"...You're right." I say, after considering the two of them, "Sending you to the birdcage- that'd be a death sentence. Though I'd argue you deserve it, selling drugs to kids."
"Look, someone wants to feel good, I'm gonna give em' the means, I ain't a hypocrite." Skidmark says, but backs up when I shoot him a glare.
"It'd be a death sentence- and you're right that I don't think I want that on my conscience at the moment. Lucky for you two that I have some ideas on how to keep you out of trouble. Now... the lab. Oh! And you're going to be giving me everything you own."
It was more or less an car repair place, with some crazy additions. Squealer had made herself some unique tools and gear, and she had large-scale lifts, literal mounds of spare parts, and entire walls decorated with scribbled blueprints. I had her point out the majority of the useful gear, and I began gathering things together. I didn't trust her, of course, so I made sure to check in various other places within the garage- inside out of the way cabinets, at the bottoms and tops of shelves, in drawers with iron padlocks.
Hidden throughout her lab, is, unsurprisingly, a rainbow of different powders, plants, crystals, and liquids in various bags and vials, all of which, I'm sure, are illegal. I gathered them into a pile and destroyed them with a CEP. But, more pleasantly, and more surprising, there's also a large amount of cash, just, lying around. I guess its not really surprising. Why be a gangster at all if doing it didn't make you lots of money? I amass a small fortune as I search through the lab, but really, the most valuable stuff is still her custom tools.
Soon, I had another two toolboxes filled to the brim with Squealer's tools. I'd have to make a few trips for everything else, but with her industrial-strength rigging, I think I'd be able to start making progress on the bigger, fundamental pieces of my future amusement park.
That said, I have the feeling that Squealer isn't the best-equipped tinker around. For one thing, the blueprints on the walls were rough. They were vague, they reminded me a bit of my own journal, so many brilliant glowing-gold ideas swimming around in my head that have to be let out in some way... but her's was worse. My own journal had been scribblings; vague shapes of what I wanted, sketches of the image of a completed product or the parts I'd need to craft. Squealers was... like the drunk recollections of something great. There were far too many dismayed question marks, and blurry half-erased sketches done over and over with a shaky hand. Underneath more than one of the designs were the words "close enough".
It was one of the saddest things I've ever seen.
Don't do drugs kids! Any potential you have as a mad scientist will go right down the crapper.
Deciding I'd have to make several trips to move everything from Squealer's lab to the boat graveyard, I decided to get Squealer and Skidmark squared away for now. I climbed into the seat of the Egg Mobile, and I helped both of them scrabble up into the cockpit with me. There wasn't enough room, so both of them had to uneasily sit on the edges of the cockpit and try to hold on as best they could without use of their hands, and for their benefit, I kept the flight to a relatively slow cruising speed so the wind wouldn't knock them out of the cockpit.
Once we reached the boat graveyard, Skidmark and Squealer were ordered silent as I began constructing the devices I'd need.
I worked for a good two hours, building up the large-size Chaos extractors and attaching them to a hastily-constructed generator. Really, this was kind of an inopportune situation. I hadn't had time to redo the wiring on the boat, and had been planning on building the beginnings of my own lab before looking for a good power source, but I suppose one makes do with what they've been given.
But more than that, I'm struck with an idea.
"Skidmark." I announce, "Come here." the foul-mouthed Merchant reluctantly moved forward, and was looking at me like he was scared.
"What do you want?"
"Tell me about your power."
"What about? I put my hands down, and everything starts moving in one direction. I think its forcefields or shit."
"Hm. How long does a zone last?"
"It doesn't go away unless I want it to."
"Have you ever tried to keep one going while asleep?"
"Hmm." I take him outside, to a large, flat, strip of metal. "Put down a zone here."
"As strong as you can make it." I order. Allowing him to free one of his hands, he does so, reinforcing it, making the colors glow brighter and brighter, and I can hear the howling of wind as air passes into the zone. I grin, and then lead him back into the boat. "Now, time for the two of you to start making yourselves useful."
The Crabmeats release them, and Skidmark immediately reaches down to try and put down a new zone, to aid in his escape, when Moto Bug tackles him backwards. He falls into the first of the two hot-tub sized extractors, and Squealer screams as Skidmark is engulfed in crackling green energy and his expression freezes in place.
Moto Bug pushes her into the other one, and the screams stop.
Closing the lid on both generators, I watch as the lights inside the old ship light up brightly, and deep below the engine begins to rumble. The massive propellers of the ship had been firmly entrenched in the ground, and I had taken the opportunity to disconnect them from the engine so that the ship doesn't explode trying to turn them. For now, Skidmark and Squealer are powering the useless turning of several large metal rods. But that would change in the future.
Heading back outside, I listened to the howling of Skidmark's still-active zone, and grinned. It didn't vanish, despite its master going into stasis. Already I was imagining great turbines positioned at the edges of the zone. They would have to be made of sturdy stuff, but the wind power produced by the air rushing through the zone alone would make up an excellent source of power for a backup generator. I'd have to eventually free Skidmark to re-position the zone to somewhere more convenient once construction begins in earnest, but it'll do nicely.
