“What’s scenario fourteen B?” asked Ifrit.
“I’m not sure, it wasn’t in the packet, and he didn’t explain. Scenario fourteen is ‘an encounter with an unknown superhero’ though, so I think fourteen B must be similar. At least he mentioned there would be two of ‘them’, so I guess we will encounter two people.”
“Makes sense. It’s a very Trebla thing to do.”
“Trebla likes dramatic fights, and he likes them to be fair.”
“But doesn’t that reduce our chances of successfully kidnapping the branch manager?”
“I doubt he really cares about that. Trebla doesn’t commit crime to earn money Tofu. He gets money to commit villainy.”
Ifrit and I were running up the stairs to the tenth floor, and we were discussing how to handle the situation. The original plan had called for Buzzer, Pebbles, and Maz to clear out the safe in the branch manager’s office, and move any of the bank employees to the first floor with the other hostages. A few minutes after Trebla’s fight started outside the bank, Buzzer’s communications had gone silent. Only a few minions had gone to the top three floors, and they hadn’t needed as much direction from Buzzer, so the problem had gone unnoticed at first. Normally a minion disappearing without a trace was a big deal, as there were many different (and dangerous) ways that something could go wrong, such as mutant animals, or vigilantes. Our plan was to go in as stealthily as possible, with me scouting ahead and Ifrit guarding our rear. I was apprehensive, but we had received a message from Lia that the cameras were set up, and at the very least there wasn’t a giant triggered monster waiting for us.
Requests to use the cameras ourselves were, discouragingly, ignored.
The stairwell outside of the tenth floor was empty, with no sign of Maz who should have been on lookout. I shifted my arm and leg joints to a better position, and slowly crawled through the door leading into the office space, keeping my body in a lower, harder to hit profile. The stairwell opened into the corner intersection of two hallways, and I confirmed both were clear before moving down the left one that led to the branch manager’s office. Ifrit followed behind me and covered the intersection, while I checked the first two doors (small empty offices). Then the hall turned, leading deeper into the building, and I extended a small eye tendril around the corner.
[Tofu: Contact. At the end of this hall it opens up and there is a desk. There’s an organism on the desk: green, thin body that splits at multiple points, each split has a flat green blade extended from it. Is this something heroes use? Some kind of sentry?]
[Ifrit: It might be a part of someone's power, but I don’t recognize that one. How big is it? Any other features?]
[Tofu: About two feet tall, limb blades look like they have a reach of a foot and a half, and it’s sitting in a ceramic bowl, not moving.]
[Ifrit: Wait, ceramic bowl?]
She moved up the hallway and quickly looked around the corner. Then she smacked my shoulder.
[Ifrit: Tofu, stop fooling around.]
[Tofu: What? Do you know what it is?]
[Tofu: I’ve never seen one before...]
[Ifrit: ...it’s a potted plant.]
[Tofu: Is it dangerous?]
[Ifrit: What? No! Of course not.]
[Tofu: Are you sure?]
[Ifrit: Just go!]
I moved down the hallway and checked the room. It was a lot like the room where Lily worked, with the one desk and only one chair behind it. Then I briefly poked at the potted plant. It was feeble, and what I had thought were blades weren’t even sharp. This was where fruit came from? I had expected more…thorns, fast acting acids, something to kill prey with and justify the expense of costly fruit lures. But this one just sort of sat there, embedded in some soft dirt, not moving. Did it have no survival instincts whatsoever? Or maybe it was just feigning innocuousness. I gave it space, and decided to do more in-depth research on plants later. I… may have been too distracted by fruit the last time, and missed a few small details.
The room had two doors on either side of the desk. I moved to the right one, before cracking it open slowly and quietly. It opened into a wide open ‘conference’ room, with a long, solid, rectangular (of course) table, around which many padded chairs were placed. There were two doors on the right wall, three on the longer back wall, and the room extended all the way to the side of the building, where a floor to ceiling window made up the entire left wall of the room. It was in front of this window that two figures stood, looking out into the streets and talking quietly.
