Human.exe emergency shut-down;
Human.exe displaying behavior harmful to core: analyzing...
Odds of triggering prospective prey: 0.002%
Odds of encountering non-hero super powered individual: 0.4342%
Odds of encountering combat design mutant: 67.897%
Odds of lethal encounter in combat scenario: 0.9276%
Odds of discovery: 23.354%
Kernel wipe possibly detrimental to formulating solution: resetting parameters...
For two hours I had been hunting for rats or dark-shriekers (banshees as the old-timers called them) with no success. I didn’t come across any organisms in the back alleys south of Ashwood St, not even any muggers. The irritating lack of prey had prompted me to start calculating the best possible method of targeting a civilian, and I needed to catch myself before I could do something wholly stupid.
Tim claimed the chance of triggering was one out of five thousand during Odd Summer, but I had already caused one inadvertent trigger with the acid woman. I wouldn’t risk triggering a second, especially since I suspected any trigger I caused would give the individual an ability to counter me. Powers were theoretically based on what the organism “wanted” during the trigger event, and I assumed anything I triggered would want to kill me; the acid woman might have been a nasty situation without the gun. Considering that ‘civilians’ were the human demographic most likely to trigger, active hunting of humans would definitely have to be reserved for after Odd Summer unless absolutely necessary.
So, the fact that I had even entertained the notion of hunting civilians was a problem. The thought shouldn’t have even been listed among possible solutions, let alone entered active calculation.
The problem stemmed from my human brain. Ever since I gained access to more resources, I had been able to run a more robust, and complete, version of a human’s thought processing organ. This was immensely beneficial, as the predictive abilities of a human’s brain was second to none. Comparing my thought processes now, to my thought processes before I received Human.exe, was laughable. Before, I could barely figure out the correct way to bludgeon a brown-fur to death, and it took me months to realize that passively reacting to the tests would eventually get me killed. If I had the processing power I had now back then, I would have figured out both in minutes, not months.
Unfortunately, this processing power came with a downside. Namely, all the little quirks that affected human thought processes now also had the potential to leak into mine. In this case I had been angry, which increased aggression, which caused the errant thought of hunting civilians to go into active calculation. Not something that would have happened without Human.exe simulating anger for me.
I sighed. I had multiple logs in memory of previous kernel wipes. They had dropped in frequency as I got used to using Human.exe, but they weren’t going away completely. The reduction had stalled. What I needed now was a way to improve, but I wasn’t sure how to proceed. The problem was an accumulation of factors between my core, my human brain, and Human.exe, but mostly from Human.exe. It was what simulated the emotion ‘anger’ for me. Without it, the closest I could come to an emotion resembling anger was a mild irritation, if that. I didn’t experience emotions in the way a human would, and I would be hard pressed to explain the difference if asked. Even turning off Human.exe and attempting to simulate anger on the brain organ didn’t create the same sensations for me. It was hard to be influenced by organs when you had full manual control over all of them.
So. How to stop Human.exe from influencing my decisions with anger and other emotions?
Leaving Human.exe off was unacceptable. It handled a large portion of my combat calculations, and all of my social skills.
I could remove the sections of the brain that handle emotional processing, but that would affect my social reactions. Plus, when I tried it, several kernel wipes were immediately added to the log, and I didn’t notice any reduction in anger from Human.exe. I really wish I could access the inner code.
I need more information. Humans dealt with emotions every day and didn’t get themselves killed, and they couldn’t even turn them off. How did they handle this? I pulled out my phone and did a search for anger. Maybe there was a medical manual I could use to better modify the brain, or maybe a…
First result: a definition of anger.
Second: Causes of anger.
Third: How to manage anger.
How to control anger.
Anger and Aggression: a Psychological Analysis.
Anger management group therapy.
And just about a couple thousand more links to related, or tangentially related topics. Well. I definitely knew what emotion I was feeling right now: embarrassment. Of course the humans would have researched this already, and in incredible depth. Their proactive problem solving was ever impressive.
