Taste buds are pretty amazing. Consider the two donuts I’m holding. In my right hand, a donut with ‘chocolate’ glaze. In my left hand, a donut with ‘maple’ glaze. If I were to simply absorb the two donuts, their value as materials would be nearly identical. But, if I eat them with a human mouth, while using taste buds, and filter the resulting data through a human brain, suddenly eating either donut becomes an entirely different experience. The chocolate donut had a slightly bitter quality to it that was only enhanced by the sugar, and maple wound up being just sweet, but it was a different sweetness. Tangy maybe? More research had to be done, maybe humans had a better word for it. Finishing my donuts, I scanned the box for the next one I wanted to try.
“What’s this one?” I asked the police minion.
I grabbed it. The little pale flakes looked like sugar at first, but they actually turned out to be some kind of organic material without much flavor (the ‘coconut’, I presumed). I guess they were more for texture? Sometimes texture was important, although I think humans valued it more than I did.
“Isn’t it really neat how they are all donuts, but they all taste different?”
He sighed. “I suppose I never really thought about it before.”
Hmm, I believe the emotion the police minion is expressing is melancholy? Depression? I had been answering what questions I could, but admittedly the only thing I told him was useless personal information, and not information about Hellion’s Henchmen like he probably wanted. I almost felt bad, he had been rather polite and friendly given I was suspected of being a member of an opposing faction (not to mention giving me a box of donuts).
“Want a donut?” and I offered the box to him.
For the next few minutes, I went about eating and cataloguing the donuts. When I was nearly done, the door to the room opened, revealing Sandra, and another police minion who gestured for the one who had been questioning me to follow. Sandra entered the room and the police left, closing the door behind them.
“Hello Sandra. What are you doing here?”
“Getting you boneheads out of trouble. Especially you. You do realize this is the second time in three days where you’ve decided to play hero? Maybe we should stick you in the sidekick program hmm?"
Ack, why did people keep recommending sidekick work to me?
“Please don’t stick me in the sidekick program…”
She chuckled, “Tofu I’m kidding. But I am being serious about being a bit more careful. That trick you pulled with Magenta was fine, but fighting real villains like Sanguine is above your pay grade. Don’t put yourself in that kind of danger if you can help it.”
“Alright Sandra. I wasn’t trying to get into danger, things just sort of turned out that way.”
“As long as you’re trying. Now, how about you give me the full details?”
For the next few minutes I relayed my version of events, Sandra asking for clarification now and then. When I got to the part where I tunneled through the floor and killed the two guards, she frowned a bit, but when I asked about it she just said to continue. I was just getting to the part where the heroes showed up when there was a knock at the door, and the police minion who had been asking me questions walked in with what looked like a very large smartphone.
“Here’s what you requested," he said, somewhat grudgingly, and handed the device to Sandra. She thanked him and took it, before prompting him to leave. Before he did, he looked at me and said, “Remember what I said kid. Get out while you still can.” Then he turned to Sandra and said, “And if you care at all about your ‘client’ you’ll tell him the same thing.”
“Officer I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Tch, yeah right. If Hellion has to resort to pulling kids off the street for henchmen, then her days are numbered. I’d wash my hands of it if I were you. If you even can.” Then the officer left, slamming the door behind him.
Sandra quirked an eyebrow in my direction.
“What was that about?”
“Um, he said it was too dangerous being a minion, and that I should join the sidekick program?”
Sandra snorted, “Well, if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black.”
I didn’t know what that meant. I wish they hadn’t taken my phone.
“Well, let’s see what the damage looks like,” she said, and opened the folder the officer had given her. She scanned the words displayed on the device she held, and the farther she read, the more she frowned.
“Tofu, why did you answer so many questions?”
“He said if I did I could have donuts.”
“Tofu, didn’t I just pay you a large cash advance? You could buy dozens of donuts.”
“Did you spend it all already?”
“...not all of it.”
