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Field Test (IC)

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Southside, 4:16pm

 

GM

 

It wasn't, by any objective measure, the best part of Southside. The old and the new, falling apart side by side, was the name of the game here: looming apartment buildings of too-small apartments standing next to perpetual (re)construction projects seemingly purpose-built to drive down property value and rob decent people of decent sleep. Most of it was leftover damage from recent invasions and city-shaking battles, of course...too important to ignore, not important enough to pay attention to. It wasn't the doom-ridden ruins of Kingston, but it had its own problems.

 

One of those problems was the apparently slipshod standards around building numbers. The order Ryder's smoothie-delivering job had gotten was large (large enough to make the trip, for sure!) but it was to a home that probably didn't exist. Yet. To the left, 1325 Carolina Street. To the right, 1329 Carolina Street. In the middle, the unfinished, unlabeled shell of a building with tarps where windows should be and nothing so hospitable as a door mat - much less anyone to greet him.

 

There were vans parked outside - proper big ones, work vans. Maybe construction workers got thirsty, but also very busy?

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Ryder leaned over his handlebars and pursed his lips. "...huh." He pulled up the order's receipt on his phone and double-checked he had the street and number correct and scratched his jaw. "What do you think, Black?" The lid of the compartment suspended over his rear wheel rose enough for the palm-sized robotic rhinoceros beetle to poke its long horn through, followed by its head, which turned ponderously from the construction site over to silently regard Ryder. "Yeah, I guess I just need to go ask. There's a 'special instructions' field on the order form for stuff like this though, tch!"

 

Gathering up the two large takeout trays stacked with drinks and letting Black scuttle into the big front pocket of his paint splattered hoodie, Ryder left his bike chained up to street sign where he'd be able to keep it in sight and jogged over to the closest of the work vans. He stopped by the back doors, realizing his hands were too full to try knocking. "Hey, uh, Smoothie Shack delivery?" he called in a raised voice, craning his neck to look for signs that someone way inside.

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GM

Ryder got no answer, and there seemed to be no one to answer him: the van was dark and devoid of life, aside from one enterprising spider that had only just started spinning a web on the other side of the window. (One couldn't imagine there to be many bugs inside a van, but hope springs eternal.) The back was full of construction equipment, at a glance: raw supplies and tools of the trade, left until they were needed. None of it was new, but neither was it unusably old - perfectly ordinary in every way, if a little lonely.

 

None of the vans showed any signs of life, at that - they seemed to be from a few different companies, though at least one was unmarked. Even the building seemed unoccupied at first glance, a small path leading up to the front (doorless, but hung with plastic to keep the rain out), and a small path leading around back. There wasn't even movement in the upper floors, at least that could be seen...though there were sounds coming from somewhere inside, muffled and indistinct. Conversation?

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Ryder shifted his weight from foot to foot, looking from the vans to the plastic sheet over the front entrance to the path around the building. "Maaaaan, I don't know!" He'd definitely found himself in a grey area of the social contract; he couldn't just abandon the order of smoothies on the sidewalk but exploring around the unfinished building seemed a little awkward.

 

With a sigh he set the trays down next to the van and placed his palm outstretched next to the front pocket of his hoodie so the robotic beetle inside could climb out. "Black, could you take a look inside to see if there's people around? That's probably less weird than me just walking in. Right?" Black bobbed him head in an approximation of his own heavy sigh before hopping down to the concrete and scuttling underneath the plastic sheet.

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GM

Being a bug was hard. It was difficult for the big, tall bipeds to understand, really comprehend, a bug's eye view. The inside of the building was cement and wood and insulation, walls all built but not finished or painted. There were tools, too, here and there - still waiting for their owners to come back and pick them up to finish the job. There were a few side-rooms, but those were less interesting than the sounds coming from down the stairs that probably led to a basement.

 

They were also less interesting than the leather boots visible at the base of the stairs, lit by a flickering construction lamp; the boots were attached to legs, and the legs were attached to a large man, and the large man was slumped at the base of the stairs in a way that spoke more of concussions than peaceful siestas.

 

Past him there were two small rooms, unlit, and light spilling out of a third. The voices were spilling out, too, increasingly hostile...but between the light and the unfinished building, there wouldn't be much cover for so much as a solid peek.

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Ryder watched the feed Black was sending him on his phone and hissed a sharp breath in when he saw the unconscious figure. "That can't be good! Sit tight, buddy, I'm coming in!" Keeping his head down he pushed the sheet in front of the open doorway to one side and slipped inside, doing his best to remain silent and undetected. He made his way to the foot of the stairs where Black was poking the sole of a work boot experimentally with his horn. Ryder crouched over the victim and tried to remember enough to the first aid class he'd taken to certify as a babysitter to be useful, whispering, "Hey! Mister!"

