“You made me sleep on the couch? In my own home?” Erich asked from his position on said piece of furniture.
Gravity, who had been slumped over the breakfast counter woke with a snort, and her bleary eyes instantly focused on him.
Then she laughed. Or tried to.
“I drag your bruised and battered body from that cellar, and that’s the first thing you say to me?” She chuckled, “Just typical.”
Erich studiously pretended not to notice the way she wiped a tear from her eye, or the sheer relief in her features.
He did direct a meaningful look at her helmet on the floor next to her. Not even upright, it looked like she’d torn it from her head and simply dropped it. He might have been offended on its behalf were it not for a far more pertinent detail taking up his attention.
Three gouges had torn through the helmet, and by all appearances had missed Gravity’s head only by the slimmest of margins.
“We lost then?” He asked.
Gravity shook her head, genuine mirth replaced with a far more cynical variety.
“No.” She said, “We won. We killed the freaks they sent after us and the rest of the Brotherhood’s goons retreated.”
Erich had no idea what she meant by freaks, but he could guess they were some kind of meta.
Likely the ones who did in her helmet.
“Then why are we here?” He asked, before adding, “And why am I on the couch?”
He had been living in the mansion after Hard-Light’s disappearance for a reason, and it certainly wasn’t the company.
His home was not well defended.
“We might not have lost, but we didn’t win either.” Gravity said ruefully. “The crew’s gone.”
“Gone?” Erich repeated.
Gravity nodded, “Gone. Disappeared. Fled. Those that were still alive at least. Hard-Light’s little faction is no more.”
Erich was incredulous, “Sarah didn’t stop them?”
Gravity snorted again, but there was no real humour in it. In fact, he could almost her a slight break in her voice.
“Who do you think’s using the bed?”
That was what finally did it. The dam broke and tears started to slide down Gravity’s face as her body was wracked with quiet sobs.
Erich had no idea what to do.
Comforting people was not his strong suit. People in general were not his strong suit.
Clambering painfully off the sofa, and tallying the litany of aches and pains that ran through his body as he did, he walked over to his… friend.
Slowly, ever so slowly, he patted her on the shoulder. Not unlike a man gingerly petting a particularly strange and dangerous beast.
Fortunately, it seemed to work, after a few minutes of excruciating awkwardness, Gravity stopped crying long enough to aim a tired grin at him.
“Smooth.” She croaked.
He shrugged uncomfortably as he stiffly retracted his hand.
It worked didn’t it? He felt like saying. Although, god knew, he hadn’t expected it to.
“Come on.” Gravity grunted, sniffing and wiping tears from her face as she stood up. “You’re up, so with any luck sleeping beauty will be too.”
Erich steadfastly made no indication that he heard the way her voice hitched toward the end of that sentence.
Erich nodded, glad that the… emotions, were over. “How long have I been ‘out’?”
“Two days.” Gravity said, not even looking at him as they strode to ‘his’ room.
Erich nodded, pulling up his shirt to see the patchwork of blue and purple bruises that covered his torso.
Yes, he could see that being the case.
Idiot, he added reproachfully as Gravity cracked open the door and they both stepped inside.
Although, it seems I got off much better than Sarah.
‘Bronte’ was not in a good way.
“No doctor?” He asked, as he took in the sloppily applied nature of the bandages covering the woman.
Particularly around her face. She looked more like a mummy than a person from the waist up.
Gravity shook her head, eyes firmly on her sister, “We’re persona non grata now. Real doctors would turn us into the cops, and the back-alley kind would inform the Brotherhood.”
She shrugged as she slumped into a chair that had been placed beside the bed, “The Brotherhood’s won and everyone knows it. If there was any doubt that Hard-Light’s gone, last night put a nail in it. We can’t rely on his reputation to protect us anymore. Not from the gangs or the cops.”
Erich’s thoughts immediately went to the collection of gear he had stashed away in one of the vans. This was his chance to make a getaway.
“What happened?” He asked, brow furrowing as he felt an entirely unexpected pang of shame, “Last I heard things were going well.”
“I could ask you the same thing.” Gravity sighed, surprising him by tenderly gripping her unconscious sibling’s hand. “A truck slammed into the building. Which would have been fine were it not for its cargo. Three freaks. Fast, strong, and with a freakish regenerative factor. Werewolf looking motherfuckers.”
