“Dude! This is insane!” exclaimed Tim.
“It is indeed ‘insane’,” I agreed. I was lying, but agreeing in this situation was the proper social response.
Tim had received a notification while we were eating, from one of his ‘webzines’, one that specialized in hero information for the “outer east sectors.” Apparently it was a ‘fan publication’ that Tim used frequently, to keep abreast of new information about the heroes of E13 and the surrounding sectors. I had him link me the address; it sounded wonderfully useful.
The notification had been due to an update on the villain Trebla’s ‘blog’. The footage of his fight vs the heroes earlier today had been posted shortly after the fight had concluded, but the notification that alerted Tim was due to the second video to be posted on the site: Ifrit's and my fight with the sidekicks. The four of us were now huddled around his phone to watch, although Cindy and I for different reasons than entertainment. I was just keeping up appearances of being an “interested teenager,” while Cindy… looked a bit pale and worried, actually. Hopefully there was nothing in the video that would give away her ‘civilian identity’. It would cast suspicion on Mikey and I to be working with a “powered” criminal… although I doubted Tim would suspect his best friend. The “best friend” designation seemed to give a lot of leeway on social issues; Mikey and Tim often traded insults, but treated them as if they were telling jokes.
“Aw dammit. That’s Jennifer,” said Tim, his excitement over the video suddenly subdued.
“Jennifer?” asked Cindy.
“The girl with the glowy weapons. She went to our school,” said Tim.
Mikey elbowed Tim in the ribs, “Dude not so loud, and don’t go blurting that everywhere.”
Tim elbowed him back before saying, “She’s already out jeez, she triggered in the middle of her fencing match; everybody saw.”
“Still man, you never know how far it’s spread. Some idiots might not even think to check until they hear a rumor. If the wrong person hears...”
“I think she’ll be fine, look at her,” said Tim, pointing at the screen.
Poena (or Jennifer Heartly as it were) was indeed doing fine for most of the fight, although that was mostly because we hadn’t been aiming to kill her. She, however, was taking full advantage of the fact that her power didn’t kill, and on the screen she stabbed Ifrit, which set off the explosion (with appropriate exclamations of surprise coming from Mikey and Tim), and from there things went more or less fine, with only the minor hiccup of having Human.exe forcibly shut down. I was glad to see that even with Human.exe shut down, my actions didn’t look too weird from an outside perspective.
...Right up until I glanced at the others. Tim was staring at the screen with his eyes wide and mouth open, and Mikey was doing the same except he was looking at me instead of the video. Sigh, that was going to be a conversation later. And why was Cindy staring at me too? She was there! She saw most of it first hand!
I reviewed what I remembered from the fight. Sure, I used a lot of tendrils trying to grapple the shifter, and in a couple spots my limbs bent unnaturally, but that was normal for a shapeshifter, right? And I hadn’t permanently injured anyone! A few broken bones maybe, but bones were nothing; bones healed easy.
“Wow,” exclaimed Tim, finally breaking out of his daze. “I… can’t decide if that was terrible, or karmic justice.”
Mikey and Cindy turned their stares to Tim, before Mikey snorted and patted Tim’s shoulder. “Definitely a bit of both dude.”
“Karmic justice? Am I missing something?” asked Cindy.
Tim and Mikey explained their less than pleasant experiences with Jennifer to Cindy, whereupon Cindy got a thoughtful look on her face before asking, “Jennifer… Heartly?”
“Yup, that’s her,” confirmed Tim, “You know her?”
“ I remember her. She was a grade-A bitch back in middle school,” said Cindy.
“Well, not much changed,” confirmed Mikey.
“True evil is timeless, unless you throw it in a volcano,” said Tim, looking up at the roof as he stroked his chin. I didn’t understand what he meant, but it must have been a joke of some sort because both Mikey and Cindy snickered at it.