Its almost surprising that the two of them never considered that before. Skidmark has the ability to create a perpetual motion machine, with that at her disposal, I'd think that any Tinker would make some use of it, but from what I've seen and read, the most they use their abilities in tandem for is to give her trucks speed boosts, when really, they should have put it to work charging a limitless battery and designing the most powerful electric car of all time.
Well, I suppose it doesn't matter much now.
I spend the next few hours ferrying Squealer's lab to my new headquarters bit by bit. It impresses upon me the need for heavy lifters. I need something capable of lifting great weights, and holding it in place while I work. What I need, of course, is a giant robot. And, lucky enough, I just happen to have large-size Chaos extractors just sitting around waiting for a new home! I should build two giant robots! The headquarters own electric needs will easily be met by a few turbines in front of Skidmark's zone.
No, no, bad Taylor! Giant robots will have the Protectorate come running.
Something smaller then. Something with oomph, but not big enough to draw unwarranted attention.
I have just the thing in mind!
"Armsmaster, you, of all people, appreciate convenience. Efficiency. So, why is it you keep making complications for me?"
"...It was not intentional, Ma'am." Armsmaster ground out, "The Hebert girl-"
"Robotnik, now." she says, "She introduced herself to the Wards and the Goddamn Mayor by that name. So. What is she?"
"What do you mean? She's a Tinker, one specialized in robotics, or perhaps cyborgs."
"No, I mean, what is she to us, legally? Villain, or rogue?"
"Villain." Armsmaster said, "Even disregarding the assault on myself, property damage to one of our monitor rooms and to our force field projector-"
"By the way, how long will it take for Toybox to send us a replacement?"
"It's not going to happen, unfortunately." he muttered, "The Tinker who sold us our forcefield has left the group. They said they'd try to contact her, but there were no guarantees."
"Hmph. Any chance of you being able to repair it yourself?"
"I've had a look at it, beside it not being my expertise, the machine is a write-off. Integral parts, unique parts, were chewed up and ripped apart by her bug robot. That and, with the majority of the wiring bit through, I'm not even sure which wires were supposed to connect to which nodes. However, I've contacted Dragon about it, and she'll see what she can do."
"I don't like owing her favors."
Armsmaster smiled, "She still owes me one or two. Don't worry about that front. We might very well end up with a better forcefield than before."
"The missile defense system hasn't been touched, though?"
"No. The forcefield generator in particular was targeted." Armsmaster said, "Which takes us back to her villain designation. This was a planned strike meant to cripple the Protectorate. She cannot be allowed to remain loose. She's too dangerous."
Piggot sighed, "From what I see, it was less tying to cripple the Protectorate, and more trying to create an avenue of escape for herself. What did you do to her to make her react this way? She was initially willing to work with you and become a Ward, wasn't she?"
"That was the indication." he muttered, "Although, considering she drew our attention by assaulting one of the Wards, it could be she had chaos planned from the beginning."
Piggot shook her head, "Shadow Stalker did complain that Robotnik recognized her, but she refrained from outing her, and from attacking the Wards. No, based on what other agents who made contact have told me, not to mention the questions her father answered and asked, she was willing initially. What changed?"
"I asked her to disassemble the robot she made to prove her abilities. She refused, and ordered it to attack me."
"And then the rest of the chaos of two days ago occurred." Piggot nodded, "Why would she not want it disassembled?"
"She-" Armsmaster grimaced, "She claimed she didn't want to kill it. Because it was her first real invention. And that there was no way to deactivate it, except violently destroying it. I made to do so, as she didn't wish to, and that was when she attacked."
"...Was it alive?"
"...Perhaps. A live rat was one of the components of the machine. And its AI was complex enough that it could interpret audio-based instructions."
"So, you asked her to kill- lets say the equivalent of a pet. A living thing with sentimental value to her, and then when she refused, you made to do so?"
Armsmaster sighed, "That doesn't excuse assault."
"No, but it does explain it. The most preferable option is still trying to have her join the Wards. Now that we know what made her feel like she had to escape so desperately, we can prevent the incident from repeating."
"I want you to send Kid Win to have a talk to her about joining the Wards. If she seems open to it, we'll have a discussion on how she'll be paying us back for the forcefield and other damages. An additional Tinker is too useful to turn up, especially one with Big Rig's level of ability. We can afford to forgive her, especially considering she's a minor. She made a flying saucer capable of, apparently, according to witnesses, defeating all three of the Merchant's Capes. And she did it without a lab or a penny to her name in under three days. On top of all this, she's still a fifteen year old girl. Adult Tinkers on their own have trouble with getting forcefully recruited. I don't want to hear about the Empire getting another Cape."
"Understood. Might I suggest sending Shadow Stalker with him when he goes to see her?"
"Didn't she get in a fight with Sophia before all this started?"
