Part Two: Encounters
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
A moment later, 471 clicked -got it- and a time/date display popped up in Vuxten's HUD. The first thing he noted was the local time; 2123, as he'd gotten used to the military display. The next he noted was the date, which came across as Friday, January 28. He knew of Terran days of the week, though he wasn't sure of the naming protocol. Each of them ended in 'day', which was useful. January, he was reasonably sure, was a Terran month name. Those were more obscure than the weekday names, and didn't end in 'month', which made them slightly confusing.
A query of his databanks brought up a Terran calendar display, and he frowned as he realised that the months not only had odd names, but they had uneven lengths as well. Still, it wasn't like he was going to need to worry about which month was which. Unless 417 could construct a really good hard-light camouflage system for the suit, his chances of masquerading as one of the locals was minimal to zero.
The drone sent him a warning ping, and he checked the HUD to see that there were two lifesigns closing on his six o'clock, three hundred yards out. Reflexively, he closed the suit's faceplate and crouched, the black suit making him just one shadow among many.
As he did so, 471 moved the drone over a little so it had a slightly better view of the two newcomers, and zoomed a camera lens in on them. One was dressed all in black, with a matching cloak, on a rooftop on the other side of the road. The other wore what Vuxten's HUD identified as powered armour equivalent to light second-rate SAR equipment though he didn't think much of the red and gold colour scheme, or the fact that it didn't seem to have built-in flight systems, much less a way to protect the wearer from environmental hazards. Interestingly enough, the flight problem had been overcome with the use of a small elongated board which was gliding silently through the air. The drone's scanners indicated that there was a graviton effect of sorts there, but it was very oddly tuned.
Three things occurred to him at the same time. First, the two newcomers seemed to be adolescents at best. They were nowhere near the size and heft of the Terrans he'd trained with and fought alongside. Second, he wasn't at all sure that armour of the type he was seeing right there had even existed this far back in Terran history. Like the board, the suit was returning some very odd scanner data to the drone. And third … the adolescent female Terran who was running along the rooftop was about to leap out over a hundred-foot gap, and he could tell she wasn't running nearly fast enough to clear the distance to the next rooftop. At any moment, he expected her to slow down, to come to a halt.
Instead, she accelerated (not by enough) and leaped … then 471 clicked out a very rude word as the scan data coming back from her (small electronic items only) devolved to meaningless hash. As far as Vuxten could see, she dissolved into a shadow form which almost seemed to glide across the intervening distance. When the immaterial form reached the next rooftop, it reverted to the adolescent Terran once more.
"Ah." His sound baffling was on, so there was no way they could hear him (or so he hoped). "I think I know what's going on." The fact that the adolescent male had a visor that obscured his features, and the female was wearing a mask that featured a stern-looking adult Terran woman—though Vuxten had seen scarier—had clued him in. "These are 'superhero LARPers'."
The podlings and broodcarriers had discovered some of the more hilarious LARPer Tri-Vid channels, and he and Brentili'ik had glanced at the shows occasionally. Personally, he'd found it difficult to understand how they could take it so seriously, but she'd pointed out that a certain subset of adults of all ages never gave up the urge to play make-believe. While he still didn't quite understand it, he chose to let it go rather than argue with her. They had better things to do with their time together.
However, this explanation opened up a whole new query. Specifically, how they'd managed to fake the starfield to mimic a thirteen thousand year time gap. Reminded, he checked the time/date readout 471 had put there. He'd had no reason to keep up with the local date on Terra so he didn't know if this readout was accurate, but the year …
He blinked twice, and read it again. It didn't change. Two thousand and eleven. About the median point of the thirteen-thousand-years-and-change estimation that 471 had come up with, but still … one of these two conclusions has to be wrong, and I don't know which one it is.
Looking around, even as the two costumed adolescents came closer, he examined the architecture and even the building materials with a closer eye. Everything was oldtech; he wasn't even picking up embedded circuitry or hardlight structures. If this was a superhero LARPer playground, they had gone all-out on it. The only problem was … how had they faked the moon and other celestial objects? Terrans were the galaxy's champion for looking at a problem and deciding how to make it stop being a problem, usually with the application of serious violence, but even they weren't up to moving entire stars around.
At least, as far as he knew.
471 seemed to have come up with the same conclusion, because he flashed the icon for negation in Vuxten's helmet. - nothing makes sense - he clicked out, flashing up a cartoon image of a frustrated-looking green mantid beating on a recalcitrant computer processor with a hammer as large as it was.
