“I can’t believe those C’s were just scoping everyone who went into Babs' store,” said Ifrit, “Ugh, I’m going to have to order everything online until this blows over. You have no idea how hard it is to find fireproof gloves that breathe.”
Ifrit had been rather irate upon finding out Central agents had her favorite clothing store under observation, and I believe the explosion she provided as a distraction was rather larger than it needed to be because of it. We had met up at one of the secret elevators to the base afterwards, and Ifrit had been muttering complaints for most of the ride down.
“Profiling jerks. I bet they were only taking pictures of mutants too,” she said, still fuming.
“They were taking pictures of everyone who went in, Ifrit.”
“Hmpf. What, were they just standing in front of the shop?”
“No, they were in a parked car down the block.”
“Oh… how’d you spot them then?”
“I noted them because they took a picture of me exiting Babs’ shop. I found it unusual,”
“What, did they have a huge sign saying 'here be cops'? Spill, what tipped you?”
“They were using a modified cellphone. Most people use their cellphones to take pictures of themselves, friends, food, or interesting occurrences. I’m not any of those things, and there shouldn’t have been anything about me worth cataloguing.”
“Right. Because of how super normal you are.”
“Uh-huh. Nice dress by the way.”
“Thank you! Babs gave it to me since I can match it.”
I was still wearing my ‘Toffee’ disguise, as I was planning to change back at the base. It hadn’t been entirely successful in helping me remain undetected, however it had sown enough doubt to allow me to leave without a physical confrontation, which I counted as a success. I had modeled the speech style after different women from the mall, but the behavior patterns were a combination of Tim and Buzzer. Beginning with Tim’s enthusiasm for heroes, and once communications failed, switching to Buzzer’s treatment of the police, which I had noted as being highly effective that time we got arrested. The name had been Lily’s suggestion, as it sounded similar to my own and was also based on a food item. Having multiple aliases that were easy to confuse with each other in casual conversation would hopefully sow doubt as to which ones were real and which ones were me in disguise. Supposedly it would also be helpful if the agent that had been talking to Babs tried to use her saying my name as ‘probable cause’ to continue with the investigations.
Human laws were convoluted.
“Say Tofu,” said Ifrit, her anger momentarily absent, “Since I have you here, I thought you should know; some of the other minions made a betting pool about where you’re from.”
“I know. Mikey told me about it a while ago.”
“Oh, good. I was kinda worried since people might be tempted to pry.”
“It’s fine. It doesn’t really affect me if they know my background. I actually tried to place a bet myself last night, but Spikes said it doesn’t work that way.”
“Hah, yeah that wouldn’t fly. Are you sure you’re okay with it though? You should really hold on to personal information more tightly in this business.”
“It’s not a problem for me. Even if the heroes knew my personal info there wouldn’t be anything they could do with it. I’ve already explained my situation to Hellion and the other lieutenants in any case, so the betting pool is probably closed now.”
“Not if you only told my mother, er, Hellion and the others. It’s one thing for the employees to gossip, but talking about other people’s secret identities is a problem if the cowls do it. They need to be professional since we won’t get new hires if there’s no confidence in our confidentiality. Besides, it’s bad luck for a cowl to unmask other cowls.”
“Oh… will Imp be fine with ‘bad luck’ then?”
“He demanded I explain where I was from, or I was fired.”
“He did what!?”
“It’s fine. I-”
“No, it is not fine! He’s not supposed to do that! Ugh! We just got done messing with the C's because they snooped. Now I feel like a hypocrite.”
"Ifrit, it really doesn't bother me. I was actually quite pleased he gave me the option of quitting if I didn't want to talk about it. I was expecting something more lethal."
"What!? Why would you think that!?"
I spent the rest of the elevator ride telling Ifrit about my background (highly edited of course). Even skipping some of the worst elements, her reaction was still similar to the others I had told so far. I didn't really understand why it bothered them so much. I had assured them I was fine. Humans reacted really negatively when other humans got hurt; anger, sadness, shock, fear. It kind of made me wonder, if hurting each other bothered them so much, why did humans do it so often?
"Damn Tofu, I don't know what to say," said Ifrit. "I thought growing up with my mom was difficult, but that's just... damn. That explains a lot."
"Like any aberrant behavior on my part."
"Er, sure. But you're doing great considering! You 've been picking things up really fast, with like, Adder's training and the job and stuff."
"Yes, learning quickly was part of my training."
"Ack, right... well, silver lining, and you've got a job and you aren't homeless. Heck, you've even got more friends than I do... ah-heh," she tried to rub the back of her head, but her gauntlet just clicked against her helmet.
"That's incorrect Ifrit."
"You know all of my friends, and you are my friend, therefore at a minimum you have the same amount of friends that I do."
The elevator opened before she could say anything else, and we headed down to the garage to bring Nicole her work clothes. We found her in the spare room which was temporarily hers, and she answered her door with a book labeled "Advanced Gizmotec Analysis Vol.2" in her hands. As I suspected last night, she had regrown another leg section, and her balance was much better for it. She greeted us somewhat hesitantly.