[Tofu: Contact. Two people facing the window. One is wearing what looks like a white biker suit and helmet, with multicolor piping along the suit seams, and is about our height. The other’s costume looks like gray police armor, except the arms and legs have been removed, and no shoes. About five-foot-ten if I’m measuring right. Both of them have white armbands with the Fortress City emblem on them, does that mean something?]
[Ifrit: That means they’re sidekicks, but I don’t recognize them, they must be new.]
[Tofu: How dangerous are they?]
[Ifrit: They shouldn’t be. Central wouldn’t let them out in the field unless they could control their powers around civilians. They’ll have had that drilled into them.]
[Tofu: So they’ve received training.]
[Ifrit: Anywhere from a week to a month. But if they just got clearance for field work we’ve got more experience than them, I guarantee it.]
[Tofu: I see. In that case I think I can sneak up on them and stab them.]
[Ifrit: Tofu, you can’t just kill them.]
[Tofu: Don’t worry, Trebla already told me not to. I’ll just stab their spines so they can’t fight.]
[Ifrit: That’s not any better! Look, let’s just try to find the branch manager like Trebla wanted. We take them hostage and the sidekicks won’t be able to do anything.]
Ah, that was a good idea. Engaging two unknown powersets wasn’t really something I wanted to do anyways.
[Tofu: Alright. I’ll try to find the manager.]
I extended an eye tendril farther into the room to get a better angle. The large table and thick padded chairs blocked most of my vision from my spot near the floor, but as far as I could tell the sidekicks were the only people in the room. It was likely the manager was in one of the five rooms attached to this one, the blueprints for the building had them labeled as offices.
I slipped through the door and quickly ducked behind the end of the table, being careful to be as quiet as possible while I did so. The first door was on the right wall, and I slipped an eye tendril under quickly. It was dark, and I didn’t see more than a desk and chairs. From my experience humans rarely stood in unlit rooms, so I tried the next one, but unfortunately it was also dark and empty. Sigh. That meant the only other rooms to check were on the back wall. The table wouldn’t give me good cover at that angle, if they looked back they’d see me.
I decided to crawl under the table and get as close as possible to the doors before leaving cover, but as I drew closer, I discovered another objective that had been obscured by all the padded chairs.
[Tofu: I’ve found the missing minions. Buzzer, Pebbles, and Maz are leaned up against the back wall of the room, between the middle and far left door. They all have their wrists and ankles restrained with handcuffs, but I don’t see any injuries.]
[Ifrit: Can you free them?]
[Tofu: I’ll try.]
I made my way towards them under the table. When I was close enough, I checked to make sure the sidekicks hadn’t noticed me, then I moved forward to help the the other minions escape. Immediately I knew something else was wrong.
[Tofu: Hey Ifrit? I think they’ve been incapacitated somehow. None of them are moving.]
[Ifrit: Even Pebbles?]
Which was worrisome. Pebbles was supposedly resistant to getting knocked unconscious. Maybe they were affected by a power?
[Ifrit: Damnit. Um… do you think you can carry them out without the sidekicks noticing?]
[Tofu: Pebbles is too bulky, but maybe Buzzer or Maz? It’s kinda risky though. Didn’t you say we should get the branch manager first?]
[Ifrit: Well yeah, but, I mean, there’s no guarantee we find them, a-and Maz has kids waiting at home!]
[Tofu: How is that relevant?]
[Ifrit: Look just, just get Maz! If they notice I’ll throw a fireball at them. Trebla wants us to fight them anyways.]
[Ifrit: Just grab her!]
[Tofu: Alright, alright.]
I didn’t really agree with this change of plans, but she had a point in that we weren’t guaranteed to find a hostage we could use. It was indeed possible that they had already been evacuated after all. I started to shift a few limbs around, when suddenly I heard a voice in the room. I was startled for a second, but it was just the sidekicks talking to each other again.
“What happens if Trebla wins? Do we, like, go down there?” asked the one with the cut-off arm and leg coverings. It was male, and sounded young.
“He won’t. What’s wrong Morph, you scared?” replied the other, a female, also young. Both of them might have been around Ifrit or Mikey’s age.
“Kinda, he’s been fighting multiple heroes without breaking a sweat. Don’t know about you, but I only finished training like a week ago.”
“He’s a complete clown. They won’t lose.”
