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A note from vladerag

Short chapter today.  Much longer one tomorrow.

The trees twisted, merging with the shadows as he ran. They reached after him, caught on his clothes, but worse was his pursuer. No matter how he ran, he could not escape; the shadow leaping from tree to tree was toying with him, letting him feel like he might have a chance…

But there wasn’t one. She tired of his game as his stamina flagged. The shadow landed in front of him, Junglecat, but maskless. Her face changed as he watched; first it was Mira, then Sarah, then Cindy. It flowed through people he knew, though it mostly stayed on those three. Each face twisted in a snarl and the eyes seemed to glow with hate.

The wound in her side was bleeding heavily, but it didn’t seem to stop her at all. He backed up, tripping on a shadowy root and she sneered down at him.

“Running away from your responsibility?” Junglecat/Mira/Sarah/Cindy spat. “So you are a coward as well as a hypocrite and fool.”

She picked him up by his collar, easily lifting him up to her eye level. Eyes filled with hate, and disgust. So much disgust, as if just touching him made her unclean.

“This is nothing more than you deserve.”

She slammed him down into the ground and it hurt. It hurt so much! Everything seemed to-

I woke up, with my heart beating rapidly and panting heavily. The panic in waking must have prevented me from noticing at first, but the pain from yesterday was not only still there, but it was worse. It felt like someone had taken a mallet to every inch of my body below my neck, or perhaps like I had been in a machine clothes dryer during its cycle.

With how much I had been tossed around yesterday, that was not far from the truth.

Getting out of bed took a monumental effort of will. I only managed to lure myself out of bed with the knowledge that their was aspirin somewhere, maybe even ibuprofen. I hated to take pain medication, but I feel like I could make an exception this morning.

ADHD meds and pain meds down the hatch, and I very gingerly sit myself down to eat breakfast. God, just lifting my arm hurts. Fuck me, I don’t even want to think about last night, I just wanted to sit in this chair and swear. I winced as I leaned back in my chair, staring at the ceiling. What a fucking mess.

But I couldn’t just sit here. Well, I could, but sitting in the kitchen wasn’t the most comfortable anyway. I made my way back to my room and lowered myself into my computer chair; I might as well sit somewhere I where I can destress, right? I had some invitations from my friends, but I doubt I could hide the fact I was pretty fucked up.

I kind of wanted to play some of my real time strategy games, but I took the multiplayer too seriously and I wasn’t in the right condition to play now. That was stress I sure as hell didn’t need right now, and the multiplayer was certainly stressful. Actually, it was a somewhat vaguely interesting situation for me; I didn’t used to have such anxiety when I played, but as I got better at the game and was ranked higher and higher it demanded more and more perfection from me as a player.

Actions per minute, or apm, was used to measure how fast a player was. Better players could micromanage hundreds of units during battle; the highest apm confirmed to belong to someone who was neither a super nor a mutant was over three hundred forty. People at my level of play often had around two hundred, but mine was a mere sixty. I only got by through superior strategy and cautious play, but I had to be nearly perfect in what I did. I simply did not react fast enough that I could waste an action doing something that I didn’t need to do.

I just don’t think well on my feet, even if my reflexes are fine my mind doesn’t always keep up with what is going on. Hence, my obsession with planning. I don’t need to micromanage my units if my position is superior enough.

But no mistakes means no playing when I have been beaten black and blue, so maybe a role playing game or a shooter? I hadn’t really touched them since I gained my powers, why would I? My life already had both in it! I’d enough of that last night, so maybe something like a management or kingdom building game? But I didn’t want to devote a dozen hours into it right now…

So I am not only hurt, but bored too. Maybe I should just keep swearing at the ceiling, fuck it and fuck villains and fuck me for not planning properly. On a whim, I materialized two small cubes of aether between myself and the ceiling. It was easy enough to do, but if I tried to expand them… My head started throbbing and I dismissed them before I could get a headache to go along with the rest of my body’s other pains.

I sighed and opened my browser, I had successfully managed to kill twenty minutes of the rest of my entire day by thinking about a game to play and deciding I didn’t want to play any of them. “The problem is that I don’t actually want to do much aside from not hurt,” I thought to myself. “And the only things I do want to do would be painful.”

I checked my suggested articles with disinterest. The attack in Rochester had been overshadowed by the actions of a group of hacktivist supervillains publishing the secrets of a few dozen important politicians overnight. It wasn’t anything to do with me, partially because I couldn’t vote yet anyway, but mostly because none of the people affected were from Minnesota. They didn’t represent me, so it wasn’t my problem.

I’m not surprised that Rochester was already out of the news, the news cycle was almost spinning out of control. What with all the supers and mutants running around there could be a dozen huge stories going on concurrently.

