Relative Strength

by

George Pollock, Jr.

All my tech, Cyborg would always remember, and I was dead in the water.

He recalled the rustic mechanic's workroom he had sat in: Parts all over the wooden tables and benches. Tools everywhere. And prosthetics – an assortment of retro metal arms, metal legs. Feet on the floor. Hands hanging on the walls. Even for him, a true cyborg, it was creepy.

The T-car had broken down 10 kilometers back, just near the end of some tree-filled mountain range. He liked tree-filled mountain ranges as much as the next person but not when he needed some hint of civilization – and technology – to get help. All he got was a verdant view that obliviously said, "No, no car shop here – but have you seen our lovely tree-filled mountain range today?"

Thanks, he thought, I'll pass.

He was pretty sure the problem was in the plasma injector. If it had shut down, the engine was just a dressed-up block of metal with nowhere to go. And the only way to check the injector was to pull out the entire unit and see. The car's tool kit had helped loosened the couplings at each end, and he should have been able to twist the unit slightly to take it out.

He should have. He couldn't.

When that happened, he figured the injector had locked up its feed line. Still, there was a chance: If he started pulling it out straight up – rather than with the usual turning – the lock might retract from the stress and free the unit. It was worth a try.

It wasn't. The device was seated solidly.

Cyborg pulled. And pulled. And pulled again until his shoulder servos whined. And he groaned.

And he remembered clearly the pop that his right shoulder made before his right arm went limp. And the surprise of actual pain.

Ah, hell, he thought. That's just great. He looked at his immovable arm, then at the immobile injector.

Damn, he thought. I built this thing too well.

With his left hand and a sigh, he pulled out his Titan communicator and turned it on. "Cyborg calling Robin," he told it.

The masked teen appeared instantly on the small video screen. But Cyborg could see he was wearing his motorcycle helmet, so he must have been on the Redbird. "Robin here," he said hurriedly. The cycle's roar filled the background. "Make it fast, Cyborg. Slade's on the move."

"I'm about halfway to Gotham City, Robin. The T-car broke down."

"Sorry to hear it." The helmeted face glanced around quickly. "Can you fix it?"

"No. And I busted my right shoulder trying."

A rushed huff. "Sorry. Can't help you right now. Don't know when."

"I understand. Go get Slade."

"Wish you were here. Robin out."

The screen went dark. Cyborg sighed. "Yeah," he said quietly, "wish I were, too."

He looked around. No buildings. No signs. Just the tree-filled mountain range.

"God," he said, starting to walk down the empty highway, "I hate green …"

He went about three kilometers until he cleared a pass and saw a wide plain beyond. A quilt of geometry on the land suggested there were a lot of farms. If he squinted, he could see a town. Two kilometers later, he could see it was essentially a village. Rustic and rural. Stone walls, with cattle grazing in the sun.

He didn't think they made villages anymore.

Just outside the place, he saw a sign welcoming visitors. It was old and faded and rusted, and reading it was difficult. The best guess he had for the name of the town was "Rosinball."

Closer in, he saw some older cars on paved lanes. They seemed retro: almost-antique bodies with cylindrical tanks and pipes on the exteriors. Steam power? It was only a guess. Well, he thought, there was some technology here. In a way. But better than no tech.

As he headed toward some apparently central buildings, the people – the ordinary, everyday people going here and there and God knew where – glanced at him and walked on. Some smiled, some nodded. Some said "Hello" or "Hi." But none stopped and gaped and dropped their jaw. It was as if cyborgs were nothing novel here.

It was, in its own way, creepy.

A small restaurant appeared on the right. Well, he thought, it probably has a telephone. Better yet, a cute waitress.

It had a phone. It didn't have a cute waitress. It had a cliché veteran hash slinger beside the mechanical cash register on a linoleum-topped counter. Pink uniform, white apron and headpiece. Big beehive blond hair. Pen behind her right ear and a nametag. "Blanche," it read. It figured, Cyborg thought. Seemed to fit right in.

She clacked and cracked some gum as he approached. She sized him up, and like the other people he had seen, she showed no apprehension at his appearance. "Howdy," she said with a smile and a twang.

"Hi," he replied. "Sorry to bother you, but my car broke down in the mountains. Is there a car shop around here?"