I opened a few of the links in tabs, and set about reading the different guides on anger management and control. Some of it wasn’t applicable to my unique situation, and some of it didn’t quite make sense, but what I very quickly realized was that I needed more ‘emotional awareness’. It seemed that even humans had trouble realizing when emotions were affecting their logical thinking, and step number one was to realize it was happening while it happened. To that end my course of action was clear. I’d leave Human.exe running, and my brain unmodified, and proactively identify and catalogue the effects of emotions on my thought processes as they occurred (and look up a list of emotions, apparently there were a lot more than just the base ones I was aware of). Once that was done I’d be able to adjust all my calculations accordingly going forward.
Let’s see, figuring out a solution to the emotion problem was… pleasurable. A good start.
Having solved the most pressing problem, I started walking in the direction of Nicole’s den. With my hunting plans a failure I would need to quickly find an alternate source of food I could share with her. I wanted to give Nicole something that would convince her to help with my request: having her escort me in the tunnel system while I investigated the stitch rats. Sandra didn’t want me in the sewers without a more experienced person present, and Nicole was the most experienced person I could think of. She’d been living down there for years now after all. A shame I couldn’t find a banshee, I’m sure she’d have appreciated fresh meat from an organism she didn’t normally have access to. From what I knew about her, she seemed to favor fresh meat, but I think she liked cooked meat as well. At least, she had said the kobe beef was delicious in her texts.
I started parsing through the vendors in the area; Mega Burger, Puzzle’s Pretzels, The Salad Bar-barian, Pizza Place. These were all decent ‘fast food’, but I needed something better, preferably something that actually had a meat option. I couldn’t backtrack to Maggie’s in time to meet Nicole, which meant finding another ‘restaurant’ nearby. But where to go?
I scrolled through an online listing of food dispensers for E13, rejecting one after the other. There was an ‘Italian’ restaurant nearby, but their online menu didn’t have any meat. One restaurant served a soup with real chicken broth, but it was in the opposite direction. If I could just find…
The Darksider’s Bar n’ Grill was just as crowded as the last time I came. People eating, drinking, ‘armwrestling’, doing knife tricks, playing ‘chess’, etc. A unique atmosphere among human establishments, but very similar to large gatherings of Hellion’s Henchmen. It made me wonder if all minion groups had this in common.
I approached the bar: a long counter stretching nearly from wall to wall. Unlike most furniture I encountered, the top of this counter was fitted with a polished substance called ‘wood’. Supposedly it was the same material paper was made from, and came from an organism similar to my potted plant, but bigger. Paper wasn’t too uncommon, but anything made from large quantities of organic material was rare in Fortress City. Presumably due to the dangers of collecting it from the ‘wilderness’ outside the city’s walls.
“No kids at the bar. Come back when you’re twenty-one,” said the bald man behind the counter, the ‘bartender’. I didn’t recognize him from the last time I was here.
“Um, I wanted to order food?”
He frowned, but asked, “Watcha want?”
“Your online menu said you have ‘Fish n’ Chips,’ could I get two of those to go?”
“Alright. Wait at a table, I’m serious about the bar.”
I paid with a chit, then scanned the room for an empty seat. There were several options, but I recognized one of the chess players; a large ‘hispanic’ man with long, gray hair wrapped in a braid. He wore sunglasses even though the lighting wasn’t very bright.
“Hello Teddy. Mind If I sit here?”
“Hm? Who... Oh! The little lost amigo! The heck are you doing in our neck of the woods again? Not lost again I hope!”
“Not this time. I’m actually headed over to my friend’s place again tonight and wanted to buy food. This was on the way.”
“So you did find your little friend. Well sit, sit and tell us your tale. Your friend must be quite something if you’re making another nighttime run.”
Both Teddy and several of the other nearby humans let out multiple raucous noises, as well as jabbing me in the ribs with their elbows. Luckily I had seen this behavior among humans often enough to know it wasn’t an attack, although I still didn’t know exactly what it meant. If my brief experience at school was anything to go by, I had either said something abnormally humorous, said something to embarrass myself, propositioned someone for reproduction, mentioned an accomplishment worth celebrating, or triggered an ‘inside joke’. Really, humans sometimes attached too many different meanings to a single action or phrase. It made parsing through the slang difficult at times.
