Chapter Two: Grown on a Petri Dish

"Good morning, Mr. Lloyds. Do you have a moment?"

"What is it, Doctor?"

It was pretty impossible to argue with the fact that Dr. Saito was a strange little man. Undoubtedly a genius, but strange. It started with a megaphone atop his head to amplify his unnaturally soft voice and things just went downhill from there. While Lloyds wasn't particularly busy, he also didn't particularly want to spend time with the scientist. Still, it was better to deal with Saito and get the annoyance over with rather than put it off for later. For all the strangeness, whatever Saito had to say was usually as important as it was confusing.

"I want you to know that the new armor for Tiger and Barnaby will be completed as scheduled in time for the season's premier. I've made a number of improvements, particularly to Wild Tiger's suit. I've arranged for him to come in on Monday to familiarize himself with the armor's features."

At least Kaburagi had gotten into the habit of paying attention. "Why focus on Wild Tiger?" Lloyds asked, then mentally kicked himself for initiating any discussion. There was no escape now, though he kept moving slowly toward the elevators. He was rewarded with this little troll of a man adjusting his glasses and giving him a look as if Lloyds was something he'd grown on a Petri dish that turned out to be not quite what he expected.

"To help compensate for the limited duration of his Hundred Power, I've adapted some of the hydraulic systems from the battle androids Rotwang built for Wild Tiger's suit. Even without his powers activated, the new armor will increase Tiger's arm and leg strength as well as his speed and breaking ability. So he'll be able to do more and hold his power in reserve until called for."

Meaning when Barnaby tells him to activate his NEXT power, thought Alexander Lloyds. Thank god for Brooks. Wild Tiger left to his own devices was a disaster. "Is that within the rules of Hero TV?"

"Of course. And costume or weapon changes are fully vetted."

"So why focus on Wild Tiger?"

"I was getting to that. Mark Schneider saw fit to interfere with my schedule for upgrading their suits and cancelled any production related to Wild Tiger. Since Golden Ryan came with his own interpretation of body armor, the labs focused solely on Barnaby. Now we're playing catch up."

The implied criticism caught his attention. "What was wrong with Ryan's armor? It was very eye catching and looked good for the cameras."

That grown on a Petri dish look again. "It had a lot of unnecessary bells and whistles. I've yet to determine the point of the wing apparatus on his suit."

"Showmanship," suggested Lloyds.

Saito shook his head in open disgust. "Theatrics. Unnecessary weight and a potential hazard. Just what body armor should not be. Ryan was more interested in making a statement than efficiency. Why do you think Rotwang based his battle androids on Wild Tiger and not Barnaby?"

He'd never given it a thought until this moment. "I presume because of Maverick's plan to frame . . . " He paused for the briefest moment, concentrating on his pronunciation. ". . . Kotetsu Kaburagi for the murder of Samantha Taylor."

"You would presume incorrectly. How long do you think it would take to make and program such a sophisticated machine, let alone almost two dozen of them? You can't throw weaponry like that together in a weekend! Maverick's plan to frame Wild Tiger was sloppy and impulsive. His mistake was he underestimated Wild Tiger. A lot of people do. Those battle androids were fully functional and already housed in the Justice Tower by the time things came to a head over the murder of Barnaby's parents."

As a fully functional lackey himself, Lloyds felt compelled to point out in defense of his former employer, "He was almost successful."

"Almost doesn't count on Hero TV. Maverick should have known that. Back to my point. Rotwang fashioned the battle androids on Tiger because from the start we were able to customize his armor better than Barnaby's. I'm sure you've noticed how it's more specialized and streamline."

He had noticed no such thing, but then, he hadn't really paid attention. Despite all his inner voices telling him to shut his mouth, Lloyds was intrigued. "Yes. Of course I did. Why is that? Of the two of them, Barnaby strikes me as the better fighter."

Saito looked up at him and Lloyds suspected the scientist was fighting to keep himself from shaking his head in something akin to pity. "Not exactly. Barnaby compensates for any of his armor's shortcomings, while Wild Tiger's armor compensates for his changing powers. Of the two of them, Tiger is in a better position, at least from the point of view of a scientist. Besides, Wild Tiger has over a decade of experience as a Hero, which allowed us to cater to his combat needs when designing his armor. Barnaby is still a work in progress."

"But Barnaby is still a better fighter."

"Barnaby is a tactician. Wild Tiger is a strategist."

Lloyds blinked slowly, knowing he was going to hate himself for asking. "Aren't they the same thing?"

"Far from it. Tactics win battles. Strategies win wars. Barnaby has intense focus on the here-and-now. Kotetsu takes a much longer view of things and events. It shows in their approach to gaining points."

He couldn't imagine Wild Tiger winning anything, especially a war. "Kaburagi could take a lesson from Brooks."

"Perhaps, but if he did so, Stern Bild might be the worse for it. Fortunately, since they've cemented their partnership, they seem to be good influences on each other and they're both moving toward more middle ground. They are well and truly a team."

It was a conclusion Lloyds would not have drawn on his own without prompting. Faced by the truth of it, though, he could not debate the facts. Barnaby still scored well, but that wasn't his only focus. The actual role of being a Hero versus top scorer had taken center stage for him. Wild Tiger managed to listen to sense more (at least sense coming from Brooks) and had cut back on the impulsive tendencies. His fading powers had forced the issue. Now that they were back in the First League, Barnaby was in third place with a very good shot at second or even first place again by the end of the season. Wild Tiger was hot on his heels in fourth, and odds were good if Barnaby rose in the ranks, so would his partner - or, as in the past, Wild Tiger would let Barnaby take points he might have earned. Not even Lloyds could complain about such numbers, though Wild Tiger's habit of helping rival Heroes gain points sometimes rankled Lloyds' sensitivities even as it endeared him to the audience.

Saito went on talking. "What's more, Wild Tiger has a growing reputation among the younger fan base as a father figure, especially towards the youngest Heroes."

"How do you know that?" demanded Lloyds, astonished.

Again, the look. They had reached the elevators, though he had nowhere to go at the moment, and he was relieved when Saito pressed a button to go down to his lab. "You need to read more fan fiction."

"Fan what?"

"Fan fiction. Stories written for fans, by fans. It can be surprisingly accurate and well-researched and is a good indicator of fan sentiment. Wild Tiger's fandom has had an influx of teenage girls not unlike Barnaby's premier."

He was having issues wrapping his brain around this new concept. "Fan fiction?"

"I'll send you some links. Pay attention to the crowds and what they're wearing, Mr. Lloyds. They can be very revealing."

The elevator doors opened and they waited as Agnes Joubert exited. Saito gave her a cheery "Good morning!" Lloyds waited until Saito was gone to ask,

"Have you ever heard of fan fiction?"

"Of course," Agnes said. "Some of it is very good and surprisingly accurate."

Lloyds sighed, knowing he'd lost this round and glad for the limited number of witnesses to his ignorance. He was out of his league and he knew it. Agnes gave him a look not too far removed from the one Saito had given him, then turned it into a condescending smile. "Get with the times, Mr. Lloyds, especially since your boys are the hottest ticket in the Heroes fandom right now."

He sighed again, resigned to his fate. He couldn't fight so many forces at once. "Fine. I'll be in my office. Doing research."

She wasn't fooled. "I'll send you some links," she said helpfully.

"Thanks. I can hardly wait."

"We'll make a Wild Bunny fan of you yet."

"A what?"

"You'll find out."