Nicole was quite dazed and confused after escaping the sewer system, but even then, she had to admit that getting into the back of a windowless van with a bunch of masked strangers was probably not her best move ever. Especially as they started plying her with candy, granola bars, and even a can of Nectar almost immediately. She was too out of it to explain that she wasn’t mutating, but luckily Tofu was there to help her explain the details of what happened. Then there had been talk of dropping her off at a hospital, but there wasn’t much a hospital could do at this point. The severed end of her tail had already healed over. When it was revealed that there also wasn’t any home to drop her off at (seeing as she had just escaped said home), the minions collectively decided to bring her back to “the base” and decide what to do from there.
To say the car ride to said base was awkward was an understatement. Nicole hadn’t been around this many people in years, and it wasn’t helping how… ‘unique’ said characters were. The driver kept muttering under his breath about how he would someday kill everyone who didn’t signal. Next to him, the man riding shotgun was loudly explaining his theory that the rat-zombie creatures were actually caused by aliens. Demonic aliens. Tofu had somehow cleaned up all the blood on himself with his power (most of it hers), and then proceeded to stare at the wall of the van silently, and the two other mutants wouldn’t stop arguing with each other. Strangely their light-hearted bickering seemed the most normal, as the woman covered in spikes named… Spikes, kept trying to get her to eat candies, while the man with natural armor named Dillo kept telling Spikes to “stop fussing over the poor girl” before offering her granola which was healthier.
It all served to make her quite nervous, exacerbated by the fact she already felt very off-balance, mentally and physically. With most of her eyes missing she felt blind, and she kept trying to clack claws that weren’t there anymore. She didn’t normally experience missing limb syndrome when she lost a body part, but this was a bit above her normal level of injury, and the sense of ‘loss’ made everything feel uneven.
She popped another candy into her mouth and chewed quickly, doing her best to just focus on the sugar and not her surroundings. The snacks were helping a bit to get her brain working again (getting fuel in yourself after an injury was mutant 101), but that also meant she was starting to think more clearly, which meant her thoughts were rapidly getting away from her like they normally did in stressful situations, and this definitely counted as one. She was in a van full of criminals!
...Who had saved her life. For some reason. Well, probably because Tofu asked them to. And Tofu was a criminal? A henchman of all things? She would have bet money he was a sidekick in training; he had been so worried about the rat-zombies attacking people. He had been so nice to her!...
Unless he was just pretending to be nice…
Nicole stomped down on that thought. Hard. It was ridiculous, just her own paranoia and she knew it. There was no reason for Tofu to pretend with her. Just her own insecurities rearing their ugly heads. Okay, so maybe Tofu hung out with the wrong crowd, but that didn’t immediately mean he was out to get her, or trying to swindle her or something.
As if I had anything worth stealing.
...It would help if he wasn’t just staring at the wall like a crazy person though. He was probably just thinking about something, but the mask/helmet made it impossible to tell. His costume had an interesting pattern that created a twisting overlap of light-gray/dark-gray, and she’d love to know how the suit did that thing where it split and re-sealed itself while he was fighting, but right now the generic faceplate and his stillness made it seem creepy. Like a puppet right before it moved in a horror movie.
She reached out a hand to tap his shoulder, “Um, Tofu?”
“Yes Nicole?” he answered immediately, turning his head to look at her. Creepy doll!
“Eep! I-I-I was just wondering what your were, um, thinking about, I guess?”
“Yes, specifically protein chains made using molymers that bypass polymer weaknesses using amino acid molecule flex.”
“Oh… why are you thinking about that?”
“I’m trying to recreate several molecular structures from echo feedback analysis and filling in the blanks with predictive extrapolation.”
“...and you’re doing that in your head?”
“In my liver. Synthesizing untested proteins in the brain is inefficient.”
Nicole dissolved into giggles, the tensions of the last hour finally dissipating. Her world was turning upside down again, but at least there was one friendly constant this time. Maybe she didn’t know everything about him, but Tofu was Tofu.
Nicole led a strange life. No one could deny that (least of all herself). Still, she had never in her wildest dreams thought it would lead to her sitting in the actual underground lair of an actual infamous super villain. Specifically, in the cafeteria of said lair. Wrapped in a blanket. Drinking hot cocoa. With a small pile of military grade energy bars that she was slowly working her way through.
