Corporate Robo Renegade Piston
Touma waited for his morning train, trying to ignore the advertisement blaring on the monitor a few feet away. He noticed a man on the other side of the tracks wearing a baseball cap with his employer's logo, a blue downwards-facing triangle with two overlapping letter C's pasted on top. Good ol' Core Co., the advertising machine so shameless even Disney shrank away from competing with it.
The man turned to Touma with a look of vague recollection. A few moments passed, then the man's face lit up with an awe usually reserved for football players and television stars.
Touma offered a small smile and nodded.
The man pointed at his hat and offered an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
"Keep up the good work, bud!" he cheered. "No Godzilla wannabe messes with us when you're around!"
"You got it!" Touma responded with practiced enthusiasm and a cartoonish thumbs-up of his own.
The man's train came in and he boarded it with a grin. Touma dropped the act and, finding nothing better to do, turned to the ad.
"Here at Core Corporation, we ensure that your kaiju problem is dealt with swiftly and safely!" a charming tin toy-styled robot said with an electronic wink. "You deserve the best Seattle, so call our toll-free number and contribute to the citizens' defense fund today! And be sure to watch your favorite mech battle kaiju in real time online or on Core TV!"
The robot prattled on about the Core Co. official merchandise one could pick up at any local retailer--model kits, t-shirts, mugs, soap, children's toys, collector's toys, adult's toys, breakfast cereals, cartoons, music, personal trash cans, bed sheets, mouse pads, Chia Pets, the works.
Touma's face twisted in instinctual disdain as a jingle played and his own image flashed onto the screen, peddling the new Core Co. brand waffle iron, Seattle edition ("Make waffles in the shape of either of your city's mechanical defenders! Only $39.99!"). He noted his face had been touched up to erase all traces of shame. Yes, the merchandising provided most of his paycheck, and he knew being a mech pilot was a coveted career, but it hurt his pride knowing his face was plastered onto a waffle iron.
He sighed, comforting himself with the knowledge that at least he wasn't on the kaiju cleanup team. His train rolled in and he boarded it, nudging his way through the crowd for a spot. The train was so cramped it reminded him of the subways back in Japan.
Touma smiled, remembering how as a child he would ride the trains with his father to the Super Sentai stage shows in Osaka. They always had fun cheering on the colorful superheroes, and his dad would always buy him a treat or a manga for the ride home. Remembering these things always made Touma feel more relaxed, and he allowed himself a moment to decompress.
Touma's reminiscing was interrupted by his buzzing phone. He checked his messages and found fifteen missed calls and three voicemails from Angela. He was about to listen to the first voicemail when she rang again. He accepted the call and forced a positive tone.
"Angela! Let me guess, kaiju sighting?"
"You bet your ass! Get the hell down here, you were supposed to be at work twenty minutes ago!"
"It's Saturday, I don't start until ten."
"No excuses! Where are you?"
"Just got on the light rail."
There was a brief silence. Touma could almost see her placing an impeccably manicured finger to her lips in thought.
"Assuming you're heading for the office, that's good. Real good. Get off at International District station. Kenny's setting up Renegade nearby."
Touma groaned. "Why can't I use Kurojū?"
"City Council couldn't afford it. Renegade works fine, quit complaining. Gotta chat with the kaiju analysis team, we'll talk when you get on site. International District, don't forget."
She ended the call before Touma could protest. He cursed under his breath and pulled up his refresher notes on how to pilot Renegade Piston, the glorified scrap heap.
Twenty minutes later, Touma stepped out of International District station. The Kaiju Alert Alarm was already blaring, and a police officer was running towards him to usher him out of the area. The officer stopped when he recognized Touma, tipped his hat as an apology, and hurried on his way.
Touma nodded respectfully at the officer and noted the Chinese writing on the street signs. He grumbled in annoyance. Of course the giant monster would be landing near Chinatown. The marketing team was always ready to bring up his Japanese heritage thanks to Japan being the first nation to develop mechs, and he knew a fight near any vaguely Asian location would give them yet another excuse to play that heritage up.
He pushed these thoughts aside and searched for any sign of either Renegade peeking over the buildings or the transport helicopters that brought it to the kaiju landfall zone.
