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Monkeys on Parade


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cw: gun violence

 

Early December, 2020

Hanover

 

The email was encrypted, and the encryption was custom puzzle nonsense, which was the kind of thing Mara did when she wanted to make sure an important message wouldn't be unraveled by someone who wasn't qualified to read it. Possibly, up to and including the intended recipient. Mara was like that. Once puzzled out, it contained the following:

 

Quote

Your new friend May's shown back up again, tripped a news feed trigger I had set up. Took a while. Don't like it.

 

As soon as she was arrested she disappeared down a deep government hole somewhere, couldn't narrow her location down without breaking into .gov servers. Which is fun, but not always good. Politics. Tangent - now she's reappeared, in open, in public. Doesn't make sense. Worth looking into, probably.

 

Local military think-tank's doing show-and-tell in Hanover - evil minds turned to good, if good is missiles and tanks. Good PR. Bad common sense. Probably your best chance, regardless - flexed CEO muscle, got invites for intern and guest.

 

Take backup just in case, but try not to cause trouble. Officially, you are there to evaluate new tech and report business opportunities back to the boss.

 

Dress however you want. We're a privately-owned new tech consultancy, not a bank.

 

 - M

 

[attachment: You're invited!.pdf]

[attachment: You're invited!.pdf]

 

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A soft tapping sound drew Natalia’s attention to the window of the dormitory room she shared with Tori. Black the robotic beetle was perched half in the window sill and half on the brick wall next to it, tapping his glossy horn against the glass pane in a slow, deliberate rhythm.

 

When she obligingly, if reluctantly, slid the window open and looked downward she was unsurprised to find Ryder most of the way out into the cool December air, with only his knees hooked inside his own window so that he could hold himself perpendicular to the wall to grin up at her. His bright red scarf was looped around his neck over a sweater with a stitched design that combined peacock feathers and paisley, topped with a canary yellow blazer that was about the most professional piece of clothing he owned. “Hey! Wanna go check out some cool supervillain tanks and stuff?”

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Nocturne

 

Natalia, pajama-clad, opted prop her head in her palm, her elbow on the windowsill, and her remaining head on Black's back for robotic scritches. She still wasn't sure if Black could feel them, but it was the posing that was important. She didn't even turn her head any more than was necessary, looking down her nose at Ryder's antics.

 

It was cold out, which helped her not to think about abs.

 

"Are they on the run from the fashion police?" she asked. "Have you chosen to blend in?" It wasn't even that bad, she liked the peacock bits, but yellow was almost gold in a way that somehow made it worse than if it hadn't tried at all. "It has admittedly been some time since I was allowed near a tank."

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“I’ve never been allowed near a tank!” Ryder exclaimed, throwing his arms wide in emphasis then struggling to regain his balance. Natalia could just make out Cyan and Magenta on his windowsill attempting to hold him down, not accomplishing much beyond stretching his black pants a little. “And I was explicitly told to dress however I wanted. I mean, I would have anyway but it’s nice to have permission. I dunno, I could change if you wanted?” His expression became a little more serious, as much as it could given his pose. “You remember May? With the robot gorilla? She showed up at a trade show thing and I wanted to check in. And since we made a pretty good team before...”

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Nocturne

 

Natalia paused for a moment, as if trying to decide whether or not Ryder was serious. "That doesn't entirely surprise me, you'd probably try to take the tank apart or turn it into some giant insect, and break both legs in the process. And....Ryder," she added, slowly, "are you seriously asking if I want to spend my precious little free time crashing some kind of sad, banal little science party to visit a supervillain?"

 

She let that hang in the air for a moment, one narrow eyebrow raised. "Of course I do. When? I'll need to get dressed."

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Ryder grinned even wider and with a small sound of exertion heaved himself back in through his window before hopping up onto the sill with both feet and leaning far out, holding onto the top edge of the opening with one hand. “Whenever you’re ready! The shows running all week and we have passes for the whole thing. I don’t figure we’ll need more than a day to...” He gestured in a vague circle with the hand stretching into the open air. “You know, do our thing.” Ms. Hallomen had specifically asked that he try not to cause trouble but he never tried and it just seemed realistic to prepare for the eventuality. 