"Hello? Um, hi Ifrit, and uh...?"
"This is To- uh, Toffee?" said Ifrit, turning it into a question.
"Tofu is fine when we're at the base Ifrit. It's me Nicole."
"Oh. Oh! I didn't recognize you. Wow. That is... different." She looked over my disguise, a complicated look on her face.
"I needed to be unrecognizable; there was some trouble over at Babs' store. Here's your work clothes by the way."
The three of us chatted about what Ifrit and I had been up to that morning, Nicole gasping at my encounter with Magenta, and Ifrit laughing at how I got out of it. Then Ifrit laughed harder when I mentioned I was using Buzzer as inspiration. Nicole asked if I was still up for going over some of the engineering manuals with her, to which I answered yes. Human engineering was one of the most impressive things about them, and I was eager to learn. I just needed to switch out of my disguise first.
"I dunno," said Ifrit. "You're kinda rocking the sundress. Sure you don't want to stay that way?"
"Yes, this form isn't exactly comfortable."
"What, can't handle being a girl?" she teased.
"It's more that I'm too compressed. Currently the extra mass has flattened my stomach and is pressing up into my lungs." I wouldn't have fit in the dress otherwise.
"Oh. Yeah that sounds unpleasant."
"Is that, um, safe Tofu?" asked Nicole.
"Not entirely. It slows my ability to become combat ready, and on top of that this disguise receives an uncomfortable amount of attention, increasing the likelihood of an unwanted physical encounter."
"Hmph," exclaimed Ifrit, "Tofu, you are the last person who gets to complain about getting too much attention. You do realize you get to be whoever you want right? Some people would kill for that."
"Yes, but I still need to take into account various factors to maintain disguise effectiveness. Changing my form to female triples glances per minute from passerby, and extends the length of those glances by an average factor of four. Having an obvious mutation on top of it quadruples the amount, and if it were a full-body mutat-"
Ifrit stepped on my foot, signaling me to stop talking.
"Tofu... go get changed, and I'll explain how incredibly rude you're being when you get back," said Ifrit.
"Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't realize."
"It's fine. Go get changed."
I slunk away, hoping I hadn't said anything too bad this time. She hadn't seemed too angry though, not as much as she had been about the investigators, so I took that as a positive sign. I headed off to the locker room to change my disguise, pulling out my cellphone to call Sandra while I did so. One of the points Ifrit brought up had me curious, and I needed to ask Sandra a question. The phone rang only once before she answered.
"Did everything go alright?!" asked Sandra, immediately.
"Everything went fine Sandra. Lily's plan worked perfectly. The only surprise was Magenta showing up, but it didn't become a fight."
"Magenta!? Oh crackers. But it wasn't a fight? You're fine then? Ifrit's fine?"
"Yes, we're both back at the base already."
"Well that's a relief," she sighed.
"Yes... um, on a different note, I wanted to ask if you could help me with something."
"I want to know if a statement is true, but I need your power to do it."
There was a long pause on the other end of the line.
"...Tofu, my power works best when people don't know the details about it. I can't have you testing it."
"Oh, that makes sense... Sorry if asking was rude."
There was another small pause and then a sigh. "Just this once. Who did you want me to check?"
"Myself. The statement is: I am Tofu."
"Was the statement true?"
"Yes Tofu, it is. Was that all you wanted?"
"Yes. I wasn't actually sure myself, and I wanted to check. Oh, but Hellion did mention there was something called sensitivity training?"
I spoke briefly with Sandra about setting up the training, then thanked her for her help before hanging up. Her confirmation about my name had surprised me. Ifrit had said I could be anyone, and she was right. I could change my form completely, and edit my mind as needed. Yet despite wearing the Toffee disguise, the name Tofu still registered as true to Sandra.
It seemed I really was Tofu.
"Annnd, yup. 'Toffee' just waltzed into the guys locker room," said Ifrit, watching from the door to the rec room. "Guess we should probably explain that too. Gotta say though, it's hard to be mad at him when he's so clueless sometimes."
"I wasn't mad at him," said Nicole. She wasn't very convincing, glaring at the floor as she was while absently rubbing at her elbow.
"...Maybe not. But it still stings right?"
"How would you know?" Nicole snapped.
...What the hell is that supposed to mean?!
Cindy was just about to snap back, when luckily it clicked: Nicole didn't realize she was a mutant. Tofu had introduced them, but she'd been in costume every time she and Nicole spoke, and "You're a mutant? Me too!" doesn't exactly come up in polite conversation, nor did it normally need to be said. In costume, all her mutant features were hidden, and her raspy voice could easily just be the result of a voice changer, or smoking ten packs of cigarettes a day, or whatever else people in the mask business got up to. In costume she could easily be mistaken for a powered individual.
