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Riverside - Smoothie Shack

May 17th, 4:33pm



All kinds of people came into the Smoothie Shack, on Sundays as with any day: the kids after a cool treat, often with beleaguered parents in tow (though the latter were just as often secretly happy for an excuse to indulge); the joggers who'd some some napkin math and figured they'd burned enough calories to justify immediately consuming that many again; the older regulars, most of whom had stories about the ice cream parlors of their youth (less than most of which seemed credible).


Even when it was quiet one could people-watch, learning about the patrons and passers-by by watching the little things. The young man in the booth by the window, clearly wanting to be seen (and perhaps waiting for someone who'd never arrived), the couple who were all smiles and laughter (but there was too much tension, too many little jumps and starts for it all to be genuine)....


.....or the not-so-little-things, like the rough young man in the far corner who'd spent the last half-hour, head in his hands, watching his smoothie melt and looking for all the world like the last thread on the sword of Damocles was going to snap at any moment.

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"Boy, you look like a guy who just gave up on his dream! D'you have any allergies?" The chipper voice belonged to a broadly smiling teenager standing next to the forlorn loner's table, wearing an apron splattered in bright fruit and ice cream colours and holding a pair of tall ice cream soda glasses. Messy strawberry blond hair contrasted with dark eyes that tried to make contact with the patron's downturned gaze. After a beat he seemed to realize that his question had lacked context and continued, "See, 'cause you can't fight for a dream when everything seems bad and sometimes the right smoothie is all you need but the one you ordered doesn't look like it's doing the trick so I've got this one that's sort of a chocolate and peanut butter deal but anaphylactic shock would be pretty counterproductive so I also made this other one that's got a pineapple sherbet base? Oh, I'm Ryder, by the way!" He went to extend a hand to shake before realizing it was already full and spent a distracted moment trying to figure out if he could hold both glasses in one hand.

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The young man was visibly lagging a sentence or two behind, but eventually he looked up and offered a hand on reflex before realizing that Ryder's wasn't quite there yet. He put his hand back down - tense even in relaxing, like every muscle was pulled tight. "I'm, uh. Mike. Nice t'meet you, Ryder. And yeah, no, it's good. The smoothie's fine." He couldn't have had more than two sips from it. "Guess I'm just not very hungry."


He held the (ever less frozen) treat by the base, slowly turning it with his fingers. "Dreams are all good, Ryder, until someone ####s them up. All that work for nothing. You stick to the Smoothie Shack, man - you'll have better dreams in here than out there."

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Ryder put both glasses down on the table and frowned. "Well that's just wrong," he objected bluntly, placing his hands on his hips. "There's no such thing as wasted work, Mike. I mess up all the time! Like, all the time. But that just means I'm always learning something for the next time!" The lean teenager pounded a fist against his own chest twice, gesturing animatedly with the other hand, each fingernail painted a different neon colour. A few of the other patrons had started to look over at the conversation but the regulars seemed accustomed to the server's enthusiasm. "And nobody gets to say if your dream is over except you! Why don't you try talking it out with me? Maybe you need a different perspective more than a different smoothie!"

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"Hey, didn't mess up, it was Chuck's---"


Mike stopped, jaw tensing as he sized Ryder up. "....didn't mess up," he insisted, finally. When he continued his tone was guarded, and he was back to looking at his smoothie. "Some...friends and I, we started a business. Everyone coming together to help, yeah? And we did pretty good! You know, watched our money, got some business partners, it was all going great. And then Chuck, like an idiot, he decides he's going to start a....project."


He kept pausing, each time glancing up at Ryder like he was consciously remembering that he was talking to some kid. Mike couldn't have been that much older himself, but it was enough to count. "And now Chuck's going to bury us all and he's too stupid to see why, and all I've learned is that my best friend's a fool and the rest of 'em like Chuck more than me so they're fools too."

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"Mhm, mhm." Ryder nodded thoughtfully, one hand on his chin, undeterred by or oblivious to the flash of anger. "Never good when friends stop listening to each other, sure." He gave Mike a sunny smile and a pair of thumbs up. "But 'going to bury you' means there's still time to fix it, right? There's gotta be something to try that's better than watching a smoothie melt. This Chuck guy wouldn't have started a business with you if he didn't trust you deep down. If you can explain why you're worried about this project in a way he'll understand there's still a chance to work it out!"

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"No. Nuh-uh." Mike shook his head, looking haunted. "I tried, Ryder. I got at least some of them to leave Chuck to his---to what's going to happen. Chuck cannot be convinced. When that guy gets something in his head, he never gives it up. And that was great when the ideas were good, but this is just the dumbest..."