We finished our meal, and Tim tried to suggest our plan for Alley Run, but it seemed both Mikey and Cindy weren’t up for it. Mikey had been moving boxes all day, and Cindy had of course been fighting the sidekicks with me, although we didn’t say as much. We settled on instead trying some of the other games at the VRcade, stuff that required less walking. Seems they also had a few non-VR games like Gribblins n’ Ghouls.
I was discussing Gribblin Tamer with Tim on the way back to the VRcade. Strangely enough he didn’t play Gribblin Tamer himself, claiming that he didn’t like touch screen controls, but there was apparently a ‘console attachment’ you could buy that turned your phone into a true portable console, as well as providing access to a wider variety of games. He pulled his out of his device bag, and showed me how it worked. I wanted one, and Tim said I could buy them at the mall, but they were expensive. I looked regretfully at the bag of candy I was carrying. I… may have spent too much on snacks lately. Hopefully the money for the Trebla job came in soon.
I was still getting used to the fact that there were things of worth besides food, weapons, and allies. At this point, I had satisfied most of my survival needs; I had allied with a powerful faction, I had made large strides in improving my combat utility, and I had stockpiled enough energy that I was no longer watching my reserves constantly.
Mass at 298% norm.
Energy reserves = 25 days continued operation.
Humans pursued objectives that weren’t survival based once all their needs were being met. I didn’t have an interest in most of them; ‘Careers’, ‘sex’, and ‘drugs’ were all irrelevant to me. Scientific pursuits were useful and interesting, but considering the massive headstart humans had, it was more efficient to leave that to scientists and tinkers. For now I would simply continue my research into video games. I had seen them as a way to train for possible scenarios, but humans saw them almost entirely as entertainment, so it was a good starting point to bridge the gap between our ways of thinking. I’d need to divert a few more resources to this goal, instead of funneling everything into acquiring fuel.
Still, candy was pretty great.
I picked a piece of ‘rock candy’ out of my bag, and ate it slowly. If I mixed a few small flakes of metal in with the candy, it made a strangely satisfying, metallic-sounding screech against my teeth when I crunched down on it. I crunched through a few more pieces of candy, but was then startled when some organic screeches coming from the mall were added to the cacophony in my mouth. The others also noticed, and we moved to the banister that separated the walkway from a multi-story drop.
Below us, a swarm of rats was emerging from one of the stores on the bottom floor. They were in pursuit of a small crowd of people, and after a few moments an evacuation warning announcing a rat swarm was broadcasted over the mall’s PA system. Strangely, I noticed several humans did not heed the warning until they saw the rat swarm themselves.
“Whoa, I’ve never seen a swarm that big before,” said Tim. I had to agree; I saw sixty-five rats down there and counting.
“And in broad daylight? They must be desperate,” replied Mikey.
Indeed, the swarm was acting strangely. In my experience they hated bright lights, and would attempt to single out a weak target to gang up on using their superior numbers. The rats below were attacking more like individuals than a group, simply picking the closest targets to themselves and rushing them. Even stranger was that the rats were ignoring some easy targets in favor of targeting some of the larger mutants in the crowd. Utterly bizarre, why would they target a seven foot tall mutant with spiked ridges on his arms instead of a three foot tall normal child?
“Jeezus, what the hell are they doing?” exclaimed Mikey, “I’ve never seen them this riled up before.”
“S-should we call nine-one-one?” asked Tim unsteadily.
“They’re already on their way if they announced an evacuation,” said Cindy. She was tapping the banister while scowling down at the swarm.
“We should get going as well,” I said, beginning to herd them away from the banister and towards the nearest exit. Seriously, humans never seemed to react quite as fast as I would like them to.
The next exit was located a few stores down, and we turned into a hallway that led to elevators and stairs. On some floors the hallways would also lead to a bridge that connected to surrounding buildings, but there wasn’t one on this floor. We were heading for the stairs when one of the elevators ahead of us dinged and opened.
