Grace clutched her prize protectively to her chest as she barrelled into the alley as fast as her short legs could take her.
“Fucking street rat!” The stall vendor yelled at her retreating back, but she knew from experience that he wouldn’t bother to give chase. Too much risk of being ambushed in the labyrinthine alleyways that made up Portland’s downtown.
Not that she was any safer. Quite the opposite. No one would have anything to fear if she got attacked in the murky darkness.
The gangs might make some token effort to investigate if a vendor was robbed or assaulted on ‘their turf’, but a street rat?
Not a chance.
Which was why she kept a wary eye about her as she slowed to a quick walk, sure that the vendor from before wouldn’t be following. The sauces from the hotdog she had stolen were smearing the inside of her ratty jacket as she held it close, but she paid that no particular heed.
It wasn’t as if the jacket had been clean to begin with.
No, she’d rather deal with a few more stains than risk another street rat seeing her prize. She couldn’t hide the scent though, and her stomach rumbled as the tantalizing odour of fried meat wafted upward. It was only through sheer force of will that she managed to keep herself from eating the bun there and then.
No, it was better to wait until she was back at the little hidey hole she tentatively called her ‘home’ before tucking into the delicious morsel. Besides, the feeling of warmth from the heated meat was nice enough in its own way, even it couldn’t quite compare to the sensation of a full belly.
The thought made her grin as she imagined sinking her teeth into the warm meat.
“Well, what do we have here?” a voice called out, startling her.
Cursing her momentary distraction, Grace tried to run, but something grabbed her jacket from behind, roughly yanking her back.
She couldn’t help but emit a whine of both surprise despair as her hard won prize slipped from her grip to splatter against the cold concrete.
“Look’s like a thief, Darrel.” The voice of the man holding her answered, stomping on the meat with callous cruelty.
Glancing about with wide eyes, Grace saw that she’d been hemmed in by three men.
Third Quarter Kings, she thought with a sinking feeling as she noted that all three were wearing varying amounts of vivid purple on their person.
She tried to struggle, but a quick shake of her jacket dissuaded that.
“Now, now, none of that.” The one who was apparently Darrel said. “Wouldn’t want to force Steve to get rough with you now.”
Grace chanced a glance in the direction of the man holding her, and shuddered at the eagerness in his eyes. She’d seen eyes like that before.
Her father had had eyes like that, especially if he’d been drinking.
Glancing around for help, she saw none coming. The few homeless had been occupying the alley had disappeared, and no one from out in the street glanced in. Quite the opposite, they deliberately glanced away from it.
She knew their was no point in yelling either. The onlyresponse screams received in Portland was people turning in the opposite direction.
Nothing good ever came from getting involved.
She’d done it herself often enough - without even thinking about it really. It was just what you did.
The city was dangerous enough without going looking for trouble.
Glancing to the one member of the group who had yet to speak, her heart sank as she took in his bored expression. He wasn’t enjoying this, but he wouldn’t help her either. This was just a job to him.
She tried to glare at the one she assumed to the groups leader, “I was just-”
“Stealing.” He interrupted, “You were just stealing. On the turf of the Three Quarter Kings.”
She indignantly shook her head, “I was hungry. I just took one hotdog!”
The vendor had had a box full of them. She’d seen them!
The one named Darrel nodded along with feigned sympathy, “I get ya’. I really do. Even been there myself, if you can believe it? Still, sympathetic or not, we can’t have just people stealing from people on our turf without consequence. Makes us look weak, see?”
“Weak.” Steve echoed, giving her a perfunctory tug of her jacket.
“Exactly.” Darrel nodded along, “and we can’t have that. So, we’re either going to have to punish you,” Grace shuddered as a shiver of excitement ran through the arm holding her, “or we can have you pay in… another way.”
Despite her attempt at bravado, Grace couldn’t help the small whimper that leaked out of her as the man’s eyes roamed over her with obvious intent.
“Really, Darrel?” The third member of the trio finally piped up. “She looks like she’s barely fifteen.”