While Vuxten had been considering revealing himself to the two youngsters, he decided to hold back awhile until he'd gained a more thorough understanding of where (and possibly when) he was. So he stayed down, waiting for the two youngsters to pass on by.
"Hey, that's weird." It was the human boy who spoke, the image from the drone putting him almost opposite Vuxten. "Stalker, check down there."
"What's weird?" His counterpart's voice was sharper, sounding irritated. "Oh, wow. Someone dumped some rocks in the street. Quick, call the rock police."
"They're not just rocks," the adolescent on the flying board said, spiralling down to investigate the chunk of rubble that had arrived with Vuxten and 471. "That's been shaped. It looks like it might've come from a building."
"Oh, for fuck's sake." The girl leaped off the building and did that shadow-transformation thing again. Vuxten wasn't sure what to think of that. He was ready to believe there was tech out there that let someone become shadowy—Terrans were almost suicidally ingenious if they had to be—even if he'd never heard of it. He was just extremely dubious about giving access to such tech to an adolescent with what sounded like temper issues.
When the girl reformed at street level, she kept talking, as though continuing a conversation. "So someone knocked a chunk off a building. Big fat hairy deal. We live in a city with Lung, Hookwolf, Fenja, Menja and goddamn Purity. Rubble in the street after a cape fight is a way of life. Get over it, Win. It's not a clue to anything."
Now Vuxten had names for both of them. The male was called Win, and the female Stalker. The names were definitely appropriate, but they didn't fit with any of the established characters in the LARPer shows he'd seen. "See if you can access their information net and find out if they've got a leaderboard for points. It'll tell us who the top player is in the area, so we can go to them and avoid disrupting their show too much."
If he hadn't already disrupted it, just by being in the field of play. He was actually a little concerned that nobody had lit up his comms yet, demanding to know what he was doing there. The LARPers seemed to take this sort of thing seriously.
- roger roger - clicked 471. Data started streaming down the side of Vuxten's HUD.
"No, see, it's not just rubble." Win's voice was earnest, as he crouched beside the rubble with the board floating in midair beside him, playing some kind of sensor over the heap of plascrete. Stalker was standing back, arms folded, as if irritated with the whole deal. "Do you see any bits missing off any buildings around?"
"Doesn't mean anything." Her tone was dismissive. "Some Tinker probably had a teleporter malfunction. Ten bucks says Leet's pulling some shit. You know what he's like."
The drone's sensors weren't as good as the ones in Vuxten's helmet, so he eased to the edge of the roof and peered over. His threat-analysis software immediately picked out compressed-gas-powered hand weapons on the girl, and some kind of energy pistol on the boy. It then tried to run an analysis on the suit, and threw up a number of anomalous results.
"Yeah, no, but this here's not ordinary concrete, or even brickwork. It's a building material as far ahead of concrete than concrete is over mud brick." Win ran the scanner over the plascrete, leaning in intently. "This is the kind of stuff they built the Ellisburg wall out of, as close I can see. Maybe it's more advanced. I can't tell."
"So, Tinker built. Got it." Vuxten would've bet that Stalker was rolling her eyes. He'd seen Terran women do the same when they spoke with that tone of voice. "Did the Tinker maybe sign his work? Leave a forwarding address?"
"No, but there's this really weird background radiation that my scanner can barely pick up." Win turned a few dials and pressed a few buttons. "It's not something I've ever seen before, so I can't begin to analyse it."
"Well, that's helpful," snarked Stalker. "Radioactive Tinker concrete. Don't blame me if—hey, what was that?"
Pulling back slowly, so as not to cause a noticeable flicker of motion, Vuxten cursed to himself. Over and over and over, he'd learned that Terrans somehow knew when they were being watched. He'd never been able to sneak up on his instructors in combat exercises. The drone feed told him that Stalker was crossing the street, heading for the building he was standing on top of. Can she get up here? He decided to assume she could.
"What was what?" asked Win, not turning around.
"Something on top of that building over there," she snapped. "Got a feeling someone was watching us." She gathered herself, as if to jump.
"Wait up, I'm coming with." Turning, Win stepped onto his board and began to rise into the air. More worryingly, he pulled one of his energy pistols—the drone noted he had two—from its holster.
