Drones are even more interesting on the inside than the outside.
After I dropped the two ambushers down the tunnel the one with the projectile weapon managed to survive (barely), and I managed to interrogate it before it succumbed to its wounds. From what I got out of it the drone who followed me is a 'tracker', and after it followed me to the tunnel entrance it called for it's 'friend' because they owned a 'gun'. Apparently it had at first just planned to take money from an 'easy mark', but when I traveled back and forth between Ashwood Street and the tunnels it had suspected I had something more valuable. Perhaps one of those 'gizmos' that Jasper had mentioned?
My amateur autopsy of the two drones revealed quite a few things, namely that drones also have internal variants. Between the both of them I got a good idea of what a normal drone might be like which raised questions (why have several redundant organs but only one heart?), and the tracker drone specifically had some interesting modifications, namely to its olfactory sense organs. Whereas the drone with the gun seemed to have a normal concentration of cells to detect smells (similar to what I used) the tracker had nearly forty times as many cells, as well as extra modifications to its processing center which I assume were to handle the extra information processing.
Normally I would call this level of sensory intake to be overkill, but if it works it works. I was sure I had outrun the tracker by a large enough margin to lose it, but with this powerful of a sensory organ it could probably smell the barest residue left behind from when my feet hit the ground. I'd have to think of a countermeasure.
Other than the organs and enhancements I also learned that drones are much better eating than rats. Lots of fats, oils, and useful cell structures, which isn't surprising if Maggie's burgers are any indication of their normal eating habits. Between the two I had more than replenished my missing mass and increased my energy reserves even further. At this rate I would probably have to recalculate my norms for resource management. Obviously the white-coats had kept me somewhat starved.
Once I was done disposing of the remains (making sure to record the tracker design for later) I examined the 'gun', being extra careful to point it away from my core. It seemed like a simple enough device. A handle to hold it, the hole where the projectile came from, and a little lever which was most likely the trigger. Attempting to test the weapon wound up with nothing happening when I pulled the trigger. After I fiddled with all the movable parts to see if that would make it work, I eventually gave up and dismantled it. The problem was immediately apparent, while it looked functional on the outside the insides were rusted and ill-maintained. It was basically just a fused lump of metal at this point. I did recover what was most likely the ammo supply, two small canisters filled with a volatile chemical powder. These I dismantled and absorbed since the chemicals were more useful to me as raw resources, although I did record its composition like I did the tracker design.
Done with my examination of the weapon I again had to adjust my disguise. Now that I had more mass I had to compress myself a bit more to maintain the look. I wanted to continue to use my current young appearance as it seemed to trigger a cooperative instinct in some drones like Jasper and Maggie, and caused other drones like my would be ambushers to underestimate me. While it had been the reason I was targeted in the first place, even that was to my benefit. If opportunists like these two drones had to rely on targeting the weak then they would be no match for me, and since they did not seem to have the support of the general drone network they would most likely not be missed. Hopefully more would fall for the same trap.
Disguise adjusted I left the tunnels to go to Maggie's, but when I arrived the diner was dark, and a closed sign was hung on the door. I had spent too long examining the drones and Maggie had closed the diner for the night. Disappointment.
Instead I trudged back to the tunnels, deciding to hibernate until the sun rose again. At least, I assumed it would. I was still having trouble with the mechanics of the 'sun'. A giant ball of flame that rose out of the ground and then traveled across the ceiling. Would it rise from the other direction next cycle? Or did it make some loop through a different area before coming back around? The shape of this space was odd, very confusing. I had noticed being confused more and more often lately. When I had been walking to Maggie's I had actually tripped, had to be more careful about that. And that blade drone! How do those blades work? Nearly cut me to pieces. Bite sized pieces. All the different organs and pieces. Why so many filter organs? Confusing confusing. I want a burger...
Abnormal process activity detected: analyzing...
Drone processor center analogous to Human.exe processor requirements.
Drone cycle logged at 24 hours. Drone rest cycle estimated at 6-10 hours.
Former up-time of Human.exe: 144.35 hours.
Estimated recovery time: 7.4 hours.
Combat potential critically reduced while Human.exe inactive: hibernation recommended.
It retreated to the tunnels and slept.
