“You can't be serious?” Erich said, eying the ignition switch in his hand dubiously.
His ‘customer’ for the morning was a failed super villain. Or would-be supervillain, if the half-built exo-suit now cluttering up Erich’s shop was any indicator. Could he still be considered a villain if he had never got around to committing any crimes?
At least, not any serious ones, he thought as he eyed the track marks running up and down the addict’s arms.
“It's proof! Proof I'm good for it. I'm not about to leave my baby behind am I?”
Erich supposed that even if the cobbled together power armor hadn’t given away his powerset, the way the man’s eyes flitted spasmodically between various bits of tech around the garage would have. Artificers fresh off the Event tended to have tics like that. Likely a byproduct of all that crazy new technology in their head searching for an outlet.
“Sir,” Erich said, running a tired hand through his hair. “For the last time, this isn’t a pawnshop, it’s a repair shop. I fix things. I build things. I sell things. Sometimes I even design things. What I don’t do is take on suits of half-finished power armor as collateral for loans.”
Especially not suits as poorly designed as the specimen in front of him.
“Can’t you see the opportunity here?” The would-be villain whined, “As soon as I get the money for more parts, I’ll need somewhere to finish off my suit. This could be that place. Your shop could be the birthplace of the ‘Crusher’”
Ah, now he knew why the addict had targeted his store rather than a pawnshop. He probably couldn’t afford to store the unfinished suit wherever he’d previously been keeping it.
“This store could be the base of operations for my new faction!”
Headache already forming, Erich was about to take deep breath before thinking better of it. The guy opposite him looked like he hadn’t seen a shower in days, if not weeks.
“I fail to see how having my shop tied to the origins of a meta-human criminal would improve my business. Now, I’m sorry, but unless you have some proper business for me, I am afraid I must ask you and your suit to leave. You’re getting in the way of real customers.”
Even as he said it, he knew it was a lie. His shop wasn’t empty because it had a drug addled supervillain in it. It was empty because it was always empty. The drug dealer in the alley next to his store saw more business than the store itself.
To make matters worse, it was nearly the end of the month and Hard-Light's goons would be expecting their cut. He needed to make some proper cash, or failing that, find something… to tide the man over…
“Hey,” He said, cutting off whatever the addict had been saying, “I think I will take you up on that deal.”
“Really?” The man looked overjoyed, completely missing the way that Erich’s eyes were roaming over the machine. Or rather, the two B-Class power cells sitting in the suit’s chest compartment. Even if he wouldn’t get anything for the suit, the raw components that made it up would be worth something.
“Sure.” Erich nodded, a smile stealing over his face, “how could I pass up the opportunity to be a part of the birth of the Crasher.”
“The Crusher.” Erich corrected seamlessly. “I just want to make one slight alteration to the deal.”
For the first time in their conversation, something akin to wariness peeped through the drug induced haze the man was under. “What?”
“A change in date.” The young store keeper suggested, “Rather than have the debt default on the second week of the coming month, I would prefer to have it occur - which we both know it won’t -two days before the end of this month.”
That wouldn’t exactly give him any time to strip and sell the hunk of junk for parts, but it would give him something to show Hard-Light’s goons that he was good for the money.
Most of it at least.
And who knew, the crazy junky might even manage to drum up the cash in time. He wasn’t counting on it, but he supposed stranger things had happened.
“That’s not a lot of time,” The junky murmured, unconsciously scratching at his scabbed elbow with a filthy fingernail as he eyed the exo-suit to his right. “I don’t know…”
“It’s a sure bet though, right? You have a tip.” Erich pointed out, in a sudden role reversal.
Fortunately for him, it seemed that whatever substance the meta-human was on, it wasn’t conducive toward long term planning or risk assessment, because the reminder of his ‘sure fire tip’ had the man grinning like a loon.
“Yeah.” He grinned. “I do have a tip, don’t I?”
“That you do.” Erich nodded insincerely as he started to count out cash from the register.
Naturally, the debt defaulted. The junkie’s ‘hot tip’ turned out be so much hot air.
The would-be supervillain showed up at his store not even a day later. The guy whined, cajoled and begged, but Erich was unyielding. The ‘contract’ had been clear. Ultimately the junky left in defeat, leaving Erich with half a ton of Artificer designed power armor.
Not that he cared about its current configuration. In fact, he considered it something of an eye-sore.
No, it was the materials that made up the suit that held his interest. He could flip those power-cells for a few grand each, maybe more if he was smart about it. It would take a little time, but he would have his money in the end.
So, he figured he could be forgiven for feeling cautiously optimistic when Hard-Light’s goons stepped into his store.
That feeling promptly vanished when he saw who was leading them.
In another organization it might have been considered beneath the boss’s daughter to go around shaking down small business for protection money, but given the relatively small size of Hard-Light’s gang, it was pretty much an inevitability that even his daughter sometimes had to partake of the ‘menial’ tasks.
“Sarah, you look as beautiful as ever.”
“Why thank you, Erich” The woman in question grinned in a manner that exposed far too many teeth. “You always know how to brighten a girl’s day.
