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"Woo boy am I glad you showed up when you did. That was about to be a right misunderstanding the way things were heading. Frankie isn't really the brightest bulb out there, if'n you know what I mean. Why, I bet he still thinks I was trying to deal in Espada territory! I just got lost is all, I've tried explaining that to his people but they take after Frankie it seems. Apples from the tree, straight down you see. Oh, mind you I was dealing knick-knacks and odds n' ends, really less dealing and more trading you see, like a yard sale. People just don't get the fine art of entrepreneurship is what it is, a darn shame I say. Why this one time..."

 

Jasper was turning out to be a never-ending stream of information surprisingly. Although the usefulness of that information was somewhat questionable.

 

"... so I says to him, why don't you go over to the end-part and have a look? What can it hurt? And damned if it didn't jump right in his face! Funniest thing I ever saw."

 

Definitely questionable. At least I was learning the use of a lot of new words, like 'he' and 'she' and 'kid'. Jasper used 'kid' a LOT to refer to me, or anyone else he deemed younger than him. Apparently my low mass, and my attempts to make my disguise as non-hostile looking as possible, had made him decide I was a younger drone. I suppose that was technically true.

 

After leaving the 'subway' Jasper had led me to a metal door embedded in the wall of the tunnel. It had been locked, but Jasper had it open in seconds using only a small bit of metal, and I put learning how to do that on my ever-growing list of things to do. The door had led into what Jasper had explained was the maintenance walkway, but he quickly led us into a different set of labyrinthine tunnels, stating that the C's would be using the maintenance tunnel to get to the subway train. Currently we were walking through a section of tunnels Jasper called a 'sewer'.

 

"Hmm, let's see... left up here kid."

 

He picked a new direction seemingly at random when we came to an intersection. I decided to try and ask how he was navigating, I wouldn't become lost, but I wasn't sure if backtracking to the subway tunnel would be a good idea with these C's he kept mentioning.

 

"Jasper? How do you know where you're going?"

 

"Hmm? Oh I use these tunnels to get around all the time, its slow going but its usually pretty safe, as long as you're careful of the rats, they get pretty big down here. I was doing a job for Helli- er, I was on some business in central so I thought I'd take the train, save myself the walk and hassle. Fat lot of good that did me aye? Ran into rats anyways haha!"

 

"So, you do work for someone then?"

 

"No no, I do job's for my clients, but Jasper P. Barnigan is his own man!"

 

"Barnigan?"

 

"Oh! Right right how rude of me!" he said as he abruptly stopped and turned to me. "We haven't even been properly introduced yet. My name is Jasper P. Barnigan, entrepreneur of odd jobs and information broker extraordinaire. If you need anything, anything at all, I can get it for you, or point you in the right direction for a modest finder's fee. Put 'er there."

 

At this he extended one of his arms with his green, chitin-covered hand splayed. I didn't know how to react to this and I hesitated. This was a greeting of some sort? Apparently so because his facial expression changed when I didn't answer the greeting correctly.

 

Cross-referencing...

Most likely emotion: disappointment.

 

I took a blind guess and copied him, at which his expression changed back to its normal and he grabbed my hand, shaking it vigorously before letting it go again. I almost attacked him then, but none of his body-language suggested danger. Drones just have strange greetings I guess.

 

He started walking again before saying, "So what do I call you kid?"

 

Odd question. "You call me kid all the time?"

 

"HA! Good to see Frankie didn't hurt your sense of humor, but no worries I get'cha. Private type, think before you speak an' keep your cards close to your chest. I can respect that. Why, this is Fortress City after all! The only thing we guard more than our lives is our secrets!"

 

Fortress City? That was the name of this hive? And how would secrets be worth more than your life? I was getting more questions than answers here. I'd at least like to know more about this area.

 

"Jasper, do you know where we are now?"

 

"Oh, sure sure, I was heading to East13 when our trip was so rudely interrupted. Which way were you headed? Maybe I can point you there."

 

"I wasn't heading anywhere in particular."

