After getting off the phone with Tim, I sent a message to Mikey using my mask. Luckily I still had administrator privileges. He called me a few seconds later while I waited for the elevator to the base.
“Hey Tofu, where’s the fire?”
“There is no fire. Tim said he was doing stuff at the mall and if we go he’d buy me a cinnabon, so we have to meet him at the mall. Are you done with your job yet?”
“Ha, I figured it was something like that. Yeah we were just driving into base. I can meet you in the elevator corridor in a bit?”
We talked about Tim’s plans when the elevator I was waiting for opened, revealing Cindy and Maz in civilian clothing. They looked like they had been talking.
“Hello Cindy, hello…?”
“Natasha,” supplied Maz (I hadn’t known her civilian name), “and I should call you…?”
“Just Tofu is fine.”
“Yo did you say Cindy?” asked Mikey through the phone, “If that was her invite her man.”
“Why?” I asked, stepping aside to let Cindy and Natasha through.
“Why? Well, uh, she seems cool? Why not?”
“Cool? I thought she was hot?”
“Dude don’t… just do me this solid man, come onnn.”
“Cindy you have to come to the mall!” I blurted, startling Cindy as she tried to walk past with Natasha.
“Because Tim and Mikey are going to buy me cinnabons,” I replied, “and Tim said there is a new VRcade that he wants to test to try and become a tinker,” I added as an afterthought.
“Uh... thanks. But maybe next ti-”
“She’d love to go!” said Natasha, pushing Cindy forward.
“What?” exclaimed Cindy, surprised.
“Saturday afternoon at the mall. Hanging out with friends. Classic teen activity.”
“Er, I don’t really know… I was going to-”
“Oh no you don’t! No sitting in your apartment doing laundry or whatever.”
“I wasn’t going to do laundry.”
“Or some other boring thing. You’re done with work for the day girl. Go have fun. Let me live vicariously through you!”
The two argued back and forth a bit, though I recognized it as the same kind of bickering Mikey and Tim might do. Cindy finally gave in and agreed to go, and left to go grab “some stuff” from her apartment. Natasha left to make a late lunch for her kids (parents provide food for their offspring!? Envy), and I informed Mikey that Cindy was coming and we would meet him in the elevator hall.
Cindy arrived shortly, carrying a small bag with many pockets, and wearing different civilian clothes that had less faded symbols (but still wearing her black, elbow-length gloves). We got on the elevator to head to the base.
“So, anything I should know about your friends? They in the business?” asked Cindy.
I looked at her in confusion. Not because of her question, but because her voice wasn’t at all raspy.
“What’s wrong with your voice Cindy?”
“Nothing! This is what it’s normally like!”
“No, it’s normally raspy.”
“It’s…” she sighed and rolled her eyes, “I'd just prefer to make a good first impression.”
“Oh! Is it part of your civilian disguise?”
“Yes! Exactly! That’s what it is.”
“I see. Anyways, to answer your question Mikey also works here. He was with me when you gave me the fire extinguisher, and Tim is his long-time friend. Tim doesn’t know that Mikey works here so just be aware of that. Mikey doesn’t want him to know about this job.”
“What should I call you around Tim then?”
“He thinks Mikey and I work at a warehouse.”
She shook her head, “Kay. Hope you know what you’re doing.”
Admittedly, I had miscalculated in using Tofu as my name when I met Mikey and Tim, but I hadn’t realized at the time that I would be spending more time with them. It didn’t really matter to me so much if Tim found out, but if he did he would find out about Mikey, and that was a large problem for Mikey.
I wonder if I needed another alias to go by? But Tim already knew me as Tofu, as did anyone else I wanted to keep in contact with. A different name wouldn’t serve any purpose at this point, although I might want to start cultivating alternate personas for when this one eventually failed. Something to think about.
We arrived in the elevator hall, where Mikey was already waiting. He was still wearing his domino mask, and seemed a little surprised that Cindy and I weren’t wearing ours in the base. Unlike me, Mikey put his mask on every single time he entered the base, even if he was just passing through.
I made brief introductions since they already knew of each other, then hurried them into the elevator that would take us closest to the mall.
I had a ‘’food court’ to explore.
