“Any improvements?” Erich asked as Gravity slunk back into the shop.
She didn’t say anything, but the way the woman slumped into a seat was all the answer he needed really.
The more days past, the clearer it was becoming that Sarah needed an actual doctor. Her condition had yet to improve, and they were rapidly approaching the limits of his and Gravity’s medical knowledge.
Hell, we had to google how to hook up an IV, he thought.
It was fortunate for them that Sarah had been unconscious at the time, because they hadn’t gotten it right on the first try.
…or the fifth.
“How are things coming on your end?” Gravity asked tiredly.
Erich shrugged, “They’re coming. At this rate I should be finished before the end of the month.”
Gravity shook her head, “that’s not fast enough. The Brotherhood could start on the Red Squares any day now.”
Now that Hard-Light’s faction was out of the way, it only made sense for them to start on their primary rivals now that they knew their new ‘weapons’ worked.
Can’t help but wonder if we were just a trial run?
Erich shook his head. It didn’t matter in the end.
“I am well aware of how close we all are to getting put on a government hit list,” Erich deadpanned, “but I’m already going as fast as I can.”
He gestured to the half-built torso in front of him.
“Once I get the first one set up, it should be able to act as my assistant. That should speed the process up.”
If not to any appreciable degree. A fresh AI would be about as intelligent as a particularly bright dog, albeit in different ways to an actual dog.
‘Intelligence’ is a spectrum after all, he thought.
He was a prime example of that very fact. Brilliant in all things engineering, but he was all too willing to admit to a number of deficiencies in other areas.
People most of all.
“It would go faster if you were actually willing to help me.” He pointed out, not for the first time, and likely not for the last.
Gravity sent a tired glare his way. “If I did, would you start helping me clean up Sarah’s shit, sponge bath and feed her?”
No. Not in a million years.
He was a genius, not some kind of menial. He didn’t deal with people… or their fluids.
“The robot could do it.” He said offhandedly, as he started installing what used to be a webcam into said machine’s head.
“You think I’m about to trust your mechanical contraption with my sister?” Gravity asked incredulously.
Erich might have been offended by the insinuation that his creation would be anything less than perfect, were it not for the grain of truth informing the woman’s words.
AI could be… finicky.
There was a very good reason they hadn’t sparked the next technological singularity, after all.
Even the fairly robust Omni-Systems Artificial Intelligence template he was going to pirate from the web was far from foolproof.
And that’s before I start installing some very illegal combat sub-routines into it.
“Fair enough,” he grudgingly acknowledged.
“Why are you even building those things anyway?” Gravity groused, gesturing at the collection of limbs and synth muscle strewn about the workshop, as well as the fabricator in the corner, which had been churning out more components almost non-stop since he’d started.
Again, Erich didn’t begrudge her skepticism. A well-designed combat droid was usually only about as effective as a reasonably competent soldier, a few times more expensive, and not half as adaptable.
Of course, the fact that he was building them for himself cut down on the price considerably, but even then they wouldn’t be as cost-effective as a brand-new suit.
“The Hangman’s a mind reader.” Erich reiterated for what felt like the third time, “If I go after him with just a suit again, he’ll tear it apart with the same ease he took out my first one.”
Which was true, even if he’d lied about exactly how the mind-reader had taken him out. Even if Erich didn’t include a system of fail safes this time, the meta would still know every move he planned to make three steps in advance.
“That’s why Integrity was sure the guy had mind control powers.” He explained, “it’s not difficult to get people to do what you want if you know their every want, need and weakness within moments of meeting them.”
Gravity stared at him for a few moments, before deflating “so you say. I still think we had a leak.”
Erich didn’t doubt they did, but it didn’t change the situation with the Hangman, “He knew shit. Shit I told no one. He’s a mind reader.”
“So how did Integrity get the drop on him in the tunnel?” Gravity asked, referring the altered version of events he had told her.
“I’m pretty sure he sped up his mind sufficiently that the Hangman would have only registered it as a blur or ‘white noise’.” He theorized, “If he registered it at all.”
Erich had no idea how the mechanics of the guy’s mind control worked, but that was his working theory. It didn’t help that Integrity probably hadn’t planned for that to happen. The guy had probably just wanted to slow down his perception of time so he could launch his surprise attack at the perfect moment.
“And this happened after you had your suit taken out?” Gravity reiterated.
“Throwing disks with explosives attached.” Erich shrugged, “Got the drop on me, on all of us, when my shields were down. Which only reinforces my mind reading theory. He knew exactly when our guard was down.”
Gravity stared at him for a few more seconds, before shrugging, “you don’t seem nearly as upset about losing your suit as I thought you would be.”