When there are three different plots from three different supervillains to steal three different nukes, all on the same day, it is hard to know which story to cover. I seem to remember the television news chose to cover the supervillain who had kidnapped a Fellowship tinker and forced him to build a giant doomsday laser and tried to extort a nuke out of the United States government.

He was a pretty powerful villain, he almost made it through his entire demand before Titan beat him down on live tv. Titan’s plan to stop the villain’s contingency for his defeat? When the laser began to fire, Titan just walked in the way of the shot and blocked it with his face. The news probably chose to cover that particular story because they had footage of Titan being Titan, which was always good for ratings.

Actually, I was somewhat interested in what the hacktivists had uncovered. Some of the politicians seemed to have links to some pretty powerful groups of villains, even the Cabal. I couldn’t find the actual documents though, just reports on them. Apparently, the originals were hosted on a darkweb website and that seemed like it would be too much of a bother to deal with.

Why should I go through the trouble of getting onto the darkweb just to read what would probably turn out to be some fairly dry technical documents? Everything else on the darkweb was either sketchy or actually illegal. You could find and buy just about anything if you knew where to look; drugs, child porn, weapons, and mercenaries for investigating, roughing up, or straight up killing are all there.

I had been curious enough to poke my head into that mess once a few years ago. Aside from the fascinating experience of actually seeing such things being bought and sold, there really wasn’t anything that I was interested in at the time. Or now, I suppo-

No. Wait. That could be exactly what I need!

I’d have to be wary about making any kind of deal, but one of the things I needed most was information. It wouldn’t be cheap, but a Tinker or a Thinker might be able to find everything I need. I mean, I’m not sure how organized Rochester’s gangs really are, but aside from the groups that span multiple cities I can’t see why they would have much in the way of computer systems. Still, everyone has a smartphone these days and they must communicate somehow. I doubt they were proof against a tinker snooping through them.

At the very least, I can take a look and investigate my options. If things were too expensive or gave off the wrong vibes, I didn’t have to go through with it. It paid to be careful, especially because these were usually deals where the money was given up front. I didn’t want to give my money to someone who was just planning to walk away with all of it and laugh at me.

Getting to the darkweb was a bit of a pain, I had to download an entirely different browser to do it. It gave the impression that it was a separate entity from the rest of the internet but that really wasn’t the case. All of these websites were still connected to the internet, but they were delisted by search engines and often couldn’t be navigated to using most browsers. They also didn’t have access to the big servers that most companies used, and so darkweb websites would go up and down all of the time.

Those were the main functional differences, but the biggest thing to note was that it was a much less safe space. I mean, it was obvious that if you were hiring a hacker that they could hack you as well. I had a virtual private network, something that most people tend not to bother with, so I should theoretically be fine though.

Of course, that presumed I could get to the sites I needed in the first place. Attempting to browse the darkweb gives an abject lesson on how important search engines are when using the internet because the darkweb has nothing so convenient. Instead, I have to use my other browser to find sites off the darkweb that contain lists of darkweb addresses. And a recent and updated list at that, because these sites were often shut down by the government whenever the government could get their hands on them.

The next few hours involved reading through forum after forum in an attempt to gauge the reliability of each website. Honestly, my reading didn’t fill me with confidence. In fact, I would say it drained me of the confidence and excitement I had built up.

Sure, I could tell you where to go to buy hard drugs, but for informa-

My train of thought was interrupted by the power suddenly cutting out. A few seconds later, the lights were back on - though I would have to start the computer up again - and my phone was buzzing. It was a push notification and text message saying: “A Metahuman Conflict Warning has been issued for your area. Seek shelter immediately. Do not approach costumed individuals. Do not approach active conflict zones. Comply with all orders from law enforcement and sanctioned heroes.”

While that seems pretty dire, honestly it was a relief to me. Considering what I had been researching, I had half expected to find a tinker villain had traced me and was going to blackmail me for all I was worth. With a warning like this, I might as well just boot my computer back up and continue about my day.

A Metahuman Conflict Warning was only issued when capes and cowls clashed in a big way. My little scuffle in Stewartville didn’t even come close to warranting such a warning. Collateral damage and swathes of destruction were generally a given, but statistically speaking, I was unlikely to be hurt at home.

Now if I was downtown, I would be running for my life. The best way to avoid getting killed was to not be anywhere near anything that could feasibly be a target. Residential areas simply weren’t worth the effort for supervillains and they often would go out of their way to avoid hitting them if they could. Less unwritten rules and more like guidelines, there was a lot of practicality involved in how metahumans fought and acted.