And out fell a huge rat. It wasn’t as big as the one that had chased me in the sewer, not by half, but it had barely fit into the elevator. And its face was wrong. Stitches turned its face into a mash of features, and its fur had been removed in other places to allow for larger stitchwork along its spine. Inefficient and sloppy stitchwork. Its muscles were being pulled at bad angles which made its movement stiff and jerky. It sort of gave the impression that it was wearing a rat disguise. A bad one.
Estimated threat: low.
I wouldn’t bet my bag of candy that this rat was made by whoever made the bioweapons, but if I did, I’d feel confident in my bet.
“Uh, um, that, uh…” sputtered Tim, who had frozen at the sight of it.
“That’s a huge fucking rat,” said Mikey.
Eh, it was big. But I’d seen bigger. More importantly was how to handle this situation. Killing this thing would be easy for me or Cindy, but we couldn’t do so in front of Tim without compromising our civilian identities. Maybe Cindy could lead Tim and Mikey out of the mall while I handled the rat? Or maybe I could kill it while Tim wasn’t looking.
The rat decided for me. After it settled itself into a better stance it sniffed the air, and its gaze slowly drifted over to us, before locking onto Cindy. Damn, I had detected that Cindy was a mutant through smell myself, and it seemed the rat was able to determine that as well. Seems this swarm really was targeting mutants.
“Yeah, that doesn’t look friendly,” said Mikey.
“It’s not. We should start running,” I confirmed. Running would buy me time to figure out how to kill this thing without Tim seeing me do it.
It still took a moment to snap Mikey and Tim out of whatever daze they were experiencing, but the rat let out a broken skrre-eek and that got them all running at top speed. We ran back out of the elevator hall and turned back towards the food court, the large rat lumbering right behind us.
Around us, other parts of the mall were starting to get a bit chaotic. The rat following us wasn’t the only large one, and while the larger mutants were fending off the small rats decently well, the big ones gave them trouble. There were also plenty of mutants with only minor mutations, such as extra eyes or limbs, who were no good at combat. A couple people being attacked by rats looked completely normal, but I suspected they had less visible mutations, similar to Cindy.
Our feet pounded the floor as we ran ahead of the stitched rat, but I was already noticing a problem. Tim was no good at running, and Mikey and Cindy were both starting to flag below their maximum speeds, still tired from the long day of activity. The rat wasn’t fast in comparison to the non-stitched variety, but it was still fast enough to keep up with us even if it couldn’t reach us. I made sure I was at the back of the group to intercept it just in case.
We arrived at the food court, which in the short amount of time we had been away, had devolved into utter chaos. Rats were attacking any mutants they saw, as well as ransacking the food stands. Seems whatever had been done to them couldn’t completely override their instincts.
This was less than ideal. There was an exit from the mall at the back of the food court, but we would have to traverse the entirety of the food court to get there. Easily done if the goal was to stay alive, but I also did not want to compromise our civilian identities, nor let Tim and Mikey get injured.
The large stitched rat arrived behind us, skidding to a halt in confusion at all the noise and activity, and we were forced to enter the food court to keep away from it. Mikey grabbed an abandoned food tray and flung it at the rat to buy time. In its diminished capacity I doubted it even registered the hit, but the food on the tray distracted it.
“Where… gasp… should we go?” asked Tim.
“Back of the food court, grab anything you can to fight with,” I replied.
“And dude, drop the duffel,” added Mikey. Tim had been running with the heavy, device filled bag.
“No way... gasp... it took too long to get all... gasp... of these,” replied Tim.
I grabbed the bag from him since it wouldn’t hinder me, and we began traversing the food court quickly. Unfortunately there wasn’t much on hand to use as weapons besides food trays, although they were better than using one of my knives since I could use them to bat rats away. Cindy began knocking rats off anyone we passed, and Mikey and I followed suit. It was a good idea since the mutants would join our group and made a good meat shield. The larger rat was still following behind us slowly, and I made sure to chuck food at it whenever possible to distract it. Whoever it was that modified the rats had certainly made them a lot dumber; the originals would never have fallen for such an obvious deception (although, the originals would probably have just taken the food and run to begin with).