Someone honked behind him. Touma turned to the sound and saw a white van pull up to the curb. Kenny, a thin man with an immaculate haircut and thick glasses, whistled at him.
"Touma!" Kenny shouted. "Get in my man, Angela's not on site yet."
Touma smiled at the head of his support team and got into the van. "Good to see you, Kenny. Any data on what I'm fighting?"
Kenny pulled onto the road and started driving towards the bay. "Scans indicate it isn't that big, only ninety meters or so."
"Just ninety? How big is Renegade, again?"
"About sixty-five, I think?" Kenny shrugged. "Not too bad a difference."
"And a paycheck either way. Thanks, North Korea," Touma said, smirking at the old joke. The kaiju had first emerged from beneath the ocean floor right after the detonation of an experimental bomb developed by North Korea. The current leading theory was that the bomb had woken the kaiju up, so thanking North Korea during kaiju landfall was a companywide gag Touma never failed to capitalize on.
"Last thing they ever did was screw the whole world over," Kenny said, as per tradition. "You want the good news or the bad news first?"
"Let's go bad news. Just for kicks."
"City Council only bought the cheapest package, so you don't get any of the auxiliary weapons."
Touma massaged his temples in frustration. "They always have the funds to fix the city, but never enough to keep it from getting damaged in the first place. What about citizen funding? Our damn ads are everywhere."
"No one's biting. People are so used to you winning they think you can scrape by with the base package. On the bright side, merchandise is up two points."
Touma shot Kenny a look. "Wonderful. What's the good news?"
"We finally fixed the Renegade Laser," Kenny said. Touma caught Kenny tapping his fingers rapidly on the wheel.
"Good. What's the catch?"
"New company policy. Uh, it's sort of controversial."
"Spit it out, Kenny."
"If you buy the cheapest package you have to pay for the laser. Three thousand bucks a blast. The council only bought one shot."
Touma sat in dangerous silence, staring at the road ahead.
Kenny cleared his throat.
"Told you it was controversial. Only reason they're even trying it is because the City Council is so damn cheap when an attack hits. They have to raise profits to keep the Seattle branch from getting taken over by the military. Angela didn't tell you?"
"This is very important. I need you to shoot Angela at my funeral."
Kenny smirked. "Happy to, buddy. Happy to. Look alive, we're here."
They pulled up to a police barricade and stopped to let another police officer inspect them. Touma's presence was identification enough, and the officer made a path for them. Kenny waved his left hand in a vaguely grateful gesture, pulled past the barricade into a shipping bay, and parked the van. He got out and pointed in the direction of the water. "There he is, bud. All ready for ya."
Touma got out of the van, followed Kenny's finger, and watched an enormous crane inch towards the chest-mounted cockpit of a colossal four-legged robot. Each leg flared at the bottom to provide protection for massive wheels. The robot's forearms were enlarged in a way that always reminded Touma of the Popeye cartoons his sister used to watch at their grandparents'. The robot's head was shaped like a jet engine, and a grey plate with a single rectangular opening took the place of a face. On the back of each forearm, past the elbow joint, a gigantic piston gleamed in the sun. It had been given a fresh coat of paint in preparation for the upcoming battle, a corporate trick to make it look perpetually pristine and toy-friendly.
"Renegade Piston," Kenny said with a smile. "At your service."
"I hate driving this thing… but I have to admit, I always get chills when you guys are setting it up," Touma said, beaming. His face suddenly twisted to a frown. "They haven't swapped out the tires."
"I know, right? They can afford enough paint to cover a building-sized robot, but giant tires are too expensive, apparently. C'mon, your suit's in the command tent."
Touma threw up his hands in annoyance as he followed Kenny into an enormous white tent tucked into the back corner of the parking lot. A dozen or so technicians and interns clapped for him as he entered the tent. Touma offered a polite bow in return.
"Another day another ass kicking, eh bud?" Kenny said, taking a cup of coffee from one of the interns.
"And another day of my favorite support team chewing my ear off," Touma replied with a wink.
"Yeah, yeah, without us monitoring that kaiju's path and Renegade's systems you'd be toast in seconds."
Touma playfully flipped Kenny off. Kenny returned the gesture, and the pair chuckled at their usual ritual.