The mall was huge. It was composed of two large structures, both five stories high and multiple blocks wide. Between the two structures was an avenue designated for pedestrian traffic only, which weaved itself in a zig-zag pattern for multiple blocks, and was covered by a glass ceiling. There were multiple walkways between the two buildings, and if you stood on one near the top you could get a very nice view of the crowds and stores, even if the crowd was a bit thin, and many of the stores were locked up with signs saying: “Closed For Summer.” Mikey and Cindy were consulting a mounted map of the mall, while I munched on a cinnabon and watched the crowds.
Fun fact: cinnabons are just very large donuts, with an organic, bitter powder added to them. Still tasty though.
Mikey and Cindy located the ‘VRcade’ and we headed off, weaving through crowds and moving up and down ‘escalators’ (an absolutely fascinating transportation device). The mall reminded me of my first experience in E13, when Jasper was leading me to Maggie’s. There was a wide variety of both people and stores, although the stores inside the mall tended to be more ‘high-tech’ than the ones outside. One that really intrigued me had strange creatures floating through the air outside the storefront. At first glance they appeared to be made of the same glowing energy as Poena and Frankie’s powers, but civilians walked right through the ‘fish’ to no adverse effect. I wanted to buy one of these ‘holograms’ but balked when I saw the price. For that kind of money I could buy fifty tofu burgers! Absolutely ridiculous!
Speaking of food, there was an amazing arrangement of food vendors! There was of course the Cinnabon, but there was also a Puzzle’s Pretzels (and I learned that each establishment had its own unique shape for the cheezy treats), a ‘Smoothie Shack’, and a wide variety of ‘candy' vendors. Humans have an amazing mastery of arranging sugar into unique forms.
One vendor sold specialty gum that changed flavors over time. Some of them even created swirls of color if you blew a ‘bubble’ out of them, which Mikey demonstrated for me.
Another vendor sold ‘hard candies’ that were shaped to look like polished stones. Rock candy, ‘lollipops’, and something called a ‘jawbreaker’ as well (which I took to be some kind of challenge until Mikey and Cindy rushed to inform me I wasn’t supposed to bite them).
An automated mechanical vendor along one pathway sold something called ‘cotton candy’, and the machine shaped different colors of the sugary substance into shapes on a stick. One of the shapes available was a ‘stick figure’ person, which I found confusing. From what I knew about them, humans were quite averse to eating each other, but food in the shape of a human was fine?
There was also a-
“Dude, if we stop for every single candy store we’re never gonna get there,” said Mikey.
“I’m almost done!”
I hurriedly made my selection and paid for the rest of my candy. There were just so many interesting varieties; I wanted to sample them all.
“Didn’t Sandra tell you to stop wasting your money?” asked Cindy, still without a rasp in her voice. I'd noticed her taking out a small, L-shaped device with a button on top, that she breathed into every now and then when she thought we weren't looking.
“I’m not wasting it. It’s important to sample everything." Just in case one turned out to be useful like the MREs. Besides, the taste of sugar was doing wonders to relieve the stress caused by Poena. Maybe Cindy should eat some, she seemed wound up.
After a few more escalators, we arrived at a storefront that had two large holograms displaying humans in fighting stances. The interior was similar to the arcade on Ashwood St. that I frequented with Mikey and Tim, except that a large number of the arcade machines had attached helmets and visors. I was the first to spot Tim, and we made our way over to him. He was at a machine labeled “Beat Dancer,” wearing a visor that covered his eyes and with his bag of gizmos next to the machine. Mikey had to tap his shoulder to get his attention.
“Hey guys, isn’t this place great? They’ve even got hardlight stuff in the back...” Tim trailed off, noticing Cindy, “Hi there?”
We introduced Cindy to Tim, using our prepared story about her working at the same warehouse.
“Well hey, that works out great,” said Tim, “The hardlight chamber I wanted to try was a four-player.”
He quickly explained his plan, which was essentially to work with his bag of devices while inside the hardlight chamber, but he would need the other three players to continue the game and keep it from ending while he did so. Mikey was hesitant, but Tim “absolutely, positively, guarantee(d),” that nothing would explode this time. Cindy agreed to help as well (not seeming phased by mention of explosions), and Tim paid for a session in the hardlight chamber. We received (somewhat flimsy) safety gear and blasters from an attendant, as well as a warning to use only the blasters during the course of the game, before heading to the designated room.