I woke up in the tunnels, just a little ways off from the entrance, my memories of the previous day surfacing quickly. Unpleasant. Apparently I couldn't keep myself active indefinitely. I hadn't noticed the problem before because I sometimes hibernated to conserve resources, but since the yellow-fur incident I had been operating almost continuously to absorb more details and plan my escape. Up until now I used extra blood flow and cell renewal to compensate, but apparently that wouldn't work in the long run. Annoying, I finally get enough resources to operate continuously and it turns out there is a hard limit.
But Maggie's should be open now! I suddenly realized.
I quickly ascended to the surface and made my way to the diner. When I entered the diner was a lot more crowded, and a different drone dressed similarly to Maggie introduced itself before seating me at the counter this time. When I asked where Maggie was the 'waitress' told me that Maggie was cooking in the back and didn't normally deal directly with 'customers'. It gave me a 'menu' with lots of symbols and thanks to the pictures it wasn't hard to find what I wanted. Between what I had saved and what I pulled off the drones I had enough for the listed prices and I ordered myself another tofu burger.
While I waited I casually observed the busy diner, several of the drones eating were combat drones and I avoided staring too long (this was apparently 'rude'), and in a corner was a large screen displaying talking drones. No sound came from them, but underneath scrolling symbols went by.
"...as been confirmed, Friday will be the last day of school before they shutdown for the summer. Fortress City officials would like to remind all citizens to report suspicious occurrences to Central as soon as possible, as well as to wear identification armbands to facilitate police response. In other news..."
I was getting better with reading the symbols, but some of the words still escaped me. I didn't know what Friday was, but I had seen Fortress City printed around often enough to realize it meant this particular giant hive structure that the drones and I were living in. Slowly I was learning which symbols corresponded with which words.
Eventually the 'waitress' came with my food, and I ate it as slowly as I could (though I couldn't resist taking two packets of the drink mix to go with it). As I ate I heard a lot of drones talking about a variety of topics; C's, cowls, capes, Hellion, villains, Central, "those damn armbands", mutavus, Wandergheist, Turbo, heros, the bus explosion caused by the Merc yesterday, and a large amount of various other miscellaneous events. But the one that really dominated conversation was that 'Odd Summer' was starting. Apparently this was regarded as generally bad (mostly by the combat drones), however several drones seemed excited about the increased opportunity it would bring.
Once I was done eating I paid the 'bill' (I was really surprised that the norm is to pay afterwards) and began heading to Ashwood St.
I mulled over what I had overheard in the diner. Apparently this 'Odd Summer' was a period of time marked by uncertainty, which fit with why Jasper would deem it necessary to warn a young, inexperienced drone about it. I was impressed, he had warned me about it before the general drone population was informed. Even just walking along outside, nearly every conversation I overheard was at least mentioning it, if not dominated by it, whereas yesterday it had only been mentioned by drones sparingly. It seems Jasper knew his stuff.
I decided to not change my plans and continue to 512 Ashwood St. to seek a job. After seeing how much killing just two drones filled my mass, energy, and money reserves, I had questioned the necessity of seeking alternate ways to make money. But if what I heard in the diner was true, having a 'stable job' during the Odd Summer time period was an advantage, and there was a possibility of 'food rationing' and 'food shortages' neither of which I liked the sound of. Best to secure stable resources while I could.
My trip to Ashwood St. was less eventful than last time, but much more interesting. I noticed several of the physically modified drones (mostly combat models) wearing bands of yellow material around their upper arms, with a black symbol depicting a drone's hand imprinted on the band. Maybe a faction indicator? But this change was too swift and widespread. More likely it had something to do with Odd Summer.
The other new thing was that every now and then I would see a drone wearing a face cover, usually just a simple dark covering over the eyes. These I saw mostly around the multi-level structures near Ashwood St. and other drones gave them a wide berth.
Once, I saw a drone in full-coverings much like the Guardian loitering around an intersection. Its coverings were black with yellow highlights, and a full shell over its head. After standing around and turning its head as if looking for something it suddenly disappeared! No, wait, it just moved very very fast, I barely caught the blur of motion as it left, out of sight in moments.
Estimated threat: High.
How it managed to move that fast was, of course, a mystery. Everything I knew about physical laws seemed to be wrong lately. If that drone attacked I wasn't sure how to counter that kind of speed. At the very least the other drones hadn't acted scared at its presence, merely curious, so hopefully it wasn't a threat I'd have to deal with.
I continued walking while pondering countermeasures, up steps and over walkways, until I finally wound up in front of 512 Ashwood St. again.
