"I don't trust you," Stablecirlce hissed.
The threatening tone was ruined by the mashed potato she was piling on Defiant's plate.
"My darling Talkie might, but I don't."
"Understandable, but I have…" Defiant seemed to struggle with something for a moment before sighing, "reviewed my villainous ways and chosen to abstain, instead seeking the light rather than the darkness."
He sounded like he was reading off a script with all the enthusiasm of a high schooler who'd rather be out behind the bike shed smoking. I was glad my mask hid my sudden smile, somehow, I doubted the hero had ever smoked anything, especially during high school.
We were currently sat around a small table next to a cafeteria serving table. The Palanquin's dance floor was now a cafeteria area, currently empty due to the late time of night Stablecircle had said.
"Hmph, well, I'll be the judge of that."
Stablecircle walked around the table and stopped next to Grue, leaning down and speaking in a far gentler tone, "Smokey dear, are you sure you have enough mash potato? There's plenty more."
"Ah, no thanks, I've uh…" the boy looked down at the plate absolutely overflowing with food, "got plenty on my plate."
"If you're sure dear," Stablecircle finally set down the plate of mash and I felt my shoulders relax, feeling akin to the police in a standoff where the criminal has finally lowered the gun from the hostages head.
"Oh, it's just so lovely to see you Talkie!" Stablecirlce cried for the nth time that night, hugging Tattletale once more to the girls' chagrin. "You come to visit so rarely!"
I saw Tattletale mouth 'I wonder why'.
Stablecircle stood and took a seat at the table, casting a suspicious glance at Defiant before smiling at the rest of us.
"Well dears? Dig in!"
I looked down at my plate of food, it did indeed look delicious. However, my mask…
Grue and Imp appeared to be having similar thoughts, though Bitch has long removed her mask and was digging into her meal, regularly offering morsels to her three waiting dogs beside her.
Then I felt something pressing into the skin of my cheeks and reached up, only to find that the bottom of my mask now detached, allowing me to expose my mouth. The bottom jaw of Grue's mask came away and Imp was able to expose the entirety of her lower face. I grabbed a fork and began to eat, then immediately froze after the taste finally processed.
This tasted exactly like…
I closed my eyes, forcing myself to swallow before putting my fork down. It tasted just like what I remembered my mother cooking for me last, the day before the accident.
Around the table I could see similar reactions from the other Undersiders. Tattletale grimacing, not in disgust of the flavour, but more likely whatever the memory was as she put her fork down. Regent's hand was shaking as he hid it under the table. Imp had now drawn into herself and Grue was still, looking down at his food and full fork, mouth in a severe frown.
Bitch continued to wolf her meal down.
Defiant was also eating, though it was clearly reluctantly judging by his expression.
Clearly this was another fucked up thing by the simulation, like my mom, or Brian and Aisha's parents getting better. But again, this wasn't convincing me to stay, this was convincing me to leave as soon as possible.
"Now, as lovely as it would be to come visit me out of some sense of fondness, I know teenagers Talkie, what do you need?" Stablecircle asked, a smirk on her lips, seemingly noticing of the discomfort around the table.
Tattletale smiled and leaned forward, leaning into a role her power was informing her how to play.
"Okay, okay, we need-"
The door suddenly slammed open and in marched a boy with green skin, every step he took was punctuated by a wet slap, which looking down I saw was due to the massive green flippers on his feet.
"Frogger, why don't you come sit with us?"
"No thanks," the boy mumbled, burying himself deeper into the hoodie. He opened his mouth wider and his togue flicked out and then extended several meters, licking up a large portion of the leftover mash.
"Frogger! You do not use your tongue to-"
"Whatever, leave me alone!" The boy cried, stomping up the stairs and then slamming a door, a moment later muffled heavy metal music blasting.
Stablecircle sighed and shook her head, "teenagers, I hope he didn't go out alone on these streets-"
The door opened again and someone new entered, I turned to look because I didn't believe what my bugs were felling me about the approaching person.
"Ah, Gregorina the catgirl, where'd you go?"
Stablecircle was addressing what had to be the most attractive woman I had ever seen. Her skin seemed to glow, her hair shiny and her body voluptuous. I considered myself 100% straight, but my eyes were fixated on this woman. Sitting atop her head were two black cat ears, a tail swished behind her, and she wore a choker with a bell on it.
A quick glance around the group showed similar reactions from the various group members, even Tattletale and Bitch seemed fixated on the woman.
Then it hit me.
"Stranger," I managed to force out.
That seemed to knock the group from their senses, all of them immediately looking away.
"Gregorina the catgirl! Cut that out this instant young lady! We have guests!"
