“No, look,” Erich ground out with rapidly fraying patience, “I don’t want a sex slave. I don’t want an exotic dancer. I don’t want a menial labourer. I don’t even want a bulletproof bodyguard. I want an Artificer.”
The man across from them had maintained his plastic salesman smile for the entire time he’d been in his store, but it seemed even the slave dealer’s slick charm was reaching its limits.
“Are you sure-”
Sighing the man slumped down onto the counter, dismissing the array of ‘merchandise’ he had brought into his expansive store with a casual wave of his hand.
Erich was relieved to see them go. Hypocritical as it was, considering his reasons for being there, he felt more than just a little uncomfortable seeing humans arrayed before him like merchandise.
Even after seeing it happen a half dozen times by now.
Gravity had stormed out the first time and he hadn’t seen her since.
“Look man,” the dealer grunted, “I don’t have any Artificers. None of the dealers round here will have them. And even if they did, they wouldn’t sell them to you. There’s a pecking order to this kind of thing. Big fancy auctions. Invite only. The big players in town get the first dibs on that kind of thing, and I can assure you, if I don’t know you, you ain’t a big player.”
Erich felt like tearing his hair out in frustration. An entire morning wasted. Plus, he’d also put a dent in his relationship with Gravity for nothing.
“Are you absolutely sure?” He persisted, “I don’t even need a talented one. So long at they can make a few powerpacks I’m happy.”
The dealer shook his head, earlier friendliness all used up. “Like I said, everyone knows Artificers are force multipliers. Even shit ones. That means that when people like me get their hands on a ‘stray’, everyone from gutter trash to the Queen herself is interested.”
Erich’s mind panned back to the late Crusher. The guy did manage to hook up with the Brotherhood pretty quick…
It was actually a little worrying, if Artificer’s were truly as valuable as this guy seemed to think.
Especially considering a lot of people assume I’m an Artificer.
His earlier warning to Gravity echoed in his ears, and he gave the dealer a weary look before he strode out onto the busy street once more.
“Limpy: follow.” He shouted over the roar of the crowd.
He made sure the bot did exactly that before setting off, keeping a weary eye on the crowd around him. As he did, he caught the eye of a young woman standing on ‘display’ in the window of a nearby store. The blank glassy eyed stare she gave him in turn sent shivers through him, and he rapidly turned away, something shifting uncomfortably in his gut.
“Let’s get out of here,” he muttered.
He needed a shower.
“So, you didn’t find one?” Sarah asked from her position cross-legged on the couch.
“No,” Erich shrugged irritably, “and it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting our hands on one anytime soon.”
“At least, not as property.” Gravity chimed in from the back, not even attempting to hide her relief.
“Unfortunate.” The blonde muttered as she speared a shrimp from her Chinese takeaway with a fork.
“I can’t help but notice you don’t sound surprised.” Gravity noted, the faint hint of accusation in her voice.
The blond shrugged, “I’m not. It was a long shot at best.”
Erich resisted the urge to snap at her for wasting his time.
“So what now?” He finally gritted out.
Sarah just shrugged again, careless of the tension in the room. “Keep looking. Get creative. My hands are full with coming up with a plan to bring down two competing gangs.” She levelled a glance at the pair of them, “all I’m asking you two to do for now is find me a particular type of Meta.”
A particularly rare type of Meta, Erich resisted the urge to point out.
“You mentioned some of Hardlight’s old assets earlier?” He managed to keep his tone level. “Any caches of his old tech?”
If there were, he could upgrade them or strip them for parts as needed. It wouldn’t be perfect, but he could at least fix the suit or get a few drones up and running.
He levelled a grim stare at Limpy, who stood sentinel in the corner of the apartment, upgrades on full display.
What a waste, he sighed.
“None that I’ve found thus far.” Sarah said, “Daddy wasn’t exactly organized, and a lot of his contacts out here have gone to ground after his…” She paused. “after what happened. It’s taking some persuasion to unearth them.”
“I take that ‘persuasion’ is the reason you have blood on your new mask.” Gravity grunted, gesturing to where the yellow half-mask sat.
“Oh, and your charity case finally proved useful.” Sarah continued, ignoring her sisters as she gestured to the shop. The same place where Grace bunked down at night with a sleeping bag. It was also where she spent much of her day. Working or otherwise.
“That muscle-bound purple cunt showed up again while we were out. Her boss has invited us to meet with them tomorrow at a ‘neutral point’ to discuss our ongoing ‘employment status’.”
Somehow Erich doubted those were the words Myra used, but he figured Sarah’s summary was closer to the truth.
“Erich and I will go.” The blonde continued, “Gravity, you stay here with the bot and the help in case the Kings try to make their counterattack while we’re out.”
Gravity glowered but grudgingly nodded.
The fact that it would give her some time to spend with the ex-street rat was likely the only reason she agreed to be left out of the admittedly quite important meeting.
Now that they knew the store didn’t really serve a purpose, at least until they were aligned with one of the gangs, they didn’t bother to keep it open.
Which meant they didn’t really have a reason to keep Grace around.
An opinion Sarah has made abundantly clear, Erich thought tiredly.
