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I experimented with Human.exe for the rest of the night, the rat/Nessie providing the resources for the experiments. My results were… mixed. On the one hand, Human.exe acted just like any other program I stored in memory. I could move it from inorganic memory to organic memory and back again, I could run an instance of it on appropriate hardware, and most surprisingly of all, I could create multiple backup copies of the program and delete them. The only thing I couldn’t do was actually open up the code to look at its “guts” which was quite frustrating.

 

One interesting fact I did learn was that I can actually make two brains and run two separate instances of Human.exe at the same time… for about sixty seconds. Then the thought process kernels diverge too far, and the micro units in the brains get confused about who they actually belong to and self-destruct rather spectacularly, which was an interesting (if useless) result. The first time I tried it the micro units broke down so quickly that the two brains actually combusted due to the chemical energy released. I only tried the experiment a few more times after that, brains are resource intensive.

 

The Human.exe problem was proving to be unsolvable for now. Simply not using Human.exe was not an option, so the next step was mitigation. If I couldn't solve the problem I could mitigate its effects, and for that I need more resources: fuel, materials, knowledge, weapons, allies.

 

Fuel was not a problem, human food was loaded with sugar, oils, and fats for energy, easily the best fuel source available.

 

Nutrients and complex organic compounds were also not a problem. While human food didn’t provide everything, what it didn’t have I could make myself using micro units. Technically hunting for fresh meat was the best source of nutrients, but it definitely wasn’t safer. The rats were becoming more aggressive (Odd Summer’s influence?), and hunting humans was not an option. So far I had killed only five humans, all of them attacking me first, and yet the vigilante had still taken offense. What would happen if I started actively hunting humans I could only imagine.

 

My own ignorance was a problem. Most of my more dangerous fights were due to stumbling upon something dangerous I hadn’t known to watch out for. Hopefully having a phone to research with would help with that.

 

I needed more weapons, something I was hoping the bioweapon corpse would help me with, but which so far had proven to be a disappointment. There were a few interesting inorganic compounds (preservatives?), and I found some muscle tissue design that was more efficient than what I had been using so far...

Estimated .093% increased efficiency.

 

...but it wasn’t really much to speak of. I was trying to reserve judgement of this supposed bioweapon as it did have the markings of a trial run, too many redundant organs and lots of errors in the circulatory system, but so far I hadn’t learned anything I couldn’t have learned by just eating a Nessie. Maybe it was just a test of the mobile platform?

 

Bleh.

 

Beep

 

My mask beeped. I checked it and was immediately cheered up. While the bioweapon was a disappointment, Hellion’s Henchmen were constantly rewarding to work with. The displayed message was from Socket, telling me my suit was ready for testing and that I should get down to the garage “pronto.” I quickly went about dissolving the remnants of the rat/Nessie and getting my disguise back in order, then I climbed to the entrance.

 

I lifted the manhole cover carefully, it was still early morning but the sewer entrance was on the sidewalk, so I needed to make sure the area was relatively clear. Once I climbed out, and the manhole was back in place, I headed north following my phone’s map.

 

The sun was just cresting over the tops of the buildings. I had learned last night the full details of the sun and ‘space’. The sheer distances and scale involved… terrifying. But apparently it couldn’t hurt me, so I ignored it.

 

Despite the early hour the human traffic was already increasing rapidly, so I stuck to the sidewalks this time around. It seems there was indeed some logic to the nighttime curfew. Unlike last night I only saw one unusual occurrence; two police cars chasing a third civilian car down the road, this one on fire. The humans around me stopped to watch, but otherwise ignored it, so I paid it no further attention.

 

I did find a Puzzle’s Pretzel vendor though, so I was finally able to buy myself one. Seems they stuff them with a melted cheese substitute, which was quite tasty.

 

Once I got to Ashwood St. I headed towards the gym that Mikey used since it was closer than the jacket store base entrance, and placed my mask on to enter the elevator. This phone made finding a good route so much easier. Oddly though, once I was actually inside the elevator the GPS began acting weirdly. It showed me continuing to move north when I knew I should be traveling down Ashwood St. I’d ask Socket about it later.

