Masks 30.2 - Costs of Living [Cutscene]

Many tech-based superheroes start out wealthy, with a successful business. But how did they get there? There’s no earth-shaking plotting here, just two people planning their future.

Leo is up against a hard mathematical puzzle. Aria is there with him, leaning back against him and holding up her phone. A series of items and numbers line up on the glowing screen. The Menagerie pizza party is going on in the background, but the two let it pass them by.

$850 a month for rent. $300 for food. $450 for health care and insurance. $400 for utilities and household supplies. But how…?

“I’m on a fixed income,” Leo murmurs. “And does this include Amazon Mom and Costco?”

“It does.” Aria thumbs one of the entries, expanding the itemized list for inspection.

“That’s not enough for you to eat too, unless it’s mac and cheese and ramen.”

“I’ll make do.” The girl doesn’t sound happy about it, though.

Leo hums. He feels a tightness, squeezing his mind shut. “I mean, yeah, we could get jobs, but then we don’t have time for the Menagerie. I worry about lacrosse already - what if something happens during practice?”

“Jason’s going to need a tech consultant. The Quill Foundation can pay you.” They’ve had this discussion before, but something has changed recently. Aria’s voice is confident and level.

Leo feels his reserve give way. “How much is he gonna pay?”

“Why not ask him?”

Leo grunts. “Okay, okay, I’ll talk to him. You win.” He smiles and ruffles her hair. “Now, smart girl, figure out Otto. I’m not putting him in a garage. Does your $850 handle that?”

Aria’s face falls. “No… no, it doesn’t,” she admits, a little ashamed. “That’s just the average for a one-bedroom…”

“Right. We’d need something more like a warehouse, a big open area where Otto can navigate, an Otto-sized living room, Otto-sized everything. That’s not a typical rental, that’s us doing some kinda custom room partitions. He’s a roommate, I’m not putting him in a garage if I can help it.”

Aria thinks about it. “I know. You’re absolutely right. We talked about… when you were out, after that big fight, the three of us talked about Site 5. That’s big enough.”

Leo’s eyes widen. “Holy shit. Are you serious?”

The girl nods. “It’s… listen, Leo, it’s just one possibility. Maybe we’ll come up with another team base, maybe we can use that as a residence too. Otto will be comfortable, if it’s big enough.”

Something clicks with Leo. "A one-bedroom apartment rental is what you priced out. Are you… " He turns her head to face him, and looks her in the eye. “Are you talking about moving in with me?”

Aria gives him her best incredulous look. “What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?”

Leo is taken aback. “I… well, we never really had anything fancy, you know? Just a one-room or studio type thing, like the Gale guest room, the shop… I kind of always assumed you’d want your own place, some privacy…”

The girl rubs his nose with her own. “You’re sweet. And you’re so sweet, Leo, that you push us away even when we want you to pull us in.” She is rewarded by his arms sliding around her and tightening, but goes on regardless. “If there’s space available, I wouldn’t mind a room of my own, to store my own stuff at least, but if there’s not, I’m just as comfortable sharing.”

Leo thinks more. “Do we have to pay property taxes on a base?”

“Probably.” Aria starts doing a search on her phone from the comfort of her captor’s arms. “Is a super-team a tax deductible organization?”

“I dunno. It feels like all we’re doing is charity work. Why not?” Leo shrugs. “Maybe Jason’s business managers would know.”

“Fair enough. Okay. The base probably costs a significant amount more than a one-bedroom rental, but let’s assume we have some kind of Foundation funding.”

“Well… maybe.” Leo finds new assumptions coming to his mind. “I’m wary of any kind of sponsorship deals. What if we find out that we’re taking corporate money? What if Rook is found to be paying us? I don’t want even the appearance of influence. And is it a bad thing if we’re seen as the Quill Foundation team?”

“That’s something you’ll have to ask Jason,” Aria admits. “I don’t think we have enough capital to bootstrap any kind of business where you sell your carbon tech–”

“–and I’m still wary of doing that,” Leo adds.

“And you’re still wary of doing that,” the girl agrees. “And I’m still researching markets where it would be useful without being dangerous. Bridges, dams, infrastructure, that sort of thing. Maybe the Foundation could give you a loan, if you come up with something. Oh. Oh! Ask for a percentage on any Quill tech that you help decipher and monetize. If it sells well, you’ll have recurring payments, not just a one-time consulting fee.”

“There’s a point here where I’m imposing on Jason,” Leo comments darkly. “I have no desire to push that line.”

“You have a fair point.” Aria snuggles close. “You’re too nice a guy to push that, and I know that, and you know that. Unfortunately, that’s probably why we’re still poor. You’re not one of these cut-throat teen geniuses who makes a million by age 13.”

“Yeah… Yeah.” This thought hits Leo harder than Aria expected, and she rests her head on his shoulder, pulling him back.

“I like you better,” she whispers. “You don’t have to have a lot of money. But - it wouldn’t hurt, right? And that’s my job, helping you navigate the business world without compromising yourself.”