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Nocturne

 

Natalia made a dismissing motion with her hand as she withdrew back into her dorm room - though it was apparently for Ryder and not Black, since she shamelessly picked the latter up and took it with her as she shut her dorm window. "Are we certain Ryder was never part of a circus?" she asked him, conversationally; she dropped the little robot onto the seat of her dorm room chair, opening her closet to ponder options. It would be cold, but probably warmer inside. How cold was she willing to be until then? "Perhaps he uses the insect theme to hide his monkey powers, hm?"

 

She dropped a towel over Black before she started to get properly dressed.

 

---

 

She did not show up quickly, but she did show up on time, if 'on time' was defined by Natalia, which it always was. She'd paired some well-fitted flowing black slacks with a loose golden blouse, itself partly obscured by a dark coat that was much longer in the back than the front, lined lighter to highlight her profile. Boots on short heels would keep her feet some approximation of warm while not-coincidentally making her Ryder's height, and no shorter or taller. Not entirely ideal - the coat was a nice cut but she'd been planning to add a gold-dust pattern to the back - but it would do for blending in to a more serious trade show. Smoke-lensed glasses from her ever-increasing collection of eyewear didn't so much hide her eye color as excuse it as a trick of the light.

 

All that and a small leather bag, colored to match the rest and sporting Black as an unapologetic accessory, stood outside Ryder's door with some measure of controlled impatience. "Well? I do hope you're ready by now."

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“Ah, one sec, yeah!” Natalia could hear something heavy clank to the floor before Ryder appeared in the doorway. His yellow jacket had been hastily tossed over one arm, the sleeves of his sweater rolled up to his elbows and a torque screwdriver between two fingers. At some point a smear of grease had appeared across his right cheek. “Sorry, got an idea after talking to you. I’m good to go!” He lifted his hand to give a thumbs up and noticed the screwdriver there. He unceremoniously tossed it back into the room and gave a whistle. The remaining three Robugs scurried out before he closed the door, dragging a satchel with a designs in a dozen spray painted colours behind them. “Oh hey, is that coat another one of yours? Nice!”

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Nocturne

 

Natalia took a deep breath, reached into her bag, and produced a small cloth without looking. "I assume your invitation to wear whatever you like covered clothes and makeup, not crude oil," she said, holding it out. "Your devotion to your craft is commendable. Your inspiration is understandable. Please don't embarrass me."

 

It wasn't a request so much as an imperative.

 

"I did manage to find this trade show's event website - or I assume I did, I can't imagine there's more than one going on right now," she added, turning heel to stride toward the exits. "We should just make one of their public speeches if we go now, I'm sure it will be just as insightful and thrilling as one might expect from the military."

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GM

 

Hanover had a few exposition centers to rent for various conferences and shows, and while this wasn't one of the best, it certainly wasn't the worst - the whole front of the expansive main hall was steel and glass, evoking a sort of industrial terrarium dedicated to science and the might of the American armed forces and their collective science. Or, somebody's collective science. What little could be made out through the windows' glare and various hanging decorations had a few more pointed bits and unshielded electric arcs to be the tools of traditional warfare.

 

Outside, vulnerable to light snow and the cold December air, they'd set up a proper podium: speakers and microphones and enough red-white-and-blue-and-beige to make it immediately, painfully clear that someone with very little design taste was very proud of whatever they'd pulled out of promotional storage. All this inflicted on a small crowd, here past the guarded gates where they'd handed over their invitations and received guest badges in return. Also inflicted on the crowd was a military man with a full dress uniform and no sense of volume control.

 

"We can be proud of what our division has made, of course, of course!" he boomed in a voice that definitely did not need the speakers' help projecting over the crowd - in fact, his voice probably suffered for it. Certainly the crowd did. "The best and brightest's what we have, and we're darn proud of it! But a while ago some boys back at the base, they said we're in an arms race - all these so-called super-villains, and heroes who won't share what they've got with their country. We've got the best and brightest, but this country's always been on the lookout for a few new good minds, and if we've got a few so-called geniuses in jail, well, why not put 'em to work. So that's what we did! Only the ones that're safe, mind, only the ones that can really do some good here. And why not show 'em off? Why not show what they've got to give us, in exchange for some good old fresh American air."