 

The elevator dropped me off in the usual hallway and I made my way down to the garage, greeting some of the other minions who were already up. Interestingly I noticed that several minions had fallen asleep in the main room used for the dinner party yesterday, one among them being Pebbles. It was a clever idea to sleep in the base, it was definitely safer than most places, however I preferred my tunnel by Maggie’s diner. I liked the fact that I could seal both the top and bottom with the tinker made hatches, and that it opened into an empty alley. The tunnel leading to Nicole’s den had definitely felt more vulnerable to rest in.

 

I reached the garage and found Socket in his normal area. He was slumped over one of his worktables, and seemed rather tired.

 

“Good morning Socket.”

Socket raised his head from the table. “Tofu. Bout time lad! What were ye doing? Sniffin daisies?”

“I was-”

“Yes yes, here, try on the damn suit before I have a stroke,” and he threw a suit to me that seemed much like the ones I had tried yesterday. It was a dull black and gray, with a distinct spiraling pattern wrapping around the limbs.

 

I used one of the curtained off areas to try on the suit. It fit rather well over my normal disguise once I dissolved my fake clothing, but it seemed very similar to the suits I had tried before, one single piece that extended to my wrists and ankles, with only a strange toothless zipper to make entry easier. The full covering was a problem despite its stretchiness.

 

“Well come on lad. Test er out,” said Socket as I exited the curtain.

 

I was confused, but I did what he said and stretched out one of my arms. The suit was indeed flexible, but when my arm expanded too far the sleeve ripped down its length! No, wait, it split on purpose? Where once it was a tube like any other sleeve it had split along the pattern and now spiraled down my arm until it wrapped around my wrist . Then when I retracted my arm the suit went with it, and the split closed up leaving only an intact sleeve and spiral pattern behind. This was perfect! I could shift my limbs freely this way without exposing my vitals to gunfire!

 

“Ha, impressed ay’? You didn’t doubt ol’ Socket did you?”

“I’m sorry I doubted you Socket. This suit is perfect.”

“Bah, I’m just glad it’s done, maybe now I can get some shuteye.” He said it gruffly but he was grinning.

“You haven’t slept? Why?”

“Ah, just the ol’ tinker twitch. The material I use for the suits is good fer bullets, an’ fireproof o’ course, but it don’t stretch the way you need it to, had to redo the formula. An’ the damn sleeves I’ve never had to make that way before, twitch wouldn’t let it go before I solved it. The legs’ll split too by the by.”

 

I locked my leg bones into the new position I had developed while jumping buildings, then gave one a test kick. The suit leggings split to allow for the odd configuration, not hindering the force of the kick and just clinging to the leg until I snapped it back. Then when I folded the leg bones back into a normal disguise configuration the leggings sealed again. It was impossible to tell that they hadn’t always been a solid piece.

 

“Thank you Socket. I owe you one.”

“Bah, no ya don’t. It’s me job. Here, just pass Gregor’s suit to him when he comes down, I’m gonna go git me some shuteye,” and he passed me a folded suit that was quite a bit larger and thicker than mine before heading out a side passage.

 

I spent a while trying out the suit, it really was a great design. I also found out that the torso could split in several places around the sides and middle to allow for extra limbs, though not as drastically as the sleeves and leggings. Overall the suit was quite permeable to allow for my shifting, but while I was in my most human shape the suit would provide coverage for everything except my hands and feet, the neckline even met snugly with my mask.

 

I really liked it. Now I just needed to figure out how to never take it off. It wasn’t good to casually wear it around as it was quite obviously a powered minion suit. Maybe I could grow a layer of flesh to cover it up with fake clothes? Anchoring the skin layer properly would be somewhat awkward though… a hard hit might sever it off and make it dissolve... plus shifting it each time I needed to change was rather wasteful...maybe I should just buy some normal clothes?

