I was worried for a bit there. When I discovered the herd of nessies clogging the outflow, I was glad to find that Nicole’s favorite, Mr. Chonkers, was among them. I figured the return of her ‘pet’ would make her happy, but instead she started crying when I brought him to her. I thought I had erred somehow, but she assured me that she was actually very happy. So… I guess humans can cry when happy? I thought crying was for being sad.
Humans are complicated.
Regardless, the other minions were not nearly as enthusiastic about the discovery of the nessies in the tunnels around their base. Especially not Viper. Both Nicole and I tried to assure them that the nessies were harmless, but unfortunately the fact that nessies are a bit... ‘bitey’, did little to convince them. It had never been a problem for Nicole and I, but it seemed the average human wasn’t quite as prepared to dodge a nessie lunge, and admittedly the nessies weren’t all that weak, at least not in comparison to a standard human (they did compete with rats after all), so both Nicole and I had to bonk Mr. Chonkers multiple times to prevent him from biting nearby minions. Nicole eventually fed him some leftover meatloaf in order to pacify him.
I did bring up the nessies’ useful filtration ability, but besides a few of Socket’s engineers there wasn’t much interest. Water filtration was a technology humans already had, and HH just used the city’s water supply anyways. My suggestion that the nessies could provide recycled water directly from the sewer was perhaps met with even less enthusiasm than letting the nessies stay. I wasn’t sure what the big deal was, I’d tested it myself, and nessie treated water should be just as safe for humans as tap water, and yet even Nicole wasn’t in agreement with me.
In the end, the final decision came down to the concern that nessies were not a recognized ‘stable species’ or even a recognized species at all, and the risk that they could trigger badly due to Odd Summer was too high. On the plus side, one minion’s suggestion that they be ‘put down’ was also disregarded for the same reason. That or Nicole’s obvious distress at the suggestion. Socket smacked the back of that minion’s head.
Still, the nessies couldn’t stay, so I was put in charge of luring them away from the base tunnels with food, while Socket’s crew welded grates over the outflow and some connecting tunnels. I was trying to figure out a good place to bring them, when Mr. Chonkers got distracted and went down a side tunnel away from the herd. He had apparently found a small patch of half-dead barnacles, and almost got himself killed when they started whalloping him, forcing me to save him. The chamber the barnacles were in was a good place to store the nessies though. A wide pool with multiple smaller entrance/escape tunnels, and a good water flow. I dumped the rest of my bait and the dead barnacles (keeping one for myself). The nessies would figure it out. Or I’d have to dump some food here every now and then to keep them from wandering off and dying. At least they were easy to feed.
The rest of the day was a calm one. I had no official duties, so I spent the day helping Nicole acquire essentials she would need, seeing as the zombies had torn up her home, and the C’s would still have eyes on the scene after all the commotion. Things like toothpaste, a charger cable for her phone, and clothes. I asked her what kind of clothes she wanted, and she replied with “just some generic shirts” which I could get cheap at a surplus store since “whatever” was fine. Unacceptable. Clothes were vitally important, as wearing the wrong ones could cause problems. Wear the wrong colors down the wrong alley? You’ll get stopped by whichever gang controls the area. Go to a ‘fancy’ restaurant without ‘fancy’ clothes? They’ll stare at you throughout the whole meal. Get in a fight while not wearing durable clothing? You’ll have to get new ones. Nicole had absolutely nothing but the one shirt right now, so every piece counted.
That said, I wasn’t quite sure what would be most useful to her. Most of my wardrobe was based on what was sturdy enough to survive a quick brawl, items that fit a certain ‘look’ based on average crowd aggregates, a few pieces I might need later for alternate disguises, and a few articles that Babs, the tailor Cindy introduced me to, designed specifically because I was the only one who could wear them.
Ah! I could just ask Babs. She would definitely know better than I what Nicole would need.
I took a detour to Babs' tailor shop on my way back to the base. When I entered, Babs was immediately apparent, wearing a bright red asymmetrical dress and speaking loudly to a client in the shop.
“I’ll have some of the outfits ready by tomorrow,” said Babs. “Be sure to send my regards, and I’d be happy to have them in the shop for a real fitting whenever they have the time.”
“I’ll mention it, but I doubt it. Summer’s ramping up.”
“My, yes. I saw all of that nastiness on the news this morning. Thank heavens they found those poor people. You take care now darling.”
“You as well ma’am.”
The client left, giving a perfunctory nod as he passed by me on the way out. He was a baseline human wearing a suit, slightly wrinkled. With the dark blotches under his eyes, and the slight scent of sweat I detected from him, I determined he had likely been working at whatever his job was for quite a while. The door drifted shut behind him as Babs greeted me.
“Tofu! Welcome, welcome. Good things do come in twos.”
“Today at least. Just managed to nab a juicy contract. Please tell me you’re here to model.”
