I hit the floor with an audible thump. Again.
What was going on?
Attack pattern calculation failed.
Once Imp led us to the section of padded floor, he had explained that we would be doing something called barehanded combat training. At first I was worried that this would be like the combat tests the white coats used to make me do, but Imp explained that the goal was simply to knock your opponent down to the ground, and not to kill them like I was used to.
Ifrit was the first to challenge Adder, and I thought she did relatively well. Their movements were odd, and I attributed the strange movements to them basing their combat patterns on not trying to harm each other. They exchanged a few blows before Adder gained the upper hand and knocked Ifrit to the floor. From what I could tell Adder focused on grabbing Ifrit's coverings and using them to redirect her motion, while Ifrit tried to do similar. Neither attempted to use powers or a weapon. It seemed simple enough. Ifrit then stood up and, for some reason, bent her torso in Adder's direction, which Adder then reciprocated.
I couldn't figure out what the purpose of the gesture was.
"Okay, how about you next Tofu?" said Imp.
I stepped forward onto the mat and took an offensive position until Imp announced the start. When he did I moved forward and tried a few jabs to see what Adder would do.
Then the next thing I knew I was on the floor.
Error: calculating attack pattern failed;
Estimated threat: Very High;
That was odd. From the sensory stimuli I recorded I knew that Adder had grabbed my arm after the third jab. I had tried to shift my weight to take advantage and then... I was suddenly staring at the ceiling.
"Nice try Tofu, Gregor, you're up next," said Imp.
I got up and went to stand next to the other drones while trying to figure out what just happened. Gregor approached next and I resolved to closely analyze their fight to see if I could identify the attack pattern that Adder was using.
The fight started and Gregor charged forward, obviously intending to use his weight and size to barrel down his smaller opponent. Adder avoided Gregor by dodging low to the ground, out of reach of his hands, and took advantage of his charge to trip one of his feet. At first I didn't think her lower mass would be enough to halt his momentum, but instead of just throwing her body against his foot she had grabbed his leg in some kind of limb-lock and Gregor fell to the floor as his leg failed to obey him.
From the sounds Gregor made it was also pretty painful. I kept forgetting about using pain, it didn't debilitate me, and some other organisms like the anomalous yellow-fur just ignored it, so it seemed a risky tactic to employ.
After that it was Olson's turn, despite his protests.
"Come on Olson, I pro~mise I'll go easy on you," said Adder while flashing a smile.
"I felt your easy last time too, and I've still got the bruises to prove it," he replied.
Adder laughed at that, and despite his denial of being able to fight her Olson actually did the best of any of us, lasting almost a full minute before he fell.
Ifrit went again and did a little better this time, but fell quickly enough. Then it was my turn again.
I took a defensive position rather than an offensive one this time. I was going to treat this like a brown-fur fight. If a single mistake got me thrown to the ground then it was a lot like how a brown-fur could critically injure me in a single blow.
I didn't move when the fight started, instead allowing her to come to me. She raised her brows in surprise at this, but obliged me in being the attacker this time. I lasted a little longer by not allowing her to get an easy hold on me, but eventually the fact that I was guarding too zealously allowed her to corner me and slip an arm past my guard. I tried to retaliate by counter grabbing, but the moment I did I was on the floor again.
"Much better that time Tofu," said Adder.
From that point forward we took turns trying to knock Adder over, but by the end of the hour none of us had succeeded. I improved for sure, but I just couldn't keep up with Adder's attack patterns. I had found that she didn't stick to one overall protocol and instead just switched to match her opponent. I had always thought I was pretty good at switching my patterns to match the situation, but the sheer amount of patterns she displayed put my repertoire to shame. Plus, I think she used some kind of power, because in a few of our fights she seemed to... disappear.
Once we were done Adder began to tell each of us how to improve starting with Ifrit. Apparently Ifrit and Adder knew each other, and outside of the job Adder acted as Ifrit's 'martial arts' teacher. Then she turned to me.
"So Tofu, you're pretty rough but you've got good instincts, you're self taught right?"
"Um, yes. How could you tell?"
