I kept exploring after I separated from Mikey, mainly just testing if I could navigate from his house to Maggie's diner without needing to backtrack. Luckily it seems like even in the most confusing areas the streets still follow a set pattern. The map that Mr. Kimber displayed helped me here. The city was almost perfectly round, with some streets forming straight lines from the center to the outer edges, and the rest of the streets forming concentric rings around the center. Using this information I was easily able to navigate back to the tunnel entrance.
I spent the rest of the afternoon hunting rats to test my new mask. I would most likely have to fight while wearing it and I wanted to make sure it didn't impede me.
I put the mask on and adjusted it to the size of my head. It fit quite snugly, even when I changed the shape of my head while wearing it.
Once adjusted I began checking my senses. Sight, smell, hearing, none of them were severely impacted which surprised me. Outwardly it didn't really look like it was doing much, but in order to not hinder smelling and hearing while being form fitting it obviously had to be more complicated on the inside. I would like to open it up and see the inner workings, but Sandra had warned me to not try to modify it. Plus I was doubtful I understood enough to put it back together. My specialty was organic components, not inorganic ones.
I made sure the helmet was properly in place and then began stalking the tunnels to look for rats. I started where I destroyed the nest last time and went from there. Quickly I found a fresh trail and followed it.
Searching the tunnels for a while I eventually found a new group of rats. This time it was a group of six big ones without any of the tiny ones. They were currently jumping out of a pipe in the ceiling, most of them with small parcels in their mouths. Maybe this was a scavenging party.
I charged around the corner using the same strategy as last time. As long as I didn't perform worse than last time I would consider it a successful test of fighting with the mask on.
Reaching the first one I stabbed it in the back of the neck with my knife. The second one I slashed its neck artery, and gave it a good kick to daze it while it bled out. Surprisingly the rest didn't run like last time, and dropped their parcels to charge me.
For all the good it did them.
The third rat reached me and I stomped its head, using my traction claws to get a good grip and grind its face into the floor. When the fourth came close I flung the third rat's corpse at it, knocking it away.
From that point forth the fight became a dodging test. They would leap or charge and try to grapple me, while I dodged and used my height and weight advantage to rain blows on them. I had to say, while the drone form wasn't very combat specialized, being upright and tall was still a great advantage versus crawling foes. As long as I wasn't tripped I could put most of my weight behind the blows.
Eventually four rats laid dead or dying around me. The two survivors tried a last resort and one charged my feet while the other leaped. I kicked the one that went for my feet away, but the second landed on my upper torso and tried to bite at my face. It went for my eyes, but apparently it was too stupid to realize I was wearing a shell and instead its teeth scrapped uselessly at the mask. I grabbed it around the middle and squeezed, increasing the pressure until its spine finally snapped.
Dropping it to the floor I readied myself for the last one, but I needn't have bothered. It was running far down the tunnel and ducked behind the next intersection as I watched.
Well then, the mask definitely helped this time. But even if the rat hadn't attacked my face the mask hadn't hindered my normal fighting methods at all. I'd say this was a successful test run of the mask.
After testing the mask I decided to hibernate for the night. Technically I could continue to scout the surrounding areas, but I was worried about what the drone at the school had said about being out after dark. There just had to be a real reason for why it would mention that, and if the rest of the drones were following that advice I would need to follow it too just to not stand out.
And I suppose I needed to rest Human.exe as well. I knew I could push it but there was no real pressing need to.
I scouted buildings for most of the morning, climbing up walkways and staircases to see how the area looked from up high. With one building I used the metal bar staircase to reach the roof, and as I looked out over the city I saw buildings spreading out around me far into the distance. In the area around Maggie's they were only a few levels tall, but in the direction of Ashwood St. they created the illusion of a sloping hill as they gradually increased in size. Looking in the direction of central I could almost make out the tops of the mega structures that dominated that area. A massive panorama.
I had to be wrong about the shape of this place. The ceiling wasn't a ceiling. But I didn't know what else it could be. I didn't have enough information to even make an informed guess.
But I knew one place where I could find out more.
I made my way back to Clemont High School. If I was timing it right I should have about half an hour before lunch, and I used a higher walkway to scout the school without drawing the attention of the security guards. The main entrance to the school was a wide bridge that connected to the level three 'road' walkway that made up the majority of Ashwood St. however other smaller bridges extended to other walkways around the surrounding buildings.
I spotted the security guard that had apprehended me last time. Getting caught by it again would probably not end as harmlessly as last time. It was a 'stickler' for the rules if Tim and Mikey were to be believed.
