It had been a long night, which made for a quiet morning. Imp enjoyed these calm mornings after a successful job. They were one of the best parts of working a night shift. Like Sandra he’d also worked through the night, but unlike her he had long ago adjusted to a nighttime schedule. Being the primary sneak for Hellion’s Henchmen would do that.
He took another sip of the tea he was drinking in the HH cafeteria. Caffeine free. Unlike everyone else around him, he didn’t want to wake himself up. It was technically early in the morning, but for him it was the end of a long and fruitful day, and he was going to head to bed in a bit.
Shame I didn’t find anything on the Espada though.
That was the one thing that irked him. Kidnapping mutants, and then using their bodies to create a monster army which would hypothetically increase anti-mutant sentiment? That had Espada written all over it, but when they found the guy responsible there wasn’t even a hint of their involvement. Tofu had given Imp a rundown of everything the ‘rat-stitcher’ had said, and as far as anyone could tell this was just a random Oddity of summer. Just a highschool math teacher who had reached his wit’s end. If the Espada were still around, it seemed HH would just have to wait and see what happened.
Meh. Maybe they got eaten by a rat. The thought made him smile.
He took a bite of his bagel with cream cheese substitute, and continued reading the morning news on his phone. The rat story was the biggest news in E13 for now, which meant that nothing else too drastic was taking place. Yep, just a nice, quiet morning.
Two clawed hands hit the table next to him, and Imp looked up to find a looming Viper staring daggers. She didn’t look like she was in a good mood, but then again she was always rather testy in the morning. Maybe this wasn’t about-
“What the hell did you say to Sandra?”
-nope, it was.
Imp stifled a sigh and tried to subtly move his tea away from her. He could technically teleport away if she threw it at him, but the last time he did that she signed him up to fifty different spam e-mail services. Some things even teleportation couldn’t dodge.
“I just asked her to listen in while I asked Tofu some questions, Viper.”
“Uh huh. You do know she already gave Tofu a thorough interview right? With questions she expressly designed to get the answers HH wants without prying into personal details, right? And you definitely remember how Sandra gets about misuse of her power, right? Or did you somehow think-”
“Alright, alright Viper, I get it! I was already going to apologise to her later.”
“And no bullshit about it being your job.”
“Wasn’t gonna bring it up.”
“And a pastry from that bakery she likes.”
“And I’ll castrate you if you don’t.”
“Well?” said Viper, who was still looming over Imp.
“What was so damn important you felt you had to interrogate the twerp? He do something fishy?”
Imp sighed, “Yes and no. On one hand he’s followed every order I’ve given him to a T, like a seasoned minion, but on the other hand he acts like he’s been living under a rock his whole life.”
“Which, given his circumstances, makes perfect sense.”
“Right, but it also leads to certain incidents that… set off a few alarm bells. Here, this is from the job last night.”
Imp fiddled with his phone and then showed it to Viper. It was a picture of a message scrawled onto a wall in messy graffiti.
Please refrain from indiscriminately attacking civilians in Hellion’s territory.
Viper didn't get it. “Okay? So he…?”
“Did exactly what I told him to do. Kill the rat guy, and make a message out of him so people don’t follow his example. Interesting font wouldn’t you say?”
Viper’s brow furrowed before she turned back to the picture and squinted at the letters to try and spot what Imp was talking about. It took her a few seconds to realize the message wasn’t on a wall, it was on the floor. Tofu had taken Imp’s order quite literally, and the… materials wouldn’t have adhered to the wall.
“Yeah. I’m actually kinda impressed at how straight the lines are. He used every part of the buffalo.”
“Oh gross Imp.”
“Yeah, but you see why I needed to do a double check?”
“Yes, jeez. Put it away please. Way too early in the day for that.”
“How do you think I feel? I’m heading off to bed. Gonna make for an interesting nightmare later.”
“Make sure Sandra doesn’t see it.”
“Pft, please. She’d stick the kid in therapy for the rest of his natural life.”
Viper considered it for a moment. “...You think maybe we should stick him in there anyways?”
Before Imp could answer, a loud *bang* sounded through the cafeteria as the doors to the training rooms burst open, and Tofu came barreling out. His feet skid on the smooth tile for a second, and then he started power-walking for the elevators, which was more like a fast jog since his legs were still shifted. Adder soon followed hot on his heels.
“Tofu, where are you going?”
“SORRY ADDER I HAVE TO GO! I NEED TO GO MAKE MEATLOAF!”
“If this is about the batons I was joking! There’s other ways to diet.”
“I DON'T WANT TO DIET!”
“Get back here!”