We got closer and closer to the exit, but the rats were starting to cluster around us; there were simply too many mutants in one spot for them to ignore, and despite how stupid they were acting there was still a lot of them. We needed a way to split the growing swarm.
I smacked a rat away as it leapt at Cindy. The rats were still intent on only attacking mutants, and they ignored Mikey, Tim, and I completely, only attacking us if we were between them and one of the mutants. The rats were attacking mutants with no visible signs of mutations, so their primary form of tracking was probably smell...
I formulated a plan and stuck my hand into Tim’s bag of devices. My palm began to rapidly swell as I flooded it with blood and micro units, forming a large pustule that I could wrap my fingers around. I spent energy and sped up my micro units to quickly change the blood stored inside, and had the ‘skin’ covering it change to a gray, metallic looking color. Next, I separated the bulbous orb from the rest of my hand, leaving it with only a thin cord of nerves to continue transmitting to the micro units and prevent it from degrading too soon. Then I checked to make sure Tim wasn’t looking, and removed my hand from the bag to chuck the orb to the side. To any onlookers it should look like I threw an object I found in his bag.
The surface layer of the orb quickly began to break down, releasing the contents: a mixture of liquids and gases meant to simulate the smells of the various mutant samples I had accumulated over the past weeks, as well as whatever I thought would smell appetizing. The orb went rolling over the floor, its ruptured surface leaking the aromatic substance behind it as it went. Until the micro units self-destructed a few seconds from now, it would smell like an incredibly pungent mutant mixed with the smell of grilled tofu.
The rats went nuts.
Half of the swarm closest to the orb immediately chased it down, while the other half of the swarm tried to run through our group to get to it once they determined we weren’t the source of the smell. Some of the rats stayed with us, but most of them were now in a frenzied pile trying to reach the smell’s source.
“What the hell's got into them?” said a large mutant in front of me (this one had horns that curled around the sides of his head for extra protection).
“Who cares? Let’s get out of here,” I replied to his likely rhetorical query. Why let them question a good thing?
The group ran for the exit, and the larger mutant with the horns reached the doors first, slamming one open so hard the glass broke. He didn’t get very far before I heard shouts from outside the mall, demanding “Get down on the ground!” and “Don’t move!”
Outside the mall was a wide open space, meant to be an outdoor eating area if the tables and benches were anything to go by. A small squad of police had been heading for the doors before we burst out, and they were now aiming guns at the mutant who had broken the door. Upon seeing them the mutant had fallen flat to the ground, yelling “My armbands got torn! My armbands got torn!”
Indeed, both the sleeves of his shirt and his arms themselves were quite torn up from the rats, and if he had had armbands they weren’t there anymore. Luckily for him the police ignored him once they saw the crowd that followed him out of the mall, and they quickly switched to helping evacuate the injured to a corner of the empty eating area. That only changed when the sound of crunching glass came from the mall, and I turned to see the large, stitched rat stupidly breaking through another glass door, ignoring the already open one.
“What the hell?” said one of the officers.
“That’s one of the rats!” said an alarmed civilian, and sounds of dismay and alarm rose up from the crowd of people who had escaped the mall.
“That’s a rat!?” exclaimed the officer.
The police quickly formed a barrier between the rat and the civilians, yelling a few times for it to cease and desist before opening fire (I guess on the off chance it was a mutant?). Whatever modifications the rat might have had, being bullet-proof was not one of them, and it quickly fell to the hail of gunfire along with any of the other rats that followed it out. When it was over, two of the police returned to helping the civilians, and the rest entered the mall as a squad.
Medical personnel showed up soon after, and started sending people home after checking them out. My group of friends hadn’t received any injuries, and we were soon ok’d to leave after one of the cops had a thorough look through Tim’s bag of devices. Everyone was unusually quiet as we walked home. Finally Tim spoke up.