Vuxten was beginning to wonder if this wasn't some kind of indy offshoot. None of the names Stalker had mentioned, or even the names the pair were using, were familiar to him from the LARPer channels. That being the case, they might not recognise him as a non-player and from what he'd seen, the LARPers played full-contact. His initial reaction, to evade until he'd figured things out, was looking more and more like a good idea.
As Stalker went into her shadow form and jumped up the side of the building, he headed for the far side of the rooftop at a fast trot, the sound of his footsteps minimised by the audio baffling. At the same time, he started a flashbang grenade printing in the nanoforge in case he needed to discourage pursuit more energetically. The last thing he wanted to do was engage in potentially lethal combat with Terran children, even highly augmented ones who thought they were just playing a game. That would not end well, in any sense of the phrase.
I need to find whoever's in charge. But first I have to disengage here.
He made it to the far side and went over the edge just a few seconds before Stalker made it on top of the roof. Anchoring himself to the side of the wall with graviton-spikes from his boots, he leaped outward to the next building over. Two more jumps and a rebound, and he was around the corner and out of sight of that rooftop.
She didn't seem to be following when he checked next. The stern-woman mask didn't show any of her real expression, but the abruptness of her movements bespoke the irritation that she felt. And even if it hadn't, her tone would have. "Damn it," she muttered, the drone picking up her words easily. "I was so sure." She turned to Win, who had just crested the edge of the roof. "Hey, you got a gizmo that'll see if there was anyone up here?"
"What, apart from you?" he asked. Not waiting for an answer, he tapped the side of his headpiece. "Infrared and heat-sensing show nothing. Only your footprints." He paused. "Oh, wait a second. Your suspect left behind a clue to his identity."
Half a block away, Vuxten tensed. What had he left behind?
"What?" asked Stalker. "Where?"
Landing on the rooftop and bending down, Win came up with an avian feather pinched between two fingers. Vuxten had noted them earlier but ignored them as being irrelevant to the situation. Now, Win smirked as he showed it to Stalker. "From the evidence, the suspect is ten to twelve inches tall—"
"Oh, shut the fuck up." Stalker slapped the feather from Win's hand.
Win chuckled. "Sure you don't want to track him down and interrogate him? Charge him with loitering on a rooftop? Cooing without a licence?" He made an odd birdlike noise with his mouth.
She held up her clenched fist. "I will hit you."
"Fine. I'll drop it." He chuckled. "Just be glad it wasn't Clock out here with you. The 'stool pigeon' jokes would've been thick and fast."
"I'm glad I'm not on patrol with Clock, full stop. There's nothing going on around here. Let's get back to base."
Base. That held possibilities. If he could locate what they used as a base of operations, he could present himself there and exit their game while causing minimal disruption. And then he could get transportation back to Telkan. Brentili'ik and the broodcarriers and podlings will be so worried.
The anomalous starfield still bothered him, but he was coming around more and more to the idea that this was an extremely elaborate simulation of pre-FTL Terra. Because Terrans did things like that.
"Wait a moment," said Win. "Before we go, I need to call in a report about that rubble."
"Oh, god, really?" Stalker shook her hooded head. "I haven't got time for this crap. See you back there." Taking off running, she turned to shadow and glided to the next building.
"Stalker!" Win sighed and face-palmed; or rather, visor-gauntleted. "Every damn time. Fine. Be that way." He touched something on the side of his head, and suddenly Vuxten could hear a comms carrier wave. "Kid Win to Console."
"Console here, Kid. What's up?" It sounded like another male.
"I just wanted to report some rubble on the road, down on Blakeslee Street between Hammond and Carter. Could be a traffic hazard. Also, might be Tinkertech construction. Do we know anyone who's a materials Tinker?"
"I … actually don't know. I'd have to look that one up. Okay, rubble is logged. Did you see what put it there?"
"No, it was there when we found it. Also, warn the crews to take care when handling it. Some sort of residual background radiation. My gear couldn't isolate or identify it."
There was a sigh over the comms. "Another day in Brockton Bay. Okay, hazard identification logged and sent. Anything else?"
"No, that's it. We're heading in now. Kid Win, out."
"Copy. Console out."
Stepping onto his board once more, the adolescent calling himself Kid Win (which Vuxten supposed made more sense than just 'Win') set out after the now-distant Stalker. The drone followed on, and Vuxten paused to think about his next move.
- got something you want to see - clicked 471. - not leaderboard. something else. -
"Sure, put it up." If it gave him more information about what was going on, all the better.