 

"Ha! Then you've made a wrong turn somewhere kid, east sector isn't exactly a tourist friendly destination, but then I guess you knew that already. This your first time here?"

 

"...yes."

 

"Well then it's a shame those louts were the first people you had to run into. Gives a bad impression it does, not everyone is like that I promise you! Hmm, you know we should be near Maggie's. How's about you and me stop for lunch?"

 

"Lunch?"

 

"Yeah! I don't know about you but I'm starvin'. Maggie's has the best burgers in East13, tastes almost like the real thing. Com'on, I'll even treat ya to one. Least I can do after you cleared things up with Frankie for me."

 

Food? And it would buy it for me?

 

"Okay."

 

"Now we're talking! Let's see, if I remember it's a left here, then the third right... or maybe the fourth right? No no, third right."

 

Jasper continued to mutter to himself as we continued. The tunnels really were a confusing maze at times. The sewer section had seemed simple enough, but between the sewers and the surface was a complicated system of chambers and tunnels. It wouldn't be a problem for me to find my way, but I admit I was somewhat curious why this section of the 'city' seemed so... inefficient in comparison to the rest of the infrastructure.

 

"Are the tunnels always this confusing?"

 

"Hmm? Oh no, only around the outer rings. The C's hate when folks mess with the infrastructure, but out here they can't be everywhere. Lot's of cowls put their secret bases and gizmos and whatnot down here then forget about them. The only real rule is to not mess with the sewer. Folks get mighty peeved when their toilet backs up and a plunger don't solve the job. If you ever get lost just head for the sewer and look for an access hatch. Not that you should be down here mind you! It's dangerous down here, rats, criminals, super villains, escaped bio-weapons, bigger rats, this is special circumstances since you have Ol' Jasper leading the way. I can steer you clear from all those things easy. If'n you ever need to come down here again talk to me first, and we'll get you sorted with a ten percent discount on my usual guide fees, how's that sound?"

 

"Uh."

 

"Alright, alright, twenty percent. You drive a hard bargain for such a quiet kid. Don't let it be known that Ol' Jasper isn't generous."

 

Jasper led the way through more tunnels as I tried to absorb all the terms he had just used.

 

There were other escaped bio-weapons down here? I knew from my time listening to the white-coats that I was a bio-weapon. If there were more organisms down here like me, then they had also somehow escaped a test chamber like the one I came from. Which meant they would have more experience and might be just as strong as I was, if not more so. He had grouped them together with 'rats' and 'super villains'. What was a 'rat'? Or a 'super villain'? Were they less dangerous than a bio-weapon or were they even more dangerous? The way he said them made it seem as if I should know these terms already, but without seeing these things personally, or someone explaining them where I could hear them, I was completely ignorant. Sure, it didn't seem like knowing every single term was necessary, but if I messed up on one of the important terms that all drones knew then my disguise might fall apart. If that happened... well, I remember how the other drones acted around Jasper, and he wasn't even a threat. Something tells me that an escaped bio-weapon would be treated somewhat differently than Jasper. Perhaps something similar to how a certain yellow-fur ended up. I needed to know more.

 

"So, you see a lot of those things down here?"

 

"Oh sure sure, why just the other day I saw a rat that came up to my knees, had to yell and scream something fierce to chase it off. Reminds me of this one time-"

 

Estimated combat potential of Jasper: negligible.

 

Okay, maybe I was worried for nothing. If Jasper uses these tunnels "all the time" then how bad could these things really be? Maybe I could even do some hunting down here.

 

"Ah, here we are. Gimme a hand with this would'ya?" Jasper had stopped at an odd-looking barrier this time. For once it wasn't a rectangle, instead it was circular with a large hinge keeping it pressed to the low ceiling in this tunnel. On the front was a circular handle, which Jasper was tugging on to show me where to grab. Together we turned the circular handle until the inner mechanism gave way, and with a pull the barrier swung down. Out of the new entrance popped a series of fused bars that would provide an easy climb up into the aperture. A cleverly made barrier device, though I questioned its efficiency. And its necessity. When I questioned Jasper about it he merely said that super villains were the 'eccentric type'.