Tofu stayed ahead of Adder as she tried to catch up to him, and they slowly sped up until Adder was basically just chasing Tofu around the cafeteria and up and down the halls. As the chase continued down towards the garage, the other minions started taking bets.
“Eh, I think he’ll be fine.”
Adder has impressive skills for a baseline human. Peak physical health for her size, years of training, and absolutely astounding reflexes. But one thing she can't do? Stick to the ceiling.
“Tofu get down from there. You’re being ridiculous.”
“I don’t think your dieting method is work safe.”
“Tofu, I had them on the lowest setting, all they do is glow and look menacing at that level. Would you please come down?”
“I’ll tell you how I keep predicting your moves.”
I climbed down from the ceiling corner I wedged myself into, but stood out of arm's reach. Hopefully this wasn't a trick.
Adder rolled her eyes. “Alright, you ready for the super secret special technique?”
“You know how when you’re practicing martial arts, one of the goals is to get rid of unnecessary movements?”
“Well, you are really, really good at doing that. Like, down to the centimeter accurate. Which is quite impressive… annnnnd it makes you predictable. You almost always choose the correct movement for the situation, but that makes it easy for me to pick the correct move to counter with. The fact that you can repeat the same movement in the exact same way every single time just makes it even easier for me.”
I thought that over.
“So... how do I choose what to do?”
“Well if you have more experience than your opponent you can just keep picking the moves that slowly edge the fight in your favor, which is what I’ve been doing, or you can just pick a slightly worse move at random. Even if it’s not the absolute best choice, it’ll throw your opponent off your rhythm.”
“...So in order to succeed, I have to be… less efficient?”
“Versus someone like me at least. You can still fight like you normally do against thugs and stuff though.”
Less efficiency could sometimes be the correct option. That was just so… wrong.
“Anyways Tofu, I need to go help the regulars that aren’t early risers, so we’ll call it quits for today. I’ll try to think of methods to help you train if you’re dead set on being heavy. I can’t really spar with you if a single bad hit will brain me.”
“It’s fine Adder. If you think it will hinder me I’ll dump the extra weight.” I was reluctant to dump my stockpiled energy reserves, but I was not about to let it compromise my immediate survival. It was actually the shock batons that had truly worried me. Even a small electrical discharge would disrupt the micro unit signals, and there was a decent chance they would self-destruct before I could reestablish control. I didn’t want to display that vulnerability if I could help it.
“So what was up with the scaredy cat routine?”
I picked an excuse that would align with my ‘backstory’.
“I just don’t like getting shocked. Bad memories.”
“Ah, sorry about teasing you with it then.”
“See you again tomorrow?”
More improvement was necessary. But for now, it was time for meatloaf.
Before I left the base, I checked to make sure that Nicole was still asleep and that Mikey was on the schedule for today. I then sent a text to both Cindy and Mikey asking them to join me for lunch at the base later today, and went to the grocery store to get ingredients.
The grocery store really was a relaxing place. Food everywhere, everything properly labeled, good field of vision due to all the mirrored surfaces and yet plenty of places to duck for cover. Even the temperature was kept stable using an A/C at full blast. It reminded me of the rat-stitcher’s pantry a bit. That place had been relaxing as well. Come to think of it, any place where I was surrounded by food marked a measured reduction in stress levels from Human.exe. Maybe that was part of the reason I liked crowds? As long as they weren’t looking at me at least.
I went down the aisle with my complimentary kart, grabbing ingredients for the meatloaf. It was all easy to find since I’d mapped out the store my last time here, but I was taking my time in order to practice being… inefficient.
It was a detail that I had overlooked in my effort to improve; humans were, by and large, inefficient. If I wanted to hide within the general populace, a certain degree of inefficiency would actually help my disguise, not hinder it. Circumstances in the testing lab had demanded that I strive for excellence at all times in order to survive, and comparing successful examples such as Hellion’s Henchmen, to inefficient and unsuccessful examples like the rat stitcher, had convinced me that the same held true outside of the lab. Technically it still did, but I had not considered just how large the acceptable margin of error was.
It did explain quite a few things that had puzzled me about human behavior. Things like Mikey’s reluctance to attend Adder’s training sessions, or how Maz didn’t know her children would share her mutation made a lot more sense now. They had decided to ignore things they thought had little relevance, in favor of things that had more relevance. It wasn’t laziness or a flaw; they were reducing effort in an unneeded area. Maz’s children potentially sharing her mutation would not negatively affect her or them, so why waste time seeking information on the subject beforehand? Especially if nothing could be done about it regardless of the answer? And Mikey not seeking extra training was because… well, I couldn’t imagine how combat training would be unimportant. Maybe he was simply incorrectly sorting his priorities? Even I did that sometimes. Human thought processes were decidedly... focused, and it was easy to get too drawn into a singular goal.