"Sure is, hon'. But there's a good mechanic right across the street." She pointed out the front window. "She can fix ya right up. Save ya a call."

He looked through the glass and saw part of a nondescript gray-brown building with a large display window. In faded gilt letters, the word "Automail" sprawled across it.

He had no idea what that meant. And he wasn't impressed by the building. But it was a start. "Thanks. I'll take a large cola to go, please."

"Sure thing, hon'." She got the drink and rang it up. Cyborg clumsily got some money with his left hand, and she saw him struggling. "Somethin' wrong with your right arm?"

"Yeah, tore up my shoulder trying to fix the car." He sought the simplest explanation. "My arm is kind of a … prosthetic. I have … a lot of them. Kinda high-tech."

"A what?"

"A prosthetic."

"Artificial arm?"

"Yeah. Among other things ..."

"You mean 'automail,' hon'. Hell, she can definitely fix that. And probably your car, too."

"Really?"

"Sure thing, hon'. Go see."

"OK. Thanks."

"Anytime, hon'."

He left and paused just outside the door, studying the shop across the way. " 'She,' " he recalled and took a sip. He tried to imagine a cute female mechanic. He couldn't come up with one.

A bell hanging on the windowed door rang when he entered. No one behind the counter. Displays of articulated metal limbs, hands and feet. And not just human: In the middle of the small front area was a taxidermed standing black-and-white dog with a metal front left leg, held in place with a sling around the animal's shoulders. The dog was pale with dust. The whole place – a shade dark, even with the windows – looked like an old country hardware store that had been closed for years.

"Be right there!" A woman's voice – young, sweet, pleasant – came through a doorway to a back room.

Well, Cyborg thought, maybe she wouldn't be another Blanche.

She wasn't. She definitely wasn't.

She appeared in the doorway: slim, beautiful, in her late 20s. Big blue eyes, and blond hair flowing over the front of her shoulders from a pink rag cap tied around her head. The top sleeves of her gray coveralls were tied around her shapely waist. The lower half of the coveralls rode low on her hips, exposing more than a little of a well-toned midriff. She wore a black bandeau – a mini tube top – that just covered her breasts. They filled the bandeau well, he noted.

She stood in open-toed leather sandals. Two silver rings hung on the lower part of her right ear, just above the lobe, and there were two round silver studs on the upper part. She carried a crescent wrench in one hand, and both hands were covered in rough, well-worn work gloves.

His train of thought departed with a cargo of cute – no, beautiful – female mechanic. I'm in love, he thought.

For her part, the woman had stopped, agape. Her eyes widened. Her mouth froze open. It was clear she had just encountered something beyond her understanding. Beyond stone fences and grazing cattle and antique-looking cars.

"Oh … my … God …," she whispered. She nearly dropped the wrench. "Oh … my … God …"

Here it comes, he thought. The fear and panic when some people saw his high-tech body for the first time.

"Oh … sweet … Lord …"

Wait for it …

And then, he swore her eyes actually, literally flashed.

"Oh … my … GAAAAAWD!"

Wait …

Did she just sound …

excited …?

Instantly, she rushed him with the wrench still in hand. His training took over, and he assumed a defensive stance. "Hey!" he yelled. "I'm not here to hurt you! I need your help!"

She stopped right in front of him. No surprise on her face, no fear, no anger. Just …

… excitement …

"Oh … my … GOD …," she whispered again, sizing him up and down. Her voice rose. "Where did you get this TECH? WHERE? I've never seen anything like it in my life!" Suddenly, she seemed to be everywhere around him, poking, prodding, even picking up his left arm and stroking the forearm analytically. Questions spilled out:

"Is this neo-titanium?"

"Yes …"

"Standard hydraulics or cyber link?"

"Um … cyber link. It uses neural-linked free-flowing nano fluid … Say …"

"WETWARE? YOU HAVE WETWARE?"

"Yeah … Look, I need …"

"How are you powered?"

"Micro-fusion. See, my car …"

"WHERE DID YOU GET THIS TECH? I LOVE IT!"

"Jump City. That's where I live. Hey, if I could get a word in …"

"Oh." The little word carried a lot of disappointment. She backed away and looked down – and defeated.

"Is that bad?" Cyborg asked.

