Chapter 33: Battle
When TM, Marty and Veggie entered Muscles & Mussels, Gary Mackerel was sound asleep on one of the gym’s benches.
‘Oh, he’s adorable,’ Marty cooed. ‘Nice hire, TM.’
‘I thought so.’ The three of them headed to the stairs in the back, making their way up to the flat above the gymnastaurant and leaving Gary Mackerel to snooze.
‘I think Dominika’s on her way,’ Veggie said, closing the door behind them. Michel Furcoat, the cat, looked up at the noise, then went back to sleep on TM’s desk. ‘Hard to tell over the phone, but sounded like she nodded. What’s on that card Survival Bitch gave you?’
TM pulled Orion’s card out of his pocket and read the address on it: a storage unit, by the sounds of it.
‘Wait a sec,’ Marty said, pulling out his phone and tapping the address in. ‘That’s one of the warehouse-y container-y things, like the one where we built the rocket.’
‘You’re shitting me,’ said Veggie.
‘Nuh-uh.’ Marty showed him the screen. ‘Looks like it’s almost right next to the one we hired.’
‘Did we ever… like, stop paying rent on that?’ TM asked. ‘I mean, we’re not using it any more.’
‘Problems for another time,’ Veggie insisted. ‘What are we going to do about the Riegel O’Ryan situation?’
TM scratched the back of his head. ‘Is it really a situation?’
‘Are you serious?!’
‘Well… she’s here, but we don’t know where the poor sod she’s after is, so… she hasn’t got any reason to mess with us, right?’
‘She’s already messed with us just by showing up,’ Veggie said. ‘And besides, she’s here to take somebody away from a life on Earth. We can’t let that happen to someone else, not when we know how hard it was losing Ziggy.’
‘You’re right,’ TM had to admit. ‘Look, I hate her as much as you, I just… don’t know what to do about it.’
Veggie let out a growl, pacing about. ‘Me neither,’ he said grudgingly.
There was a knock at the door; TM opened it to let Dominika in.
‘Dom!’ Veggie burbled. ‘Thank Christ. You always know what to do about… everything, right?’
She eyed him warily.
’We have to take out Riegel O’Ryan,’ Veggie implored. ‘So… how do we do it?’
Dominika shook her head and gave him a questioning look.
‘She showed up,’ Veggie explained, ‘at the arena. She’s probably killed Lauren and the Ire, and her stupid dog nearly killed me and Marty.’
She shook her head sadly, as if expressing how much that sucked.
‘And there’s another star down here somewhere that she’s trying to track down and… we have to help them! We can’t let her do it again.’
Slowly, Dominika nodded. Then she pointed right at Veggie’s chest.
‘I don’t...’ Veggie said. Then he pulled out the piece of space rock that still hung around his neck.
‘Space rock,’ TM murmured.
‘Space rock!’ Veggie squealed. ‘Dom, you’re a genius!’
‘I think I’m missing something,’ Marty said; TM shrugged at him.
‘Remember we stuck this in the rocket and you got teleported into space or something?’ Veggie babbled. ‘There’s something to this little bit of meteor whatsamebob, something powerful!’
‘Maybe,’ TM said, ‘but we’ve got no idea how it works or what it does, or even whether it’s got any juice left after blasting me into the far reaches of the cosmos.’
Veggie gave a groan of exasperation and thrust the rock right in TM’s face. ‘We had no idea how that rocket was going to work,’ he said. ‘We just knew that it would, because it had to. Same thing.’
‘Our luck’s going to run out,’ TM warned him.
‘I don’t think it’s luck,’ Veggie said. ‘I reckon all people have a bit of Star Power, and people like us have it in spades – not as much as the actual star people, but I reckon we’re pretty dosed up on stardust – and I reckon that this Star Power is an actual force in the universe that we can use to do cool shit that shouldn’t make any sense.’
‘Ziggy did say the two of us burned brightly,’ TM remembered. ‘When I spoke to her… maybe that’s what she meant?’
’Of course it is,’ Veggie proclaimed. ‘And that’s why this will work.’
TM nodded, overcome by the hype. Then he raised a finger. ‘Er… what exactly is it that’s going to work?’
‘We’re going to use the space rock to blast that starfucker back where she belongs,’ Veggie announced.
TM sighed. ‘I guess that’s what we’re doing.’
‘You’re in!’ Veggie yelled joyfully. ‘Dom? Marty?’
Marty’s expression made the rounds from confused to decisive to uncertain back to resolved, and he nodded firmly.
‘This is stupid,’ Dominika said.