The game itself involved working as a squad to advance down an endless corridor disguised as an alley. How far you made it down the alley, as well as how many enemies you dispatched with supplied ‘blasters’, determined your final score. The walls had large screens behind reinforced glass to provide background, the floor was a slowly moving conveyor belt (similar to escalators), and hardlight constructs were used as obstacles. Tim’s plan was to assemble and repair items from his bag of devices while inside the chamber, thereby immersing himself in a “tinker mindset” while in a “stressful” situation. Theoretically, this would cause a tinker power awakening.
We spent the next hour playing and keeping the game running while Tim tried to complete some of his practice devices. The conveyor belt didn’t extend to the back of the room, so Tim set up there on the floor… at least, after attempting to walk along the conveyor with us, to near-disastrous results when his bag of devices spilled, and nearly dumped device parts into the gaps in the treads. As for Mikey, Cindy, and I, we got to work trying to get as far as we could in the game, which was… interesting. None of us had used a ‘blaster’ before, and after I figured it out, I had to tone down my aim in order to match Mikey and Cindy. The harder part was whenever an enemy hardlight construct surprised me, and I had to resist the urge to swipe out with a fist or spit bullets at it. In Mikey’s case, I think he was doing rather well for a normal human, but I didn’t have anyone to compare him with. Cindy aimed better than Mikey, even while taking out the small device and breathing from it, but I could tell she was tired from the Trebla job earlier today; she was much slower than when she trained with Adder and I. Still, that put her performance above Mikey’s. I’d need to make sure he kept going to Adder’s training sessions, he obviously needed them.
In the end, Tim… did not trigger. Which was a shame. I had been hoping to record data on the event if he did. While the two triggers I had witnessed up until now had no detectable source, I might just not have been set up properly for detection at the time. Plus, even if detecting the source was impossible, gathering data on the circumstances of the trigger would be valuable. The two triggers I had witnessed so far had been life-or-death combat situations, but I had read about people who gained them differently. Tim was more than willing to answer my questions, and Mikey eventually had to interrupt our conversation, suggesting that we go get some food.
At the food court!
The impressive plethora of snack stalls and candy shops on our way to the arcade had apparently not been the food court. Which made the real thing all that more impressive.
It was the smell that reached me first. Sizzling oil, frying vegetables, spilled sugary drinks, humans, multiple varieties of grease, and even the smell of cooking meat combined into a wonderful aroma that permeated even the large open space in front of me. Food vendors of every description were arranged along the walls, with empty tables spread all around the room to provide places to sit and eat.
I… I didn’t know where to start.
The others picked out a table at random, and we divided to go pick out our individual choices. Mikey followed Cindy, while I went with Tim, both because Tim was paying for me, and because I didn’t know what to try first. He led me to a stall marked "Tongue Thai’d,” from which I smelled the distinctive scent of boiling vegetable oil. I ordered a serving of something labeled garlic noodles, and moved back with Tim to wait for our orders.
“It’s a shame the plan didn’t work,” I said, to get a conversation going. I was eager to discuss powers again.
He sighed and adjusted his glasses, “Yeah, but I’m starting to think Mikey’s right. I might just be wasting my time.”
I frowned, “What makes you say that?”
“Well, I’ve been trying to get a power since I was ten. If I was going to get a power I would probably have gotten it by now right?. Maybe it is completely random.”
It wasn’t, at least not completely. Of that at least I was sure. Both trigger events I had witnessed so far had been in response to life threatening situations, and there were sufficient records to indicate that was a common cause of power awakenings. Some might be random, but more likely, it was that the correct stimulus needed for power activation was difficult to achieve. No reason for Tim to give up yet.
“How many Odd Summers have there been since you were ten?” I asked.
“What? Uh, the one three years ago, and the one five years before that, when I was ten. You know that.”
Sure I did. Note to self: look up more historical records.
“That’s what I’m saying!” I continued, “This is only the third Odd Summer since you started trying, and it’s barely started. Plus, it’s not like the experiments when you were ten had much of a chance of success.”
