I like Gribblin Tamer. Simple rules, complex gameplay, a plot that is unpredictable but not so convoluted that I can't understand the human reasoning involved. But most of all, I like that there is no risk of death (a wonderful component of all video games really). You can be fighting vicious monsters, who are far stronger than yourself, with amazing esoteric powers you can't hope to compete with, and yet, none of them have any hope of ever truly beating you. It makes for a very relaxing experience. One that I definitely needed seeing as how I'd severely overstrained Human.exe today.
It was due to the fight with the heroes of course. The vampire swarm was dangerous, but it was also predictable. For all their cunning and tool use, vampires were still organisms that followed their base instincts. Attack when you have the advantage, run when you don't, the most complicated aspect of them was how they were willing to accept higher risk actions to save their young offspring, something I was quickly beginning to realize was probably a baseline trait of all or most organisms.
Humans though, they were truly complicated. The fact that they both followed their instincts, and also constantly evaluated and judged those same instincts, meant they could be following a predictable course of action right up until they weren't. Throw in group dynamics, and random powers, and rectangles, and blah blah blah, and now I was so mentally strained I was even having difficulty figuring out how to trigger the peanut throwing ritual.
Luckily, I could just eat from the can.
I somewhat wanted to turn Human.exe off for today, but I had too much data to analyze and there was still the threat that someone would find us at the safehouse, or on our way back to base. For now, I passed the time playing Gribblin Tamer with Mikey, while collating all the data I'd gathered today. First up was comparing the vampire fight to previous fights with swarming enemies.
The rat swarm fight: I was low on resources, and had decent, but ultimately unsatisfactory fighting skills at the time. The rats would have torn me limb from limb through sheer numbers until I lacked the resources to maintain function, and likely would have destroyed my core completely. Nicole saved me.
The stitch-rat swarm fight: My fighting skills were satisfactory during this encounter, and I had the resources to maintain my combat efficiency throughout the fight. Working with Imp and Nicole also helped reduce resource consumption and increase efficiency for this fight. However, the swarm eventually forced me to retreat once the will-o-wisp entered the scenario.
The vampire swarm fight: I was nearly entirely satisfied with my combat skills during this fight. Only minor miscalculations were made once the vampires began their final charge, and I was at no real risk throughout the encounter. The key here was prepping excess micro units beforehand, and having the skills and tools necessary to survive the swarm long enough to implement my plan. Socket's armaments, Adder's training, and Nicole's biological enhancements were the keys to turning a potentially dangerous scenario into a near triviality.
As for the new enhancements from this encounter, the vampire bodies hadn't given much, as my current organs and chitin composites far outdid theirs (and the eggs were meh: too watery), but the blood was an interesting element . It's sweet taste was due to increased sugar content, which this blood variant was exceptionally good at transferring, and thus, immediately beneficial to me. The problem with it was that it wasn't meant for an endoskeletal organism, as its qualities also made it rather oily and thick in comparison to human blood. Perfect for lubricating and providing pressure for exoskeletal joints, but not for quick blood flow, which was another quality I valued.
It was another temptation to switch back to an exoskeletal system. Flexible chitin, plus foldable muscle, plus vampire blood would make for an excellent combination, and being able to contain organs within a shell made shifting them easier since I wouldn't need to worry about spillage. On the other hand, there were decent advantages to an endoskeleton. Heat venting was much easier, joint flexibility was easier to modify, and most important of all, I'd already established my disguise as looking like a base human, which was the easiest to remain unnoticed with. My 'identity' was of a powered human as far as members of HH knew, and I had several acquaintances outside of HH who knew me as human. Switching now carried several social risks, as some in HH who knew I wasn't a mutant may become angered that I was pretending to be one, and outside acquaintances may break alliance with me if they thought I'd become one. None of it was life-threatening, but it could potentially upend my entire social network, which I had become increasingly attached to, and which I was increasingly reluctant to risk. The thought of having to restart an entire new network of social acquaintances was... oh. Ohhh.
This must be similar to how humans felt when they were afraid of mutating. This feeling of 'dread'. Fascinating. I was under no physical threat, and yet... but Human.exe still... I... I should shut down Human.exe and calculate the disguise options without it. Just in case it was adversely affecting my decision making. But not yet. I still had so much data to review.
I filed that thought away for later and moved on to the fights with the heroes. These had been... semi-successful. On the one hand, I was pleased with my successes in countering each heroes' individual power and combat style; however, on reviewing the data and the recordings, it was clear to me that the heroes had been controlling the overall situation almost entirely.
