"Here on the right. Right there."
Mikey pulled the van into the dingy alleyway. Following Pebbles' instructions, he'd driven them far past the nice hotels and apartment buildings that clustered around Ashwood St's terminus. The apartment buildings in this area of the sector looked not only drab and boring, but run down and not well cared for, revealing a truth that Mikey was far more familiar with. Past the veneer of lights and bustle around the Red Zone and Ashwood St, E12 was just like all the other outer sectors.
In other words, poor.
He brought the van to a stop in front of an open garage with two thugs waiting just inside. Once upon a time he would be doing his absolute best to avoid all eye contact with the two intimidating men, but after the past few weeks and the events of today, he couldn't care less. Even if he did care, seeing the two men jump when Pebbles slammed the door open and yelled orders at them would have put his fears to rest. After all, the thugs weren't wearing masks. Mikey was.
The two men quickly came over and carefully helped Pebbles move Buzzer into the building. Buzzer had woken up while they were driving, but had been uncharacteristically quiet for most of the ride, a fact that seemed to worry Pebbles far more than if Buzzer had just stayed unconscious. They disappeared into the darkened inner workings of the garage, and it was only when Pebbles exited the building twenty minutes later that Mikey realized he'd just been sitting there clutching the steering wheel, while the engine idled.
Pebbles re-entered the van, "Oh good, you kept it running. Gotta say, that was some good-ass driving out there. You've got the makings of a real getaway driver in you."
Odd. It hadn't felt that way to Mikey. His beginner skills had barely felt up to the task, and if the roads hadn't been nearly empty he was sure he would have hit someone. Hell, he almost hit one of those flaming ghost cars he kept seeing.
The damn thing had honked at him.
"Hey, we gotta go move this van to someplace with shielding, away from here. I don't think anyone hit it with a tracker but you never really know, was quite the melee. You wanna drive the rest of the way? You've definitely earned it."
Mikey blinked stupidly at Pebbles, somewhat realizing that he was supposed to answer, but his brain was taking an extended vacation right now.
"...Ah. Shoot. Deep breaths kid. Danger's over. Just breathe deep and let the adrenaline wear off."
At first Mikey was confused about what Pebbles was trying to say, but soon realized that he'd been clutching the steering wheel in a death grip. After prying his hands open, he got himself together enough to switch to the passenger seat, and let Pebbles take the wheel.
"You wanna take a few minutes before we go? Or you could stay here with Buzzer if you aren't up for more driving."
"Um... nah. Nah I'm good. We can go."
"You sure? No shame in bowing out if you aren't feeling it. Best never to head out without your whole head in the game."
"Oh. Is hiding the van going to be risky?"
"Nah, but like, this whole escapade kinda proves how fast things can go belly up don't ya think?" replied Pebbles, making a swirling motion with his finger for emphasis.
Mikey huffed, "No kidding. 'Just go pick them up. It'll be quick. Oh and take Zaps!' "
"HA! That was your first mistake right there. Thank god you didn't let him drive. I've seen him crash a bike so hard it exploded."
"What? No way."
"Yup. Tried to supercharge one of those damn electric motor bikes. It worked at first, but it was tinker made, so when he crashed the thing going fifty the motor went up like a damn firework!"
Mikey laughed at that. Maybe a little harder than the story really warranted, but right now it really helped unravel the coil in his gut.
"Ahaha...heh... ahh, you know what? I'm good."
"Yeah, I'm fine. I mean, this isn't the first time something like this has happened either. Might as well get used to it right?"
"Pfft, energy blasts and concrete flying over your head aren't something you're supposed to get used to," said Pebbles, pulling the van out of park and driving down the alley.
"You seem pretty used to it though."
"Ha! I rest my case."
They drove in silence for a while. True, Mikey could sometimes hear sirens and such in the distance, but Pebbles was an expert at knowing where and when to turn to avoid the prying eyes of the law, and with the roads almost empty had free reign to pull the van into whatever spot he needed. Perhaps dodging the cops wasn't exactly a skill to be proud of, but it was certainly paying dividends right now.
"How was Buzzer?" asked Mikey, mainly to get his mind off the topic of police.
"Mhm? Oh, he's fine. Bad concussion, but it'll heal. His damn helmet failed if you can believe it. Shock absorbers basically ground to dust because of all that screeching the vampires made. I swear, the only reason he's allowed to be a bonehead is because he'd have died a million times over without that mask."
"...Shouldn't we all have them then?"
"HA! You think these things grow on trees? This is supremo tinker tech right here, the kind you steal secret military parts to make. You won't find anything like it on any shelf on the continent. One-size-fits-all, collapsable, doubles as both a gas mask and light correction goggles, with climate control detection so smart, it knows when it's safe to open the mouthplate, and when it should just let you choke on your own vomit. All that, and it's still strong enough to take a full clip at point blank range from a semi-auto wielding dust sniffer, ask me how I know. You want one of these, you sign up for power work and make the big bucks body blocking bullets. Ha, say that five times fast."
"Oh, wow," Mikey Blinked, "I didn't really realize what goes into these things... so what's up with the radios then?"
"HA! I know right? Might as well be walking around with a damn walkie talkie taped to my face! And we had to beg Socket for that. Beg. Don't ask him about it unless you've got an hour or two to spare. He'll go on about technomancers and government spooks, and why analog is safer than digital and other complete bunk. He'd be living out in the desert with a tin foil gizmo strapped to his head if it wasn't for this job. 'NO EVIDENCE! LEAVE NO EVIDENCE YA BLARNEY GITS! YOU WANT A TECHNOMANCER UP YER ARSE?!'"
They had a good laugh at Pebbles' poor imitation of Socket, and soon the van pulled into an abandoned recharge station, where Pebbles parked and hid the van inside the attached derelict car-wash.
"All kidding aside," said Pebbles, suddenly subdued, "These masks, they're... a promise. From Hellion to us. We step up and do the dirty work, the body blocking, that little above and beyond that no paycheck really covers for. But we aren't disposable," he tapped the mask at his forehead, "This proves that. If you want to wear the skull, you gotta dance with the demons."
Mikey didn't really know what to say to that. Dramatic much?
"That said," continued Pebbles, returning to a normal tone of voice, "It's not like we don't pass out regular helmets! Which I notice you aren't wearing! You just forget to bring your life-saving gear?"
"Uh, I, I thought we were just going to pick you up quickly."
"Tut tut tut. Rookie mistake. Flying debris and other hits to the head are the number two way to die on the job. You can run to a hospital with a damn harpoon through your shoulder, but if you're all confused with a concussion you'll never find your way there. Always grab a helmet before you leave. Here," Pebbles hit the dashboard with a fist, and the glove compartment popped open, but with an attached secret section about the size of a medium trash can, "Most of these things have a place you can hide stuff. They're for hiding guns and drugs and other illegal shit really, but you can stick your helmet in there for safekeeping if you don't want to look like a helmet head while you're doing chore work. It's different between all the cars because it's a bunch of spastic tinkers working on them, so put in some time and learn 'em. Might save you an awkward trip to the station if the C's pull you over."
"Huh. Uh, that's pretty, um, neat..." mumbled Mikey. It was like spy movies, but for thugs instead. "So... what's the number one way of dying?"
"Flying debris and bullets and stuff through the torso. That's why we give out the flak vests."
"A-ah, that makes sense..."
"...You are wearing your flak vest under there right?"
"I... I might have forgot."
"By the walls, you're crazier than I am! I'm over here shitting my suit with a helmet on, and you're just over here free-stylin' it. Stop waving them brass balls around and let's head inside and grab some grub. Don't know about you, but henching makes me hungry."
"Ah-ha, heh, right. Food." As if his stomach would ever let him eat again with the massive knot in his gut. He was going to develop ulcers or something.