It only took fifteen minutes for the fish n’ chips to be ready, but somehow that was enough time for the crowd around Teddy’s chessboard to become denser, rowdier, drunker, and for a small contest to form over who could jab a knife between the splayed fingers of their hand the fastest (Teddy broke this activity up because they were chipping the tables, but I think it was because I was winning). When the meals were ready, Teddy then offered to give me a ride to Nicole’s again.
“That’s alright Teddy, I know the way now.”
“And let the fries get cold while you waddle your way there? You won’t romance anyone that way cabrón. Come on, nice night for a ride.”
We headed out to the parking lot and made for his motorcycle; a large machine decked in ‘chrome’ that was almost twice as ornamented as any of the other bikes. A handful of others followed us out, but Teddy turned back the ones who were drunk. He handed me a spare helmet and I hopped onto the back seat as the Darksiders started their bikes. Each bike gave off a quiet hum as the engines started, and we were soon off down the nearly empty streets. With so little traffic we made great time, and it gave us enough visibility that we spotted a blazing truck well before it entered the approaching intersection, and didn’t collide with it as it ran the red light.
“Fuckin’ another one. Hey Dale, Carlos! Follow that puta and keep eyes on it would ya?” yelled Teddy.
The two bikers in question nodded and peeled off to pursue the pick-up truck.
“They are going to track it?” I asked.
“Somebody has to. Those flaming heaps are a menace.”
“I thought the police or heroes deal with them.”
“Tch, I wish. Those cars haven’t hit anyone yet so the C’s have started ignoring them. Only a matter of time before someone gets creamed, so we’ve been keeping an eye on them.”
“...are the Darksiders a vigilante group?”
“Haha, nah, we’re nothing that serious. We just keep an eye out for things, like a neighborhood watch. Anything we find we just try to inform the C’s so they deal with it, or sometimes we pass it on to Hellion’s crew…”cough“.... Only cause they tend to do something if it’s important, mind you. We wouldn’t normally turn to them, but they tend to solve problems faster than the C’s, and people need that during Odd Summer. You know how it is.”
Teddy dropped me off at Manchineel St. before going on a ‘neighborhood patrol’. Apparently a neighborhood watch was a type of communication network, with the goal of identifying threats and passing the information along to someone else who could better handle it. Much more sensible than direct vigilante action in my opinion, although Teddy did claim that some situations needed to be solved with a ‘knuckle sandwich’. It sounded tasty.
I lifted the manhole cover that led down to Nicole’s den, and climbed down into the dark tunnel. There were some nessies swimming in the canal next to the ladder, and I had to bop one that tried to see if I was edible. It was the biggest of the small group, and I recognized it as the one Nicole called Mr. Chonkers; a frequent visitor of the canals around Nicole’s den. A shame I couldn’t just kill one of the nessies to eat, but Nicole was adamant that they not be harmed. The nessies’ ability to both scour the tunnels and filter the water made them invaluable to her, and she tried to encourage them to habit her area. Her efforts were working; there were definitely more nessies then normal around right now.
I made my way around the corner, and spotted Nicole sticking out of her den. She was concentrating on fiddling with a long length of metal pipe, about six inches in diameter and over ten feet long.
“Hey Tofu, one sec. Just need to get this cut... just... right.”
She was holding the center of the pipe with her mandible claws, and after lining up one of the larger combat claws, sheared a two-foot portion off the end of the pipe. It fell into the ‘palm’ of her other large claw, ringing dully against her chitin armor. She raised the piece up to her eyes and examined it critically.
“Hmmm… yup, looks good.”
“What are you working on Nicole?”
“Just cutting up some pipes. I need to divert some waterflow for the nessies. They like a flowing current, and they’re kinda jamming it up right now.”
“Yes, there do seem to be a lot of them.”
“Right? I’m not sure what’s up. At first I thought they were attracted by that rat swarm I killed, but the leftovers are long gone and they’re still coming.”
“So this isn’t normal behavior?” I looked at the nessies. Several were poking their heads out of the water in curiosity of Nicole’s work with the pipes. Far more than I had seen gathered before were occupying the lighted T-intersection where Nicole made her home. “Isn’t that dangerous? It could be Odd Summer related.”
