Actually watching what could only be described as a super undead ninja sneak into your house was surprisingly lame. Mission impossible managed to spice up the tension with dramatic music, sharp cuts, and a bird's eye view of the entire situation. I only had the latter - there were no blind spots in Lowtown. Not for me. At any moment, I could see every inch of the entirety of Lowtown through a half dozen different angles. And every single one of them was disguised as an everyday object. The cameras were the lamps, the bedframes, the couches, and even the walls and floors themselves.
So, watching him sneak inside was boring, but also informative. I hadn't intentionally given the building a design flaw, but the undead ninja managed to find one to sneak in. He went unnoticed despite the guards posted, the locks were picked with deft ease and within thirty seconds, he was within the building. I was on the top floor while he was on the bottom, so there was a floor of space that divided us.
2B reacted instantly, bearing her sword at the door as she took a stance. Cass got the hint as well even if she lacked context, so she hopped next to 2B in preparation to attack the intruder.
The Talon didn't make a move towards the stairs or elevator. Instead, he took out a box. The video cameras flagged it, comparing it to the X-rays of him entering. It wasn't a bomb. Inside was a letter and figurine… of an owl. A calling card? I sat down in my chair, watching the Talon set up what would have been a pants-soiling surprise if it had managed to be a surprise. With both the letter and the figurine in place, the Talon stood up and made his way out of the building, taking the same route that he came in with.
He headed towards the exit, but not without getting hit with some air freshener as he blended in with the crowd. Air freshener that everyone thought was installed to combat the smell, but in actuality served another purpose.
Unsealing a phone, I brought up a tracking app to find that the microtrackers had taken root. The Talon was marked.
"Looks like this was just a greeting," I said, watching the Talon head through the tunnels. The safety precaution was an expensive one, but an important one. In the end, I could only follow people's moves entirely within Lowtown. When they left, they were out in the wild. So, naturally, having a way to track those that were flagged was a priority. It was how I was able to identify so many spies - a number of buildings were flagged, so when those that were being tracked went to them, I would get an alert with another potential spy caught.
"A machine?" 2B questioned, but I shook my head.
There was no easy way to break it to someone that they were in a different universe. Especially when it sounded that her reality was radically different than the one she was currently in. The fact that she had just pledged herself to me simply because I was human was a red flag. What would she do when she discovered that there were thousands of humans nearby? Above us there were millions in Gotham alone.
"By certain definitions of the word," I responded, standing up and calling my cards to my hand. That had been a bit of a shock, but I recognized the tactic. They were trying to scare the shit out of me. They had managed to dodge all of the overt cameras, so as far as they would think, I would be panicking because the Court of Owls managed to sneak into my house and deliver something. I would panic because next time, it could be a bomb.
Except the Talon was leading me right to his boss, and I had tracked his every movement while inside. Lowtown wasn't exactly Batman proof yet, but I had managed to take a serious step towards it.
"Let's go see what they dropped off," I decided, stepping around my desk. Cassandra looked to me, so I signed, Careful. I received a nod in response and I headed for the door. I kept 2B at my back, a gesture of trust, but I watched her through the cameras. She glanced around at the hallway that led to my office - it was sparsely decorated, but Tifa and Miranda were taking care of that for me, regardless of my wishes.
That blindfold made it really difficult to read her, but if I had to guess, she was surprised by her surroundings. The only evidence I had of that fact was that she was looking around at it all, her gaze lingering on a few photos on the wall… details of whatever world she came from painted the picture of a hellscape. Thousands of years of fighting, humanity's apparent extinction except for those on the moon… it sounded like she was in for some real culture shock.
I stepped into the lift, the two girls standing in front of me. Cass looked at 2B for a moment, her gaze dipping towards the naked sword in hand. 2B caught the look and seemed to flinch when Cassandra began to sign, Scared?