“Hey! I had a pretty good idea what I was-”
“Mikey told me about the waffle iron,” I interrupted.
“My point is, it’s much too early to give up now. Setbacks happen sometimes, you just gotta keep a steady pace on it. In fact I already have the next idea to try.”
“Yeah. Most trigger cases are because someone is in danger right? But a simulator won’t give you that. You need something with real stakes.”
“Uhhh, you think I should put myself in danger?”
“No no, but if, say, we did the Alley Run again, but this time we made a bet, with real stakes, then there would be an actual consequence for the outcome. We would be closer to simulating the actual circumstances of a trigger.”
“I see… that does make sense… and if we…” he mumbled a bit, staring at the floor, before looking back up to me, “And I’m guessing the stakes would involve somehow paying for food?”
“Now you’re getting it,” I confirmed.
Tim laughed, “Alright, I wanted to give Alley Run a try myself anyways. Whoever scores the most then.”
Success. I’m glad I was able to convince Tim to keep trying. Right now he's my main source of power research. And winning a game of Alley Run? Easiest meal ever.
We grabbed our meals when they were ready (garlic noodles smelled tasty), and sat at the table we picked out. Mikey and Cindy joined us with their own meals, and from that point on we just ‘hung out’, chatting about whatever topic came to mind. It was nice, just sitting and eating with ‘friends’. I could see why Natasha had called this a "classic teen activity.”
I had finished my meal, and I was debating going back for seconds when my phone rang, and Cindy’s, and Tim’s, and Mikey’s…
And, in fact, every single phone on every single person at the mall.
The ring tones had changed, to a uniform sound that sounded like an alarm. When I checked my phone the message [Assault On The Wall: Seek Shelter] was displayed.
I remembered this. In the school’s safety assembly they had informed us of this possibility, and had given us the locations of several shelters to seek out if we couldn’t find our own. That wasn’t good at all. I stood up and grabbed my bag of candy, but was surprised when no one else stood up. In fact, they were looking at me with amused expressions.
“Where you going man?” asked Mikey, with a smirk.
“To a shelter? They gave us the info at school.”
“Just give it a moment.”
I didn’t really want to waste time, but admittedly few people had reacted to the alarm. The only people who even looked concerned were several elderly looking humans. We waited thirty-four seconds before the phones went off again, but with a less alarming ring-tone. The message [Disregard Previous Warning: False Alarm] was displayed. I sat back down, feigning embarrassment to fit the social situation. I guess this was normal?
“First Wandergheist warning?” asked Tim.
“Wandergheist sets off the wall defenses every couple of weeks. All the sectors close to it get buzzed.”
“I see. That sounds… annoying?” Such an important alarm going off all the time was definitely some kind of safety hazard.
“You should’ve been here when it first started," said Mikey, "It used to send all the nearby sectors into automatic lock-down, before they figured out how to make it just a text alert. That was fun for the three months it happened.”
“Huh, and nobody has stopped him?”
Mikey gave me a funny look, “Dude, it’s Wandergheist. What are they supposed to do?”
Oops. I didn’t actually know what Wandergheists abilities were. Apparently Wandergheist was a big enough deal that he is common knowledge. Knowledge I was still piecing together one tidbit at a time. Luckily Tim stepped in, and directed the conversation away from my ignorance.
“Actually the NE15 heroes have been working on a solution to that,” said Tim, “They’ve got an idea using physical traps. Here, I’ve got the article on my phone…”
Tim’s explanation and a quick (and discreet) search on my phone filled in the details about Wandergheist. First off, I had been wrong in thinking it was a cowl. It was supposedly some kind of powered animal, in possession of an incredible ability called a ‘null field’. Inside a specific radius around the creature, most forms of energy transfer would fail, including combustion, electric currents, and even nuclear power, but the most incredible facet was that super powers would be rendered unusable. Activated powers would refuse to work, and passive powers would simply stop functioning. On top of that, the effective radius of Wandergheist’s power was assumed to be nearly half a city block, a ridiculously wide range which was the reason it set off the wall alarms; the automatic defenses thought the sudden lack of power caused by Wandergheist was a breach in the wall. An utterly unfair ability, but I was confused as to why a mutant or other non-powered method would fail in removing the organism. I clicked a link to show me a picture of it...