‘She can talk now?!’ Veggie exclaimed. TM could tell that the cocktail of emotions bubbling away inside him had reduced the shock from utter astonishment to something like an exasperated ‘of course she can’.
‘Only when it’s important,’ she said, ‘and it’s important that we’re all in agreement that this is absolutely one of the dumbest things we’ve ever come up with.’
‘I know,’ Veggie admitted. ‘I am in fact fully aware that this is a really, really bad idea. It’s not even an idea.’ He gave Dominika a hard stare; for perhaps the first time TM had seen, she found herself unable to meet it. ‘But we’re doing it. For Ziggy, for Lauren and the Ire, for this other poor ba-star-d who decided to go AWOL and now has that fucker chasing his or her celestial arse. Nobody deserves that shit.’
‘Well said,’ TM had to acknowledge.
‘Eh,’ Dominika offered, looking unimpressed. ‘It’s still dumb, but it’s less dumb doing it with me here than if you’d just run in on your own.’
‘I appreciate that most back-handed of… sort-of compliments,’ Veggie said. ‘So you’re in?’
Dominika stuck her tongue out. ‘Yeah, why not. You’ve got me to agree to weirder than this.’
TM desperately wanted to ask, but knew it wasn’t the time.
‘By the way,’ she said, pointing accusingly at Veggie, ’I really don’t like Dom. Nika’s fine, if you have to shorten it, but Dom? All kinds of implications there, and regardless of whether they’re accurate or not, it’s a bit dodge.’
‘Fair point,’ Veggie conceded. Then Dominika stopped talking again, and the four of them headed out.
The address on Orion’s card, as Marty had said, led to what looked like a disused unit among the warehouses that had once housed the ZVTMII official spacecraft. They took a taxi there, piling into every seat. Dominika took the front.
‘Are you… okay?’ TM asked Veggie uncertainly on the way. His partner was shaking next to him, opening and clenching his fists.
‘Probably not,’ Veggie said. ‘I’ll be better when Orion’s gone, for good. But not okay.’
‘So what’s the plan of attack?’
‘Haven’t thought about it so much.’
‘You want to just march in and… punch a constellation and her dog in the face?’
’Hey, we live in a world with more than six Star Wars movies, more than three of which are decent. Anything can happen.’
The silence that lasted the rest of the journey wasn’t comfortable, but TM didn’t have anything else to say. He dropped Derrida a quick text to pop in and feed the cats, and then they were there.
‘Sixteen quid,’ the driver said, staring at them slightly menacingly in the rear view mirror.
‘That’s outrageous,’ Veggie said disdainfully, but he picked a twenty out of his wallet and handed it over.
They exited the vehicle, Veggie pocketing the four pound coins he was handed in change (the driver huffed when none was offered as a tip, and drove away a little too quickly).
The door was open; or, at least, there were a few clear inches of space between the sliding iron sheet and the concrete below. TM slid underneath on his belly, shuffling like a soldier; Veggie and Marty rolled under, while Dominika opted for the classic baseball slide. Inside, the space was larger than it appeared from the outside - and certainly bigger than the one the rocket had been built in, which was understandable since it had been the one with the absolute lowest rent - a high square room surrounded by walkways and filled with big black boxes. Veggie flipped the latch on one, which swung open to reveal a tower of amps. Dominika inspected a couple more, which contained various instruments and cables.
‘Somebody’s supplying a rock band in here,’ TM mused.
‘Yeah, something like that,’ agreed a voice from up on the high walkway.
TM looked up, and was only half-surprised to see a girl with long dark hair, elfin features and a black jacket emblazoned with white stars leaning on the rail, legs crossed, watching over them curiously.
‘Lauren!’ Marty gasped. ‘You’re alive?’
‘Should have known,’ Veggie growled. ‘You lot all stars too?’
The rest of The Ire emerged on the walkways, one peering down from each of the four walls.
‘Yeah-huh,’ Lauren said, gesturing widely around at herself and her bandmates. ‘I’m Beta Lyrae. That one over there, also Beta Lyrae, and those two are a coupla Epsilons. Not totally sure exactly which, but who really cares?’
‘Lyra,’ TM said. ‘So are you the one who’s lost somebody?’
‘Yeah, our lead singer went missing,’ Lauren said, biting a nail absently. ‘Vega.’
TM looked at Veggie.
‘So we’re down here to come get our brightest star back, with Orion’s help,’ Lauren explained. ‘Seems to be how it works, no?’
‘Wait, you’re not even the lead singer?’ Veggie asked, sounding almost smug about it.