So, 2B was scared. She hid it well, but it made sense. Even if she didn't know she was in a new universe, her partner was missing and she had stumbled upon humans that were promptly put in danger from an enemy she didn't quite understand. She had plenty of reasons to be afraid.
"I… my apologies, but I…" 2B trailed off, and I could feel the uncertainty rolling off her in waves. Whoever designed her had made it a point to make her as human as possible. I really wouldn't have been able to tell if I didn't already know.
"It's sign language," I told 2B while I signed at Cass. Go easy on her, I signed while 2B watched the hand movement while the lift carried us down to the first floor. There were only three, so it wasn't a long trip. "Cass has communication difficulties because of her childhood, so we use sign language to get around them. I can teach you, if you would like," I offered as the doors slid open to reveal a killbox of a lobby that was empty at the moment. A deliberate choice.
2B offered a curt nod while I turned my attention to the package at the door. It was a small glass owl resting on the ground, a letter clutched in its talons that were angled to present it to me while its wings were fanned out. I recognized the appearance from nature documentaries - it was how an owl looked when scooping up prey.
Crossing the distance with little fear, I knelt down and took the letter. Flipping it open revealed loopy cursive handwriting that I could barely make out.
A window left open, an opportunity has flown through. Three favors have been given for one so shrewd. Place your desires in the Talons of the Court, an Owl shall see them come about. With the third wish completed, a deal shall be struck.
- The Court
Bad poetry and three favors, huh? Not what I expected. It seemed that the Court of Owls was attracting more flies with honey than vinegar. An interesting tactic, but it made sense. If I had three desires completed, no matter how stupid or grand, then I would be far more likely to make whatever deal that they wanted. The figurine was a statement - not only were they saying that they could 'sneak' into my home, but they could do it again and again and again. Three times, no matter what security measures I took.
I'm sure I would be impressed if I hadn't caught them the first time and tracked the Talon down to their base. It was too early to tell yet, but it looked like they were heading to the swamps. The only notable building was an old water treatment plant that was abandoned because of a broken foundation. Their main base, or a pit stop? It was worth investigating at least.
I dropped a card onto the figure and letter, sealing them both away. 2B made a noise of surprise - I'm not sure why though. She had pulled a katana from thin air.
I needed to get ahead of this. I had three favors. That was three chances to leverage myself into a position of power. Possibly over the Court itself. I already likely had one member, one base… if I could tag and bug them both, my net would be widened so I could puzzle out more of their safe houses and members. If I could get the Court of Owls by the balls… then, in theory, that would put me in control of the upper echelon of Gotham City. Additionally, it would grant me direct control over the Talons.
Another plate was added to the stack that I was forced to juggle, but it was the most dangerous one of them all. High Risk, High Reward.
I glanced at Cass, mulling it all over. She looked to me, tilting her head. We're heading to Tifa. Coming? I asked, figuring that she would. Cass glanced at 2B before nodding. Thoughts?
Loves you. Cass informed, and that caught me off guard. 2B loved me? Or was it more an encompassing word? That, I suspected, was a part of her programming. If humans were so rare to the point the only ones left were on the moon, that was a measure to ensure that if they ever came across a human, that they would not only obey without question but desire to obey. That, I decided, was skeevy as fuck.
I nodded before I turned to 2B. "We're about to head out to see my girlfriend. You're… going to be a bit overwhelmed when you step outside, but I want you to keep your cool, alright? When we reach Tifa, I promise that we'll answer all the questions you have. The ones that we can answer, at least." I offered, earning a hesitant nod in response. She didn't strike me as someone that talked much in general, but I wondered how much of that was because of her situation. "Could you hide the katana?"
"Of course," 2B agreed, going to place the katana over her shoulder… where it then seemed to slip into some invisible sheath, because it vanished a second later.
Huh. "Just call me Vergil," I told her, earning another nod. Right. That was something I was going to have to keep an eye on.