Between Maggie’s, the arcade, the new phone, rebuilding mass due to all the trouble I had returning Nicole’s phone, and the amazing amount of street vendors, I had gone through the thousand dollars much faster than I had anticipated. I did make sure to keep enough for a few tofu burgers at Maggie’s though.
“You aren’t spending it on drugs or something are you?” asked Sandra. I noticed a slightly angry tone in her voice.
“No? I spent it mostly on food. I have a high metabolism.”
She frowned at my answer before asking, “You really spent it all on food?”
“Yes, and a phone… and a few rounds of Gribblin’s n’ Ghouls at the arcade.”
She rolled her eyes, “And I assume by high metabolism you just mean you need to eat enough to fuel your shapeshifting?”
“Just making sure. I might need to give you a pamphlet on money management. Now, in the future I will warn you not to answer personal questions even with fake answers like these. You never know what they might glean from them,” and then she let out a small chuckle, “I can see why he thought you were homeless though. Putting ‘tunnels’ as your residence. If you’re going to lie you need to make it believable.”
I didn’t have anything to say about that.
And she noticed, her eyes narrowing. Ack. She was another perceptive human like Mikey.
“Tofu… are you homeless?”
“I have a place to stay…”
“Is it a tunnel?!”
She placed a hand over her eyes and rubbed her temples.
“Tofu, why didn’t you bring this up during your job interview? We went over employee housing options didn’t we?”
“I didn’t think it was important.”
“How could you not... alright, when we get back you and me are going to discuss employee housing.”
“But I don’t really need-”
After that Sandra gave me a lecture on dealing with the police, with a few mentions on how to use money more wisely thrown in. Apparently I should use a ‘grocery store’, and not just buy from vendors? I’d need my phone back to look up what a grocery was. When she finished she said, “I’ll be taking you and Ifrit back with me in a bit, the police can’t hold you as long as the others due to your age. I just need to speak with a few more people and then we can go. Don’t talk to any police.”
“Um, will I get my stuff back?’
“Yes, but they are confiscating the gun parts. That’s actually another thing we need to go over. You’re lucky they were just parts, and not an actual gun. The laws about carrying a gun are quite strict.”
“But Imp uses guns?”
“And he accepts the risks of being caught with them. We’ll go over this in detail later. For now I have to make sure everyone gets out without a strike on their record.”
Sandra left, and I was forced to wait for over an hour before anyone came to get me. I really wish they hadn’t taken my phone.
Eventually a police minion came to get me, and led me to where Sandra was. Ifrit was already with her. Surprisingly they did give my stuff back, minus the gun parts, although Ifrit warned me not to turn my phone on until Socket had checked it over. Ifrit and I had to fill out some paperwork, which Sandra guided us through, and then we followed Sandra out of the building.
Just like that.
“This seems rather strange. They just let us leave?”
“Well, after some coaxing from yours truly,” replied Sandra, “They wouldn’t have been able to keep you anyways though, I just sped things along. The heroes messed up by picking you up over in E13, but then bringing you to E12. If you had committed a crime they would have been fine, but of course, you did no such thing.” At this she winked at the two of us.
Sandra led us to a shiny, black, four-door car. She clicked a small device she pulled from a pocket, and the car responded with a strange chirping noise before the doors all clicked. I followed Ifrit’s example and sat in one of the back seats; the front passenger seat was taken up with boxes of paper files. Once we were all buckled in Sandra started the car, and drove us out of the parking lot and in the direction of Ashwood St.
While Sandra drove she made small talk, mostly mumbling about district regulations. But she did mention Sanguine, and how it was a shame that he survived the culling of the Espada’s leaders. Apparently Sanguine was one of the leaders who might be able to repair the broken faction. I wasn’t pleased to learn that. I didn’t want them to reach a level where they could again drain resources from Hellion’s Henchmen. They were supposed to drain resources from other threatening factions, not mine.
“I’m sorry Sandra,” said Ifrit suddenly, in her raspy voice.
“Hmm? Why’s that hun?”
“...I couldn’t get Sanguine,” replied Ifrit.