"All right, enough funning," Kenny said. "Angela will be here any minute, let's get this show on the road."
"Good to see you suited up!" Angela called from her Lexus as Touma and Kenny exited the tent. She pushed her short, blonde hair from her face, stepped out of the car, and lit a menthol cigarette.
Touma adjusted the neck of his close-fitting spandex suit with a scowl. The suit was red because focus groups had liked that color the best, but Touma was half-convinced it was actually because the suit always left a rash on the back of his neck that was about the same hue.
To add insult to injury, the suit was plastered in advertisements. Logos for Red Bull, Doritos, Microsoft, Rowdy Randy's BBQ Stand, and Vitamin Water stuck out like lights on a Christmas tree, and every time he put on the suit Touma felt like a walking billboard.
Touma triple-checked his groin to make sure he'd put his dancer's belt on right and glared at Angela.
"What's this I hear about only getting one shot? And why haven't the tires been changed?"
"Oh, relax, Touma. You're our best pilot, you can manage."
"I'm your only pilot."
Angela waved the notion away and took another drag on her cigarette before replying, "Technicalities. Low ammo is one of the snags of the job, and new tires are too expensive."
Kenny hid a laugh with a fake cough.
Angela raised an eyebrow at him, but let it drop. She turned back to Touma and continued. "You said when you signed up you always wanted to be a mech pilot, right?"
"Every time you say that I hate you a little bit more."
She frowned and sighed smoke. "Listen. It's not my fault City Council can't get their shit together and budget for a kaiju attack. Now that thing is going to make landfall in less than an hour, and I want Renegade ready to go when it lands."
"I need more than one shot. That cannon is the only useful weapon Renegade has if I'm not getting an auxiliary package."
"What about the Piston Punch? Everybody loves the Piston Punch."
Touma massaged his temple in frustration.
"You and I both know that move is worthless, Angela."
"Oh, come on. The Piston Punch gives Renegade Piston more punching power!"
"No it doesn't. That's a marketing gimmick. All the pistons do is make Renegade top heavy. Hell, if it didn't have four legs, it would probably topple over."
Angela frowned and straightened out, looking as professional as possible.
"You're just bitchy because you can't pilot Kurojū. Shut up, get in the damn robot, and do your job."
"Not until I get one more shot."
Angela tutted in mock frustration and took another drag on her cigarette.
"Aren't you Japanese guys supposed to be soft-spoken?"
"Aren't you blonde women supposed to be dumb?"
She smirked. "Okay, I deserved that one. I'll negotiate with the council. They probably won't bite, but I might be able to convince them to scrape enough together for an emergency."
Touma balled his fists in frustration, but knew better than to argue further. He nodded curtly and turned his attention to Kenny. "Stats on the kaiju?"
"The techs aren't picking up signs of radiation or electrical energy. Looks like he's just your standard overgrown lizard," Kenny said, shrugging.
"Great. Get me that shot, Angela. I'm heading in."
"Hold on a sec," Angela said. She smoothed Touma's hair and gave him a once-over.
"Perfect. Now you're ready for the cameras."
The worst part about piloting Renegade Piston was the cockpit. The control console hugged Touma's chest so tightly it hurt his ribs, and the camera jury-rigged to the cockpit's roof had a nasty habit of bumping his head if he got in too quickly. Touma had complained about that damn camera a hundred times, but the TV guys wouldn't hear of having it removed.
Still, there was something comforting about sliding into a mech's cockpit, even one as awful as Renegade's. The control sticks were well-worn enough that they were a perfect fit in Touma's hands, almost as if they'd been made specifically for him. Even if he'd prefer to be driving Kurojū, grabbing Renegade's control sticks always made Touma feel like he had stepped into one of the Saturday morning anime shows he'd watched as a kid. Hell, he'd come to America entirely because it was the only country where citizens outside the military could be mech pilots. He never was one for taking orders in the thick of things, and Core Co. offered a lot of flexibility to its pilots mid-combat.
He smiled despite himself and performed one last round of diagnostics checks. He double-checked the audio feed that let the viewers back home hear what he was saying to make sure it was off. Satisfied that it was, Touma clicked on the radio that let him chat with his support team.