Recalling the card to my hand, I pushed open the door to reveal Lowtown. I heard 2B suck in a sharp breath behind me, but she did keep her cool. I preemptively answered the question I knew she was dying to ask. "They're humans," I confirmed. "Do you need a moment?"
2B shook her head, "I don't. You were right, it is overwhelming, but I can adapt." She said, trying to make herself believe it. A few people looked our way, offering either respectful nods or stunned looks of awe. I ignored them while I idly wondered if any of them were plants from the Court. After all, they needed a way to know if and when I made a request. So, at the very least, I expected them to have a few spies, however unknowingly. I needed to identify them as well…
My free time had vanished and it looked like I was in for another busy day.
Using my contacts, I found Tifa making some last-minute preparations for the banquet being held tomorrow. Luckily, that meant that she wasn't far away. Which was good because I think 2B may suffer an overload if we had to go through any crowds.
I found Tifa standing with Sammy, both women dressed for warm weather as they animatedly talked. I hadn't seen much of Sammy since she brought the girls under the Street Kings' control over - honestly, I'm pretty sure that she was avoiding me. Probably because she thought I was a mob boss, and… well… the girl had good instincts.
Tifa noticed us first, a smile gracing her lips that I found myself returning. Then her eyes flickered to 2B, and she drank in 2B's unique appearance.
"Sorry to interrupt, but would you mind if I stole Tifa for a bit?" I asked Sammy, earning a hasty nod before the woman left. Tifa shot me a concerned look before I gestured to a building on our left that would give us a little more privacy. She nodded and the four of us stepped into a half-complete foundation for a building that was being put up.
Once we were inside, I told her about the Court's offer. Three favors, and a deal to be made.
"They're going to use the favors against you," Tifa pointed out, earning a nod from me. I agreed completely with the point. The bigger and the more overt the favor, the more that they could use against me if I tried to refuse the deal. In the end, I'd be changing out who was blackmailing me.
"Yeah, they will," I agreed. "But with the connections the Court has…"
Tifa's lips thinned. "Do you think you can handle them?" She questioned and never in a million years would I have ever thought I was capable of handling an ancient owl-themed secret society.
I nodded, "Too early to tell right now, but I like our chances." I told her, a plan forming in the back of my head. I turned to Cass, who watched the interaction intently, likely making an effort to pay attention to the sounds we made to learn words. Cass, are you able to sneak in somewhere without being seen? I signed at her, quickly earning a nod.
Cass was also a literal ninja, so that was a card up my sleeve. She could sneak in, bug the building that the Talon was going to, along with the Vanaver manor… but I didn't like the idea of her going alone. But, at the same time, I didn't have many options. Cass was the only master of stealth that we had. Especially considering who the enemy was.
"And who is this?" Tifa questioned, looking to 2B. The Android straightened now that attention was on her.
"My designation is YoRHa No.2 Type B... Or 2B for short," 2B answered promptly, earning a warm if hesitant smile from Tifa.
"Tifa? I'm pretty sure that her arrival bears some similarity to your own," I told her, making her eyes widen before they snapped to 2B. "So… I thought you would be the best one to handle the conversation," I told her. In the end, it was probably the best call. Who best to break the news to someone that they had been snatched from their universe? I mean, I had been too, but the real difference between me and Tifa in that regard was that Tifa had left something behind. Just like 2B seemed to have.
Tifa reached out to 2B, taking her hands into her own, and earned a small gasp from 2B. There was an expression of empathy on her face while I unsealed a table that I parked in the corner.
This was going to take a bit.
2B was from a different universe. A grim one. For over ten thousand years, androids had fought in the name of humanity against machines that invaded the planet. YoRHa was an organization of combat androids sent to earth to establish footholds to advance the line in hopes of finally defeating the machine menace. She elaborated on the details of her mission - apparently, humans were exempt from confidentiality. Twelve type B units were sent down, and she was the only survivor of that group.