Maybe purposeful inefficiency was a self-defense mechanism against pursuing an overly resource intensive goal? I myself had been trying to increase combat survivability, maximize energy storage, and maintain a perfect disguise all at the same time, straining my efforts in each area in order to maximize all of them. Like Adder said; a perfect approach would work only until I encountered a problem that was simply outside of my capabilities. Then it would fail spectacularly. By introducing some slack into lower priority areas of improvement, it would increase available resources in more fruitful endeavors, and would decrease the odds of me picking a course of action that was too difficult and had the potential to fail. After all, an organism that knew it couldn’t solve an electric puzzle trap would never attempt to do so, and therefore avoid the inevitable costly failure. I wasn’t in the test chambers anymore; I could always walk away from said impossible problem.
… I’d hated electric puzzle tests.
I finished up my tour of the grocery store, finding several new items that hadn’t been stocked the last time I came (hah, inefficiency was already helping to discover new options). The ingredients I needed were located where I remembered, but when I wanted to get the meat, I needed to ask a clerk to retrieve it from a sealed locker. Odd Summer had caused the price of meat to skyrocket, so much so that I briefly considered using a substitution like tofu, or perhaps whatever I could hunt up close to the surface of E13. Eventually though, I just decided to splurge and buy the ground beef. I didn’t know what a substitution would do to the flavor, and besides, I was practicing inefficiency.
I paid for my ingredients and brought them to my apartment. The actual cooking of the meatloaf wasn’t that hard, just mix the ingredients in the proper order and then place in the oven until ready, so I was left with an hour to spend while I waited for it to finish baking. I watered my plant, added the knives I got from the rat-stitcher job to my growing collection, and then I decided to deal with my weight problem. Fortunately, humans equipped their dens with easy to use waste removal units, so I got to experience using a toilet for the first time. I took the opportunity to test a few internal designs using the extra resources, but once I was finished, my micro units broke down the excess mass into a fine carbon powder, and flush by flush, one hundred pounds of compressed sugar structures, redundant tissues, and excess muscle all went down the drain. No fat though. I hadn’t lied to Adder, fat was a nice storage method, but it didn’t reach the capacity I had wanted.
It felt like a huge waste to get rid of it all, even if I knew it was for a purpose. My energy reserves dropped to five weeks worth, and while I was not happy about that, I admittedly felt a lot less… clunky. The folded muscle that remained could unpack faster, and I didn’t need to monitor the placement of my foldholds as thoroughly. Once I readjusted again, I would be able to freely spar with Adder since there was less of a chance of accidentally damaging her. While I had yet to win against her I did sometimes manage to land a hit, and she was right about the risk of ‘braining’ or otherwise permanently injuring her. I still had a lot I could learn from her, and needing to find a new teacher would be troublesome.
Oh! And I had more room for knives now too. So that was a plus.
I spent the rest of the hour playing Gribblin Tamer on my phone. The meatloaf finished while I was trying to practice inefficiency inside of the game. I was in the middle of a boss fight, and I had been brought to low hp by one of the unavoidable attacks the boss did when it went down to half health. Normally at this point I continued to carefully dodge until I managed to whittle the boss’s hp down and kill him, but there was another way to do this that would give me more leeway and speed things up.
I could use a potion...
Instead I paused the game, and resolved to ask Nicole about it at lunch. If she could confirm I wouldn’t need it later, I would consider it. Unlike in real life I had no inventory limitations inside the game, so I did not see the point in wasting items. Inefficiency was surprisingly difficult sometimes. Humans made it look so easy.
As far as I could tell the meatloaf was done. The only meat I had ever cooked was the slig when I was hunting with Nicole, so I didn’t have enough examples to compare it to. It smelled great though, and testing a small piece of it confirmed it wouldn’t cause any problems for a human digestive system. I would simply have to trust that the cooking instructions were correct.
I sent a text to Mikey and Cindy letting them know I was on my way (they had both confirmed they would be able to join me), and then sent a text to Nicole telling her I was coming by with food. She didn’t send an immediate response, so I assumed she was still sleeping. Hopefully she wasn’t hibernating to heal herself; I doubted she could eat while sleeping.
I cut the meatloaf into four portions and placed it into containers I bought for that express purpose, and grabbed some of the leftover paper plates and plastic utensils from when I was cooking burgers with Mikey. Then I used the elevator in the apartment building to head to the base. Mikey met me in the cafeteria.