I decided to sneak in a little after the bell rang for lunch, walking to one of the walkways that was one level above a side bridge. When a guard walked passed on the bridge I waited until it was a good distance away before I jumped down onto the bridge behind it, and soundlessly entered the single door that led inside.
Inside was a corridor, and students were filtering out of the classrooms to go to the cafeteria. I quickly fell into place with the crowd. One or two young drones had seen me enter, but like I had noted yesterday the student drones basically ignored one another unless they were part of the same social group, and I continued along unquestioned by them.
The pattern from yesterday held, and the cafeteria was again a mass of young drones waiting in line for food. Curiously I noticed that there were slightly fewer drones here today. Enough to be noticable. I suppose that many 'parents' had decided to withdraw them early after yesterday's announcements. While waiting in line I spotted Mikey and Tim already at a table. Luckily between a quarter held by one of the rats from yesterday, and keeping a look out for loose coins this morning, I had managed to scrape together the necessary two dollars.
Today's lunch was supposedly fried veggies with a fruit cup and beans on the side, but I wasn't sure how much I believed them. I had seen fried veggies at Maggie's and I don't think they were supposed to leak.
Tasted fine this time at least.
I made my way over to Tim and Mikey. Strangely neither of them was eating, and Mikey was sitting with his head in his hands.
"Hello, may I sit with you again?"
Tim looked up at me, "Oh! Hey Tofu. Yeah, go for it man."
I took a seat and started eating, but quickly I realized something was wrong with Mikey. He wasn't talking or eating, when yesterday he had kept the conversation going with Tim rather effortlessly. Tim also looked like something was bothering him, altough it seemed more like he was worried about Mikey. I ate in silence for a bit, and eventually Tim tried to converse with Mikey.
"Hey Mikey, we'll figure out something man. No worries," said Tim. Even to me his reassurance sounded hesitant, and I decided to inquire.
"Did something bad happen?"
Tim looked over to me and was about to say something but hesitated, looking first to Mikey.
"My mother's scumbag boyfriend happened," replied Mikey.
Boyfriend? Scumbag? Those were new terms I didn't recognize. 'Boy' and 'friend' I knew, and I had thought friend was a good term, I guess 'scumbag' invalidates the positive connotation? At least 'friend' implied the problem was a "who" and not a "what."
"What did they do?" I asked.
Tim waited for Mikey, but when Mikey stayed silent he answered, "He stole the money that Mikey was saving for college."
'College'. From what I had heard from the announcements yesterday and other students it was the next level of training after high school. Students needed to pay to be trained at this level then?
"...all six thousand of it," whispered Mikey, so quiet I almost couldn't hear him.
Estimated worth = 600 cycles of operation minimum. Continuous.
I reeled at Mikey's statement. Six thousand dollars! You could buy so much food with that! I hadn't even realized it was possible to get that much money.
"H-how did you get that much?"
"He's been working every summer since the last odd one," Tim answered.
"And now it's all down the drain," said Mikey.
Well at least I now knew that a job paid well. Sandra had said that the minion job paid by every task done, but hadn't given a hard amount.
"Is there no way to get the money back?" I asked.
"No, scumbag already used it to pay off his dealer. My mom was fighting with him about it yesterday but..." at this Mikey grit his teeth and clenched his fists before continuing, "I'd almost consider it money well spent if it would just get him the hell out of my life. But he's like a leech. Sucking the life out of my mom, and now me too."
It was then that the bell rang, and Mikey got up to go, leaving his tray of food behind (he had been too distraught to eat!).
"We'll think of something Mikey. Promise!"
"Thanks Tim..." Mikey replied, but he didn't seem very enthusiastic about it. As he walked away I turned to Tim.
"How damaging is this for his plans?"
Tim looked at me and replied, "It would have paid for the first semester at least. His grades are fine, but he didn't get any scholarships. Plus the nearest college is still an hour away even with the subway. He was hoping to rent and maybe work part time. Now though... anyways I'll see you later Tofu, I need to get to class."
Tim walked away with his shoulders down.
I pondered the situation as I ate the rest of Mikey's lunch. Technically this whole thing wasn't my problem. My main concern was securing steady nutrition and resources without compromising my disguise.
But that didn't really feel right to me.
I had not been anyone important to Mikey, and yet he had still fed me for free (two times now). If possible I'd like to maintain valuable drones like that. Who knows where else I would find someone willing to feed me for free?
Mikey had said that the money was probably not recoverable. But he also said he would settle for getting rid of the 'scumbag boyfriend'.
Maybe I could help with that.