She linked up with 9S, a support android, to complete the mission, only to fight a Goliath - an insanely massive robot that was armed to the teeth. They defeated the machine, only to get surrounded by more, where they then detonated something called a black box. That was her final memory before waking up here.
When I unsealed Pod 042, he had verified the story. And I was going with 'he' on account of the male voice. Felt a bit weird calling him an it.
"Inquiry: what method of trans universal teleportation was utilized to take unit 2B and myself?" Pod 042 questioned, hovering over 2B's shoulder after we broke the news to her. It was difficult to tell how she was taking it. So far, she hadn't really given a reaction - Tifa had struggled for a while with the reality of it. I had adapted pretty much instantly. Only time would tell how 2B would handle the revelation.
"We don't know, yet," I answered. I had no clue how Mr. Cobblepot was doing it, or even why. "But, I have a theory that they can't pick who they take. It might be a blind grab. When they snagged you and 2B, you were dumped because Mr. Cobblepot lacked the means or the need to repair you." Was he doing it for someone? The Light? Maybe? I had no clue.
"Observation: If theory is true, returning to home universe is unlikely." Pod 042 voiced, and Tifa nodded. That old promise lingered between us, even if she had called it off. But, he was likely right.
"It might not be hopeless - Vergil's cards could create a way, in theory, but we just don't know yet," Tifa confirmed, her voice gentle as she looked to 2B. I nodded - if I could get my hands on the method that they used and with a handful of multidimensional portals or teleporters… in theory, anything was possible. It was just testing out that theory was a long way away. "But… for now, you should consider…"
2B nodded when Tifa trailed off, "This outcome is acceptable." She said, her voice tight. That sounded like a lie. "My data was likely uploaded to YoRHa servers prior to my death, so I would be downloaded into another 2B model unit. Humanity will not notice my loss-" she started, cutting herself off when my lips twisted into a frown.
"Humanity," I began, looking at where I guessed her eyes to be, "can go fuck itself. We are a vain, stupid, self-destructive species with next to no redeeming features at all." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tifa smile as both the Pod and 2B recoiled. "So, as a human, I'm ordering you to stop putting humanity on a pedestal. We don't deserve it. Instead, I want you to think about what you want. I want you to think about how you feel - and I know you do. Whoever designed you? They made you human."
2B shook her head, "In appearance and emotional responses-" she cut herself off, and I knew why. I was human. She wasn't. She wasn't supposed to argue with me.
And that pissed me the hell off.
"That's one of those few redeeming features I was talking about. See, the thing is? Humanity is more than a race. It's… a desire, in short. To be good, to help others, and so on. If you have that? Then you have humanity. You think, you feel, you have desires - you're human in every way that matters. So what if you have metal and coolant instead of flesh and blood?" I dismissed the entire idea that she somehow had to bend over backward to obey me because I was human.
"So, I want you to tell me - what do you want?" I finished, leaning forward on the table. The air grew tense as 2B seemed to really think about it. Quite possibly for the first time. It was one thing that had always bugged me about sci-fi shows with AI's and androids and whatever.
I had no problem using a toaster as a toaster. It was a machine that had one purpose - to turn bread into toast. However, 2B? An android with a clear sense of self? With emotions? Desires? Who could grieve for the loss of her partner 9S? Why the fuck would you do that? If you want an android soldier, then make yourself an android soldier. Don't give them emotions. Don't give them a sense of self. Make them a toaster. A machine with one purpose - to kill the enemy.
Making the choice to make them human and then fight and die for humanity? That was just stupid and needlessly cruel.
"I… would like to stay," 2B decided, voicing her desire with only a sliver of hesitation. "I don't understand what you mean about humanity, but I would like to learn." Her words got a genuine smile out of me and Tifa, and 2B offered a hesitant smile in return.
"Welcome aboard, 2B."