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GM

He definitely wasn't dead, breathing deeply and steadily, but he definitely wasn't waking up, either: the man was out like a light. At a glance and casual inspection nothing looked broken, but he had some decent bruising on one side of his face and there was a small bit of damage to the nearby wall that spoke of a pretty fast trip with a pretty fast stop. His cloth was almost perfectly nondescript, a tank top over simple jeans and a pair of steel-toed boots, not so much as a watch or ring for extra fashion...though he was lying half on top of a gun that probably made for a pretty good accessory.

 

The voices were a lot clearer now, at the foot of the stairs, still coming from the only lit room in the basement:

 

"I'm not hearing anything I like."

 

"L-listen, we're just here to do our job, you can't just---" His voice cut off, mildly strangled.

 

"I'm pretty sure I can."

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Ryder grimaced as he came across the firearm. "Gonna be one of those days, I guess. I think this time I'll suit up before anybody shoots at me, though. Stand back, Black!"

 

While the robotic beetle walked backwards a few feet the teenager adjusted the slightly elastic bottom of his hoodie to rest higher up, revealing the repurposed printer ink cartridge attached to his belt. He pressed the top of each chamber in sequence, prompting an enthusiastic computerized voice to announce, "CYMK! Dream in colour!

 

Arms outstretched at his sides, Ryder called out, "Chitin! Online!" With that his tousled strawberry blond hair and canary yellow track pants were sent flapping in the displaced air and swirling dust and debris from construction as lines of light emerged from the dimensional pocket accessed by his belt's technology. In moments a black jumpsuit wrapped around his frame, then silver and white armoured plates and mechanisms. As the wind died down and the lights faded the multifaceted oval eyes that dominated his helmet alit with a soft white glow.

 

Bending down he pulled the gun out from under the unconscious man's bulk, taking a moment to prop him up against the wall a little out of the way. Chitin's footfalls echoed against the stairs as he descended, stopping in the doorway of the illuminated room. "Uh, hi?" Taking either end of the gun in his gloved hands he exerted in opposing directions, grunting while the servos in his armour amplified the force. With a sharp crack the cheaper components buckled and snapped and he dropped the remains to either side. "Somebody call for a mediator?"

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The room was large - it must have been most of the basement floor - and almost featureless, all cement flooring and cement walls and unfinished drywall separating it from the hallway Ryder had come in through. It had fixtures for ceiling lights, but the light was coming from a series of construction lamps scattered around the edges. One wall was dominated by a massive steel door, incongruous against its incomplete surroundings; to its left was a security camera, and to its right was an old television set sitting on an overturned crate. The latter knew only static.

 

In the center of the room were two people, and one of them was floating. He didn't seem to be enjoying the experience much: every inch the counterpart of his unconscious friend, the well-muscled man was straining against an odd, fluctuating field of wispy black and gold particles, even as he turned to look at the newcomer.

 

His captor had turned, too, looking sidelong at the armored hero. She couldn't have been much older than Ryder, dressed in a black-and-gold robe that fell down her body like a thin, flowing gown, one hand outstretched and bubbling off black and gold to match her victim's...prison?

 

"Yes!" said the floating man, with some hesitation. "You've, uh, you've got to help me! She--"

 

"Quiet," said the girl in black; she made a squeezing motion with her hand and the floating man shut up. "Important people are talking. Who are you?"

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"Oh, I'm just one guy, y'know?" Chitin replied with a cheery sort of wave that showed his empty hands in an effort to appear nonthreatening. "But I think everybody's important, right? We've all got dreams. I've been having a tough time lately with folks who think guns and hurting people are a good way to reach their dreams, though." He titled his head toward one of the broken pieces he dropped to the floor and took a cautious step forward, addressing the floating man. "Your friend upstairs is mostly okay, so you know! Probably going to have a headache, plus he landed on his gun but it's kinda harder to feel too bad about that." 

 

He turned to face the young woman and from her expression decided against trying to move any closer. "That's a pretty cool thing with the, like, black and gold stuff. The particle field is making me think more gravimetric than telekinetic? Maybe? Either way I don't think he's putting up much of a fight so how about just easing off a little?"

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"He's not putting up much of a fight because I haven't eased up," said the young woman; she was visibly sizing Chitin up with a pair of unnaturally golden eyes, coldly unsure what to make of him. "....smart, at least," she assessed. "Cheerful. Definitely a would-be hero. And noisy. Cricket, then."