“Maybe? I’ve never seen a nessie trigger though. I’m not sure they have it in them. Either way, they’re keeping the place clean enough to run a restaurant out of, so I’m not gonna complain.”
“Speaking of restaurants. Here, I brought food.”
I pulled out the containers of food (still hot inside) that contained the fish n’ chips, and we had ourselves dinner, Nicole taking a few token bites before making the usual excuse to withdraw into her den to store the rest “for later.” I was positive that she must have a second mouth somewhere, likely attached closer to whatever core she was keeping hidden. Normally I wholly approved of such defensive measures, but in this case I was worried it would hinder my plans. If I couldn’t convince her to accompany me, I couldn’t search the sewers. I finished up my fish (a breaded, rectangular chunk of oily meat; very tasty), and cleaned up the wrappings while listening to Nicole detail her construction plans for the sewer.
“I can’t tap the water main in just one place you see. The amount of water I need to increase the flow in this area would immediately alert the city to a leak, and it might cause problems besides, so I plan to make a bunch of small taps in adjacent areas and let the small leaks accumulate into a stronger current here.”
“It sounds like a solid plan.”
“I hope so. The only thing is, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to cut the pipes haha. My rotosaw crapped out on me, and my claws aren’t exactly made for precise cuts; I keep crushing the pipe half the time.”
“I can help with that. How long do you need the section to be?”
“Really? Um, about two feet long if you can.”
I grabbed the length of pipe from the floor and measured a two foot section. Then I placed my hands around it and set my micro-units to work. A brief initial test of the material (mostly bronze, with slight oxidation wherever the protective coating had been damaged), and a few seconds later I had a nice even cut. I handed the piece to Nicole to see the result.
“Wow! That’s even better than a rotosaw. That’s so cool! You did this with your power? How does that even work, I thought you were a shapeshifter. OH! It’s molecular right? You’re shifting the atoms around. It’s like you’re dismantling it instead of cutting.”
Ack. She had gotten a lot out of such a small display. It was one thing for people to know my abilities, but quite another for them to know how they worked. Best to feign ignorance.
“I guess so? I just sort of ‘do it’.”
“I see. But still, that’s so versatile. I can think of a dozen uses off the top of my head. I wonder if it would work on reinforced steel, or tinker composites! That would make accessing the water line so easy...”
Nicole’s eyes drifted as she presumably imagined the different uses of my power. An interesting effect considering she had eight of them, and most of them went off in different directions. Humans had such interesting mannerisms while thinking intensely.
“If you want,” I began, “I could help you install those water flows you were talking about.”
“...Eh? Oh, um, I can do that myself. I wouldn’t want to be a bother...”
“It wouldn’t be any trouble Nicole. I have plenty of time right now. In fact I need help investigating the tunnels, so you would actually be helping me out.”
“R-right now!? No, I-I don’t have what I need ready yet anyways. Why would you need to go into the tunnels?”
“Whoever made those bodies you found seems to have gotten them to work, and has been upping production. A bunch of modified rats trashed a mall last Saturday, and several people went missing.”
“Oh my god! That’s horrible!” she exclaimed, one pincer clacking in what looked like a nervous tick. She eyed the claw strangely, and mumbled the next part. “Jeez, why wouldn’t you mention something like that first...Wouldn’t the heroes be investigating this though? Why are you doing it?”
“I’m sure they are, but they’re stretched thin at the moment. I’ve already confirmed that they’ve needed to let lower priority emergencies go, so the quicker this is dealt with the better.”
“I see… you know, I can just go myself. I’ll look for them down here and you can look for them topside. Cover more ground and stuff..."
“It would be best if we both go. I’m expecting a fight once the culprit is found. I would have gone myself, but I was told I’m not allowed to go alone, and I believe that is for good reason.”
Nicole fell silent, except for the occasional clack of one of her large claws. Her eyes looked anywhere but at me as she presumably calculated the risk of accompanying me into the tunnels. I found it a bit worrying (confirmation: detected emotion = nervous), if she didn’t go with me I didn't know what my next course of action would be. A few casual mentions of the subject back at the base had shown me that most of the minions had absolutely no interest whatsoever in going down into the tunnel system, and I wasn’t confident that the lieutenants would be any more eager, if they even had the time. I really needed her help with this.