But just as the text began to scroll up his HUD, he heard a noise. Specifically, a cry of pain or distress. Terrans had deeper voices than Telkans, but he was still fairly sure this was a female of the species. It didn't matter that this was most likely a set-up scenario where a 'hero' could drop in and save the 'victim'; his experiences over the last year and more had made it impossible to stand back when someone needed help. If some LARPer got their nose out of joint (that was a wonderful Terran phrase) because he jumped in first, then tough.
Taking a run-up along the alley, he leaped and used the graviton spikes to kick off one wall then the other, using the analysis software to narrow down the origin of the sound. On the fly, he wet-printed a second drone and sent it up to pinpoint matters further, and to warn him of any incoming problems.
Rebounding around a corner, he saw what was going on. Half a dozen (or 'a paw and a thumb') adult Terran males, all wearing clothing with similar insignia, were closing in on two unarmed civilians, one of whom was female. Vuxten presumed she was the one who had cried out. His HUD outlined weapons being carried by the aggressors, including a metal chain, two short blades and two traditional Terran weapons that he'd been told were called 'Louisville Sluggers'. The sixth man didn't have a weapon in hand, but the HUD outlined a short-barrelled handgun tucked into his pants. That was something he would have to keep an eye on.
As Vuxten came closer, still jumping from wall to wall, he noted that the male victim had a cut on his arm, blood oozing between the hand he had clamped over it. The young woman was trying to support him, and cowering back from the attackers at the same time.
He'd seen enough. Gauging his trajectory, he kicked off a metal frame attached to the wall. As the ground rushed up at him, he drew his cutting bar, but didn't power it up. Made of warsteel, it would work well as a baton. None of the Terrans had any implants his sensors could detect, and he didn't want to hurt anyone unnecessarily.
One of the knife wielders was a little too close to where he wanted to land, so he swung downward hard with the bar at the blade as he hit the ground. Smacked hard from its owner's hand, the knife skittered away across the alley floor as the Terrans stared at the Telkan who had appeared in their midst. It was the kneeling pose that warborgs used for psychological effect, and it seemed to do the same here.
Slowly, he stood up, not taking his eyes from them. "Back off. First and last warning." Normally, he wouldn't be giving any warnings at all … but these were Terrans.
"Fuck, where did he come from?"
"Jesus, it's a kid Tinker!"
"Your mom know you're out, you little shit?"
"Hey! That was my fuckin' knife!"
He kept his weight on his toes, paying more attention to body language than to the spoken words. They weren't backing off. In fact, they were psyching themselves up to charge at him en masse. He would still win, but injuries would be unavoidable. And hurting Terrans, even ones playing as criminals, was not in his game plan.
One of them stepped forward, swinging the metal chain. Out it lashed, and Vuxten moved back half a step so that it wrapped around the cutting bar he held. The aggressors laughed and yelled, until he thumbed the power switch. It burst into noisy life and the warsteel blades emerged from the housing, sending sparks flying everywhere and dropping the chain onto the ground in several sections. He didn't waste the moment, moving forward and elbowing the chain-owner in the solar plexus. The man dropped, and he darted into the group, swinging the cutting bar fast and accurately.
The two Louisville Sluggers provided no real resistance to the high-speed warsteel teeth. The one with the handgun managed to pull it out, and 471 blew it apart with a single shot from his micro-rifle. They stared at Vuxten as he turned off the cutting bar, the useless stubs of the weapons smoking gently in their hands. There was one left with a knife; when both he and 471 turned to look in that direction, the Terran opened his hand and dropped the weapon, raising both hands shoulder high.
"Good decision," Vuxten said, then pointed with the cutting bar at the far side of the alleyway. "All of you. On your knees. Facing the wall. Hands behind your heads."
One of them waved his hand at 471. "Wha—what the hell's that?"
"He's a Tinker, dumbass," said another one as 471 flashed a rude icon at him. "Hey, you said you'd let us go."
"You didn't back off when I told you to." Vuxten gestured with the cutting bar. "That changed your options. On your knees. Now."
The snap of command in his voice had most of them obeying before rational thought kicked in. The one who'd had the pistol tried to make a break for it, but Vuxten was on him before he'd gotten five yards. He swept the idiot's legs from under him, printed a set of plascuffs while he had him down, and secured his hands behind his back. Then he dragged the Terran back by the ankle to where the couple were watching 471 keep the other five covered from the top of an overfull metal container of what looked like organic trash.