Oh god, and I was pushing all of those 'opportunities for disenfranchised mutants' spiels on her yesterday, like some condescending hero at a highschool pep rally. Probably thinks I'm a huge tool.
Cindy rapped her knuckles against her forehead to try to drive the embarrassment out. Then she began to remove her gauntlet. Somewhat of an involved affair, as there were multiple latches and buckles meant to keep it secured in a fight, and she had to slide the siphon mechanism out of the palm of her hand (her least favorite part). She could produce and spray the flammable substance naturally, but the gauntlets were how she did all the fancy tricks, like lobbing fireballs as if they were baseballs.
"I'm a mutant," revealed Cindy, holding out her arm for Nicole to get a good look, and displaying the fireproof, tar-like skin that kept her from burning her own hands off, "Hereditary mutation."
"O-oh," squeaked Nicole, "S-sorry, I-I thought..."
"It's fine. My fault really. I've gotten so used to trying to hide it that sometimes I'm surprised when it works."
"No, I, I just assumed, that's my fault. Your whole life? I-I've only been a mutant for, um, it'll be three years after this summer."
Pfft, only three years she says. While living in a sewer without family or friends. With a mutation that probably made her daily interactions a nightmare. There was no 'only' about it.
After a quick glance to see if they were alone, Cindy used her now free hand to release the latches on her helmet, and pulled the mask off. True, Cindy had just gotten done telling Tofu to be more guarded with his identity...
...But this is important.
She tucked the mask under her free arm, and reached a hand out to offer a handshake.
"Hi, my name's Cindy."
Nicole was momentarily surprised, but reached out to take the offered hand.
"Nicole. Nice to meet you."
The two of them chatted about light-hearted topics for a while, just trying to get to know each other better, until Tofu got back from changing. Then Cindy had the somewhat awkward task of explaining to Tofu why a shapeshifter who could change his body, complaining to mutants who were trapped by theirs, was rude, and somewhat hurtful. Tofu was infinitely apologetic, and promised not to do it again, but it was obvious that he didn't quite grasp why it bothered them.
When Cindy tried to compare it to how he might have felt before he got his power, it was revealed that Tofu didn't remember a time without his power, and thus had no frame of reference. In order to clear up confusion and try to explain himself better, Tofu then blurted out a more in-depth retelling of his background, and to Cindy's horror it became apparent that he had softballed it immensely to her on the elevator.
The way Tofu had explained his circumstances to Cindy led her to believe he was a villain's kid kept isolated from others, and raised according to a cowl parent's insane standards. Instead, the reality was more like he had been kidnapped and experimented on since birth, which he explained with all the emotion of someone discussing the weather. He couldn't have brought a swifter end to the discussion than if he had tossed a live grenade on the floor, except instead of blasting everyone away it caused Nicole to pull them all into a hug.
After that, any attempts at explaining prejudice and privilege to Tofu were put on hold, all three of them somewhat exhausted with the heavy subject matter. Cindy left the two of them to their engineering manuals, and decided to get herself an early lunch so she could relax and get her head together. Between Nicole and Tofu, her worldview was spinning in her head.
Better get used to it. This isn't the worst the mask life can throw at me. Not if all of mom's stories are true. Wow, never thought I'd feel like the sheltered one.
And wasn't that the truth. Between being a mutant and having Hellion for a parent, Cindy had more than her share of life experiences. She remembered sitting in the principal's office as her mother argued with the superintendent over a possible expulsion. Cindy had inadvertently lit a desk on fire when some classmates teased her.
Or another time when the Espada had tried to kidnap her when she was sixteen. Imp and Smoke had put that attempt down before it could get off the ground though.
Or when Adder had started teaching her martial arts after a 'stray ball' gave Cindy a black eye in gym class. The thrower had snidely joked that Cindy was already wearing gloves, and should have been prepared.
Or the time...
Cindy came to a stop, lost in thought. She could remember many different events, but every time, either her mother or someone from HH had stepped in to support her.
Maybe she'd swing by her mom's office. With lunch or something.
For the next few days there weren't any jobs, as the Trebla job followed by the rat-stitcher's activities right after had been very 'high-profile', and it was explained to me that we needed to wait for the "heat to die down." A simple enough concept; basically we just needed to stay out of sight and let the C's get distracted by other, more immediate problems, of which Odd Summer was providing plenty. Not a day went by where the news feeds weren't reporting a new trigger, or a villain committing a crime, or various 'altercations' involving the smaller, scattered gangs, and that was just the news feed for E13. Several different sector lockdowns had occurred since summer started, and among the HH minions a new betting pool had formed based on which sectors would get locked down. The discussions between minions who had placed bets involved lots of data, like population density and notable heroes, so I involved myself to collect information. In fact, with a temporary halt on new jobs, and a lull in major events in E13, I was able to concentrate on a long list of similar peripheral activities I had been meaning to investigate.
The most immediately important activity was of course sensitivity training, as it increased my knowledge of how to act appropriately in social situations. The training was conducted in the orientation room we used for the Trebla job briefing, and a few other minions were attending as well, mostly new hires.