"A couple small details, but they show that you're more used to a straight street brawl. Quick engagements, go for the throat, don't take risks unless you have too, that kind of stuff. Basically you fight like a caged animal. Against any average brawler it will work just fine, but if you fight someone with real training, especially capes, they will probably know how to handle it. No worries though, you've got the talent, I'll whip you into shape," she said with a wink.
I hoped that wasn't literal.
Adder gave some advice to Gregor and then went over what Olson had been doing for training while he was away. Apparently Olson had worked on and off for Hellion since last Odd Summer, but had to stop a year ago due to 'personal issues'.
Adder finished giving us her analysis before Imp spoke up. "Well folks that was a good workout. How about we head to the break room and get some grub?"
We followed him back to the room with tables and chairs. Inside were some of the masked drones that had gone with Adder and Viper. They looked a bit scuffed up, scraps and small sticky 'band-aids' applied to them in some places. Notably of the twenty five or so that had gone with Viper and Adder only about ten were still here, including Mikey.
But far more importantly, most of them had a plate of food in front of them.
I checked for the source, and on top of a very large, long table placed against the back of the room I saw the food. It was... it was...
I needed to borrow the drone word for it, because this was not a concept I had ever really dealt with before. Plentiful, nutritious, amazing, astounding, confusing. Those were the closest I had come before now. But now I understood.
There were literal piles of food on the table. I noted burgers and sandwiches like the ones at Maggie's, but there were lots of foods that I had no name for.
Imp walked forward and addressed the room, "Well that does it for the orientation. Feel free to grab what you want and chow down, think of it as an apology for throwing you into a hard workout with the trainers on your first day. We tend to reserve spreads like this for after we do the big jobs so make sure you try out everything while you can. I'll be getting in touch tomorrow or the day after with your first job, so keep your eyes on your masks. If for some reason you absolutely can't get to a job at the time we list press the cancel notification button. DO NOT abuse that option, we need it to plan how many people are coming. If you have a day job you think is going to get in the way let Sandra know at the office so she can send us a schedule we can work around. Other than that you're done for the day, congrats on surviving your first day as a minion!"
There were a few sounds of acknowledgment from the crowd and Imp left through a side room. I waited long enough for Adder to show me how to open the white mask to allow for eating before I made a direct path to the food.
So many options! I piled a plate as high as I could get it. There were veggies wrapped in these bread things, and bowls for some kind of thick liquid, and meat! I didn't know that drones actually ate meat, the stuff on the table had been cooked in much the same way as the burgers, and I didn't know what organism it came from.
Yup, it wouldn't all fit, so I made a second plate and placed a bowl of the liquid on top of the second food pile. I wouldn't be able to carry any more in a single trip without shifting, and I took one plate in each hand before I headed to the seating area. Scanning the room I saw that Mikey's table was empty so I decided to sit with him. I still needed to tell him I was wearing a white mask anyways.
I made my way over to Mikey's table before plopping down my food. "Hello Mikey! Amazing food they have here right? Much better than the cafeteria food."
Mikey was somewhat unfortunate, as at that moment he started to cough and choke before he could greet me back. Probably some food in his windpipe, a terrible design flaw that most drones shared, poor guy.
Cough cough "T-Tofu? That you?"
"Yes, are you alright?"
"I-cough-yeah I'm fine. What in the world are you doing with a white mask? You had powers?"
"Yes, is that so surprising? You witnessed me toss the scumbag."
"I, well I thought you just had a stronger than normal benedicci reaction I guess. I didn't really have time to think about it."
Ha, this joke I understood. Needing time to think, he had nearly a whole week to do so. I would have to remember to laugh when drones made jokes, sometimes they behaved oddly when you didn't react with laughter.
"So Tofu, you have like, a real super power then?"
I had planned on telling anyone who asked that I had mutavus, as that was what I most heard associated with physical alterations. The super power label seemed to be reserved for the physics defying powers.
"No, it's not a real power." I answered
"Oh, so it was benedicci? Or... is it mutavus then?" Mikey asked hesitantly.
"It's rude to ask kid," came a deep voice with a slight hiss I recognized as Gregor's.