"Everything's looking good on this end, Kenny. Update on that second shot?"
"Council won't budge and citizens aren't donating, as always," Kenny radioed from the tent. "Our beloved boss is currently chatting with the execs about opening up a donation line."
"I'll take a giant baseball bat at this point. Time until kaiju makes landfall?"
"Any second now. Watch the water."
Touma disengaged Renegade's wheel brakes and patrolled the dock for any disturbances. Other than the lack of workers, the whirl of Core TV helicopters filming him, and the gentle beginnings of a rainstorm, the dock was peaceful. He tapped his fingers on the controls and pivoted Renegade back around to make another sweep, accidentally knocking over a few shipping containers as he did so.
"Renegade's handling slow today…" Touma muttered to himself. "Hey Kenny, the audience didn't see that, did they?"
"Nope, you aren't live yet. If you're going to loosen him up, now's the time."
Touma did a few more practice turns to kick out the rest of the rust. Just as he finished and started to resume his patrol, the red light on his internal camera clicked on. Touma got a little bored waiting for the kaiju, so he pulled up Renegade's livestream on his phone to hear the overexcited announcer dramatizing events for the viewers at home.
"Seattle's only certified pilot," the announcer said, "Yamane Touma, is currently keeping a close eye out for a deadly kaiju in Renegade Piston, one of the oldest mechs still used in kaiju defense! Notice the steely glare in his eyes! The sweat of determination on his brow! Why, he's so confident in his abilities he's checking his phone! I guess when you've killed seven kaiju without wrecking a mech, you earn the right to check your texts every once in a while!"
Touma winked at the camera and offered a salute he'd seen in an anime once. He stopped showboating when he caught sight of a shape rising slowly from the water. He switched off his phone, leaned forward, and shifted Renegade's oversized forearms into battle-ready position.
An enormous boat suddenly capsized and sank into the water as a reptilian hand jutted from the bay and caught hold of land. Touma had seen kaiju make landfall enough times that such entrances failed to surprise him, dramatic as they were.
"I see it, Kenny. We give this one a nickname?"
"Nah. Do not engage until it finishes emerging from the water."
The kaiju rose like a stony colossus onto the concrete lip of the dock, dragging itself out of the water on two thin, muscular arms. The effort exhausted the monster and it paused when it was halfway on land, panting through an oversized snout which reminded Touma of a spinosaurus. Six eyes blinked with no semblance of coordination as the monster sniffed the air. It pulled itself up a little more, and to Touma's relief the lower body was legless and tapered off into a snakelike tail. The only other notable feature was a rust-colored shell on its back painted with thick horizontal cracks and a zigzagging crack down the middle. Touma wrote it off as a piece of ocean floor that had stuck to the kaiju while it was resting beneath the Earth's crust.
"Target has no legs and seems exhausted," Touma said. "Primary mode of attack is probably whipping things with the tail, using the shell as defense. I think I'll call it Leggy. If it stops moving, I'm taking the shot."
"Angela wouldn't like that. Not very exciting for the viewers back home," Kenny said.
"Fair enough. Cannon's ready to fire. If Leggy stops, light him up."
The kaiju finished dragging its tail onto the dock and rested its head on an enormous pile of shipping containers, causing them to groan under its weight. Touma locked onto the monster and pressed a glowing blue button.
The reactor hidden inside Renegade's head spun to life, filling Touma's cockpit with neon aquamarine light. The sound of massive turbines rattled the surrounding shipping containers as Renegade braced itself to fire.
The kaiju looked up in confusion at the robot and knocked the containers it was resting on into the ocean with a flick of its arm. It shook itself, and a sharp snap resonated in the air.
"Touma, you hear that?" Kenny asked.
"Probably just an energy spike, proceeding with firing."
Renegade's wheeled legs locked into position. Touma turned the livestream back on and snuck a quick peak peek at the aquamarine light pooling into Renegade's rectangular eye. The pistons on its arms retracted violently and slammed back into position, two drummers keeping time on a pair of violent metal bongos. Touma knew the pistons were solely for spectacle, but even he could admit the effect was cool, and he always liked watching this part through Core TV's larger-than-life camera angles.