She finished the one she was currently working on, washing it down with some cocoa. They tasted okay; slightly peanutty, with some kind of creamy, bitter chocolate glue to hold it all together. But then, even if it had tasted like shit, she would have been grateful. In the three years or so Nicole had lived down in the tunnels, she had been injured on numerous occasions, and recovering from the worst of them was always a miserable affair. Regenerating always left her ravenous, and trying to calmly hunt rats without the use of claws, or sometimes acid, was made infinitely harder when your stomach felt like it was trying to eat itself. In comparison to that, comfortably eating energy bars in a cafeteria was heaven.
She bit into her current snack, and her thoughts drifted towards her mutation.
The… incident… that originally caused her mutation had amputated her original legs high on her thighs, but the new muscles that replaced her legs went up even further, anchoring to her hip bones and spine. From there downwards, the rope-like muscles fused together, and created what she would have liked to think of as a mermaid’s tail, but which to her eyes looked more like a giant skinned snake. At the very least, her tail was incredibly flexible, and she could bend it to sort of ‘sit’ in a chair, with the rest coiled and hidden under the table. At first glance, you might not even realize she was the most mutated person in the room. Between the gray girl huddled at a table, and the diverse mass of people that loitered around the room, it was the masked people that really drew the eye, and so she was experiencing something that hadn’t happened to her in a very long time.
She wasn’t the center of attention.
A few tables away, the man with the red mask who had come to her rescue was talking with a group of unique individuals, and that’s where most of the attention in the room was focused. There was another scruffy-looking man who was obviously a tinker, judging from his plethora of tools, a well-dressed woman in a business suit, another lady with a slight mutation that had given her claws, and the man in the domino mask who had given her the energy bars (Rattlesnake? No, Rattleback).
After her rescue, it was Rattleback who had pulled out a field medic’s kit and seen to her injury when she arrived at the base (although there wasn’t much he could do for her). He seemed rather knowledgeable about mutant injuries though, first confirming it wasn’t an active mutation, and then asking for an approximate weight at full health. She had been embarrassed to answer, but all Rattleback had done was raise an eyebrow, before pulling out a stack of MREs for her to eat, and warning her not to let Tofu have any.
She opened another bar, and broke off a chunk which she passed to Tofu who was sitting beside her. You could practically taste the calories in these bars; if she had these to eat the entire time, she’d be able to regenerate most of her body in a few weeks, or maybe even less… hooraaay~. Nicole paused in eating her current bar to look at her “tail,” and gave a little sigh. If only it would stay gone.
Tofu had amputated just above her last leg segment, leaving about fifteen feet of ‘tail’ for her to use. The severed end had already fused over, and was beginning to swell as her body geared up to regrow her more monstrous half. It didn’t hurt anymore (now it itched), and she needed to find a place to stay before new legs started forming. Regrowing parts was never pretty, and she desperately wanted to be somewhere private before the first few limbs developed. The only question was: where to go?
She couldn’t go back into the sewers with that army of zombies currently on the loose, and even if they weren’t there it wouldn’t be safe before she had at least a few pairs of legs regrown. If she had money, she could rent a storage unit to hide in while she regrew a few legs, if she had money. Maybe one of Tofu’s coworkers could drive her to E15, and she could hideout in the slums? That’s way out of the way though. Ugh, I’ll have to take the subway. Just the thought of it made her stomach clench.
“Is that a cold iron?”
Nicole jumped as the sudden question brought her out of her thoughts. The person who had spoken was a four-armed mutant kid, at the same table as her. He looked about twelve, and had overalls much like her own, with pockets crammed full of tools. A plate of food sat in front of him, which he had been disconsolately picking at. She had been curious as to why he was sitting in a super villain’s lair, but had been too hesitant to ask. Probably the kid of someone who worked there.
“Um, this? Yes it is,” she said, pulling the homemade cold iron from its pocket.
“I’ve never seen that model before.”
“I made it myself.”
“No way!” said the kid, eyes sparkling to life for the first time since Nicole had sat down at the table. “Only tinkers can do that!”
“W-well I mean, I didn’t make make it. I had to buy the coil-rod, and I salvaged a bunch of the other tinker specific parts. Then I just kinda put them together.”
