Chapter 1:

Chapter 1: Dumpster Diving

The Garbage Gladiator

An inch closer and the heat from the Rocket Punch would have blistered Jester’s skin.

Flecks of metal from the damaged robot burrowed into his second-hand suit, as The Lovecraftian Knight smashed into the wall.

He expected that from the cheap seats he’d won. The player base called them Headloppers. For obvious reasons. Anyone who could afford tickets to The Copper Coliseum went for the back rows. Apart from the thrill-seekers who currently surrounded him. But they were weirdos anyway. Some even bet on who could get hit by the biggest pieces of metal.

As another rocket fired towards the newly made hole, Jester ducked more debris as his ratty top hat fell from his head. Not bothering to grab it from the beer-stained floor, he instead gawked at the mechanical marvel above him.

Steam-powered rockets kept the giant hand in flight. Each copper-plated digit spread out, as if preparing to slap the earth itself. Laughter burst from the crowd as it started making obscene hand gestures towards its downed opponent.

A voice from the crowd called out, a proclamation of undying love. More laughter erupted as the giant hand spun into a quick thumbs up.

Jester couldn’t be more grateful they were far away. While he couldn’t take damage, he didn’t need to feel that heat. Fans around him cried out their nickname for the flying hand.

“Five-Fingered Death!”

DangerDeathless, the mechanic who owned Captain Rocket, apparently loved that fan name. It showed up on promotional materials almost as much as the real one did. Jester knew anyone listening purely to the crowd would get the wrong idea.

The cheering made it appear as though Captain Rocket was winning, but AЯkham-hoЯЯoЯ didn’t build weak robots. With a cracking of stone, a tentacle shot from the newly created hole in the wall. In seconds, others joined it. More and more, until the body appeared behind them.

Dented and broken, the set of full plate armor emerged, glowing with an eerie purple light. Tentacles writhed and wriggled from the gaps, grasping at anything within reach. Which, unfortunately, didn’t include Captain Rocket.

The two robots were still, and the crowd grew silent. Jester tensed along with his neighbors, waiting for the next move. It came quickly.

Captain Rocket shifted into a fist, rose higher, and then dropped. A powerful move that would easily crush The Lovecraftian Knight into the ground. It would have worked if hadn’t chosen to rise higher. The move achieving little but giving its opponent time to dodge.

Time The Lovecraftian Knight didn’t squander.

Tentacles lashed out, grabbing the wall and pulling the armor out of harm’s way. With the successful narrow dodge, Captain Rocket’s momentum worked against it.


Sand flew everywhere at the force of the impact. People cheered. More tentacles slithered forward, grabbing onto the giant thumb. Servos shrieked as the writhing appendages found their way into joints to crush delicate machinery.

Boos and cheers mixed in the audience as the two robots grappled.

Screens flickered to life above the golden sands of the arena. Information about the fight filled the screen, simplified for the audience.

Jester felt his mouth water at the prize pool displayed.

                                            Technomancer Cup - FINAL BOUT
             Winner takes all Prize Pool: 10 Million in-game credits + $50,000 Dollars.
                                Capatain Rocket               The Lovecraftian Knight
                                Owner: DangerDeathless  Owner: AЯkham-hoЯЯoЯ
                                Current HP: 100/150          Current HP: 80/120
                                Damage Rating: High         Damage Rating: Medium
                                Armor Rating: Low             Armor Rating: Medium
                                Speed rating: High              Speed rating: Medium
                                Best Weapon: Rocket         Barrage Best Weapon: Nightmare Staff
                                How Many Wins: 350         How Many Wins: 340
                                How Many Losses: 70        How Many Losses: 25

Fifty-Thousand was a lot of money. Home loan money? No. Fix up his old car money? Yes. Plus, the ten-million in-game credits would put whoever won it in a perfect position for the next patch drop. RagerSystems were always releasing new content, and none of it was cheap.

A voice interrupted Jester’s thoughts as he watched Captain Rocket try to free its thumb from the tentacles’ slow attempt to separate it from the hand. It was a Non-Player Character, also known as an NPC. These AI-controlled avatars existed for a singular purpose. Money extraction.