They exited the van. Pebbles went over to a section of the wall that separated the car-wash from the main building, where an ancient, rusty door stood fused shut. He tapped his helmet to some graffiti in the shape of an HH, and the door popped open without even a squeak. Pebbles pushed it open, revealing a darkened hallway.
With a glowing, floating skull in the middle of it.
"AH! What the hell!" both Pebbles and Mikey leaped back from the apparition, before realizing what they were actually looking at.
"T-Tofu?" asked Mikey.
"Hello Mikey. Hello Pebbles," Tofu replied.
"Jesus kid! Damn near gave me a heart attack! What the hell are you doing standing around here in the dark like a damn spectre!?" asked Pebbles.
"I'm trying to figure out how to update the Heroverse Wiki. Several facts are severely out of date," replied Tofu. It was his cell phone that was lighting up his mask, making it glow. "I managed to escape a few minutes after you left, then headed for the nearest safehouse after evading the authorities. Did you have trouble? I didn't expect to arrive before you."
"Not so much no. Had to drop off Buzzer with a quack real quick. Was a bit out of the way."
"Ah. Then Buzzer will be alright then?"
"He's fine. And you? Where's Zaps by the way?"
"Zaps is sleeping further in the building. He overstrained his power."
"Yeah, it really takes it out of him. Well hey, seems we all made it out a-okay then. We should celebrate! And turn on some damn lights... don't suppose there's still food in here?"
"Yes. I had some eggs."
They settled into the safehouse to wait for the lockdown to end and the heat to die down, not really celebrating, but telling jokes, eating snacks (someone had stocked the pantry with a few cans of salted peanuts), and listening to Tofu's insane retelling of events after they left, to de-stress after the harrowing events of the last few hours.
"Nah, no way. You beat Suprex? I don't believe it," said Pebbles.
"It was difficult, but once his kayfabe power is neutralized, much of his super strength goes with it. That's why I'm trying to update the wiki, they have several misconceptions on how his power works."
"Uh, Tofu, I don't really think you should be putting up his power details on the wiki," said Mikey.
"Yeah, that's the kind of information you keep close to the chest, and sell to the highest bidder," confirmed Pebbles.
"That's not what I meant!"
"Eh, it doesn't really matter either way," Pebbles dismissed, "Everyone in the business who matters already knows about Suprex's power. The real trick is actually outdoing Suprex at his own game, he's a master showman, juggles minions like us for breakfast."
"I think I can handle him."
Pebbles threw a peanut at Tofu, who caught and ate it. Soon after, their cellphones rang, with an announcement that the lockdown was ending.
"Oh shoot, already? Didn't expect that. Place your bets people," said Pebbles, getting up from his seat to turn on a small television on the counter, an ancient looking flatscreen that must have been repaired dozens of times from the look of it.
"What are we betting on?" asked Tofu.
"How badly they mangle the narrative," answered Pebbles, "Five bucks says they pin the whole thing on us."
"What!? yelped Mikey. Images of his face plastered across the news as individual #1 flashed through his mind.
"I bet five dollars that they give insufficient information about the situation," declared Tofu.
"Oh pfft, come on, of course they are. Pick something we don't know."
"Ah... they will... show my fight with Suprex?"
"HA! They'd better! Need to see this shit."
They clustered around the television to see the news. As always, the general media during the lockdown had been suppressed in order to allow emergency services full control of the situation, and now with the lockdown lifted each news channel was scrambling to be the first to report their version of events. Mikey had been fifteen during the last Odd Summer, and he remembered thinking how redundant these news channels were, considering Central gave their official report to the public after every lockdown. Now that he'd lived through a lockdown from the other side of the law, he wondered; would Central's report be just as biased as the other news channels?
As these reports almost always went, a Central official dressed in a sharp suit approached a podium with the most somber expression they could muster.
"I will now give the report for the lockdown of Sector E12, which started at twelve o' seven p.m, and ended at five thirty-four p.m. The incident was first reported by the hero Dark Gauntlet, who encountered what he described as a 'vampire swarm' at eleven fifty-one a.m. A request for back-up was made and upon an assessment of the nature of the threat, a lock-down was immediately initiated."
"Hah. Take a drink gentlemen, there's the first fib," mocked Pebbles, "Buzzer and the sweeper team went missing a lot earlier than that. Probably took over an hour for the E12 officials to decide the revenue loss was worth it."
Mikey cringed internally, "Would they really delay the lockdown for that?"
"Of course. Them more than anyone, their main revenue source is in another sector. Getting E12 to lock down is probably like pulling teeth."
Oh, right. The Red Zone.
"Remember last summer with the lizard thing?" continued Pebbles.
Mikey shivered. He remembered the lizard thing. E13 hadn't locked down for it, and he remembered the video of Brick wrestling the two-story monstrosity to the ground and the hero team keeping it contained and away from civilians. It was one of the first big threats of that Odd Summer, but while the thing had looked terrifying (and given him nightmares), it ultimately wasn't a city threatening disaster.Nothing Kandor and his team couldn't handle.
The disaster that had killed Kandor came later.
"Kandor screamed into his com for like an hour to lock down when that thing crawled out and nothing," said Pebbles, "Here's what they didn't say on the news: the thing kept growing bigger! Doubled in size every few minutes. It was the size of a mouse when it first started tearing stuff up. Hellion finally had to go out herself and blast it before it got too big to kill."
Mikey was stunned. He remembered the pictures of the burned-out monster husk on the news after the incident. That had been Hellion?... Well, it kinda made sense in retrospect. None of the E13 heroes had flame powers or used explosions.
"Wait, how do you know all that? Were you there?"
"Oh. Um. Well," Pebbles coughed, "You see, at this store where they were keeping this thing, they kept it in the backroom right? Illegal pet and all that. Well I was looking for the bathroom, and I see this thing in this tiny-ass cage, and it's food bowl is empty, and it's water is all dirty, so I think: poor thing needs something to drink. So I give it some of my whiskey, and I guess, it like, doesn't react to it well? Allergies maybe? But it was still drinking so, I, well... you know..." Pebbles trailed off at the blank stares Mikey and Tofu were giving him.
They went back to following the report.
"...During which the power grid suffered a critical failure, resulting in a blackout several blocks wide, hindering emergency services. Investigating heroes found several 'minions' at the scene, and were then ambushed by an unknown assailant. Heroes who arrived to reinforce found the suspects attempting to kidnap downed personnel-"
"WHAT!? THAT'S BULLSHIT!" cried Mikey. He couldn't believe this! They were twisting it all!
"Ehhhh," said Pebbles, waggling his hand in a seesaw motion, "Actually, I'll give them that one. Kinda caught us red-handed grabbing the heroes."
"But, we weren't kidnapping them! We just couldn't leave them with that monster on the loose! We weren't going to do anything bad to them!... Right?"
"Course not, but intent don't mean shit without a psychic on the scene. Hell, from the way things looked I'm surprised they didn't just start blasting. I would've. Lockdown isn't the time to pussyfoot around"
Mikey silently absorbed that explanation for a bit. Admittedly... yeah. He supposed it looked pretty bad from the heroes' perspective.
"...But still, they're also implying we caused that blackout. We had nothing to do with that."
"Uhhh..." Pebbles and Tofu exchanged a glance, "...well, down in the sewers we needed to shut off the power, and there was this gizmo, and well, you know how finicky those are..."
"...Tofu did it."
"Would you guys keep it down? I'm trying to sleep," interrupted Zaps, entering the room, "OH! Is the news on? Did they show the part where I started blasting?"
"Uh, not yet Zaps," said Pebbles, grateful for the distraction, "They're still doing the report. "
"Ah. Well lemme know if anything cool happens."
"It might. Tofu says he beat Suprex."
"What!? Fuck off, no way!"
Zaps decided to stay up and watch, not wanting to miss any of the "good stuff," although he complained about the report not showing any pictures.
