Cold, Liam thought as he huddled in the alleyway, prize clutched to his chest as his moth-eaten jacket utterly failed to keep the biting wind and snow out. Apparently, there’d been a coup a state over a few weeks ago, and some cunt of a supervillain had broken out a weather dominator during the fighting. Of course, after turning the entire city into an icy wasteland he got a bullet to the head for his troubles, and had his machine busted, but the entire region was still suffering the aftereffects.
But none more so than the homeless population.
At least, those of us far enough away to still be alive, Liam thought, shuddering from more than just cold as he imagined being at ground zero. From everything he had heard – and he’d heard a lot – Seattle was now a city on the verge of death, with frozen corpses lying on every street corner. A situation not helped by the fact that loyalist and rebel factions were still squabbling over what little of the city was still functioning.
Not that the final titbit of information had any bearing on the street urchin. No, the salient details were in the first bit of information. Someone had fucked up. It was cold, and it was going getting to get colder.
Fortunately, the sudden drop in temperature would be as brief as it was fierce. So if he could survive that long, he would make it.
“Easier said than done,” he muttered.
Still, it could be done, and the object clutched to his chest was the first step to doing it. He knew of a few places that would trade food or clothes for interesting bits of scrap, and he was hoping the half-burnt out control unit he’d pulled out of an abandoned Master class Warbot would qualify.
Now the question was which of the groups to trade with. The Blood Hounds were right out. The Kings were expanding, so they would probably be willing to buy. The issue was getting in and out without getting pressganged into a purple outfit. The Saints were usually a pretty safe bet, and he’d heard they’d got a new-
“Jesus Christ!” Liam screeched as a figure appeared from nothing in front of him.
"Close," The cloaked figure said, a hint of smugness peeking out from under the thing’s artificially distorted voice. “I’m the Mechromancer.”
Liam didn’t give a fuck what the thing’s name was. He turned to run, only to realize that his back was to the wall, the thing across from him hemming him in.
Rookie mistake, he thought absently, heart sinking as he realized he was trapped. How the fuck didn’t I see him coming!?
With flight out, and the metallic glint of the figure’s mask making fighting a non-option, Liam resorted to his weapon of last resort.
"Please, just take it! Don’t hurt me!” He shrieked, flinging the control unit to the ground at the figure’s feet.
Even as the war-bot’s head rolled to bump against the meta-human’s – and he was sure this guy was a meta-human at this point – feet, he cursed internally at the unfairness of it all. He’d needed that thing to have even a hope of surviving the coming weeks.
"Relax." Mechromancer grunted, even as he bent down to pick up the device. "I'm not here for this.” He said, looking the device over. Then he seemed to rethink his statement, “well, at least, not just for this.”
“Please, that’s all I’ve got.” Liam begged, watching as the man slipped the control unit into his cloak.
"Not true." The figure drew closer, his cloak draped over what Liam was now realizing was an entire suit of metallic armor. “You have arms. Legs. A brain. All manner of useful things for a man like myself.”
"W-what?" Liam blinked, blood draining from his face. “You’re going to h-harvest my organs.”
That stopped the man midstep.
“What? No!” The Mecrhomancer grunted, genuine affront once more peeking out from under his artificial tenor. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“Y-you were talking about my arms and legs and brains and stuff.” Liam squeaked.
“Employment.” The figure said. “I was talking about employment.”
He seemed to pause for a moment, before cocking his head curiously. “That isn’t an actual thing is it? Organ harvesting?”
Liam shrugged, slowly coming to terms with the idea that he might not be about to die. “I’ve never seen it, but… you hear rumours.
A vague sound of disgust came from the suit, “ugh, and here I thought my opinion of this city couldn’t get any lower.”
Liam didn’t say anything. The guy wouldn’t get any argument from him. Portland was the pits.
“So, do you want a job or not?” The guy asked, returning to the subject at hand.
Heart still racing, Liam had to ask, “what kind of job?”
The figure shrugged, “pretty much the same thing you’re doing now. Find me parts. Bring them to one of my warehouses. I’ll pay you, and even throw in a hot meal and somewhere to sleep.”
The figure trailed off, and Liam was sure that behind that mask, the guy was looking him over appraisingly.
“Maybe a hot bath as well. You urchins are positively filthy.”
Feeling an odd sort of indignance – let this guy live on the street, see how clean he keeps himself – Liam managed to inject a little scepticism into his next questions.
“And how do I know you won’t skin me and use it for a lamp. Or sell me to slavers. Or shoot me for kicks and giggles.”
He could have gone on. The list of unpleasant things that could happen to an unwary urchin on the streets of Portland was as long as his arm.
“You don’t,” the figure shrugged. “But unless I miss my mark, you don’t really have a ton of choices.”
Liam scowled. “No, but I might have some if you hadn’t taken the control unit off me.”
The figure shrugged again, “sorry, not sorry. I’m not about to give it back. Come down to the warehouse on eight and second and I’ll pay you a decent commission for it. Don’t and… well, no skin off my back.”
With his piece apparently said, the villain turned away, disappearing in much the same way he appeared. Still, now Liam was looking for him, he could see a slight distortion in the air as something walked away.
Cloaking tech, he realized.
What he wouldn’t give to get his hands on something like that.
“At least that way I might stop being ambushed and robbed by assholes in alleyways,” he thought glumly, dusting snow off himself as he stood up.
He was going to go to that warehouse.
As the guy said, what choice did he have?
“And who knows, miracle of miracles, the guy might actually be on the level.”