Upon finding me carrying Briarstone, the heroes had based their entire plan around recovering their incapacitated teammates, and separating us minions. Suprex's opening tackle had both moved me farther away from the vulnerable Briarstone, and separated me from Zaps, my only real combat capable ally. From there, I managed to beat Suprex in a solo engagement, but I was then cornered by the teamwork of Brick and Magenta, which would have resulted in my arrest if not for the timely intervention of Warhead. One hero after another until I was eventually cornered. Swarms of powerful individuals. Quantity and quality. This is what caused me to overtax Human.exe; constant new combat data to interpret, as well as the need to correlate human culture concepts to real-life scenarios, and at the same time I was overclocking my response reactions. It seemed humanity was already one step ahead of me, and had already developed a counter to an entity such as myself. I wasn't back at square one, but this problem was more complicated than the previous challenges. More complicated than swarms. More complicated than keyfabe. More complicated than the peanut ritual. More complicated than rectangles... well, maybe not that complicated.
Thought process instability detected.
But I had too many ideas to shut down yet! First was simply better teamwork with HH. Only having Zaps and I as the combat capable supers on this excursion turned out to be a detriment, as our teamwork was lacking. I would need to formulate better matchups for teams. Did the lieutenants already do that? I should check. Or practice with Zaps... or not. I don't like getting zapped. But I do like peanuts! But not the wikis! They were lacking completely! They definitely needed to be updated and formatted and reorganized and their structure currently made no sense! And I would need to start killing supers in the surrounding areas that were detrimental to me. The wiki map of assigned locations would help. But I would make it better. With teamwork! Countering hero swarms relied on my ability to calculate teammates abilities and reactions in response to surrounding threats but they were ultimately outside my control and this was unacceptable as that meant I may not be able to deal with threats and threats and threats that were all around and around me everywher-
"Hey, Tofu? Are you alright man?"
I blinked, and looked up from my phone.
"Yes Mikey? I'm fine? Why do you ask?"
"You kinda, spaced out there man. Your guy is just spinning in circles."
I looked back down at the phone. He was right. I'd just been mindlessly moving the character back and forth. That was odd.
"Uh. Sorry Mikey. I guess I... um..." I couldn't think of an excuse!
"Hey man. If you need to like, take a break we can. You've been going full steam all day."
"Full steam? I have trouble with metaphors Mikey."
"...Dude. You are fried. Tired. Maybe you should just lay down."
"But, we aren't completely safe until we get back. There were so many supers. It's possible we could be getting tracked right now, and if they found us and I was sleeping..."
"Then it would take less than a second for you to spring into motion, like always. Dude. Go rest. I'll keep watch if you're worried."
"...You'll stay alert? Promise?"
"Sure dude. Cross my heart and hope to die."
"I, that's not, it's a metaphor! I promise I'll look out! Go! Go rest."
This heart-crossing thing somewhat worried me, but Mikey was right. I was indeed tired, so I found a good spot in the back of the small recharge station, and turned off Human.exe for a nap.
"Tofu? You in here?" asked Pebbles, entering the room. "We gotta go pick up Buzzer."
"GAH! What the hell are you doing under there?"
"Taking a nap." A good one too, I was thinking a lot better now. It seems Zaps had the correct idea about taking a nap after work.
I pulled myself out from underneath the couch, and followed Pebbles to the main room with the others.We did a last check to make sure we weren't leaving evidence behind, and then followed Pebbles back to the van. Pebbles had been checking it over while I napped, and assured that he had found no tracking devices. We drove off, heading to pick up Buzzer and then head back to E13.
"You feeling better?" asked Mikey.
"Yes. Thank you for keeping watch."
"Ha, no worries man."
It was reassuring to have Mikey along, as I considered him to be the most reliable of the people with me. While my musings before my nap had been garbled, one thing was clear. For the foreseeable future I would need to rely on my allies. A 'hero swarm' was not something I could currently tackle by myself. To that end, I needed to stabilize the region around E13. According to other minions' assurances, E13 had never gone through an Odd Summer without a lockdown, a fact that I found worrying. This recent lockdown would likely not be the last I went through, so the area around E13 needed to be modified to accommodate me. That meant heroes who were strong enough to quickly control a lockdown situation, but not capable of uprooting Hellion's Henchmen, and not a personal threat to myself.