“Now now, don’t sell yerself short there,” said a new voice, “Nobody makes their own coil-rod. Not worth the trouble.” Nicole looked up, only to find that it was the scruffy-looking tinker who had spoken. He had wandered over to their table.
“Mind if I take a look?” asked the man, holding out a hand for the cold iron.
“Uh, s-sure,” said Nicole, nervously handing it over to the cowl. Then she experienced a brief moment of panic as she realised she had just handed an ungrounded cold iron to someone who might resent the resulting shock.
“W-wait! D-d-don’t turn it on though! It’s ungrounded,” she yelped. Then she panicked again when she realised she was telling a cowl what to do. Her worries proved unfounded when the man cheerily began looking over the cold iron without hesitation. He seemed to intuitively know how to work all the extra dials Nicole had added, and then to her surprise turned it off and on a few times without zapping himself. His thick gloves just sort of ‘caught’ the small zaps of electricity that came off the cold iron. It was like he had built and worked with the tool for years.
Oh wait, duh, tinker.
“Not a bad piece,” said the man, “How do you drain the feedback loop without a grounding battery?”
“Um, my skin is slightly more conductive than the rest of me, which spreads the charge out, and I regenerate, so I just let it, um… zap me.”
“...HA! That’s practical engineering right there. Should have figured Tofu’s friends would be as crazy as he is. Put er there!” said the tinker, passing back her cold iron and holding his hand out. “Name’s Socket. What d’you go by?”
“Ah, um, Nicole,” she replied as she took back the tool, before getting pulled into an overly enthusiastic handshake.
“Nice ta meet’cha Nicole. Hey, if you have the time, you wouldn’t happen to have recorded the arcing lengths when you use the iron would’ya? Could use some data on ungrounded-”
“Hey Socket?” said a new voice. The lady in the business suit had walked over. “Sorry to interrupt, but were you able to ask them about the rogue super?”
“Whoops! Almost slipped my mind. Wanted to ask you kids if you can give me any more information on our rat problem.”
Socket pulled a rolled-up paper out of a back pocket, and unfurled it on the table. The laminated sheet was a map of E13, an incredibly large and detailed one that displayed the sector all the way down to individual blocks. Lightly colored markings had been added here and there to denote points of interest, including large red circles drawn around what must have been the zombie attack locations. The hospital, the mall, and a few other locations Nicole hadn’t known about. Socket pulled out a red pen and added a mark to the map, a block labeled TT headquarters.
TT?... Oh. Tinker Tot.
Nicole glanced at the young kid across the table. He was staring at the fresh marking, looking like he might burst into tears at any moment. The lady in the business suit patted the boy’s back, and Socket grumbled, “Nae worries lad, we’ll find ‘em.”
Nicole felt the pit in her stomach drop further. The Tinker Tots were more of a kid’s club than a gang. They got on people’s nerves with their traps and pranks, but just the thought of those things attacking children…
She shuddered and put down her food. She was feeling a bit nauseous.
“Now,” began Socket, “Here are the places that have been attacked so far. I’ve been trying to find a likely location for this arsehole’s lair by mapping it out, but so far we’ve turned up diddly-squat. Any of you know of attacks I might’ve missed? Might help narrow it down a bit.”
Nicole and Tofu leaned over the map. Judging by the markings there was indeed a pattern of sorts, besides just attacking large concentrations of people. Most of the attacks were either on or relatively near Ashwood St, which bisected the sector neatly into a north and south. One circle was in the Red Zone on the westernmost end of the street, and another was just north of that at the hospital. Moving east along Ashwood, the next was at the mall five blocks south of Ashwood St, a bit east of the Red Zone. Then came her spot in the sewers, quite a few blocks east and south of the mall, and finally came the Tinker Tot base, about midway into the sector and over thirty blocks north of Ashwood St. Other than those spots were multiple small marks that Socket confirmed to be smaller incidents of home invasion or confirmed sightings.
Nicole added her home to the map, as well as a few small marks where she had found bodies in the sewer. Tofu unfortunately didn’t know of any other sightings.
“Hmm, doesn’t really narrow it down much,” said Socket, “Ashwood is still in the middle of it all; at least it won’t be too hard to do a sweep. I’ll get some teams going to check where those tracers Imp planted cut out, maybe here, and here. I can probably call-”
“Um…” began Nicole hesitantly. Socket paused and made a gesture for her to continue her thought.
