“What the fuck, Erich?” Gravity groused as they stepped out onto the street, flanked on each side by what they had now dubbed Spartoi drones.
Or rather, Gravity had named them, and Erich hadn’t cared to argue.
He shrugged, uncomfortably aware of the fact that he wasn’t in his armour as he took a breath of the garbage laced air of Portland.
“Needed to work on the suit,” he coughed. “One of the legs damn near seized up when I tried to take it around the block.”
“Yeah, well you should have been in the store, rather than taking it out for a spin anyway,” Gravity said as she glanced up and down the street, laser rifle cradled in her hands – not his best work, but competent enough.
“Yeah, well I don’t know about you, but I would feel much more comfortable with a suit of functioning power armor between me and whatever else comes to take a bite out of my ass,” he grunted as Gravity gestured for the drones in the store to come out, Sarah’s comatose form on a stretcher between them.
The months of inactivity had not been kind to the woman’s frame.
Still, she was in better shape than most people would be in her situation, a fact Erich was willing to attribute to the fact that she was a Meta.
Natural hardiness was something they all seemed to have, no matter what their actual power was.
Which had ever been a source of envy for him – amongst other things – whenever he came down with a cold and the rest of his family… didn’t.
“Yeah, well I don’t know about you, but I would feel a lot more comfortable with some actual money in my pocket and a guarantee that there’s gonna be food in the fridge next week.” Gravity snarked back. “In case you forgot, getting across the border and buying this shithole wasn’t cheap.”
“Perhaps if you had some actual goddamn contacts it would have been.” Erich groused back. “Hell, you don’t even know who drained his accounts.”
And hadn’t that been a kick in the teeth…
The pair of them were down to their personal funds. Which, while pretty considerable for individuals, were also far from limitless.
“Me!?” Gravity asked incredulously as the drones clambered into the back of the van with Sarah, “Why the fuck would I have contacts? Or know a thing about ‘accounts’ and shit?”
“You’re the crime bosses’ daughter!” Erich pointed out as he clambered into the passenger seat.
“I was infrequent muscle,” Gravity muttered as she slipped into the driver’s seat. “All of the people stuff was Sarah.”
Erich resisted the urge to call her ‘dumb muscle’ as they set off. He knew she wasn’t dumb. Just not particularly invested in anything that didn’t immediately affect her.
“Whatever,” he grimaced. “I don’t want to go over this argument again.”
Gravity shot him a glance, tone softening marginally as she took a calming breath, “unfortunately we have to. We’re both nearly flat broke, and you’ve just hired on an employee. Now, that would have been fine in a few weeks when we had some sales coming in, but right now…”
“That’s the problem?” Erich snorted. “Wages?”
Gravity glanced at him, “in short, yes.”
Well in that case, he already had a solution.
“Our newest employee has agreed to work for the low price of food, shelter and other sundries,” he said proudly.
To be fair, he was reasonably certain that she had agreed to that deal out of a misplaced belief that he would crush her head like a grape if she argued.
Still, she was in a much better situation now than she was in before he intervened. That had to count for something.
Unfortunately, if the look Gravity was giving him was any indication, his companion was not in agreement with his results orientated approach to proactive employment strategies.
“That’s slavery!” She hissed, “we are not hiring on a slave.”
Bit late for that…
He shrugged, “if it makes you feel any better, you can think of it as an internship.”
Gravity gaped and spluttered for a moment, before ultimately deflating.
“As soon as we have the cash to do so, we’re hiring her properly,” she muttered sullenly. “We are not getting involved in the slaving business.”
Which was a very real and established business on the West Coast, so he figured it was fair that she felt the need to specify.
“Fair enough.” He shrugged.
It made no difference to him. So long as he didn’t have to spend time dealing with customers, and had a steady supply of parts, he was happy enough.
Sensing the lull in the conversation, he took the opportunity to peer out the window at the strange city they found themselves in.
Those were the first thing he noticed.
Not a single person out on the street was unarmed. Hell, many weren’t even lightly armed. Erich could see two young Asian men who couldn’t have been more than fifteen wandering down the street with assault rifles casually dangling from straps around their neck.
Shitty assault rifles, that looked to be more rust than metal, but assault rifles nonetheless.
The other thing he noticed was the diversity of the crowd. Not that New Granton had lacked much on that account, but like most American cities it had possessed a predominantly Caucasian populace.
Portsmouth was not nearly so consistent. Which Erich supposed only made sense when one considered the state of the rest of the world. The planet was replete with hellholes whose populaces were hoping to find a better - or at least a longer - life on distant shores.
