Mission: Chapter 9: Steam City
Back in Seaport, months ago now, Erm had been wandering the streets much as he was now. Looking for a place to belong. The Church of the Machine had found him, had taken him, had changed him. At his very core Erm had been converted. In his lust for perfection he had sought out the means to replace parts of his body with machines, for that was the only way to become closer to his God.
If he hadn't encountered Elias Ambrose in time, Erm may have been doomed. Elias, a man of a different faith, had dug deep into Erm's soul and laid it bare. The boy was himself once more, free to return to work aboard the Steamhawke again.
But he quickly found that the Church still had him. It was worse at first - whole hours where the unsavoury fervour had gripped him, where he truly believed in the God-made-machine. Chief engineer Brem talked sense into the lad, again and again, until the spells subsided. Over time Erm had managed to bury the Church's influence deep, but it would always be there.
“Hey!” a voice yelled, interrupting Erm’s reverie. “Stay focused. We’re supposed to be getting stuff for the kitchen, remember?” Every said, taking Erm by the arm and steering him in the right direction. For her thought, Every thought that she would have done better if she had been allowed to run the errand herself, since she knew the city better than almost anyone among them, but between what had happened to Chago and the that crazy doctor getting away, the streets of Kanesville still weren't safe for the pirates.
Every consulted the list of items they'd been given, before curiosity got the better of her. “What's got you all broody anyway?"
"One cog falls out of place" replied Erm through gritted teeth, reciting Machine verse without realising. His headache had been getting worse all day, but he blamed it on the smog. "How do you breathe in this town? I feel the air sticking to my skin. It's in my hair and now it's heavy on my chest."
"You're just getting your coal lungs" Every replied. "You'll get used to it if you stick around. Quit whining and... don't stand in that!" She pulled Erm by the hand, stopping him from stepping in something foul that was frothing up through a crack in the pavement.
"What is that?" he asked incredulously.
"I dunno. I see it from time to time. They'll seal it up. Come on, it's this way."
Erm followed, being pulled by the hand by Every. In the last minute his mind had wandered from the Church, to whatever that sludge was, and now to the girl that was dragging him around the corner. She seemed capable of handling herself, and he felt a slight resentment in having to accompany her on the errand into town. He didn't realise it, but the expression on his face showed it.
"I'm not a child, you know," he said in as deep and mature a voice as he could muster. With all his 16 years he thought he'd seen enough to deserve to be called a man. Still, he held on to the girl's hand.
“Oh really? What are you then, a mach--” Every started, and then, seeing Erm’s expression, she sighed. “Never mind. Let’s just...get out of here.”
They continued on in silence, Erm looking moodier all the while. They were almost to the marketplace, but before they could get there, they passed by the medical center, where they saw a long line of people waiting to get inside. “Ew, must be something going around,” Every muttered, hurriedly dragging Erm to the other side of the street. “We don’t wanna get it too.”
"Bills to pay and mouths to feed?" someone was calling from outside the medical center as Every dragged Erm around a corner. "Tired of being tired at the end of the day? Make things easier for yourself. Become mechanised. Every surgery is fully sponsored by Cogwheel Industries. One cog turns another, after all."
Those last few words struck Erm like a hammer, and all of the thoughts and feelings at the boy had tried to keep inside came spewing forth. It can't have been a coincidence, the intonation of the man's voice sounded exactly like the prayers he had heard in the Church.
Erm had stopped in his tracks. "What's wrong now?" asked Every. "Look, there's the marketplace. I hope the money you've got is enough. Come on... hey!" she had reached for his hand, but the boy had shoved her away. There was no emotion on his face.
"They don't have what I need. I need to touch the cogwheel. It's all I want."
"The cogwheel?!" Every exclaimed, realizing what was happening and picking the money for their errand out of Erm's pocket. "Are you crazy! Today it's touching the cogwheel, tomorrow you'll be cutting chunks out of yourself and replacing them with metal bits. Now come...on..." She tried desperately to pull Erm back to the other side of the street, where it was safe, but the boy wouldn't budge.
Erm felt the tugging, both of his mind pushing him to the medical center and the physical tugging of the young girl. It was the sound of her voice that snapped him out of his thoughts, or back into them. He blinked a few times and then looked at Every. He realised she had taken the money that had been entrusted to him.
"Hey!" he said. "You .. you pickpocket!" He made a grab for the hand in which she held the wallet. Every grinned.
"Just come along, then! I'll give it back when we get to the store."
She ran off laughing in the direction of the marketplace, waving the wallet in the air. Erm followed her in between the stalls. He grabbed an vegetable and tossed it at Every, laughing as it narrowly missed her.