The woman scoffed but relented, "whatever, nya."
Looking back, there was no discernible difference, but I was no longer so transfixed.
"You may have a Stranger power, but that doesn't mean you can just go around blasting people with it willy nilly!" Stablecircle admonished.
"Ugh, just let me have a bit of fun, nya," the woman grumbled.
"What the fuck," Regent muttered under his breathe, "this is going too far, even for me."
Stablecircle took a breath and then forced a smile onto her face, "how was Frogger?"
"Fine, just wanted to get outside for a bit. Beat up some Attacktorate thugs…" Gregorina the catgirl paused as she took in the occupants of the table, "… isn't that Dr Efficient? Nya."
"I'm relenting my evil ways," Defiant responded before placing more food in his mouth. I was impressed he seemed to be taking this all in stride.
"Cool, well I'm gonna go to my room and like, talk to my friends. Nya." With that, Gregorina the catgirl went up the stairs in a much calmer manner and disappeared a moment later. Literally, as soon as she disappeared around the corner, she literally disappeared form my bugs senses. That how they had reached the building without me detecting them.
"Gregorina the catgirl is a good girl, but power corrupts as they say," Stablecircle shook her head.
"Parahumans experience a need to use their powers, I imagine that's what's happening with Gregorian the catgirl," Defiant spoke before then frowning, repeating, "Gregorina the catgirl- Gregorina the catgirl!"
Stablecircle chuckled but waved a hand, "part of her Stranger power, you get used to it."
"We need a place to stay, just for tonight," Tattletale suddenly butted in.
Stablecirlce immediately looked toward Tattletale and smiled, "but of course, you're always welcome here Talkie, that's what I said when you first arrived and what I said when you left, it will never change."
"Thanks," Tattletale managed to croak out, looking away from Stablecircle and down to her food.
"Of course, sweetie. As you know when you left, I had to give your room to another resident. But I have plenty of spares!"
"Perfect, I think we're all pretty exhausted from the day and could use the rest," Tattletale said. I nodded in agreement along with the rest of the Undersiders, though Bitch was reluctant to get up from her seat.
"Oh, okay. You've hardly touched your food though!" Stablecircle spoke, concern in her voice.
"I know, we're so sorry, it's just… anxiety, y'know?" Tattletale said, putting on a very good act, "look, its nothing you need to worry about, I'll involve you if I need you okay?"
Stablecircle sighed and leaned back in her chair, "okay Talkie. If you're sure… I know you value your independence, but I am here for you."
"I know," Tattletale smiled back, though it was strained.
"I would also like to stay the night, as you can imagine, my villainous colleagues are not exactly the… best roomates."
Stablecircle turned to look Defiant up and down before shaking her head, "fine, but if you take one toe out of line then nothing will save you from me."
"Of course, thank you ma'am."
"I can get everyone roomed," Tattletale said, tapping her temple with a forced grin.
Stablecircle chuckled and shook her head, "of course dear, reminds me of the lengths I had to go to, to hide what I was getting you for Christmas."
Tattletale forced a laugh as she backed her way up the stairs, the rest of us quickly following, "what can I say? I like to know everything!"
Stablecirlce shook her head, "goodnight dear!"
We rounded a corner and Tattletale immediately released a breath, running a hand over her face as she groaned.
"I really, really don't like this place," she grumbled.
"We should take a shot every time someone says that," Regent commented, "a good drinking game."
I whipped my head around to Tattletale and pointed, "I thought you said the simulation couldn't simulate powers we hadn't encountered before!" I snapped at Tattletale.
"It couldn't!" Tattletale replied, "that's what my power inferred!"
"Turning into a real 'only two or three wards' situation," Regent muttered.
"Stop it, all of you," Defiant ordered, walking down the corridor, "the code is degrading, anything can be possible as the simulation becomes more unstable. Tattletale, your power will be useful in locating the door."
Tattletale shot a look at Defiant, turned back to me, then closed her mouth, grimacing.
"I'm trying my best, Taylor."
With that she turned and walked up next to Defiant, beginning to look around. I rolled my left shoulder, hiding my discomfort at my still throbbing arm. It had only started a few minutes ago but it hurt, I didn't remember knocking it against anything. I decided to solider through it, the mission was more important then mystery arm pain.
"As you saw with… Frogger and Gregorina the catgirl," Defiant frowned at being forced to say the full thing but continued, "the algorithm had to improvise with certain aspects you had less experience with." He turned to look at the group, "that is not something we programmed in, which means from this point on we should assume any of my knowledge is also no longer applicable."
"What about these rooms then?" Imp asked, "if everything is going to shit, will the rooms still be around?"
