I spent the next few hours searching the underground area, as well as a four block radius around the underground entrance, for discarded 'coins'. In total I managed to find two more Half Dollars, seven Quarter Dollars, and four One Dimes. I'm not sure how much the One Dime is worth, but it is smaller than the other two types so I assume it is worth less. I was trying to find something I could buy, but the food items seemed rather expensive. I had around three dollars if I was counting these right, but it looked like most food items were three to six dollars at a minimum. I might only have barely enough and I wasn't sure how bad getting it wrong would be.


While I stood in front of a 'Puzzle's Pretzels' trying to decide if the nutrient-to-coin ratio was high enough, I detected a shift in the behavior of the drones around me and glanced over. Coming along the walkway, with its forelimbs shoved into its coat pouches, was a drone wearing full coverings and a hat, but its main feature was that its face was heavily modified. There was an extra pair of eyes, next to the normal pair and set farther along the sides of its face, and instead of skin it used green chitin that left it without the extra airway most drones had.


What drones there were (the crowd had strangely died down after the initial rush) noticeably edged away from this one when they saw its face, was it dangerous? Probably not considering the drones weren't running for their lives, but I noticed the reactions varied from purposefully ignoring the drone to arranging their faces in a way that reminded me of the yellow-fur's snarls. Maybe this was a variety of drone that belonged to a different hive? If there was a different hive with chitin covered drones I would prefer to disguise myself there instead, chitin was a better defense than skin. I decided to follow it, being careful to not fall into line-of-sight of the extra eyes.


It headed directly to the ticket dispensers, bought a ticket, and then headed for the rotating bars. The bar devices were managed by a security drone, if I wanted to follow the anomalous drone I would have to buy my own ticket. I approached one of the ticket devices and scanned the symbols. Tickets were "$2.50" which if I was translating correctly was just about everything I had saved, I wouldn't be able to buy one of the interesting foods. Bleh, this wasn't really a choice, information and a possibly more lucrative environment were better than a small morsel of food.


But still, those 'pretzels' had smelled great.


I deposited the coins and touched the same symbols as the drone had until a ticket popped out. As far as I could tell it was just a thin piece of semi-organic material with a few symbols on it, but after the coin incident I kept my micro-units to myself.


The bar device was almost self-explanatory, and after swiping my ticket I pushed through before following after the drone. Past the bar devices the underground room slowly funneled into a large corridor. Along the sides were more pathways with steps that led to a second level even further below ground, and it was one of these pathways that the drone descended down. I quickened my pace, I didn't want to lose track of it.


After coming to the bottom of the steps the new area was definitely set up as some kind of transportation hub. There were sitting areas for the drones and a designated platform area for them to stay within. On either side of the chamber were tunnels carved into the earth, with metal rails embedded into the ground that extended off into the darkness. Drones were standing along one side of the chamber next to one of the tunnels, most likely waiting for a transport device. The chitin-drone went to the other tunnel and sat down to wait for the transport. Other drones gave it a wide berth and I followed their example to not stand out.


I waited among the other drones and eventually a transport showed up, proceeding down the tunnel at impressive speeds for something that size. The transport device was made of multiple metal rooms linked to each other, each room had both places to sit, and places to grab and brace along its interior, and two sliding doors were embedded into each one. When they opened several dozen drones exited the device before those waiting entered, the whole process taking less than five minutes. Drones truly took their transportation seriously, this device could probably move hundreds at a time if necessary.


I glanced at the chitin-drone again, it hadn't moved and its bubble of privacy was intact. Continuing to track it could get somewhat difficult if all the drones avoided it, trying to get closer would be noticeable. I did my best to appear like just another waiting drone until a transport arrived on the opposite side two minutes later.


This time only a few drones boarded the transport, including the chitin-drone. I entered the same room as it, all the seats faced forwards so I picked one near the back of the room where I could keep line of sight on the drone without turning my head. After a few minutes the doors closed and the transport was on its way.


It was a remarkably comfortable ride, but my favorite part was the automated 'map'. Above the door was a map of the transport path, and every time the transport came to a stop the point representing the location lit up. From the time it took between stops I estimated it would take perhaps two hours to reach the end of the destinations, which considering our speed meant this transport traversed vast distances. This hive was large!


The drone stayed in place throughout the trip. At first new drones entering at the stops would instead leave to one of the other rooms, but as the stops passed by a few drones started to occupy the same room.


After the most recent stop things were going as normal until the door behind me opened, and four drones came from the next room over. At first I believed they were just another group of drones trying to find better spots, but as they passed by some of the drones got up and left to the room behind me after the group passed. The looks on the passengers' faces as they left the car hinted that this new group was trouble.


Which turned out to be a true prediction.