I turned to see the hulking green figure of Gregor. He had also smartly piled two plates of food. Seems he favored the cooked meat items.
"Mind if I sit here?" asked Gregor, mostly to me.
"No, go ahead," I answered back.
He placed his plates down with a thunk at an empty spot. Then sat down in the chair with an even bigger thump.
A suddenly pale-face Mikey responded, "I-I'm sorry, I didn't mean any offense."
Gregor's expression softened a bit before he answered (he had taken his mask off to eat), "None taken. Just know it's not nice to ask that casually, and around C's it can be rather unwise to ask at all."
"O-oh, I see," said Mikey, then he turned to me, "Sorry Tofu."
"No worries," I muffled past a mouthful of food.
We talked a bit but mostly I concentrated on eating. It was really really good, especially the cooked meat. I might have overdone it a bit though, as Mikey commented on how much I was eating.
"Dang dude! Where are you putting it all?" exclaimed Mikey. Even Gregor seemed impressed.
"I digest quickly."
"Like a high metabolism?"
Note to self: find out what 'metabolism' means.
Not much else happened besides Rattleback coming by and introducing himself to me and Gregor. Apparently he was the 'quartermaster' for equipment, and asked if I had any special requirements for using my abilities. I mentioned I had higher than normal 'metabolism' and that I would need something to help against bullets. He replied that they would try to get me a suit soon, and he would look into getting some speedster MREs, whatever those were.
Once he left Mikey announced he was going back for 'seconds' and was quite surprised when I went with him for more. No telling when the next meal would come around, and this was the best tasting I had ever eaten. I was very glad I had taken Jasper's advice in getting a job, especially one that let me claim my abilities were a 'power'.
I eventually had to call it quits on getting more food, even the large drone Gregor had begun to look worried over how much I was eating. Mikey and I left to the 'elevators' and instead of heading my separate way I went with Mikey to "hang out" as he put it. The elevator let us out in a 'gym locker room', and after Mikey called Tim on his 'phone' the three of us 'hung out' for the next few hours. It was an interesting experience, especially when they took me to an 'arcade', a type of reflex/puzzle testing chamber that focused on using screens to make hypothetical simulations. There wasn't any physical danger, so I found it rather relaxing.
Tim was quite happy when we told him that Mikey had gotten a job at the same place where I worked. Our 'cover story' was that we were working at various warehouses that stocked food for 'grocery stores', an excuse Mikey thought up.
After a few hours Tim eventually had to leave for the day, and Mikey went with him since they lived in the same general area. I left to go to the tunnel entrance again, deciding to simply rest while going over my observations of the combat with Adder. Her explanation of my combat patterns made sense to me, I had in fact been fighting many caged animals at the test chambers, and most of my protocols were based on that experience. In truth the only drone I had really fought had been the blade drone on the subway, and it had been one of my most challenging fights to date. All of my other experiences versus drones had been surprise attacks, against opponents who I now knew had no idea what they were doing. Not if Adder, or even Ifrit and Olson, were the standard.
I definitely had to ask Adder to train me when I had the chance. Not only had she changed between widely different combat patterns on the fly, but while fighting she had sometimes managed to visibly disappear, normally right before I hit the ground. It might have been a power, but somehow I doubted it. I just needed a little more information and I felt like I'd have the answer.
After contemplating the combat data for a few hours I had to get up and hunt rats for a while. I was simply too restless, for the first time ever I had resources to burn and an avenue of improvement that I wanted, not just needed, to pursue.
I was really looking forward to the upcoming job.
My mask had beeped Sunday morning and informed me that there was a job at ten p.m. For most of the daylight hours I had simply wandered around the city near Ashwood St. to pass the time. By this point I had mapped all the roads and walkways, and noted all the food dispensaries in the area, categorizing them by price and how likely it was I could steal food from them and get away with it.
Now I was waiting for the elevator in the corridor at 514 Ashwood St. at nine thirty. Like last time Olson again showed up to use this elevator.
"Hello there, Tofu right?" he asked.
"Yes, hello Olson."