She had turned eighteen in March actually, but living on the streets hadn’t exactly done wonders for her development, so she looked much younger; a fact that she was more than happy for, as a look of disgust rolled over the third King’s face.
For just a moment, a small hope blossomed in her chest, but it was dashed at the third King turned away.
“Whatever, I’ll go keep watch. Last thing I wanna’ see is your pale ass flopping all over some kid.”
Darrel shrugged, not at all bothered by casual insult as the man walked away, before turning back to her.
“So? What’s it gonna be, girl? Payment or punishment? I can assure you, Steve and I will have our fun either way.”
In a final desperate act of defiance - one she hadn’t even known she was capable of - Grace tried to spit at him, but her mouth had gone dry.
Still, Darrel seemed to take that as answer enough.
“Punishment it is then. Shame.”
Grace flinched as he drew back his fist, only to shriek as Steve suddenly pulled her to ground, burying her underneath his bulk.
She hissed and spat as the heavy man lay and top of her, desperately trying to push him off, but his form would not be shifted as he lay on her like…
As soon as the thought ran through her mind, she saw the steaming hole in the man’s back and let out another shriek of surprise as she realized that was buried under a corpse.
Looking up she saw that Darrel was just as surprised, as he glanced from the hole up to something behind her and froze.
…then he tried to run. Emphasis on the word tried, because he barely made it through his first step before a glowing beam of something struck him full in the back and sent him sprawling to floor with a disgusting ‘popping’ sound.
For just a moment, Grace felt a sense of stunned relief as she saw that two of her three assailants were down, and as she glanced over, she saw that the third one had fled.
Then she realized that she was still under a corpse that was too heavy for her to move, and whatever had killed her attackers was still around.
If she were a bit more naïve, she might have been willing to believe that someone had acted to save her. A hero, or other do-gooder – but the last few years of being homeless in a city controlled by a supervillain had dissuaded her from that line of thinking.
It was a fast route to disappointment, and an even faster route to becoming just another corpse in this city.
Which was why, when she heard the heavy thump of something moving behind her, something that she couldn’t turn her head far enough to see, she started ever more frantically trying to push Steve’s massive corpse of her.
It wouldn’t move though, and with every passing moment the thing got closer, it’s massive footfalls echoing through the alley.
She was trying to pull on Steve’s arm when the sound behind her stopped not more than a few feet away.
Resigned, but still terrified, she lay back to find herself staring into the mask of massive suit of power armor.
Her mouth went dry again, and her heart skipped a beat when the suit finally spoke.
Gravity hissed in irritation as she finally levered the door open to the rundown store she and Erich had bought. The hinges were rusty as all hell, and resisted just about every attempt by her to pull it open with one hand while the other clutched a number of different shopping bags.
“Welcome to Erich’s Armaments.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said as she stepped inside the dimly lit interior, “nice of you to stand there and watch me trying to get the door open. And I thought we agreed that Gravity’s Guns sounded-”
That wasn’t Erich’s voice, she realized belatedly.
By the front desk - where Erich was supposed to be standing! - was not the man himself, but a very grubby looking teen in a ratty jacket, mouth smeared with mustard and ketchup. The girl stood glaring at Gravity, hands hovering protectively over what looked to be a pile of different street vending foods. Limpy stood in the corner, as placid as ever, weapon in hand but clearly inactive.
Even as Gravity watched in vague incomprehension, the girl carelessly shoved a meat bun into her mouth, not even waiting to swallow before she started to speak again.
“We stock everything from weapons to armor, all at very affordable prices.”
Gravity, stared for a few more seconds after the girl had finished her spiel. Long enough apparently, for the girl to get annoyed.
“Listen lady, are you going to buy something or not? Because if not, I might have to ask you to leave.”
As if to reinforce her threat, she raised one grubby hand, and Limpy leapt to life, raising his weapon.
…and he gave her ‘bot privileges’, she thought as she dumped the shopping bags on the floor, because of course he did…
“Erich!” She shouted, startling the girl and the bot, “get the fuck down here!”