"Thought I smelled something disgusting, how many times we gotta tell you freaks not to... well well well, if it ain't the king of cockroaches himself. Long time no see Jasper."


"Oh, uh, hey there Frank, how's it going?"


"Much better all of a sudden, got time to chat?"


"Well you see I was just heading home now actually, got thi-"


"Oh no no, you can't leave so soon. We haven't seen you in ages. Stay and talk a while."


The conversation continued like that for while. From what I could gather the chitin drone called Jasper was some kind of resource gatherer/supplier, but he wasn't supposed to be operating, or even be, in the territory of these drones, and this wasn't its first offense. This was an interesting piece of information, I had assumed that all drones work in groups as part of a faction, but it appeared that wasn't quite true. The soldiers had used strength in numbers, the structures and devices suggested large work-forces were required, and even the singularly strong individuals like the Guardian had given up advantages to prioritize helping others of its faction. This 'Jasper' appeared to have been operating only for its own benefit. Alone.


Which means it had no one who would cause a fuss if it went missing.


Unfortunately it looked like this prey was going to be stolen, the leader of the group was just talking so far, but its underlings looked ready for a fight. From what I could understand the leader was insisting that Jasper come to their place for a friendly "visit." Even with my incomplete grasp of the language I could hear the threat in its words. Damn, I didn't enjoy having a meal snatched from me, especially after I already used up my pretzel money.


"You find something interesting?"


Oops, one of the subordinate drones spoke, had it noticed me? Hmm, no it looked like it was just generally addressing the drones in the room, maybe one of them had been staring. Some of the drones who had been sitting near me decided to leave. Should I leave as well? I didn't really want to, I was getting a lot of new information and the drones weren't much of a physical threat to me. While the weapons and coordination of soldier drones was a frightening foe, my estimate of a normal drone was only about equal to the weaker organisms I faced during combat testing.


The subordinate drone began to walk down the isle, and the few passenger drones who had still been sitting near me decided to leave at that. They left out the back door and suddenly it was only the hostile drones, Jasper, and myself. Maybe there was opportunity here.


The subordinate drone stopped as it reached me and said, "Why don't you leave too eh? But leave your money, this ain't a free show."


My money? It meant the coins? No, I didn't feel like doing that.


"I don't have any money."


It didn't seem to like that.


"Heh, no money? You sure about that?" at this it reached into a pocket and pulled out a small, unknown device. I almost got worried before the device clicked and a short metal blade popped out of the top. "Maybe I should take payment out of your hide instead?" it said.


Calculating threat...

Estimate drone strength: negligible.

Weapon threat: minimal.

Estimated 4.35 minutes before next stop.


Plenty of time.


I grabbed the drone's 'hand' (another good word) in my own around where it held the handle of the weapon and stabbed it in the shoulder with its own weapon. It yelped and tried to back away, but I was still holding the blade in its shoulder and I used that as leverage as I began punching it in the face with my free limb.


The other subordinate drones reacted quickly, with yells of alarm they came running down the isle, one pulling out its own small blade.


I shoved the first drone I was grappling at the second drone, who stumbled and caught its companion. The third drone with the weapon side-stepped them and swiped at me with its blade, but it telegraphed the attack badly, and when I caught its arm it seemed surprised that I had the strength to halt it. Understandable, I was rather thin looking from being low on mass, but I had left the test chambers with more useful resources than I had ever had before, and after the encounter with the Merc I had used what I could to reinforce my skeletal and muscle structure.


I yanked its arm and punched it in its unprotected ribs to try and get it to drop the weapon, but it held on stubbornly and used its free limb to try and fend me off. At this time the drone who had caught its friend had managed to disentangle itself and was coming to support the drone I was engaged with. Curiously it hadn't removed the weapon from its companion's shoulder, nor had the stabbed drone made to get up and fight.


I used the same maneuver as before and swung the arm with the weapon at the new arrival. Rather than stab its companion the drone I was grappling let the weapon drop and tried rushing me using its weight. I braced and its charge went nowhere, its limbs wrapped around my torso with its head lowered, so I simply punched it in the back of the head. It went limp and collapsed.


The last subordinate drone started to attack with just its fists, which simply wasn't very effective. It didn't have the power to break anything besides maybe some of my more delicate facial structures, and without a weapon or claws it had no hope of causing damage beyond my ability to repair. I kept my eyes safe, but I let it continue to push me backwards, raining blows superficially on my torso until it stepped too far forward in its eagerness. I kicked out at its leg joint and heard the bone snap. The drone unexpectedly screamed and toppled, defense forgotten as it clutched at its injured leg. I was confused by this, as it served no discernible purpose in a fight. I kicked it in the head until it fell limp.


All the subordinate drones were down, but before I could start finishing them off the head drone acted.