“Why, I’m simply stating the obvious my dear.” He wasn’t even lying. The blonde woman was just as gorgeous as all meta-human’s tended to be.
Of course, in this case she was beautiful in the same way that particularly venomous plants could be. Eye catching, colorful, but virulently deadly to anyone that got too close.
An example of which could be seen in the way that electricity started to visibly arc along her fingertips as she sighed. “Of course, the reason you’re always so free with a compliment is because you never have Daddy’s cut ready.”
Erich struggled not to wince as the acrid stink of ozone filtered through the air.
“Which is a shame.” She said, “I actually enjoy visiting you, Erich. It’s nice to deal with a man with a little class. Doubly so when he’s a cutie like you.” She winked.
“I have three thousand.” Erich grinned weakly, sweat beading on his brow as the crackle of the woman’s power grew in intensity.
“Only three thousand.” She pouted, “That’s not nearly good enough, Erich. The rules say five thousand, and I can’t give you a pass this month. Sorry lover, but Daddy’s starting to wonder if I’m going soft.”
She didn’t even blink as behind her, one of her goon’s shoved over a display, sending electrical components clattering to the floor as it came down with a crash.
“I have something else though!” Erich shouted, before the carnage could begin in earnest. For just a moment he feared the goons would trash the place anyway, but Sarah held up a hand for them to stop just as one was about to tip over another display.
“Oh?” The woman tilted her head.
“It’s in the back.” He said hurriedly, “I’ll show you.”
“Stay here boys” The woman called, “I’m going to see what dearest Erich has to show me. And it better be good.” She added for Erich’s benefit.
“It is.” He nodded as he strode toward the garage, keeping the fear from his voice through sheer willpower. “You won’t be disappointed.”
The pair stepped into the garage, and Erich reached over to flip the light switch. He nearly stumbled though as the mob boss’s daughter hugged him from behind.
“Alright Erich, you’ve got me all alone.” She whispered into his ear. “I’m guessing you want to come to some alternative form of arrangement?”
“No!? I…” He started to say, flushing as the woman’s hands roamed over places he most assuredly did not consent to. In the end, he was reduced to helplessly pointing in the direction of what he brought her in here to show her.
“Oh?” She murmured, releasing him as she saw the half-baked suit. “I reckon the old man would give you about two hundred thousand for that. Finished, of course. He probably wouldn’t give you a dime for it as it is now.”
Erich froze partway through rezipping his fly. He almost couldn’t believe his ears.
She… she wanted it? Whole? But it was awful? The power couplings were spaced too far apart. The synth-muscle was too loose. Hell, even the structure itself was configured sub-optimally. He hadn’t even considered selling the thing because… well… it was illegal, he supposed - but more importantly, who would want it!?
“I need more parts.” He said, mouth moving before his brain could catch up.
“Figured as much. Most Artificers get about halfway through a set of power-armor before realizing just how expensive they are to make.” Sarah said, pulling out her omni-phone to flash a few pictures of the suit. “Whatever you need will come out of the final price. And while Daddy won’t gouge you for the parts, he definitely won’t be giving you any discounts either.”
“That’s fine.” He said, still a little stunned by the sudden change in his fortune. Had it really been that easy?
She turned back to him, “So, how long will it take you to finish it?”
For something as crude as this? “A few weeks. Maybe less if you can get the parts to me quickly.”
She nodded. “What kind of performance are you expecting when it’s finished?”
“Class-Four Bruiser.” He murmured, “As well as a Class-Two Shooter if I fit it out with some decent guns. Might even get it as high as Three if I can get some force projectors instead.”
Puny numbers as far as he was concerned, but going by the way Sarah’s eyes widened, she was impressed, even if she was quick to downplay it.
Were the standards of the local gangs truly so low?
More importantly, had he really been that blind? He’d been scraping by fixing cars, toasters and air conditioners for the last year, when he could have been making real money working on cheap knock-offs of Meta-Tech weapons and armor.
“That shouldn’t be a problem.” Sarah said. “Not if you can deliver on your promises.”
He resisted the urge to huff. He could deliver on a promise like that in his sleep.
“But before we get to that though, I want you to look at something else for me.”
Even with the thought of a possible payday in his near future, he still felt wariness well up in him as the woman reached behind her back.
He sincerely hoped she wasn’t about to continue what she had started when they walked in here. Not that he didn’t find her attractive. She was. Very much so. He just made it a habit not to get involved with women who could fry him alive with a flick of their wrist. A rule that went double for women who were also psychotic criminals with a long history of violence.
Which was why he felt relief wash over him – along with some muted disappointment he didn’t read too far into – as the woman set down a large laser pistol on his worktable.
“Think you can do anything with this? I’m getting tired of having to get the barrels replaced after they melt.”
He didn’t bother to hide his scowl as he looked the device over. It was classic Artificer work. Brilliant, bold, and criminally inefficient. The focusing lens was too small, the power-source too big, and the wiring was a complete mess.
“Where’d you get it from?” He asked, mentally resisting the urge to fling the insult to engineering into the nearest trash can.
“Daddy made it.”
Well it was a good thing he hadn’t immediately acted on his desire then. “I can see a few places I might be able to make some improvements. At the very least you won’t have to worry about the barrel melting anymore.”