It was quite informative. Some of the new concepts I learned were things like 'personal space' and 'appropriate language', but what I found to be the most important overarching concept was that of a 'verbal attack'. With this information a lot of the strange rules that humans had about language and behavior made much more sense to me. I was used to thinking of an attack as a physical thing, but it was completely possible to attack someone with information alone, as Lily had previously demonstrated with the plan she made against the investigators. You could tell a lie about an individual and weaken their position in a group, or you could use a 'slur' and weaken an entire demographic's position in 'society'. It was no wonder humans became so upset about it, I could attack far more people with a single word than I could ever do physically, and it was much harder to counter.
One 'slur' that our trainer put special emphasis on avoiding was the word 'cockroach', a slur that disparaged mutants. The word originated with a species of 'insect' that had a reputation for being hard to kill. As many physical mutations involved chitin or scales, and mutavus mutations always occurred in order to keep the host alive, the word cockroach had become associated with the mutant demographic. Personally I found it odd that being associated with a species known for its above-average survival ability was viewed negatively, but apparently the fact that real cockroaches were insects (and therefore 'lesser' than humans) made the negative associations too insulting to ignore. I made it a priority to avoid this word and any references to it.
By the end of the class I had learned a lot, and it had illuminated the reasons behind several past negative interactions. For example; my interaction with the members of one of the smaller gangs around E13. I tended to take direct routes between destinations (through back alleys and over fences and such), and because I had gone through their territory without properly greeting or acknowledging the lookouts, I was perceived as having ignored them, implying that they were inconsequential, and potentially damaging their reputation if they didn't confront me. The fact I had been using my mask to ward away any potential muggings at the time had only made it worse, as they could have ignored a random ignorant civilian, but not someone clearly associated with another gang, even if that gang was Hellion's Henchmen. The teacher taught us several hand signs and greeting protocols we could use when I brought up the incident, all of which I meticulously recorded.
The class eventually ended, and I slowly wandered to the elevators while collating the information I had learned. I was going up to my apartment for a while to try a new recipe, and then I was meeting up with Nicole to go over some of her engineering manuals.
Her leg segments had been growing in quickly, the steady supply of speedster formula energy bars providing the essential nutrition she needed to regenerate. Unfortunately, this also meant she was getting shy again, as it became more and more apparent just how extensive her mutation was. Mikey and Ifrit had agreed to sit with Nicole and I in the cafeteria while we ate and went over manuals, so she could get used to people seeing her.
I hadn't really understood why Nicole was so sensitive about her mutation before, but after the class it made a bit more sense. I hadn't realized where all the animosity towards mutants came from. I had assumed it was simply baseline humans' logical fear of someone who was more combat capable, but it was also the fear of becoming a mutant, and the damage it did to their social position. Due to several factors (such as the mistaken belief that you could 'catch' mutavus from mutants), antagonism towards mutants had grown to illogical levels, some mutants even becoming resentful of their own mutations. In light of this, Ifrit's reprimand of my 'flaunting' my disguise capabilities in front of Nicole made more sense, and I was glad she had informed me before I damaged Nicole's feelings any further.
I bumped researching mutavus up the priority queue. True, I hadn't been able to identify the specific strain of virus that caused mutations, but I came into contact with and destroyed trillions of microbial organisms a day. My ability to identify and manually handle these organisms using micro units meant I was uniquely positioned to be able to maybe help-
"Tofu wait up!"
My thoughts were interrupted by a coworker coming down the elevator hallway.
This was the minion that accompanied Mikey and I when we were setting up gizmos for Socket. I hadn't interacted with him much beyond that, as there was little value in doing so. Our only in-depth interactions had been during the social exercises held in the sensitivity training class. Tedic had been attending as well.
"Great to be out of that snoozefest right?"
"I found it quite informative."
"Man, you don't gotta pretend with me. It was super lame," he dismissed.
The elevator I was waiting for finally opened, and after two fellow minions disembarked I got on... followed by Tedic. I guess he lived in one of the apartments as well? The doors closed, and the elevator went on its way.
"Like, that whole thing was just a waste of time," continued Tedic, unprompted. "Like I need someone to tell me not to call them cockroaches. I'm cool with them, I wouldn't do that shit."
"Then why did you attend the class?"
"Had to. Some bitch got mad when I gave her a damn compliment. Some broads can be so damn touchy yanno?"
"Not really." What was a broad? I thought that word meant 'wide'. I knew the word 'bitch' had a variety of meanings, the most common I'd observed being as a term of endearment amongst long-time friends. Was a friend mad at him? I pulled out my phone to search the term and found the 'slang' meaning of the word, which turned out to be another term for woman. I added it to my growing list of words that didn't refer to women, but actually did. Slang was hard.
"Really? But you're a bonehead man, bitches should be tripping over you."
"I wouldn't let that happen." The only way I could imagine someone tripping over me would be if it was a speedster I couldn't dodge. Or if I did it on purpose.