That caught his attention.
“Three? All with animalistic features?” He asked.
“Yep.” Gravity nodded, “Like something out of a fucking horror movie.”
“Three?” He repeated, Sarah’s state and even his own plans forgotten. “You’re sure it wasn’t a single meta with animal traits and two in a costume or something?”
Gravity looked at him, as if offended, “It definitely wasn’t a fucking costume.”
Erich didn’t care, “And they all had the same powers? All three of them?”
His heart sunk when she nodded.
That’s not statistically possible. Not all in country, let alone one city.
“Shit.” He cursed, hands running frantically though his hair. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”
The medical equipment, he thought.
Still, a part of him held out hope.
“I need to see the bodies.”
Gravity gave him a funny look, but answered nonetheless, “that’ll be pretty hard. Mansion was on fire when I left. Won’t be much left seeing after you dig through all the rubble.”
That… that was good. Inconvenient, but good. At the very least it bought time. Unless the Brotherhood were less than subtle with their newest members.
Still, any plans to flee were gone now. This was the kind of trouble that followed you to the ends of the earth.
Escaping Hard-Light would have been a cakewalk compared to trying to outrun the Guild.
And he had no illusions the Guild would follow him. Anyone involved in this now had a target sign painted over their back.
“Erich, what’s going on?” Gravity asked, noting the way the blood drained from his face.
“I… I need to… I’ll be in my workshop.” He finally settled on, rushing from the room.
Gravity was left alone with Sarah once more, hand still holding hers.
“What the fuck was that?” She muttered to her sister.
Sarah remained as still and silent as ever.
Erich let water run over his shaking hands as he stared into the mirror after throwing up into the toilet.
Which had been distinctly uncomfortable given that he had not eaten anything in some time.
Even amidst his recent worries and revelations, his mind kept going back to that moment. Right when Grey’s eyes widened in surprise as he plucked the disk from her throat.
She would have died anyway, he reasoned. Or she would have gotten you killed.
She would have died anyway, he reiterated.
They were far from a hospital and the mansion was going to burn down around them within the hour. She would never have made it. All that would have happened was that she would have gotten him killed by informing Sarah of something she really didn’t need to know.
You didn’t know that at the time though, his reflection pointed out. You just… acted.
His hands still shook.
Striding out into the kitchen, he grabbed a can from the fridge. One of Gravity’s beers. A low carb one he noted with surprise and dismay. Still, he wasted no time in popping the tab and guzzling down the drink.
Not nearly a high enough alcohol content.
Still, it satisfied the craving. More of a habit than a physical need, but the development of that craving was just a matter of time at the rate he was going.
“Work to do.” He muttered, striding downstairs towards his shop.
Work would take his mind off things.
It always did.
“Huh, you’re still here?” Gravity murmured tiredly as she wondered into his shop.
Erich didn’t even glance up from his assorted parts pile. Long since expanded from his days fixing toasters. Hard-Light had been more than happy to send all of his cast off meta-tech components his way.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” He asked distractedly. “It’s my home.”
Gravity walked over, plucking up a memory processor as she did, “I don’t know about that. I figured you would have taken your little van and skipped town by now.”
Erich froze, partially disassembled omni-pad in hand.
“You knew about that?” He said with deliberate calm.
Gravity shrugged, “You were both out cold these last two days, and I kept expecting the Brotherhood to come bursting through the door at any moment. Figured it was a good idea to have an escape plan. Imagine my surprise to find your van already stocked up and ready to go.”
Erich felt a drop of cold sweat run down the back of his neck, and it took a considerable amount of will not to reach for his laser pistol.
“Oh, chill out.” Gravity laughed, swatting him lightly on the shoulder. “I’m not judging. Sarah might, but she’s not really in any position to make it known, and I’m not about to tell her.”
Erich let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.
“…Thank you.” He said finally, and to his surprise, he found he meant it.
“Damn. I should have brought my camera. Not often I get to hear something like that from you,” Gravity smiled, a much more genuine one than she’d had not twenty minutes earlier.
It would seem that just having someone to talk to had done her some good. Which was good for him because he would have had no clue how to help her otherwise.
“Quite.” Erich said, a small smile of his own gracing his features despite his best attempts to stop it.