“That… was pretty gnarly.”
“...Yeah,” said Mikey, apparently too tired to keep the conversation going.
“I wasn’t the only one who saw the stitches right?” asked Tim.
“They were obvious on the big one,” I confirmed, “but all the rats I saw had them.”
“That was so weird. Do you think they were being controlled? What am I saying, they were totally being controlled. Like zombies! And the big one! I’ve never seen one that big before. Think a power made it grow?”
“No, I’ve seen bigger rats. Most likely the person responsible only caused the stitches and odd behavior.”
“Bigger rats? Bullshit!”
The conversation returned to “normal” after that, Tim and I arguing over the maximum possible size of sewer-dwelling pack rats. Mikey chimed in occasionally, but Cindy had grown silent again. I had seen a rat knock her breathing apparatus out of her ‘purse’ during the melee, but hadn’t been able to help retrieve it due to the situation. Likely her voice had returned to normal by now.
We eventually reached the point where we had to split up to go our separate ways. Mikey and Tim headed west down Ashwood St. after saying goodbye, and Cindy covered up her raspy farewell by fake coughing immediately after (I’d have to remember that tactic).
We headed in the direction of our apartment building, but the moment Mikey and Tim were out of earshot she pulled out her phone in a hurry, talking out loud as she did so.
“Need to call Sandra. Those rats were only targeting mutants; this has Espada written all over it!”
“Um…” I was rather doubtful that the Espada were responsible, considering they were all dead. I hesitated on what to say, but finally settled on, “Those rats weren’t just attacking, they were capturing.”
She paused and turned to me, “What?”
“I saw several mutants pulled away by large groups of rats. That doesn’t seem like the Espada’s normal operating procedure.”
“That’s even worse!” she exclaimed, and finished punching in Sandra’s number. There was a frenzied conversation, of which I only heard Cindy’s side, followed by Cindy putting the call on “speaker phone” so I could discuss what details I remembered with them. I gave an estimate on the size and capabilities of the swarm to her, as well as how many mutants I believed were captured.
“Alright,” said Sandra, “I want you both to head back to base immediately. If the Espada are trying something I don’t want you out and about.”
“What about the people at the mall?’ asked Cindy.
“Sorry hun, we’re going to need to leave that to the C's. I don’t have anyone that can tackle that right now.”
“I’m sorry, but the only cowls we have available right now are Imp and your mother. I can’t ask the day-to-day employees for something like this.”
“I could probably track them,” I offered.
“Absolutely not," replied Sandra, "The tunnels aren’t safe, doubly so if the Espada are trying something."
“I’m reasonably certain I can handle it. I go down there all the time.”
“... and just why are you going down there when I expressly told you not to?”
“You didn’t say not to go into them. You said I shouldn’t live in them.”
“...Tofu... that’s... argh!” I heard some muffled exclamations that I couldn’t make out, although I did hear Lily laughing in the background. Finally Sandra continued.
“Tofu... We are going to have a talk about this when you get back.”
Cindy’s apartment door thunked closed behind her. Her purse was abandoned by the door, and shoes quickly discarded. Then she dragged herself to her room before flopping face first into her bed, exhausted. She technically had things to do still, laundry among them (dangit Natasha), but she firmly decided to put them off until tomorrow.
What a day.
Sleep sounded good right now, but she was just too wired to close her eyes. Images of the day’s events kept flitting past her eyelids when she tried, and she rolled over to instead stare at the ceiling.
Probably shouldn’t have used the inhaler either; I’m going to have such a headache later, and now I need to bug Socket for a new one. Stupid rats. Stupid Espada.