“Actually I’m here to get clothes for a friend. She lost everything during a rat attack.”
“My goodness! It wasn’t that business on the news this morning was it?”
“If you mean the rat swarms it was. One of the swarms came after her.”
“My word! Tell me everything!”
I gave Babs a basic summary of what happened, and an explanation that I was helping with restocking Nicole’s wardrobe but didn’t know what to get her. Babs immediately agreed to help me, and once I explained why Nicole’s mutation meant she wouldn’t need pants, demanded I model for her to get it right. It took an hour and a half before Babs was satisfied, but once it was done, she had several articles of clothing that she claimed would match Nicole’s ‘complexion’. Interestingly they weren’t all shirts, and included several blouses and dresses, as well as some custom articles by Babs. Nicole hadn’t asked for them, but Babs assured me they were essential, along with several articles of ‘underwear’. I took note of every new thing Babs mentioned about clothing as usual. Clothing was important for my disguise, and every bit I could glean would help me in the long run.
In the end I left Babs’ shop with my arms laden with boxes and bags of clothes, all sold to me at a heavy discount (which I had come to learn wasn’t really something Babs’s shop normally did). I would come back at a later date to retrieve the more specialized clothing that Babs was going to make for Nicole, such as gloves and work aprons.
The walk home was uneventful. I flashed my mask at any thugs that looked at my bags with interest, noted two flaming motorcycles that were racing each other down the road, and bought myself some snacks from a street vendor to eat while I walked. When I got to my apartment, I dropped off a few articles of clothing I had bought for myself, then took the elevator to the base to give Nicole her supplies and clothing. She was somewhat surprised by the amount I brought back.
“Tofu I, I can’t pay for all of these.”
“I already paid for them.”
“But these look so expensive! I just needed a few shirts.”
“Babs gave me a discount. No worries, I’ve been budgeting properly.” I was obeying Sandra’s advice, and I was getting a big hazard pay bonus for helping with the rat-stitcher besides. “Anyways, Babs said your work stuff will be ready in a day or two, and when you finish regenerating you should come by to get fitted.”
She rolled her eyes, “Like that’s going to happen.”
“You should. She said she can’t perfectly fit the underwear otherwise.”
“The underwear, here,” I pulled out a bundle of ‘bras’ from a bag and handed them to her. “These should fit regardless, but they’ll fit better if Babs gets your measurements. I did my best to model you for her with my power, but I can only mimic so much.”
“You… modeled me?”
“Yes, but it’s imprecise of course. If you let me take your measurements I could go to Babs myself if you’d prefer that? Babs showed me how to do it.”
“Nicole? Are you alright? Your face is changing hues.”
I got kicked out.
For the rest of the afternoon I used both the target range and the training room to continue making adjustments and practice with my new body. Partly because I needed to practice with the lower weight, partly because I was… slightly exasperated with human social interactions, and I had had enough of them for the day.
So many illogical rules.
Perfectly fine filtered water was still ‘gross’ if it had once been in contact with someone else’s digestive system. Even if it was cleaner than the average tap water. Talking about bras was embarrassing, but only if it was a boy and a girl talking about them, but also not when it was with the shop owner who was selling them to you. Certain emotions could invoke the same physical reactions, but not always, and for unclear reasons. The stun batons were a joke, because the threat of physical harm among acquaintances is somehow funny. But superficially slashing a thug’s face when they doubt your mask is real is considered “too much,” and then they call you a psycho! And putting more than one Nectar packet in my drink? Also too much. Despite the fact that it’s specifically formulated for mutants who generally need the extra calories. Says so on the label. At least Nicole admitted that my drink wasn’t that bad after the others left. She hadn’t done so earlier because while Mikey and Ifrit were there it was difficult to admit she liked it, because of ‘peer pressure’, which was another social concept I had to research… she did apologize for that though…
And mask rules in Fortress City made no logical sense! I’d read through the articles on the mask rules myself after Viper talked through some of the special circumstances with Nicole. There were no less than nine logical paradoxes within the first four sections alone. Out of one-hundred and twenty-eight Articles total. Not including the amendments sections. Ridiculous.
And humanity’s obsession with rectangles was apparently so ingrained that they didn’t have a word I could look up to research it. That… hadn’t actually come up today, but it was still bothering me, and I just felt so… frustrated.
Human.exe displaying anomalous thought patterns: analyzing...
Modifying thought process kernel...
I rolled my eyes as my error counter ticked up by one, and decided to shove the social interaction analysis further down the priority queue. Instead I concentrated on the physical destruction of my target dummies. Several anger management guides recommended physical activity to manage stress and irritation, and I had to admit that hitting and breaking the targets was… ‘cathartic’.