"No …" She moped back to the front counter and leaned against it, facing him. "It's just that …," she sighed, "… sometimes I feel so … out of place here. The people here do need me, but …" She swept a hand toward the displays. "… this is what they can afford. So it's all I have."

"Big market for prosthetics here?"

She smirked and looked up at the ceiling. "THANK YOU, JESUS! SOMEONE knows what they're called!" She faced him again. "Well … yeah. It's mostly farming around here. Sometimes, the accidents can be pretty horrible."

He glanced around at the creepy abundance of metal appendages. He imagined what accidents warranted them. "Guess so."

She straightened. "Sorry for the grilling. I just get worked up by new tech. So what can I do for you, stranger?" The question was playful.

He jerked his left thumb over his shoulder. "My car broke down about 10 kilometers up the highway, in the mountains. The waitress across the street said you might be able to help me."

"Blanche? Well, she's OK. Bit of a gossip, if you're around her long enough. Yeah, I can check out your car."

"Thanks. I should tell you that it has a lot of the tech I do."

The brightened eyes again. "Really …?"

"Yeah. Now … um … I've got another problem you might be able to fix."

"Uh-huh."

"Watch this." Cyborg took his left hand, grabbed his right wrist and raised his right arm high in front of him. He let go, and the arm fell and swung like a pendulum – squeaking and swinging and squeaking – until it stopped.

She raised a blond eyebrow. "I'm guessing it's not supposed to do that."

"Nope. Busted my right shoulder trying to fix the car."

She smiled and cocked her head. "Well, then," she said as a teacher would to a student, "we know which one we ought to fix first, don't we?"

The smile was returned. "Hoped you'd say that."

She curled a finger repeatedly to indicate he should follow her. "This way."

The back room seemed almost no different from the front. The same steel menagerie of prosthetics, but they crowded around a long wooden workbench filled with tools. There were part-covered tables along the walls. A welding torch, welding goggles and a gas cylinder were nearby.

"Have a seat," she said, patting a wooden stool.

He sat and studied the workbench. Among the tools stood a framed photo of the woman – a bit younger than she seemed now – and a man who also had blond hair. It came straight down the sides of his face. She had her hands crossed across the top of his head, and his vertical cowlick was visible behind them. He seemed slightly irked by the whole situation. She didn't seem to be straining to reach his scalp. It was as if he came up to her shoulders and no more.

"All right," she said, putting the wrench on the bench and taking off her gloves, "let's see what we have here …"

She turned toward him, and his heart – his fully human heart – pulled the emergency brake cord on his train of thought, slamming it to a stop.

The woman's left hand carried the glint of a gold wedding ring.

Well …

damn …, he thought.

She touched his right shoulder delicately – her head bobbing slightly back and forth to inspect it – then peered closely at the component seams. "Ohhh-kaaay … How does it open?"

He snapped back from the emotional train wreck. "Sorry … forgot. Second nature." He pressed an otherwise-blank spot below his right armpit. His "shoulder" rose with a high-pitched whirr on three metal rods. The curved "skin" split into three sections, which closed like umbrellas around the rods. The rods then sank back into his body, and the whirring came to a sudden stop.

The woman stared blankly after the process. A small grin grew. Still gazing at the shoulder, she said, "You know … if I weren't married … I would love you …"

She bent over slightly to study his shoulder. A downward glance by him – an instant, no more, and instinctive – confirmed that the bandeau wasn't completely tight, as it first seemed. And she breathed softly. Drawing back her chest to exhale – creating a pleasant depth in the middle – and then filling out again.

His train of thought got back on track.

Wedding ring, he reminded himself. Wedding ring.

She started to assess the exposed circuits. "God," she quietly, almost to herself, "I've only read about stuff like this. Where'd you say you were from?"

"Jump City. Out west."

She eyed a circuit. "You're a long way from home."

"Yeah. Going to Gotham City. Sort of a professional conference with the Justice League."

"I think I've heard of the Justice League …" She went back to the bench, got a tiny screwdriver and returned to re-examine the workings. "And you're a long way from Gotham City, too." She turned distracted. "Bet you could get this tech there, too ..."

"Probably. Wayne Enterprises does a lot of cutting-edge stuff there."

With the driver, she tapped a panel that had four small screws. "What's under this?"