Brick, Magenta, and Turbo, the current E13 team, were all fine. Their restraint shown so far made me believe I had no need to fear them killing me, and of the three I was reasonably sure I could kill Turbo and Brick if I had to. Magenta's forcefield presented a difficulty, as it was much stronger than I initially thought. It seemed to react in direct relation to the force applied to it, and if it could withstand Warhead, then I had no hope of breaking it. Still, she had followed proper hero apprehending procedures, so I would rather keep her in E13 than have an untested super transfer in for now. From here on out, I'd try to keep my relations with the three of them... cordial.
E12 also seemed fine. Suprex was especially fine, as his power seemed to actively prevent lethal damage, while leaving him easily strong enough to deal with a lockdown situation. If only they could all have powers like his. Ferrosa and Hydrox seemed fine from what I had seen of them, and I had never met Dark Gauntlet before his death. Someone named Meristo was the final member of E12's team, but I hadn't seen them during the lockdown, nor did they appear on any of the news footage. The wiki was decidedly unhelpful as well...
That left the other surrounding sectors around E13:
NE12: Essetec, Braggan. Reported as a four person team.
NE13: Avos (deceased), Briarstone (transferred in?), Toptop, Mable (transferred out?)
NE14: No Data. Reported as a three person team.
E14: No Data. Reported as a two person team.
SE12: BB3, Tork, CakeCake (note:prioritize).
SE13: Craggle, Dormouse, missing third member.
SE14: No Data. Reported as three person team.
The wikis were severely out of date. I now understood it was a mistake on my part to have depended on them, but I hadn't expected it to be this bad considering knowledge of surrounding heroes was something human civilians took an interest in. I expected them to upkeep the entries like Tim would, but it seemed only the 'popular' heroes had well maintained entries, while others were barely mentioned by name, if that. More than one sector simply had the amount of heroes working there.
I needed alternate sources of data. Unfortunately, it seemed Central rather liked the state of affairs, as official sources were also no good. Forget information on assigned sectors, let alone powers. The Central databank was a simple list of hero names with a picture I.D. of them in costume, and that was it. Likely Central knew exactly where their heroes were stationed, but they didn't want the general populace (and villains) having unfettered access to that information. I needed reliable information, which meant I needed to contact Jasper, the information broker, but there had been difficulties getting a hold of him. The phone number he left me after our last encounter was out of service now. Perhaps Sandra would know? Or maybe Viper.
We reached the building where Buzzer was being kept, and quietly collected him. He wasn't wearing his minion mask anymore, having exchanged it for a domino mask. The bandages around his head likely had something to do with it.
"That helps with your concussion?" I asked.
"Don't know, don't care. Damn quack. Pebbles, drive. I want this shitty sector in the rearview mirror."
"HA! Damn straight!"
"Agh, not so loud."
"Ah, right, my bad."
"And...." Buzzer trailed off for a second. "Thanks for coming to get me guys."
"AWWWWWWW, he does care. No worries buzzy bee, you know we love you too," said Zaps, in a sing-song voice.
"CALL ME BUZZY BEE AGAIN, AND I"LL THROW YOU IN A BATHTUB, YOU DEFUNCT TOASTER!!" yelled Buzzer, clutching his head in agony soon after.
Zaps just laughed, and Pebbles drove the van out of the alley.
"No worries," said Pebbles, "we'll be back in E13 before you know it. A quick stop at the base to get things sorted and then we can get you to a proper doctor."
"Screw that. I just dodged death half a dozen times in less than twenty-four hours. I need a drink," said Buzzer.
"Uh, you sure that's a good idea with the concussion?"
"I said drive damn it! Ashwood Street. Red Zone. Let's fucking go."
"Alright alright. Glad to see you're feeling better."
"I'll feel better when I have a beer in me."
"Red Zone it is. Buckle up buttercups."
"Don't we need to pick up Richard first?" I asked. We were supposed to be escorting him.
"Richard?... Shit!" yelped Pebbles, "The lawyer! Almost forgot. Nice save there; can you imagine what Sandra would do to us if we came back without him?
"She would likely make us fill out reports."
Pebbles shuddered, "A fate worse than death."
Now that had to be a metaphor.
Mikey made the call, and it turned out to be a non-issue. Richard had already arranged alternate transport since he would be staying at the police station to "hammer them for losing his client," which would have more impact if Buzzer stayed gone. In the best case scenario, the minion known as 'Buzzer' would be declared dead, which meant the next time Buzzer got arrested, it would reset his strikes record, since "obviously" it would be a new person using Buzzer's codename and not the old Buzzer. A complicated bit of manipulation, but one that would definitely help Buzzer if it paid off (it seemed he had an extensive minion record so far).