Just like last time he was wearing a red shirt and blue leg coverings, although it wasn't the same kind of shirt. Today it had buttons.
The elevator dinged and the doors opened for us. It was a ways until the elevator would drop us off so I decided to see what information I could get from him.
"So, you have worked for Hellion before? May I ask what it was like?"
"Oh, sure. Well there isn't much to say really, Hellion sends us a job and we do it is really the sum of my experience. I never hired on as more than a part-timer. Most of the time it's working for some villain who payed Hellion to provide the muscle."
"Ah, does this mean we won't actually meet Hellion herself?"
"Oh no, you definitely will. She has to spend most of her time running everything now, but she used to be the real hands-on type. I met her plenty of times even though I never became a regular."
"I see... I don't suppose you would be able to tell me a little about the dangers we will be facing."
"First day jitters huh? No worries, even if you're wearing the skull mask you won't need to do much. Just do what the lieutenants tell you and it'll work out."
The conversation ended there, and the elevator doors soon opened to let us out. I followed Olson to the same meeting room as last time, and there was a sign with an arrow on it placed next to one of the doors.
"Ah, looks like we're meeting in the garage today," said Olson.
The hallway we entered eventually led to a large room filled with various transport devices. Some of the drones from the orientation were here, but most of the drones I didn't recognize. These were probably the 'regulars' as they tended to look more confident than the orientation drones, and their dark clothing also looked carefully assembled for the job. Belt pouches, equipment, backpacks, weapons, I cataloged the items since they were what the veterans considered necessary. Rattleback worked among them, and was occasionally giving orders that the other drones hurried to complete.
Imp stood with Viper and Ifrit next to a new drone that I hadn't seen before. It stood only a little taller than myself and Ifrit, and its custom mask didn't look like it was built for combat, instead seeming to be mostly protective eye-wear with assorted attachments. Its coverings consisted of a single brown full-body cover that had multiple loops and pouches, from which various devices hung.
Imp waved me and Olson over and we approached them.
"Hey Olson, Tofu. Olson you remember Socket don't you?" said Imp.
"I sure do, how's it been old man?" replied Olson, reaching for and shaking Socket's hand.
"Pfft, old my arse. You'll wear out before my parts do, guarantee it. Good ta have you back sonny" said Socket as he greeted Olson with a wide smile.
Imp spoke to me, "Tofu, let me introduce you to Socket. Rattleback handles all the logistics and equipment, but Socket here makes all the little things we can't live without, like your masks and the fancy pants elevators."
"Ah, you made the mask Socket? It is quite good, it does not hinder my senses at all," I said as I shook Socket's hand.
"Bah, that generic paper weight? Stay with us for the long haul and I'll make you a real mask," He said it gruffly, but he shook my hand and smiled all the same. "Good ta be getting so much young blood this year. Was afraid I'd be stuck with all these fuddy-duddys forever. They never want me ta upgrade their hunks a junk."
Imp and Olson both chuckled before Olson replied, "Maybe my memory is failing me. I seem to remember you kept wanting to add a bunch of horrible add-ons to the stuff you made right the first time. Changed your ways while I was gone?"
"Yer just stuck in the past is all it is. Wouldn't know a good upgrade from a slap in the face. Tha's the problem with old folks like you," retorted Socket.
The three of them laughed together, it seemed they knew each other quite well. I felt just a bit better that Ifrit didn't laugh at whatever jokes they were making either though, this 'humor' thing still escaped me, and I was glad I didn't stand out too much.
"Alright then," said Imp as he walked to a pile of items, "Let's start handing out equipment. Tofu you said you had regeneration right?"
"That is correct."
"Alright. Here, this jacket looks about your size," and Imp handed me what seemed to be a thick, padded torso cover. "That and your mask should keep your vitals from taking a full force hit. The jacket is not completely bullet proof mind you, but it should do the heavy lifting, and your mask will block anything but the worst, Socket does good work."
Oh, I figured the mask was tough when the rat couldn't scratch it, but it could take bullet fire?
I slowly began shifting my core into my head.