He glanced down. "Power couplings for main artificial muscles in the arm. Pretty much snap-together lines."

"Mind if I take a look?"

"Go ahead." He chuckled. "Just don't lose the screws."

"Magnetic screwdriver," she noted, waving the implement significantly. "They'll come right out with it."

A small silence. As she started twirling the driver, curiosity finally took Cyborg. "Hey …," he started with self-conscious playfulness, "what's a nice techno-geek like you doing in a place like this?"

"I was born here. So was my husband. It's home."

"So a lot of family around here, then?"

The first screw came out, and she grabbed it with her free hand. "Not really. Just us and his younger brother."

"None of your family?"

"No. My parents died …" There was a pause, and when she continued, he noted a muted sadness. "… a long time ago …"

"I'm sorry."

"Well, I was really young when it happened. My grandmother took me in and taught me automail, and we worked together for a long time. Used to work out of her house outside town. When she died, I took my inheritance and bought this shop. Better location, more traffic."

"Still live in her house?"

"Yeah. But it's my house now. Mine and my husband's."

The second screw came out. "Forgive me for saying," he said, "but some things you've said – it sounds like you'd leave for places with more tech if you could."

More twirling, and a sigh. "Sometimes, I feel like that … maybe … but it's comfortable here. My husband and I – and his brother – had a lot of adventures when we were younger. When they were over, we wanted somewhere comfortable. That was here."

"What sort of adventures?"

"Well … long story. We saw a lot of places, though. Had some good times. Some scary. My husband and his brother even ended up in a few war zones."

Now the third screw. "Were they in the military?" he asked.

"My husband was, but he wasn't a soldier like you'd think. The two of them were more like … contractors. But they still got into some tight spots."

"What exactly do they do?"

She stopped. Cyborg saw her blue eyes darting around, straining for an answer. "Construction …" she finally said. "Specialized … construction …"

"Of what?"

She closed her eyes and sighed deeply. "Look … it's really technical … even for you …"

His one brown eye narrowed. "I'm running on micro-fusion and wetware. I think I can handle it."

She looked at him again and nodded contritely. "Sorry. You're right. It's just that my husband's work is kind of … classified. He still works for the government sometimes. I really can't go into details. He trusts me on that."

"OK. Well … sorry for the attitude. And thanks for the help."

The final screw came out. "That's OK. It's just that it's uncomfortable to talk about it to other people. Even here, with people we've known all our lives." She thought. "And I think that's also why I've stayed. I know these folks. They need an automail mechanic. Just like a country doctor. And that makes me happy at the end of the day."

She put down the driver and the screws. "OK … let's see what we've got." With a fingernail, she picked out the metal plate from his shoulder. In the compartment below, three tiny black tubes seemed to want to run parallel. They didn't. They were separated in the middle, and the six metal-capped ends scattered around the space slightly. "Take a look at this," she said.

Cyborg checked. "Uh-oh. That's not good."

She smirked. "Well, like last time … I'm guessing they're not supposed to do that."

"Nope. The metal ends should be connected."

"Bet that's your problem."

"Could be. Need to reconnect them to see. Might be something else, though."

"And we would reconnect them … how …?"

He held up his left fist. "The metal ends should touch, then …" He turned the fist slightly. "… you turn them. There's a tiny locking interface on each end."

She squinted intently. "Oh, yeah. I see …" She glanced at him. "If they lock, how did they come apart?"

"Stress-sensing release. Keeps the lines from being ripped apart. Really hard to fix if they're torn."

"Makes sense. So why only this shoulder?"

His other shoulder shrugged. "Dunno. I was using both hands to pull something out of the engine compartment when my shoulder popped. Must have not been pulling equally with my arms, so my other shoulder didn't break."

"Hmm. Looks like tweezer time." She went back to the bench and got two small tweezers.

"Tweezers?" he asked.

She picked up a large pair of pliers. A very large pair of pliers. "Well," she replied playfully, turning toward him, "if you like, I can always use this …"

"Um … no. Tweezers'll be fine."

She chuckled and pulled a high stool up next to him. A final inspection of the shoulder, and the tweezers – one in each hand – hovered before they dived in. "Amazing that something this small could shut down your entire arm," she said, her gaze never leaving the compartment.