“Hey there Tofu, how’s it going?”
“Good. I believe the meatloaf came out well.”
“You made meatloaf?”
“Yes, I decided to splurge.”
Mikey and I talked for a few minutes before Ifrit showed up. She was wearing her mask and gauntlets since she had a job that started after lunch.
Ifrit held a hand out to Mikey and greeted him with a simple “Ifrit.”
“Oh, um, Mikey. Nice to meet you,” replied Mikey, and he shook her gauntlet somewhat warily.
I was a bit confused by their odd interaction. Mikey had never talked to Cindy while she was in costume, so I guess they were pretending to be meeting for the first time? Perhaps for the benefit of reinforcing the separation between Ifrit and her civilian disguise? That was rather clever. I couldn’t think of any other reason for it, as Mikey was too perceptive to not have noticed that Cindy was Ifrit, and even if he somehow hadn’t noticed, Cindy would have told him by now right?
Eh, it wasn’t that important. What was important was that I hadn’t gotten a message back from Nicole yet. It wouldn’t make much sense to have lunch without her, so I decided to lead Mikey and Ifrit to the room where I had left her last night. I could introduce them, and then we could all eat meatloaf together.
I was looking forward to this.
Nicole was sleeping, caught in that glorious moment where you were starting to wake up, but were still dreaming at the same time. She’d just finished up what felt like the most restful sleep of her life, and she was nestled into the warm and fluffy blankets of her bed, ignorant of the world around her. Several texts had been announced by her phone and completely ignored, and while she was hungry after apparently sleeping through breakfast, she didn’t want to leave her fuzzy dreamscape. She couldn’t even remember if it was the weekend or a school day, but she had heard the sounds of her parents moving around from beyond her door, so she was confident they would have gotten her out of bed by this point if she needed to get ready for class.
If only my tail wasn’t so sore, then this would be perfect.
The errant thought stuck. She tried to cling to sleep, but no amount of readjusting would relieve the soreness in her extremities. Was she coming down with a bad flu? Was that why she was still in bed? She’d already had her benedicci booster shot though... Oh! The doctor said she might feel sick for a day or two after the injection, that must have been what she was feeling.
But… hadn’t her benedicci shot been ages ago?
It was no use, facts of reality kept bombarding her half-dreaming mind, and slowly she was forced into the world of the waking. She woke up suddenly, and for a moment the last vestiges of her dreams overlapped with the real world just enough to confuse her one last time.
That’s not my ceiling...
...Of course it wasn’t. It wasn’t her bed either, nor her blankets, nor her room.
It wasn’t even her original body.
She rolled onto her side for a second, facing the wall and trying to ignore the pain of having her wonderful dream ripped away from her. It had been a long, long time since she’d last had that dream, and the hurt felt fresher than normal because of it. Nicole allowed herself a few moments to feel sorry for herself, before finally taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. Then she rolled over again, and started working herself into a pseudo sitting position on the edge of the bed to take in her surroundings. Last night she had been kind of out of it.
I really am in an evil lair. That was the real part.
There wasn’t much to look at in the windowless room, so she didn’t have an excuse to ignore the soreness and itching any longer. Nicole slowly coiled her tail in from where it was flopped off the end of the bed, and checked the damage. She was surprised at how much had regenerated while she was sleeping. All of the tail portion had reformed, and the giant lump at the end looked like it was ready to begin the next phase of regeneration, slightly bloated as new legs formed inside. She’d been injured like this twice before, and knew what to expect in terms of regrowth. The first time had been her initial mutation, and the second was a misguided attempt between her and her doctors to ‘remove’ the scorpion half, seeing as none of her vital organs were contained within it. It hadn’t worked, and if anything the scorpion half had regenerated larger and stronger than ever.
Ugh, I hope I can still fit through the tunnels after this. Wouldn’t that be ironic...
Her stomach gurgled, reminding her that regenerating her lost body wasn’t free, and it wanted to be paid. She didn’t have any idea how to go about getting food though (she didn’t remember the route to the cafeteria, and was she even allowed to eat there?), so she grabbed her phone to talk with Tofu. The first thing she saw was the multiple texts he had sent her that she missed. Tofu often sent texts about random things, or asking silly questions, and she started to smile as she read through the long list of them.
T: Concrete is hard to practice martial arts on.
T: Adder said I need to diet?
T: Diets are dangerous!
T: I escaped.
T: Hey Nicole, you’re still asleep so I’m just letting you know I will be bringing some lunch by later. You can get breakfast in the cafeteria if you wake up early (you should, they have muffins).