He sighed, slumping back down. "He's gonna ruin himself and everyone near him tonight, and I don't know if I can do anything to help. I'm just one guy! I think the best I've got is to stay as far away from him as possible, and keep myself out of it. Maybe...maybe start again? If he doesn't drag me down with him somehow, anyway? Try again somewhere else, I'll still have a few friends left out there, maybe one of our business partners will still be talking to me."

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"If you think about it, though, we're all just one guy. Except people who aren't a guy but they're still just one person. It definitely sounds like Chuck's just one guy, anyway." Ryder put a hand under his chin, considering. "I guess if someone's making really bad decisions and won't listen then sometimes you have to stay away from them to protect yourself from a pretty lousy relationship. But..." The server put his hands in the pockets of his apron and scuffed the toe of his sneaker against the floor pensively. "It sounds like if nobody does anything then some of your other friends are for sure going to get hurt."

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Mike didn't move for a moment, still staring at what was more juice than smoothie by now. "....we're all one guy," he repeated, slowly, like the words were foreign in his mouth.


"....we're all one guy!" he said, like the words were the most profound wisdom he'd ever heard. He brought his head up, looking at Ryder with an almost manic wisdom. "We're all one guy," he whispered.


He jumped up, or tried to, legs caught under the table; his second attempt was ungraceful but no less energetic, slowly disentangling himself from his seat. "I can't stop Chuck, but if everyone's just one guy maybe I can help. One more guy is all you need sometimes, right??"


He was partway out the door before he spun around on his heel and marched right back, throwing some cash down on the table and grabbing his drink. His free hand fell on Ryder's shoulder, leaning down slightly to look him in the eye. "You're a smart kid, and I owe you. You do deliveries, right? I think I've seen you around." He didn't wait for an answer. "Don't do any deliveries to the south end of Greenbank for a while. Best advice I can give you. You're a great kid and I'd hate for anything to happen to you."


He was marching out the door again, energy renewed. "They're just one guy!"


And then he was gone.

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Mike nearly bowled over a young woman as she entered while he exited by the same door. She wore a long cardigan over a summery dress, her black hair shaved on the sides and tied back in a ponytail so that it pooped noticeably at the front. Spotting Ryder she asked, “What was that guy’s problem?”


“Jenny! Perfect!” Yanking the apron up and over his head the teenager tossed it at his sister. “You’re cool to watch the Shack, right? Everything’s probably fine but just in case I think I need to go be just one guy. Boy, that really starts to lose all meaning if you say enough times, huh? Thanks, you’re the best!”


“What? Ryder! Ryder!” Jenny shook a fistful of apron over her head in irritated confusion but her brother had already grabbed a backpack from behind the bar and was sprinting out the door, the little bell hanging above it jingling merrily.

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Greenbank - Southern Rail Warehouses

May 17th, 5:27pm



Mike moved with the conviction of someone whose mind was set, which is to say that he marched forward with great determination and only stopped to re-summon his courage twice. He also didn't seem concerned by the idea that anyone may have been following him, which was very convenient for anyone following him. All the same, his path was not direct and a near-miss with a bus almost put him out of reach; it was nearly half-past five when Mike arrived at his destination and entered the warehouse.


It was one of the larger buildings in this part of Greenbank, if somewhat derelict from years of neglect after the rail service started to dry up - in its heyday it would have been two stories of grade-A Freedom City storage space, a living part of metropolitan trade. If one closed their eyes they could almost imagine the great trucks rumbling in, past the checkpoint through the eight-foot chain link border fence, down the wide road to one of those grand sliding doors in the side of the building, warehouse bosses shouting orders from the catwalk that stretched two thirds around the outside of the second story.


There were men at the checkpoint, sliding gate squeaking closed on rusty wheels once Mike had passed. One of them had reached into his jacket when Mike approached, stopping only once he'd seen his newly-inspired face in the light.


There was a man walking the catwalk, though he couldn't get quite all the way around before a broken section forced him to turn back. His hand never strayed far from something hanging off his belt.


There were sounds of movement and machinery from inside the building, discussion and lively chatter.


Perhaps the warehouse wasn't so abandoned after all.

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Backpack slung over one shoulder, Ryder ducked around the corner of a nearby building before he could draw the attention of the wary guards at the gate. "There could still be a completely normal and okay explanation here," he said to himself under his breath while crouching down and dropping his bag in front of him on the alley floor. "Probably not but there could be. Okay, Yellow, you're up!"