"Or that a simple plasma injector could stop an entire car. That's what happened," he noted.

She looked up swiftly. "Your car has a plasma injector?"

"Yeah."

She went back to work. "Can't wait to see that," she said like a child expecting a gift.

Cyborg watched her skilled movements. Almost like a surgeon's. And he knew she'd have to be that talented to fit prosthetics. Gifted, even. She was a woman he could identify with, he thought. He could spend a lot of time with her.

Maybe a lifetime …

WEDDING RING!

WEDDING RING!

His mind yelled it almost audibly.

"Oops!" she said softly.

The exclamation brought him back. "What?"

"One of the ends slipped out of the tweezers. That's all. No problem." She was reassuring, comforting, and her work absorbed her again. "So … tell me about yourself."

"OK. My friends call me 'Cyborg.' For obvious reasons …"

"Uh-huh. What does your mom call you?"

"Victor. Victor Stone. But I didn't know my mom – or my dad – all that well. They died when I was younger, too."

She stopped, not looking at him. "Sorry … didn't mean to be rude …"

"It's cool. You didn't know. And I know how you might feel about your folks."

"Thanks …," she said quietly. The tweezers started clicking again. "So … what do you do, Victor Stone?"

"I'm a member of the Teen Titans in Jump City. Ever hear of them?"

"Hmm … They have something to do with Batman, maybe? I think I heard Batman's involved somehow."

"Not really. But Robin, our leader, worked with him in Gotham City for a long time."

"That must be what I heard. And you do, what, the superhero thing?"

Cyborg chuckled. "Yeah. That's about right. We try, anyway."

She sighed. "Not much call for them around here. Maybe it's a big-city thing."

"I don't know. People need help all over."

"AHA!"

"What?"

"Got one of them connected!"

"Boo-yah!"

She looked up and seemed supremely confused. " 'Boo-yah' …?"

"It's … something I say sometimes … when I'm excited …" He felt embarrassed.

She shrugged and went back to his shoulder. "Whatever …"

His eyes went back to the photo on the workbench. "That your husband in the photo over there?"

Her eyes never left her work. "Yup. His brother took that just after we were married. About five years ago. We were out grilling with some friends, and his brother had a camera. I sneaked up on my husband from behind. That's why he looks so miffed."

"Looks like you were having fun."

"I was, anyway. I like that picture." She chuckled. "More than the one where I'm gnawing on a rib and have barbecue sauce all over my face." A tiny click. "Got the second," she said.

"Sweet." He thought more about the image on the bench. "Is your husband really that short?"

An explosion of laughter answered him. "Oh, GOD, no!" she cried hilariously. "God, if he were here right now, he'd be so PISSED to hear you say that! Damn!"

It seemed as if he should apologize – for what, he wasn't sure. "Sorry. Sore point?"

She had calmed down. "Well … a little for him. Not for me. I'm only about half a head taller than him. He just looks shorter in that photo because he was sitting in a lawn chair. You don't really see that in the picture."

"Gotcha. But why the comedy just now?"

"Well … when he was younger, he worked with a lot of people who were older and taller than him. He got a hell of a lot of cracks about his height." A grin. "If you ever want to set him off, call him a 'pipsqueak.' "

He grinned back. "Family secret?"

"Sort of. But … some people threw it in his face as an insult because they thought he was too young for his work when he started. It hurt him." She paused. "It hurt me, too …," she whispered.

"That's too bad."

She was sullen for a moment longer, and her eyes were downcast. "Before my husband joined the military, his first … project … with his brother blew up on them. He lost an arm and a leg. His brother … almost died …"

"Sweet Jesus," Cyborg said.

The tweezers started clicking again. "My grandmother and I … fitted my husband with new limbs. Well … he wasn't my husband then. And his limbs aren't as high-tech as yours. Every nerve had to be attached to them. It's painful. Horrible. Grown men screamed like babies whenever we did the final lock-in." Another pause. "He never said a word …"

"Sounds like a brave guy."

"Maybe. I do know he felt guilty as hell about happened to his brother. That hurt him more than his own pain."

"So … what happened to his brother?"

"He needed a …" Her eyes sought an answer again. "… full-metal … body cast … until he finally recovered."

"That bad, huh?"