 

I was pondering what to do when Gregor finally showed up. He was walking with Pebbles and two other minions in black masks I recognized as Fred and Brilla, members of team three. Pebbles was laughing and talking loudly to Gregor, while Fred and Brilla clutched their heads and flinched every time Pebble’s booming laugh came forth. After the third time Brilla elbowed him in the ribs, but it seemed to hurt her elbow more than it affected Pebbles. They made their way over to me.

 

“Morning Tofu,” said Gregor, “Have you seen Socket? Sent me a message saying I should come in and try my suit.”

“Good morning, Socket went to get some sleep, but he told me to give you this,” and I handed him the bundled suit.

“Ha, with Socket Christmas always comes early,” said Pebbles. “Hey Tofu, I was offering to show Gregor west Ashwood proper, you in?”

“In what?”

“For some fun, what else! We’ll have to do a little grunt work, but I guarantee you’ll get to test yer new toy there.”

 

Oh! A weapons test with allies around. That would be nice.

 

“I’ll go.”

“HA! That’s the spirit!” Fred and Brilla flinched, and Brilla slapped the back of his helmet this time. “Ach, not my fault you two can’t drink right.”

 

Gregor tested his suit while Pebbles went to clear the mission. For my part I continued testing my range of movement in the suit. I wanted to make sure I had all the splitting points memorized so I could thrust a knife through without poking or tearing a hole in my own suit. Once Gregor was done changing he also tested his suit with stretches that Adder had taught us, and we chatted about the company dinner from yesterday.

 

“Yeah, I wasn’t sure about this whole minion business at first, but I’m definitely eating a lot better,” said Gregor.

“Indeed, the Kobe beef was quite delicious.”

“Told ya.”

 

After a little while Pebbles came back, and waved us over to him.

 

“Alright, I got us cleared to go, but Sandra said if I’m taking you two then we might as well grab Ifrit and make it a real training run. We’ll wait for her and then take off.”

 

He led us to one of the larger vans, and while Pebbles told us an ‘anecdote’ of one time he went to W15, Ifrit showed up and walked quickly to reach us.

 

“Hey there princess, you ready to rumble?” said Pebbles.

Don’t call me that,” replied Ifrit in her rasping voice.

“Haha, they grow up so fast. Why, I remember when you were yea high and used to tell everyone you were definitely going to be a prin-” Pebbles was cut off when Ifrit held out her gauntleted hand and a small flame ignited in her palm.

“Hahaha alright alright,” laughed Pebbles, “everyone in the van, let’s blow this Popsicle stand.”

 

The four of us entered the van and Pebbles started the engine.

 

“Are the other minions not coming?” I asked.

“Nah, most of team three is too hungover, and the other teams have their own shit to work on. No worries, we’ll pick up Buzzer and Olson and make a real party out of it.”

 

This time we didn’t use the elevator, instead Pebbles drove us up a side tunnel that exited into an unassuming alleyway. I was starting to see why Central didn’t like modifications to the infrastructure. With how widespread these tunnels were they probably caused a lot of trouble for cops and heroes.

 

The first person we picked up was Olson, wearing his customary red shirt and jeans. He was standing casually on the sidewalk and wearing his mask when we picked him up, which I thought was odd.

 

“Isn’t it dangerous to just stand around with a mask on?”

“Nah, we’re like three blocks from Ashwood St.” replied Pebbles. “Besides, what they gonna do, arrest him for wearing a generic mask? Interesting headwear ain’t illegal.”

 

The next person we picked up was short and thin, and while he was also waiting on the sidewalk with his mask on, he was constantly checking his surroundings and looking over his shoulder nervously. Much more what I expected from a lone minion in the open by themself. We opened the side door to let him in.

 

“Hey Pebbles,” he said, “ So where’s this mixer taking place… wait a minute, aren’t you all the newbies? Oh no, I didn’t sign up for a damn traini-”

 

Pebbles just laughed as he grabbed who I assumed was Buzzer and hauled him into the van one-handed, sprawling him across the floor and gunning the engine before we even had the door closed. Buzzer eventually righted himself, cursing at Pebbles the whole time (or at least I think he was? I didn’t recognize any of the words), but after he calmed down he introduced himself.