"Why not? Ah! So you do got a girlfriend already?"
"No." This time I knew what he meant; I'd heard this word before. Girlfriend did not mean a friend that was female, it meant 'a regular female companion with whom a person has a romantic or sexual relationship'.
"Well then damn man, you gotta get out there."
"Out where?" This was getting confusing. The conversation felt like those early days right after I escaped from the lab. The words were english, but it felt like we weren't speaking the same language.
"Like, the clubs and stuff man. Tell ya what, I'm off the rest of the day. We'll head to a club and I'll show you how to score some babes."
"Er, I can't."
"Sure you can dude! Just bring your mask, they'll drop into our laps."
"No, I mean, I'm meeting up with Nicole in a bit. I don't have time to go to a 'club'."
"Nicole?...Ohhh, she's that chick with all the legs right? I get it."
He grinned, "You know. You like 'em a little freaky. A little wild."
"The instructor said you're not supposed to use the word 'freak' Tedic."
"Hey no worries. I told you man, I'm cool with them. Heck, I've dropped off more than one check at the Cyborg Panda. Know what I'm saying?"
No I did not, but I recognized the reference to the Cyborg Panda, which meant his comments were somehow sexual in nature. You were supposed to avoid such things at work, or among coworkers. We'd just had a class about it.
"Tedic, I would prefer not to discuss this subject."
"Aw c'mon, don't be that way."
"Tedic, the instructor went over this. When someone says they don't wish to discuss a subject that is against workplace gui-"
"Alright alright, sheesh. Didn't think you were such a wet blanket."
He stopped talking, and we waited in silence for the elevator to reach the apartments.
But then he spoke again. "Real question though, the leggy girl, how does she, like... do it?"
"Is it like, hidden on the tail somewhere like a snake? Or down by all the legs? Oh, does she have one for each pa-"
I faced Tedic and put my hand on his shoulder. The instructor had said this gesture could indicate sincerity when addressing someone if you knew the person well, but could be construed as threatening if you didn't. I was going for the latter.
"Tedic. Company guidelines say I should report a complaint to HR rather than come into conflict with a fellow employee."
"Hey c'mon, I was just asking-"
"But as you are a fellow employee, and this concerns your immediate survival, I've chosen to tell you directly."
"What are you talking ab-"
I squeezed his shoulder a bit harder.
"Uh, dude that kinda h-"
"Nicole is a very important friend of mine, and while she is intellectually sharp, and physically strong, she is emotionally fragile, and very sensitive concerning her mutation."
The door to the elevator opened at the apartment.
"Hey, we're here..." Tedic tried to step off. My hand kept him in place.
"Your speech and behavior has the potential to emotionally damage Nicole. I can't allow that. It could potentially reduce her combat ability to an unacceptable level for maintaining her personal safety. It is only because you are a fellow employee that I am giving you this one warning," I raised my other hand so he would be sure to see it, traction claws extended, "If I think your behavior will damage Nicole, I will be forced to kill and dismantle you. Not necessarily in that order. Understood?"
"...Y-yeah man. O'course. Loud and clear."
"Good. Have a nice day Tedic."
I left the elevator feeling good. It felt great to be able to solve problems with proper communication.
"I'm just not getting it."
"It's where the circuits hit the parallax Tofu," replied Nicole as she tied a tracking collar around Mr. Chonkers neck, bribing him with a piece of nutri-bar to hold still. From what she had explained to me, the collar communicated with a tracking device similarly to the way HH masks communicated to each other, although the masks weren't built to broadcast position due to security concerns. Instead, the masks had an onboard map of the sector that was regularly updated in case you needed to navigate. Nicole had raved to me for over an hour about the complexity of the security features built into the masks, only half of which I understood. Needless to say, she was enthusiastic about her new job as one of Socket's interns.
I tried once again to attach the connector to the 'parallax'. It was supposed to be easy. You took the small wire attached to the battery, brought the other end to the parallax which was a small, green, rectangular (of course) 'chip', and then plugged it into the correct hole on the chip based upon the circuit layout.
The problem was, there were six ports in the parallax, and I could not, at all, decipher which was the correct one by analyzing the circuit patterns. This was the seventh of several collars Nicole was going to use to track the nessie herd, and I had only managed to connect one of them correctly, and that had been a blind guess.
It was disappointing to discover, but I just wasn't very good with human engineering.
"...Is it this one?" I asked, pointing at the third port from the right.
She looked over at the collar in my hands. "Next one over Tofu. See how the circuits are sort of attached to a central one like a backbone?"
"Yes, but I don't understand why that means the power supply needs to attach to the fourth port."
"Er, it's because, well... I mean, just look here?" she pointed, "The parallax needs to output at this spot so that it doesn't dump heat into the circuits. They'd melt in a second."
"... I'm sorry, I get the heat risk, but how to choose the correct port so that it doesn't happen escapes me."