The cracking noises increased in frequency, and the kaiju snorted in annoyance as the sky opened, pelting the two titans with rain.
"Turning on in-cockpit audio feed. Shout it for the cameras, Touma."
Touma turned the livestream off and grinned. He knew it was stupid, but he couldn't help feeling giddy as he shouted "Renegade Laser!" at the top of his lungs. The beam fired in time with his battle cry and beelined towards the kaiju. The beam shone so bright Touma had to avert his eyes to avoid blinding himself. He heard the sizzle of the laser hitting solid mass, and when the light dimmed Touma turned back to see if the beam hit. Sure enough, where the monster had been standing there was nothing but an enormous cloud of smoke.
"Direct hit! One and done!" Touma cheered. He flashed a pose which showed off the Mountain Dew ad on his left arm and slid into the same cartoony grin he'd given the man in the Core Co. hat earlier. He knew he was probably laying it on a bit too thick, but the viewers back home would eat it up anyway.
"Reading the livestream comments, and the fans are going wild… although most of them are just surprised the laser still works. Head on back, we'll get ya out of there."
Touma unlocked the wheels before something gave him pause.
"Hold on. Kaiju scream in pain when downed. I didn't hear anything from Leggy."
"The laser probably just drowned it out."
"You'd hear a kaiju getting beamed, Kenny. Any of your guys hear anything?"
There was a brief murmur of voices. "No, actually. Verify kill. Proceed with caution."
The smoke cleared, and Touma saw a rust-colored wall in the spot where the kaiju had been standing. He squinted at it to get a better view, and to his disbelief it looked like the monster's shell. A large circle of soot indicated where the laser had hit it, and it appeared to be moving slightly, as if suspended in midair.
"Kenny, you seeing this?"
"Yeah, I'm seeing it. Approach slowly. Be ready to engage."
Renegade wheeled forward, fists raised in preparation for a fight. The shell split vertically in two and drifted apart, revealing the unharmed kaiju. It growled and pawed the ground as armored pillars jutting from the monster's back raised the shell pieces above the kaiju's head.
"Kenny," Touma said, voice devoid of emotion. For the first time in his career, he grabbed the emergency helmet that kept the audience from seeing his face and slipped it on.
"We're working on it, we're working on it!" Kenny's voice echoed in the helmet's built-in radio. "Turn his mike off!"
The pillars retracted the shell onto the kaiju's back faster than Touma thought possible, and its tail smacked against the dock, leaving dents in the concrete and smashed shipping containers in its wake. It shoved a beached tanker out of the way and flung it into the ocean, leaving a clear path between it and Renegade.
"Kenny, I need that second shot. Now."
"The shell can move? How did no one notice?" Kenny snapped.
"Kenny," Touma repeated, a hint of panic slipping into his voice.
"We're on the phone with Angela, try and hold on!"
The kaiju raised an arm and slammed it into the ground ahead of it. It roared and started dragging itself forward.
"Kenny, this thing's about four hundred feet away. Renegade's so old I don't like my chances grappling with something bigger than it. Need that shot."
"Touma, this is Angela," Angela's staticky voice responded. "The network agreed to our donation line and it's on the stream. Just hold out until the funds come in."
"Easy for you to say," Touma said, backing further away from the kaiju. "Can't you just take it out of my salary?"
"How many times do I have to tell you, hotshot? If we let you buy your own ammo, the government shuts down Core Co. for selling heavy weapons to private citizens. You have a speed advantage and we've verified there are no civilians in the area. Keep its attention on you and we should be okay. You got this, hotshot."
"I want a raise," Touma said half-jokingly, trying to stay relaxed.
"Fine. Just deal with this thing first."
Renegade ran over an abandoned forklift, shocking Touma back to the fight. He took a few deep breaths and gritted his teeth, keeping a close eye on the kaiju clawing its way towards him. The gap between them was about three hundred feet.
The kaiju snapped its crocodilian maw in anticipation. When it was about two hundred feet away, it planted itself on the ground and swung its tail at Renegade's legs.
Touma smiled and wheeled back a bit, out of the attack's range. Renegade took a bit longer to respond than he would have liked, but he was able to dodge with room to spare. The monster's tail smashed into a nearby building and it roared in annoyance.