“I’ll buy you a cinnabon.”
Her eyes blinked as she focused back on me. “What?”
“A cinnabon. They sell them at the mall and they’re tasty.”
Nicole stared at me as a very awkward silence descended. I was worried that I said something rude, when she broke the silence with a half-hearted chuckle.
“It's fine Tofu. I wouldn't ignore a problem like this. I'll go with you. It’ll have to wait until tomorrow though, I really do need to get some stuff together… Make sure you bring anything you might need, you’ll be slogging through a sewer after all. And the cinnabons! Two of them for me! If you’re gonna bribe me it won’t be cheap y'know.”
“You got it.”
We made plans to meet the next day around noon, and I left Nicole so she could make her arrangements undistracted. I myself planned to visit the grocery store to top off my reserves, and then let Human.exe ‘sleep’ for the night. Whatever we encountered in the tunnels tomorrow, I would be ready for it.
The emotion I was feeling this time was quite familiar to me: satisfaction.
The next morning, I made sure all my knives and ammunition were in order, then attended practice as usual with Adder. Afterwards, I sat in the cafeteria eating breakfast (toast with jelly) while calculating possible combat scenarios for the day. I had familiarized myself with the tunnels underneath Maggie’s diner when I first started living in E13, but admittedly I couldn’t make an accurate risk assessment from just that. Everyone I met seemed to be wary of the tunnels under Fortress City, so there must be some threat that I didn’t know about. Maybe some large predator I had yet to encounter? Other bio-weapons, like Jasper had mentioned? Some kind of… big… metal... trap device? Like a puzzle test?... Huh. Proactive risk prediction was harder than it seemed. Humans made it look easy. Maybe I’d just do some target practice instead.
“Hey Tofu! Just the guy we were looking for.”
I turned to see two familiar faces. “Hello Brilla, hello Fred. You were looking for me?”
“Wellll, not so much you, and more so anyone we can drag along as muscle,” replied Brilla.
“Ah. Sorry, but I actually had plans for today.”
“Uh-huh. And do those plans include eating on the company dime?”
“While poor Fred and I need to work without protection? All alone in a cruel, cruel world?”
“Er, I didn’t-”
“All because Pebbles and Buzzer, who were supposed to be helping us, are in the slammer because someone forgot to drag them along?”
“...Will it take long?”
“Just an hour or two, meet ya in the garage. Toodles.”
Brilla headed off in the direction of the garage, Fred giving me an apologetic smile as he followed her.
Hmph. Another emotion I was familiar with: frustration.
“So what are we doing anyway?” asked Gregor. He had also gotten pulled into helping Fred and Brilla, and the four of us had headed out in a van.
“We’re headed to the Pit,” replied Fred. “Illegal fight arena in the Red Zone. Run by a guy named Ivan Belltoni. Seems some trouble went down at his place, and he wants us to look into it. He’s a sleazy crook, but he pays good money to Hellion, so try not to piss him off.”
When we reached the Red Zone, Fred and Brilla led us to a building that looked far more subdued than the Red Zone’s normally brightly lit entertainment establishments. It almost looked like a warehouse, and would have stuck out if it wasn’t hidden off the main thoroughfare of the Red Zone, surrounded by other shadowed structures that likely contained all the resources it took to keep the entertainment district running. All of the food and illegal products had to be stored somewhere after all.
Fred rapped his fist against a solid iron door set into the wall of the building. A small opening at eye level slid open, and the door quickly slid to the side to let us in. The door watcher was a skinny man, with dark blotches under his eyes. He gestured with a hand to follow, “Boss is this way.”
He led us down a dim hallway, but we emerged into a large, brightly lit rectangular room. Along the walls were benches arranged on a slope to give maximum visibility, and at the center of the room was a raised stage encased in a chain link cage. Two mutants were currently in the cage, one with four arms and chitinous growths along his shoulders and the other with a bone exoskeleton than encased his head, neck, and most of his upper torso. The two of them were fighting, but it appeared to be a training exercise, as they were only throwing punches, and neither of them was actually trying to kill their opponent.