 

“Name’s Buzzer. I do the info work for team three. You need an ear on the street you come to me.”

“Just don’t ask him where to find the next big score.”

“Shut your pie-hole Pebbles! Who asked you!”

 

Pebbles just laughed and gunned the engine again.

 

Pebbles drove the van along towards the ‘ground floor’ of Ashwood St. I had never seen this area before because I tended to avoid the ground floor areas near Ashwood, but apparently the area directly below Ashwood St. was a high speed road for cars and trucks. The pillars and anchor points for the above structures lined the sides of the three lane road, and only in rare places did natural sunlight make it through from the two floors above. Using this ‘freeway’ we made quick time heading west under Ashwood St.

 

Eventually Pebbles exited the freeway and drove to a ‘parking garage’, whereupon we exited the van as a group and headed for some stairs that would take us to the next level up. If my GPS was working properly then we were only a few blocks away from the border between E12 and E13. We reached a short, enclosed ‘concrete’ walkway, and continued across it to the level two area of Ashwood St.

 

And there things changed considerably.

 

So far the architecture had been rather uniform throughout E13, with slight variations depending on the area. North of Ashwood St. you could see lots of signs of patchwork repair and modification. South of Ashwood St. there were less modifications, and the uniform buildings were broken up by warehouse areas the farther south you went. On Ashwood St. level three was mostly stores, offices, and entertainment areas like the arcade or ‘theaters’.

 

But here? I couldn’t tell what anything was. Signs and lights (mostly neon) were absolutely everywhere, advertizing things I didn’t understand, and the architectural style seemed to change from building to building. Here a building had an outdoor area with torches and tables, there a building was encased in posters with no way to see in the windows. Most buildings had music and electronic noise similar to the arcade emanating from inside, and the streets were crowded with people.

 

“What is this place?” I asked.

“This my friends, is the Red Zone. Sandwiched between the freeway below and the family friendly tourist trap above, the Red Zone is E13’s own little highway to hell. Drugs, gambling, prostitution, illegal gizmos, if you want it the Red Zone’s got it,” explained Pebbles as he led us deeper into the level two area.

“It’s also the main reason Hellion’s Henchmen have been at war with the Espada,” interjected Buzzer.

“Ha, not anymore,” replied Pebbles.

“Although I’m guessing that’s why you dragged me out of bed this morning?”

“Yep, standard patrol of the Red Zone, we get to see the sights and get paid to boot, don’t that sound great?”

“Damnit Pebbles, dragging me out here for damned legwork, and after all the favors I do for you! You still haven’t paid me back for that time at the Cyborg Pand-”

 

Suddenly Pebbles grabbed Buzzer and dragged him ahead of the rest of us.

 

“Hey hey, I thought we agreed that was between us yeah? Come on, when we’re done I’ll introduce you to…” the rest was too muffled for me to make out over the sounds coming from the nearby establishments. Something about a girl named Amber? I was more interested in this faction war Buzzer mentioned. Eventually the two of them appeared to come to a resolution and Pebbles turned back to us.

 

“Alright, here’s the game plan. Now that the Espada have been dealt with we’re gonna do a patrol of the Red Zone, let the locals know Hellion’s Henchmen are out and about and it’s business as usual. Any troubles come along you have permission to give it the beatdown, if you think you can’t handle it call me with your masks, make sure you’re set to channel three shortwave. As for groups let’s see… we’ll go me n' Ifrit, Gregor and Olson, and Tofu/Buzzer. We’ll meet outside the RedFin in say two hours or so, you remember where that is Olson?”

“Kinda hard to forget.”

“HA! True that. Alright let’s get going. Try not to get lost boneheads.”

 

We split up after that, each pair going a separate way. As I walked with Buzzer he turned to me and said, “Alright, since I’m already out here you and me are gonna visit my contacts, see what the situation’s like. Now that the Espada have been dealt a death blow whatever's left will be scurrying for the sewers or looking for payback. Let’s make sure it’s the former.”