2B hadn't quite settled in about a day later, but it seemed that she decided I was going to be how she learned about humanity. In doing so, I gained a second shadow. Or a third, counting Pod 042.
I would have liked to learn about her as well, but, unfortunately, other things were prioritized.
After all, it was finally Christmas.
"Even thieves take Christmas off, huh?" I muttered, looking at my phone to see my request for ten thousand invisible ink markers going unclaimed. In a city like Gotham, posts were taken within seconds of being posted. It was annoying but expected.
"No phones at the table, Vergil," Tifa chided, seated next to me. I sealed the phone away, annoyed that my plans had to be placed on hold for a day. Looking up, I saw a long table that was stacked high with food - ham, turkey, rolls, vegetables, and fruits. That long table was flanked by thousands of people. There was no seating arrangement really, only that everyone sat down together for the meal.
The connected tables went on for a long time down the tunnel. A very long time. After all, there were about fifteen thousand people in Lowtown on the regular. In the end, we ended up with three rows of five thousand people. And somehow, we had found a way to feed them all. Miranda was terrifyingly efficient when it came to this stuff.
The tunnel itself was decorated with flashing Christmas lights, there were small plastic trees dotted about on the tables while music played over the intercom. It wasn't enough to drown out thousands of people talking and eating, but I could still faintly hear it. All in all, the place looked like it was celebrating Christmas. I even saw a few token Menorahs, and the like for other religions to feel comfortable.
Christmas might have started out as a religious holiday, but Capitalism won that battle, because now it was less about Jesus and more about coming together. And that's what Tifa had wanted, so that's what she got.
"I think everyone is expecting you to say some words," Tifa added, and I did see more than a few were looking to me expectantly, their plates empty. Ah… right.
"Do you want to do it?" I tried to pass on the responsibility to Tifa, earning a fond smile that screamed no way in hell. "This is all your and Miranda's labor - feels a bit wrong for me to steal the credit."
Tifa's smile widened, knowing exactly what I was trying to do. "Vergil…" she trailed off, and I guess that Tifa hated public speaking about as much as I did. My gaze swept over the table - Cass sat on my right, who was out by default. Revy sat next to Cass, who was also out by default. Miranda sat next to Tifa, who offered me the same 'hell no' smile that Tifa was giving me. That left Jack and Waylon, both of which were already digging in.
Right. I guess I was the one that had to address fifteen thousand people.
"Fine," I agreed before I stood up. The action brought a lot of attention to me, people stopped chatting and eating to patiently listen. I was surprised, but I just cleared my throat before I paused the music and attached the intercom to my earpiece. Taking in a deep breath, I spared a wish that I had gotten a little heads up to prepare a speech. I guess I just had to wing it.
"I'll get this over with quickly, because I know you'd all rather do anything else than listen to me speak," I started, my voice echoing out through the tunnel as people quieted down completely. Well, mostly everyone. Fifteen thousand people was a lot and not everyone cared about what I had to say. "A little bit less than half a year ago, Lowtown didn't exist. It wasn't even a thought in anyone's heads. Certainly not mine. It was something that was born out of necessity. I'm sure you've all heard the story by now, so I won't repeat it…"
I took in a deep breath, putting my thoughts into words. "There have been some hiccups. There have been some struggles. It's been anything but smooth sailing, but, all these months later, I have to tell you - it was all absolutely worth it." The sincerity in my tone caught people off guard, those that just passively listened suddenly gave me their full attention, and those that had already given it were hanging off my every word.
"It was all worth it. All of it. Everything I've done, everything that I will do - it is worth it," I hammered the point home. "Because Lowtown… it was born in the sewers, yet all these months later, it's become something astounding. It's become more than just a homeless shelter. It's become a home. And that is because of all of you - fifteen thousand people so far, from about as many different walks of life. Yet, despite all the differences between everyone here, Lowtown has become a community."