I recognized this place. It was a test chamber. True, it wasn’t as sophisticated as the one I was made in, but it had the bare minimum of a combat area, and a place for the scientists to sit and observe.
...I did have to wonder about the safety precautions though. That cage wouldn’t hold if a brown-fur went berserk, let alone if a yellow-fur triggered.
There were a few other people around the large room, most of them cleaning detritus and other things off the floor (one of which looked like a bloodstain). We approached a rather overweight man in a wrinkled suit who sat next to the cage. Occasionally he would pull a stubby, smoking ‘stick’ out of his mouth to yell advice at the two fighters, although I wasn’t sure how useful “Just fuckin’ hit him!” was as advice.
“So, the boneheads finally decide to show. Take a break you two," he directed at the fighters, "Try not to suck so much next time.”
The two mutants left through a gate set into the side of the cage, one of them nursing a bloody nose. From the suited man’s demeanor, I assumed this was Belltoni.
“Heard you had some trouble last night Mr. Belltoni?” said Fred.
“You could say that. Seth, go haul out the leftovers,” he said to the skinny door guard, who left to carry out the order. “Last night a bunch of fuckin’ pack rats broke in. Strangest thing I’ve ever seen. They weren’t after any food. No, instead they went after my fighters like they was made of cheese, right in the middle of a match.”
“They hurt your fighters?”
“Fuck no, what kinda place you think I’m running? Rats got their asses beat. The crowd loved it. Thing is, these weren’t no normal rats.”
Seth was returning from a side room, wheeling a pallet whose contents were covered by a tarp. He lifted the tarp to the side to show us the corpse of a dead stitched rat. One of the big gray ones like I had seen in the mall. The stitches and scars that marked the surgery were clearly visible.
“Ugly thing ain’t it?” said Belltoni, “Saved the best one for you. Someone’s playing Frankenstein, never seen them this big before.”
“They can get even bigger, but this is definitely one of the stitched rats from the mall,” I said.
“Don’t care,” growled Belltoni, “All’s I know is some asshole made this fuckin’ thing, and then sent it into my place of business. I pay my dues just like everyone else, so I’d appreciate if this gets taken care of.”
“No worries Mr. Belltoni, we’ll be looking into this for sure. Gregor, Tofu, take this thing down to the van. I think we’ll take it to Stitcher’s, see what we’re dealing with,” said Fred.
Gregor wrapped the tarp back over the corpse and grabbed the front half, while I grabbed the back half. Together we easily lifted it, and set about taking it to the van.
“Shit, Hellion always snaps up the good muties,” said Belltoni, “Either of you interested in making some side money?”
“No,” said Gregor.
“I’m not a mutant,” I replied.
“Bah, useless. What about you good lookin’?” he directed at Brilla, “Wanna make some dough? Easier than for them. More fun too.”
Brilla responded with a rude gesture and started walking away. I thought we weren’t supposed to try and anger him?
“Heh. That’s how they all are… at first,” finished Belltoni.
Fred and Brilla led us on an alternate (and less frequented) path to the van, citing that seeing two minions hauling a dead body might be a bit too ‘spooky’ for the tourists. It seemed a bit weird that they would like seeing Belltoni’s fighters kill the rats, but not like seeing the body afterwards. Speaking of fights…
“Do you think Belltoni would let me fight if I promised not to shapeshift?” I asked. It would be a great way to practice and earn money at the same time.
“Er, I think you should probably avoid that place Tofu,” said Fred.
“Because a place like that turns men into animals,” replied Gregor.
“And animals into Belltoni,” added Brilla, “You can practically feel the desperation in that place.”
I considered their advice; I hadn't expected such negative responses. I also hadn’t picked up on the negative connotations of Belltoni’s establishment, nor had I felt ‘desperate’ there.
A caged fighting stage. Physical harm. An audience that wanted to see violence. The owner of the place caring nothing for the safety of the fighters. Blood.
Hmm, it was much harder to identify what emotion the Pit made me feel, but if I had to identify it…