Reaching into the bag he produced a palm-sized robot in the shape of an exaggerated wasp, chunky metal and carbon fibre components painted in sunny yellow and glossy black. Is scuttled about his hand to look up at Ryder, diamond shaped wings vibrating expectantly. "Bzzz?"


"You got it, buddy! Just stay out of sight and get a closer look at what's going on in the warehouse. We should let Mike do this on his own unless it looks like he really needs help!" The drone gave a small hop by way of affirmation then took to the air, heading up over the top of the building Ryder was hiding behind then tracing a lazy spiral toward the source of the clanging machinery sounds.

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Whatever the guards were waiting for, it certainly wasn't palm-sized robots; Ryder's little drone didn't warrant a second look as it buzzed its way toward the warehouse, and found easy ingress through a partly-broken rooftop window.


The warehouse was split into roughly three pieces, as near as it could see from this vantage point: most of the ground floor was dominated by shelving and loading/unloading, old roller conveyors missing some of their metal cylinders but none the less letting the occupants noisily slide crates around. Above half of this was a second floor - more storage, it looked like, though a few dilapidated desks and a couple falling-in walls spoke of some kind of office area - with the other half covered only by catwalks and girders, open air clear to the increasingly unstable ceiling. Off to the north, on the far side from Ryder and his bug, was a heavy metal door that looked like secure storage - or some kind of long-defunct refrigeration unit.


"-just so glad to see you come back," one of the men was saying - short and on the slim side, in a pair of coveralls that were hanging loose off their hips. "Wouldn't have been the same without you, Mike!"


"Yeah, well, you know." Mike had calmed somewhat, and looked embarrassed to have been so despondent in the first place. "I just had to think it over, yeah? You're still crazy, Chuck."


"What, to be moving this stuff? We talked about that, Mikey, it's a good-"


"Don't 'Mikey' me, you know what I meant. You know why this is dumb. But you know what? We're all one guy. So if we're all going to be dumb, let's be dumb together, yeah?" Mike clapped his friend on the shoulder, stepping forward to pull what looked an awful lot like a sub-machine gun out of one of the boxes. "This stuff is great. We just have to make sure it all goes okay. And I'm here for it."

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Ryder blew out a soft raspberry as he watched the feed from the Yellowjacket Robug. ”That is... not great. I was sort of picturing something more like a lemonade stand.” Putting his hands on either side of his face he look up to the early evening sky with a groan. “Uuugh, are they going to use the guns or are they selling them to someone? There might not be time to go tell anyone and I kinda already maybe made things worse.”


The teenager looked back down to his backpack and chewed on his bottom lip pensively. ”I know what she’d do, though.” Ryder pulled what looked for all the world to be a chunky colour printer ink cartridge mounted on a broad belt of metal bands out of the bag, holding it up gingerly. “This’ll be fine! I’m like eighty five percent sure I fixed the spatial tearing problem! Yeah!”


He used his free hand to tip the backpack onto it’s side. “Magenta, Black, I need you guys to distract the guards. Got it?” Another pair of the little robotic insects scuttled out of the bag, one a praying mantis in pristine whites and pinks and the other a rhinoceros beetle in navy blues and gunmetal grey. The former taped its forelegs together while the latter clacked its mandibles and then they were off!

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The warehouse lot was littered with rotting wood and old containers...and some old, rusted-out barrels - past the gate guards, off on the short side of the building. It was these that the robugs zipped off toward, and it was these that came toppling down in a clattering of metal and rot.


The guards at the gate stopped chatting immediately, turning uneasily to look at the rising cloud of rust, then at each other, then back to the cloud. "That's...a cat."


"Shut up, you don't know it's a cat."


"It's a cat."


"Did you see a cat?"


"It could be a cat."


"Oh yeah, smart guy? What if it's a raccoon?"


"Raccoons are basically cats, you can't-" Another pile of barrels collapsed in on itself (evidence of the hard work of little drones far too small for the job), and they nearly jumped out of their skin.


"Will one of you idiots go check that out??" The catwalk guard was leaning over the railing, gesturing toward the gate and the mess.


"YOU check it out! You're up there!" shot back the gate guards, closing the distance - not so much to check the barrels as to antagonize their antagonist. "We're down here, we can't see anything!"


"I'm up here, I can't get down there, I can't check it out, I'd have to go all the way back around!"


"So you want us to get tinnitus?"


"What's...it's tetanus, you idiots, now go catch the cat or whatever before--"






"Bill thinks it's a raccoon."





