As Erich watched his new minions wrapping his latest gift to the world of organized crime, he couldn’t help but think of an old engineering joke.
“The optimist will say that the glass is half-full.” He murmured, “the pessimist will say that the glass is half-empty. The engineer will say that the glass is two times bigger than it needs to be.”
He liked that joke. It said a lot.
“Why?” A curious voice asked from behind him, nearly making him jump. Given that he was currently encased in a very advanced piece of power armour, it was fortunate he managed to rein in that impulse at the last second, given that said jump might well have sent him a good meter into the air.
“No reason.” He muttered, turning to give the young girl – who must have been all of ten - the gimlet eye.
Of course, given the aforementioned power armour, the young girl could only see the glowing lenses of his eyepiece rather than his stormy expression.
“Get back to work,” he snapped after a few moments in which the prepubescent simply stood and stared at him.
The girl didn’t move, just standing there looking at him curiously.
Fortunately, that was the moment one of the older teens noticed the small standoff developing, and rushed over to drag the child away, even as the girl protested about wanting to talk to the ‘robot’.
Erich watched them go, and not for the first time lamented his inability to leave an unattended resource untapped.
Should have used machines to build my machines, he groaned.
Of course, he knew that was a lie. Machines weren’t even half as adaptable as human beings, which meant the ‘scavenging’ aspect of his new operation would have invariably ended up as the bottleneck. The ensuing factory would have also required regular maintenance. Maintenance that he would have had to perform himself.
Sure, his new peons needed ‘maintenance’ as well, but being street rats they were accustomed to looking out for themselves and adapting to new circumstances. In the short time they’d spent working under him, he could already see leaders developing and taking over his labour force. Which meant he didn’t have to spend half as much time policing them.
No, using the already available and untapped labour pool was the smart move.
As much as he would have preferred gleaming rows of machines producing his products over hordes of bright orange grubby looking kids and adolescents.
“Are those… kitchen tiles?” A second voice chimed in, nearly making him jump for a second time in as many minutes.
Reining in his temper for a second time, he turned toward Bronte. “Yes, they are.”
“Why are you wrapping them in duct tape?”
Erich resisted the urge to roll his eyes. This was the problem with working with people of a ‘lower education’.
“You asked for me to start producing bullet resistant armour.” He made sure to emphasize ‘resistant’ over ‘proof’.
“And you expect to stop a bullet with interior décor?” She asked. “I was expecting something more along the lines of ‘energy shielding’.”
As she spoke, she gestured to her own hard-light barrier armour system. Obviously, one that was much improved after he had gotten his hands on it. Now it wasn’t liable to short out midway through a firefight.
Erich scoffed. Again, another problem with people used to working with Artificers was that they saw a need for the fantastical when the depressingly mundane would serve just as well.
Glass is twice as large as it needs to be.
Still, he kept his voice low as he responded. “You wanted me to stockpile meta-tech for our other project, that means cutting corners elsewhere.”
Besides,” he said, raising his voice again, “you know what the common calibre of round being flung around this place is these days?”
Bronte’s eyes twisted in a manner that he knew meant she was scowling under her mask, but she answered anyway. “Nine millimetre, usually out of those piece of shit BP-5’s you see everywhere.”
“Exactly,” he nodded sagely. “A ceramic tile with an aluminium backplate and a thick resin coated denim covering is all you need to stop that kind of firepower.”
It was cheap, it was effective, and it was easy to make in massive quantities.
Sure, it wasn’t as effective as a fully-body energy shield – which was why he wouldn’t be swapping out his own any time soon – but for the totally unarmoured thugs that made up the saints it was a massive upgrade in survivability, even if all they invested in was a ballistic vest.
Erich couldn’t help but feel a small flutter of quiet vindication as Bronte’s eyes widened, and her gaze turned from derisive to contemplative as she looked over the rows and rows of his busy minions.
“Show me.” She said after a moment.
Slightly startled, it took the engineer a moment to respond. “It won’t stand up to one of my lasers or your gauntlets.”
She shook her head, “I brought along a few guards but left them outside. They’re still upgrading, so one of them is still carrying a BP-5.”
This time it was Erich’s turn to have his eyes widen in surprise. “I thought you snuck away?”
Despite the fact that all of them could easily talk on the phone, Zigzag was still weary about any of them meeting in person. It seemed the shapeshifter was quite determined to break up the power-bloc that could form between the trio of ‘metas’ that had just recently entered their organization.
Quite wisely, Erich thought, consider what we have planned.
Bronte shrugged, “they won’t say anything.”
In other words, they were already in the woman’s pocket.
A little discomforted by how fast she had apparently worked, Erich nonetheless brought up his wrist computer to instruct the Spartoi outside to let the guards in.
“Done.” He said.
“Good, now let’s set up this test.”
Nodding, Erich gestured for one of the kids carrying a finished vest to come over.
“Ah, sir?” The vaguely Hispanic looking boy said, no doubt a little nervous about being called out. A state that only deepened as four Saint goons sauntered into the building.
