Everything and Nothing
Where would a reasonable person draw the line between investigating and stalking? I wasn't entirely sure at this point, but I'd definitely blown straight past that boundary weeks ago. Maybe I should have felt more guilty about that: blatantly invading the privacy of strangers, poking around their personal spaces, and watching their private routines; but I found that the more I watched them, the less the guilt bothered me. It was probably a sign that I should stop, but I was on a warpath, a quest for retribution, and I had justice on my side.
Armsmaster's workshop was cluttered, cluttered but not messy. There was so much stuff packed into the space: tools, working equipment, pieces of incomplete tinkertech, pieces of complete tinkertech that had been disassembled. At first glance, the overwhelming expanse of stuff assaulted the senses, blurring together into obscurity as the brain tried and failed to process the hoard into understandable, individual entities. However, once you'd taken the time to really study the area's layout and the way Armsmaster navigated it, it became clear that every object had its place: organized in relation to the other objects around it, and its general position in the room to give Armsmaster the most efficient workflow possible.
Not that I could really make heads or tails of the layout myself, but from the way Armsmaster worked and used the space, it was obvious that the system was in place and utilized.
Today, the Tinker was seated at his computer, typing away furiously at what looked like some sort of code. I'd always been pretty decent with computers, but as I peered over his shoulder I couldn't make heads or tails of what he was working on. He typed quickly, and the programming language was obscure enough that he could have been slamming his hands randomly into the keyboard and I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.
As I stood there, pretending that I was some sort of code breaker trying to decipher a secret language, my nerves were making my stomach do somersaults. I was stalling. I'd come here today with a specific purpose in mind, a plan to take action, but once again I was finding it much easier to be a silent, unseen observer than to actively engage others. Today was the perfect opportunity too. Armsmaster had a visor on: a smaller tinketech piece than his normal helmets, probably designed to be used as an aide to his work here in the workshop. It didn't look like it was specifically meant to conceal his identity, but it was better than nothing. He'd probably feel better about a meeting with something covering his face.
Not that it mattered at this point; my power kind of invalidated secret identities. I had been attempting to avoid looking too closely at things I probably didn't need to know, but it was a bit like pretending to turn away from someone when I actually had eyes on the back of my head: the illusion of privacy, something to make myself feel better more than anything.
A sudden movement from the Tinker startled me, as he quickly leaned to the side and grabbed a small metallic can from a little rack hanging off his desk. He dexterously popped the tab with one hand, still typing with the other, and drank its contents in one sitting. After dropping the now empty container into a nearby slot, he returned to his coding with renewed gusto.
Metaphysically ringing my hands together, I reconsidered my options. Armsmaster seemed pretty busy; and he was so focused he might take offense to being disturbed. Not that he wouldn't take offense to a stranger suddenly appearing in his workshop, but...
Miss Militia seemed to be pretty nice too.
A glance revealed her office to be empty. Damn. Maybe she was...
No, I was just putting things off now. I'd already devised a plan and had decided that reaching out to Armsmaster had the best chance of getting anything done. He wasn't quite the ideal Hero I'd always envisioned him to be, but then again, none of the heroes were exactly as I'd imagined them. They were just people after all, underneath the costumes and ignoring the powers. Not that they were bad people either, a certain Ward aside, but they had their flaws just like anyone else. The point was that Armsmaster was a pretty serious, matter-of-fact guy, and if I could get him to believe me, I was confident that he'd actually try to address the matter.
Of course, if this plan fell through I could always try going to the PRT Director instead; but I'd really prefer to avoid a direct conversation with Director Piggot if I could help it. From what I'd seen of her, she took her job very seriously but was rather hard to deal with. Add that to her 'the mission comes first' mindset and chances were that things wouldn't end up going my way.
No, it had to be Armsmaster. Or at least, I had to try with him first. If that didn't work out...
I was still stalling. I needed to jump in head first.
Taking a deep breath, I gathered my courage and moved to a spot a few paces to his left. Far enough to hopefully be non-threatening but close enough for an easy conversation. Then, I appeared, just enough for him to interact with me but not enough to be recorded. My costume wasn't great, just some cargo pants, a baggy sweatshirt, and a cheap domino mask I'd 'borrowed' from the Protectorate's stock, and I'd prefer it if any identifying features that could be picked out about me weren't immortalized in a digital medium.
Taking the proverbial plunge, I made myself known.
"Armsmaster?" I called out in a tone more meek than I would have liked. He flinched hard before going absolutely still. The motion, though brief, was so violent that I couldn't help but flinch as well, before cringing from my face to my hands. There were a few beats of silence as Armsmaster remained perfectly still. Eventually, he called out a response.
"Who's there? Show yourself!" he demanded, his tone tight. I frowned, studying him. I had shown myself, he just hadn't turned to look for me. With a growing suspicion, I took a moment to peer inside his visor from his own point of view. Sure enough, a number of camera feeds were overlaying the device's screen showing the interior of the Tinker's workshop.