"Didn't you read the manual I gave you?"
"I did, but I couldn't understand the first chapter."
"Really!? Tofu that was a middle school primer, they don't come any simpler...Ah!" Nicole grimaced as she remembered. "Sorry, I keep forgetting you didn't go."
"Nicole, I told you it's fine. It doesn't bother me at all."
"I know, it just sucks you had to miss so much school."
"Indeed. I snuck into Mikey's school for a week. It seemed like fun."
"No worries! We'll get you caught up in no time!"
I'd gotten around to telling all my friends my backstory, minus Tim of course. Nicole had taken it rather well I thought, with only a minimal amount of tears (but a bit too much hugging for my taste). The fact that I had been trapped in an underground facility was something she could empathize with, and she'd taken it upon herself to help me adjust.
Strangely enough, Mikey was the one to take my announcement with the least amount of fanfare, declaring simply, "Dude, that fucking sucks!" and then paying for my tofu burger. I liked his reaction the most.
We finished attaching the collars to various nessies, and headed back through the sewers to the base, discussing my difficulty with engineering as we did so. I ran point just to be safe, as Nicole's claws still hadn't fully developed yet.
"Y'know, I think the problem is the tinker stuff," said Nicole. "You got caught up on section five in 'Electronics for Dummies', which is where they start to describe the gizmotec batteries, and if you can't read the primer, well, that's basically intro to gizmos anyway."
"Well, I'm not a tinker."
"Yeah, but this is the basic stuff. Anyone with even the most modest benedicci reaction should be able to... wait," she *bapped* her fist into her palm, "That's it. They must have never inoculated you against mutavus, which means you don't have benedicci."
"Is a benedicci reaction necessary to work with gizmos? I thought you had to be a tinker."
"You need to be a tinker for the crazy stuff like turning dirt into circuit boards, or making a mech suit in your garage from scratch. Benedicci gives the rest of us just enough of a boost to know how to work with all the stuff tinkers make."
"I see. I didn't realize I was missing out on something so crucial. It's unfortunate, but I may never be able to work with gizmos then. My power essentially makes me immune to disease, benedicci included."
She frowned, "So you wouldn't get the benefits of a reaction. But you really can't read the primer book? Not even the first chapter?"
"No. Reading the words was fine, but trying to understand the concepts made me feel like I was trying to add two plus two in order to get five. It just didn't make sense," and caused quite a few logic errors. It reminded me of when I viewed Olson's immortality power in action.
"Weird," she scratched her head, "I didn't think you'd need a benedicci reaction for the simple stuff." She fell silent, and her hand trailed down the back of her head, catching her 'ponytail' and pulling it over her shoulder before fiddling with it and giving it small tugs. I had seen her do this many times before, and had come to know that this was her 'thinking pose'. Many humans seemed to develop physical tics like this when thinking. Some would pace, some would rub at their chins, Socket would throw things at interns, etc. I always recorded new instances for disguise data.
Nicole kept tugging at her ponytail for a few seconds, and when her eyes widened was when I knew she was finished processing.
"We should test it!" she declared. "You know they used to make cell phones even before Odd Summers. I've always wanted to try recreating one the old way, but trying to get the right parts that don't use any tinker tech is hard. But I bet we could fabricate them ourselves as long as you're doing the specifications!"
Nicole and I made plans while we walked back. Ever since she had come to live at the base, we had been doing many such small activities, the moratorium on jobs giving us plenty of free time. The day before we had spent playing Gribblin Tamer with Cindy, Mikey, and Tim using the online functionality (we convinced Mikey and Cindy to make accounts), and the day before that had been spent dragging Mikey to Adder's classes with Ifrit's help. Nicole wasn't able to spar herself (too afraid of hitting another person), but that was likely a good thing, as she accidentally shredded a target dummy when she showed Adder a move she often used against rats who attacked her core. Against a human it would certainly have killed them. I recorded that move for later.
"Yo Tofu! Nicole! Look what I just got!"
As we entered the garage from the sewer passage, Mikey called out to us. We looked over to see him holding up a small, rectangular object excitedly. It looked like an I.D. card. As we approached I asked what it was.
"It's a driver's license Tofu," said Mikey smiling.
"It's for legally driving cars Tofu," interjected Nicole, helpfully.
"Now I just need to get a car," Mikey laughed.
"What are you going to use it for if you don't have a car?" I asked.
"He's gonna use it to do his job," answered Rattleback, making Mikey jump. He had come up behind Mikey. "I need you to go pick up Pebbles and Buzzer, they're getting released today. Use the 2B exit, one of Sandra's lawyers will meet you in the parking lot. Tofu, you can be the emergency muscle. Nicole, I need you to finish the equipment checks on the sedans."
"I-I finished them."
"The rechargers are stocked?"
"Emptied and scrubbed."
"Figure out what that whine on car five was?"
"The pulley bearings were worn. I replaced them, but I need a senior engineer to look them over."
"Hm... wanna learn how to use the fabricator?"