Gravity had naturally picked the opposite side of that argument.
Even if she hadn’t originally been a fan of the girl, she wasn’t about to kick her back onto the street either. How much of that was out a sense of charitability, or a desire to oppose Sarah, Erich couldn’t say.
In the end, the deciding vote had come down to him, and to his veiled surprise, he had decided to keep the young woman around.
It wasn’t so much charitability as pragmatism. He had gone through all the trouble of saving the young woman, and after all the trouble that came from the act, it chafed at his sensibilities to gain nothing from it whatsoever.
At least this way I won’t have to save another street urchin when the store opens ‘properly’.
The meeting place was nowhere special. A diner barely a block away from the store, and just on the edge of Saint’s territory.
“Not exactly being subtle, are they?” Erich said as he glanced at the white and yellow colour scheme proudly adorning the building’s front.
“Even back home businesses under our ‘protection’ were expected to wave the colours. But as you said, we were more subtle about it.”
She glanced down the street, looking for anything untoward as she continued. “It’s a nice place, or at least, a nice enough place. No damage. No graffiti. When you consider how rare that is in a city like this, they’re probably trying to send a message.”
“Something like, ‘look how nicely we treat our underlings?’” Erich guessed.
A silent nod was all the answer he received before Sarah pushed the doors open.
“Erich!” A jovial and familiar voice called from within, and Erich looked over to see Myra happily waving at them. “I see you brought Sarah with you.” She continued. “Pity.”
Erich barely registered the second half of her comment though, his focus was on the stunningly attractive woman lounging in the stall next to the purple meta.
…Or is that a man? Erich wondered as his eyes raked over the aggressively androgynous individual.
No, that’s definitely a… woman? man?
Even after a good few seconds of staring, he couldn’t come to a conclusion. Which was a bit worrying, because he could honestly say he’d never been more attracted to someone than he was to this total stranger.
Please be a handsome woman and not a beautiful man, Erich prayed within his mind. Please don’t tell me I’ve awakened a newly discovered appreciation for homoeroticism.
Because he was very straight, and he didn’t need the kind of trouble that came with a sudden switch in sexual orientation.
“If the pair of you are standing there wondering if you’ve got a sudden desire to bat for the other other team on account of Zigzag over here, don’t worry about it.” Myra laughed, prompting Erich to realize that both he and Sarah were just standing there.
“Most people feel the same when the boss looks like this,” the purple woman chuckled.
Sarah was the first to recover, sliding into a seat opposite the pair with deliberate calm. Erich slumped down after her with a little less grace.
“Shapeshifter?” The blonde asked without preamble.
‘Zigzag’ gave the woman an unfairly bewitching smile as his… her? Their eyes changed from green to red and back again.
“As you said.” They said, voice just as sultry and gender ambiguous as the rest of them.
“So… when Myra said ‘like this’ does that mean you aren’t always… like this?” Erich blurted out, unable to himself.
That sultry smile turned on him, utterly unoffended, “Gender is such a limited idea. For someone like me, switching back and forth is as easy as putting on a new set of clothes. Sometimes I’m one. Sometimes I’m the other.”
They smiled, “and sometimes I’m neither.”
They stretched, arching their neck to best show off their delicate frame. “Do you like it? it took me a long time to get to a point where it was appealing to both genders.”
Erich shrugged uncomfortably and said something that might have been a vague approximation of ‘good workmanship’, causing Zigzag to giggle.
At least he hadn’t been struck dumb by the sight of a man.
Instead, it had been a genderfluid shapeshifter with no consistent sense of gender identity.
Totally an improvement, he thought sarcastically, putting the entire thought from his mind, after resolving that in the near future… he really needed to get laid.
If only to reaffirm my longstanding love of women and women alone, he thought, determinedly turning away from the supernaturally attractive face in front of him.
Well, at least he wasn’t the only one shaken, because despite Sarah’s attempts to pass it off, she had been just as dumbfounded as he was when she walked in.
Something Myra was still quietly chuckling about, despite the occasional heated glare sent her way by both of them. If anything, their irritation only seemed to be making it better for her, forcing Erich to ignore her as well.
“Right, well your interesting power aside, I understand you brought us here to discuss our employment status.” Sarah said, finally getting the meeting back on track.
“Now that you’re both done staring, you mean?” Myra chimed in.
“Back to the meeting at hand.” Sarah gritted out.
“Quite,” Zigzag nodded, her voice taking on a hint of chastisement. “Quiet Prowler. You’ve had your fun.”
The purple meta snorted, but obligingly went quiet.
Zigzag smiled anew as the Meta took them both in, “now as to the task at hand. I must admit, that while I have an interest in both you and… Gravity was it?”
Sarah nodded, allowing Zigzag to continue.
“Yes, while I have an interest in both of you and your talents, my interest is primarily in Mechromancer over there. An Artificer of his talents-”
“I’m not an Artificer.” Erich interrupted, ignoring the glare sent his way almost instantly by Sarah, and the incredulous look from the two other Metas.
He didn’t care. He wasn’t a Meta.
“My skills are my own. I don’t have any powers.”
“Oh,” Zigzag said, a peculiar emotion entering their eyes. “Now that is interesting.”