Sandra snorted, “Hun, people have been trying to get Sanguine for a long time, he’s a survivor.”
“It’s not that, I…” she hesitated and glanced in my direction, then apparently made up her mind to keep speaking, “I had the shot. I just... couldn’t…”
“Ohhh, I see. Don’t feel bad about that. It’s not supposed to be easy.”
“Tofu did it fine with the guards.”
I wasn’t sure what Sandra was talking about. Sanguine obviously wasn’t a minor threat that could be released for later, and if Ifrit had killed him when she had the chance it would have made rescuing Jasper a lot easier. Maybe she needed more practice with proper threat assessment? Still, that was a rather critical error in judgement. How could she make such an obvious mistake?
“Yes, well, that’s not the only skill that counts,” said Sandra, “Tofu has things he’s good at, and you have things you’re good at. Like using common sense when being interrogated by police, isn’t that right Tofu? It’s a good thing I came to check and see how things were going.”
Ack. Touché I guess.
“So, is that why you came yourself? My mom didn’t ask you to bail me out?” asked Ifrit.
“Is that what you thought? No hun, I just needed to make sure things went smooth since the circumstances were iffy and most of you are new to this. She’s been keeping to her promise. I’m making sure of it,” at this Sandra winked at Ifrit.
For the rest of the drive Ifrit was much more talkative.
Sandra actually drove to a parking garage instead of one of the vehicle access tunnels. Then she took an elevator up to the third level of Ashwood St, while Ifrit and I took a secret elevator to the base. I had instructions to store my gear and meet Sandra in her office for the “housing arrangements.”
I’d never had gear to store before, so Ifrit showed me where the locker rooms were (divided into male and female areas), as well as telling me the procedure to request suit repairs. I was very glad that suit repairs were apparently commonplace. From what I had seen of what Socket did for Hellion’s Henchmen I doubted he had the time to individually repair every single suit, and I had been worried that getting it repaired would take a long time.
I removed my suit in one of the sectioned off changing cubicles, then I adjusted my disguise. Then I stored the suit in an empty locker, input my name onto the security pad, and pressed the button that would mark the locker for suit repairs. I was back to just my mask and my normal disguise of baggy clothes.
Leaving the locker room, I went in search of Socket to get my phone checked out. He wasn’t available, but another one of the minions that worked in the garage was able to help me check the phone, placing it in one of the multitude of devices that littered the garage to get 'scanned'. He didn’t find anything, and I thanked him for helping before heading to Sandra’s office. I was glad my phone wasn’t compromised. I had a long list of words to search from my time at the police station. A ‘grocery’ turned out to be a vendor dedicated to food, so I was looking forward to that, but I might need more clarification on what Sandra meant by ‘strike’. My searches for “strikes on records” were only turning up accounts of different types of training exercises, baseball and bowling featuring predominantly among the results.
I headed to the elevators up to Ashwood St. proper, and put away my mask before I exited into the fake clothing store. Viewing the bulky winter clothes, I considered a few of them for my disguise, but discarded the idea. They would fit over the minion suit, but they would stand out too much in the summer weather. Maybe Sandra could direct me to a store.
I headed to Sandra’s office at 512, and entered to find Viper at her normal spot. She waved me into Sandra’s open office. Inside Sandra was seated at her desk, and she was working on several stacks of paper arranged around her.
“There you are Tofu, please sit. I’ve also got some information about the next job I might as well go over with you.”
She described the job and who it would be with. I didn’t recognize the name, a “Trebla the Terrific,” but a bank was a money storage facility if my searches were accurate. After we finished going over the job details we then began discussing a living space for myself. I didn’t have any problem with the location, as I doubted I would actually spend time there. But when the price was mentioned I balked.
“Do I really need a place? I’m fine with my tunnel.”
“Tofu, I won’t have an employee living on the street. Especially not an eighteen year old. Five hundred a month is a very reasonable price. You’ll just have to learn not to waste your money on snacks.”
“But five hundred is almost fifty tofu burgers!”