We broke up to go about our individual tasks. I was looking forward to it, as I wanted to watch Mikey drive and maybe learn a bit, and I hadn't seen Pebbles or Buzzer in quite a while now, but then Rattleback yelled back to us, "Oh, and um, do me a favor and bring Zaps with you. He's getting antsy cooped up in the base."
"Zip zap the cat!"
I got along with most of the people who worked for Hellion's Henchmen, even if they weren't all as friendly as Sandra or Pebbles. Many were surly, some avoided others, some were rude like Tedic, and one or two it was recommended to simply avoid, but for the most part I was fine with whoever I was paired with, and remarkably, most of them were fine with me.
"Bip bap on the map!"
Zaps was likely one of the reasons why I was so easily accepted by the majority of HH. His behavior could best be described as... eccentric.
"Wip wap with the z-Z-z-ap!"
We were all currently in an HH van. Mikey was driving, Zaps and I were sitting in the side seats in the back, and the lawyer was riding 'shotgun'. We'd picked up the lawyer in the parking lot as instructed (a man in a suit, with a no-nonsense attitude by the name of Richard), and headed out towards sector E12.
It was a decidedly uncomfortable trip.
Mikey's driving was more or less fine, but he'd never driven a van before, which caused a few sudden jarring stops as he attempted to not hit anything. Not normally a problem for me, but Zaps wasn't good at catching himself, and tended to tumble over at the slightest bump in the road. I was desperately trying to keep my distance, as Zaps' control of his electrical power was... deficient. He produced electricity in large quantities, but could only channel it using his suit, which was outfitted with yellow gloves somewhat like Ifrit's. His minion mask wrapped around his head (and was covered in small 'stickers' depicting lightning bolts), but was open at the top to allow his long hair to flow out. Hair that often stood on its end when the static built up, which was often. When I asked him why he allowed for such an obvious defensive gap, his response had been, "Helmet hair bruh."
"Are you going to sing the entire way there?" grated Richard from the front seat. Apparently I wasn't the only one annoyed.
"Tee tea totally man!"
And he did. Which made for a really long and stressful ride to E12. Especially when Zaps would hit the part of a song where he would 'rock out' and swing his head in wide circles, distributing sparks around the inside of the van from his hair. After the third time, Richard insisted he stop.
Finally we arrived outside of the E12 precinct where Pebbles and Buzzer were being kept, and Mikey nervously found a parking spot well away from the main entrance.
"This is all fairly routine, so I should be back shortly," said Richard. "Try not to get arrested while I'm gone." He left for the precinct, leaving the three of us alone, although not in silence, since Zaps had started singing again.
"Man, it feels really weird to just be parked in front of the station like this," said Mikey. "Like, we all have masks on right in front of the cops. Feels like I'm wearing a target at the shooting range."
"I was told our anonymity in the masks makes us immune to detainment without cause. They don't really know who we are, so they can't just arrest us."
"Nuh bro, they totally have my number," interjected Zaps. "Nobody forgets the zapinator! Ye-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!"
Mikey and I flinched back from the shower of sparks as Zaps spun his head again. Then we exchanged a knowing look (I was getting better at non-verbal body language).
"Let's... just not get arrested," said Mikey finally.
It was fifty-two minutes as we waited in the van. Mikey and I played Gribblin Tamer to pass the time, while Zaps seemed to entertain himself, but finally there was movement from the precinct entrance. A cop led a handcuffed Pebbles out the door, before removing the cuffs and apparently saying something to him. Pebbles just stretched his arms and walked off, flipping the officer 'the bird' over his shoulder. I stuck a hand out the window to wave Pebbles to our van, and Pebbles headed over, the cop glaring at him the entire time while Mikey shrank in his seat to try and avoid attention.
"Yo yo rolling stone," said Zaps in greeting as Pebbles opened the back entrance to the van.
"Ayyy, zappy boi, bringing the thunder," replied Pebbles, giving Zaps a fist bump that sparked.
"Hmm? Who might you be again?"
"My name is To-"
"HA! I'm just fucking with you Tofu. It's been like two weeks, not a decade. Although I will say that Buzzer and I were ever so hurt that you decided to rescue the princess and not us. What ever happened to 'bros before hoes' man?"
"I'm sorry Pebbles. Poena stabbed me and I wasn't thinking clearly. Would buying you both lunch make up for it?"
He scratched his helmet, "Who's Poena?"
"The sidekick in the white suit."
"Agh, right. The brat with the technicolor crap," he shuddered, "Yeah I guess I can understand that. Haven't felt pain like that since that one time zappy boi here punched me in the nards."
Mikey flinched, and Zaps just laughed as Pebbles punched his shoulder.
"Tell ya what," Pebbles continued, "You can totally just buy us a round at the Cyborg Panda and we'll call it even."
"Pebbles, you aren't supposed to mention vulgar topics at work. The sensitivity trainer said so."
Pebbles gasped, and covered the spot on his mask where his mouth was with both hands.