“If you say so Poena.”
Hm, so they were definitely new then. Hopefully that would work in our favor.
I made sure the sidekicks were still watching the fight outside, then slunk over to Maz. I moved very slowly to avoid making a sound, and very carefully slipped an arm under her so I could transfer her to my back. A few tendrils to secure her, and I was on my way back under the table. It was a good thing that Maz was on the smaller side of the human spectrum, and that her mutation hadn’t caused her to develop any bony protrusions, or other features that might snag or clunk against the table and chairs. In fact, the only way you could tell she was a mutant while in costume was the brown scales that covered her hands. Maybe she was related to the twin mutant kids from back in my apartment building? The scales matched at least.
I reached the door without complications, and shuttled Maz through to the other side. Ifrit took her, and proceeded to try and wake her. Maz groaned softly, which was encouraging, but didn’t wake up. I removed the cuffs on her legs so she could walk if she woke, but left the handcuffs (easier to carry if she didn’t). Sneaking a peek through the cracked door revealed the sidekicks hadn’t moved from their spot at the window, so I slipped back out and under the table.
[Tofu: That was easier than I anticipated. It might be possible to get the other two within the time constraints.]
[Ifrit: Do it.]
I moved back to Buzzer and Pebbles. Pebbles would have to be last, he wasn’t exactly bulky, but he was solid. I’d need to-
The leftmost door on the back wall, the one closest to the window and sidekicks, swung inward, and a woman in a business suit stepped out.
The branch manager.
“Excuse me, but has there been any update on...”
The sidekicks looked over to her, the manager looked over to me, and I made a snap decision. Muscles in my legs tensed, and I leapt, extending my arms towards the manager as I did so. If I could take her hostage-
I was shoved into the wall, by the extended arms of Morph! Both his arms and legs had stretched in order to reach me in time. In the next moment his left arm wrapped around both of mine like a tentacle, and his right hand grew in size before making a fist and smashing into my torso. The manager screamed and retreated back into the office, slamming the door behind her.
Morph was a shapeshifter! I kicked at his leg with my own. Instantly his leg hardened into what looked like rock, and it felt like I kicked a wall. Okay. So he could change size, shape, and composition of his limbs near instantaneously.
I grabbed his hardened leg with my foot, sinking traction claws into the stone-like material. Then I kicked my other foot into his torso, and latched onto his body armor. Suddenly he was supporting my weight entirely by himself, and I pulled him off his feet. Skill and technique were quickly discarded as we rolled on the floor in a chaotic jumble of limbs, both of us trying to overpower the other with sheer brute force. I began cycling blood, and flooded my muscles with micro units that set about bolstering and reinforcing. Slowly but surely I began to pull ahead.
“Poena! Stab him!” Morph suddenly yelled.
Poena activated her power. Two red spikes, about a foot and a half long, formed in her hands, and she gripped them like knives. They glowed. Like the late Frankie’s vaporizing blades.
[Tofu: Ifrit, I believe I require backup.]
She didn’t respond, but she didn't need to. A gout of flame materialized in front of Poena, separating her from where I wrestled with Morph. Ifrit had her hand in front of her, and was using it like a flamethrower.
[Tofu: Ifrit, you need to work on your aim.]
It’s not like Poena would die from a little fire.
[Ifrit: I’m handling it! Just win already!]
Easy to say, not so much to do. Morph had transformed his arms and legs into a semi-metallic substance, and they were a lot harder to push back now. Strangely, the transformation didn’t encompass his head or torso, so I spat a knife at Morph’s face (I was out of slugs), and the knife embedded itself in his helmet. Oops. I hadn’t expected it to go so deep; I needed to readjust from shooting at Ferrosa. Luckily it seemed the helmet was pretty sturdy.
“Poena! POENA!” yelled Morph.
“I’m trying! Shut up!”
Poena suddenly flung her spikes at Ifrit, making her duck, and then she charged Morph and I. This time an orange pole materialized in her hands, and she swung it at my back. It struck a hard blow, but I was immensely relieved when the pole didn’t vaporize through me.
It hurt though. It hurt a LOT. She rained more blows down on me, and each seemed to magnify the pain.