Not that I imagine many of them found it here, he thought as he saw two groups of different ethnicities throwing insults, and the occasional blunt object, at each other.
He also noted that just as many members of both ethnicities present in the street were determinedly averting their eyes from the display of racial violence.
It seemed that for every asshole who was out to stir up trouble, there were as many again who just wanted to live in peace.
Nothing new there, he mused.
As they drove, Erich spotted two other brawls, a few ‘probably’ dead bodies, and a man with his pants down enjoying the affections of a prostitute in the entrance of an alleyway.
Portsmouth was a classy place.
“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” Gravity muttered, drawing him from his thoughts.
“What?” He asked.
“I said ‘I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.’” She repeated, before giving him a look, “you know, Kansas? Toto? Yellow brick road?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Gravity rolled her eyes before retuning her gaze to the road, “Ugh, philistine. No appreciation for the classics.”
Erich shrugged. He assumed his companion was referencing something from popular media, but he had no idea what.
His childhood hadn’t left a lot of room for fun, and his adulthood had been much the same.
The only time he really indulged as a youth was when he partook of the occasional tome from his grandfather’s library.
And that had been a very rare occasion indeed.
“We nearly there?” He asked, more to keep himself from thinking of the past than out of any real interest.
“Yeah,” Gravity gestured, “should be just a few streets over.”
The woman was as good as her word, and within a few moments they were pulling up in front of a building with the words ‘DOCTOR’ emblazoned on it in red neon lights.
“Nice place,” Erich muttered as he clambered out.
And it was. At least, compared to most of the other buildings in the area.
But that hadn’t really been what he was commenting on.
“Meta-Healers are a hot commodity,” Gravity said in reference to the heavy-duty turrets blatantly on display out front. “Those things are probably the only thing keeping our would-be doctor from being carted off into the night.”
“I guess that explains why he was so eager to barter,” Erich said as he pulled open the rear doors of the van to let their own drones clamber out.
“She,” Gravity winced as the pair holding Sarah hit the floor with a jerky thud, rocking their cargo. “And couldn’t you have made them be a bit more delicate?”
He could have, but functionality had been his main concern when he came up with the original design.
And that hadn’t changed in the intervening weeks since they’d had to flee New Granton.
“Will be a moot point in a few hours,” he deflected. “Assuming this healer is as good as you said she is.”
“She better be,” Gravity muttered as they set off toward the clinic. “The materials to build these drones weren’t cheap, and now we’re damn near out of Meta-Tech.”
Something I am more than aware of, Erich thought sourly as he considered the current deficit of building materials available to him. The sooner they found a reliable source of Meta-Tech parts, the happier he would be.
The sensation of being tracked by the two turrets was kind of unnerving, but the comfortable weight of the shield system on his chest managed to keep him from flat out refusing to advance.
“Intruders detected.” An artificial voice intoned, “Cease advance or be fired upon.”
Instantly his own drone’s guns were up – along with Erich’s heart rate.
“Hostility detected.” The four drones responded in sync, “preparing to engage.”
“Hold fire,” Gravity muttered as she lifted up her Omni-Pad, “We’re here to see the Cleric. Visitor ID, Epsilon-Charlie-Beta-Yankee.”
“Acknowledged,” the turrets intoned. “Please remain still until a member of staff clears you. Attempts to advance or leave will be met with force.”
“Lovely,” Erich muttered as they stood stock-still and waited. He also noted that Gravity hadn’t instructed the drones to stand down; just not to engage.
Glad to see I’m not the only one who’s feeling a little paranoid.
Fortunately for his nerves, and rapidly fraying patience, it didn’t take long for the front door and reveal a particularly harried looking woman in a doctor’s coat.
“Are you Gravity and… Mechromancer?” the woman asked with an audible hint of nervousness.
“Yep,” Gravity nodded, “and I assume you’re the Cleric?”
The woman nodded jerkily, before standing aside, “please come in. I’ve been looking forward to this visit.”
Feels like it, Erich thought cynically as he strode forward, glancing at the turrets that were still tracking his every move.
Then again, he figured the woman had good reason to be paranoid. He imagined he wouldn’t be particularly trusting either if he had an ability as coveted as hers in a city like this.
Still, vague feelings of sympathy aside, he wasn’t about to tell the drones to go to full stand down either.
The clinic had a very ‘lived’ in feel to it. As in, it was pretty clear that Cleric was living there.
And has been for some time, Erich thought with a disdainful sniff as he surveyed the crumpled clothes and piles of takeout strewn all over the place.
“Cozy,” Erich murmured.