 

Jasper led the way up, and at the top of the tunnel was another of the barriers, although smaller this time. He opened it and light streamed down into the tunnel, the first we had seen since we exited the maintenance tunnel. After he pulled himself out, he offered me a hand, and I let him pull me out of the tunnel.

 

The area we emerged into was interesting. It was between two 'buildings', each looked about four floors high, and their design was abnormal. While the base design of each building had once been the same, both buildings now had metal pipes and struts sticking out of them in odd places. Originally it looked like both had had some kind of metal fused bars, similar to those we just used, installed on the sides to go up and down (there were doors embedded in the wall next to these), but at some point one of them had been converted into a large pipe that looped and sloped to the ground floor, ending near the tunnel we had just come from. If one entered at the top I imagine they would slide all the way through to the bottom. The other walk-way looked to have been cannibalized for parts, and was no longer safe to traverse. The ground itself was littered with objects. Various broken pieces of 'glass', rocks, 'paper', and one large metal container with a... large cushioned seat shoved into the top? Whatever the purpose of these things was, this place definitely lacked the organization of 'central'.

 

Jasper finished closing up the tunnel and stretched, then said, "Ah good old E13. Only been gone a few hours and it feels like I was gone days. All that hullabaloo I guess. Com'on, this alley is only a block away from Maggie's."

 

I followed Jasper out of the narrow 'alley', and then down the pathway as he led me to our destination. Outside was, well, chaotic is the main word I would use to describe it. Almost all the buildings were between three and four floors tall, and their original structure was visible, but just like the alley everything was touched by small modifications and alterations. Here one building had had the original glass material removed and replaced with a wire mesh (would it zap?), there a building had multiple stone bridges connecting it to the buildings in its vicinity. Most of the bottom floors looked like they had had extensive modifications done, and now resembled the food dispensaries from the subway. Signs were everywhere, declaring "Open" or "Closed", and quite a few of them were formed from glowing translucent tubes.

 

And the drones were just as varied.

 

They wore many different coverings, far more than the ones I had seen in central. The blue leg coverings were still numerous, but other than those there was no predominant style. Some wore additional coverings, some wore less, and there was a noticeable increase in the amount of coverings that sported complex patterns and symbols.

 

Body modifications were also seen in greater amounts. There were more symbols embedded on skin, and instead of being limited to one or two, some drones had covered large sections of their bodies with them. The metal piercings too were more numerous. In central some drones had pierced their ears with small bits of metal, but here I noted that they also pierced other parts of their face, such as the nose and near the line of fur above the eyes. I inwardly recoiled when we passed one particular drone who had created a complicated network of loops and chains across its face. I understood that most drones were designated for different tasks than combat, but the chains were so combat inefficient! One good tug and most of its face would probably come with it.

 

The coverings and modifications were good news for me, but the very best thing was the biological variance I saw among the drones. While I had not found a colony of chitin-drones, about one in twenty drones I saw had some kind of biological augmentation. Sometimes it was minor, like an extra pair of eyes that widened their field of view, but in other cases I saw heavy modifications. One prime example was a drone covered in red chitin similar to Jasper, but in this case the shell was thicker, and one hand had been modified into a giant claw. An obvious combat model.

 

The average drone population as well seemed far more tolerant of abnormalities. Admittedly from what I saw some of the modified drones were still given a wide berth by those around them, but this was reserved mainly for the larger combat models, and the distance seemed to be for more practical reasons like avoiding the spikes and claws these variants often sported.

 

"Best pick your jaw off the floor kid. You look like a country bumpkin with your eyes rolling every which way," said Jasper to my confusion.

 

"My jaw is firmly attached?"

 

"HA! You're a riot kid."

 

Oh, I suppose I had been staring. There were just too many details to keep track off. Maybe I should form an extra pair of eyes like Jasper's later, they seemed common enough to not attract attention.

 

We eventually stopped in front of a building that outwardly looked a little plain in comparison to some I had seen. What really set it apart was the wonderful smells I was detecting coming from the bottom floor. The front had been modified into a glass wall with metal bars welded over it, and above the entrance were large illuminated symbols displaying "Maggie's Sunrise Diner ."