"...Whereupon the threat was finally contained and destroyed, thanks to a group effort consisting of Magenta, Brick, Hydrox, Essetec, and Polka-Dotis, despite interference by the notorious villain known as Warhead. Efforts then shifted towards tracking and wiping out the remaining vampire remnants..."
"None of those other heroes are documented as working in the surrounding sectors either," complained Tofu. He'd been scrolling through the different hero wikis on his phone, and seemed to be really irritated by the lack of proper documentation. Mikey wasn't surprised though. Those wikis were fan run, and while the popular, big name heroes like Kandor or the Guardian might have a fully fleshed out bio, there were a lot of minor heroes who were constantly popping up, getting reassigned, doing team-ups with nearby sectors, getting rebranded with new looks or names... and, of course, dying.
"... and in closing, let us please observe a moment of silence for the many men and women who lost their lives today, as well as the brave heroes who fell in defense of the city. Dark Gauntlet, Avos, Ignista; you will be missed. Thank you for your service."
The group fell silent around the television, and Mikey was only a little surprised when Pebbles and Zaps raised the beers they'd been drinking in a gruff, yet respectful salute (that Tofu then tried to imitate). It was an odd juxtaposition seeing the minions, criminals by profession and lifestyle, honoring fallen heroes, but at the same time, the heroes had died in defense of everyone, so Mikey supposed it wasn't that strange. Maybe stuff like this wouldn't happen normally, but Odd Summer didn't play fair, and it was heroes who stepped in time and time again to even the odds.
The report came to a close, whereupon the general media channels sprung into motion like a swarm of starving pack rats on a dropped cracker. Pebbles and Zaps kept flipping from channel to channel, trying to find the ones with the best footage of the fights. Many of the channels were displaying found footage of heroes fighting vampires, but the ultimate performance of the night came from an unprecedented full release of Magenta's camera footage (with the audio only slightly garbled to protect sensitive information). It started when Magenta came around the corner of the building and spotted Tofu carrying Briarstone. Admittedly... yeah, Mikey had to admit that didn't look good at all. Tofu was in full combat mode, the combination of his suit, mask, and spindly yet muscular limbs making him look truly sinister. In the video, Magenta called for Tofu to stand down (which he did) and then the footage went wonky for a second, like seeing it through water, when Magenta got hit by an unseen super's (the hiding vampire's) ultrasonic blast. Suprex then tackled Tofu away from Briarstone, who Magenta proceeded to defend from multiple blasts that the vampire unleashed from a hidden vantage point... and electrical blasts from Zaps, aimed at her specifically.
"WOOO! YEAH! You see that?! I'm on the news!" yelled Zaps, waving his arms like he was at a sports game. Pebbles, Mikey, and then Tofu all threw peanuts at him.
The rest of it happened mostly as expected. Magenta spent most of the ensuing scuffle between body blocking for her less indestructible teammates, and trying to find the elusive figure that kept firing ultrasonic blasts from inside the buildings, until the moment when she helped Brick capture Tofu. Mikey winced internally at the part where Magenta slammed into his friend after Brick chased him out of the building. Tofu had mentioned that in his retelling, but hadn't really played up the impressive flurry of blows he'd unleashed on the hero in an attempt to get away. Magenta's vantage point looked like she was trying to wrangle a demonic octopus.
Mikey favored his friend with a concerned glance, but Tofu was completely unphased, only half paying attention as he fiddled with his phone in an attempt to edit wikis. It was hard for Mikey to match the image of the sinister minion on the screen, with that of his friend there on the couch, nonchalantly messing with his phone.
Next, Warhead made his dramatic appearance on the screen, and Mikey felt his stomach do flip flops. Warhead was a boogeyman from Mikey's childhood, constantly raising the stakes for heroes when he showed up to a fight, and lurking in people's fears when he didn't. More than one hero had left the cape scene dead or crippled thanks to Warhead, and it was only the fact he spent most of his time away from Fortress City that many an E13 resident could sleep peacefully. Mikey himself had watched Warhead's final arrest on the news with Tim when they were ten years old, the two of them cheering as Kandor apprehended the menace. Seeing Warhead back near E13 had Mikey suddenly regretting everything, and Pebbles and Zaps seemed to be of the same opinion, although their fear stemmed from their assertion that Warhead was a hardass. Zaps was already lamenting the laps Warhead was going to make him run.
Finally, the camera revealed the super vampire for the first time, allowing the audience to see the vicious creature in full. Luckily it had attacked Hydrox first, who defended himself with barriers of water long enough to avoid being outright killed while the other heroes were distracted dealing with Warhead's assault. From there, it used Briarstone's strength and Avos' flight to relentlessly pursue individual heroes, attempting to absorb more powers and turn the fight even more in its favor. Brick couldn't keep up with its speed and flight, Hydrox's waves weren't powerful enough to drown it before it broke free, and even a few attempts by Warhead were stymied by an automatic barrier that seemed unbreakable, if limited. It was the combined effort of Essetec and Polka-Dotis that managed to bring it to a standstill, and allowed Magenta to deal the finishing blow, her forcefield interacting strangely with the auto-barrier in a way that allowed her to bypass it. The vampire died with Magenta's fist going through one of it's giant compound eyes, both their barriers mangled against each other like amoebas made of glass shards, until finally the vampire expired explosively, each of its stolen powers firing off at once and shredding Magenta's arm to the bone before her forcefield could pop back into place. The last image from her camera was of the sky as she plummeted, the other two flying heroes racing to catch her. The footage ended with them managing to catch her safely before she could hit the ground.
"HOLY SHIT! DID YOU SEE THAT!?" yelled Zaps, suddenly breaking the hushed silence that had descended as the extraordinary fight reached its finale. Mikey realized he'd been holding his breath.
"Goddamn right I saw that!" said Pebbles, "That's our hero! That's E13 baby! E-THIRTEEN, E-THIRTEEN!"
Pebbles and Zaps began chanting like they were cheering a sports game, and when Tofu hesitantly joined in Mikey laughed and did so as well. Seeing the successful end to a lockdown was a relief they all felt after the danger of the past few hours.
"I don't know Tofu, you're gonna have to do a whole lot to top that one," said Pebbles, going back to flipping channels on the television again. Multiple stations were still playing the Magenta footage, and a couple were playing other fights between various heroes and swarms of vampires, but after almost a half-hour of channel surfing, not a single channel had covered the fight with Suprex.
"Well shoot. Sorry Tofu, I guess they aren't gonna release the footage," said Pebbles, finally giving up.
"More likely they didn't record it. The power was out in the building, and Suprex's mask doesn't have a camera from what I could tell," replied Tofu.
"...So why did you bet they'd show it?"
Tofu shrugged, and then had peanuts thrown at him. Which he ate.
They eventually ran out of interesting clips to watch, but Pebbles claimed it was a bit too early to start driving around as a minion, and made a call to Rattleback to receive further instructions. After getting chewed out, he relayed that their choices were to either wait at the safehouse for the heat to die down, or risk sneaking their way back to E13 in their civilian identities. None of them had a pressing need to get back, so they decided to wait until night time. Hopefully by then the Red Zone night life would be out and about in full force once again, and they could become invisible in the traffic.
Tofu and Mikey decided to spend the time playing Gribblin Tamer on their phones, but when Mikey turned his on, he was bombarded with a deluge of delayed messages. He cringed, Tim had been trying to get a hold of him.
"I need to call Tim back real quick. He's been blowing up my phone."
He called Tim back. The phone didn't ring twice before Tim answered.
"HOLY SHIT, WHERE THE HELL WERE YOU DINGUS?!"
"Heh. Sorry man, I was at work when all the crazy started; I had my phone off and didn't even notice at first."
"Man, I thought you'd gotten yourself off'd by vampires or something. You did see the report right?"