 

A couple members of the audience had hands raised - at least one of them a local reporter, raw skepticism written across her face - but he waved their hands down. "Now now, no more questions. You've got the press releases. You have any more questions, you find one of our staff inside. They're here to help."

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“Wow,” Ryder breathed with an air of awe, holding an old fashioned film camera he’d produced once they’d arrived as part of his cover. “What a massive tool. Normally people are a lot less direct about the ‘using prisoners for labour’ thing. What do you think makes the air American? Jeeeeez.” It was about the most negativity Natalia had yet to hear from him all at once and even so he seemed almost impressed by the sheer scale of the repugnant personality on display.

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Nocturne

 

"It's cold, the journey was boring, and I think I'm going to have to bleach my eyes to get rid of all of....that," Natalia ventured, gesturing dismissively at the decorations, "and yet I still think it will have been worth the trip to hear you call someone a 'massive tool'. What a wonderful gift you've given me, and it isn't even Christmas yet."

 

That had apparently been all the speechifying the military honcho had in him for the moment, and while some of the crowd attempted to gather around him and his aid for unwanted Q&A the rest opted to go inside, where it was warm, if not quiet. Scattered across the expansive two-story expo floor were a series of...things, some more concerning than others and each more concerning than the last: here an array of oddly-portioned missiles, there an ominously glowing sphere, largely unfinished and not quite immediately threatening but none of it quite immediately safe. Most were attended to - and sometimes actively being worked on - by someone in a prison uniform.

 

Guards were wandering the floor, and stationed along a second-floor balcony that ran along all four walls of the room; the usual well-armed and no-nonsense types that one might expect, periodically checking their earpieces. Also wandering the floor were a number of less-imposing, still-uniformed individuals who were answering questions as best as they could, as vaguely as they could.

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GM

 

"No, not for free, of course; think of it like a work release program. Sentence reductions on quality results and good behavior, if the DoJ approves of...."

 

"....nothing here's fully active or any danger, no, we would never. Anything truly sensitive is back at base, where we're...."

 

"....purely provisional, you understand. We're a smaller branch doing this as part of an experiment before the policy's adopted in a more broad...."

 

Each program ambassador was answering questions as best and as vaguely as possible, full spin mode on the spin floor - though some of their listeners (and interrogators) looked more satisfied than others. At least two of them were getting openly brow-beaten by a single reporter, who was leveling her little notepad under their noses like it was a loaded weapon. "You can't possibly expect to keep all of this safe in the middle of Hanover, without-" "Ma'am, we have a full guard on staff, all networked together so that if anybody tries to break out-" "Break out? Break outHow are you keeping anyone from breaking in??"

 

The various and sundry projects each had a name and a small plaque - just enough to pique interest, never enough to tell you what the thing actually was. "Dr. P. Guin, reconnaissance", where a wiry man had a camera affixed to a model of a bird. "Mr. Nguyen, stealth", a nondescript man in a suit tinkering with a small sphere that was, on occasion, sparking and making part of its pedestal disappear. "Gravi-ton, force multiplication", a large man with a broken nose and messy brown hair sweeping the broken pieces of a cinderblock into a trash bin with one gauntleted hand. "Critical Mass, missile deterrent", an even larger man with trim blond hair showing off what appeared to just be more missiles.

 

And, just off center, a cordoned-off platform bearing a large mechanical frame, its long, heavy limbs half-plated and unfinished, obvious repairs still in progress as someone's legs could be seen sticking out of its recently-enlarged torso. It did not have a head. "Mechanica, mobile armored vehicle".

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A combination of muffled buzzing and chirping from Ryder’s satchel drew his attention toward the platform with the partially repaired robot gorilla. He patted the bag affectionately while shushing its occupants softly and indicating that direction with a tilt of his head to Natalia.

 

He sidled up casually toward the pair of legs, which for Ryder still involved more enthusiasm and energy than the proverbial kid in a candy shoppe, ducking under the stanchions. “Hi! Ma- uh, Ms. Mechanica? Or is it Doctor? My colleague and I are here on behalf of Hallomen Advanced Experts, do you have a minute?”

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Nocturne

 

Natalia caught the edge of Ryder's sleeve as they made their way toward May, scanning the expo floor with a poker face that desperately wanted to be a scowl. "Careful, Cricket," she said, voice low. "Something here's very wrong."