The gate was, it seemed, unguarded...for now. Up on the catwalk the guard had moved off toward the short end of the warehouse, overlooking the barrels; the would-be gate guards had moved almost directly under him, away from the gate. None of the trio seemed to be paying much attention to anything, far too concerned with the finer points of the taxonomy of urban wildlife, but who know how long that would last. If those inside the warehouse had noticed anything over hearty conversation and the squealing of crates on rusty conveyors, they weren't showing it.

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Head down, Ryder jogged through the open gate, doing his best to gauge the correct balance of speed and stealth, remembering to factor in situational awareness as he nearly tripped over his own feet. Sticking to the outer edges of the interior of the warehouse he crept from behind one crate to another to a barrel, staying hidden while trying to maneuver into a better position to see what Mike and Chuck were doing with the boxes full of weapons. The noise of machinery helped to cover his moments but also made it harder to hear what was being said. If all they do tonight is move stuff around I can just call in an anonymous tip and the guns can get confiscated before anyone does anything they'll regret!

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At the height of its success, this warehouse had a maintenance man named Jacob James; he was the best, servicing most of the warehouses in this part of Greenbank, and a few private projects beyond. His tools were his prized possessions, and once, only once, he left them out of his sight...and was heartbroken when one of his wrenches went missing. A small thing, strong but delicate, good grip. A workman's tool. He loved that wrench - he loved the whole set - and he never found it.


But Ryder did.


The wrong hand in the wrong spot tipped an old wooden box that was barely upright to begin with, finally collapsing into kindling and sending a small metal object tumbling. It made a wonderful sound, beautiful and metallic, as it clattered directly into the open floor and nearly to Chuck's feet.


"Hey - hey! Everyone hold up!"


Movement ground to a halt, boxes stopping and rollers quieting. They were looking at the wrench, not at Ryder, but it couldn't last; Chuck dug another SMG out of the box and started gesturing to the half-dozen young men and women nearby. "Someone go check on the guards!" he ordered, waving vaguely at one of the doors. "Everyone else, spread out! It's probably nothing, but we can't take any chances tonight."

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"Aw wrench, why?" Ryder whispered forlornly as he looked down at the offending tool. He maybe had a chance to run back out the way he'd come but even if he got away that left a bunch of guys with guns even more wound up and trigger happy. He looked down at the belt strapped around his waist and swallowed. "Like... seventy percent sure I fixed it." Then he backed up against the wall, rose from his crouch and set his jaw.


In sequence Ryder pressed the top of each chamber of the ink cartridge buckle, prompting a cheerful computerized voice to announce, "CYMK! Dream in colour!"


Feet planted and hands outstretched the teenager commanded, "Chitin! Online!"


Suddenly displaced air set his loose clothes flapping and kicked up a cloud of dust from behind his temporary cover as razor thin lines of light traced outward from the belt, expanding into broad ribbons that covered his body. The sound of ratcheting locking points and humming electronics could be heard faintly as a black jumpsuit was pulled through the gaps to a dimensional pocket and onto his frame, followed by armoured plating cast in white and silver. As the lights vanished as quickly as they'd appeared they revealed a smooth helmet that covered his entire head, dominated by multifaceted oval eyes that gave off a faint white glow.


The armoured figure strode through the settling dust and into full view of the searching crew, footfalls echoing loudly against the floor. "Hey!" he called, drawing any eyes that weren't already on him. There was a long, tense pause. "You... you probably shouldn't have, you know. A bunch of guns? Don't you think?"

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"Hey, is that...?"


Chuck was looking at Mike, bewildered; Mike was squinting at Chitin, clenching his gun like it would give him answers. "....no, it isn't," he said with a bit more confidence than he felt. "I don't think so. But it's trouble."


Chuck nodded, turning back to their intruder. "Then yeah! We do think!" he shouted. "A bunch of guns!"


In unison, he and Mike brought their weapons to bear...

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Chitin lunged forward with the strength and speed the suit added to his legs and was upon Chuck as soon as the words had left his mouth. One hand shoved the ringleader in the check, knocking him backward a few steps while the other grabbed onto Chuck’s gun and yanked it away in the opposite direction. Gripping it in the middle the masked figure shook the gun in front of himself emphatically. ”This is really what you want to be doing? Hurting people? Killing people?”

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"What--hey! Give it back!" Chuck was not going to get the gun back, and he knew it; even as he made the demand, he was backing away from the armor-clad hero and moving to another crate of bad goods. "We're not here to kill people. We just move the goods! What other people do with it is their problem, go bug them, bug!"


Mike followed Chuck, though he didn't turn around - he kept that gun on Chitin, watching for...whatever these heroes did. Did he know this one? What did this one do? "The only person getting hurt today is you! We don't want to shoot you, but we will if it'll keep you off of us!"