Touma thought he heard Kenny say something, but he ignored it. He was just starting to get his groove back, and he wasn't about to let corporate bullshit slow him down.
Suddenly, something struck from the left. Touma instinctively banked right, directly into the path of a blurred mass that scraped Renegade's right forearm. Touma glanced at the arm and saw whatever had hit him had left a smoldering gash.
"I repeat, something is going on with the shell! Fall back, fall back!" Kenny radioed.
"Shit!" Touma hissed. He pulled Renegade out of range and inspected the monster.
The monster's shell was splitting apart into thick, crablike legs which ended in razor sharp points. Touma could even see part of the blast impact on the leg that had presumably just struck him.
"What the hell?" Touma muttered.
It took him a few seconds to make the connection: the shell had been made of those legs the whole time. That explained the armored pillars from before.
He snapped to attention as the monster thrust its backside towards Renegade, swinging its tail dangerously close to Renegade's legs. Touma instinctively wheeled a hard left and pivoted to punch the kaiju with Renegade's right fist. Even though the in-cockpit audio was turned off, he caught himself instinctively shouting "Piston Punch!"
The punch connected with the back of the kaiju's neck, and the piston slammed down into Renegade's arm with a satisfying metallic thwack. The monster stumbled forward and shrieked in pain.
Touma felt his heart pumping in his ears. For some reason, he couldn't stop laughing. The shell being made of crab legs had thrown him for a loop, sure, but this thing was nothing he couldn't handle. He slammed Renegade's control sticks to the right to orient the kaiju in front of him.
Renegade's wheels let out a hissing screech of protest, followed by the whine of metal on concrete. Touma pushed down a surge of panic and slammed the control sticks for Renegade's upper body to the right.
Renegade reached out with its left hand to try and regain balance, but between the force of the punch it had given the monster and the lack of traction, it was too far off-center to recover. Renegade crashed to the ground on its left side, reducing multiple buildings to rubble as it fell.
Touma could hear Angela and Kenny screaming at him to get up, for God's sake Touma get up, as an ominous crack appeared on the cockpit. He fumbled with the control stick, but knew in his heart Renegade wasn't built to get up from a fall, especially one on its side. He managed to turn the cockpit skyward, and Touma could see Renegade's two right legs flailing in the air, the remains of its wheels smoking from his ill-considered maneuver.
The kaiju loomed into view, enveloping Touma's entire field of vision. It sniffed at Renegade and shoved it with its snout, baiting it to attack.
Touma tried to punch the kaiju with Renegade's right arm, but the sudden fall had rattled him so much all he could manage was a weak scrape at the air.
Satisfied its foe was incapacitated, the kaiju bellowed in triumph and speared Renegade's mechanical body with its crab legs.
The whine of crushed metal and warning sirens blared throughout the cockpit. Touma instinctually threw his hands in front of his face and fought for something resembling control of himself. The onboard diagnostics screen told him the legs had shot straight through the right shoulder mechanisms and the spaces just above and below the cockpit. Renegade was pinned.
The kaiju brought an arm down on one of Renegade's impotent legs with so much force Touma could hear the sharp snap of the knee breaking apart at the joint. The first leg collapsed under the kaiju's strength as the monster pinned the second leg to the ground at a grotesque angle.
The creature roared again and sank its teeth into Renegade's right forearm. The air filled with a thick metallic screech, and the kaiju's fangs tore through the arm with ease.
Touma choked back raw fear as the kaiju ripped off Renegade's arm with a sharp flick of its neck. His mind raced to his mother and sister back in Kobe. He'd been told Core TV didn't broadcast in Japan, but if a Japanese pilot died, it was sure to make the news back home. He could see the horror on his sister's face and his mother's tears as they watched Touma's robot get savaged into scrap.
He grappled with the various levers and controls of the mech, pressing buttons at random. He wanted to ask Angela or Kenny for help but nothing would come out of his mouth. He'd read the manual hundreds of times but he couldn't remember what any of the buttons did, why couldn't he remember what the buttons did? There was an escape hatch, where was the escape hatch, he needed to get OUT--
"Touma, calm down, we're only five dollars away from that second shot on the cannon."