I spent the next two 'periods' in Mr. Kimber's class, listening to a fascinating lecture on post Odd Summer supply routes. I was somewhat distracted by Mikey's situation however. Rather than slowly take notes like he had yesterday, today he just stared at his desk. Disregarding knowledge and not eating. Definitely distraught.
When the bell rang I went to the 'restroom', and changed my face in the stall to attend Mr. Kimber's class again. While listening to the supply route lecture a second time (repeated verbatim, obviously Mr. Kimber is a practiced professional), I calculated the risk of getting rid of the scumbag boyfriend. It was a bit more risky than the two ambushers, those had most likely been working only with each other. But the scumbag boyfriend was apparently subservient to this 'dealer', and its absence might be missed. Plus, I didn't know how much it would take for 'cops' or super heroes to get involved.
As a back-up plan maybe it would be possible for Mikey to get the money from an alternate source. Gathering coins off the floor had worked for me so far, although I wasn't sure if Mikey could gather as efficiently as I could. It depended on how long Odd Summer lasted, and on how long it took before the colleges started to function afterwards. I'd think of something. For now I planned to follow Mikey home again. This time I would take note of the exact residence and come back while Mikey was in school to get rid of the 'leech'.
I just needed to make sure I killed the 'scumbag boyfriend' and not the 'mom'. But I doubted that would be too hard to figure out.
The bell rang and I hurried to the restroom stall to change my face back. I needed to catch up to Mikey and Tim before they left.
I reached the entrance bridge before they did and greeted them. Tim was a bit surprised I had stayed past lunch again, but I made up an excuse about having lost my I.D. and it not being worth the hassle of replacing since school was almost over anyways.
On the way home Tim did his best to try and come up with a solution. Mikey tried to go along with it, but it was obvious he didn't really believe the offered suggestions would work. When Tim left to follow his own route home his brow was still furrowed with trying to come up with a solution.
Mikey and I walked along in silence after that. Blocks passed by while Mikey just walked along staring at the floor. As we reached the stairs that led up to his place Mikey hesitantly turned to me.
"Hey Tofu, um, do you think that maybe, uh, that maybe your job has any more openings? I-I feel bad asking right after meeting you, but um... I don't know what else to do."
Hmm, I had considered that option, but being a minion had struck me as rather dangerous for a normal drone. Plus I wasn't sure if I wanted Mikey to know what I was doing.
"I'm not sure if they have spots open, and I should warn you the job is kinda risky. Want me to ask if they are hiring more?"
"R-really?! Yes! Yes please! I'll do anything dude. I really need to make money right now, and people almost never hire during Odd Summer. Tha-"
"Hey ther shquirt! How wash school?" said a garbled voice. Mikey's face instantly went from smiling back to the frown from earlier, with added signs of anger detectable as well. Clenching his fists and gritting his teeth, he turned to the approaching drone that had spoken. It was an older drone wearing long leg covers and a brown 'jacket' on its torso. It seemed to be wavering as it walked, and it approached the two of us slowly, seeming to put extra thought into each step. In one of its hands it held a brown paper bag with a glass bottle inside.
Estimated threat: negligible.
When it reached us it spoke again, "You tykes learn anythin' new today?" and it place a hand on Mikey's head to ruffle his hair. Mikey immediately smacked the hand away.
"Aw, don't be that way shquirt. You shtill mad about yesterday? I told ya, I'll pay ya back. Here, I even had a good day today."
At this the drone reached into a pocket and pulled out a single crumpled paper rectangle, the symbol "20" imprinted on it. He offered it to Mikey, but Mikey didn't move, just stared at the ground with his fists clenched. Eventually the drone gave up and just tossed the paper at Mikey's torso.
"Jeez shquirt, you're such a sour pussh. You won't make any friendsh that way y'know," said the drone. Then it turned to walk away.
Mikey didn't make a move, so I bent and grabbed the crumpled paper, flattening it out as I did so.
Yep, the symbols on the paper represented just twenty dollars. Not two thousand or even two hundred. Just twenty. Not even close to the six thousand it owed Mikey.
Mikey was red with anger, his limbs quivering, I was honestly surprised he hadn't attacked the drone yet. Was the risk of repercussion from attacking the older drone just too high for a young drone to act?
Oh well, I owed Mikey for the lunches anyway. Just needed to confirm with him.
"Hey Mikey, I'm pretty sure it is, but just to make sure I don't have it wrong, this is the 'scumbag boyfriend' you were talking about right?"
Mikey stirred at my words, his eyes rising to meet mine with confusion.
"What the hell'd you shay?!" asked the drone as it whirled back at us. Not quite as unsteady as it was at first glance.