Leo warms up again, and smiles. “I couldn’t do anything without you.”

“Well,” the robot girl of his literal dreams points out, “I am your better half.”

author: Bill G.

Summer surreptitiously snaps a photo of Leo and Aria, deep in conversation about something on Aria’s phone. She forwards it to Otto, and starts a text chat.

“Ever feel like a third wheel?”

The response is immediate. “I got four wheels, thank you. Photo shows some empty space on that couch tho.”

Summer glowers. “You too huh?” First Aria, trying to get her to make a move, now Otto. Why can’t they listen to what I feel?

Otto’s next text follows quickly. “I do feel shut out sometimes. Other times I feel like Leo’s life support & best friend. Rollercoaster of Love, baby.”

The girl looks down at her fingers, deftly sliding across a screen, selecting characters. One machine, using another machine to talk to a third machine… “Hey, do you remember The Matrix? When Neo is getting kung fu programs loaded?”

“Oh yeah. I love teasing Leo about doin that with Math programs & stuff for me.”

The girl lets out a soft sigh. Be serious, big guy. “Morpheus asks their computer guy how he’s doing. Guy says Neo’s a machine. But humans & AIs are at war. Why is being a machine a compliment they’d use?”

“Can’t say I ever asked myself that. But the Zion humans all depended on tech to keep selves alive, hack into Matrix, do all that stuff. Wasn’t machinery they hated, but AIs trying to murder/assimilate them.”

Okay, too serious about the wrong subject. “Fair enough. Speaking of keeping humanity alive, coffee job is actually good. Sometimes worry about being outed tho. Or that they know already & are humoring me. Worry they will joke about me being ‘the coffee-maker’ & stuff.”

Summer can hear Otto’s voice even through the mixture of text and emojis. “Least you aren’t political like Aria. They’d put her on phone banks & make jokes about robo-calling.” It’s the same lament, flipped on its head, but there’s so little malice in Otto’s soul that Summer can’t help but smile.

“Or telemarketing.”

“I’d buy whatever you were selling, lady. You’re 150% adorable.”

Summer blushes a bit. Whatever her own conflicts about her nature, it’s at least true that the people in her life have been sweet to her. Jason, Leo, Otto, the Menagerie… She and Charlotte had some good talks in particular, back in the Sepiaverse, when she was even less substantial.

“Make it 200%. I’m a tough salesperson.”

“Yes ma’am!” Otto throws in a few more smiley faces than usual, clearly playing around with the emoji supply on his virtual phone.

Selling… what?

Everyone’s been sweet… except Alycia Chin - or Alice Chan, as Summer will have to call her at school. She’s still wary, though there were a few hints that make Summer wonder. Alycia seems to look at her strangely, with a curious interest that’s hard to read. If I can win her over…

She sends a final text to Otto: “You’re the best, big guy. I do feel better now, thank you. Got something important to do, brb.”

The response is a thumbs-up.

Jason is my friend. Jason thinks the world of Alycia. I should get to know her. I’ll make her acknowledge me, like Jason did. If she’s anything like Jason, she needs a friend anyway. Someone to talk to, go out and be normal with. Will she resent that Jason expressed some feelings for me? Maybe it’ll just never come up. She probably has no idea, no need to bring it up. In any event, I need to reach out to her. But how…?

With a smile, Summer checks her pockets for spare Blintzkrieg coupons, and starts hunting around for a marker.

author: Bill G.

author: *** Dave H.

[If this ends up with Summer and Alycia being room mates, I will laugh SO hard.]

author: *** Dave H.

Sounds like a fun future goal.

author: Bill G.

She’s a perky android looking to establish her own identity in the world! She’s a cranky former terrorist supervillain seeking redemption! Together, they fight crime! (And roll their eyes about Jason Quill.)

author: *** Dave H.

[Was that the end of it, or have you not had a chance to circle back, or were you waiting for Alycia to say/do something? Or am I just being impatient to find out what Summer was going to do with Blintzkrieg coupons and a marker?]

[Permanent markers are in a drawer in the kitchen. In a house full of scientists who keep strange hours and go on long trips, it’s important to label leftovers properly, or note when something is _not_ a leftover: DO NOT EAT]

[Okay, I admit that the idea of Summer and Alycia being room mates is tremendously appealing. There’s just a long, very rocky, road to get there.]

author: *** Dave H.

Doyce had said this in your thread: “We will have to jump back in time a little bit from this scene to manage some stuff that I want to have happen during the Gathering at the quill Foundation. Some of that may inform things you want to right here after so you might want to pause”. So I wanted to leave it at that point. Summer’s plan is either deliver coupons to Alycia, or (perhaps more successfully) to Parker, and tell her “oh yeah, I’m Alycia’s friend, please give these to her”.

author: Bill G.

[Perfectly understandable. :slight_smile: ]

author: *** Dave H.