No damage detected.
I was confused for a moment. I felt the pain, but there was no injury? I tried turning off my pain receptors, but the next few strikes still hurt. It was like the pain was being transmitted right to my brain. How odd. But if it wasn't a real injury, there was nothing to worry about.
I was just about to ignore her when her power changed again. The orange pole disintegrated, and reformed into a yellow blade that she held in both hands. I did not want to see what that would do, but Morph had changed tactics from trying to overpower me to just restraining me. Poena lifted the blade up!...
...and was blown sideways into the wall as one of Ifrit’s fireballs detonated near her. Morph and I were buffeted by the explosion, but Morph was most distracted by it, reflexively shielding his head with his arms.
I took my chance, and disengaged from Morph to lunge at Poena. She was still stunned from the blast, and I was able to grab her arms before she could materialize a new weapon. I made sure to hold her hands well away from the rest of me.
“GET OFF! GET OFF ME YOU FREAK!”
A knife at her throat got her to settle down, and Morph didn’t seem to have any other tricks. He was on the floor while Ifrit kept her arm trained on him.
I transfered Poena’s wrists to one hand, and reached for the doorknob to the room where the manager was hiding. It was of course locked.
“We want the contents of the safe!” I yelled through the door. “Give it to us and no one gets hurt!”
Hmm, no response. I drew back my fist, intending to smash the door open.
And a green pole materialized with two sharpened ends, one end stabbing into the hand I held Poena with, and the other end extending all the way to Ifrit, stabbing her through the chest. Ifrit screamed, her raspy voice unable to hit the octaves of a normal human, but somehow all the worse for it. Her body spasmed as she lost voluntary control, and the arm she had aimed at Morph twitched, launching a fireball. It luckily didn’t hit Morph, but it landed just beyond him and exploded in a violent, uncontrolled explosion. I hadn’t known she could make them that strong.
Morph tried to shield himself by shifting his limbs, but the blast was right next to him, and it sent him flying back in our direction, literally launching him over us.
And towards the floor-to-ceiling window.
He hit the glass wall, and it easily shattered. Could he survive a fall from this height? Doubtful. Even with his power. Which was why I had latched onto him with one arm as he flew past. He was heavy, and I nearly lost my grip, but with traction claws sunk into the carpet, and my free hand grabbing onto the concrete lip of the window, I was able to arrest his movement. Sure he swung down into the side of the building with a crunch, but at least it wasn’t ten stories to the pavement, and besides, he was wearing a helmet. No lethal injuries here.
I took a few moments to adjust to the precarious position, then got my limbs in order and pulled him up. It seemed he had been knocked unconscious by the blast, and his nose and one ear were bleeding, but I didn’t see any life-threatening injuries. I placed him down and checked to make sure his heartbeat was stable, before turning to look for Ifr-
The tip of a bladed pole extended from my torso. This one had vicious looking barbs along the length of the blade, and it was a deep violet color. Almost black. It hurt, even with no physical injury it hurt. I tried to ignore it. It hurt. I tried to shut off the pain receptors. It hurt. I tried to destroy the pain receptors. It hurt. Had I thought I knew pain? I was naive. This wasn’t a stimulated nerve. It was in my head. In my mind. Inescapable.
It hurt. It hurt. It hurt.It hurt.It hurt.It hurt.It hurt.It hurt.It hurt.It hurt.It hurt.It hurt.It hurt….
Human.exe has crashed.
Recovery time: indeterminate.
Switching to priority targeting.
Everything was still for a moment.
Primary objective: eliminate hostile combatants.
!Exception: non-lethal removal.
The shapeshifting Hellion’s Henchmen minion moved suddenly, an arm striking out like a snake and grabbing a startled Poena around her neck. She had thought the minion was unconscious on his feet, it almost always happened that way when she used this aspect of her power, but apparently he was unaffected. She tried to move the spear, tried to pull it and force the barbed blade back through him, but he simply lifted her up and slammed her into the floor, knocking the wind from her. From their she blacked out quickly, her lungs empty, with no fresh supply of oxygen coming. Only when her power deactivated did the minion finally drop her.
All hostiles disabled: proceeding to next objective.