"Angela, I'm going to die!" Touma shrieked. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew tugging at the control stick wouldn't help but he couldn't rip his hands off it because maybe if he tugged hard enough something miraculous would happen and he'd live, but nothing was happening and he was going to die.
"You're good to fire. Touma, you're good to fire!" Angela barked, but her voice was drowned out by the kaiju's roar.
Touma saw the kaiju open its jaws wider, wider, so wide all he could see was the blackness of its mouth. The monster bit into Renegade's chassis and the cockpit splintered and shattered. Touma threw his hands in front of his face and felt the monster's warm breath surround him as falling glass sliced his arms. The stench of decaying meat filled Touma's nostrils, and he gagged.
He threw his hands down on a random lever and yanked it. Through sheer luck he managed to grab the monster's lower jaw with Renegade's remaining arm and keep the kaiju from sinking its teeth further. The sound of the piston pumping frantically echoed in the kaiju's cavernous maw. The force of the impacts coursed through the monster's mouth, causing it to flinch in time to the piston's furious beat and loosen its grip a little.
"I want out! I want out! I want out!" Touma yelled, tugging the control stick nearly out of its socket. A blue button lit up on the dash and Touma slammed down on it, not caring what it did.
There was a bright light and a deafening noise, the loudest thing Touma had ever heard. A blast of heat flooded the cockpit and Touma's fear drained away, leaving calm numbness in its wake. He closed his eyes and whispered, "If this is death, let me face it with a shred of dignity."
The light dimmed. Touma opened his eyes and saw a dark tunnel. At the end of it a bright light was shining. The path to Heaven.
"Touma, verify the kill. Repeat, verify the kill."
Calm settled in and Touma inspected his surroundings, dazed. He was alive. The tunnel he had seen was the kaiju's mouth, and the light was the sun peeking through clouds and a smoldering hole. The kaiju stood immobile, frozen in its final assault. Touma vaguely recalled Angela saying something about the laser. He watched the monster fall backwards as its eyes faded to the milky pallor of death, then he mumbled something into the microphone and passed out.
Touma awoke to the kaiju's shrieking. He bolted up and winced in pain.
"Whoa, easy, bud," Kenny said as he put a hand on Touma's shoulder. "Just a news report."
Touma settled back into his pillow. His eyes scanned the room, a hospital room, if he had to guess. A TV was playing footage from his fight with the kaiju. The ticker at the bottom of the screen read HERO PILOT SAVES CITY, RECOVERY GOING SMOOTHLY.
"You went into shock. All those cuts and burns had me scared for a minute, but you're okay. Just need some rest."
"Burns?" Touma asked.
"Just first-degree ones. From the laser. Good thing that thing isn't radioactive, right?"
Kenny forced a chuckle. Touma closed his eyes and groaned. Kenny stopped chuckling and scratched the back of his head.
"Uh, can I get you anything while I'm here?"
"Kool-Aid," Touma blurted.
Kenny gave him an odd look.
"The kind in the shitty plastic bottle. Grape if they got it. I always drink some after a kill."
"I thought you went out for steak?"
"Got too expensive. Kenny, just get me the damn Kool-Aid."
Kenny shrugged. "Whatever you want, bud."
He walked out of the room. A few minutes after he left, Angela trotted in. Touma scowled at her.
"Hey, handsome. Good work out there. You definitely earned that raise, and with Renegade out of commission, next time a kaiju hits they'll have no choice but to let you drive Kurojū. Things are looking up, right?"
Angela froze. "I'm sorry?"
"I'm quitting. Your penny pinching with the laser almost got me killed, and I'm sick of pushing Core Co. toilet paper."
Her face fell. "Touma, please, you're our only pilot."
"As soon as I can leave this hospital, I'm taking a plane back home. I have put up with being your corporate puppet for over a year. I have killed seven kaiju for you. I have had to test and retest the same damn upgrades that I never get to use hundreds of times! Not only that, the one time Renegade's laser actually works, you don't let me use it and I almost get killed! I refuse to suffer these indignities any longer!"
Angela stumbled over her words a bit before sighing.
"Come in for one more week. When that's over, if you still want to leave, you're free."
Angela turned around to exit, but lingered in the doorway.