"The hell are you idiots doing? You sit right there Jasper." said the head drone. It left its spot by Jasper and approached me, appearing unconcerned with its injured subordinates. "And who are you supposed to be? One of Hellion's? A hero wannabe? I'll tell you now you're wasting your time sticking your neck out for Jasper, and more importantly my time."


It was too calm considering I just downed all of its subordinates.


Calculating threat...

Possible abnormal ability predicted.

Increasing allocated combat resources;


"Cat got your tongue? Let me cut it out for you."


Suddenly it charged, a strange green shimmer forming in the air around its arms.


Increasing reaction speed to 200%, 5 second burn;


It attacked with a weird swipe of its hands, with my heightened reaction speed I was dodging even as it swung which proved the correct decision. Forming above its forearms were two large, glowing, green blades that extended past its fists. I dodged the first blade and deflected the second by hitting the underside of its arm. The deflection pushed the blade into one of the metal bars in the room and it cleaved right through.


Dangerous. Whatever the blade was made from it was definitely solid.


I tried to move inside the lead drone's reach, but it was obviously more experienced with fighting than its subordinates. Using one blade as a guard, it backpedaled back to optimum distance and began its assault more cautiously, making short jabs to try and bleed me rather than trying to inflict a large wound in one go. I was forced to jump over seats and use the bars to maneuver myself past it. It swiped and cut away more bars but missed me. As I retreated further up the room the drone that had been stabbed tried to trip me up. I kicked it in its injured shoulder and it screamed and flinched, forcing the pursuing lead drone to stop in order not to trip over its flailing subordinate.


"Move idiot!" said the lead drone. It kicked its subordinate out of the way and came after me again. I was now at the front of the car between Jasper and the lead drone. A quick glance at Jasper showed it hadn't moved, and didn't look inclined to help either side. Instead it appeared to be waiting for an opportunity to escape. Smart.


The lead drone came at me again, its jabs not quite as guarded as before. Its face was twisted in a snarl and it appeared to be hurrying more than usual. Perhaps it also wanted to end things before the transport arrived at the next stop?


I decided to use this to my advantage, putting a distressed look on my face as I dodged and weaved around its weapons by the thinnest of margins, my back slowly being pressed towards the door to the next room. To make the performance more convincing I allowed one of its blades to make a thin cut along one arm before yelping and flinching away.


It took the bait, attempting to lunge forward and skewer me. I snapped my leg up, launching the weapon I had pulled from its subordinate's shoulder with my foot when I kicked it. The weapon flew into the lead drone's face and slashed a long line up towards its eye. It closed its eyes and flinched away from the hurled projectile, yelling a word that I couldn't translate. I ducked under its outstretched arms and grabbed the undersides before yanking and burying the blades in the door behind me. The glowing weapons sunk deep, and while they cut through easily the thicker material still hindered them.


Suddenly the transport device lurched as it rapidly started to slow, the change in speed so quick that the leader drone's head hit the door in front of it. Red lights came on and a strange sounding voice said, "Damage to subway car has been detected, emergency services will be with you as soon as possible. As a reminder intentional tampering with Fortress City infrastructure is a felony offense."


That couldn't be good. Bleh, I was now on a much more serious time limit.


I still had both the drone's arms in a firm grip to prevent it from using its weapons, and I started kicking my leg up into its face, over and over until it finally collapsed, the blades disappearing as it fell into unconsciousness. I would love to know the mechanism behind the blades, materializing and de-materializing like that had so many applications.


"Hey kid! Help me out here!"


It was Jasper. It was using one of the severed metal bars to try and pry open one of the doors opposite the door we came in through. This was confusing, why did it want to open it?


"Com'on you don't wanna be here when the C's show up, trust me!"


Oh, it wanted to avoid whatever security was on the way. It hadn't really caused any of the destruction of the transport, I didn't see why it would need to avoid them. Well, if it knew a way out of this with minimal risk might as well let it show me the way.


I walked up to the door and started to help. The leader's green blades had sheared through the bar Jasper was using at an angle, and Jasper had poked the sharp end into the seam between the two door halves, but it seemed to be having trouble leveraging them the rest of the way open.


I stuck my hand and the edge of my foot into the gap and started to pull them apart. The mechanism for the door was strong, but between the two of us we opened a gap that we could fit through right as the transport was finishing its emergency stop.


"Woo, nice kid. You got some muscles in those scrawny arms. Let's blow this popsicle stand." Jasper said as he jumped out the door.


I took a second to grab the small weapon I had flung at the leader. Premade weapons that didn't stand out could be useful later.


With one last look around the room (and a regretful glance at the drones I wouldn't be able to eat) I followed Jasper into the darkness.



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