It moved to the office door and kicked.
The door was destroyed, ripped off its hinges, and the minion moved into the office and scanned the area. Then it moved to the only desk and upended it, revealing three humans hiding underneath. They screamed, or stared at the minion with wide eyes and mouths gaping. It crouched down to meet the one identified as the branch manager eye-to-eye.
I was already in the escape tunnel when I finally got Human.exe running again. Ifrit was slung over my shoulder, and I was supporting Maz as she walked unsteadily. I had met up with her after leaving the conference room. She had regained consciousness while I retrieved the contents of the safe, and the branch manager. Then she had had to convince me to not drag along the branch manager as a hostage. Now that I could think properly again, it was obvious that Trebla didn’t really care about kidnapping her. But in my diminished state, I had simply been focused on following Trebla’s plan, and retrieving important objectives such as Hellion’s offspring (I didn’t want to be barbeque).
We walked down the dim tunnel. It had been attached to the bottom of an elevator shaft by Trebla’s minions days in advance. I had never been to E12’s tunnel system before, but the minion’s had clearly marked the directions, and even sealed most of the side tunnels, so I wasn’t expecting any monsters or rats. Though, it was still a surprise when we rounded a corner and Trebla was waiting for us. His armor was severely damaged, and he had a black eye in addition to other scrapes and bruises.
“Ah! There you are lad. Was beginning to wonder if you would make it. How did it go? Didn’t get roughed up too badly I hope?”
“We were ‘roughed up’ quite a bit, but we obtained our objectives.”
“Wonderful! Splendid work. I can hardly wait to get back and see the footage, reception is terrible down here. I’m thinking of calling it-”
“Here are the safe contents,” I interrupted, and handed him the folders of documents.
“Oh of course, thank you.”
He took the folders and ruffled through the documents in silence as we walked along, every now and then murmuring to himself.
“Was it what you were looking for?” I asked.
“Hm? What’s that?”
“Oh, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Today’s outing was more about assessing the strength of the E12 hero team. They’ve had several deaths and replacements recently. The Espada really were an unpleasant lot, not an ounce of decorum among them.”
“If that was the main objective why rob the bank? Or hire so many minions? Wouldn't attacking them directly be more efficient?”
“Tut tut Tofu. That just wouldn’t do. For proper villainy one needs style, flair, chutzpah!”
“Ha, why he says. Because otherwise I’m just a criminal, a common lawbreaker, a thug in a mask.”
“And that’s bad?”
“No, but that is not what I aspire to Tofu. Choosing the path of ill repute to survive is one thing, but I don’t want to just survive. I want to thrive, I want to climb ever higher, I want to live! It’s important to know the difference.”
Illogical: surviving == living.
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh give it time, you’re young. Stick with this business long enough, and I guarantee you’ll understand eventually. In fact, I believe you’re well on your way. Why else would you have stolen that potted plant?”
Huh. I glanced at the plant nestled in the crook of my arm. It had been on my list of objectives, and while it wasn’t very important, grabbing it as I left hadn’t presented any real risk to my survival. Just another calculation as I operated without Human.exe. Entirely logical, despite what Trebla might think.
“Um, not to interrupt,” said Maz, “but shouldn’t we have caught up to Buzzer and Pebbles by now?”
Trebla looked at her in confusion. “I finished my fight rather early, I doubt they got here ahead of me. Tofu, did you see where they went?”
Hellion was in her office, going over a stack of papers that had to be approved and signed. With her right hand she pulled a paper off the stack, read it, signed it, and then placed it into a second stack of completed papers. With her left hand, she tapped.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Her fingers tapped out the steady beat on the wooden desk. Where her fingers hit the desk were many blackened marks in the wood, caused by her power when she lapsed in control. Whatever had possessed her to get a wooden desk this time around? She’d wind up having to replace it before the bi-annual base move for sure.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The fingers of her right hand began to smoke, and she dropped the pen before she could inadvertently set the important business papers on fire. Smoke (the man) collected the papers and set them safely aside for her, they both knew she wouldn’t get anything else done for now. Normally her control was pretty good, almost two decades of practice would do that, but today her nerves were on edge, and it was her own fault.