This vendor wore a set of aviator goggles and smiled as he caught Jester’s eye.

“Food for the show, sir?” The man offered, as bubbles flowed through a series of complicated-looking pipes. Gears turned, pistons raised, and the lid of the tray he carried rose. On it sat a stack of newspapers, doing nothing to conceal the smell of battered fish and piping hot chips.

An overlay appeared, showing the cost in two ways.

{1 wrapped Fish and Chips
Concentration buff: 0.05%
Credits Cost: 5 credits
Dollar Cost: 10 cents}

The price point was surprising. This full meal was cheaper than the beer the last NPC tried to hawk.

Small concentration buff, though that was to be expected from street food. Some top mechanics, including AЯkham-hoЯЯoЯ, spent thousands of credits at fancy restaurants before big builds. It was worth it for any chance to get a bonus to installation, meaning any inbuilt weapons or movement options might gain additional stats.

“Thank you, sir,” The NPC said after the credits changed hands.

Jester grabbed a chip, delighting in its splendid crunch. Virtual food was often perfect. A selling point used for multiple games. After all, no one needed to prepare it from scratch. Why anyone coded awful food into their games was something Jester never understood.

An almighty crack drew his attention from his meal and back to the fight. Captain Rocket’s thumb lay on the ground. Tentacles cocooned it, dragging it towards the damaged armor. With each foot of movement, the cocoon got smaller and smaller, and the Lovecraftian Knight regained health.

Jester watched the absorption technique. How it worked wasn’t difficult to understand. Nanobots. The tentacles would inject the tiny machines into their target. Once inside, they would consume any metallic components they found to replicate whatever replacement parts were required. Then they would return and heal the armor as needed.

Even as he watched, the metallic chest plate filled out once again.

It was beautiful to witness. Too bad that it wouldn’t matter.

While The Lovecraftian Knight joined Jester in taking this moment to eat, Captain Rocket used the opportunity to regain the skies. A missing finger meant less steady flight. Not that it would matter for what it planned.

A series of loud clunks filled the air as the casings that kept the rockets attached fell away. Captain Rocket fell with them as it launched its namesake towards its opponent. Propulsion turned deadly. Explosions detonated into the armor with a series of rhythmic booms.

Boom, boom, boom. Pause. Boom, boom, boom. Pause.

Another loud thud sounded out as Captain Rocket itself hit the ground. Not that anyone could see it. Between the steam and sand, visibility was nonexistent. Jester held his breath as he heard a small click. A droning sound started. Filters coming to life to clear the air for a dramatic revelation.

Roars erupted.

The Lovecraftian Knight stood. Purple armor ripped to the point it was best described as rags, a power core flicking in the open. Neon-green tentacles were now everywhere, no longer constrained by their previous shell.

Captain Rocket lay nearby on its back, fingers twitching like a dying bug. With a heave, it turned itself over, bare now of any rockets. Jester shifted forward in his seat, hands clenching into fists.

Who would fall first?

It turned out to be The Lovecraftian Knight. People cheered as the tentacle horror took a tumble, landing in the dirt. Captain Rocket scurried closer, fingers clacking with the awkward movement. An attempt on the core, Jester assumed.

An understandable strategy, but a mistake, it turned out.

As soon as it got close enough, tentacles cocooned it. They were sluggish, and couldn’t grip tightly, but sheer numbers made up for it. Groans rose from the crowd. This fight was now a war of attrition.

If Captain Rocket could get free, it won. If not, The Lovecraftian Knight would simply eat it for health. Jester’s gaze flicked to the screen. His eyes narrowed as he re-read one line.

Best weapons.

What exactly was a Nightmare Staff?

He received his answer not a second later.

A tentacle slithered from the hole where a gauntlet used to be. Seconds later, it produced a rod. With a shake, the steel rod extended into a staff made of crazy angles.

At the sight of the weapon, Captain Rocket struggled harder. Pointless. The weapon fired, a green pulsing laser that sliced through a finger joint. Then another, and another. With each shot, a strong smell of ozone cut through the stench of oil and beer.

Groans turned back to cheers. This wouldn’t be the drawn-out grapple fest people feared. They required spectacle, and a tentacle monster wielding a magic wand fit the bill.