 

Still, she stepped over the stanchions to follow him, and lost her train of thought for a moment as a curious thing happened: as soon as they'd stepped onto May's raised work floor, the rest of the room went quiet. Not silent, exactly, but quiet - muffled, even, the dull drone and hum replaced with a much duller murmur and the introduction of very loud rock music that they couldn't possibly have missed from only a few feet away. Could they?

 

Natalia waited a moment for May to respond before reaching out with one foot and only somewhat gently tapping the stop button on a beaten old stereo tucked away behind one of the robotic legs. "Better?"

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GM

 

There was a sound of tools being set down, and May pulled herself free of a metal torso that didn't look any less odd up close - it did indeed look like the robotic gorilla they'd fought not so long ago, but with its limbs reinforced and its torso ballooned out into some kind of parody of a armored power suit. Nobody had even tried to add a head, though the anchors that had once attached that head to the torso looked to have been shaved down to make it look less obviously broken.

 

May herself looked much as she did last they'd seen her: a little messy, a lot bored, and with a face that didn't look like it had ever expressed an emotion stronger than mild curiosity. She had the same uniform as everyone else, though she'd thrown some overalls on top and it seemed her uniform had not been allowed sleeves. Where they'd last seen her with heavier, gauntleted arms they were now almost skeletal, the minimum possible framework to allow a full range of motion and delicate manipulation.

 

"Sorry," she said, though it sounded more like a curtesy than an actual apology. She grabbed a rag off a nearby tool bench and set to wiping grease off her hands. "It helps me concentrate. I'm surprised they let you up here -" - she did not look surprised - "- but if you're here, I guess I can talk. Not much else to do."

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"Yeah, I just walked up and nobody stopped me so it's probably allowed. Nice two-way audio baffling bubble!" Ryder gave the convicted mechanic a sunny smile before turning his attention to the retrofitted robots, walking a few steps in an arc around it. "So... do they know you're phoning it in? 'Cause I saw the specs on your gorilla when it had a head and that was, I mean, that was tight work. That had style! This looks about as stable as me in my sister's heels." He scratched his temple idly and looked over his shoulder around the conventions centre. "Actually, it sort of looks like everybody's working on their junk drawer projects without the batteries. Like missile guy over there, why bother trying to hide that there's no payload in them? You'd think they'd want people to know nothing on display was especially dangerous or useful..." He frowned with a sudden suspicion and looked over to Natalia for some sort of confirmation before turning back to May. "Aw man, they're not using you all as bait, are they?"

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Nocturne

 

"Not all of them," ventured Natalia, sparing a glance around the room. "At least two of the 'prisoners' here aren't the real thing - Graviton's older, at large, and in Russia. Nguyen's enochlophobic, they'd have to drag him kicking and screaming to a place like this, he'd rather die. I bet they aren't the only ones - is it just you?"

 

She circled the robot, as much to inspect it as to have an excuse to look around the room again. "....it is kind of hideous," she said, about either. "It's either an insult to good work or an insult to anybody who thinks hauling all of this out of storage would be at all safe."

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GM

 

May glanced between the two for a moment before shrugging, throwing the rag over a loose bit of machinery, and hopping up to sit on the edge of her creation's open 'cockpit'. "I'm really not supposed to talk about it," she said, "but you've basically figured it out so I'm not really going to care. If they wanted secrets they should pay me more. Or, at all."

 

She shrugged, ever the living incarnation of bored apathy, and gestured at her robot with one mechanical hand. "It's alright, it's a piece of junk. The original was okay but didn't have the budget for anything fun, and now it just kind of hurts to look at, I guess?"

 

She paused a moment, looking around at the other exhibits. "The stuff's real, I think? Warehoused projects, usually mothballed after somebody gets their lair busted or plans foiled. A couple of these guys are real, too - the bird guy, I think the missile guy, but missile guy wasn't allowed real toys so they're having a hard time keeping him quiet. I'm totally bait, though, yeah. That was the deal. Mostly it means looking busy, and letting them get sick of enough of my music that they let me put the sound bubble up. That was a good trick."