He doubted it, but a guy could dream.
“Santa’s workshop has really taken a downturn.” Myra grinned from her position leaned up against the wall.
Erich didn’t even glance over as he slapped snow off his new active camo-cloak onto the floor of his office.
“So you found me then?” he muttered as he slapped the control unit onto the table. He didn’t even bother asking how she had gotten in. The drones weren’t programmed to stop her after all.
That would send entirely the wrong message, even if it would have been convenient.
“Were you trying to hide your latest venture?” The purple woman shot back.
No, he hadn’t really tried to hide this newest expansion of his business, but he hadn’t gone out of his way to advertise it either.
“Please don’t compare me to a fat old man,” he muttered, changing the subject as he gestured vaguely in the direction of the dozens of children and teens toiling away on the warehouse floor below. “And please don’t compare them to elves either. The drones have already had to stop two of them from knifing each other. Vicious little blighters, the lot of them.”
If they were elves, then they were the mercurial and vicious sort of old legends. Not the kind you saw building toys in Santa’s workshop.
Myra’s smile was undimmed as she stepped over the window. “Still, pretty out of character for you to start up a workforce. Always figured you for more of a lone wolf sort of guy.”
“Couldn’t meet the demand for merchandise by myself,” he admitted as he pried open a panel on the head in front of him. “So I utilized a cheap nearby source of labour that had the skill set I needed.”
It also helped that they were all but guaranteed to have no pre-existing allegiances.
Myra chuffed as she turned to look at him. “Street kids? Skills?”
Erich shrugged as he started poking around inside the robotic head.
Very impressive for the time, he admitted within the safety of his mind. Say what you would about the Master’s eccentricities, he hadn’t been Meta-man’s rival for nothing. The guy had been as skilled an engineer as he was an Artificer.
“You might be surprised.” He said, drawing his attention back to the conversation at hand. “I found most of these kids crawling all over the scrapyard looking for parts to trade.”
They weren’t educated by any stretch of the imagination, but most of them could recognize when a piece of machinery was valuable. Some of them could even identify the purpose of those parts.
“And all of them know how to pull something apart without destroying the bit they want,” he continued.
“So now you’re having them do the same, but in reverse?”
As she spoke, she looked down onto the warehouse floor, where a group of kids were all toiling around what was assumedly the frame of one of the new Helot drones. It was not a smooth process, and it seemed that none of them went more than a few seconds between looking at the drone and the tiny omni-pads they all seemed to be carrying.
“Hardly,” Erich scoffed. “Half of them wouldn’t even be able to build a toaster if I left them to their own devices.”
Instead he opened his drawer and pulled an omni-pad from the pile within, tossing it to the purple woman.
“Each of them gets one of these, with an app I created already installed. Then they’re designated a Helot limb. They’re to only build that one thing. Helps build familiarity. They then go to that unholy mass of junk in the middle of the room. The camera on the front helps them identify a part they will need and gives them detailed instructions on where and how to install it. If they don’t have the part they need, well, then they’ve got to head out to scrap-yards once more.”
He’d gotten the idea from a monthly robotics magazine he’d received as a child. It had a promotion where you could build your own robot from parts you received each month with each issue of the magazine.
At the time it had been a welcome reprieve from 'training'.
“Sounds simple. Surprising no one’s done it before.”
Erich shook his head, “simple in theory, complex in execution.”
Designing the app that is. He’d had to put together hundreds of different modular designs that could be built from wildly different combinations of parts. Then he’d had to create a tutorial on how to put each together.
To be fair, he’d cheated on the latter part by using a dumb AI for much of the scripting, but it had still been a very tedious undertaking.
Still it had been worth it. By the end of it, he’d had his app. With it, building a Helot was so simple even a child could do it.
As they are doing, he thought as he watched a drone whir to life down below, surrounded on all sides by awed and excited children.
Of course, it then took one step forward and face planted straight into the ground, eliciting cries of shock and dismay from the crowd. To their credit though, it didn’t take long for one of the older teens to step in, instructing the others to take apart the machine to look for the fault.
Will have to keep an eye on that one, he thought absently as he turned back to the head in front of him. Good leadership skills.
“How much are you losing to thieving?” Myra said, “I’m surprised most of them don’t just take the pad and run.”
“Some try.” He admitted, “but I’ve got drones on all the entrances.”
Proper Spartois he’d built himself. None of those piece of crap Helots.
“Some of them should have found a way around that by now,” Myra protested. “They’re street rats, it’s what they do.”
“Some of them have. No big loss. The pads are programmed to wipe themselves if they leave the building, and the drones have facial recognition.” He gestured to the one stood behind him. “If they do steal from me, they get to do it exactly once.”
“Only some?” Myra asked skeptically, “I would have figured most of them would have scarpered with what is essentially a free score. You’re kind of an asshole.”
To be honest, Erich would have agreed with her before he started. He was kind of an asshole.
Only, something peculiar had happened, and he didn’t know how to feel about it. Not at all.
And that made him more than a little uncomfortable.
“Well… you see-”
Fortunately for him, what would have been a stilted and awkward explanation for him was interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Enter,” he said, eternally thankful for the reprieve.
Of course, that eternal thankfulness proved incredibly short lived the teen with ‘leadership skills’ from before walked into the room and Erich recognized the expression on his face.
One he had often seen before, usually on the faces of those who met his family in their officially capacities as heroes, but he’d never had aimed at him.
Reverence, he thought uncomfortably.