Jester cheered with them, overjoyed at witnessing such a show.

As the fight completed, both robots vanished, replaced with their mechanics. Both men strode to the center, shaking hands as the crowd cheered. AЯkham-hoЯЯoЯ wore his customary black robes that floated an inch off the ground on an artificial breeze.

DangerDeathless, in contrast, wore a stark white mechanic’s jumpsuit. Even on stage, his belt sagged with the weight of his tools.

Pictures of them flashed onto the screen. Winner branded across AЯkham-hoЯЯoЯ’s scowling face. After a polite round of applause, the image changed. Replaced by a message that filled Jester with wonder.

We, here at RagerSystems, would like to thank everyone who witnessed the show today! We also have a special in-game announcement. Starting today, there is a year left until the patch! And we plan on giving away some sweet rewards. Send it out with a bang.

We know, we know. You’re used to monthly patches, but this one got a little. Galactic. In size. Trust me, it will be worth it. But to tide you over, we’re doing something a little different.

Instead of keeping the winners of each cup separate. This time, we’ll show them all off. At year’s end, we’re going to pit you against each other. A Final Cup. Is that fair? Who cares! It will be great to watch. So for those of you who want a shot at glory? I’d suggest building your best bot and getting signed up for whatever cup you can afford the entry fee for.

After all, who doesn’t want cash in hand? Not to mention a chance to be the first in line for some sweet, sweet, alien tech?

So every cup. Yes, every single one is getting a prize bump. We will hold The Final Cup the day before the patch goes live, so get prepped. A special prize, as well as a ton of cash, awaits the winner.

So get out there and build a veritable monster. You’re going to need it.
RagerSystems admins. System-wide announcement.
Cups in descending order
Technomancer: 20 million in-game credits, 100,000 Dollars.
Robotic Representative: 5 million in-game credits, 60,000 Dollars.
Diesel Destruction: 1 million in-game credits, 20,000 Dollars.
Steampunk Slammer: 500,000 in-game credits, 5000 Dollars

The crowd went wild. Speculation rammed into Jester from all sides, as people started discussing the announcement. Groups left in droves. Most planning to hit the Geartown Markets.

Jester slumped into his seat, gaze focused upwards. A Final Cup. He tried to imagine battling for the title. He couldn’t manage it. No, not a dream for him. While he loved RotorRager. Truly, he did. Best Virtual-Reality MMO on the market, at least in his opinion. Even die-hard fans couldn’t deny the pay-to-win nature of the game. Spare income was not something weighing down his pockets.

And without income, one couldn’t exactly afford a robot. Not that lacking one stopped him from playing. Robot combat may have been the central premise at the start, but things have evolved. Now, even for someone without a mechanical friend, side hustles existed. Communities evolved. Friendship formed. Businesses sprang to life.

Plenty of opportunities awaited those who wanted to seize them. Just not the expensive opportunities.

He rose from his seat and grabbed his hat before moving past the remaining cleaning NPCs. One looked at him, mouth opening as though to ask a question. Jester’s gaze fell to the floor as his pace quickened.

Various NPCs generated area quests. Minor jobs for crap pay. They were probably going to ask him to clean the stadium with them. Not today. He was busy.

He checked the clock in the corner of his UI. Almost 3 pm. Good, there was still time. Shops tossed out outdated and broken equipment on a set schedule. Their flying barges would soon fill the skies as they headed towards The Junkyard that surrounded Geartown.

If luck shined on him, he might discover something fixable. Repaired goods sold better than any simple cleaning quest.

Plus, there was the chance one would discard a rare item by mistake.

Someone once shared a video of them finding a four-legged cannon. Sold for enough to purchase an in-game apprenticeship with an NPC blacksmith. Now they crafted custom armor pieces and made a ton in private third-party sales. Which would be nice.

Jester’s part-time job paid the bills, but it wasn’t exactly fulfilling work. A chance to open his own digital store in the game, however? That was possibly an achievable dream. He might even be able to put his art degree to use.

His wandering thoughts about what to call his hypothetical store stopped him from noticing the surrounding people. Elbows from a group garbed in spiked jackets slammed into his side. The force knocked him into a gathering of women decked out in flowing dresses covered in metal disks. Their curses followed his hunched back as he hurried away from The Coliseum.