"You can leave, Angela."
"You weren't actually good to fire."
Angela looked back at him and offered a weak smile. "We set up that donation fund, but we only got twelve hundred bucks. I gave you the go ahead anyway. You were about to die, couldn't just sit there."
Touma sat in silence. Angela looked at the floor, waiting for his response.
"You mean you could have given me the go ahead at any time?"
She frowned. "Touma, wait."
"And you let me sit out there like I was target practice?"
"Touma, the higher ups would have had my hide. I'm already getting chewed out for slipping you that extra eighteen hundred."
"Why, because you, a private citizen, bought heavy weaponry? Because the government's on their ass?"
"Well, yes. I mean, they probably will be if they find out, but--"
Touma threw a pillow at her and shouted, "Get out!"
Angela dodged the pillow and scampered off. Touma growled and turned back to the TV. A flock of people were gathered in some public park, gathering donations for when the next kaiju attacked. They held signs that read "Support Yamane Touma!", and a young child was holding up a Renegade Piston action figure for the cameras.
"Great," Touma sighed. "Maybe next time they'll actually be ready for the damn thing."
He sank into his hospital bed and stared at the ceiling. His neck felt constricted, and as he massaged it he realized he was still in his pilot suit. He threw his hands up in annoyance and hissed in pain.
The crowds were cheering for him, he was a hero, and he was living out his childhood dream, but for some reason Touma didn't care. He'd almost died, and this kaiju hadn't even been able to shoot radiation or fly. What was going to come out of the ocean next? His dad and all those old shows had taught him never to give up, but was it worth becoming a symbol for some corporation he didn't even like?
Kenny returned with a bottle of grape Kool-Aid. "Hey. Angela was sitting in the lobby, looked upset. Everything okay?"
Touma took the Kool-Aid and shrugged. He tipped it back into his throat and chugged greedily.
A drop dribbled from his mouth. Touma felt it plink onto his suit and glanced downwards to wipe it off. His gaze caught a Kool-Aid logo stamped onto his chest, hidden between ads for Netflix and Fake Bake Tanning Butter. He'd been wearing this suit for over a year, and somehow, he'd never noticed it.
Touma stared at the logo in disbelief before grinning and bursting into laughter.
Kenny tilted his head at Touma's outburst. Touma pointed at the logo and started laughing harder.
"It's a damn good ad, Kenny!" Touma howled. "A damn good ad!"
Kenny read the ad and snickered. Touma's laughter proved infectious and the two friends barreled over with laughter.
After catching his breath, Kenny sighed. "You thinking about quitting?"
Touma's laughter petered out. He didn't respond.
"I've seen it before," Kenny said, gazing out the window. "Support team members tend to stick around longer than pilots, y'know? When you're a pilot, you're a hotshot, no kaiju can touch you, and then one day you get your ass kicked. Everybody goes through it."
Touma rolled over so his back was to Kenny. "I should've noticed something was off about the shell."
"No, you shouldn't have," Kenny answered, mouth twitching with regret. "That was my job. The blame's on me. Not you."
"Still. At least Leggy was a good name for it, right? I'm sure they're already working on a trading card for it. Maybe even a toy."
Kenny smirked and put his hands in his pockets. He looked to the TV, which was still showing scenes of people supporting Touma.
"Yeah, I'm sure. I guess I should tell you this channel's Core TV. Angela's doing, obviously."
"Should've figured," Touma said. "It's a nice touch, though."
"Yeah. If you want to quit, I won't stop you. But let me know if you go, okay? Would hate to lose my favorite drinking buddy."
Touma hesitated before sitting up and offering Kenny a small bow with his shoulders. "Thank you, my friend."
Kenny returned the gesture and left. Touma turned back to the television. He was free to go back home to Japan. See his sister and his mom. Find a job as a salaryman. Grow out of the delusion that he was some anime hero.
But he had saved the city from a kaiju with a giant robot, hadn't he? He knew he couldn't walk away from that life. Was he really the kind of man who would run off at the first sign of real danger? How could his family respect him if he ran away? And what about all the people that looked up to him?
The show switched to commercial. A Core Co. ad, naturally. The usual jingle played, and before Touma realized what he was doing he was humming along.