As usual, he managed to deliver such heartwarming words with casual, deadpan routine. And the saddest thing was, I believed him.
I decided to focus on something else. “Cartastrophy,” I said, looking at my old friend in his chromed costume. “Did your niece get through it?” I’d been so worried about Elouise, I hadn’t even considered that his niece had been in that fight – and that she might’ve been among the casualties.
Fortunately, he just shrugged – couldn’t be that bad. “Girl got knocked around a bit, but she’s nothing if not tough.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” I crossed my arms, looking at the passing scenery – there weren’t that many entrances to the Undercity this close to the lake.
Nevertheless, we reached one soon. It looked like an abandoned storefront – one of those old retail stores that you expected to see a kindly old lady in, asking what she could get you. It looked like it had been cleared out a long, long time ago, the window glass long gone and replaced by boards, but there was a subtle Undercity tag over the door.
There were a few people out and about at this time, even here – mostly teenagers – but no one noticed Warren’s car, or the Dark in the backseat.
Warren turned to look half at me and half at him. “So, what’s our next step?” he asked, and I knew him well enough to be able to tell that he was pissed.
I looked at Dad – he’d want to lead this one, and I’d asked him to help, anyway.
“Don’t mind me,” he said to my surprise, as unreadable as ever when weearing his wraith.. “I’ll follow your lead on this.”
Huh. Fancy that. I hesitated for a moment, before I crossed my arms and thought it through. “What resources can we tap?” I asked him. “Is it just you and me-“
“And me,” Warren threw in. “I’m coming along, as well!”
We both looked at him, and I, at least, was surprised.
“Are you sure? Can’t really bring a car along down there, and he’s way out of your weight class, anyway,” I cautioned him, feeling my face twist into a concerned frown.
“I don’t give a shit,” he replied angrily, leaning in closer to me. “They hurt my niece. I pretty much raised that girl. What would you do?”
I just nodded, but I had to add, “How do you intend to help? You’ve never been much of a frontline fighter, and…”
He leapt out of the driver’s seat. “I’m a gadgeteer, Aap,” he said as he walked around the car, to its trunk. Me and dad got out and followed, with him staying quiet on this. “I may be bottom-rung, but I’ve had my powers for twenty years. I’ve had money, I’ve had a workplace, I’ve had time.”
The trunk opened as he approached, and a huge assembly folded out of it, as he himself turned his back to it, spreading his arms.
Two mechanical clamps connected to his shoulders, then one each to each wrist and another to the back of his waist. I watched as a mass of… stuff… folded out of the trunk and wrapped around him, lifting him off the ground. Gears shifted, connectors snapped into each other, pistons worked and a few moments later, there was an eleven-foot-tall metal giant standing where the barely five-foot-tall gadgeteer had been.
The armor was big and very bulky around the shoulders, getting more narrow towards the ‘crotch’. Its main chassis was big enough to contain all of Warren’s five feet and there was another foot added by its head. The legs looked comparatively short, ending in claw-like feet with big wheels on the sides that weren’t touching the ground. Its arms were disproportionally long and got bulkier from the elbows onward, the left one ending in what was unmistakably a huge gun – a cannon, really – and the right one tipped by a metal claw that was reinforced by honest-to-god industrial pistons. A sharp claw that looked better suited to cutting or crushing than holding things. Judging by the size of the ‘forearm’, there were probably more gadgets hidden in there. The head itself was basically a chrome dome with a single red eye… it was basically a simplified Zaku head, from that anime he never, ever would stop gushing about. The whole thing was mostly painted a dull black, with chrome details and a flame design on the cannon.
“Dude, when the hell did you start making power armor?” I asked, flabbergasted. Dad was already looking the thing over, his inner tech geek drawn to the huge claw and the assembly beyond it.
The eye turned to look at me. Warren’s voice came, barely distorted, out of the headpiece. “I’ve been trying to upgrade from cars to power armor for years now. Since you left, actually. Never got really far at it, I mean, I just couldn’t get a good chassis and joint system going, but I’ve been fiddling with the weaponry and overall design for almost fifteen years. Then I got lucky – my nephew specialises in heavy-duty power armor. The joints, chassis and the leg assembly are mostly his work.”
“You’ve been stealing your nephew’s designs?” I asked, surprised.
“What? No!” he said, sounding insulted. “He knows. I mean, the statute of limitations ran out on my crimes a long, long time ago. Even my work on the Matriarch’s cars is not illegal, and he doesn’t know about that, anyway.” He made the huge machine shrug, which looked… very expressive, thanks to its articulate, piston-supported shoulders. “He’s new to the game. Having free access to my work has given him one hell of a boost. And in exchange, he helped me with this baby, though I had to promise not to commit any crimes with it.”
“Vigilante justice is a crime,” my father threw in as he inspected th cannon. “Napalm cannon? Nasty. I like it.”
“This asshole hurt his sister. I’m sure he’d understand,” Warren replied. “And the cannon fires a semi-solid napalm-like compound. Ignites upon contact with the air, and it burns even underwater. I have a spray to put it out, though.”
“Oh, I like that! But this,” he pointed at a few bits that looked… pretty much like the rest of the cannon to me. “It’s modular – what else can it do?”