“It’s unlikely the rats use the tunnels directly under Ashwood to move around. Most of the space is taken up by the subway, and the subway tunnels get checked frequently by Central. But, there’s a gap under the subway here that I use to bypass it, and another here, and here, and the area near the Red Zone has a ton of tunnels you can use to get around the subway. A lot of the smaller instances happen in the south, this gap here in the markings is probably just due to Will-o-Wisps, and there are some easily accessed tunnels here and here that can handle a lot of traffic, so that offsets the most likely epicenter to… here,” and she pointed to a spot close to Ashwood St, about midway between Nicole’s home and the mall.
“Hmm, two of my tracers went dead in that area,” said Socket, “but it’s unlikely to be there. The only place to hide under would be… ah shite.”
“What’s wrong? Is it no good?”
“No, I’m pretty sure you’ve got it right, but the location kinda throws a monkey wrench in the mix,” said Socket, rubbing at his chin with a frown. But then he broke into a grin, “Ha, right good bit of detective work that was though. You a treasure hunter or something? Mapping the tunnels for old lairs?"
"Oh, um, a little bit? I do some salvaging, but also exploring, and a lot of hunting."
"Oh! Monster hunter are ya?"
"Well, no. I mean I do hunt stuff, but not professionally or anything, mostly just for food. I don't have a license to turn in bounties, and I can't really come to the... um, to the... surface, all that often..."
Nicole trailed off, realizing what she was saying. Socket's face was scrunched in confusion, but realization was quickly dawning in his expression, and on most of the faces around her. She could practically feel their gazes boring into her. She wanted to melt into the floor. First would come the disbelief, then the questions, then the looks of pi-
"I told you the tunnels were viable Sandra," said Tofu.
The lady with the business suit blinked. "What? No. No they are not Tofu!"
"But Nicole proves-"
"I'm not having this discussion with you again!"
The two started arguing, which thankfully took attention away from Nicole. Several of the nearby minions who had been eavedropping snorted or chuckled as Tofu tried to defend the merits of living in sewers, which made Nicole blush, and made Sandra's volume rise as she became more and more frustrated. No one seemed concerned though, so maybe this was a common occurence?
"Haha. Well, I'm not exactly sold on Tofu's argument on sewer living, but you've definitely got some guts girl," said Socket, turning away from the argument and speaking to Nicole, "Ever think about doing some part-time henching?”
Nicole's brain froze. Then jumpstarted.
“WHAT!? I-I-I can’t do that!”
“Sure you could! You’re smarter than most the knuckleheads tha’ come through here, and I can always use another pair of hands in the garage.”
“N-n-not that! I just couldn’t! That would be bad! Er, I mean, not that you’re bad. Of course I don’t mean to imply that vocation equals morality. Tofu works here and he’s nice, b-but of course you’ve all been nice to-me-too-and-I’m-really-grateful-but, I-I-I need-to-go-find-a-place-to-regenerate-and-and-and…” Why is the room spinning?
The people around her fell away, and it took Nicole a good two second to realize she was sliding backwards off the bench. Two hands shot out to steady her, one Socket’s, the other Tofu’s, and they managed to grab her shoulders before she fell.
“Whoa there lassie, don’t blow a gasket now.”
“Nicole are you alright?” asked Tofu.
“I-I t-think I-I-I…”
“Alright everyone, calm down now, give her some room,” said Sandra. “All this other stuff can wait for now, she’s had quite a day. Tofu, can you carry her down to the barracks? There should be some open single rooms she can use to get some sleep.”
“I-I can walk. Er, slither…” mumbled Nicole.
“It’s fine Nicole,” said Tofu. He stood and wrapped an arm behind her shoulders, and another under her tail, before suddenly lifting her easily from the bench. Most of her tail would drag, but Tofu walked towards the garage without a problem while supporting her.
Ack! How is he so strong!?
Nicole kept trying to protest that she could walk, while Tofu kept assuring her that it was fine. It might have actually been fine if there weren’t so many people around to see her getting carried around like a parade float, but she had to settle for just covering her face to hide her embarrassment.