T: Hey Nicole, I’m at the grocery store for ingredients. Is there anything special I should know about meatloaf?
T: Do I need a bread pan to make meatloaf? Or is there a meat pan?
T: Meat prices are so high!
T: Made it to the level twelve ice boss in Gribblin Tamer. Are there any secrets in the treasure room?
Nicole’s mood perked up as she read through the texts. Tofu sent them at all hours of the day, and always answered immediately as long as his phone was on. It was like he never slept. Nicole had a few online acquaintances she talked to now and then, mostly from mutual games they played, but Tofu was the first person who kept in real contact. For anyone else it might have been too much contact, but Nicole didn’t mind. Living in a sewer was decidedly lonely, and she appreciated Tofu's willingness to keep in touch. Reading the wall of texts he'd sent was a great way to start the day... right up until she read the last of the messages.
T: I think the Meatloaf is almost done. I’ll be coming by soon.
T: Met up with Mikey in the cafeteria.
T: Met up with Ifrit at the cafeteria.
T: Are you not up yet?
T: No worries. We’ll come wake you up.
T: On our way.
Wait. What!? Oh crap!
Nicole had forgotten what Tofu said about introducing his friends, and she felt her stomach drop at realizing she would have to meet new people, and not just any people. These were Tofu’s friends, and she needed to make a good first impression. The phone *blipped* in her hand, and a new message came in.
T: Almost there.
I need to get ready!
But how? All she had was her shirt from yesterday that she had slept in and was still wearing, and her tool apron which was basically useless to her right now.
No wait! My comb should be in there somewhere!
She grabbed her apron off the floor in a panic. It was doubtful that a small comb would tame her bedhead and magically make her presentable, but she had to try something! She had been in a sewer yesterday! The large amount of nessies around her home had kept it clean enough, but still! She wouldn’t feel presentable until she’d had a chance to wash off the feeling of being dirty.
A *knock* at the door startled her, and she slipped off the edge of the bed in surprise.
“Hello Nicole, are you up yet? I brought meatloaf and friends.”
“J-just a minute Tofu!”
She wavered back and forth for a few seconds, trying to come up with something and of course failing to come up with anything. Maybe Odd Summer would be extra special, super nice and decide to give her a power to phase through floors despite mutavus having already burned out her ability to get a power?
...Nothing? Yeah I thought so.
Nicole took a deep breath and steadied herself, before getting her tail under her and lifting her torso off the floor. It worked well enough, her tail acted a bit like a snake’s, and slowly she slithered to the door to greet Tofu. Maybe… maybe she could ask Tofu to come back in a bit? He and his friends could go eat while she found a place to freshen up? She wasn’t trying to put off meeting them, she just needed a bit more time to get presentable (and get used to the idea of meeting new people).
Nicole reached up and grabbed the doorknob, twisted it, and slowly lifted herself higher off the floor while pulling the door out. As she did so, she made the mistake of trying to put weight on the end of her tail, as she was used to reflexively using her scorpion half as the anchor for lifting herself. A sharp pain went alllll the way up her side.
Nicole fell over as her tail spasmed. She tried to grab the door and slipped, instead flinging the door open wide and face planting herself on the ground right in front of Tofu and two others. As the door smacked the wall, she felt a tearing twinge along the sides of the lump at the end of her tail. A feeling she recognized.
The sides of the lump split open, and the first three pairs of new legs burst forth, all six of them involuntarily twitching and shuddering as the nerves came online. Everyone present was too stunned to speak. Well, mostly everyone.
“Oh good. You’re regenerating nicely. I was worried about that,” said Tofu cheerily.
...I deserve floor phasing powers.
We decided to have lunch in the rec room. Nicole wasn’t really feeling up to being in a more public place like the cafeteria, so I pulled a table over to the door so she could hide her injury in her room while eating with us. I helped with some quick introductions, and then set about placing utensils and serving out portions. Conversation was somewhat… stunted, as everyone began eating. More so than I had come to expect from young humans. They assured me that the meatloaf tasted fine when I asked though, so that was good.
Oh well, even if this plan didn’t work to convince Nicole, I was sure I could eventually get her to join Hellion’s Henchmen. I doubted she could go anywhere until she regenerated more, and by my estimates she was still two weeks or so off at her current rate, so I would have plenty of opportunity later. I would figure something out.
Either way, I was still immensely happy with how things had turned out. So much so, that I almost wished I could have shared some meatloaf with the rat-stitcher. I had thanked him for his help before I killed him, but considering the amazing advancements I had made due to opportunities he created, it still somewhat felt like I owed him.
After all, it wasn’t every day you got to have your friends, and eat them too.