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Ryder seemed to stare off into space for a long moment, his left eyebrow twitching as he tried to order the things about what May had just explained by priority and odiousness. "Like, obviously abusing an already broken prison system and the general endangerment of you and the journalists here and just the whole neighbourhood is the worst part but honestly the knockoff poseur engineers are just deeply offensive to me on a personal level." He screwed up his mouth into a puckered grimace than made a clear effort to straighten his back, roll his shoulders and take a deep breath. "Alright, one thing at a time. Is that loud guy in the uniform in charge? I'm gonna need to have a word with him."

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Nocturne

 

"I'm sure they'll take the concerns of a random teenage boy very seriously, you should definitely do that," said Natalia, arms folded behind her. She could probably stop Ryder if she had to, but she might have to cheat to do it and that wasn't plan A. "I am a little surprised those journalists haven't absolutely turned him inside out by now, though."

 

She'd turned her gaze on a spot more toward the entrance, where that notepad-wielding reporter was still trying to find out if she could make a military aide shrink into his suit like a turtle. "I'm only a little more surprised that things got this far to begin with. How do you make it to this point without someone wiser tearing a few medals off your chest?"

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GM

 

"One bad decision at a time," opined May. She didn't sound optimistic about the whole thing. She didn't seem like she was optimistic about a lot in general. "The whole 'let's use bad science' thing is real, I guess it's been a thing for a while, but it was never good press to talk about. Probably dates back to Nazi-scientist rocket programs or whatever." She shrugged, but her mouth was pulled down a bit. Even she could spare distaste for Nazis. "I got a pretty good deal because I got caught mid-project, and the guys who paid me really want their money back, and the state wants those guys more than they want me. Something about organized crime."

 

She was ticking items off on her fingers, now, running down a boring mental list. "So I'm bait to draw out those guys, and I get my sentence knocked down if they get caught, plus extra if I get hurt, so that's something, okay. And in the meantime they get my input on other projects, which is also time off, okay. And then the really loud guy - did you get his speech? It's exactly the same every time - the really loud guy decides he can do his show-and-tell and set a trap for my clients, which is fine, except he thinks they're going to show up when we're still setting up and security's low, but they don't, and he doesn't want to delay his science fair because he's already on some kind of thin ice and has no budget to do it over, so he just added more security and wired them all together into the worst-protected comm system I think I've ever seen, and figures he has control over all of it."

 

She'd run out of fingers; giving up, she dropped her hands and shrugged again. "He has control over basically nothing, but it's gotten him this far. I kind of hope it does work out, though, if no one else gets hurt - the deal's pretty good for me, I could basically walk."

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"Right right right, yeah. Could you excuse use for one second?" Ryder tugged on the sleeve of Natalia's coat until they'd stepped past the bounds of Mechanica's sound bubble, the hubbub of the convention centre returning to its original volume. With his back to the headless ex-gorilla robot and his hands on his classmate's upper arms he gave her a pained look. "Okay, so I know this is probably really, really dumb but I need you to either talk me out of pretending to be a bad guy to trip this awful trap without anyone getting hurt and May still getting time off her sentence or talk me into doing it in a way that doesn't blow up in our faces in a painfully literal way."

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Nocturne

 

"Cricket...." Natalia still had her hands behind her back, and was eyeing their surroundings to make sure nobody could listen in. They were probably fine? "Cricket. Nobody is ever going to believe that you're a hardened criminal. It's really not you, and you're a profoundly bad liar. If I set a trap like this, I'd...."

 

She paused a moment, face going flat as she looked around the room again. "....well, it would be a much better trap, for one. But even more so then, I wouldn't be happy to catch some teenage boy in my net. If you're really determined to help her out, why not just help catch these clients of hers when they show up? If they show up. It really is such an awful trap."

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Ryder hung his head dejectedly, still holding onto Natalia's shoulders. "Lying is a lousy longterm strategy and it super stresses me out." He dropped his hands and took a half step back, following her scan of the room. "No, okay, you're right. We need to make this a better trap. They know May's here, they didn't show up when the security seemed lighter, so how do we make it more attractive to the sort of people who hire morally challenged interior decorators?" It would have sounded like a rhetorical question had he not been looking directly at her, giving Natalia his full attention. "I could try piggybacking on the fake engineers' comms so we can listen in?"

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