Geartown’s streets weren’t often this packed with people. Most players spent time in guild workshops or sat in cafés chatting with friends. Now they were out in force. Eyes roamed every which way as they tried to snap up deals. After all, big cash prizes drew in new players like flies. New players that rarely knew how much a crappy recycled laser sword was worth.

The layout and decor of the town didn’t make traversal any easier. Metallic plates, painted to look like cobblestones, made up the roads. These pathways never ran straight. Instead, they wound around buildings, regularly stopping at dead ends. Maps were in constant demand.

Nixie tubes and large gears sprouted from the ground and rooftops, at random. Some bore signs, some numbers, informing players of NPC or player residence or shops alike. Glass balls rocketed through clear tubes overhead. A fast transport system that could take a player anywhere they wish to go. For a free of ten credits, of course.

Jester looked at the fifteen credits in his account and stayed on foot.

His destination wasn’t far, anyway.


As soon as he crossed the invisible boundary between Geartown and The Outskirts, his passage became easier. People continued to mill about in groups, but in much smaller numbers. He nodded to some who smiled and returned a hand signal.

The rest went ignored. Whatever they were doing, he didn’t need to get tangled in it.

Upon reaching the southernmost bridge to The Junkyards, he pulled a credit satchel off his belt. Around the numerous patches, the original bright blue material was visible. It cost one credit for anyone who wanted to cross the rickety bridges. Coming back into The Outskirts was free, however. More developer tax.

Gero, the NPC guardsmen, marched forward with a hand outstretched.


“Gero,” Jester said, flicking him the credit chip.

With a deft hand, Gero grabbed the small silver disk out of the air. He pocketed it with a smile before returning to leaning against a nearby wall.

“Careful out there, St’Servo. Would hate to see you harmed.”

“Why, worried they’ll stop your promotion again?” Jester asked.

Gero shook his head and flipped him off as he walked past.

Wood groaned under his feet, the rope bridge twisting and swaying over the potentially bottomless cavern. No game lore explained what formed the chasm between The Junkyard and The Outskirts. Any time someone asked a developer at a convention or during interviews, they would smile before changing the subject.

Clever tactics, as it got people talking about it. Players filled the RotorRager forums with ideas. Some avatars even jumped from the cliff edge, seeing if they could hit the bottom. None did. An instant kill hitbox filled the dark depths. At least they didn’t lose any equipment.

An overwhelming smell hit Jester as he stepped off the bridge. Oil, burning rubber, and decay. The Junkyard’s first welcome present. Its second was the odd squelching underfoot that, even with digital boots, seemed to wet the soles of your feet. Jester ignored the slimy feeling, hastening into the depths.

Engines hummed overhead, and Jester looked up at his favorite sight. Barge drones filled the sky, shaped like whales and other large sea life. Distorted whale calls, mixed with metal thumps, filled the air as they discharged their loads.

Parts fell from the sky, mingling and vanishing into the piles that already dotted the skyline. True potential. That was what Jester saw as he watched. Others would be currently gazing at the same sight he knew. Not that it mattered. The Junkyard was huge, and the gang’s territory was well-marked. There was little chance he’d run into anyone.

Unless one of the bigger groups decided on hunting today.

Jester’s keen eyes swept over the junk piles as he started his hunt. A broken arm covered in cracked joints. An eyeball, missing its casing, leaked fluid onto a collection of animalistic toes. Sparks flew from a section of cable, a danger to anyone who went near. One perfect condition laser cannon attachment.

He did a double take.

With care to avoid the sparks that filled the air, he edged closer. Yes, he saw that right. Half buried in the pile was the butt of a laser cannon. It was pristine, the red and blue casing remained unmarked by the fall. Green energy bars flashed on its side, showing it still contained a full charge.

Jester’s fingers twitched in anticipation at the find. With bated breath, he tugged on the weapon. To his surprise, it came free with ease. Even the buried part contained no marks.

As he studied it, a box popped up to show him its statistics.