Why are there so many people here? Aren’t evil villains supposed to work alone? Or in small evil groups at least? Is that a Parcel Corp Deluxe MkIII Fabricator? So cool! Wait. No! Not cool! You aren’t allowed to own those! They probably stole it. Or bought it off a black market dealer. I can't be here! No one will believe I'm not with them! I'll get arrested! Or sent down to Panama! Oh my god when is Tofu going to put me-
“We’re here Nicole,” said Tofu, interrupting her frantic thoughts. He had brought her through the garage to a large room filled with cots, couches, and various other furniture not meant for permanent living. Several people were sitting in folding chairs around a table, apparently on break or something since they were playing a card game. They glanced over only briefly before going back to their game. There were several doors along the back wall with nameplates, but a few were apparently extra, and it was one of these Tofu approached. Inside was just a plain bed, with an empty wardrobe in the corner.
One of the card players wolf-whistled behind them.
“Omigosh Tofu, you can put me down now, I’ll be fine.”
“You displayed signs of ‘dizziness’, so it’s better to place you directly into the bed. Besides, Sandra said to carry you.”
Tofu did exactly as he said, and placed her gently onto the covers. Then she had to swat his hands away when he tried to help pile her tail in. She wasn’t that out of it, she could do it herself.
“Here’s the rest of your energy bars,” said Tofu, handing her the bars she hadn’t finished.
“Oh, thank you.” When’d he grab those?
“You’re welcome. Will it be enough to help you regenerate? There is more food in the cafeteria if it’s not.”
“I’ll be fine for now. I just...*yawn*...just need some sleep. I feel like I got hit by a train. Some sleep, food, and a few more weeks and… I’ll be back to my old self.”
Why is he just standing there? I really wish he’d take that mask off, it makes him look so creepy. Oh, duh. Evil villain base. Bad time to show your secret identity… but he’s a shapeshifter right? Would you even need a mask? You could just change your face whenever you wanted. I wonder what he’s thinking now. Why is he staring at the bed!? I wonder what he looks like right now, he seems the type to change his face even with the helmet on. He plays it safe all the time, always with the million backup plans in Gribblin Tamer… ugh, I need to make a plan too. I need to get out of here! I can’t be roped any further into this! I can’t believe they wanted me to join! I can’t join an evil villain group!... But they can’t be all bad if Tofu is doing it...and he saved me… and they’re going after the frankenstein guy, so they can’t be all bad... Why is this a queen sized bed!? UGH, I still can’t think straight! I’ll just get some sleep, and make a plan to leave in the morning. Socket and the rest of them seemed reasonable enough. I’ll just tell them I can’t join and that-
“I’m sorry for lying,” said Tofu.
“About my job. You didn’t specifically ask if I was working as a henchman, but I am inclined to believe this falls under the category of a ‘lie of omission’. It was necessary for my job, but I’m worried this has damaged our relationship. Please forgive me?”
“...Tofu you saved my life.”
“Like, you fought a literal zombie army to save me.”
“I don’t think that group qualified as an army.”
“That’s not- look, if it makes you feel better you’re forgiven I guess? But seriously, you saved my life, um… thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I think you should accept the job offer.”
“I...think I need to think about it Tofu. I’m too tired to be making decisions right now.”
“Right, you need to rest. We can have Sandra interview you tomorrow,” said Tofu. “That works out actually, I can introduce you to my friends, and then we can all get lunch together.”
“What?! I, um, Tofu, I can’t- ”
“No worries, I’ll pay it. You already got me lunch today.”
“Huh?! Tofu, that’s not what-”
“See you tomorrow Nicole! Make sure to rest up and get better!” said Tofu, as he left the room and closed the door behind him.
“But Tofu!” ...aaaaand he’s gone. Great. Now what?
Well, she knew what. She really did need sleep.
And this bed is so soft! It’s been forever since I used a real mattress!
She fluffed the pillow and settled in, planning to enjoy this silver lining. In the morning she’d deal with all those giant problems, but she wasn’t about to let them get between her and blessed, blessed sleep.
She was broke and homeless.
The largest super villain organisation in the sector wanted to recruit her.
Someone was making an army of hybrid zombie monsters.
Tofu was going to introduce her to his friends? To his normal friends? Just the thought of it-
OMIGOD BRAIN! SHUT. UP.
Her tail itched.