Most of the crates were still closed up; Chuck's was ajar, but a long flat number off to the side was properly-sealed and giving a trio of goons some trouble. One had run off - toward the entrance? - and the remaining two closed in on Chitin with crowbars in hand and blood in their eyes. They said nothing but they swung in at the same time, leaving him with precious little room to maneuver....

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Chitin yelped as the crowbars made a pair of solid hit on either side of him, prompting a little warning symbol to appear in the corner of his helmet’s HUD. ”You know they’d be used to hurt people! I’m not going to let that happen! Cyan!”


At his call a chunky little robot in the shape of a grasshopper or locust lept up onto a nearby crate from its hiding place in the corner then again from the crate to Chitin’s shoulder, chirping like a little chip-tune battlecry. The armoured teen knocked back the crowbars with both arms to give himself a little room then snatched up the Robug and set it against the front of his helmet.


Cyan’s form shifted about like an origami sculpture being unfolded, incorporating into the helmet’s faceplate. The annenate and forelegs framed the mouth place while the rear legs became sharply pointed arches over the multifaceted eyes, which lit up in a strawberry red. “Bush Cricket Instar! Hop to it!” the belt’s roboticized voice announced enthusiastically as brightly cyan armour plating expanded from subspace pockets, kicking up another cloud of dust and attaching over Chitin’s chest plate, vambraces and in particular his legs.


The moment the new armour came online Chitin burst into motion, far faster than any normal human. Three rabbit punches connected with his first assailant in a blur and sent the man crashing backward into a crate hard enough that the wood could be heard to splinter. Just as quickly he caught the second thug in the should and launched into a throw that sent them both into a cartwheel, ending with Chitin standing ready on the warehouse floor and his opponent laid out face first.


Hopping from foot to foot with unrestrained energy he pointed at Chuck and Mike. “I’ll protect everyone’s dreams from your selfishness!”

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Chuck knocked the top off his crate, dragging out a heavy black case; he started playing with the lock on it while Mike covered his back. "You'll protect everyone's dreams by stopping ours??" he called out over his shoulder. "You hero types, always stickin' your nose in!" He made a satisfied noise as the case opened, and turned back around holding something gun-shaped, but larger, with a glowing line down each side of the barrel that lit up red with an ominous hum. "Mike!"


Mike set his jaw, pulling the trigger on his SMG; the shots went wide, but those were sure some real bullets rattling against the far wall of the warehouse. "You guys better warm that up fast!"


'You guys' had to be the trio on Chitin's far side - they'd managed to pry their crate open, hauling out something that would have looked like a bazooka if it, too, didn't have angry glowing lines and a much louder ominous hum. "Hold up the back end-" "I'm holding what I'm holding, you watch the front-" "Good job guys, aim a little further down-"

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“Your dream is to sell dangerous weapons out of a warehouse? I don't believe that!" Chitin countered without hesitation. He had some idea of what the new firearms the arms dealers had produced were capable just from the sort of waste energy they were giving off as they powered up and the bigger one was going to cause some problems even if the trio manning it didn't manage to hit their target. Shoulder down he lunged forward, a single step launching him all the way to his goal. The same momentum continued into an uppercut the bottom of the massive barrel, the materials bowing with a protesting creak and a disheartened warble of a failed power sequence.


Leaving them with their new, unwieldy paperweight Chitin crouched briefly before jumping straight up, far over their heads to disappear somewhere in the lattice of support beams overhead. “Why do you need the money badly enough to do this? That's your dream!" he called down from above, flashes of bright cyan visible against the gloomy metal as he continued to move about. “There's still a chance to make that happen the right way!"

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"Wh--I'm not desperate," shouted Chuck, raining red lines of light up into the rafters; they sparked against the catwalks and girders and left angry marks of red-hot metal where they hit, but none of them could reach Chitin. "I'm from Hanover! I'm-- we're going to be someone! Someone rich!"


"Maybe don't tell the hero where you're from, Chuck," muttered Mike; he had the cool head to not waste bullets on a target he could barely see, much less hit, but he kept his gun trained upward all the same. He started moving to the side, trying to get a better angle - any angle, really. "Let's just get this done before someone hears us and starts some worse trouble."


On their end, the goon trio looked at the wrecked and sadly-beeping cannon at their feet, looked at each other, and at least two of them turned to start rummaging through their surroundings for something that wasn't broken. The third glanced at his compatriots, made sure they weren't watching, and quietly exited stage right.


There was noise, again, from outside - shouting, maybe, though the words were indistinct over the hail of laser fire.

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