"Yes, but its also a bad idea in general to send Kid Win to meet her without backup. She wouldn't appreciate a member of the Protectorate or the PRT, based on past experience, but she reacted positively to the Wards, even to Shadow Stalker, who she swears she recognized even with the mask. Shadow Stalker herself has also volunteered to try and get her recruited."
"Hm. Go ahead. Its best she get used to Shadow Stalker and they work out their differences now, regardless of whether she'll end up joining the Wards. The two of them can protect each other."
His name will be Alpha.
Like many of my ideas, he sprung from the depths of my brain, fully-formed, like Athena from the skull of Zeus. I can just feel the way that he's the first of something great. Just building his framework, inspiration keeps hitting me of how to build even better things to come after. Alpha will be the first of my E-series robots. E, for Elite. They'll knock my other creations out of the water for sure, in terms of AI, durability, mobility, and functionality!
Alpha's main purpose hasn't changed of course. He'll be acting as a support in my larger-scale building. Holding things in place, manipulating extremely large objects, bending and reshaping metal, that sort of thing. Future members of the E-Series I'm thinking of being combined lab assistants and bodyguards, the first and last line of defense for my own safety when within my lab and on the prowl.
I'll of course invest in body armor, personal forcefields, exoskeletons, and backups for my body and mind when I have more resources to throw around, and there are more threats directed at me, but a simple thing such as good bodyguards is a good place to start.
I more-or-less spend the rest of the day working on Alpha, Squealer's rigs set up for large-scale vehicles ending up a lifesaver, and when I'm done for the day, I set the Badniks to patrol the boat graveyard while I sleep. The Egg Mobile taking up position near my bed to alert me if anything happens during the night.
Morning comes, and I spend about an hour, while eating a breakfast of leftover snack food, making the body of a relatively simple Badnik not too different from the Crabmeats, who I had out and about looking for an appropriate power source. The boat graveyard wasn't as rat-infested as the city, unfortunately. It being mid-January, they tend to stick to areas that are warmer and provide food. The rusted boats are easy shelter for the things, for sure, but not much food going around, not this time of year. I finish eating and start work on Alpha again, and its nearly lunchtime before they come back with something suitable.
I place the rat into the small-size extractor, and my newest Badnik comes to life.
"Gekogeko." I name her- gotta get some more diversity here. She's a battery hunter.
She has a very animalistic mind in a way, she's programmed to quickly hunt down animals of the right size, grab them, carry them in her mouth, and deposit them back here at headquarters unharmed. Compared to the Crabmeats, which were originally designed for perimeter defense, she should be much more efficient. She's got a long sticky tongue like any self-respecting frog to aid her in this, and the inside of the mouth chamber is large enough to hold a cat. If I need anything bigger, I'll track down Bitch again, and see if she has any unfortunate lost causes for me to put in stasis.
"Rats please, male and female, adults." I order.
"Gotcha!" she replies, and hops away, quickly vanishing from view. She doesn't have much of a vocabulary- it's almost paradoxically easy to allow my Badniks to understand spoken and written language, but if I want them to be capable of speaking for themselves, I have to record all the words that they need.
A text-to-speech program would be useful, but making one from scratch would involve still recording quite a bit of noises for them to work from. Hmm. "Egg Mobile! Find text-to-speech programs online, and install them in all Badniks."
Egg Mobile, being unable to speak, is unable to confirm my orders, but I trust him.
Taking a short break from working on Alpha, I construct a couple pens in a few of the cleaner rooms on the boat. Some Crabmeats are set on collecting driftwood to make sawdust bedding for them, and then I set out in the Egg Mobile, heading for a pet store. Now that I have money, I can actually just buy what I need!
I consider buying some rats straight from the store, but its really just cheaper to have Gekogeko take from Brockton Bay's natural population. I'm doing my part to fix the vermin problem that way as well.
Although, that doesn't mean I can't buy other things! There are machines that, say, a rabbit might be more suited to powering than a relatively small rat. Or devices that require a smaller power source, such as, say, a hamster, rather than a relatively large rat. And those aren't really creatures that are easy to find just wandering Brockton Bay's sewers and streets. In the end, I'm heading back for headquarters with bags and bags of various rodent feed, water bottles, food bowls, toys, and cages and cages of pets.
The clerks were more than a little concerned, to tell the truth, but I wasn't really doing anything illegal, this time. I mean, technically, sure, you have to be over 18 to buy animals at the petshop, but that's on them for not asking! I'm glad I'm tall for my age. And it helps that I have very impressive facial hair for a girl!
When I get back, Gekogeko is waiting for me, with two squirming rats trapped in her jaw. Setting up my battery enclosures, I have her release them into the prepared area, and then send her back for more.
I admit, I got sidetracked setting up the enclosures and then playing with them for a bit, and I'm only drawn out of my playtime when Moto Bug repeatedly nudges me, to try and get me to follow him. Following his lead, I find myself outside, walking the deck of my headquarters, and seeing a boy in red and gold armor, floating on a hover-board. Behind him, was Sophia Hess.
Oh what now?