"Yeah. He's back to … normal … now ..."

"Well, that's good."

"Think I almost have the last one," she said. Her hands and tweezers slowed studiously. "Anyway," she huffed distractedly, "ever since then, my husband gets ticked off when people make jokes about others' heights."

Cyborg nodded. "I can see why."

"You see, tall people," she continued, using the term with a sneer, "usually needed his help to get their sorry asses out of trouble. It surprised them when a 'pipsqueak' could do wonders. And some of them were ungrateful bastards …" She thought. "It's not the size of your body, it's the size of your soul …"

He smiled. "Hey, good things come …"

"… in small packages. Yeah, I know. We pretty much don't use that joke at home."

"Sorry."

"It's OK. Look at it this way: You're a big guy. But these little, bitty tubes here brought you down, maybe. See what I'm saying?"

"Yep. Good point."

"Ah!" She removed the tweezers, smiled triumphantly and sat back. "Got the last! Try to move your arm."

He looked down at his right hand. He thought of making a fist, of releasing it, of bending the arm at the elbow, of stretching it out straight, of rotating it at the shoulder, and of lowering it again.

He thought of it. Then he did it.

"HEY!" he yelled. "All RIGHT!"

"BOO-YAH!" the woman said.

He started moving the arm more freely and wiggling the fingers. And he grinned. "Feels as good as new."

"You sure?" she asked. "No new strange feelings? No more inabilities?"

Cyborg made another fist. "Nope. Feels fine. But I'll run a full diagnostic later to be sure."

A sly, knowing smile. "Gee, Mr. Stone," she teased, holding up the tweezers, "look what a pair of pipsqueaks can do."

He snickered. "Got it."

"OK. Let me put the cover back on, and we'll go check your car."

"Sounds like a plan."

She gathered the metal plate, the screws and the driver, then began to put it all back together. "You said your car is about 10 kilometers away?"

"Yeah. Just inside the mountains, it looked like."

"Well, I don't think you're going to get too far tonight, even if I can fix your car. You wouldn't even make it to Central before dark at this point, let alone Metropolis. And that's still a hell of a haul from Gotham City. Hate to tell you."

"I know. Any good hotels or motels around here?"

She looked up. "Hell, stay with us. We have a guest bedroom. And you can meet my husband and his brother. I think they'd enjoy meeting you. They're between jobs right now, anyway."

She looked him up and down, studying the hefty metal semi-mechanical man. "And somehow, I think his brother would enjoy meeting you …"

"Seriously? Crash at your place?" he asked. "Don't want to impose."

She waved a hand dismissively. "Eh. No big deal. I'll just call my husband before we go out to your car. He won't mind. We'll just have to get the kids to bed earlier."

"You have kids?

"Two. Boy and a girl."

Then, Cyborg swore …

… she gazed at him …

… hungrily …

Her eyes turned seeking. For something that seemed to possess her, soul – and body. "Now, you know … I fixed your arm. Now you have to give me … something… in return …"

From nowhere, he swore he heard a train approaching. "Yeah …?"

She spoke breathlessly, as if filled with deep, secret desire. "You know, it'll be a while before we get back to my place and my husband …"

The train got louder.

"And we're probably going to be out in the mountains … alone … for a while …," she observed.

He recalled that he had used an emergency brake cord before.

"And we're going to need to pass the time …"

Conductor, I need another ticket. Now.

"So while we have … the chance …"

She finished with a huge giggle and grin. "You can tell me all about your TECH!"

He froze. Finally, his body – on its own – started offering forced laughter. "Yeah! My tech! Ha! … My tech! … Ha! … 'Course …"

The blonde nodded contently. "All right, then!" She got off the stool and held out a hand. "Nice to meet you, Victor Stone. My car's out back."

Cyborg stood and took her hand and shook it. It felt delicate and soft. And very, very strong. "Nice to meet you … um … You know … I didn't even ask your name. Sorry …"

"Winry," she replied pleasantly, finishing the handshake. "Winry Elric."

And before he could answer, she had already turned away and headed toward a phone on the workbench.

"Teen Titans," "Fullmetal Alchemist," "Justice League" and "Batman"; their characters; and situations are copyright of their respective owners. Story copyright 2010 by George Pollock, Jr. All rights reserved.