A few hours passed this way, with my only social interactions being with a few of the other minions that came in for their own practice, but they were focused on their own training as well, so it wasn’t a bother. They filtered in and out throughout the afternoon, and eventually I was alone again. Finally though, I was interrupted by Mikey, who had finished his job for the day.
“Hey Tofu, there you are. Want to go get dinner?”
“Um, I might eat later Mikey, I still have a lot to do before I stop for the day.”
“Oh, you sure? They’re doing that big dinner thing you were talking about.”
“For the Trebla job? Plus the kidnapping thing being dealt with. Sandra and Viper aren’t here, so Hellion is managing it herself, said something about making it twice as big?...She seemed kinda drunk already though.”
I had to carry Mikey since he couldn’t keep up with me. Ifrit was already there, as well as Nicole surprisingly. She was wearing a black domino mask and one of her new dresses, which she thanked me for getting.
I ate a triple portion for dinner.
It was good.
Jerry, E13's Central Liaison
It was the end of a long and tiresome morning, and Jerry was trying to enjoy a cucumber sandwich. Trying being the keyword. His aides kept coming into his office to drop off reports, or inform him of changing situations across E13. He was reading the headers and organizing them according to priority with one hand, while he held his sandwich with the other and tried to keep the protein spread from leaking out onto the documents. Jerry had to admit though, overall, the general situation was actually pretty good.
The morning had started off with a bang when someone called in a disturbance near the highschool. Magenta was called in for it, standard procedure with anything involving a school, even an empty one. You wouldn’t be surprised at how many times a former student triggered and decided to test their power by trashing the empty building, or at least, the hopefully empty building. Schools were simply breeding grounds for power awakenings; the combination of youthful energy, childhood uncertainty, and teenage angst made it inevitable. It was the reason why all schools had a second nearby location to temporarily hold supers, either to debrief them on their new responsibilities now that they had a power, or to restrain them in the case of violent or criminal behavior… or a bad trigger. Not exactly the nicest thought that each school had holding cells right next door, so they were often disguised and their exact location kept secret from the general populace.
Which was why the small crowd emerging from the facility next to E13’s biggest highschool was somewhat of a problem. The song-and-dance Jerry had to put on as a result was probably some of his best work. Secret Central holding facility that was co-opted by a villain? Nope, random nearby building. Hostages rescued by masked thugs? Nope, Magenta was first at the scene, obviously she had a hand in it. High school teacher gone insane and performing horrific experiments on civilians? Nope, just a pack of rats that were mutated and warped by Odd Summer. It had been a hard sell, but luckily Jerry had help on the public relations side from their new PR guy. Despite what Brick thought of their new resident spin-doctor, the man was a miracle worker.
That left Central and a few others who needed mollifying. Central had not been pleased to learn that one of their facilities had been co-opted and subsequently cleaned out. The guy talking to Jerry had tried to imply incompetence on E13’s side of things, whereupon Jerry had beaten him with facts until he submitted. E13’s hero team was under-staffed with only three members, in a sector that was large enough to warrant seven or eight (and despite multiple requests for new members before summer started, mind you). Two of the people the team did have were new recruits from the last Odd Summer, a summer which had also claimed the life of the previous team leader and thrown the team under new leadership, and despite all that they were still holding things together. The rat-swarm problem was solved and done with, without Central’s name being trawled through the mud, and with great PR for the heroes they employed. Oh and by the way, where was that medical super that should have been by a week ago to deal with Turbo’s injured leg? Mighty bad PR when Odd Summer opens with an injured Hero and two down-and-out sidekicks wouldn’t you say?
That conversation had ended with Jerry almost in a screaming fit, but that was only a show. On the inside he was pleased as a rat with cheese. The medical super would be stopping by tomorrow to fix up all of E13’s capes, and of course there would be new members sent E13’s way. Not sidekicks either, why, it just so happened the man had a potential recruit ready to go. A new trigger true, and not an espionage type that Brick wanted, but the man was apparently a Panama vet, discharged with honors after a voluntary term of duty. No one came out of that hell-hole without being tough as nails, and Jerry had needed to restrain himself from performing an unbecoming jig right in his office.
Of course, that left Jerry’s own hero team as the last group of people that needed to be reassured. Not so much Turbo, he was just glad he didn’t need to go tromping through a sewer. Brick and Magenta on the other hand were rattled. Magenta because she was basically being forced to lie and accept credit for an important case she hadn’t been much a part of, one where a lot of people had died. Jerry thought she was just being too hard on herself since the incident with the shifter, which had seen a lot of public backlash flung her way. Ever since Odd Summer started, she’d been beating up monsters and booking criminals left, right, and center. She was the only person on the team who was both mobile and a tank, and she had a large sector to cover. Even if she felt guilty for taking the credit on this one, she honestly deserved more credit overall for the work she’d been putting in, and this case did a lot to quiet the angry voices on top of that.