Taking a hesitant step forwards, I brought an arm up to try and catch his attention.
"I'm right-" His head snapped around to face me and I froze.
"Who are you? How'd you get in here?" As he inched away from me, rolling slowly backwards in his chair towards another computer terminal, I realized I had to start making my case before he panicked and lashed out at me.
"I- I'm not a villain or anything. I just- I have something I think you should see." I pulled a manila folder out and made to set it on his desk, before realizing that there were no empty spots at the moment. "Um," I turned back to him, just in time to see him subtly reach under the desk of the terminal he'd been inching closer to. Taking a peek at the spot, I noticed the hidden panel of buttons right as he pressed one. I cringed, waiting for some weapon system to boot up and gun me down, but nothing happened. A silent alarm maybe? If so, I needed to be quick.
"Could- would you please take a look at this?" I asked, holding the folder out for him to take. He made no sign of moving, and after a beat of uncomfortable silence, I prodded him again. "It's not a trap or anything dangerous, just photos. It's- Shadow Stalker has been violating her parole and I have proof." As his ominous silence stretched on, I decided to take another peek at his visor.
The interface was alight with a flurry of activity, as system logs and chat windows chased each other across the screen.
Research and Development level lockdown initiated.
Master/Stranger quarantine protocols engaged.
M/S Lockdown team mobilized. T-minus 3 minutes for full mobilization.
Shoot. Okay, that was bad, but not the end of the world. They couldn't actually keep me here, even with the Rig on full lockdown, but that wasn't my main concern. I needed Armsmaster to be willing to listen to what I had to say, and if he believed he'd been mastered or something there was no way he'd hear me out. I turned my attention to one of the chat boxes.
D: What's going on?
A: Possible Stranger. Not showing on cameras/sensors.
D: The Rig?
Damn. Maybe I shouldn't have only partially revealed myself. I was beginning to suspect that it had killed any credibility I might have had.
"Just- hold on a minute, okay? If I lay the pictures out for a camera, would you be willing to at least look them over?" Armsmaster's head twitched to the side, back towards his desk. After a moment, he turned back to me.
"Can you show them to a camera?"
"I-" I bit my lip. If he was willing to engage me at all, then I had to take the plunge: go all-or-nothing. This was too important to me to give up on now. "Yes." I finished, opting for simplicity and willing myself to be seen by the electronic systems.
Armsmaster stiffened as I all but popped into existence on his camera feeds. The numerous angles focused on me made me a bit self-conscious, but I soldiered on regardless.
"So, uh, which- err. Where would you like me to put the pictures?" There was another period of silence as Armsmaster devoted part of his attention to his communications.
D: I can see and hear her now.
D: She sounds young.
D: Did she tell you why she's here? What the pictures are for?
"You claim you have evidence that Shadow Stalker has violated her parole?" Armsmaster prompted me, probably more for the benefit of whoever he was talking to. I nodded.
"She's done more than that. It's just, I wasn't able to get evidence of the stuff before..." I trailed off as Armsmaster lapsed back into silence. Meanwhile, his conversation partner continued to advise him.
D: Humor her?
D: This seems like it might be personal.
D: She may have discovered Shadow Stalker's civilian identity.
I could see the muscles around Armsmaster's jaw tense as my heart hammered in my chest. This wasn't going the way I'd planned it at all. After a moment, he prompted me again.
"You had to bring this evidence here? To my workshop? Personally?" I swallowed thickly and nodded. He continued. "I find it difficult to believe that your evidence is genuine when you seem so personally invested in showing it to me. Why are you trying to cast doubt on Shadow Stalker?" I found myself bristling at the implication in his question.
"It's not enough that she's in the wrong? That she's dangerous? I can't believe you're not more concerned about this! I brought this here personally because I wanted to make sure you'd actually look at it, instead of having someone else brush it under the rug. Isn't it your responsibility to-" He held up a hand to stop me.
"You can claim to have good intentions, but the way you've gone about this, I cannot help but be suspicious of your motives. What I see, is an unknown individual, using her power to trespass in a restricted Protectorate facility, and who may or may not be attempting to sabotage the career of one of my Wards for unknown reasons." He paused, letting the weight of his statement sink in.
I could feel myself deflating. He was right. I was definitely a suspicious individual, I couldn't honestly deny that, but there was no way I could put my faith in conventional methods. What was I meant to do: send my evidence in the mail and hope the bureaucracy took it as anything more than a bad prank? No, I needed to make sure my case was heard: that it was taken seriously.
"If you want me to even consider taking this as more than a poorly thought out attack, I need a reason to believe you. If what you're saying is true, why have you devoted so much personal effort to it?"
I tried to ignore the sick feeling rising in my stomach as I considered his question. Could I give him a reason to believe me? I'd tried multiple times to report the bullying to the staff at Winslow and I'd always been brushed off and dismissed. I couldn't believe that it was going to happen all over again, all because Sophia fucking Hess had powers: was a Ward. No one was willing to help me, not even when...
