air as soon as he climbed out from the vehicle. Gnomes bounced past them, males with slick hair and gold chains, girls with bright lipstick, short skirts and high heels, wiggling to a distant beat. Everyone bounced and crowded around a single building with double arches. A mini waterfall sparkled from a statue between them, under flashing artificial lights. Just above the open mouth of what looked to be a giant octopus serving drinks, was a blinking sign.
“GAH?” blurted Wendell out loud. He flinched as all the gnomes around him threw a hand in the air and cheered. What the? A girl smiled at him as she bounced past, head bobbing to the musical beat.
Dax yanked his tie off from around his neck. His face was already red. “I am not wearing a hangman’s noose voluntarily.
Shamas smiled, “Here, I’ll put the tie in my pocket.”
“Thanks,” Dax mumbled, “and what with all the furbles bouncing around?”
“They’re all here to get into GAH,” answered Alhannah and all the gnomes in ear shot cheered.
“And what’s with the psycho cheering?” he blurted, stepping closer to the warrior. “They’re freakin me out.”
Shamas laughed, “Relax Dax—they’re all here for some fun, that’s all. This is the hottest nightclub spot for thirty levels. Everyone loves GAH!” The gnomes cheered.
“Do your thing, RH,” whispered Alhannah.
Weaving through the crowd, they followed the biker bodyguard to the front of the line. Though the music got louder, Wendell could hear gnomes hissing and cursing at them as passed. What are we doing? I don’t mind waiting our turn, he gulped, we’re ticking everyone off. He heard a few threats from the crowd.
“Stay close,” Alhannah whispered, looping her arm through his as if she were his date. “And smile. Smile at everyone,” she nudged him.
Wendell grinned wide and kept it there.
The front doors were shaped to look like interlocking seas shells. In front of them was a wall of large, muscular gnomes in white suits. They stood like statues, barring entrance to anyone unworthy of the prize. Another gnome with dark skin and a nose ring like a bull, stood at the head of the crowd, two more guards working the ropes. One by one he checked the list, letting people in or turning them away.
Shamas walked up to the gnome with the clipboard. “Antos!”
The large gnome beamed. “RH! I’ve been wondering when you’d show your face around here, man—where you been?” His attention lingered for a moment to take in Wendell, Dax and then Alhannah. He frowned at the sight of her.
“Been busy,” answered Shamas, “new gig. You know how it goes.”
“What,” he nodded in Wendell’s direction, “you baby sittin again?” Laughing, “I told you to come to me and I’d get you a real gnomes job.” But he hesitated, his eyes going back to Alhannah. It took few moments for the pieces to come together. When they did, he almost dropped his clipboard. “Banshee?”
“In my place? Wait.” His eyes narrowed at Wendell, “And is this Weeble?!”
Wendell rolled his eyes, “It’s Wendell, not Weeble.”
The excitement was almost too much for the guard. He nodded to Dax and unhooked the rope. “I got the whole Steel & Stone team…in my club!” He turned and shouted over the crowd, “WE GOT STEEL AND STONE IN DA HOUSE!!”
The gnome-filled street went nuts. Cheering and chanting and girls screaming for autographs.
Shamas laughed and led them all inside.