 

The floating man made to say something, so she squeezed him again, and he stopped. "I -" - had been ambushed and kidnapped - "- found these two causing trouble -" - managed to get lucky and break free - "- and have been trying to figure out what exactly they were after." That part was true. She turned her attention back to the man. "But this one hasn't been very good at answers, has he? Hm? No, you haven't. And you'd, what, have me let him go, so he can run off and kid-...cause trouble for anybody else? That seems like a very poor option, Cricket. A nice one, very bleeding heart, but a poor one."

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"I actually left the cricket at home today," he told her in a voice that suggested he thought he was answering more questions than he was raising. "You can call me Chitin. Or stick with Cricket if you're going for like a cool girl, giving-people-nicknames thing, that's fun too!" The armoured teen gave her a thumbs up that seemed disturbingly free of irony. "And I was thinking less letting him go and more just tying him up and calling the cops? Probably stick around long enough to make sure things don't escalate again. Ask about their plan while he's not borderline suffocating?" He snapped his fingers, the metal caps on his gloved fingers amplifying the sound. "Hey, did you guys order a bunch of takeout to get delivered?"

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Chitin Cricket Chitin Cricket was, perhaps, the most disarming human being Nocturne had ever met, and she really wasn't sure what to make of that. She had so many questions. She wasn't sure which, if any, were worth asking. "You're a very strange person," she decided, audibly unsure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. She was, at least, very sure that it was a thing. "I did ask when he was slightly less crushed, but he said a lot of things that were not answers, so now he gets to be quiet until he learns to be useful. Isn't that right?"

 

She turned to the man and relaxed her grip; he immediately started struggling again. "When I get out of here I'm going to--"

 

She squeezed again and he went back to not moving. "Right. And, no, I didn't order anything. I was..." ...busy being kidnapped... "...busy."

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GM

"Oh! I did that. That was me."

 

The old television set, previously static, had a proper picture now...if a poor one. Under the scan lines and v-sync issues was a young woman with hazel eyes and messy brown hair which was actively protesting behind held back by a pair of large goggles; the camera didn't show much of the rest of her, but she looked like she was wearing some kind of lab coat. "Two of you!" she said; the camera by the door moved on a motor badly in need of oil, centering on the heroes. "You were supposed to be one super-powered subject and one not, but I guess if you're here now you scared off my delivery boy. Or girl? I didn't actually think to confirm, I really ought to have included it in...."

 

The audio rapidly faded as she moved off-camera, was gone for a few beats, and then came back into frame. "Anyway, I guess I don't get my smoothies!" she said, looking sideways now, reading something the others couldn't see. "That's okay, they weren't really what I was after and unless I can convince you to take off that suit (and you don't have any other powers, do you? That information will be very useful) I guess we work with what we have."

 

She sighed, turning back around with a bemused expression. "I'll just have to be more careful in test run five. Oh - which makes you two test run four! Hello, test run four. Before we get started, try not to hurt that man when you knock him out or tie him up or...whatever, I don't really care if I'm honest but they're expensive and I'm on a budget."

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"Wait, seriously?" Chitin looked from the television set over to the camera, then to the suspended mercenary and back to the camera. Squaring his shoulders he thumped his fist against his armoured chest twice before pointing an accusatory finger at the lens. "Hey! Listen up! When you hire somebody, whether its to delivery your food or be muscle, you're making an agreement to support each other! And if you can't get volunteers and you're not willing to experiment on yourself you just have to make do without human test subjects!" He crossed his arms and glowered. "You're a lousy boss and a worse scientist and I can't forgive either of those things!"

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"We're also not just going to do whatever you say," the young woman pointed out, pointedly, pointing casually at the television screen. She probably should have pointed at the camera. She kept pointing at the television screen, because correcting after the fact would have been worse. "You literally can't keep me - us - from leaving the way we came in. There aren't any doors."

 

She gestured toward the back of the room, toward the darkened hallway. That meant she no longer had to point at the screen. Yes, good. "You're also kind of out of muscle. You've got one guy who took a really bad trip up some stairs, and this one, who's, well...."

 

She gestured with her hand, a tiny motion, and the man went flying - free-fall acceleration sideways into some drywall which only mostly managed to slow him down. He did not get back up. "...tragically insufficient."

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GM
The woman on the screen didn't react much, though the camera in their basement room did slowly grind its way sideways to look at the new window Nocturne had installed, and then back to look at the heroes again. "That's a good point," she allowed, tilting her head, "and I'm probably a bad boss." She didn't even seem offended. "I'm really a very good scientist, though, and if you really need the motivation I feel like you're both forgetting about my hostages?"