“It’s a shithole,” Cleric grunted as she casually swept aside a bunch of blankets to reveal a cot that had clearly seen better days. “One that I might finally be able to escape with those drones of yours.”
“You’re stuck here?” Gravity asked as the drones levered Sarah none-too-gently onto the cot.
The woman shrugged as she laid her hands on the blonde, “I used to have an arrangement with the gang who ruled this area. Claws. Nice enough as far as gangs went. Unfortunately for me, they got driven out a few weeks ago, and the new owners are not quite as… nice.”
“So you’re stuck here?” Erich said.
“Pretty much,” the woman said as her fingers lightly probed the bandages around Sarah’s neck, “stuff like this has happened before, so the clinic’s stocked with food and water. Usually I just had to let the turrets hold any would be attackers off and wait for the Claw’s counter attack.”
She sighed as she took her hands away, “unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen this time. The Third Street Kings were pretty thorough. From what little I’ve heard, the Claw’s don’t really exist anymore.”
“We could get you out of here,” Gravity offered, prompting Erich to shoot her a glare. “You wouldn’t even need the drones then.”
Cleric shook her head, “thanks, but no thanks. I’m not leaving my clinic behind. Besides, if these drones are as good as you said, I should be safe enough to be able to come and go without too much trouble. The Kings want to get their hands on me, but I doubt they’re willing to risk losing a few of their number to do it.”
Erich had his doubts about that, but he wasn’t about to argue with the woman. It was pretty clear that she was desperate. That didn’t really facilitate much in the way of objective thought processes.
“Ok, then,” Erich interrupted before Gravity could say anything else. “So, can you help our friend?”
The tired looking brunette startled slightly, as if only just reminded of the reason why they were there, even though she’d assumedly been in the process of diagnosing Sarah.
“Sure,” she said, a more professional tone entering her voice. “The damage is pretty bad though. Reasonably sure she would be dead if she wasn’t a Meta. As it stands, I doubt she would have ever woken up without my, or another healer’s, help.”
“Great,” Gravity said. “Any side effects? And how long will it take.”
Cleric shrugged, “a few scars and a little stiffness in the affected area. Her throat got the worst of it, so her voice will be probably be a little… hoarser than you remember. Though, on the bright side, it should only take a few hours for my powers to work.”
Gravity didn’t look entirely happy about the mention of scarring, but eventually relief seemed to win out over worry.
“Great,” she smiled. “We don’t have anywhere to be, so would it be ok if we wait here for you to be done.”
Cleric shrugged as she laid her hands on Sarah’s throat once more, “fine by me. Make yourself comfy wherever.”
Gravity nodded and moved to sit down, only to freeze as Erich spoke up.
“Actually, I think I might head back to the shop,” he announced. “The suit still needs a lot of work done if I want it to be operational again.”
And he had a few ideas for upgrades. Assuming they still had the parts available after the suit’s repair.
Hell, I might give the entire thing a retrofit, he thought.
“Call me when it’s done, and I’ll swing back round to pick you up,” he said as he moved to leave, indicating for two of the drones to fall in behind him.
“What?” Gravity hissed in surprise, “you aren’t going to stick around for when she wakes up?”
Erich froze mid-step.
That had clearly been the wrong answer, because Gravity’s face took an angry tinge, “for fuck’s sake, Erich? She’s coming out of a coma. Her home’s gone. Her dad might be dead. She’s going to be just a little freaked out when she wakes up, and you can’t spare a few hours to be here when she does!?”
Erich felt his own frown forming, “I sincerely doubt my presence would bring her any extra comfort.”
“You can’t be serious?” Gravity looked flabbergasted and more than a little disappointed, “the pair of you were together before she went down.”
Erich resisted the urge to scoff, “we were fucking.”
Or rather, she was fucking him, and he wasn’t raising too much of a complaint about it.
Emotional connection hadn’t exactly been a factor, as he had zero doubt that the sex had been part of some ploy to get him on her ‘side’.
She hadn’t exactly been subtle about it.
Gravity scowled, “it was more than that. She might have hidden it, but I knew it meant something to her. She might talk a big game, but she doesn’t… she doesn’t do stuff like that.”
That time Erich did scoff, “you’re being naïve - and reading far too much into it. Pretty sure her being in a coma for a couple of months has made you forget what she was like.”
Gravity tried to speak, but he didn’t want to hear it.
“Call me when you need pick up,” he grunted as he turned to leave, two Spartoi falling in beside him.
Won’t matter to Sarah whether I’m here or not when she wakes up.
He had no illusions about what he had been to the supervillain’s daughter.
They’d been using each other. That was it.