 

"Ah, here we are! Nice right? She runs a good diner. Com'on, I'll introduce you," Jasper said as he led the way to the entrance. The door had a simple bar to push and pull, and glass set into the metal frame so you could see the other side. When Jasper pushed the door open a small alarm chimed once! But, I guess this was fine? He went in as if this was completely normal.

 

The air smelled even better on the inside. On the left side of the room were dozens of devices that I didn't recognize, made of metal and polished until you could see your reflection in them. Separating the room from them was a long barrier with a flat surface, next to which were thin round seats embedded into the floor by a single support bar underneath. On the right hand side were lots of cushioned seats arranged to wrap around flat tables that stuck out of the wall. It seemed that this place expected drones to stay and eat their food here. All the dispensaries in the subway area had given the food inside of containers that the drone could take with them.

 

"I'll be with you in a moment! Just cleaning up after the lunch rush, sit anywhe- JASPER!"

 

The drone who had spoken came from an opening behind the counter. Short, stout, with brown fur on her head tied into a bundle, and a stained red covering 'she' wore across the front. She had a scowl on her face that made me think of an angry brown-fur, and she stomped up to Jasper in a manner I found similarly intimidating.

 

Estimated threat level: moderate.

 

"I thought I told you I didn't want to see your face in here again! I don't allow dealing in my diner!"

 

"But Maggie, I'm n-"

 

"Don't you 'but Maggie' me! Last time you got caught the cops came in here thinking I was a damned drug den! I'm trying to make a living here Jasper!"

 

"Maggie I-"

 

"And who is this you dragged in with you? Huh? What's he strung out on?"

 

"I'm not dealing Maggie! Promise! The kids just a tourist! Got caught up with some of the Espada and I thought I'd help him out."

 

"Out of the kindness of your heart I'm sure." Then she turned to me, "Well kid? He blowing hot air or what?"

 

I looked between the two of them. Maggie sternly glaring at me, and Jasper's wide eyes that he kept moving to try and signal something. I was pretty sure we were in danger, too bad I couldn't understand what Jasper was trying to convey. I decided to stick to the important truth.

 

"He said he'd buy me a burger."

 

At this she eyed me up and down and I went still. If she attacked I was running.

 

Finally her glare ended and she sighed; "Fine, fine, grab a booth, I just swept the counter. Two number one's I'm assuming? You got the cash for this Jasper?"

 

"I've got a chit Maggie."

 

"Hand it over."

 

"Aw Maggie, I'm good for it you know that."

 

"Want I should bust your arm?"

 

"Right here ma'am, I've got it right here."

 

He handed her one of the flat rectangles I saw drones using at the subway. She brought it over to a device sitting on the 'counter' while Jasper led me over to one of the 'booths'. After inserting the 'chit' Maggie grunted in what seemed like surprise. Then she filled two glass containers with water and brought them over to our table, as well as giving the chit back to Jasper. "Two tofu burgers then?"

 

"And a side order of fries Maggie."

 

"Yeah yeah."

 

She went behind the counter and into a side room, from which the sounds of banging metal soon came. Over the next twenty minutes Jasper talked to me about a variety of topics, mainly centered on his 'burgeoning business', and trying to convince me that he was the best information broker in the sector. As he talked the smells coming from the room behind the counter increased, and I found my eyes wandering over to the entrance in anticipation more than once.

 

Finally Maggie emerged holding a tray laden with food. She placed the container of what I assumed were the 'fries' between us, and then gave each of us a flat disc with what must be a 'burger' on it before heading back behind the counter. It was a lot different from the nutrient slurry I was used to, appearing to be various layers of solid organic material layered on top of each other. The smell coming from it was wonderful.

 

Across from me Jasper reached over to some small paper packets set up next to the wall. Ripping one open, he poured it into his glass of water which turned a bright pink color. Then he grabbed a few fries and placed them inside his burger before saying, "Bon Appetite!" and taking a bite. I followed his example before taking a bite of my own.

 

The next thing I knew, my burger was gone.