 

There was a beat as she waited, expectantly, for an answer nobody could give. And then she blinked, straightened up, and there was a sound of snapping her fingers. "Oh! I didn't actually get to that part! I'm sorry, I should have led with it and that's really sloppy of me. I don't really do the whole 'villain' thing much, it's all such nonsense - I never really got their whole grandstanding and speeches and irrational...."

 

She'd gone off-camera again, but this time there was a hiss of static and the screen changed to ceiling-corner view of a small cement room. Five people were gathered there: one in some kind of hero uniform, classic spandex or similar body armor, and four clear civilians. Three of them wore simple, practical work outfits, overalls over t-shirts, and the last had a jacket that clearly identified them as one of the deliverers for a local pizza chain. A lot of the jacket was missing - the lot of them seemed a bit roughed-up in general.

 

"Run four, meet runs one through three!" Her voice was clear again, but the view of the room was unchanged. "They aren't really hostages, you understand, they're going to go free once I'm done here. I'm not a monster, and killing people's a really bad option. It just causes too many problems. But I can't really get away with more missing people, and if you two aren't going to help I guess I'll have to run them through again? Or if you bring police in I'm going to have to clean house, or whatever stupid decision-making threats that entails, and it's just...."

 

The camera switched back, though she was now slightly off-frame, head slumped in what looked like a heavily-gauntleted hand. "That's just not what I'm here for, you know? It's so messy, and I hate messy."

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Chitin was silent for a moment and the quiet made the clenching of his fists audible. When he spoke it was a in cold contrast to his earlier cheer. "You don't deserve to wear that lab coat." He rolled his shoulders to get rid of some of the tension that had built up there and cracked his knuckles. With more of his usual energy he continued, "We're going to find you and free those people and you're going to feel really dumb for having been such a massive jerk about all this. That's a Chitin guarantee!"

 

He turned to the young woman in black and gold and gave a small shrug. "Sorry, I shouldn't speak for you, obviously!" He extended a hand toward her and cocked his head in a way that reminded her of an enthusiastic puppy. "You up for teaching this lady a lesson?"

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"I think I owe a little more payback," the young woman agreed with a set jaw and a cool tone; this was, at last, a situation that made more sense, and she was happy for it. "It'd set a bad precedent not to. Nobody messes with Nocturne and walks away."

 

The woman on the television could have been a little more impressed, but she seemed less depressed, at least, pulling herself back upright and messing with a control panel they couldn't see. "Well, that's that, then. We'll both find it very convenient that your not-hostages are at the other end of the course. It's a shorter trip once they've finished, you see, and all you have to do is get to the other side, and let me gather all the data on how you do it. Easy!"

 

Nocturne sincerely doubted it would be that easy, but it wouldn't do to say so. "And, what," she said, holding a hand palm-up, "we start by tearing your stupid door off its hinges?"

 

Television-woman blinked. "That's-- could you?" she asked, as animated as they'd seen her yet. "It's not my best work, but it's a pretty well-reinforced blast door. If you actually could rip it out of the foundation, that would be pretty good...." She bit her lip, frowning. "....no, best not. If you've already called for backup or if you're a little too much for the course I might need the extra defenses. Next time, maybe? Or maybe I'll have something similar later on, I'll see what I can do. I really would appreciate it."

 

Nocturne had a retort that surely would have been excellent if the large steel door didn't immediately start grinding to the side, exposing a long cement corridor and cutting her off. "Oh, and do leave the cameras and sensors alone, please! The whole point is the test record, and I don't know what I'll have to do if I can't get what I need."

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"Wow, that's actually a lot more elaborate than I was expecting. Neat! C'mon, Black." The robug walked into the room, made a few disapproving clicking sounds at the television set and proceeding to climb up the back of Chitin's armoured leg and back to perch on his shoulder. "Like I said, I left the cricket at home," he told Nocturne. "Today's beetle day!"

 

He led the way into the corridor, switching his helmet's HUD to overlay data from past each end of the visible light spectrum. "Y'know ma'am, if you could hire construction crews and guys with guns and all and you're not actually trying to hurt anyone especially you could have just hired people to test whatever this is for you. Probably would have been safer and easier for everybody?" He looked around, trying to spot additional cameras their host might be using to monitor their progress. "Just seems like you're not being as rational as you think. Do you have somebody to talk this stuff over with? Like peer review or, y'know, a therapist?"