"Yeah, I did. Vampire swarms and a super vamp."
"Dude, you don't even know! The forums are blowing up about it! Powers that copy powers are like, omega rare!"
Mikey grinned at the comment. This was one of the times where he did know.
"I know man. You've quoted all the stats to me. Is that what you're aiming for next? Gonna get an omega copy power?"
"Man, screw you," Tim laughed, "I'll become a tinker yet, just you watch."
"Ha, no worries man, I believe you."
"...Tim? You there?"
"Yeah, I'm here... Hey, um, you saw the bit about Warhead right?" asked Tim, not half as exuberant as he'd been a second ago.
"Er, yeah I saw. Crazy right?"
"Right. Um... the thing is, it kinda freaked out my parents. They're saying they want to stay with my aunt for the whole summer, not just a week or two..."
"Oh. Well, that's... I mean it's not too bad?"
"What? Dude it sucks. We had so many plans. And I don't just mean the stupid tinker thing, we were gonna search for apartments and stuff for college, remember?"
"Course I do man," although it had sort of taken a back seat in his brain, "I'm just saying now's not the time to be traveling around and stuff ya know? Batten down the hatches and all that. Besides, we can still do all that stuff, I just need to shuffle it around my job. I'm making mucho bank right now, so college is totally a go."
"Mucho bank? At a warehouse?"
Ack! "Er, you know what I mean, enough for the first semester at least," and the next two years easy if I play this right, "Plus, like you said, people are spooked and taking off, so they need hands more than ever."
"Huh. Maybe I should apply."
"Ha! You in a warehouse? Doing cave grunt work? Would your parents even let you?" Pleasepleasesayno.
"Hey, you never know, I could convince them to let me go to E13, alone, to work with you troglodytes... but nah, not my style," laughed Tim. Mikey laughed too, but it was a bit strained.
"Anyways Mikey, I did want to ask... well, with Warhead, and that lockdown, and just, y'know, summer, I talked with my folks, and... if you wanted to, you could spend Odd Summer up with us."
Mikey fell silent, stunned.
"Your mom too of course! We have the room... well, you'd have to room with me, and your mom could take my uncle's study. I can't promise it'll be comfortable, but since it's summer, sticking together is the important part right?"
Mikey broke into a smile. He'd put up with my mom? Wow, he really is worried.
"Hey, hey thanks Tim, really," said Mikey, "but I think I'm good man. I can't really quit the job yet anyways."
"Yeah. Look, I know Warhead is supposedly back or whatever, but that's not my problem right? I've got a steady job, my mom's boyfriend is out of the picture for good this time, and when Summer is over I'll have enough that I can room with you wherever. I'll keep my head down, and Summer will be over before we know it."
"Well, if you're sure..."
"I'm sure. It'll be fine dude, promise."
"Hmm, I dunno man. Did you know that sixteen percent of all super brawls start in a warehouse?" asked Tim, in a tone that let Mikey know he was back to joking and quoting crap facts.
"Ha! No worries, between me, Tofu, and all our fellow cavemen we can take on any challengers. Moving boxes make Mikey the strong strong."
"Pfft, okay. Actually, is Tofu there with you now? He wasn't answering earlier either."
"Yeah, he's here. He's trying to figure out how to edit the wiki, says they are criminally out-of-date."
"Ha! Damn right they are, Odd Summer's messing everything up. Hey, I'm a content moderator on Heroverse, I'll send him an invite to edit."
"Cool, I'll let him know."
"... and what about Cin~dy?"
"What? She's fine? What do you mean? Why do you ask?"
"You ask her out yet?"
"What?! No! I've known her like two weeks dude, she barely knows me."
"What makes you think I was even gonna?"
"Dude, you told her you listen to Mega-B00t and she didn't run screaming."
"Cause Mega-B00t is the shit and you know it!"
The two of them didn't talk much longer, but that was fine, they would have plenty of time to talk later. Odd Summer would be over soon enough. All Mikey had to do was lay low, keep his head on his shoulders, and it would all work out fine. True, he wasn't quite as confident about the whole Warhead thing as he'd led Tim to believe, but Mikey was a minion now, he and Warhead were technically on the same side. Besides, most of the people he'd met working as a minion turned out to be pretty cool, shattering his preconceived notions of 'evildoers' left and right.
So how bad could the guy be?
"Jalopy-Deathtrap, you are clear to land."
"What was that tower? I'm sorry I couldn't make that out, my engine is clanking too damn loud."
"Land you banshee fart!"
Jonah Denver laughed, and guided his transport skimmer to the landing zone. To be fair, the old gal was indeed one of the oldest and loudest skimmers they had available, but Jonah wouldn't trade her for the world. She might be loud, but that just meant whatever mechanical heart the wrench monkeys had given her was designed for power, not convenience, and that suited Jonah just fine. The old bird was a sturdy bitch, and had dusted off from more than one kerfuffle while wiping an ant off her windshield. He was headed back to base after one such encounter right now, a half-platoon of soldiers in the loading bay.
The ants had gotten the other half before he arrived, unfortunately.
But better half than nothing.
Jonah set the skimmer down right in the center of the pad, showing these other naysayers that the flying jalopy could too show as much grace as these newer models. He started to wind her engines down, eager to end his long shift pulling land-walkers out of the fire.
"Pilot, don't cut your engine just yet," came a new voice over the com.
"What's that tower?" asked Jonah, dreading the inevitable answer.
"Got a priority package for forward base Bravo-Seven. Needs to head out asap."
"Any reason why another bird can't take it? Just finished ninth hour, bird needs polish."
"All other skimmers are busy pilot. Keep spinning engines and await package."
"Roger that," load of bullshit. There were three other birds on the tarmac waiting to go that he could see. But those were the newer models.
"Hey Jonah, if you're tired I can take this package," said Davey Jesson, his co-pilot, "I'm only four hours since you picked me up."
"Pfft, I'm still fresh as a daisy. And let you fly my baby girl? Hell hasn't frozen over yet D.J."
"Man, you know she's been around the block a hundred times already."
"Talk like that about my girl again, I dare you. I'll drop you out the back, you picnic basket."
Davey just smiled that shit-eating grin of his, acknowledging their back-and-forth. Jonah went back to his pre-flight checks. He put as much care into them as he always did, but then did them again to settle his nerves. Priority package? Forward base? Not risking a newer model? He knew what that meant.
The package was a Victor.
Thirty minutes later (priority, riiight), his suspicions were confirmed when eight soldiers in full battle garb escorted three men to the tarmac. Two of these three were guards for the third, their seven foot frames bulging with muscles an obvious indicator that they were silverbacks. Either low-calibre strength supes, or people hopped up on the government's newest experimental formula, the means was irrelevant. What mattered was the heavy duty bolters each held trained on the third person, a Victor in a tinker made restraint jacket. They weren't taking any chances with this one.
A criminal. A cowl. A Villain.
They marched him over to the skimmer and loaded him into the passenger hold. Then the entire escort took their seats along with him. Seems they were along for the ride.
"You see that?" said Davey, making sure to use the pilot only channel.
"I'm not blind."
"That was a kid!"
"I know." Hell, he's probably barely older than mine. Eighteen? Nineteen? If he's twenty I'll eat my boots with ketchup.
"Think they got enough babysitters on him? Jesus. Probably can't even grow peach fuzz."
"Don't let looks fool you Davey," replied Jonah, not quite believing the words himself, "If he's here he's still a Victor."
As the mechanic/tinker finished checking the bird, and they were cleared for takeoff, Jonah's thoughts uncharacteristically turned to his wife and boy back in Fortress City. Normally he liked to keep his head clear of distracting thoughts while in the air (keep work and home separate as it were), but the kid Victor in the back had him thinking of home. Odd Summer had ended a month ago, and as usual he'd spent it with his family, weathering the storm of bad news bulletins and disasters that plagued everyone during that time of year. He could have stayed with them this time...