 

Buzzer proceeded to lead me to several different business establishments (and a few back alleys) to meet with different ‘informants’. Between stops I asked him questions about the feud between Hellion’s Henchmen and the Espada.

 

“So, this war with the Espada has been going on a long time now?” I asked.

“Yeah, they’ve been trying to muscle into E13 from E12 for about the past three years now,” answered Buzzer. “You see, the Red Zone is the main source of income for this sector, it’s what keeps E13 from being a complete poorhouse like the other outer sectors. Gambling, drugs, and prostitution are legal here, which draws in big money from the richer inner sectors. Hellion gets a cut from every business and villain that operates along Ashwood St. and in exchange Hellion’s Henchmen makes sure things stay relatively safe and stable.”

“And the Espada wanted to control this resource?”

“Exactly. But really they’re just the latest in a long line of chumps trying to muscle in without a clue. See the thing is controlling the Red Zone, and E13 with it, is a delicate balancing act. Too much crime, or the Red Zone leaking out of level two, and Central will bring down the hammer. Then the heroes starve out the Red Zone, and the sector dies as its lifeblood is cut off, even as Central touts their ‘lowest crime rate ever’ bullshit. Hellion’s been the only one with the power, smarts, and connections to wrangle the Red Zone and keep the heroes out of it at the same time, which is why outside groups trying to worm their way in always fail.”

“If that’s the case, why has this war lasted so long?”

“Simply put? Blind luck and purist bullshit. The last Odd Summer three years ago saw a lot of good powers pop up in E12, and the Espada scooped them up fast, becoming a real contender almost overnight. Odd Summer tends to redraw lines that way. Then when they had a firm grasp on E12 they set their sights on the only real source of profit around, the Red Zone. Thing is Hellion isn’t just any ol’ villain. Renting minions to other villains means you have big clients and big connections, the Espada were doomed from the start even if they didn’t know it. Only reason they lasted this long is because some of their leadership got the bright idea to use purist propaganda to fuel recruitment, and badda-bing badda-boom, a big swath of idiot cannon fodder to keep between them and Hellion’s crosshairs. For all the good it did them in the end.”

“I see. I hadn’t realized these faction wars would get so complicated.”

“Heh, no worries. You came in at a good time, Hellion blew up most of their leadership Sunday night, so now all that’s left is the unpowered fodder. We’ll mop up any too dumb to scurry away and then it’s back to business as usual until the next chumps try to take a swing.”

 

Buzzer and I continued to visit his contacts until one of them, a ‘working girl’, gave him what he seemed to think was a good lead, and we headed towards the “Redfin” to meet up with the others. When we arrived Pebbles and Ifrit were already standing outside what appeared to be a restaurant, with the symbols “RedFin” on display in unmissable neon lights over the doorway.

 

Maybe we’d be able to stop to eat?

 

Buzzer started talking to Pebbles about the information he found, but admittedly I was more concerned with trying to see what kind of food was served inside the restaurant. Which was probably why I was the first to see the strange creature that crashed through the front window and land on the sidewalk outside, eliciting screams from the surrounding pedestrians. It had a strange bulbous body with two large eyes, and multiple tentacles lined with suction cups flailed to get purchase and keep it from flopping over.

 

Estimated threat: medium.

 

“What’s that?” I asked.

 

Pebbles sighed before saying, “Probably the lunch special. Ifrit would you handle this? I need to talk to an idiot sushi chef about keeping live ingredients during Odd Summer,” and he casually approached the restaurant entrance and entered.

 

Ifrit didn’t say anything, simply stepping forward and extending a gauntleted hand. Then from her hand a small ball of flame shot out and swiftly impacted the soft body of the ‘lunch special’, boring a hole into it right between its eyes.

 

The creature twitched strangely for several moments. Then it exploded, a small fireball propelling parts of it every which way and spattering against some civilians who had been too stupid to vacate the area. The result looked a little like my experiments with the brains.

 

One charred tentacle piece landed near my feet, so I picked it up and opened the clasps that let me eat with my mask on.

 

It was pretty good.

 

...

 

I think it needs sauce though.

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