Of its own volition his mind went back to it. The darkness. The heat. The suffocating claustrophobia…
“Bigger problems right now.” He spat as she shook his head to dismiss the phantom sensation of metal pressing down around him.
Frowning, he gestured to the half-finished combat droid hung up on the rack in front of him. “Pass me that wrench, would you?”
Erich sensed his friend’s eyes watching him for a few more pregnant moments, before he felt the cool metal of the tool settle into his hand.
“I’m going to make another adult diaper run.” Gravity sighed as she stood up. “You want anything?”
“Carton of milk. We’re running low.” He said shortly.
It was only as he heard Gravity walk away, that he noticed that his right hand was shaking.
Did she see? He wondered, panic flaring in his chest.
Almost of their own accord, his fingers brushed across the laser pistol on his belt. He wanted to take it and run. Far and fast. He’d done it once and he could do it again.
Can’t run, he reminded himself. They’d catch you. Quickly. You’ve got to stay. Strangle this problem in the crib.
Still, it was difficult to calm the racing of his heart.
Need to get back to work.
He deliberately ignored the suit blueprints sitting on his table as he returned to the drone in front of him.
Still, the sensation of metal closing in around him remained at the back of his mind. Pressing at the very edge of his senses.
He scowled, fear morphing into anger as he redoubled his efforts.
“Why’d you make it look humanoid?” Gravity asked as he welded the latest unit’s torso armor on.
He shrugged as he lifted his goggles to inspect the seam, “it’s convenient.”
“Yeah, but like, isn’t it less efficient.”
Erich stepped over to the workbench to grab a drink – a non-alcoholic drink. Budding alcoholism aside, he’d never indulge while working.
“Sure, compared to say, a four-legged box with a gun on top.” He admitted, “but eventually I’m going to have to transport these guys across the city. I need them to fit in the van, and I need them to be relatively inconspicuous during our assault. That’s why we’re going to be making a run to thrift store when it’s finally time for the assault. Need to buy some baggy clothes to outfit them.”
Gravity giggled, “We’re going to put clothes on them?”
Erich nodded, “Just enough to fool someone at a distance.”
In the dark…
The need for discretion wouldn’t have been a problem in the past, but like Gravity said, they no longer had Hard-Light’s reputation to hide behind. And rogue AI constructs tended to draw a lot more heat than comparatively more dangerous constructs. Like his old suit.
Which is something we have the Master to thank for.
Sure, the man had worked with other supervillains of his time, but at the end of the day, it was him and his endless legions of Meta-tech constructs that conquered the West Coast and split the country in two.
The stigma toward AI of any description still ran deep because of it.
Got to be more subtle now, he thought as he looked at the finished robot.
“If you were going to do that, couldn’t you have made them more… human looking?” Gravity wondered as she looked at the machine’s hard angles and boxy shape.
“You were the one who wanted me to go faster.” Erich pointed out, “this is the compromise.”
And even with the compromise, he’d like to think what he’d done had been pretty damn impressive.
Sure, security bots weren’t amazingly rare, and he’d already had all the parts he’d needed on hand, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d churned out ten of them in the course of a week.
Well, pretty much alone, he amended, as he glanced at two of his utterly still helpers. The soft whining of their motors and the blue glow of their headlights were the only things indicating that drones were active.
“Bring in the next unit,” he said, watching with no small degree of satisfaction as the two units leapt to obey, their eye pieces flashing yellow as they moved.
“Acknowledged.” The two units said in unison, their voices echoing with artificial distortion.
Which anyone listening to will hopefully pass off as a voice changer, he thought.
“That’s another thing I don’t get.” Gravity said as she watched the two robots clatter over to the next unit; one that had been entirely assembled but for its armored components. “Why the lights? You just said you wanted to be subtle.”
Erich frowned, “it’s a safety feature. They turn off when they enter combat mode.”
“Why’d you need a safety feature?” Gravity asked, still eying the two drones.
He shrugged uncomfortably, “If your computer glitches, you might end up losing some files. If one of these glitches…”
Well… it went unsaid.
Personally, he would rather have a few seconds warning if his creations threat recognition software decided to fail.
“You aren’t filling me with confidence here.” Gravity deadpanned as she glanced at him.
“I built these things in a week.” He said, “if they didn’t have a few issues, then I’d be goddamn surprised.”
He’d had to cut a few corners; one of which was the origin of the drones combat-subroutines.
Here’s hoping the unit AI from ‘Call of Destiny’ is as good as the reviews said it was, he hoped.
It was a cheap trick, but he wasn’t an amazing or particularly fast programmer. It was easier for him to simply crib from a pre-existing model. He could only hope it wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass later.
Gravity’s frown softened as she ultimately conceded his point, “I guess you’re right.”