‘Not generally,’ Lauren said, ‘but I think you’ll agree that I do pretty well at it.’
‘You made such good music,’ Marty mourned. ‘You’re not supposed to be evil. We could have made such a sweet collaboration!’
Veggie stared up at her for a moment, then shook his head. ‘We’re not here for you,’ he told her. ‘We’re here to kill your boss.’
’What, Orion?’Lauren looked around at her bandmates, who grinned back. ‘She’s not our boss. No, no. Vega’s our boss, we’re just… not sure where he is. Or she. Never can tell. Orion’s kind of our assistant while we’re down here.’
‘Where is she?’ Veggie demanded. ‘She in here?’
‘Uh, nuh-uh.’ Lauren shook her head. ‘She left us to look after the place.’
‘While she does what?’
Lauren smiled, and tapped a button mounted on the rail. TM heard the door descend the last few inches and close fully behind them, sealing them inside the warehouse room. ‘She went to your place.’
‘What?!’ TM exclaimed. ‘Why?’
‘Are you actually going to make me monologue this out for you?’ Lauren glanced at their faces, then sighed. ‘Fine. We reckon you’ve got Vega. So Orion showed up and gatecrashed your meeting with us and your BFF - sorry, fiancé, and congratulations, by the way - then gave you this address, knowing you’d come after her. Now you’re out of the way, and she’s gone to search your place for Vega.’
‘Why not just kill us?’ TM asked. ’Why not just fucking wait until we were out?’
Lauren thought about it for a moment. Then she shrugged. ‘Not actually sure,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘Would have made sense. I think Big O’s actually a little bit… scared of you guys. Anyway, I don’t know if you noticed, but she’s not the most stable of peeps. Tends to come up with these plans that hurt people most, even if they’re not the most effective.’ She leaned over, whispering exaggeratedly. ‘Between you and me, she’s a bit unhinged.’
TM sidled over to Veggie, as did Dominika, the three of them doing their best to huddle together without attracting too much undue attention. Meanwhile, Marty yelled something up at Lauren about selling out and not respecting her artistry any more.
‘Derrida’s at our flat,’ TM whispered. Veggie groaned quietly. ‘She’ll murder him.’
‘I know,’ Veggie hissed.
‘So’s Gary Mackerel… shit. We’ve got to get back.’
‘What are y’all whispering about down there?’ Lauren asked, leaning over curiously.
They broke the huddle; Veggie looked up at her and sighed. ‘Well, we’re in a bit of a fix, Laurelino.’ She raised an eyebrow at that. ‘See, we need to get out of here to go back to our place, fuck up Survival Bitch - and her little dog too - and then go back to living our nice peaceful, happy life that we had before all you fucks showed up.’
‘Yeah, I can sort of see why you’d be wanting to do that,’ Lauren said, ‘but unfortunately that’s what we’re here specifically to stop you doing.’
Veggie reached into his pocket, pulled out one of the pound coins from the taxi and threw it at Lauren as hard as he could. She flicked it away easily, but Dominika took advantage of the distraction to make a dash for the door. She kicked it once, hard, and it dented under the blow; she pulled back for another, but two of Lauren’s bandmates were suddenly upon her, one holding her by the arms from behind as the other hit her hard in the stomach. TM dashed towards them, but Lauren herself dropped down in front of him.
‘Sorry, man,’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t have had to do this if you’d just stayed here like we wanted.’ Then she kicked him in the head.
TM collapsed, dropping, his flesh and bones feeling loosely connected, like a sock filled with marbles. He lay there for a few moments, face pressed against the floor, his eyes just about able to look around at the scene. He saw Dominika brought to her knees, smashed over the head with an electric guitar that exploded into neon splinters like a tiny firework; the same member of the Ire turned and kicked Marty in the chest, sending him flying into a wal; Lauren and one of the others - the double bass player, TM suspected - set upon Veggie. The bassist picked him up with ease, holding him over her head, then dropped him across her knee and onto the concrete as Lauren whipped a foot into his back on the way down. Veggie lay there, contorted in pain, and Lauren and the Ire resumed their places around the perimeter of the room, now leaning against the warehouse walls on the lower level.
‘Sorry,’ Lauren said, sounding genuinely apologetic. ‘It’s really not that we want to be doing this, honest. There’s just… stuff more fundamental and important to the universe than you guys, so if we have to kick a few heads in to restore balance then that’s what we’re gonna do.’
‘You think Orion only does this cos she has to?’ TM asked, the words coming out slurred. He could just about move himself, though the very definitely square room kept bouncing around in his vision until it looked almost spherical.