Estimated threat: minimum;
"I'm asking if you're the scumbag boyfriend who stole money from Mikey. I wouldn't want to get it wrong."
Mikey was staring at me in disbelief, eyes wide, and the older drone's face was quickly becoming angry and red, much like Mikey's had been. But this drone didn't have Mikey's patience, and it swung at me with the bottle. I suppose that was as good a confirmation as any.
Its limb moved in a wide arc. While it may have had some force behind it, it was still a really clumsy swing, and I caught it with my right hand. It barely even made my arm budge.
It blinked at me stupidly, obviously it hadn't expected that to happen, and I took advantage of its confusion to grab its throat in my other hand and squeeze. It dropped the bottle in its flailing, and with both hands tried to claw at my arm to dislodge it. I used my now free right hand to pull out my knife, which caused the drone to scrabble harder.
"T-T-Tofu! What in the world are you doing!?" said Mikey.
Wasn't it obvious?
"Well you said you would be fine with the lost money if he would at least disappear. I'm doing that."
"DUDE! I-I didn't mean. You can't just stab a person in broad daylight!" Mikey exclaimed.
Ah, now I understood. I scanned the area. We were the only drones around right now, but Mikey had a point. The place was rather open, and there might be unseen witnesses. I wasn't in any hurry this time around, so it was better to take my time and take care of all the details. I started to drag the scumbag boyfriend to the dark alley next to Mikey's building. It was the kind that had a space to let you see to the floors below, with a shoulder high fence to keep drones from falling.
I'd been eating really well the past few days, between the rats and drone food, so at this point I was quite a bit denser than my size would suggest. With the extra muscle and weight behind my movements I easily pulled the drone into the alley, Mikey a few steps behind me. The drone I was holding redoubled its efforts to get away and started to make strange sounds.
"Hey. Tofu. Look, I appreciate it man. Really! But the C's will be all over you if you do this. Like, its a really bad idea and uh... and..."
Mikey trailed off and stared at the drone. I followed his gaze and found that the drone had given up trying to pry me free. Instead it was holding out something it had pulled from a pocket. A rolled up bundle of paper.
A bundle of money bills.
Ah, seems it hadn't used the money after all? I let go of its throat and let it fall to the ground. It gasped and wheezed as its face slowly regained its normal color. It had been taking on an interesting bluish tint.
Mikey walked over and grabbed the money bundle. Quickly checking through it.
"Three thousand," he said at last. "You still had THREE THOUSAND!?"
Suddenly he lashed out with a foot. Kicking the drone in the side. Were we killing it or not?
"DID YOU EVEN HAVE A DEBT?! OR WERE YOU JUST STEALING MY MONEY?! YOU LAZY!" kick "GOOD FOR NOTHING!" kick "DRUNK! JUNKIE!" kick kick.
Wow, I didn't know drones could get this angry. Even if it wasn't very efficient, the sheer rage was intimidating.
Mikey finally stopped kicking him and backed away, heaving for breath as he collected himself. I waited until he seemed calm again before I spoke.
"So, what do you want to do with him?"
Mikey gulped a little more air and responded, "I just-" huff "I just want him out of my life."
I bent over the drone and picked him up by the front of his shirt cover before I started to drag him over to the fence. There was a hole in the metal mesh where it only rose to the height of my waist. The drone immediately started to protest.
"Wait, wait! Don't! Don't do this! Shquir- I mean, Michael! Michael don't let him do this! Please! I can pay you back! Honest I can!"
I looked out over the barrier to the layers below and then hauled him up, leaning him out over the drop. It kept begging, water beginning to leak from its eyes.
"Please! I can, I can-"
"Six thousand dollars. Pay it back or the next time I see you I take the cost from your hide."
"S-six? But I, but I didn't use-"
I gave him a shake and he shut up, whimpering.
"You have until the end of Odd Summer."
Then I dropped him.
...right onto the lid of a giant trash receptacle one level down. I'd tested the plastic the lids were made of during my previous explorations. It was flexible enough to let him live from the fall. Probably. I didn't really care, but Mikey seemed to for some reason.
I turned back to Mikey who was staring at the money in his hands, not saying a word.
I spoke up, "Is it enough for college?"
"...not really. It was almost enough before, but now... businesses buckle down during Odd Summer. Almost nobody hires, and if they do they won't pay enough."
"Well, I know someone who is."
We entered through the front door, still open despite how late in the day it had gotten. We approached the scaled drone sitting at the single piece of furniture in the room. It looked up after an almost solid minute of tapping at its phone and sighed in irritation when it saw us.
"Tch, goddamn it all, SANDRA! THEY'RE MULTIPLYING!"