But he was an army man, and the real work for the army came after Odd Summer ended, when all the beasties and monsters came crawling out of the woodwork with new powers and mutations and tried to start putting down roots. This would be his third tour of duty, each of which consisted of either two years, or just six months if you toured the Panama canal after Odd Summer. His first tour had been before he met his wife, the second while his son was still a baby. This would be his first down in Panama. When he'd accepted this posting, he'd been thinking of the short six months before he'd get to go back home. His boy wasn't going to be a boy much longer, and he wanted to take the time to be there with him while he was still young enough to care about having his old man around. He smiled at the memory of the grouchy teen, grumbling goodbye and kicking him in the shin with a "you'd better come back."
He would. He'd make sure of it. But for now that army money was too good to pass up, and his grouchy teen had his sights on a good school. Damn kid is better at math than his old man ever was, that's for sure.
The first half of the flight was uneventful, the kid in the back (the Victor, Jonah reminded himself. The Victor) not causing any trouble. Unfortunately it seemed they wouldn't make it all the way to Bravo-Seven without complications. A curl of smoke was winding its way up into the sky. He diverted course just enough to check it out. You didn't ignore the unusual out here.
What the hell is that? We're way too far north for...
He was wrong. They flew over the next elevated hill and suddenly had a great view of the expansive lowland valley.
Ants. Lots and lots of ants. They blanketed the valley from one end to the other, like a living, chitinous carpet, the smallest the size of a person, the biggest ones the size of tanks and small houses, but that wasn't what caused Jonah's heart to fall into his stomach.
They had a queen with them. The first he'd ever seen in person. This wasn't just a raiding party, this was a colony expansion, and they were well past the frontline! The reason why was immediately apparent as well, all of the ants were translucent. Each looked as if it were sculpted by an expert glassworker, only a slight shimmer inside each where the also translucent organs shuddered and jiggled, or where some food had yet to be digested. In the daylight it was easy enough to make them out, but at night they would be practically invisible to casual flyovers, which was how they must have snuck past the forward bases. The only reason Jonah had spotted this group, the only reason, was because of an all-terrain supply truck that had had the misfortune of being in their path. Why the truck was all the way out here he couldn't begin to guess, but the unfortunate soldiers had been encircled completely, and either the truck had been damaged enough to burn, or the doomed soldiers had set it affire themselves in some last-ditch effort.
His copilot Davey immediately started yelling into his headset, "SKIMMER THIRTY-FIVE TO ALL POINTS! WE ARE NINE NORTH BY EIGHTY-TWO WEST! I HAVE EYES ON AN ANT QUEEN! REPEAT, I HAVE EYES ON AN ANT QUEEN!"
Jonah felt sick that there wasn't a damn thing they could do for the few soldiers somehow still alive near the truck, but even worse than that was the thought of a queen getting this far north, and a mutant at that. They didn't have any kind of ordnance on the transport skimmer that could kill a queen, nor could they stick around and follow the queen's progress indefinitely. Already he could see a fresh batch of eggs being pushed out by the bloated insect, and it was likely a few of those would be fliers, growing and ready to fly within the half-hour. Now that her cover was blown, it was likely the queen would stop restraining herself and go into full production right there. If she managed to dig in and hide, it might be weeks before she could be dislodged, and the entire time she would be able to send those damn stealth ants in pincer movements against the forward bases, or maybe birth her own Daughter and try to sneak another colony even farther north!
He circled while Davey communicated with whoever he could get a hold of, trying to gather as much footage as possible with the skimmer's cameras. It wasn't much, but maybe the intel would be useful to the eggheads later on. If only there was a clear spot where he could get close to the burning truck-
*BANG* *BANG* *BANG*
What the fuck?!
Those had come from his bird! From inside the transport! Were they shooting their bolters out the fucking loading bay door?! It wouldn't do crap at this height.
He yelled into his headset, "The fuck is going on back there?!"
"...nothing. Just an argument on proper procedure and politeness."
Jonah's blood ran cold. The Victor!
"Am I talking to the pilot of this hunk of junk?" asked the young super.
"Y-yes. Um. W-we're in the air above a live combat zo-"
"No duh shithead. There's windows in this deathtrap, I see them. Here's what's going to happen. I'm gonna murder the shit out of those ants down there. You're gonna park this thing right fucking here and wait til I'm done. If I have to walk my ass back, finding and killing you will be the first thing on my to-do list, understand?"
"Make sure you get a good look at what I'm about to do, and tell your bosses what you see. I want them to know they don't tell me what to do. No one does."
"Swing on your right."
Jonah pulled on the stick hard as the transport suddenly swung up to the right, easily past ninety degrees, and the old girl whined as her gyroscope and engines laboriously compensated. What the hell had that been?
He got his answer a second later, as an impact on the ground threw up a cloud of dirt. The dirt rained down and a humanoid figure stepped out of the cloud. The kid had jumped out the side, and the force of it set the skimmer to rocking.
Ants attacked immediately, workers and soldiers rushing the threat, already going mad from a threat being within the vicinity of their queen. The first ant died as its head exploded, the kid's figure barely visible in the blur that burst the car-sized ant's head as if it were a ripe melon. That blur continued on, in sudden starts and stops, as it rapidly smashed a path to the queen like an angry pinball. Ant soldiers stepped up to bodyblock, but regardless of how many bodies they put in the way, each was smashed to pieces like the fragile glass they resembled; the kid was a bull in a china shop.
Finally, the kid reached the queen, and paused for a second to begin his last dash. Immediately, several insectoid figures leapt at him, the translucent shapes indecipherable to Jonah. For a second he feared they had powers of their own, but he knew that wasn't the case. They were only specialized mutants, made specifically to guard the young queen. If ants could trigger, it was only the queens who held that ability. Any other variants were just custom mutants birthed by the queens. Either way, they were smashed aside just as all the others had been.
And then the queen was dead.
The ants went mad.
The entire valley, from north to south, charged the young super all at once. He was nearly buried under translucent ant flesh as they crawled over each other to get at him in their fury. Jonah tracked the blur the kid made as he tried to stay afloat, and with so many ants attacking all at once, Jonah finally noticed the flaw in the kid's power. After every one of those mad dashes, the kid needed to come to a complete stop. Sometimes only for a moment, but other times the kid stopped for one, three, and even five whole seconds at a time. Not long, but long enough for an ant to take his head off. The only thing that saved him was the ants' own confusion and rage, unable to immediately track him after each jump and needing to reorient on the threat each time.
Jonah throttled the skimmer's engines, and made a beeline for the kid. It was made harder by the fact that the Victor kept jumping, but eventually he managed to get the skimmer ahead of the kid's path, and turned the skimmer sideways to line up the door. Hopefully the kid could control himself enough to not punch a hole in the bird?
Apparently so. The skimmer rocked as the kid landed in the hold, and Jonah throttled the engines to gain altitude. The ants were already making a living mountain beneath him and he wasn't going to chance dealing with that pile of manure. The old bird pulled away fast, and both Jonah and Davey breathed through clenched teeth due to what had just transpired.
Then the kid must have put one of the headsets back on, because the channel crackled to life.
"HOLY SHIT! IS IT ALWAYS THIS MUCH FUN?!"
Jonah couldn't find the words.
"GODDAMN! WHY DID NOBODY EVER SAY SO?! THAT WAS THE SHIT! IS IT ALWAYS LIKE THIS? I WOULD HAVE SIGNED UP AT SIXTEEN! HOLY CRAP!"
"Fuck that was awesome!... Anyways... hey shit for brains, you're going the wrong way."
"You're heading south. Turn us north."
"Fortress City dumbass. I've got shit to do. Get me as far as you can and I'll call us even."