If, for example, you had a metahuman powerful enough to count as a supervillain, but all they did was rob gas stations and were always careful to avoid killing, they would be handled with kid gloves. If that same villain did kill, but only ever killed heroes and law enforcement, they would still be handled relatively gently. The more a villain escalated, the more the heroes did. A supervillain who wipes out a residential neighborhood is basically asking to have a strike team backed by the full might of the U.S. military sicced on them.

In short, the Fellowship is effectively threatening villains to restrain themselves to a certain degree by hammering down anyone who crosses those lines with ruthless and swift reactions.

My phone buzzed again. Another text, although this time it was from Mark, “Are you safe to call?” I didn’t bother to reply and just called him instead, he picked up instantly.

“Shit man, are you ok?” Mark was far more agitated than I was, although in fairness, my current calm was more than a little abnormal. “Got the warning and remembered you were alone, you think you can make it over here?”

This is… Surprisingly thoughtful, and now that I think about it, I am kind of an ass for not checking in with my friends. Even if I am safe at home, they might not be. Shit. Mira’s dad would be at work and so would Sarah’s. Hell, most of my friends had family that work in the hospitals or something related to them. Cindy’s older sister, Jason’s uncle…

“Yeah,” I spoke somewhat absentmindedly. “I think I would be fine to drive over. Not that you need to worry about me, I am more than safe here.”

But maybe instead of being a selfish prick I should go over anyways. After all, even if I can’t personally protect everyone and I feel it is overall unlikely, if the worst did happen I could protect my friend and his family with my powers.

“Fuck man, this isn’t the time for your calm and collected routine. Get your ass out of your head and over here.”

“Fine, fine,” I agreed with a sigh. The power flickered again anyway, so getting any work done was probably a lost cause. And… Mark wasn’t wrong. My plans are too much theory and not enough practice; just because I am hypothetically safe doesn’t mean I should be so relaxed.

“I’ll drive over in a minute,” I say as I force myself to my feet. Ugh, and to think I had hoped to stay home today…

“You aren’t hanging up, stay on the line man.” Mark preempts me. “I can’t even understand you sometimes… Rochester could be a fucking crator tomorrow and you think you are safe because of statistics? How the fuck can you be so anxious about minor things and hardly care about this?”

“If you are talking about the Splitter incident,” I said as I put Mark on speaker so that I could text the rest of my friends and make sure they were ok. “How many villains capable of inducing fission can there really be? Splitter killed himself when he blew up Zacatecas, so he is out of the picture. As to your other question, I honestly don’t know. I’m having a minor existential crisis regarding my perceptions of risk right now.”

“Fuck man…” Mark breathes heavily into the phone, “You aren’t even worried now…”

Well, considering I was busy putting on a holster and checking one of my dad’s handguns - it would cause way too many questions if I showed up with my rifle, and honestly I hoped that the gun would go unnoticed entirely - and that I had a defensive power, I still didn’t really feel in danger.

Oh, I can add that to the growing list of reasons why I need to change. Because it is kind of idiotic to act as if I have my power to protect me while at the same time trying to keep my power secret.

“I’m just heading out now Mark,” I talk, more to calm him down than anything else. Car on, backing out of the driveway, he lives just a couple of blocks away so it will only be a minutes drive. “Anyway, I might be too calm, but you are on the opposite end of the spectrum. We will be fine, just chill ou-”

I stop mid sentence. I’ve pulled out onto the street, all I need to do is move my foot from the brake to the gas pedal and drive. but I am stunned. Mark is absolutely panicking now, but I don’t even really hear him.

“Mark, can you see that?” I ignore what he is saying entirely, “Are you seeing this!?”

“Seeing what? I’m in the basement, I’m not about to go looking for trouble!”

It is like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon, only terrifyingly real. In cutesy animation, it almost seems silly, but when I see it with my own eyes…

“It's a giant robot…” Fuck me, its taller than the buildings next to it. It must be miles away, but by comparison I can tell the thing is over forty feet tall.

“What?”

“It's a giant ass robot!” I shout into the phone, “That thing must be fucking huge!”

The humanoid metal giant raised a hand and pointed at something, firing a huge beam of energy from its palm. I couldn’t see where it hit, but I honestly didn’t want to. That display of power broke me out of my stupor and I floored the gas pedal. Fuck my ass, Mark was right. Damn the stats to hell, it is better to be safe than sorry.

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About the author

vladerag

Bio: Hello! I am Vladerag the author of several stories here on Royal Road! I hope you are enjoying whatever you are reading, and I hope you check out some of my stories!

You can find them here! https://royalroadl.com/profile/76129/fictions

And if you are interested in supporting me, you can do so here as well! https://www.patreon.com/vladerag

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