"Oh no... they've ruined you!"
While we waited for Buzzer, I introduced Pebbles to Mikey, and Pebbles explained to me how the Cyborg Panda was in no way vulgar, and in fact, was what's known as a 'Gentlemen's Club'. It seems I had been mistaken about that. We passed the time filling Pebbles in on what had happened while he was in jail, including telling him my backstory. Pebbles just laughed and said he'd bet fifty bucks on my being a villain's kid. Eventually though, we had informed Pebbles on everything that had happened while he was in jail, and Buzzer had yet to emerge.
So we waited.
After the third time Pebbles said, "What's taking them so damn long?" Richard exited the precinct and made his way to the van. Alone. He opened the passenger side door and got in, slamming the door angrily to close it. Then he pulled out his cellphone and started dialing.
"Where's Buzzer?" asked Pebbles.
"They aren't releasing him," answered Richard.
"WHAT!? Why the hell not?"
"That's what I'm trying to find out. A moment please."
"This is some bull. Buzzer did the job, just like they wanted," grumbled Pebbles.
"What job was he doing?" asked Mikey.
All of our phones rang. In an alarm pattern.
Then a siren started going off in the distance.
We all checked our phones (minus Zaps, who didn't seem to notice the alarm). The message read: [Emergency! Lockdown Initiated! Please clear the sector border and seek shelter!]
"God damnit," said Pebbles. He opened the back of the van and exited, craning his neck to search for something.
"Pebbles, what are you doing?" I asked.
"Trying to see the wall."
"The sector wall kid... oh right, I guess you wouldn't know. It's a lockdown. Walls are going up."
He started to walk away from the van, still trying to look eastward towards E13. I looked to Mikey hoping for an answer, but Mikey was just staring at the warning on his phone, face pale, and biting his lip. Richard was angrily messing with his own phone, muttering about trying to get the emergency notice out of the way. Zaps of course sat in his seat, bobbing his head to a silent tune. I decided to exit the van and follow Pebbles. I wanted answers.
"Pebbles, why are you looking for a wall?"
"Sector wall. They go up during a lockdown. Riiiiight, there."
He pointed. From our new position we could see down a road perpendicular to the parking lot, one of the straight ones that led all the way to E13. Far off in the distance, I could almost see the border between E12 and E13.
Except that there was a wall in the way now. One that went up... and up... and up. Sections rising out of the ground between the sectors. It was absolutely massive, quickly dwarfing the buildings around it in height as it extended. When it came to a stop, it was nearly ten floors above the next tallest building. A wall of metal covered in countless scars and imperfections (such as the holes at the top, likely from where the sewer and subway tunnels intersected it), but which nevertheless looked solid and intimidating.
It was calculation-defying. I had never realized such a massive structure was hidden in the ground between the sectors. On previous trips past the border I had seen nothing of note, except that the road that followed the border was slightly larger than usual, which was now explained. This was a true feat of human engineering. This was why I wanted to learn more despite my incompatibility with gizmos.
"There's the wall bordering E13," said Pebbles, "Come on. Let's see if we can find a spot to see the E11 border."
"Pebbles, what are we looking for exactly?"
"Mhm? Oh. When a sector goes into lockdown, the message is sent to all the surrounding sectors, and it doesn't say which one is locking. Keeps people from being surprised by the wall going up, or from being stupid and trying to leave the sector in a mad dash. They want people following emergency plans, not trampling each other in stampedes."
"Ah. Does that really work?" It seemed to me there would be many ways of discovering which sector is locking quickly.
"Nah, people fall off the walls all the time."
"Then why are we checking manually?"
He shrugged, "Got anything better to do?"
We couldn't see the other side of the sector from so far away, and there wasn't any public architecture that gave higher ground (E12's blocky buildings being largely separate from each other), so I wound up scaling the side of a building to try and get a view. Adjusting my eyes for the distance, I was just able to see the wall that had risen between E12 and E11, meaning that it was E12 that went into lockdown.
And we were trapped inside.
"Well that's just perfect," said Pebbles, once I'd climbed down.
"So it's good?" I asked. I was admittedly nervous. I had seen a lot of things since I'd escaped the lab; exploding buildings, swarms of carnivorous organisms, people who could kill with a thought, but none of those had triggered a lockdown, so how bad was the situation now?
"Course not. I'm down a hundred bucks. Thought for sure E13 would get hit with a lockdown first," said Pebbles.
"Aren't lockdowns dangerous Pebbles? You don't seem very concerned..."
"Tofu Tofu Tofu," he said, shaking his head. "If you spend your time worrying about every little major disaster, you'll miss out on the good parts of life. Sure the sirens are ringing, the C's are scrambling, and we have no idea what triggered the lockdown. But the sky is blue, no one's shooting at us, and I've got a fat paycheck waiting to burn back home. Take a deep breath, smell that air," he took a deep breath himself, letting it out slowly.
"Just another day in Fortress City."