“Why did I ever agree to stay out of things?” she asked the room.
Smoke, of course, did not answer. It was a rhetorical question anyways.
Hellion’s eyes drifted over to a small metal locket hanging from a stand on her desk. There weren’t any pictures inside it (far too risky to leave those lying around), but there was an engraving that read: “To my favorite mom, from your favorite little cinder.” They grew up so damn fast. First they were running around the house getting scorch marks on everything, then they were suddenly perpetrating their first bank heist, and worrying their parents of course. Such was the cost of being a super villain with a family, Hellion supposed. She was proud as could be that her daughter had taken an interest in her career path, but sometimes she wished Cindy had decided on something just a bit safer. Like bomb-defuser, or monster wrangler. Hellion had at first tried to watch over her daughter to make sure she was safe, but had wound up being somewhat of a helicopter parent, and it had resulted in one of the very rare fights with her daughter. The wall they damaged still needed to be repaired come to think of it. Since then, she had left Cindy’s training in the hands of her minions, albeit it her most trusted and competent. Now that Cindy was eighteen she was stepping into the real jobs, and she had made it absolutely clear that if she hadn’t tolerated her mother’s oversight before, she definitely wouldn’t tolerate it now that she would be working with her fellow minions and peers. Hellion wanted to respect her daughter’s wishes, but damned if it wasn’t hard some days.
Hellion grabbed a small remote on her desk and turned on the television attached to the wall; maybe she could distract herself with the news? No such luck, the main story on right now was of course the Trebla heist. A reporter was standing in front of the robbed bank, giving an account of what had happened (heavily edited to favor the heroes of course). Hellion already knew most of the major details; Trebla’s minion Lia was always quite prompt with reports. Now she just had to wait for Imp and the minions to get back. She hated this part, that anxious little spark in your stomach as you waited to see who came back, who had been pinched… or who had died. It was for that exact reason that Hellion had preferred to be as hands-on as possible in her early days. But, now she had a company to run, and as much as it chafed, she had long ago learned that trying to run a successful supervillainous organization from both the top and bottom was more trouble than it was worth.
Damnit was there really nothing on? Hellion rapidly switched from channel to channel. They were two weeks into Odd Summer, and E13 was entirely too quiet. There was the weird flaming cars, but those weren’t even much of a nuisance; they didn’t crash or hit anyone. Practically better drivers than real people. The Espada hadn’t caused any more trouble either. What were the odds that wasn’t an ominous sign? Hell, even the pack rat swarms were being relatively docile. Hellion usually had to send a team or two in to help clear out the sewers, but it hadn’t been necessary so far. She hated the calm. If things were calm it usually just meant that trouble was brewing under the surface, and would come back to bite her later.
The elevator dinged, signifying someone was on their way down.
“Finally!” exclaimed Hellion, turning off the news and dropping the remote on her desk with a clatter. The elevator dinged again, and opened to reveal Imp.
“Hey there boss. Hope you’re in the mood for some good news,” said Imp, stepping off the elevator. He grabbed a seat at her desk.
“Always. I take it things went well?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe, boss. Jasper’s info was right. One hundred percent.”
Hellion felt her breath catch. Jasper had come back from his trip to Central with more than just the info she requested. He had come back with tall tales about one of Central’s most closely guarded secrets. She hadn’t dared to hope, but if Jasper was right, it was a prize too tempting to resist.
“Nope. Seems Jasper really hit the jackpot this time. Lia sent me what I needed from the bank, and I planted everything where Trebla directed. A few more tweaks and we’ll be ready to roll when the time comes.”
“And no one saw you? No one suspects? Do you think anyone will figure us out?”
“As far as I know I was in and out clean. Trebla had all eyes on him. It’s possible someone might find what I planted, but I doubt they’ll know what it means. Besides, no one looks for what they’ve gained after a bank heist.”
“Well, knock on wood.”
But she was grinning, and while she discussed details, and hammered out preliminary plans, her excitement grew. That spark of exhilaration that let her know she was alive. Sure, a thriving business and blooming daughter did that as well. Of course they did.
But sometimes? Sometimes you just had to engage in a little supervillainy.