With them all lined up, he went along the line, removing secondary weapons as his sensors picked them up and printing out more plascuffs to secure their wrists and ankles. Then he turned to the couple, who were being attended to by the green mantid. 471 wasn't a member of the medical caste, but he had a few tricks for battlefield first aid, and the male of the pair was staring at the sealant now keeping his cut closed.
"Are you two all right?" asked Vuxten, moving up to them. "Are you able to call law enforcement?" Thankfully, he'd caught himself before he called it LawSec, which would've sounded strange.
"Uh, yeah," said the male Terran. "Thanks a lot. I mean … wow. You saved us. That was amazing. And your little bug droid's pretty cool too."
471 tilted his body in disbelief, flashing a series of emoticons which added up to 'oh, you did not just say that'. Vuxten could understand his irritation. Even digitals didn't like being called 'androids', any more than biologicals liked being called 'meatbags'. There were historical issues with the term.
"471's not a digital sentient," Vuxten pointed out. "He's a green mantid, and he's my partner."
The Terrans looked at each other, then back at Vuxten. "Green … mantid?" asked the woman.
"What's a digital sentient?" asked the man, almost at the same time.
Vuxten began to suspect he'd said too much. Either that, or the Terrans were absolutely dedicated to the script. Stepping closer, he lowered his voice. "Listen, we're not supposed to be here. How do we exit this scenario?"
There was a long moment of silence, then the man asked carefully, "Scenario?"
A slow trickle of icewater began to form in Vuxten's stomach. Over the last year he'd spent a lot of time with Terrans, in and out of training, and he liked to think he was beginning to understand them. If he was reading these ones at all accurately, they weren't aware that they were bit-part players in a superhero LARP. And whatever else Terrans did, they wouldn't do this to innocents who had no idea what was going on.
Time to get back to basics, he decided. Indicating the men he'd secured, he asked, "Why were they attacking you?" Robbery, as he understood things, was the most usual motive.
That got him a disbelieving laugh from the woman. "Are you blind?" She pointed to the six men. "They're Empire Eighty-Eight! We're black! They don't need a reason!"
Which made no sense whatsoever to Vuxten. Yes, some Terrans had differing levels of melanin in their skin. Telkan fur varied from individual to individual, but that meant nothing. The couple had skin that was significantly darker than the men he and 471 had dealt with, certainly. And the clothing and body art on the six prisoners possessed points of similarity … but that didn't explain why.
"Ah, of course," he said, lying through his teeth. "Would you like me to wait while you contact law enforcement?"
"Yes, please." As if drained by her brief tirade, the woman rubbed her arms in a way not unlike a Traena'ad cleaning its bladearms. "I'm worried there might be more around."
"There are none within three blocks that I'm aware of," he said helpfully. "But I can wait anyway."
The woman took a comm unit out of her purse, reminding Vuxten that people here didn't seem to have implants. It looked on the clunky side, but it worked well enough. While she spoke to the 'police', he called up the information 471 had located for him earlier, and skimmed through it.
The ParaHumans Online site was … bizarre. It referred to superheroes, or 'capes', regularly, but the tone was ridiculously consistent. Nobody referred to points or leaderboards, or anything that might indicate this was anything other than it seemed. The names of the two he had encountered earlier came up easily with word searches, and there were articles about them. Stalker, it appeared, was known better by the name 'Shadow Stalker', which fit. She and Kid Win were members of the 'Wards', an adolescent subset of the 'Protectorate', which were government-sponsored superheroes.
Which didn't fit the understanding Vuxten had of the whole LARPing system at all. Neither did the articles 471 had found, detailing the history of how 'parahumans' had shaped the world. The further back it went, the more confused Vuxten got. If he were to believe this, the entire planet had been playing this one session day and night, week after week, year after year, for thirty years. People had died, sometimes in their thousands. Cities had been destroyed. Landmasses had been driven under water.
He could understand the death toll and the wholesale destruction of cities. The Precursors had done just that when they declared war on his species. He knew, implicitly, what 'total war' meant. But superhero LARPing was about costumed silliness with characters that everyone knew and understood. People didn't die in it.
A Klark could fly and punch a giant robot into orbit, while lesser heroes each had their own distinctive costumes that the podlings could point out and claim as favourites, no matter which LARPing group was playing them. What he was seeing here simply did not fit this pattern. The names weren't the same, and the costumes weren't the same.
Where am I, and what's going on here?
End of Part Two