SteamBeam Corp LaserBazer MK2
Damage: High - Laser
Fire rate: Slow
Malfunction chance: Null
Equipment Slot: Appendage (Arm/Leg)
Estimated cost: 5000 credits

A fantastic weapon. Any robot equipped with it would gain a slow ranged attack that did decent damage. No weird placement issues either, so most standard robot designs could use it. This would sell for an ample amount. Though, no NPC would buy for the listed price. Maybe someone in town might?

He bet they could see his grin from Geartown.

This was it.

Before he could turn to head back to town, the pile before him shifted. There was a crash and clang, as bits of metals cascaded down the side, drawing his attention upwards. There, he found a familiar and unwelcome face staring down at him.

The young man smirked. His red jacket and long beige pants showed no signs he’d been rooting around in the garbage. A mechanical greyhound sat beside him. Silver plating covered its body as it carried a black riding helmet in its teeth.

“Lexington,” Jester said, nodding to the sandy-haired boy before turning his attention to the dog. “Mothers Credit Card.”

That comment earned him a growl and knocked the smirk off the owner’s face.

“Jester,” Lexington said, his posh accent shining through. “It seems you’ve found something that belongs to me.”

“Why were you following me?” Jester asked, adjusting his grip on the weapon.

“You have to do something useful, right? Hand it over.”

“Scrappers rules. Finders Keepers, Lexington,” Jester snapped.

“Scrappers rules? I still can’t believe that you Free to Play peasants gave yourselves a name. Scrappers indeed,” Lexington huffed.

“Come on, man,” Jester said.

“No, it’s true. This game isn’t for you. It’s for people like us who subsidize The Developers. Free to Play garbage like you can go do something else with your time. Now hand over the cannon.”

The dog growled again, dropping the helmet as it bared rows of pointed steel teeth.

“Unless you want to send your robot out to fight Rippertooth here. We could make it a bet!” Lexington grinned. “Oh wait. You can’t.”

Jester was glad The Developers didn’t waste development time to make Avatars flush. It wasn’t only that he couldn’t fight Lexington, either. Without a robot, he didn’t have access to an inventory. A design created by the company to push robot ownership. Which meant he couldn’t simply stow away the weapon.

Weight, thankfully, wasn’t something the game took into consideration for individual pieces of equipment. Though unwieldy to carry, the cannon wouldn’t slow him down. Rippertooth was a different story. The mechanical dog would be far too heavy to cross the wooden bridge. That fact would force Lexington to de-summon him, giving Jester a chance to make his escape.

Without another word, he fled.

Behind him, Lexington shouted a single word as he slid down the junk pile.


A tinny howl filled the air, followed by a series of crashes as the robot dog leaped to give chase. Jester ran, jumping over piles of garbage. Rippertooth decided obstacles were for other people.

More thumps filled the air, followed by the sounds of tearing metal. Metallic footsteps grew louder as the dog followed its master’s orders.

Jester refused to slow down, legs pumping to keep his distance from the metal jaws. He looked for something that might help. A red canister stuck out of a nearby hill. Its cap was off, and with desperation spurring him on, he snagged it without slowing down. Half-full. That would have to do.

The oil spilled onto the ground as Jester took a tight corner. Growls and barking turned into a high-pitched whine, followed by a loud crash. Robot chassis in a precarious pile didn’t appreciate the addition of a still squirming variant. They toppled onto his pursuer, trapping the dog.

Lexington’s pet scratched and chomped at the mound of junk, but it didn’t matter. Whoever designed the beast built it with appearance in mind, not statistics.

His excursion to find the cannon didn’t take him too deep into The Junkyard. Jester released a laugh before climbing a nearby pile. In the distance, probably another minute of running, he could see the rope bridge. Freedom. Precarious, beautiful, freedom.

He looked at the robot to see it struggle. That was a mistake and one that cost him. A fist came speeding towards him from the corner of his eye. Lexington’s punch caught him off balance. He toppled, grip slipping as Lexington pulled the cannon from his grasp.

“Have a nice fall, Jester,” Lexington quipped as he lashed out a foot.

The blow didn’t hurt, but it made the journey quicker. Jester rolled, dull pain radiating from any area where something struck him on the way down. If this was real life, he would have broken several of his bones. From his place on the ground, he could do nothing but stare upwards. Lexington waved the cannon and smirked at him.