“I have a rocket launcher, containment foam, acid spray and a diamond-tipped chainsaw in this one, for when I’m out of ammo,” Warren replied, happy to present and explain his work. I opened my mouth to interrupt the geekfest, but he just went on. “And I have another chainsaw here, in my right arm, and the claw, and a drill. And some more stuff in the shoulders and chest, and some light weaponry and heat decoys in the legs. Also…”
“Oi! Enough!” I shouted, interrupting him before he could get really going. Both of them turned to me. “We’re on a schedule here, guys! Leave the nerdgasms for later!”
Father sighed, and turned to Warren. “He’s right. Still, we ought to talk later on. I’d be willing to pay top dollar for this work, or arrange a trade.”
“I can’t share anything my nephew made, not with the Syndicate or other criminals, SIr,” Warren said. “I promised him.”
“Understandable. But I’m honestly more interested in these modular weapon mounts, and your napalm cannon. I know a lady who’d pay good money for the designs, and I’m sure she’d be willing to share some of hers, too.”
“Sounds good to me, Sir. But lets focus on the job, now, before Aap’s head explodes.”
“Thanks for your consideration,” I said between clenched teeth. “So, back to my original question. What kind of resources are you willing to commit?” I asked my father.
“Any necessary. I’d obviously prefer to keep things small and contained, of course – if only to obscure the connection between me, you and your children – but I am willing to call in anyone whom you feel necessary, up to and including Wyrm and the Five.”
I blinked. Wow.
“Who’s Wyrm?” Warren asked, his ‘eye’ moving back and forth between the two of us.
After a moment, I turned to look up at him (any other time, I’d be laughing about the Irony of me having to look up at Warren). “Someone I wouldn’t like to set loose on anyone less despicable than the Ascendant.” I looked at my father again. “If we want to keep your involvement down, then you shouldn’t appear as yourself. Nor should the Five meddle. As for Wyrm… a cyber attack would be useful, I can’t imagine someone like the Ascendant not using a network of some kind, but I’d rather she didn’t show up in person.”
He nodded. “I think I have something in mind,” he said, and the wraith around him began to move. Warping, it changed him. Gray armor plates emerged as his form became shorter, closer to a normal person’s height, but bulkier, like someone who worked out.
Warren and I watched as he changed into a well-muscled man in a jetblack bodysuit, with gray armor plates on his chest, shoulders and arms, as well as gray greaves and boots. He was wearing a bulky gray helmet with a thick, curved horn emerging from the forehead, and intelligent brown eyes looked out from the only openings in his costume – though even they were covered by a clear plastic of some kind.
“Holy shit, the Rhino?” Warren asked. “The Rhino is actually the Dark?!”
Typical, I thought. “Have you been moonlighting as random supervillains again?” I asked, frowning again.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a good workout when most people shit their pants at the mere mention of your name,” he said. His voice was different, nothing liked the polished perfection he used when he was ‘normal’, and not the Dark’s usual chorus. A gruff, strong voice, but not as brutish as you’d expect from a person of his appearance.
He seemed to follow my train of thought, because he immediately added, “Playing a role too perfectly is just another way of betraying that it’s a role. Controlled flaws in the performance help sell it.”
I could still remember the lesson, back then, and I had to blink for a moment. It was, perhaps, not the best thing he could have done to put me at ease – he had to know that his lessons were still a sore point for me – but it helped to know that he wasn’t acting too hard.
Unless it was his lesson at work here, him inserting deliberate flaws in his performance to sell it… but then again, I’d long since given up any hope of being able to trust him unconditionally. Best not to dwell on it.
“Why would this Rhino help me in fighting the Ascendant?” I asked, instead of responding to his comment.
“The Rhino is a pure mercenary. He fights for anyone who can pay him, hero, villain, government, it doesn’t matter,” he replied smoothly – a tad too smoothly, he wasn’t quite into the performance yet. “He only takes jobs that promise combat, preferably combat against capes or cowls, and he only kills against a big raise in pay. He never breaks a contract once he’s been paid, and he’s notorious enough to demand being paid in advance.”
“So I hired the Rhino and he’s supporting me for purely mercenary reasons,” I asked, while I watched a group of teenagers pass us by, their eyes turning glassy. “How much did I pay him?”
“A lot, but you don’t have to quote a rate. The Rhino does not discuss his contracts with people not directly involved with them.”
I nodded. Nice and simple roleplay, then. “What can the Rhino do?” I should now what I had to work with, so I didn’t depend on him doing anything out of character.
“He seems to be a straight brute at first glance,” he replied. “Not as tough as you, but tough. Almost as strong as you, and he regenerates. A quirk of his power allows him to regenerate his clothing, as well. He also has a limited ability to teleport through non-living solid objects – for example, when he’s charging a foe and he runs into a wall, he does not break it, but rather runs into it and out of another surface of sufficient size and made of the same material, with a range of about three hundred feet. The faster he is upon entry, the farther he can teleport.”
Interesting. “I can see how that would catch people off-guard,” I admitted. And it’ll be a killer in the Undercity. “Alright, do I need to know anything else?”
“Not really. I’ll just beat up whoever you tell me to,” my father replied before laughing quietly. “It’ll be a novel experience, if nothing else.”