“Don’t worry about it,” Erich said. “Just pass me that vest and get back to work.”
“No.” Sarah interrupted, even as the boy reached out with the bulky fabric. “Tell him to put it on.”
Erich paused, his own had mid-movement.
“Sorry?” He asked, thinking he might have misheard.
“I said tell him to put it on.” Bronte said, sounding for all the world like she might as well have been discussing the weather. “If we’re going to sell this thing, we need to see that it works. For that I need to have a live trial.”
A strange hush fell over the warehouse, as dozens of children who had been pretending not to listen froze.
Erich was no different.
Glancing over, he could see that behind the woman, her guards looked entirely unaffected by what had just been suggested. Hell, they looked bored.
Most of them at least, he thought numbly. One of them, an older man, looked more than a little uncomfortable, eyes darting between him, the kid and Sarah.
And of course, that’s the one holding the BP-5, he thought.
“…I don’t think that’s required.” He said hesitantly.
Bronte quirked any eyebrow at him. “Maybe not, but I’m the one whose come forward and introduced your stuff on the forums. That means my own reputation is attached to your products. If they get a reputation for being unreliable, then I get a reputation for being unreliable, and our little plan goes up in smoke before it even begins.”
Erich ignored the ping of indignation that at the idea that his product wouldn’t work.
“Surely putting it up against the wall and firing a few rounds into it will suffice?” He suggested.
The blonde woman stared at him. “What’s the big deal, Erich? It’s just a street rat, and you said that the armour will work.”
It would. He knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“Perhaps I just don’t feel comfortable using a child as a test dummy?” He shot back, a hit of heat in his voice.
More importantly, he also wasn’t exactly comfortable with any of his workforce thinking he was comfortable with using them as a crash test dummy.
I’m the one who’s here day in and day out. Surrounded by them and their ample access to power tools.
Of course, even if that was true, he knew he’d made a mistake in letting his irritation show, as Bronte’s brow set into a stormy frown.
From behind her, her posse of underlings suddenly looked a lot more interested. They were no doubt thinking that their bosses control of her pet Artificer apparently wasn’t as total as she had suggested.
“Put the kid in the fucking jacket,” Sarah ordered, now unable to backdown if she wanted to save face.
Unfortunately, while he didn’t care one iota about face, Erich wasn’t about to endanger himself by hurting his standing with his workforce either.
Without much in the way gentleness, he shoved the pale young boy behind himself, making the kid stumble a bit.
Silence fell across the room as the two supervillains stood off, broken only by the lightly crackling of electricity that had started arc between Bronte’s gauntleted fingers. Behind her, her goons slowly started to finger their guns, even as the kids looked somewhat torn between stating, fleeing, and bizarrely, fighting.
Of course, Erich barely noticed that. He was too busy pondering whether his suit could take the concentrated power of a lightning storm to the face.
No, was the resounding answer he got a after a bit of mental math.
“I’m not fucking around now, Mechromancer. Put the kid in-”
The woman’s words were interrupted by the sound of metal feet, as the Spartoi from outside marched in. Their weapons weren’t primed, and they weren’t aiming them, but their sudden presence spoke volumes.
“Back off Bronte,” Erich said, surprising himself. “This isn’t New Granton.”
He wasn’t under her thumb anymore. They had an alliance, but he wasn’t her underling.
The blonde woman’s eyes darted around the room, at the recently arrived security mechs, and the threat implicit in them.
Whether Erich dared or not, was forever lost to time as a voice behind her spoke up.
“I’ll do it.”
It was the middle aged guard. His hands were off his gun, and high in the air as he – somewhat stupidly in Erich’s opinion – stepped between the feuding villains.
“I’ll test the jacket.”
Of course, the argument was no longer about who was testing the jacket at that point. It had long since escalated to a more ‘metaphysical’ level.
Still, the goons intervention was a welcome opportunity to head off the ensuing conflict before it could begin.
“Great.” Erich smiled under his mask, snatching the jacket from the kid and pushing him on his way, before tossing it to the goon. “Get it on, and let’s get this over with.”
Erich pitied the guy, he truly did. In speaking up in what was essentially Erich’s favour, he’d just found himself on Sarah’s shit list.
Your sacrifice shall be remembered nameless mook, he thought as he watched Sarah’s gauntlets stop crackling.
“Just get it on, Ethan.” She muttered, acting as if the earlier conflict was now beneath her.
It was a paper thin way of saving face after nearly coming to blows with the Artificer that ‘completely under her thumb’, but Erich was willing to bet the woman would be able to spin it within moments of leaving the warehouse.
Either that or she’ll just kill those goons and blame it on the Kings.
He put even odds on either happening.
“Alright Ethan,” Erich murmured, just tighten up those straps and then hand your gun off to one of your buddies.”
Preferably one with a decent aim, he thought.
The last thing he wanted was to get mook blood all over his warehouse.