Jonah considered smashing the skimmer into the ground right then and there, and if he believed for a second that would kill the Victor and keep him away from Fortress City, away from his family, he would have. Even if he'd just saved him from death by ants. Even if it meant taking them all with him. But he knew it wouldn't, so he turned the skimmer and kept flying. North.
He'd never forget the sound he heard next. At first he didn't recognize it. It was laughter, coming from the super powered teen in the back of his skimmer. Not the mad laughter of a Victor monologuing, or the cruel laugh of a mean child. Jonah turned in his seat, and stared back through the cabin into the passenger hold, where the Victor, barely eighteen, was looking out the open loading bay at the sunset, covered in translucent ant blood, the corpses of the murdered escort team still warm and bleeding on the deck.
Laughing the innocent laugh of a kid having fun.
Jonah's eyes opened at the sound of a door opening. A man in a suit poked his head in, "Mr. Jonah? Sorry for the wait; we'll see you now."
A grunted "mhm," was all Jonah said in response. He wiped the sand from his eyes and blinked as the dream faded. It'd been a long time since last he dreamed of Warhead's first escape, likely dredged up by the sounds of some hero brawl that was currently playing on a tiny vidscreen in the corner of the waiting room. It was tuned to one of the news channels he never bothered paying attention to.
Stupid dream. It'd gotten most of the details wrong, as they were wont to do. First and most of all was that Davey, his co-pilot, had been dead for years before Jonah ever met Warhead, killed during Jonah's second tour of duty when a mutant grasshopper attacked their skimmer. J.D. and D.J. Their passengers had quickly taken to naming their old skimmer the Jalopy-Deathtrap as a joke. The jalopy hadn't survived that grasshopper either come to think of it. Damn bugs.
And a simple silverback team to escort Warhead? Jonah snorted mirthlessly. Laughable. Two supers with anti-kinetic powers had brought the eighteen year old supervillain down south on that first trip. They had come across the mutant ant queen made of glass though. That part was real. Warhead had helped kill the queen that snuck north, but his two escorts had died in the process of fighting the rogue ant army. Whether or not Warhead had something to do with it had never been quite clear. Either way, Warhead had commandeered the transport after the fighting was over, and made his first escape from Panama that day.
Jonah had done two more tours of Panama after that one. Nothing the ants threw at him quite scared Jonah the way Warhead did, laughing as he forced Jonah to fly him as far to Fortress City as they could get. Jonah could do nothing to stop Warhead, but he could help keep the damn bugs away from his city at least. You didn't realize it in Fortress City's sterile confines, but outside the walls life thrived. A one-in-several-billion chance of a bug getting powers meant nothing when there were trillions of them. Keep the monstrous ants away from the city his family lived in, and earn a pretty penny to put his kid through college at the same time to boot. It had seemed like a no-brainer.
His son was dead now though. Another lie the dream told. If only I-
"Mr. Jonah?" asked the man in the suit.
"I'm coming. Keep your shirt on." He stood up, his old joints popping from his nap in the waiting room chair. The two agents who sat on either side of him followed suit. Technically they were his escorts, but he knew they were basically his handlers. Oh how the tables had turned. Now he was the Victor, but they needn't have bothered with escorts for him. Even if he cared to run, which he didn't, he was far too old for that running crap.
He followed the man, who introduced himself as Jerry, into a room with a steel conference table. There were two more suits with him, and they immediately got to work pushing forms and charts and other crap under his nose. As if he would read it.
"A pleasure to meet you Mr. Jonah. I've read your file. Five tours of duty, three guarding the Panama passage. Quite impressive."
Jonah nodded in confirmation of the number only, and then zoned out of the discussion, wishing to get it over with.
"...Technically your status will be that of a sidekick, but unofficially you'll be counted as a senior member of the team. That applies to pay and benefits such as..."
Benefits. Ha. Could have used those ages ago.
"...Your mask will need to be equipped with a camera during the probationary period. That can be removed afterwards if you wish, although we do encourage keeping it for liability reasons. Some heroes also like to use the footage for social media or advertising, which has a separate form over here..."
Buncha bullcrap. Endorsements? Exposure? What, are they trying to sign me up for a band? Is this what these heroes spend their time on? Useless shit like this?
"...I don't suppose you've given any thought to what you might want as your hero name? You'll have to check it against the database, but as long as its been out of use for-"
"I'm sorry, but can we wrap up this song and dance?!" interrupted Jonah, exasperated, "I don't know what they've told you, but I don't give a shit about this crap. Sorry to waste your time, but I won't be joining any of these, these hero teams," he sneered. They couldn't help my boy. "Just, just throw me in a damn cell already and we can all get on with our lives."
"...Cell?" asked Jerry, uncertainly.
Jonah almost laughed, "Oh, did they not tell you? Destruction of infrastructure. Felony offense. But these bleeding hearts take one look at the fragile old vet and can't do what needs doing," I should've been there for him, "Keep trying to give me these deals. Damn waste of everybody's time."
Jerry looked poleaxed. "That's... I'm sorry, I was given to understand that you wanted to be here."
"Well they fed you bullshit then. I don't."
Jerry's lips pressed thin, the face of a person who suddenly realized exactly just how much shit someone's fed them. "That's unfortunate. Sorry to waste your time then, Mr. Jonah." Then, strangely, he started packing up. Jonah might have expected him to plead, or blow up on the two suddenly sweating aides who looked like they might be the spewers of the aforementioned bullshit. In his experience suits never mummed up and just left.
The hell was his game?
"I should fucking hope so," replied Jerry, while angrily stuffing papers into his briefcase, "My sector's hero team was already understaffed for ages, and now I find myself with my most versatile member in the hospital, with no prospects of a replacement, all while Warhead is free to run roughshod through my sector. So forgive me if I'm too busy to deal with shit right now," he finished, throwing a glare at the two aides to make sure they knew they were the majority of that statement.
"Oh, hadn't heard?" Jerry grabbed the smartphone of one of the aides, who didn't protest, and punched in some buttons before tossing the phone in front of Jonah. "Seems Warhead is once again, for the upteenth time, back in Fortress City. E13, my sector, is unfortunately his favorite stomping grounds, so you can imagine I'm in somewhat of a rush," he explained, angrily. Then he went back to ferociously packing up his papers and forms as the video played. It started at Warhead's violent introduction to a large, rock-like man.
Jonah's heart sank as he watched. That was Warhead alright, arrogant smile and all. It really didn't matter, did it? Warhead would break whatever and whoever he wanted, and when they finally caught him, he'd break out and do it all over again. And he'd get away with it. All because he also broke ants along the way. Because he had a power that was useful to them, that allowed him to destroy what they needed destroyed. So they let him live. Let him walk away again and again. If it had been Warhead who destroyed his son's company, who destroyed his son's livelihood and dreams, would they have let him walk away? Probably. He doesn't deserve to laugh like that. Not when my son can't. My son was trying to build something.
And then the bug appeared on the video, and he nearly had a heart attack.
"Is that a fucking ant!?" Jonah snatched the phone off the table to take a closer look.
"Hm?" Jerry looked up, "Oh, the vampire. Just one of those endemic problems of the outer sectors."
Jonah took a closer look, and his heart rate slowly returned to normal. Indeed it wasn't an ant, even if it looked slightly similar. His old eyes had fooled him. But still, bugs in the damn city. Was I just wasting my time fighting? Time I could have spent with him? At least Warhead was already smashing it like the bug that it was...
...Why the hell wasn't he killing it?
...Where was he going?
In the video, Warhead took a few potshots at the vampire, failed, and then left.
But... that's all he's good for.
The video continued, and it was left to the heroes to stop the vampire. All of them young faces he didn't recognize. Not one of them looks older than thirty. Late thirties tops. My boy... my son was already forty. The damn bug had them on the ropes multiple times, its strange multi-power allowing it to counter and strike back at any individual super. They countered with teamwork, using tactics and training to drive the bug into a corner with a determination that would have made any drill sergeant cry tears of joy.