Lauren chewed the inside of her cheek for a few moments. ‘Partly,’ she said.
TM chuckled, and the vibrations that went through his body with the movement were enough to force his head back to the floor. ‘We don’t have your star friend,’ he told her firmly from the ground. ‘We don’t know anything.’
‘You’re probably telling the truth, that’s the annoying thing,’ Lauren said. ‘But we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do, and all we can really do on that front for now is chase up our last known perps. Which, unfortunately, happens to be you lot.’
‘It’s not us this time,’ TM said. Veggie gave a spluttering wheeze. ‘But if it was, we’d defend your star until you finally got around to killing us.’
‘I believe you, which might not be a good thing for you,’ Lauren said, sighing.
‘You lot can understand it anyway, right?’ TM said, sitting up again. The world wasn’t shaking quite so much any more. ‘Altair got around to knowing the feeling, too. He ended up liking being down here so much that he let himself waste away on earth before he finally went back up to heaven.’
Lauren and The Ire exchanged glances. TM didn’t know whether they were glances of disdain, uncertainty, agreement or something else entirely, but he pressed on.
‘You love being stars, right? - not, like, literal stars, but rock stars! You had that entire audience cheering for you.’
‘There’s something about being adored,’ Lauren admitted, almost absent-mindedly. ‘I mean, it’s all well and good having people watch you from a distance, love you through a telescope, but… man, it was awesome looking out and actually being able to see people filling a room with love for us.’
The four of them looked wistful, TM thought. No wonder they had to keep a hunter like Orion on hand, if coming down to be incarnated as humans was so intoxicating.
‘You’re all going to end up back down here too before too long,’ TM said. ‘You won’t be able to resist, and then they’ll send her after you.’
‘Eh, maybe,’ said Lauren. ‘You really don’t know how lucky you have it, being able to have your own life for… well, your whole life.’
‘I think I’m coming to appreciate it.’ TM saw Dominika stirring out of the corner of his eye, her fingers twitching amidst the fragments of guitar, and brought himself to his feet unsteadily. ‘Now, we really need to get going, I’m afraid. Gotta battering ram out of here.’
‘Oh, man,’ Lauren said, pushing off the wall and slowly walking towards him. ‘You know we’re not gonna let you do that.’
TM wobbled towards the door, still bearing the dent of Dominika’s kick; suddenly the entire four-piece was standing between him and the exit. ‘Don’t make us hurt you,’ Lauren pleaded, and TM believed that she meant it.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. Then he turned away, and heard Lauren and The Ire exhale in apparent relief. Then, as quickly as he could, he turned back and ran at them. As soon as he came within arm’s reach, they tossed him aside with ease, but Dominika had taken the hint. The largest case of amps and speakers in the warehouse thundered across the floor on tiny wheels and crashed into the band, driving them through the door with a sharp crack of folding metal. A series of towering black cases followed, burying the foursome under an enormous pile of musical miscellanea.
TM stood up, cracked his neck with a wince, and looked out of the broken warehouse door at the heap of equipment. ‘This won’t keep them down for long,’ he said. Dominika nodded; she was clutching her stomach with one arm, but her eyes were determined under sweaty strands of hair. Marty rolled over on another of the huge cases, wincing as he hopped down.
‘Everyone okay?’ TM asked, realising that it might have been a dumb question. Dominika gave a half-shrug-half-nod. ‘Marty?’
‘Bit winded, nothing too bad.’
‘We got lucky,’ TM said.
‘What about Veggie?’ Marty said; TM gazed over and saw Veggie slowly get to his feet.
‘Took a bit of a hit,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’
TM and Marty dashed over and picked up Veggie between them; he shook on his feet, but walked out of the warehouse under their support.
‘How are we getting home?’ he murmured; TM could hear air escaping in ways that didn’t sound healthy as he spoke.
‘I might have a warehouse of my own around here,’ TM said, looking around, trying to remember.
‘I might have been a bit busy with serious business-y-type stuff over the last few years, but there was one thing I had to finish doing,’ TM explained, spotting the right number among the homogeneous rows of buildings. ‘Knew it would pay off, eventually.’
Veggie looked up at him, his neck stopping before it reached too much of an angle. ‘You didn’t.’
TM pulled a key out of his pocket, stuck it in the lock, turned and lifted. The door slid upwards, and the four of them dragged themselves inside. TM hit the light switch.
‘Holy shit,’ said Veggie. ‘It’s the fucking Octobike.’