“It’s a lot more than just fifty burgers. If you make them yourself you’ll get a lot more out of it.”
She rolled her eyes and muttered something about super villain parenting, “Yes! But you’ll need somewhere to cook and store ingredients. Honestly, I can’t believe I’m having this much trouble convincing someone to not be homeless.”
“I TOLD YOU TEENS ARE TROUBLE!” yelled Viper from the other room.
“Quiet you!” Sandra yelled back. Then she turned to me, “Anyways, if you’re that picky about money I have some other work you can do as well. It’s tedious non-powered work, but there’s no real risk involved.”
“I’m fine with that.”
“Alright, as for the apartment just try it out for a bit. If it’s really a problem we’ll work something out. Now, where did I put those pamphlets.”
She went through stacks of paper and handed me a few documents to look over and sign, as well as a few ‘pamphlets’ about ‘budgeting’. While I went through the papers she continued doing her work, and a few times other humans who I assumed to be minions stepped in to ask her about ‘payroll’, or about specific jobs from clients. Even after I finished my paperwork she was still busy, and she asked me to wait while she made a phone call.
“Hey Cindy, this is Sandra, are you still at the base? Wonderful, I was wondering if you could do me a favor. I’m sitting here with Tofu, and he needs to be shown the employee housing, but I’m getting swamped in. Would you be alright with showing him around?... You’re sure? Thank you so much hun. I appreciate it,” she hung up and turned to me.
“Cindy will be here in a bit, she also lives in one of the employee apartments, so she can give you the tour. Here’s your key and the address,” and she handed a small flat rectangle to me with a number printed on it, as well as a piece of paper with the street address.
I waited in the front lobby with Viper. She ignored me as usual, but I noticed she was playing a game on her phone, one I didn’t recognize.
“What game is that?”
She glanced up at me before rolling her eyes and going back to her game.
“It’s Tetris Bash.”
“Oh… do you play Gribblin Tamer?”
“Yeah,” she didn’t look up from her game.
“I’ve gotten to level four.”
She snorted, “Level ninety eight. Get good scrub.”
I tried to get her to tell me how she did it, but she steadfastly refused. It was when I was trying to pester her into telling me what a purple Gribblin needed for level five, that another human approached and addressed me.
This one was young and female, with short, curly-brown hair, and wearing jeans, a pink shirt with stylized words on it, a black hoodie, and a pair of black hand coverings that looked like they were made of a thin, soft material. I wouldn’t have recognized her, but her raspy voice was an instant identifier.
“Hey. You’re Tofu right? Sandra wanted me to show you the apartments?”
“Hello Ifrit. Yes, she did.”
“Out of mask it’s Cindy. What do I call you?”
“Just Tofu is fine.”
“Kay. This way.”
She waved her hand in a “follow” motion and began walking to the door. I made to follow her, but Lily’s (she wasn’t wearing her mask either) clawed hand was suddenly reaching over the desk and grabbing my shoulder, preventing me from walking away. She leaned in and began to whisper.
“Hey, you’ve been fitting in pretty well, and Sandra vouches for you. But just in case: cause Cindy any grief, and I’ll be first in line to gut you,” Then she patted my shoulder and gave me a small shove in Cindy’s direction.
I wonder what that was about?
Cindy led me a few blocks away and out over some of the third level bridges between buildings. Over the horizon the sun was setting (the police station had taken a lot of time), and the tall buildings and bridges created an interesting pattern of shadows.
We walked in silence, and it was about halfway to our destination that I realized what was off about Cindy. She was a mutant. It wasn’t readily apparent, at first glance she appeared completely normal, but there were small things that gave it away. One of which was a second set of translucent eyelids that closed shut horizontally when she blinked, and another was when the wind shifted, and I detected trace amounts of a chemical that would act as a flame-retardant mixed into her sweat. I had assumed that her ability to throw fireballs was a power, but apparently it was a product of mutavus. That must be why Viper warned me off, others must have targeted Cindy for her rare and valuable mutation.