Their teamwork and strategy paid off, and eventually they slowed it down enough for someone to take a real stab at it. The cape wearing the camera was the one to deal the finishing blow.
Nearly killing herself in the process.
The phone shattered in his grip, crushed into shards that stabbed into his palm, the power going out with a sad fizz. The owner gasped, but took one look at Jonah's scarred face twisted in fury and decided they could get a new phone.
"She live?" asked Jonah, not looking up, "The young woman?" The young hero. Who's arm was pulped and shattered while risking her life, because a monster like Warhead wouldn't do the one thing he was good for!
Jerry stopped his packing and leveled a cool glance across the table at Jonah, "You mean Magenta? Yes, barely. She suffered organ failure from the ultrasonic blast that resulted, but they somehow managed to stabilize her in time. She'll be in the hospital until a super who can heal her past her forcefield has a spare moment. As you can imagine, there's a long waiting list due to Odd Summer."
Jonah stared down at the phone. He'd spent his life trying to hold back the horrors of Odd Summer. To keep them away from his family, from the people he cared about. Spent his time like it was water, to make things better for the next generation.
He'd failed. His son, the builder, the dreamer, had died alone, his spirits crushed. Warhead, the monster, the destroyer, had lived. Lived and was allowed to be happy.
And now the next generation of young people were again selling their lives for a better future.
Jonah dropped the remnants of the phone, and held his bleeding hand out to Jerry.
Some days were quiet. They crawled along, and you had time to get all your paperwork done, make a nice lunch, maybe watch a movie, and then hey, still had the whole afternoon to plot your next crime.
Other days though...
Other days you spent trying to keep your idiot employees from offing themselves, and then the base alarm goes off anyways.
Hellion excused herself to her guest, then left her office via her personal elevator, taking it up and exiting to the main hub.
She sighed as she took in the scene, which was more or less as she expected. Minions were running to-and-fro, trying to get to wherever they needed to be. Rather chaotic, as you had veterans and newbies, dominoes and boneheads, idiots, and a few cowards. All of them stepped out of her path regardless of who they were, although some of the newbies and idiots trailed in her wake like flotsam, seeking stability from their boss. All the veterans gave her space. If it came to a fight, you didn't want to be near her regardless of who you were.
She headed for Rattleback, who was already in the main chamber attempting to put order to the mayhem.
"What's going on Rattleback?"
"One of the garage entrances was breached."
"Warhead. I'm running it as a drill to get some use out of it."
Hellion sighed in relief at having someone as competent as Rattleback running things. Some days it felt like the entire company was only a few straws short of collapsing, and without people as competent as her lieutenants it most definitely would have by now. For some reason, recruiting people from the underbelly of society tended to make it difficult to find competent employees. Who would have guessed?
They watched the newbies and idiots scramble in circles for a while, until passing boneheads thankfully grabbed them and shoved them in the right directions without Rattleback having to prompt them. Most of the powered minions in HH were rather competent, if only because the incompetant ones didn't last long. Wearing a mask meant you were strong enough to take the hits, or were smart enough to know when to get out of the way. Or you were lucky. Stupidly, ridiculously lucky. Which was apparently a thing, according to certain supers with luck based powers, but they tended to be a bit loopy.
A minion in a domino mask approached, one of Rattleback's trainees, but seemed uncertain as to who to address with Hellion there. Rattleback solved it by addressing him first.
"How's the evacuation proceeding?"
"Um, most dominoes are about ninety-percent clear, but there are a few stragglers. Almost all the engineers are clear, but there was a problem with the, um, scorpion girl?"
"Her name's Nicole. Avoid appellations if they didn't pick them themselves."
"Y-yes sir. Well, she doesn't fit in any of the current emergency elevators, and the breach happened on the garage route we had designated for her."
Rattleback frowned at the trainee, "Then have her use a different garage route?"
"Er, we were going to, but it seems she panicked and fled into the sewers."
Rattleback sighed, "Have someone ping her mask before she gets too far and let her know it was just a drill. She can't be out of range already."
"Yes sir, and um, some of the on-duty boneheads seem to be, uh, missing? Mostly new hires."
Both Rattleback and Hellion rolled their eyes at that.
"Make a note of the ones who went missing and memorize their call signs. Don't assign them to important engagements in the future or rely on them as backup for the dominoes. If it becomes a real problem, downgrade their status to domino. Oh, and don't tell them directly, get a lieutenant to do it for you. Sometimes people react badly."
The trainee gulped, "Yes sir."
Rattleback went over a few more details with the trainee, then sent him off to deal with the finishing touches of the evacuation drill.
"What was that about the girl not fitting on the elevator?" asked Hellion. All the elevators were rated for thousands of pounds, and spacious enough to fit even the largest mutants. It had been quite the investment to set up.
"Ah, the new girl Tofu brought in during the zombie rat incident, Nicole. Her mutation makes standard conveyances difficult."
Hellion frowned in confusion, "The girl with the snake tail?"
Rattleback was already shaking his head, "Her mutation is far more extensive than that. By her own words, she'll likely exceed twenty tons by the time she's finished regenerating. It's a hyper-dense mutation, so she won't be as large as she could be, but it still far exceeds the weight capacity of the personnel elevators, and to transfer her overland a semi-truck will be neccessary."
Hellion's eyebrows had risen as she listened to Rattleback. Obviously she'd missed that information in the hecticness of the zombie rat incident (maybe Sandra had mentioned it?), but in fairness to her she'd been distracted. She'd seen all sorts of mutations in her line of work, and she'd done lots of frantic research on the subject as a worried first-time parent to a child with a mutation, but a twenty-ton mutation? The only time you saw those was... ugh. She hated bringing stuff like this up, but being the boss meant asking the hard questions.
"Is she stable?" asked Hellion.
"Oh, absolutely," answered Rattleback, to Hellion's relief, "Actually she's probably more stable than the majority of people we get through here. Smart too. Socket has her on the advanced engineer's course."
"Well that's some pleasant news for once," said Hellion, feeling both surprised and relieved. Mutavus affected everybody differently, but a general rule of thumb she'd seen again and again was that the more it affected you physically, the higher the chance of it affecting you mentally. Class four mutations, or catastrophic mutations as most called them, almost always ended with the victim becoming a mindless monster in some form or another. Even the ones that kept their minds wound up being... not right. Hellion had needed to put down more than one poor SOB who'd mutated badly, just part of the cowl territory, and she'd hated every moment of it.
Rattleback nodded in agreement. "Looks like the evacuation is just about complete. Should we go greet our guest?"
"Yes, I suppose we should stop him from putting more holes in my base," replied Hellion.
She led the way to the garage, and then followed the boneheads towards the expected point of contact. The boneheads were following proper protocol, with brutes and people who could take a hit in front, and people with glass-cannon abilities and powers in the back. Her heart lurched to see a pair of red metal gauntlets in the mix, and she had to stop herself from yelling at her daughter to get to an elevator. She huffed, silently. That was going to take some getting used to. Thank goodness this time was just a drill.
Hellion moved to the front of the crowd, glad to see that someone had opened the blast doors. They wouldn't have stopped Warhead even if they needed to, and she was serious about him damaging the base. Warhead wasn't an idiot, but he also didn't care much for inconveniences. He was just as likely to punch through a locked door as wait for someone to open it, a personality trait that often had him butting heads with Socket, who had to fix all the things Warhead broke.
They didn't need to wait long. Soon a humanoid figure stomped his way down the exit tunnel, and it was a tense second for the boneheads before he emerged from the gloom with a shout.
"Who the hell took my code off the door?!" yelled Warhead, once he was in sight.
Hellion and Rattleback both sighed. Some things never changed.