My gaze swept over the tables, finding all eyes on me. "Our community is going to keep on growing. More people are going to come and they will bring their troubles with them. Some will be so desperate that this place will be their only chance at salvation. Others are going to be just down on their luck and in need of a helping hand… some are going to be assholes that want to mooch on Lowtown's goodwill - and I welcome them all. Because if you turn to this place and you plead for help, I want to answer that plea, and if I can't, I hope one of you can answer it for me… it won't always be easy. Honestly, most of the time it's going to be a pain in the ass, but that's okay. Because, even if you don't believe anything I've ever said, I want you to believe this - Lowtown and this community… is absolutely worth it."
There was a brief moment of silence before the sound of clapping started. The sound was absolutely deafening and it seemed to barrage me with a physical force as I stood up. I could only hope that the feet of stone, the root, and the concrete was enough to prevent people above from making out the sound. Though, I was really worried about the sound traveling to the train station through the tunnels.
I held up a hand, trying to quiet everyone down. It worked to various degrees, but it still took a solid minute for everyone to quiet down to more manageable levels. I would take what I could get. "So, enjoy the meal and be sure to thank Tifa and Miranda, and everyone else who helped prepare this for you all. Because, without them, it wouldn't be possible. Happy holidays," I finished, switching the intercom back to Christmas music.
Sitting down, I got a warm look from Tifa, who reached out and patted me on the hand. Cass was smiling - she hadn't been able to understand a word that I said, but it seemed at least some people had enjoyed the speech. Not sure why - I don't think I've ever genuinely enjoyed a speech in my life, but I guess I was telling them what some of them wanted to hear.
"Nice speech, where's my present?" Revy demanded, leaning forward as she pinned me with a look. It was rude, but it helped break the tension. I always did hate being in the center of attention. Fame and adoration were those things that sounded nice to have in theory, but actually being famous or having people bask in your presence was awkward as all hell. At least on my part.
In response, I flicked over a card to her. She snatched it out of the air, an eager yet dangerous smile on her face that quickly fell when I didn't unseal the card. "Vergil?!"
"You know what it is already. Just wait until we're finished eating before whipping it out," I told her, earning a scowl in response. Tifa ran interference on my behalf while I leaned back into my chair, drinking it all in. All of it. From the decision to go left for greatness, to every success that I earned by the skin of my teeth, to right now.
I had done pretty terrible things. No point in denying that. And I was going to do more terrible things when it was all said and done. Murder, drug dealing, extortion, blackmail, privacy invasion… and that was just the list of crimes that I was planning to commit. Who knew what I'd end up doing before I took Lowtown to its next big step? Or when I finally reached the end of the road?
Hell was a thing in DC comics and I was going there. No doubt about it. My only hope was to become immortal to avoid an eternity of brimstone and hellfire.
Was Lowtown truly worth it? From some kind of societal or moral viewing?
No. Probably not. I was hurting more people than I was helping. And I was hurting them for no grander reason than I cared less about them than I did the residents of Lowtown. That's all there was to it.
But, from my view at the head of a table, hearing fifteen thousand people talk, argue, cheer and shout with ease? People that came here because they were desperate, because there were no better choices, or who heard tales of salvation?
Yeah… yeah, it was all worth it.
This chapter marks the end of the Early Game for See No Evil. The next arc brings Vergil and Lowtown to a point where they aren't tiptoeing around forces like Batman or bowing their heads to Cobblepot, so that's going to be fun. Honestly, in a way, it's like I'm going to be writing a completely different story in a way. Batman and the Penguin have been the dominating forces in the story that Vergil's been forced to maneuver around. But, when an enemy falls, another rises.
It's going to be fun. I'm really enjoying what I've written of the arc so far.
The next chapter is currently available on my Pat re on and Subscribe Star, so if you want to read it a week early, all it takes is a single dollar in the tip jar. Or, for five dollars, you can read the chapter after that two weeks before its public release! I hope you enjoyed!