There still weren't any indicators that this building was special, or of what exactly a 'job' here might entail. But the entrance was unlocked when I pushed on the door handle.
Inside was a mostly empty room with white walls and a polished floor made of stone tiles. At the back of the room was a set of metal 'stairs' that spiraled into the level above and below. Along the back and side walls were several doors, most were closed, but one door to the right was propped open. The only other object was a large wooden counter in the middle of the room that twisted in a circle, leaving room for the one drone in the room to sit in a chair.
The drone in question was sitting with its feet up on the counter, its attention on a 'smart phone' it held. It was a physically modified drone, tough defensive scales around the neck and up the sides of the head that stopped at its short black hair, and its scaled hands sported sharp, hooked claws that it nevertheless adeptly used to tap at the phone. Along with its natural biological modifications, it also sported many artificial modifications such as inscribed skin symbols and (shudder) metal loops embedded in its ears and nose. As it was the only drone here I walked up to ask it directions.
"You look lost. The nearest high school is quite a few blocks from here. Take a right when you exit and keep walking."
"Is this 512 Ashwood St.?"
The drone sighed, then turned its eyes to me. "Yes, this is 512 Ashwood St. What's it to you?"
"I was told I could find a job here."
"Mm hmm, and just who told you that?"
Hmm, Jasper had asked me not to tell who sent me. His goodwill was currently worth more than a possible job...
The drone sighed again. "It was that weasel Jasper right? Look brat, this isn't a babysitting service, go back to-"
"Lily? Is that a prospective hire I hear you talking to?" said a new voice that came from the open door.
'Lily' grit its teeth and answered, "No Sandra, its just a lost kid."
"Actually I am here for a job," I replied directly to the new drone. This one seemed far more amiable.
"Oh! Well then send them in Lily!"
Lily rolled its eyes and merely gestured to the room with a clawed hand before it proceeded to once again ignore me while tapping at its phone. I headed over to the open door.
Inside was a drone in one of the black/white suits. It had long black hair and wore 'spectacles' like Dr. Mason had. The table it was sitting at was covered in papers as well as an electronic screen hooked up to several other devices. Most of it looked similar to what was in the white coat's test chambers.
"Hello, please come in and have a seat. Its nice to see someone come in early on the first day, it usually takes people a few days to figure out where we are. So then, just to confirm you're here for a job position?"
"Yes, that is right," I answered.
"Splendid. Now I have a few questions I need to ask you, and a few things to inform you about. First of all, at no point during this interview are you obligated to tell me your real name or personal information. You may choose to keep those private from the company for your entire duration with us, from this opening interview all the way to retirement if you choose to stay with us. Do you understand?"
Well that's perfect for me, "Yes."
"Second point of business, were you informed of the nature of this job position?'
"No. I was only told that I could earn money."
"Oh dear, well then don't be shocked, but this is a minion position for the super villain known as Hellion. If that is a problem know that you are free to go no questions asked."
I didn't have any problem with that, however I also didn't know what any of it meant either.
"Um, I don't think I have a problem with it, but could you explain to me more about what a minion position entails?"
The drone perked up at this.
"Oh of course! Well, basically a minion acts as support for a super villain in whatever endeavor they are working on. While they fight it out on the front lines, minions work in the background and take care of all the little details to make sure the task gets done. Its not as glamorous or showy, but it is safer and you get paid. Makes sense so far?"
Seemed simple enough, "Yes."
"Good, now in the case of Hellion she runs things as a business, providing training and equipment to minions, and other villains pay her in order to utilize her minions. Of course the minions sometimes do jobs for Hellion directly. Some of these jobs are regular villain endeavors, but Hellion also controls the territory around Ashwood St. and you might be asked to help secure it or make sure everything is running smoothly. Understand all that?"
"Good, now before we go further there are a few things you should know. As the activities of a super villain are not strictly "legal" there is a risk of both legal consequences, and bodily harm up to and including death while on the job. Hellion tries to minimize these, and she has both doctors and lawyers on call, but there is always that risk when dealing with super powers and capes. Knowing this, is this job still something you are interested in?"
I wasn't sure why it was warning me about injury or death while on the job. Injury and death were constant threats even without dealing with abnormal drones. Maybe these legal risks were something really bad? Either way if they were providing extra resources it was a net win for me.
"Yes, I am very much still interested in this."