"It's been eight years Warhead. The codes have changed," replied Rattleback, with the long-suffering tone of someone who'd had to explain something over and over again.
"Well I don't know why you keep changing mine. You know I won't remember a new one. Hey there Hellion, it's good to see you girl. Still wearing that darklord outfit I see," Warhead smiled.
"Stop punching holes in my base you lummox," Hellion replied, with a scowl that slowly broke out into her own smile. She leaned in to give him a hug, which he reciprocated.
"Ah, it's been too long. Still like hugging a tin can though," said Warhead.
Hellion thumped his shoulder. "You could always visit more you ass. Not like it takes you long to travel."
"Bah, you don't need me pushing all your carefully stacked dominoes over. Until you do. What's so important you had to sneak me a message...?" he trailed off as she subtly signaled him to silence. "So, how are things?" he asked, changing the topic.
"Hectic, like always. Here, let's head to my office."
They began to head back, and Rattleback went to herd the confused minions back to work.
"Hectic huh? Need me to get some of these slackers into shape?" he glared at the group of boneheads that were filtering back. Some of the ones who recognized him tried to make themselves inconspicuous.
"Now now, try to go a day before you traumatize my employees. I don't need you scaring off the new recruits."
"Why? Any of them worth a damn?"
"Oh, quite a few this time. One you might even recognize."
"Mhm? And who's that?"
"Someone you know. Someone who might not have been old enough the last time you came round."
"Stop playing coy woman, you know I don't do guessing games... wait."
Hellion grinned like the cowl who just caught the cape, and Warhead followed her eyes over to the group of boneheads. It didn't take him long to single out one bonehead wearing heavy-duty tinker-made gauntlets, and they were red, how much more obvious could it be?
"Do my eyes deceive?! Is that the little firestarter herself? All growed up and wearing her own mask?" His voice boomed across the room, and the minion in question froze like she'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Slowly she turned to Warhead, trying to ignore the curious gazes of the other minions who'd turned at the ruckus.
"Uh. Hello Warhead."
"Warhead? Warhead?" He clutched his hands over his heart, dramatically, then said in a teary voice, "Hellion! She don't remember me no more!"
Ifrit slouched and sighed, "Hello Uncle Bert. It's good to see you."
"Get over here you munchkin! Where's my hello? Or should I say beanstalk? When'd you get so damn tall?"
Hellion had to restrain herself from cackling at her daughter's plight as Warhead gave her the third degree. She had promised her daughter to keep work and homelife separate, but Warhead had made no such promise whatsoever, and good luck trying to wring one out of him.
Serves you right for making your mother worry so often.
Eventually Ifrit managed to extricate herself from the situation after promising to catch up properly when her shift was over, and retreated with the other boneheads while threatening several of them with fire if they continued snickering. Warhead rejoined Hellion and Smoke as they headed for her office.
"Damn, was I really gone that long? They grow so damn fast," said Warhead.
"You're telling me? I keep forgetting she's eighteen and I don't need to put her on timeout for sneaking into the base. She's given me two heart attacks already and we're barely a month into Odd Summer."
"Only two? Ah, she always was a good kid. She'll make a great minion Hellion, you worry too much."
The two of them chattered on the way back to Hellion's office, and Warhead found another old acquaintance waiting for him there.
"Murphy! How's it been girl?"
"Agh. Not so loud please Warhead," requested the woman resting in a comfy office chair. She wore plainclothes (a comfortable tracksuit), but her white opera mask (decorated with math equations of all things) was currently pushed up to allow for a cold compress to be applied to her eyes and forehead.
"Oof, sorry Murphy," continued Warhead, in a quieter voice, "Do a lot of spending then?"
"Yes. That lockdown could have gone very badly."
"Ah, I guess I have you to thank for the near misses? Damn mosquito thing nearly caught me three times. Kept pulling powers out of its ass."
"You're lucky it didn't bite you," chuckled Murphy, giving Warhead a one-handed arm clasp in lieu of a hug. "It's good to see you Bert. How have you been?"
"Oh, same ol' same old. Ants are holed up to endure Odd Summer, then they'll come marching two by two come winter and I'll be up to my knees in bug guts again. How's the casino business?"
"Oh, you know. Ups and downs. Hellion keeps spending all my hard-earned money though. Her kids keep getting into the most interesting trouble."
"My valuable employees Murphy," corrected Hellion. Warhead and Murphy both chuckled.
"Well then," said Warhead, " Down to business. What's so important you're playing spy with me Hellion?"
"I have to admit, I'm curious myself. She's been so very mum the past few weeks. Makes me think she's up to ~something~," said Murphy, removing the compress and pulling her mask down. Some talks simply required proper atmosphere... even if you were in plainclothes.
"I'm planning a heist," said Hellion, simply.
"...That it?" asked Warhead.
"Boo~ poor build-up, anti-climatic finish," criticized Murphy.
"Oh come now, you haven't even asked what I'm stealing yet. I'll give you a hint, we can only steal it during Odd Summer."
Both of her compatriots paused, thinking. Murphy got it first, though from her wince she might have used her power to peek.
"You mean The Heist!" said Murphy, suddenly animated. Then she had to quickly pull her mask up again to put the compress back on, leaning back with an "ugh."
"You're pulling my leg," said Warhead.
"Nope. Someone in Central slipped up, and Jasper managed to get their transfer plan for this year," replied Hellion.
"And confirmed by Trebla, I'm not an idiot."
"Ah, Trebla huh... well hot damn, when we doing this?"
"Can't tell you yet. I don't want any telepaths or precogs or calculators or whatever picking up on what you may or may not know before we're ready. For now the only ones with full knowledge are myself and Trebla... oh, and maybe Smoke?"
The three of them looked over to the fourth figure, standing at attention just over Hellion's shoulder. He neither confirmed nor denied (didn't even move beyond breathing really), so she just shrugged and turned back to her guests.
"Well, if you can't tell us, what do you want us doing in the meantime?"
"I was going to ask you to stay low-profile, but since that is already up in smoke-"
"You knew it would be, don't lie," grinned Warhead.
"-We're going with plan A. I've been calling in all of the old crew, and I'll leave you to your own devices as long as you prepare. I also have the details of a decoy plan we'll be implementing to throw precogs and such off the scent."
"Wait," said Murphy, slowly, "When you say all of the old crew..."
Hellion's smile faltered for the first time as she bit her lip. "Yes, Cookie too."
Both Warhead and Murphy paled.
"Hellion!" cried Murphy.
"What!? Why would you call him!?" asked Warhead.
"Hold on, hold on," said Hellion, raising her hands to halt the protests, "Trust me, I thought about not doing it, but you both know that if we did this job and didn't invite Cookie, he'd never forgive us for it."
"That... yeah, that's true," admitted Warhead, "But still, he gives me the creeps."
"Is that even safe with your employees though?" Murphy put forth. "You know how he gets with some people, and my power can't keep them safe from him."
"I'm not expecting you to spend for that. Look, I'll be making efforts to keep him from getting out of hand. If worst comes to worst... I can always point him in someone else's direction, there's plenty of opportunity with Odd Summer."
Warhead and Murphy both grimaced at the thought of it, and Hellion didn't exactly like it herself, but it was true. Odd Summer revealed exactly the types of people that Cookie would take an interest in. Hopefully that would be enough.
Hellion sighed, "I'll understand if this is a dealbreaker for you two."
Warhead and Murphy considered it silently.
"...Ah screw it. You ain't scaring me away doll. I'm not missing this one for the world," said Warhead.
Hellion smiled and turned to Murphy, who was biting her lower lip as she patted her forehead with the compress.
"...This is going to cost so much money," pouted Murphy, giving in, "Just, keep him away from my casino."
"I'll do my best Murphy."
"Good. This job is already going to cost enough as it is."
"I know Murphy... But think of the payoff."
They did, and grinned. Like cowls who caught the cape.