I looked back up at Armsmaster, studying me with a cautious intensity.
"You-" My voice waivered, and I had to stop to swallow down the lump in my throat. I took a moment to center myself and when I spoke again my tone was more level. "You know about trigger events." It wasn't really a question, but he nodded anyway. I'd only really discovered the full weight of the term while snooping around through the PRT's computer systems. There was no way he wouldn't know. "Shadow Stalker and- some others, were responsible for mine."
I felt like I'd just dropped a bomb in the room, though instead of flash and bang, the effect was the crushing weight of a heavy silence. Eventually, Armsmaster broke it.
"This was while she was in costume?" he asked, in a tone that made me think he already knew the answer.
"No," I all but croaked.
There was a pregnant pause as both Armsmaster and I stared at one another, neither of us quite sure what to do or say. Right as the silence began to feel like it had stretched for too long, he spoke again in a slow and measured tone.
"Okay, here's what we're going to do. Do you see that table?" He pointed to a table in the center of his workshop and I turned to it. It had a glass surface with a few devices resting on top. Underneath the glass, a number of pictures and what looked like diagrams of various devices were spread out. He continued.
"In a moment, I'm going to type a command into my computer to raise the surface of it. Once I do, you're to spread any evidence you have out underneath the glass. Understood?"
"Yes," I replied, nodding for good measure.
I decided to actually walk over to the table, rather than simply moving next to it; I didn't want to spook Armsmaster any more than I already had. As I did, Armsmaster reached behind himself and tapped a few keys on the terminal without taking his eyes off me. With a faint hum, the surface of the glass table began to smoothly rise up, lifting a few inches before stopping. Not wanting to waste any time, I started sorting through the pictures I'd taken and laid them out in groups.
The first group I set out was what I'd call 'passive evidence.' If you knew anything about Sophia or her role as Shadow Stalker, the items I'd photographed could easily be linked to her, even though there was no direct association. I'd documented her stashes of lethal bolts and the area around their hiding places to give context. I had pictures of bloody clothing and spare costumes that she hadn't been willing to turn into the base for cleaning, fearing they were too suspicious. I'd found her maps and plans for unauthorized patrol routes where she'd be unlikely to encounter other heroes. It was all damning evidence in its own right, with the right context.
The second group, however, was my coup de grâce. This was 'active evidence,' things that were directly connected to Shadow Stalker because I'd caught her doing them. I had pictures of her being too rough with petty criminals and then documented their wounds afterwards. I was able to catch her restocking one of her lethal bolt caches, one that I hadn't even found before. I even managed to catch her using those same lethal bolts: fighting a new group of villains and almost killing one of their members. I'd taken pictures of his wounds and even of the aftermath when the bolt had to be dug out and the puncture closed with stitches.
There was no way the Protectorate would be able to ignore all of this, not when I'd just shoved it right under their noses. I'd forced myself not to act rashly and taken my time putting together my case. Now, there was no way Sophia could escape this; it was checkmate.
Turning back to Armsmaster to show him I was done, I took another peek at what he was doing.
A: Once I seal the table, foam us.
D: Are you sure? Your workshop...
As the surface of the table began to sink back down in front of me, I watched Armsmaster in anticipation. He hadn't responded yet, apparently reconsidering his options. As I racked my own brain, trying to think of a way I could wrap things up while convincing him he didn't need to try to capture me, or rather that he couldn't capture me even if he did try, he finally responded.
A: Do it.
Right as the surface of the table sealed shut, four sprinkler like nozzles practically exploded from the ceiling and began coating the entirety of Armasmaster's workshop with a thick, yellowish solution. Wherever the solution hit, it began expanding into an extremely sticky foam.
Of course, I was no exception.
As the containment foam began to cover me, I experimentally pulled at it, interested in how tough the PRT's primary non-lethal weapon actually was. Almost immediately, I found my limbs sticking together and unable to move. The foam expanded quickly and stuck to me as easily as it stuck to itself. As porous as it was, it seemed like it should be light and fluffy, but was actually rather heavy and resistant to force. It felt like being swallowed by a giant, unyielding sponge: soft enough to cushion my landing as I fell over onto my face, but tough enough as it solidified to keep me absolutely immobile.
Starting to feel a bit claustrophobic as I was entombed by the stuff, I vanished myself and took a quick look around the workshop.
The containment foam had covered everything, Armsmaster included, and was still in the process of expanding. As I watched, I had a moment of numb horror as I wondered how much of Armsmaster's stuff would be unrecoverable after this. Looking at him, he seemed to be taking the affair with silent dignity, but I couldn't tell how much of that was false composure versus actual indifference.
After a moment of thought, I stepped over to him and allowed myself to speak into his ear.
"I'm sorry about this, but thank you."
He made a startled noise, muffled through the foam, and I couldn't help but wince again. I'd have to think of a way to make this up to him.
Once he'd calmed down, of course.