They couldn’t even give her one afternoon. One afternoon to feel like a normal person. She raised one gloved arm and stared at it. Then she peeled off the black glove revealing… another black glove, or at least what looked like one. Her hands, from the tips of her fingers to just below the elbow, were encased in an inky black covering. Not quite chitin and not quite skin, the rubbery texture and color made it look like she had dipped her arms in tar. The only change in color was the two glands embedded into each wrist, looking like purple and yellow bruises if you didn’t know better. If she flexed the right combination of muscles, the glands would release their contents into a chamber in her hands, mixing and creating a napalm-like substance that was then ejected from a hole in the center of her palms.
Organic flamethrowers. Cindy wasn’t sure what esoteric situation could have caused her father to mutate in this specific fashion, but it was the only “gift” the absentee parent had ever given her. One that was admittedly strong enough to let her contend with supers, even if she wasn’t one herself.
And now Jennifer Heartly is.
“Argh!” she punched a nearby pillow.
What a wonderful reminder that was. Cindy had almost managed to forget the names of the kids who had bullied her in middle school. Heartly hadn’t been the absolute worst of those bullies, but she had made Cindy’s life miserable. It had resulted in being transferred to a highschool on the other end of the sector, and the gloves, and begging Socket to make her the inhaler, and her drive to finish her credits and graduate high school as early as possible. In the end, she had an exemplary academic record, was in excellent physical condition (thanks to Adder’s training), and had a natural-born ability that could keep up with supers. Plus, she had found a new drive to join her mother’s company. Being around her mother’s employees had made her feel… accepted, if not normal. Graduating early gave her time to train with her mom’s employees (and knock out a few college credits on the side), and when she turned eighteen she signed up officially. She was under no illusions that her mother’s company wasn’t a criminal organisation, but she could still do a lot of good here. Hellion’s Henchmen was a boon to E13, and fuck anyone who said otherwise.
Cindy sighed, then rolled until she flopped out of her bed. If she couldn’t sleep she might as well get something done. She grabbed her hamper and exited to the hall, intent on laundry. Reaching the dry-scrubber in a small alcove off the hall, she opened the lid and started dumping her clothes in, only taking a moment to make sure each item wasn’t too bunched up. The task was unfortunately not distracting enough, and her thoughts turned again to… Poena.
Of course she got a power. And if what Tim said about the fencing match was right, she barely got it two weeks ago! I had to train every day for months before mother would even consider letting me go on a job. Dammit! Should have let Tofu stab her, those spears fucking hurt.
And then she had needed to be rescued by Tofu, who somehow took one of those spears and kept right on chugging. She would have felt jealous, Tofu had been showing her up almost from the moment he joined, but it was obvious that he had put in the work to obtain his results. Sure, he had an excellent, versatile power (that was just dropped into his lap by definition), but that didn’t automatically make you good at fighting, and Tofu was good. His form had been rather bad when he started training with Adder, but he still had a fighter’s instincts, and had already caught up to Cindy (and didn’t that just salt the injury to her pride). Still, his power didn’t give him pain tolerance as far as she knew, and when she remembered the spear he had been hit by… she shivered. Pain tolerance. Went gaga for simple things like candy. Didn’t know what a freaking potted plant was. Was willing to kill (and had). Wherever Tofu had come from, it probably hadn’t been a nice place.
Which made it all the more incredulous that he somehow had such normal friends! Mikey was in the business sure, but both Tim and he were just about as normal as you could get. Spending the evening at the arcade, and discussing everything from where powers came from, to the most recent Mega-B00t album (damn did Mikey have bad taste in music), had probably been the most fun afternoon Cindy had had in recent memory. The rats might have cut it short, but they’d exchanged numbers with the promise that they’d invite her again, which she was excited for. She hadn’t made many friends in highschool (or any), and a super villain organization wasn’t exactly the easiest place to find friends your own age, so the three new entries on her contacts list was cause for celebration.
Cindy finished loading up the dry-scrubber, then smirked. And I got to witness Jennifer’s long-coming beatdown. That thrashing was epic; karmic justice indeed. Maybe now she could finally put that part of her past behind her...
… nah. Next time she saw Poena, she was setting her on fire.