It was a long-range picture, that displayed a humanoid creature with skin so black it appeared to be absorbing the light around it. It stood on two legs, but I could tell from the shape of its limbs that it would be just as comfortable on all-fours. Its legs used a reversed knee joint similar to my favored combat form, and its arms were long with clawed ‘hands’ at the end, but the absolutely perfect ratios of the limbs, and the precise musculature that I could barely make out put my primitive designs to shame. Even its head was a perfect ovaloid shape designed to deflect and absorb impacts, while giving its six eyes an excellent detection range (two in the front for binocular vision, four on the sides for wide angle detection). The only design flaw I could detect was two segmented tendrils that emerged from the back of its head and draped down its back.
I clicked through several more pictures, confirming that it was four meters tall, and much stronger than even its perfect musculature would imply. In one picture it was casually plucking the wheels off a derelict car in the same way I might pull off a normal human’s fingers. In another it was snapping an armored mutant male in two, while a squad of mutants dressed in military gear tried unsuccessfully (and laughably) to pin it down with primitive weapons. I actually found a video of that fight, and almost despaired when I realized its combat style matched Adder’s, with only slight variations to account for frame. Even the tendrils I thought a weakness weren’t; they latched onto its own spine at different locations, and if I was analyzing the design right, they were some form of high-speed signal transfer. At several points in the fight they disconnected and reconnected at will to different sections of its spine, each time creating an optimum distance for transferring signals to the limbs it was using. Maybe its spine was used for something else? Either way the system worked, its limbs moved blazingly fast if the tendrils were latched near them.
I recorded whatever I could glean from the images. Both its design and movements were valuable information, and I recorded even the grainier images. There was also the abundance of plants in the background of the pictures, which was an interesting detail… I guess…
Sigh. With its ability to nullify supers, and unparalleled physical prowess, such a creature would destroy me easily. Not to mention that it probably had other tricks up its sleeve. It had apparently been patrolling the area around southern California for years now, and not sustaining a single permanent injury in that time was telling. Humans were tenacious; I doubted it had been entirely successful in avoiding injury (Maybe it had regeneration? Likely). At least it was stuck outside Fortress City’s wall where it couldn’t reach me… Sigh.
I added it to the list of entities to avoid ever challenging, along with Hellion, ‘God’, and Mikey’s gran-mama.
“I think it’s space whales,” said Mikey, confidently.
“Pfft what? It’s obviously a dimensional overlap,” countered Tim.
My attention turned back to the conversation. While I had been absorbed with learning about Wandergheist, the conversation had apparently shifted towards where powers came from.
“Dude, what even is a dimensional overlap?” asked Mikey.
“It’s where two dimensions get superimposed on each other, and rules from both start applying. Several supers have powers that are verified to use the concept, and Dr. Vilgrad wrote a paper about it back in 2098! He talked about an energy wave that propagates at the speed of 4D space when two hypermassive objects collide, which in layman’s terms means powers are the result of two dimensions crashing into each other! If you applied Cecil’s theory on supreme receivers, you could theoretically read the wavelength of the energy wave like a library, and just pick and choose whatever power you wanted!” finished Tim, nearly out of breath.
Mikey and Cindy had blank looks on their faces, and I adopted one too to stare at Tim.
“Or,” Mikey finally said, “It’s magic space whales.”
“Argh!” exclaimed Tim, grabbing his head dramatically. Then he turned to Cindy and I, “Can you believe this guy?”
Cindy chuckled, “Sorry Tim. Magic space whales sounds as plausible as anything else.”
“Ugh. Tofu! Tofu please, tell me you don’t believe in the magic space whales!” pleaded Tim.
“Um, I don’t currently have enough evidence to either confirm or deny magic space whales.”
Mikey and Cindy laughed, and Tim decided to settle his argument with Mikey by flicking a spoonful of rice at him. Things devolved into a small food fight, which I unfortunately couldn’t participate in since I had finished my meal, but I managed to snag a few pieces of food when no one was looking, so that was good. Hanging out with friends at the mall was quickly proving to be one of my favorite activities. I should invite friends on outings more often...
... Just needed to figure out how to sneak a twenty ton scorpion into the mall.