“Another rarity. Will wonders never end?” Gravity laughed before leaning over the table, “So, what’s got you so excited that you practically ran out on me and my poor half-sister?”
“Our way of striking back at the Hangman.” Erich said as he inspected a few loose strands of synth-muscle.
And just like that, Gravity’s good mood was gone.
“No!” She practically spat.
It was so loud and surprising that Erich nearly dropped the strand he was holding.
“No?” He asked finally.
“No.” Gravity reiterated. “It’s over. Done. We lost. The best thing we can do now is get out of this town while we still have our lives.”
It was funny. If Erich had heard that said even a few days earlier he would have been jumping for joy.
“I would love to.” He admitted, “but even if we run now, it won’t save us. The Brotherhood have let the lion out of its cage, and if we’re not quick, it’s going to devour us all.”
Erich was well aware that he was being more poetic that he needed, but what could he say? Imminent danger had a way of bringing out his inner thespian.
“What are you talking about?” Gravity said, having picked up on his obvious fear.
“How do you think powers are formed?” He asked, running a hand through his hair, “not the actual mechanics, but the catalyst for the event?”
“Stress?” Gravity said uncertainly.
“Exactly.” Erich said as he was once more drawn to the pile of components before him. “Stress is what starts the change, but what most people don’t realize is that the source of that stress, and how an individual perceives it, affects the resulting power more than anything else.”
“That’s the problem.” Erich continued, “you said that these ‘werewolves’ all had the same powerset. That’s not a natural occurrence. In a modern society, stress comes about as a variety of different factors. More than that, people’s subconscious solutions to these differing factors vary.”
Erich pointed at her, “I’m willing to be that your power came about as a result of a need to escape a sensation of being ‘crushed’ physically or emotionally.”
Gravity scowled at his bluntness, but ultimately nodded.
“More than that, it didn’t affect your outward appearance.” He paused. “Or perhaps it did. Their’s a lot to be said about Metas being more ‘attractive’ than average. Perhaps as a result of it being a benefit in a modern society. As opposed to something more grotesque but functional, like claws, scales or fur.”
He shook his head, “The point is, that situations where meta develop powers that make them look inhuman are rare. Situations where three individuals develop the same powers and the same appearance are statistically impossible as a result of circumstance.”
Gravity gradually tacked onto what he was saying, “so someone forced people to have an Event that resulted in that powerset.”
“That’s the problem.” Erich continued frustration rising, “it’s always been theoretical. The kind of stress needed to trigger an Event… it’s massive in people who aren’t already directly related to a Meta. Even then, you have no idea who might even have the traits needed to have an Event in the first place. So in order to test for it…”
“…You’d have to effectively torture a massive number of people in the hopes that one or two of them might have an event.” Gravity finished, a look of nausea coming over her face.
Erich nodded. “You can see why it’s remained just a theory so far, and why we don’t have governments churning out Meta superheroes all over the place. A ‘Meta Farm’ isn’t just morally repugnant, it’s expensive and incredibly risky. Even if it works, you’ve essentially created a Meta with an unknown powerset and level with an ingrained desire to destroy the facility that created them.”
Gravity still looked nausios, “but clearly the Brotherhood have found a way around that problem, because those three who attacked us were under their control, and had the same powers. Which means they have some way of controlling the outcome.”
Erich wouldn’t say they had the artificial Metas under control.
From what you told me, they basically threw them at you and then got the hell out of there.
“So why’s this a problem?” Gravity asked finally. “Let’s call the cops and have them take down the Brotherhood for us. There’s no way they can bribe their way out of this.”
“No!” Erich shouted, almost jumping up from his seat, “Don’t you see! We know it works now. We can spread that knowledge. Could you imagine what would happen if the ability to create Metas on demand spread to a warlord on the West Coast?”
Gravity’s dark complexion paled, “it would upset the power balance.”
“Upset it!?” Erich said, “It would goddamn shatter it. It wouldn’t be like the government could use the same technique to even the odds. Could you imagine the public outcry?”
Erich saw it was finally sinking in for her.
This isn’t the kind of problem that gets heroes or cops sent to resolve it, he thought. This is the kind of problem that gets resolved with a black ops team and a bullet for everyone even peripherally involved.
“Shit.” Gravity said, effectively summing up the situation.