That solved, we headed to Ashwood St. The van blended in easily with the 'tour buses' and other traffic heading for E13, and soon enough we parked in a suitable garage, before heading up to the Red Zone level. Buzzer led the way, passing by many bars and restaurants where we could have stopped for his beer. Finally, he stopped in front of a large establishment, with four rather serious looking door guards wearing suits checking a line of waiting patrons. Above the door, in blazing neon lights that gave off an aura of intense chromatic purple to my eyes, was the name of the establishment: the "Cyborg Panda."
"Welcome to paradise newbies," announced Pebbles.
"Uh, isn't this... a strip club?" asked Mikey, hesitantly.
"Best one in the Zone. Come on, let's not let Zaps get too far ahead of us." Indeed, Zaps had already cut to the front of the line, and the bouncers let him through with a respectful nod.
Pebbles herded Mikey and I through the door, following after Buzzer. There was a darkened hallway immediately inside, which led to a second set of doors that opened up into the establishment proper. We didn't get two feet through the second pair of doors before-
"Pebbles! It's been ages! Where have you been?... oh, hello Buzzer," said a woman with a complete set of red scales encasing her body. I could tell because her dress left little unrevealed.
"HA! Hello there Ruby. Play nice with Buzzer, he's had a hell of a day. Amber around by any chance?"
"Phooey. Already thinking of other girls?"
"Aw baby you know you're my favorite. But I owe Buzzer and the boys here a good time, we just got out of that lockdown in E12. Think you could help me with that? Give them the tour?"
"Ohmigosh! You were in there? I'm so glad you're all okay! Here, this way boys. Let's get you settled in. The bar is on your right, just let the girls know what you want and they can bring it to you. Main stage is on your left, but we'll get you to the private booths. If you want to try any 'party favors' we have almost everything, but some of it's restricted until Odd Summer's over of course. Over here we have..."
Ruby continued to explain the services available in the Cyborg Panda, but I was already planning my exit. I really didn't like this place. It was just... tactically unsound. There were bright flashing lights, neon signs, smoke machines, and many shadowed nooks and crannies that made keeping sight of all possible threat vectors impossible. Not to mention that it was also crowded, and nearly all of the employees and most of the customers were mutants, and combat models on top of that. The work respectable 'personal bubble' described to me by the sensitivity trainer was not being observed here at all. Then there were the drugs, or "party favors" as Ruby called them. Supposedly only the "safe drugs" were available to normal humans, but everything I'd heard about drugs and trigger events had been bad news. Even Mikey's school had warned the students about it before they were released for Odd Summer. Did I trust that every patron here would follow the rules on which drugs they may or may not consume? Considering there were several people dancing on tables with their ties wrapped around their heads: no, I did not. Worst of all was what Ruby described as a "lap dance," which sounded like the best way to get stabbed by an unknown weapon I'd heard of so far. That much extended contact with an organism you weren't trying to kill? Ew. Hugs and handshakes at least had the excuse of being mercifully brief, and were required in some situations to solidify normal social bonds.
I didn't really understand this place. Supposedly it was to be able to view underdressed females in a live setting? But why would anyone risk themselves in such a hazardous environment just to look? Maybe I could excuse the humans' illogical behavior if it was their instinctual programming forcing them to attempt to mate and produce offspring, but that wasn't allowed here according to Ruby, so what was the point? Of any of this? The nap I took helped me stabilize Human.exe, but apparently it wasn't long enough, because I just wasn't getting it. At least Mikey was acting logical, staying wide-eyed while nervously scanning for danger. He seemed just as unable as I was to determine where he should be looking to see incoming threats, and his face and ears were turning bright red as he blushed, likely his body's attempt to increase blood flow and help his brain vent heat faster. Poor guy was likely overstraining his processing power; he hadn't taken a nap, and humans weren't very good at overclocking.
"U-uh, Pebbles?" whispered Mikey, "I um, I'm not sure this is really my thing. I think I'm going to go."
"Aw, you sure? I'm buying the first round."
"Actually Pebbles," I began, "I also think I..."
"...and over here is the all-you-can-eat-buffet," said Ruby, "You can serve yourself or ask someone to get you a plate. Over here is..." I didn't hear the rest of what she said.
Reassessing risk to reward ratios...
Within acceptable parameters.
"...would like to stay for dinner."
After all. Henching makes you hungry.