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"Cricket," said Nocturne, "Nobody wants to be told that they need a therapist, even if she really really does."

 

"I don't need a therapist. I have one anyway, but that's not the point, and I can't exactly tell them about my job, can I?" Their adversary didn't have any televisions down here, but there were speakers placed haphazardly throughout, wires leading off ahead of them. "Putting them in that kind of position wouldn't really be fair to either of us. And who exactly am I going to hire for all of this? Of course I thought of that, I think of...well, not everything. Nobody thinks of everything. I think of as much as possible, it's really quite a lot."

 

The hallway led to some stairs, and the stairs led to another hall, and that finally led into a large, open room. Easily twenty feet high and at least as long and wide, there were cameras set up throughout (not all of them in working condition); there were also a fair number of vaguely humanoid robots (not all of them in working condition). They were almost more mechanical skeletons than proper androids, all abstract cylinders and exposed wiring and uncovered actuators, but to Ryder's keen eye they were expertly-constructed...if a little unfinished. They'd never pass for human, not even with proper coverings or cosmetics, but they looked serviceable for a workforce or foot soldiers.

 

And, more importantly, as soon as the heroes had entered the room they started to shudder to life. Some of them started to advance; others lifted arms that had blasters for hands.

 

"Normal people don't want this kind of thing unless they're desperate," said the voice over several loudspeakers, somewhat distorted. "'Come on down to the secret bunker! Fight some robots!' If you find some people who think that sounds like a good time, you send them my way and I'll be happy to pay them and avoid this whole mess. In the meantime, I think you can figure out what you need to do. Don't waste too much time here, four, we're really just getting more of a baseline before you move on."

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Nocturne set her jaw, planted her feet, and waved a hand - a dimly-visible bubble of black energy grew around her body. "I hope you're half as good as you act, Cricket. Try not to embarrass me. As for the rest of you...."

 

She turned her attention on the advancing robots, sizing them up with open contempt. How many? Too many, but they'd picked the wrong fight. "As for the rest of you," she repeated, holding out an arm, "kneel."

 

Black and gold particles like wispy smoke surged across the floor, a riptide of energy that some robots weathered better than others but none of them managed to avoid. Each one standing dropped forward, clattering to the ground a few feet back from where they'd started. "All yours, Cricket. Impress me."

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"Making therapy a taboo subject only makes it less accessible to the folks who'd benefit from it the most!" Chitin called over his shoulder while launching forward, little clouds of dust kicking up from the concrete floor where his boot kicked off. He closed the distance to the first of the robots in a blink and brought a fist down hard into the thinnest part of its arm above the ranged weapon mounted on the end. The metal buckled and broke, separating the limb in a splash of sparks and shards.

 

He sacrificed his momentum to drop back into a relaxed pose that put him between the group of robots getting back to their feet and Nocturne. "Speaking of therapeutic, you know people actually pay to go to rooms where they just break stuff with baseball bats or whatever? You could probably pitch it to super teams as a team building exercise! Look at me and Nocturne! We just met and we're already buddies!"

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GM

"The point isn't to break them, the point is to accurately gauge how they perform under simulated combat situations," spoke the voice over the speakers. "The sparring would work for some limited circumstances, though. That's a good idea, if I can manage a sufficient cover. I'll pursue that next time."

 

The robots were determined to advance, undeterred by the promise of destruction, but they'd clearly been designed for durability over agility; most couldn't do more than get back onto their feet and advance forward, splitting their attention between the heroes and getting off a couple ineffective attacks: one rain of blaster fire too haphazard to make much impact, and one solid punch that couldn't overcome Chitin's defenses.

 

"That's disappointing," observed the voice. "These are something of an economy model, but I was hoping they'd a little better on offense. A more efficient battery, maybe? I'd have to make room for the connectors...."

 

Two more robots had finally rattled to their feet; these did not look to be in good shape, both showing wear and tear from their earlier tests, but their blasting-arms seemed effective enough as they brought them to bear.

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Nocturne had a casual disregard for the blaster fire sent her way, gathering more of that wispy black and gold dust around her as she watched the fight unfold. "You know?" she said, "I'm really starting to not like her. It's making me wonder if it's any harder to put someone through cement than through drywall."

 

She pondered that one for a moment with an awful gleam in her eye before she snapped her fingers and returned her attention to the mechanical shock troops. "Questions for later! For now, I'm pretty sure I told you all to kneel." The wave of force, again; Chitin could feel it, eddying around him but throwing the robots back down off their feet...though, for a few of them, only barely. "That's better. For would-be soldiers, they're very bad at following orders."

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