He nodded, about as happy as her about relying on something that was, in all likelihood, unreliable.
“They’re just disposable muscle anyway.” He said.
Gravity turned back to eying the units as they dragged their skeletal brother over.
“I guess.” She said, before changing tact entirely, “So, how are things coming with suit 2.0?”
It was an innocent question, meant more to change the topic than anything else. Nonetheless, Erich felt his stomach drop out from under him as his mind turned towards his suit.
Grey’s disbelieving eyes staring up at him. The scent of blood in the air. The sound of her lifeblood dripping to the floor.
“I haven’t had time.” He said, his hand clenching into a fist, “the drones have been keeping me busy.”
“I think I wanted this, you know?” Erich murmured to Sarah’s comatose form.
Even as he made his confession, he whispered under his breath. All but silent even in the quiet of his room; if only on the off chance his captive audience regained consciousness.
Even if his paranoia had come back to bite him in recent days, he found it difficult to shed the habit of a lifetime. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to.
Gravity was out. Another shopping run to refill their meager stash of food and drink. She had charged him with watching over her comatose sister, refusing to accept his exclamations that one of his robots could do it.
So, there he sat, looking at the woman who for a short time had been his lover, and in some small way, his jailer.
“Sure, it was mostly at the back of my mind, but I knew from the moment I showed you that suit, you would want me to build more.” He admitted, more to himself than anyone else. “How could you not?”
In the corner of the room one of his sec-droids watched over both of them, a laser rifle cradled in its cold metallic hands.
“And, you know what? I enjoyed it. Even the piloting.” He murmured, Especially the piloting.”
He smiled bitterly, “I never admitted it. Not even to myself. But I think I was enjoying all of it. The money. The power. The respect. The… sex. But most of all, I think it was the sensation of being one of the ‘big’ people.”
That had been new. And so intoxicating. To be noticed for his talent. To not be a footnote in some else’s story for once. To be judged on his own merits rather than be drawn up against the example his sister set.
“I think it was my way of finally beating her. Sad as it is.” He mused, “Taking on Metas with a suit I built.”
Proving that he, a mundane man, had the power to do battle with the metaphorical demigods of the new age.
“And I’ll be honest.” He nodded, “for all my plans to run. For all my plans to escape this life. When I get right down to it, I don’t think I can.”
Lord knows, if he had been willing to make just one or two sacrifices, he could have escaped from Hard-Light.
If he really wanted to. But he hadn’t.
He’d made excuses in his own mind and continued down the path, complaining all the while.
“I think Grey’s death is what’s driven it home for me.” He admitted, “what I’m willing to do to keep living this lifestyle. Who I’m willing to hurt for my own gain.”
Not without hesitation, but without a doubt, he repeated in his mind.
That was the crux of it wasn’t it.
He’d never thought himself a bad person. Greedy, vain, callous, cowardly and more, but never… villainous.
Hell, he’d even managed to convince himself he was somewhat heroic. In some small way he’d been living out a fantasy of his youth; fighting Neo-Nazis on the streets of North Granton in a suit, he had built himself, surrounded by people with powers.
A beautiful woman on each arm…
Proving to himself that he was one of them.
Then he’d met the reality of his situation; powerlessness.
Hangman had mastered him as easily as one might an unruly child.
Because they cheated. Because they’d done something Erich had never even considered. Because they’d acted in a way that would have gotten anyone but them killed.
And they’d not just survived, but thrived.
Because they had a power.
And powers did not conform to the laws of reality as science understood them. They were the ultimate wild card. The ultimate trump. A way of overturning any given status quo.
And because of that, Erich had been forced to confront a second truth.
Grey’s eyes staring up at him as he plucked the blade from her neck, as if silently pleading to know why.
He knew why.
Because you were a threat to me, he responded from across the gulf of time. Because it benefited me more for you to be dead rather than alive.
That was the conclusion he had come to.
What did that make him? To inflict pain on others for one’s own gain? What else could that be but the act of a villain?
He had to accept that.
He couldn’t afford to keep being so… halfhearted about all this.
“Get well soon Bronte,” he murmured as he gently squeezed one of her bandaged hands. “I think I understand you more now than when all this began.”
Certainly not all of her… but more.
“Engage sentry mode,” he said as he stepped out of the room.
Gravity wouldn’t be happy about it, but he found he didn’t care. She would get over it. His presence in that room wouldn’t help Sarah.
It wouldn’t help anyone.
No, he had work to do.
He had to take the Hangman down.
Not because he’d wronged him. Not because it was the right thing to do. Not because hundreds of people would die in horrific ways if he didn’t.
He was going to do it because the mind reader’s existence was a clear and present threat to him.
At least, that’s what he told himself as he strode down the stairs to his shop.