Bleh. Viper needn't have threatened me. I would love to know how Cindy’s biology worked, but I wasn’t suicidal. I had heard enough to piece together that Cindy was Hellion’s offspring, and I knew how protective humans could be of each other. If a vigilante took offense at killing random muggers, then Hellion would probably make me a ‘barbecue’ if I so much as injured Cindy. I was almost insulted that Viper would think me so stupid.
We arrived at a tall apartment building. Several bridges extended to its third level, and the ground level wasn’t visible past the sections of the second level around the building. On the second level I noted a marked off rectangular area next to the building, where several humans were involved in a training exercise involving a ball and two metallic hoops. A lot of them had black masks on.
“Is that baseball?” I asked and pointed.
She arched an eyebrow at me, “That’s basketball dude.”
“Oh, are strikes good or bad in that one?”
She chuckled, “You can ask to join in if you want to learn. Most of the people in this building work for Hellion, or they don’t mind if you do.”
She lead me to the third level entrance, and showed me how to use the ‘key card’ on the door lock. Inside it seemed like a standard apartment building layout, and she led me to my room on the second floor.
We passed quite a few people on the way, and Cindy greeted them all by name, introducing them to me briefly. I was impressed when she even got the names right of two young, brown-scaled mutants, who as far as I could tell were identical down to their ‘DNA’. Maybe she had practice telling them apart, she seemed quite friendly with them.
We reached the apartment that matched the number on my keycard, and this time I opened it with the keycard myself to make sure I had it right. Then Cindy turned to me.
“It’s kinda small, but it has a kitchen corner and its own toilet. There’s a grocery down the block on the second level, and if you head for the ground level you’ll want to wear your mask so people don’t bother you. Oh, and don’t rob any of the stores near here please. They pay their dues to Hellion.”
“Okay. Thank you for showing me the way Cindy.”
“No problem, and welcome to the team,” then she reached a gloved hand out in a customary human greeting. I shook it, and she nodded before heading off (I guess handshakes work for goodbyes too?).
I entered the apartment to explore. Inside it was pretty much what she had said. Two small rooms, one with a sectioned off corner and several appliances I assumed made it the kitchen, and a second room with a tiny attached toilet room. Surprisingly the second room contained a small ‘bed’, the only furniture I had seen in the otherwise empty apartment. I guess humans considered a rectangular sleeping area to be critical enough that it was provided. It explains why Sandra pushed so hard for me to have a ‘home’ even if it was a waste of money. Sigh, at least there was a window in both rooms, which meant I had multiple exits in an emergency. This grocery idea better be worth it.
I left the apartment in search of the grocery. I found it. And yes. It was very much worth it. So, so worth it. Sandra was right and I was wrong. And I knew what I had to do.
Sanguine was pissed. For the past two hours he had paced the small warehouse office he had commandeered, shuffling slowly back and forth with the use of his cane. Several minions had come in and out to receive orders or tasks, but mostly they just received an insult and were told to get out. Or if they really pressed their luck they would receive an injury and a small bloodletting. Normally Sanguine was a bit more composed, but the disastrous events of the past few days had sapped the last of his patience.
The Espada were done. The writing was on the wall. Sanguine had been through failures like this before, and recognized the signs. It was only unfortunate that this one was coming so late in his life. He was still healthy, his power ensured it, but he was ninety five now. The health benefits of controlling his own blood had propped him up well, but age still came to him. He had what, another decade? Two if he pushed it? In anger he swiped his cane across the only desk in the room, throwing a lonely ceramic coffee mug onto the floor, where it shattered. The minion brave enough to poke his head in at the noise received the task of cleaning the pieces.
A decade. Two maybe. It would have to be enough. Sanguine had long ago given up the idea of enjoying the fruits of his labor. No, with his last few years revenge on that Hellion bitch would have to be enough. Her and everyone else who had stood in his way over the years. The Espada had merely been the latest in a long line of tools aimed at his enemies. The limitations of Sanguine’s power and age meant he had often been the behind the scenes driving force of whatever organization he attached to. He had rebuilt before, he could do it again.