"Excellent! I must say it's nice seeing the younger generation being so decisive. Oh, which reminds me, you are eighteen or older right?"
Eighteen... cycles? As in operation time? Yes, I definitely was older than eighteen cycles.
"Oh good, I wondered for a second since you look so young. Not skipping school are you?"
School? That was the place Lily had mentioned. I hadn't considered a young drone might be required to go somewhere. Maybe if I...
"Kidding, kidding. No worries even if you are, I won't tell," said Sandra as she winked and laughed. Ah, a 'joke'. I still wasn't able to recognize those.
After that Sandra had me read through a bunch of 'documents' and give some verbal confirmations that I understood them. Of course I didn't understand everything, but I got the main gist of it with some context clues from Sandra. Apparently Hellion was a member of the 'super villain' faction, who were enemies of the 'super hero' faction. Sandra had me give verbal confirmation and 'check mark' a document that said that if I was a 'spy' nothing I learned was admissible in a court of law. I'm not sure why they wouldn't just try to kill a spy if they found one, but many of these drone rules made little sense to me. Like how both factions used anomalous powers, but the 'super hero' faction was a security force for the city, and would attempt to capture super villains and minions, rather than kill them. It seemed counter intuitive to me, but at least since I was working for a villain I was under no such restriction.
There were a couple more things to go through, mainly 'insurance', and setting up a 'P.O. box' where my money would be sent if I didn't pick it up, but eventually we came to an interesting document that asked if I wanted to declare a power.
"Declare a power?"
"Yes, minion work doesn't require you have one, and you don't need to declare one even if you have it, but if you want to use your power while on the job it needs to be declared. Small things like lifting boxes with super strength are fine, but if a cape tries to arrest you, you aren't allowed to use your power to try and resist arrest if you haven't declared it. That includes benedicci, and mutavus mutations as well mind you."
"Minions are restricted from using powers? Isn't that dangerous?"
"Ah, well as I mentioned the heroes will mostly try to arrest or restrain before resorting to lethal force. The problem is they can't do that without information on their target. If they tried to go in for arrests on what they thought were normal people and someone started shooting lasers or whatever else, the next time they try they will just skip to using lethal force. This is a safety measure for the minions who don't have super powers, and breaking this rule has some hefty penalties including the withdrawal of support from Hellion. Plus if the heroes find out you took advantage of this rule they tend to throw the book at you afterwards."
"So the heroes follow these rules too?"
"Well, it's more like an unspoken rule when it comes to the heroes. We play by some rules, they don't resort to lethal force. Win/win as long as everyone plays ball."
Interesting concept, using rules to mitigate the damage of conflict. As for whether or not to declare a power I wasn't sure. Not declaring and staying hidden seemed safer, but at the same time pretending to be a minion with powers would be better for my disguise if I ever needed to use my abilities openly.
Sandra must have noticed my hesitance because she continued saying, "If you do declare a power there are some additional benefits, we handle any special equipment you need to utilize your power, and you get paid more in compensation for the added risk. A minion might be required to use their power to complete the job, but it will still be the villains on the front lines, you still work in the background."
"Does equipment include special nutritional requirements?"
"Then yes, I would like to declare a power."
There was only one more paper added from declaring a power. Surprisingly I didn't even need to say what kind of power it was (which made me immensely happy), only that I had one. Sandra assured me this would be explained in more detail at an 'orientation' that would take place on Saturday.
"Well then I think that's mostly everything, there's just one last thing to take care of," said Sandra, slipping me the final piece of paper. "Since we don't use real names professionally you'll need a call-sign we can use for you."
"Oh it can be anything. An old nick-name, a nonsense word, something that's important to you or means something to you. It's pretty popular to use your future super villain name among the newbies, since a lot of minions go on to become independent later. Choose whatever you like and I'll go get you a mask while you decide."
A name I get to choose? And it can be anything? Interesting. I considered it a little before writing down the word for my favorite thing, luckily I knew the spelling for it.
Sandra came back with a plain brown box in one hand. I handed her the paper and when she read it she smiled before opening the box and handing it to me. Inside was an artificial head shell, or 'mask' I guess is the term. It was made of a hard, bone-white material that would cover the entire head, with two holes for the eyes covered in translucent material darkened to black. The only other feature was the seams that allowed it to adjust and conform to the size of the wearer.
"Well then Tofu," said Sandra, "it's my pleasure to welcome you to Hellion's Henchmen."