"They should be, removing them would require such extensive work done to the code that the simulation would cease to function."
"If the simulation does shut off, with us inside, what happens?" Grue asked.
"Do we die?" Imp asked.
"What? No! We're all auto ejected, but waiting for the simulation to crash will take too long."
"Hm," Tattletale hummed, looking down a corridor that split to the right. It was just the same as the other corridors, plain white doors and cream coloured walls, a red carpet on the floor, nothing strange. Except… I didn't want to go down it.
Defiant powered down it however, his movements stiff and a grimace on his face, but he was forcing himself forward and we all reluctantly followed. I felt Bitch bump next to me, staying close as we progressed.
We finally stopped just a metre from the door, which now that I was closer, I saw had a sign on it reading 'Maintenance' with a little stick figure wearing a hard hat next to it.
"Are you sure we have to go through that door?" Imp asked, looking nervously between the door, Tattletale and Defiant.
"I'm afraid so," Tattletale spoke grimly.
"It's because of the effect we're feeling that we know it's the right door," Defiant stated, going to open it.
The lights suddenly flashed, and I blinked, squinting at what I was now seeing. The corridor had now extended, at least a hundred identical doors on either side and at the far end the door that made me feel uneasy.
"Hey, that wasn't as… long? Before?" Imp pointed out, pointing down the corridor.
"Hm, indeed," Defiant hummed before then turning, "well, guess that was the wrong door after all. Come on, let us search elsewhere."
I turned as well, the rest of the Undersiders following, "are you sure?"
"Absolutely, the door must be else whe-"
In a swift sudden movement, he pulled his halberd from his back and swung it through the air, the blade stabbing into the wood of the door that was now back in its original place.
"Someone grab the handle," he instructed and Grue, the closest to the door quickly did so. Defiant withdrew his halberd and the door stayed in place. Grue glanced at the group, receiving a nod from Defiant, then pushed the door open to reveal the room beyond. The room was a featureless white cube, a black cube in the centre with a small laptop sitting on top. On the laptops screen was a blinking icon.
We all walked in, the door closing behind us without any prompting. Suddenly all my bugs cut off, only the bugs I had on me remaining. It was like nothing existed outside this room. It was a jarring experience to go from three blocks to less than fifteen feet.
Bitch's dogs whined anxiously, getting closer to her with raised hackles and she crouched down to comfort them. Defiant focused on the laptop, stepping up to the black cube with the laptop.
He entered a string of binary digits, with nothing else to do I watched the binary he put in.
'01001001 00100000 01101100 01101111 01110110 01100101 00100000 01101101 01111001 00100000 01110111 01101001 01100110 01100101'
I had a vague interest in coding, but that may have been more to do with the fact it was the class I felt safest in and actually did okay in. I didn't know what the binary said, but Defiant's lips quirked up slightly, so I know it did mean something to him at least.
Flashed up on the screen and he entered some more codes.
"You all may want to brace," Defiant said, "I'm about to lift the memory block."
I noted from the corner of my eye as Imp grabbed Grue's hand, then after a second grabbed Regent's as well. Tattletale clenched her jaw and Bitch pulled her dogs close.
Defiant hit the enter key, and they all fell to the floor.
I looked to a still standing Regent, then to Defiant.
The others were unmoving on the floor.
"So… how long is this going to take?" Regent asked.
"Not too long, it-"
"What are you doing?"
We all spun around to face the new arrival. From the head down they wore an androgynous uniform like you'd see on a prison guard, a gleaming badge, a gun holstered and even a baton. The head was just a CCTV camera, a blinking lens at the end with a red blinking light.
"Case 53?" I asked quietly.
"No," Defiant spoke grimly, "that's the Warden program."
"The Warden program?" Regent asked, "what the fuck is the Warden program?"
"It was meant to monitor the inmates when they were being kept in here, make sure they hadn't figured anything out or were trying to escape. It's another hard coded thing, though we had deactivated it."
"What are you doing?" It repeated, its voice scrambled like it was coming out of a radio and not obviously male or female.
"Warden, tango zulu, deactivate." Defiant spoke clearly.
The Warden's head swivelled over to Defiant, then it spoke again, "command not recognised, hostiles attempting to retrieve prisoner zero zero one- Designation, Khepri, aka, Taylor Hebert. You have one minute to surrender."
"Warden, tango zulu, deactivate!" Defiant spoke again, his other hand lowering back to the laptop and beginning to type again.
"Command not recognised, hostiles attempting to access admin code." The figure floated into the air, its body beginning to twist and change, "surrender immediately."
"Dammit, this is going to be rough!" Defiant called out as he hit enter on the console.