 

Estimated resource return: 85%

 

I had eaten the entire burger in a few short moments, unable to stop myself. It just tasted so good! I had never imagined that something could taste this good. And the resource return was phenomenal, the nutrients packed into the burger so densely that it was better than an equal amount of the yellow-fur flesh by a wide margin. I had underestimated drone ingenuity yet again, this burger was truly made to be eaten.

 

Although eating it that quickly may have been an error. Jasper was looking at me wide-eyed, and he hadn't even finished eating his first bite. Was my disguise compromised? Maybe. He finished chewing and swallowing his bite of burger before saying:

 

"Liked the burger huh kid?"

 

He was still using 'kid'. That was good. I guess I'd answer his questions for now. He had been decidedly non-hostile so far, I could always run.

 

"It's the best thing I've ever tasted."

 

"It, I, but. Shoot kid! It's just fake meat on a bun!"

 

"WHAT WAS THAT!?"

 

"N-nothing Maggie! Kid really loves your burgers!"

 

Jasper continued in a lower voice, "When was the last time you've eaten kid?"

 

Hmm, not counting the coffee it was the yellow-fur meat...

 

26 hours, 34 minutes, 44 seconds;

 

"Yesterday morning."

 

Jasper eyed me for a moment before sighing, and then he slowly pushed his plate, with the burger on it, to me.

 

"Here kid, but eat it slow for God's sake."

 

He... he was giving his burger to me?

 

I was suddenly very glad that I hadn't killed him back in the sewer.

 

I ate as slow as possible, savoring it, while Jasper nibbled on the fries, uncharacteristically quiet. He appeared to be thinking about something intensely before he said, "So which is it kid, mutavus, or a bad trigger?"

 

Eh? What were those?

 

"Oh don't give me that look. You obviously aren't a normy. No normal person fights four people with knives, one a super I might add, and wins. Or walks through miles of unlit tunnels without a care. I thought you might be a plant when you followed me from the station and then conveniently 'saved' me, but if you are you're the worst plant I've ever seen. So it's one of four things. One, your benedici decided to be extra nice to you and you're joy-riding it like an idiot. Two, you had a good trigger, and again are joy-riding it like an idiot. Three, you have mutavus and you got kicked out, or you're running. Four, you had a bad trigger and you're running. Now a bad plant you might be, but you don't strike me as an idiot. So which is it?"

 

I didn't know how to react to this. He knew I had been following him? That was way too many new terms. I at least knew one thing he said.

 

"I'm running."

 

"Thought so. Got your ticket stub still?"

 

I did, and I showed it to him.

 

"Good, you ain't stupid. That ticket works for two trips, I recommend using it to go back where you came from. If you triggered bad the capes will help, you can't be blamed for a bad trigger event. If its mutavus, then I'm sorry to hear it, but you should go to the cops, they can give you resources."

 

I considered what he said. Apparently me being an escaped bio-weapon wasn't on his list of possibilities, which was telling.

 

"And if I can't go back?"

 

His expression became grim, and he considered what I said for a bit.

 

"Pass me your ticket stub a second."

 

I slid it over to him, and he pulled out a small thin rod. With it he inscribed several symbols onto the material before sliding it back to me.

 

"If you really have no other option, go to the address here tomorrow. By then they should be hiring, you might be able to earn some money if you play it smart. And don't mention I told you about this... unless you do well of course."

 

He got up from the booth.

 

"Now I've gotta run kid, business to get done. Eat your burger and stay smart, Odd Summer is right around the corner."

 

And then he left, grabbing a handful of fries on the way, and muttering about bleeding hearts and losing his mind under his breath.

 

I considered his advice.

 

"Hey Maggie?"

 

"What's up hun?"

 

"Can I trust Jasper?"

 

She barked a laugh and scoffed at this.

 

"He's a greasy weasel and his fake accents aren't worth the dime they stop on... but he is the best information broker in E13. He's good at that at least."

 

I kept eating my burger.

 

I didn't leave on the subway.

 

And when I tasted the pink water I nearly 'lost my damned mind'.

 

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