The air filled with grinding metal, and a familiar set of teeth filled his vision.

“Ahh shit,” Jester said before Rippertooth grabbed him.


Lexington’s laugh was audible long after he disappeared from view. Metallic jaws dug into Jester’s skin, feeling like an over-firm grip. Uncomfortable, but nothing life-threatening. Mud, dirt, oil, and other less identifiable fluids covered his clothes as Rippertooth dragged him. He would need to get his suit cleaned. Another expense. Yay.

No matter how much he struggled, the dog wouldn’t let him go. In time, the game mechanics benefited him. With a loud pop, Rippertooth vanished.

In the games’ earliest release, harassment with robots was commonplace. Players would send their mechanical companions to annoy or block doors from the other side of the city. Big bots would block alleyways, or smaller bots would snipe items out of slower players’ hands. The immeasurable complaints forced the development team to code a hard limit to how far away a robot could travel from its owner.

It stopped some griefing, but not all.

He sat up, massaging his arm as he listened for any sounds of people. Other scrappers or curious players that might be nearby. No voices called out to him. So he was alone. Not surprising. Normally, he enjoyed the solitude. Right now it was inconvenient.

Piles of junk towered over him, making him feel even smaller than his loss did. Bulbs, preserving their last sparks of power, illuminated his way in the growing darkness. What surrounded him was older stuff, things even Scrappers considered obsolete.

Equipment from expansions some new players would never have seen littered the ground. Dismantled steam pistols leaked water. A dinosaur bone, shaped like a club, pierced an acid-damaged breastplate. Bent tank treads wound around each other like snakes.

None of it was worth anything.

Not like the cannon was.

His curses filled the air as he kicked a helmet, an old samurai design. This was bullshit. It was hard enough to pay for equipment in this game, yet idiots like Lexington made it worse. Jester knew he couldn’t even expect reporting him to do anything. Developers adored players like him.

Those who spent real money to show off. They acted like a beacon, a walking advertisement. You can be like me if you pay. It was better when they were cruel. Made them targets of the other players. And how did you beat someone who could buy the best toys? Well, you asked uncle credit card.

A cycle of bullying and petty bullshit, under which The Developers profited.

Evil. Clever, in a way. But evil.

It wouldn’t be a Scrapper who changed it. All he wanted now was to scavenge something easily repairable. Maybe go kick back in one of the cheaper lounges, drink some digital beer and watch a steampunk band.

That was always fun.

His digging brought up more of the past. While still angry, a part of him couldn’t help geek out over the history. A dinosaur head leered out at him, the exact one used on Neanderthal. That Dino robot took the Frankenstein Cup by storm, crushing opponents with its spiked tail.

One of its matches again Sawmill, a cube on wheels covered in saw blades, was one of the game’s most-watched matches. Everyone booed when it fell to a recently released laser sword attached to a flying drone. The winner didn’t even bother painting it.

Hooray for feature creep.

Not that it stopped people from trying to replicate Neanderthal’s fame. With the Frankenstein Cup having no entry fee, anyone who could glue a weapon onto a chassis gave it a go. Few succeeded. Though those that did often earned a buck or two streaming budget build videos. An easy way to make pocket money.

More blasts from the past later, and Jester smiled as he eyed something of actual value. A hand. Humanoid, with five fingers, all attached. The brass-plated joints moved without resistance. That was good. No damage to the palm either, with the sanded-down wood covering remaining smooth to the touch.

Jester studied the hand for longer than he needed to, marveling at the craftsmanship. Wood and brass weren’t a common pairing. Brass got paired with gold a lot, or copper for those wanting a vintage steampunk look.

No inspection box opened, which told him parts of it remained buried. Not an issue. An entire arm, especially if it remained in this condition, was worth far more. Jester started digging into the pile, shifting around tires, gears, and whatever else the mound contained.

He found more of the arm, the same wood covers, over bronze joints. No box popped up, so he continued. Some fabric appeared next, brown and coarse.

After shifting an extensive selection of rusting sheet metal, he revealed a face.

Red eyes widened as they met his green ones.

Then the screaming started.

Syed Al Wasee