“Great.” She beamed, “Well, you can consider that your test run.”
“Test run?” He said, looking up from the gun.
“You didn’t think we were just going to start handing you those parts willy-nilly did you?” She asked as if he were a particularly slow student.
Yes. That was exactly what he thought would happen. Which must have shown on his face, because Sarah became exaggeratedly smug.
“Oh honey, that’s adorably naïve.” She grinned, “Unfortunately for you, Daddy didn’t get to where he is today by handing out loans to every Artificer with a big idea that came across his path.”
“Right.” He ground out, fighting down indignation.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be sending someone I trust tomorrow to pick up your first project. If she likes what she sees, then we can start talking about getting that suit of yours up and running.”
“I’ll be looking forward to it.”
And he was.
He was going to show this low-level rent-a-goon just who she was dealing with.
Erich woke with a start. Disorientated, he looked around for a few seconds before realizing where he was.
“Fell asleep at my desk, huh?” He murmured, a small smile stealing over his features, “It’s been a while since I’ve done that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t get back into the habit. Does terrible things to your posture.” A voice to his left called.
Startled, he nearly tripped as he jumped up from his seat.
A woman was standing in his workshop. More to the point, she was holding the laser pistol he had spent almost all of last night working on.
“Who the hell are you? How did you get in?” He demanded, grabbing the first thing that came to hand.
The black woman raised an eyebrow at the screwdriver being waved threateningly in her direction, her eyes moving between it and the primed pistol in her hand.
“Really?” She asked.
Erich did not relent. “Who and how?”
“You know I have a gun, right?”
“An unfinished gun.” Erich responded, “I was still resetting the focusing lens when I fell asleep. If you try and fire it now you’ll be lucky if all you lose is a hand.”
The woman looked at the gun in her grip, before shrugging and carelessly aiming at the wall.
“I told you the-” Erich jumped as she pulled the trigger and a strobing beam of red light lanced through the air.
“Impressive increase in power.” The woman said, admiring the bubbling superheated stone now oozing out of the newly formed hole in Erich’s wall. “Intuitive new design too. It only took me a few minutes to finish installing the lens.”
Erich had already dropped the screwdriver and was in the process of getting ready to run when a belated thought hit him.
“Sarah sent you didn’t she?” He sighed as he slumped back into his seat, trying to ignore the acrid stink coming from the newly formed hole in his wall.
“Hard-Light sent me.” The woman corrected, as she put the gun down. “Important distinction. And, if you’re curious, I got in because you left the front door unlocked.”
Of course he did. Of all the stupid oversights he could have made.
If he was brutally honest, he was lucky it had been Hard-Light’s underling that had strode into his store, and not some other lowlife looking to make a quick buck. Or worse.
“Yep,” the woman said, as if reading his mind – which wasn’t impossible given who she worked for. “If you’re going to start working for Hard-Light, you need to start being smarter about your security.”
“You like the gun then?” He asked, hoping to turn the conversation away from his embarrassing mistake. “Miss?”
“Call me, Gravity.” The woman said in lieu of a real name.
“Gravity then.” Erich said, wondering whether that was a Cape name or just a nickname. Given just how far Cape culture had infected mainstream consciousness it really could be either.
“And yes, I like the gun.” The woman continued, “I’m just curious as to how much your little alterations have driven up the cost in components.”
Erich shook his head. “Everything I put into that gun you could find at the local hardware store for about twenty bucks.” Which hadn’t been an intentional design decision on his part, but rather an inevitable result of his own severely lacking funds.
Gravity’s eyebrows rose. “Impressive. Hard-Light will be happy.”
“Happy enough to pay me to finish up that.” Erich gestured at the exo-suit.
“He is. The boss liked the pics Sarah sent him. He’s already getting the parts you listed together. They should be here by tomorrow at the latest.”
Erich was stunned. “But you only just looked at the pistol?”
The woman shrugged, “I don’t think you realize how much the boss wants to get his hands on that suit. This little test was more of a formality than anything else.”
Great. So he’d basically spent all night working on a laser for no real benefit.
“But what if I hadn’t been able to deliver?” He couldn’t help but ask.
“Then I’ve got another far more conventional pistol in my bag.”
He deliberately tried to ignore the sudden dryness of his throat. “Right, so about payment?”
The woman gestured to a briefcase sitting by her legs. “Fifty thousand dollars in cash. You get what remains of the next fifty after expenses, when you finish the suit.”
The sight of the briefcase full of money did more than make him forget about the danger, it left him feeling positively giddy.
“Right, well Ms. Gravity, I’ll be waiting on that shipment of parts with bated breath.” He grinned, “I’ll also need to know how often you’ll be needing updates on the suit’s progress, and what number I should call to get in contact.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that. You won’t need to call anyone because I’ll be sticking around until you’re finished.”
Erich froze in his tracks, “but that could take weeks?”
“Yes,” Gravity nodded. “During which time I will be watching over Hard-Light’s investment. Day and night. But I wouldn’t worry about it. I’ll grab the couch and you’ll barely even notice I’m here."