Brick though… Brick was fuming, and Jerry couldn’t much blame him. On one hand, the hostages had been rescued, which was the important part. But on the other hand, the perpetrator had been killed himself by another killer. Brick didn’t see it as a deserved comeuppance, as some might. He just saw a crime on top of a crime, neither of which he’d been able to prevent. The gruesome, and quite frankly mocking, message that had been made of the rat man didn’t help at all either. It basically openly stated that E13 was Hellion’s, and this was her ‘justice’. It mocked what Brick believed in, and challenged the authority of the laws he worked to protect. In response, Brick had scowled, gritted his teeth, and gone on patrol again without a word to anyone.
Jerry sighed. Kandor would have rolled with the punches.
It wasn’t fair to compare them, but it was the truth. Kandor had been flexible where it was needed, and decisive when it was necessary, whereas Brick faced these situations with the inflexibility of his namesake. Where Brick would skip another break to go out on patrol again, in the hope of stopping even one more crime, Kandor would have skipped another break to meet with the victims' families and mourn with them. Similar hearts, different minds. They were both good leaders, but Jerry worried that the job would chip away at someone as rigid as Brick.
Well, hopefully this case being over with takes some of the pressure off.
Jerry finished his sandwich and got back to the paperwork. He was almost halfway through when his phone rang. Checking the caller ID, he saw that it was the aide he had sent out on one of the more trivial tasks that nevertheless needed to get done. He really hoped there hadn’t been any complications, because regardless of what kind of hero Brick was, he couldn’t lead the team in his skivvies.
“Hey Davidson,” answered Jerry, “Please tell me there wasn’t an issue with the outfits.”
“What? No, they’ll have the order ready in- Wait, that’s not what I’m calling about. While I was there another customer came in. The owner referred to him as Tofu. Wasn’t that one of the guys from that batch of minions that went through E12?”
“Um, yeah. Yeah it was, can you describe him?” answered Jerry, already scrambling for the report in question.
“Seemed like a normal enough kid. Couldn’t really place his ethnicity. About five ten, brownish eyes, kinda mousy brown hair? ”
“... Do I need to get you glasses Davidson?”
“The kid had a forgettable face Jerry! Like, almost too forgettable? Like someone picked the most average features they could out of a bin. I know that’s not a lot to go on, but I’ve never heard of someone called Tofu before and now I’ve heard the name twice, and at a clothing store that deals with special body types to boot.”
“Well we know Tofu is the name of Hellion’s new shifter, so it would make sense if the guy changes his face in public. Hell, it might be him. Seems kind of odd that he wouldn't change his name though, unless he's just that cocky he won't be caught.”
“You want me to follow him when he leaves? See if I can get more than just a face on him?”
Jerry’s heart stopped, “...Are you still inside the store?”
“No, I heard his name as I was leaving. Didn’t have an opportunity to turn around without looking suspicious. He’s still inside.”
Jerry’s heart restarted. He let out a huff before answering, “Davidson, I want you to get back to your car. Don’t run, don’t hang up.”
“Jerry? What’s wrong?”
“Davidson, you just offered to follow someone who might have a power, who is likely a member of Hellion’s Henchmen. Alone,” and with no proof that it wasn’t you who was followed.
“...I’m heading to my car now.”
“And stay where security cams might see you.”
Davidson made it back to his car fine, and he left his phone on in the passenger seat as he pulled away. Most likely the both of them were just being paranoid, but it was better that than dead. Jerry had been in this business too long to not listen to his gut.
He pulled out the picture of what remained of the unlucky highschool teacher. The thing about this picture, the part of it all that rattled Jerry, was that he didn’t recognize this MO. He’d been working in E13 for quite a few years now, and he’d grown familiar with many of the cowls who called it home. For example, if it had been Imp that killed the rat man, the body would likely have bullet wounds from impossible angles. If Hellion had done it herself, there’d only be a pile of ash. If it was some of the non-powered HH boneheads the body would be pulped, but there would still be a body. This? This was new and precise and pants-shittingly terrifying, and yet Hellion’s Henchmen had apparently hired the culprit anyway, and he knew enough about HH to know that they didn’t hire uncontrollable psychopaths.
He opened the drawer of his desk and pulled out a flask before taking a sip. Then he got to work putting together a detail to stake out the boutique store. Even if he was completely off base with his guesses, a store that sold merchandise aimed at mutants wasn’t a bad place to start looking for boneheads. He was taking Brick’s plan to start sniffing around seriously, but he also hoped Brick understood what he was in for. When Brick gave his little speech about playing dirty, it gave a wonderful example of how Brick saw the world. To Brick, leaning into the law to get it to work for you was playing dirty. But to the villains?...
He looked at the picture of the message written in blood and body parts.
...To the villains mucking around with the law was just them playing nice.
He took another sip from his flask.
Then again, Brick’s idea of playing nice is a straightforward fist to the face.
And he had really big fists.