More equipment was handed out, and the rest of the minions eventually showed up, including Gregor and Mikey. The equipment handouts were interesting. All of the minions received bullet-resistant jackets and a generic black helmet they could put on while wearing their mask. Gregor received an extra large jacket, and Ifrit already had a bodysuit like Imp's, but Olson didn't take any equipment at all beyond his mask and a 'crowbar'.
Once everything was set Imp gathered all the new drones and gave us instructions: "Alright everyone, in a moment we're gonna split you up into the vehicles and have you play ride along. Tonight's job is a simple warehouse smash and grab. I go in with some of the veterans and the powers, and crack the place open. Once we're done you come in and start taking boxes out to the vans. If anyone at all shows up, drop what you're doing and run for the vehicles, or just scatter and let your mask guide you to a safe house. Absolutely don't take your mask off until you've gotten back to base. Sometimes the heroes like to use trackers and if they catch you with your mask off it can make the legal proceedings a lot harder."
They started sorting the minions into the 'vehicles' and Imp led me and the other powered minions to a 'van'. This was interesting to me since I had only ever ridden on the subway. The inside of the van was rather bare, but it had utilitarian seats that could fit anybody along the sides, even Gregor. Once everyone was in and adjusted, Imp started the vehicle and drove up a ramp that led swiftly upwards and into a very strange, reinforced looking room.
Once the entire convoy of vehicles entered the reinforced room, Imp pressed a button on the console in front of him, and the entire room started to move! These drones liked their transport devices just a bit too much. When I commented on the entire room being a transport elevator, Imp merely said it was to have multiple points of exit to keep the heroes guessing.
I'm starting to suspect that drones simply enjoy not walking.
The trip by elevator took five minutes, and then a metal door opened that led out into an empty street. The exit we emerged from looked like one of many similar buildings that stood in the area. Gray and lacking in details to distinguish them from each other.
The section of Ashwood St. we emerged from was on the eastern end of Ashwood St., near the 900 numbered buildings, and we began traveling south, in a direction I hadn't yet mapped unfortunately. Most of my efforts had been concentrated on Ashwood itself and north towards Maggie's diner.
The drive took a long time, almost half an hour. Imp mentioned that the area we were heading towards was right near the border between E13 and S13.
Eventually we entered an area where there were very few of the multi-level dwelling buildings. Instead they had been replaced by very large singular structures that Imp identified as warehouses. We drove past multiple structures that all looked alike, until we came to one that had no visible difference that I could see, and parked in the area of flat space reserved for transport vehicles outside of it. Only one other van came with us, the rest of the convoy instead kept going. Imp turned to us once he parked the car.
"Alright you guys, here's the plan. I'm going in first and making sure the security system is dead. The rest of you are gonna follow along behind me with Olson, and he'll explain what to look out for and how to deal with anything unexpected. I'm not expecting any trouble at this first one since they don't have night workers, so it's gonna be like a show and tell. Once we're done cracking it open we leave and the minions will go in and clear it out. Our next destination will be the next warehouse."
"What's to stop the cops or heroes from showing up while we aren't here?" asked Gregor.
Imp grinned and replied, "Why, they are going to be just a tiny bit busy with more important going-ons. You see, we have a kind of unofficial tradition here at Hellion's Henchmen. We try to make the first job of Odd Summer as big of a show as we can. Let's the heroes and other villains know we aren't afraid of them or Odd Summer, and it lets Fortress City know we are open for business. Kind of a show of force and an advertisement all wrapped up in one."
Imp turned and sat straight in his seat again, looking out the front window.
"Hellion's currently setting up for the party right now. All we gotta do is sit back and wait for the signal."
"What's the signal?" I asked.
"Oh, you'll see it, no worries," replied Imp.
We waited in silence for about fifteen minutes, Imp relaxing in the driver's seat and the rest of us fidgeting in the back of the van. But the signal did eventually come, and I did indeed recognize it.
I thought it was the sun at first.
The horizon, long dark after the sun went down, lit up again as an absolutely massive fireball rose into the sky. The shock-wave from the blast rolled over us a few seconds later, and Imp slowly lowered his window after it stopped rattling.
"Yep," said Imp. "It's not really summer until the first big heat."