He might need to try a new sector though. E12’s supply of purist idiots had dwindled, and the ones left were either fed up with the Espada, or smart enough to keep their heads down. Maybe he should head to NE12? Try to galvanize the suburbanites into fearing the other sectors’ poor population moving into their relatively quiet suburbs? Poor vs slightly poorer never took too long to set up…
On the other hand, enough of the lower rank and file had survived to maybe get the ball rolling on another anti-mutie movement. No point in throwing away a resource this late in the game if he could help it. He just needed a good location. Maybe go all the way to E10? Close enough they knew about the Espada’s “trials” vs the mutants, but far enough they hadn’t been too negatively affected by the Espada’s methods? He would need a new name for the group though, or the capes would be on it too quickly. Another vaguely crusade-ish sounding word maybe. In Spanish of course, this was still California, it needed to seem sympathetic to the local roots.
He sat down in a plush office chair to think, placing his cane to the side and picking up a small remote. There was an old flat screen t.v. mounted on the wall which he turned on to the news, more for the ambient noise than anything else, and thought over plans on how to recover from this latest disaster. Eventually he began to doze, the hour was late.
A noise woke him up. A soft thump. Had he knocked his cane over? Dropped the remote? No and no. And it was much later now, the minions wouldn’t be bothering him. They weren’t that stupid.
Something was wrong. He bit his cheek, the blood flowing into his mouth incredibly fast given the insignificant wound. Sanguine got up faster than one would expect from someone his age, and immediately he noticed the air vent grate lying on the floor.
He looked up.
And flinched back as the large humanoid figure landed nearly on top of him, knocking him to the floor. It was on him in a second, grappling him while taking care to not use so much force that it punctured his skin, trying to cover his mouth and nose to strangle him. Shit. Whoever it was knew about his power. Too bad for them he was too experienced to be caught by such a gambit.
He spat, the pooled blood in his mouth shooting forward like a shotgun blast. Droplets and ribbons of blood cut into the shadowed face of his attacker, and then he pulled expecting the torrent of blood that would leave his attacker a husk.
Nothing came of it. Oh, liquid flowed, but it wasn’t blood, and Sanguine’s power couldn’t find purchase on it. Even the blood he had spat didn’t return in full. Whatever liquid fueled the attacker had diluted or destroyed most of it.
Suddenly both combatants changed tactics. Sanguine spat more blood at his opponent’s head, the attacker inserted claws into Sanguine’s eye sockets, and for a brief moment they raced for who could destroy the other's brain faster.
Sanguine lost. Unsurprising given the attacker’s brain was no longer located in its head.
The attacker tore into the body of Sanguine and absorbed the remains, making sure that there would be no regeneration, no last second powered recovery. There was soon no trace that Sanguine had ever been in the office at all, and the assassin would have left with none being the wiser. But an Espada minion unfortunately poked her head in.
“Hey boss, you up? Frank made it ba- HOLY SHIT!”
The assassin rushed the minion, but she was fast enough to slam the door and go running down the hall yelling a warning. The attacker slumped. So much for stealth. Maybe it could still get out through the air vent? But it wouldn’t be good to get caught in a narrow vent though...
The decision was made for it when multiple minions burst through the door. The leader of the pack Frankie himself.
“Who the fuck are you!? Where’s Sanguine!?” yelled Frankie.
The attacker’s face was warped from all the shifting and healing that had occured. Nevertheless, the tilt of its head and what features remained clearly indicated its surprise. Then it spoke in a surprisingly clear voice.
“Frankie? Why are you here? Sanguine threw you away, I thought you’d at least be smart enough to cause trouble somewhere else. That’s strike three.”
Frankie’s face colored in anger and confusion, “Wha- who the hell you think you are? Answer the damn question!”
“The subway, my suit, and now you’re in my way. That’s three strikes.”
“What? The hell you talking about?”
“Three strikes Frankie. You’re out.”