Tangle 6.6

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“Surrender,” Armsmaster ordered us.

“No,” Grue retorted.

“You’re only going to embarrass yourself if you prolong this.”

“We have you outnumbered five to three, eight to three if you count the dogs,” Grue answered.  “I can see your buddy Velocity lurking over there.”

“What do you hope to accomplish?  I admit, it was clever to control the battlefield, to dictate each engagement so it occurred on your terms, and to use our own weapons against us… but those weapons no longer work.  None of your weapons work,” Armsmaster turned his head to look at where Miss Militia had Regent at gunpoint.  “Which means you can stop trying to use your power on me, Regent.  I’ve got a little blinking light in the corner of my H.U.D. telling me you’re trying something.  I’ve set up psychic and empathic shielding, to protect myself from you and Tattletale.”

I glanced at Tattletale.  He was psychically shielded against her?  How did that work?

Then I remembered.  When we’d gone up against Glory Girl and Panacea, hadn’t Tattletale said she read minds?  And now Armsmaster had bad info and was figuring he was immune.

“I don’t need to read you,” she told him, “You’re the only one with shields, so your teammates and the PRT staff don’t have any psychic shields up, and I can read them to get anything I need.  You’re not the best inventor, but like most tinkers, you’ve got a knack.  Yours just happens to be condensing and integrating technology.  Only works in your immediate presence, but still, you can stick way more technology in a space than has a right to be there… like your Halberd.”

Armsmaster frowned.  “You’re lying.”

Damn it.  I wish I could’ve told her he had a lie detector built into his helm.  But I couldn’t without explaining that I knew him.

Tattletale took it in stride, grinning, “Sure, fibbed about the reading minds bit.  Not about your weapon and power.  Let’s see… to deal with my buddy Grue, you’ve made that thing a fancy tuning stick.  Sensing vibrations in the air, translating them into images with that fancy helm of yours?”

Grue cracked his knuckles.  He’d gotten the message.  Darkness wasn’t going to do much.  Armsmaster, for his part, gripped his weapon tighter.  An unspoken threat to Tattletale.

“And the ass-end of that stick of yours is using the brass in between the floor tiles to help transmit an electrical charge to the area around you for fancy bug zapping.  Did you set that up before coming here tonight, knowing the way the floor would be put together?”

He didn’t reply.

“Guess not.  Happy coincidence that the setup you put together works as well as it does in here, then.”

Again, no reply.  She grinned a fraction wider.  She went on, “You can tell I’m lying, huh?  That’s awesome.”

Armsmaster’s weapon turned to point in her general direction.  She didn’t back down.

“So you’ll know I’m telling the truth when I say your team hate your guts.  They know you care more about rising from your position as the seventh most prominent member of the Protectorate than you do about them or the city.”

In the span of a second, the blade of the halberd broke into three pieces, reconfigured, and fired in grappling-hook style at Tattletale.  The tines closed together, forming a loose ball shape as it flew, striking her solidly in the stomach.  She crumpled to the ground, arms around her middle.

The head of the weapon reeled in and snapped back into place atop the pole.

“Bastard,” Grue spoke.

“Apparently, according to your teammate,” Armsmaster replied, seemingly unbothered.

I gathered my bugs, poising them near and above Armsmaster in case I needed them to act quickly.

Armsmaster turned his head in my direction, “Skitter?  You, especially, do not want to irritate me any more, tonight.”

The bottom of his Halberd tapped the ground, and the bugs perished.  I glanced at the floor as he did it.  Sure enough, the broad tiles had little lines of metal -bronze?- dividing them.

There was a flurry of action where Regent and Miss Militia were.  She appeared to drop the machine gun, and Regent took that chance to pull away.  He didn’t get one step before she regained her balance and dropped into a low kick that swept his legs out from under him.  Her machine gun dissolved when it was halfway to the ground, turning into a shimmer of dark green energy that arced back up to her hand.  It rematerialized into a gleaming steel machete.  Regent stopped his struggles the second she rested the point of the bladed weapon against the side of his throat.

Armsmaster watched it all unfold without twitching a muscle.  Even if he didn’t care much about his teammates, he apparently trusted Miss Militia to handle herself.

“Grue.  You’ve shown you can dismiss the effects of your power,” Armsmaster spoke, “Do so now.”

“Somehow,” Grue retorted, “I’m not seeing a major reason why I should listen.”

“Um, got a sword pressing against my neck here, guy,” Regent pointed out.

“…Not seeing a major reason,” Grue repeated himself.

Regent let out a little laugh, “Fuck you.”

Armsmaster dispassionately watched the exchange, then spoke, dead serious, “Look at it this way.  If there are witnesses, Miss Militia will have a far harder time selling the idea that she stabbed your friend in the throat in self defense.”

He glanced in the direction of his second in command, and Miss Militia gave a small nod in response.

Would she?  Probably not, I suspected.  Could we risk it?  That choice was up to Grue.

Grue glanced over at where Regent lay.  After a second, he made the darkness fade.  The people in the crowd were mostly huddled on the ground, trying to fend off the stinging and biting swarm.  The dogs lurked at the edges of the room, and Bitch was astride Angelica.  Velocity, in his red costume with the racing stripes down either side and two stripes meeting in a ‘v’ at his chest, wasn’t that far from her.  I suspected they had been squaring off.

I found Emma in the crowd.  Her dad was huddled over both of his daughters, as though he could shield them from any danger, and Emma’s mom was hugging her around the shoulders.

Somehow, that really pissed me off.

Armsmaster glanced my way, “And the bugs.”

Reluctantly, I pulled them away from the crowd.  I settled the flying bugs on the intact portions of the ceiling.  I glanced up at the bugs and sighed.  Then I glanced at Emma again.

This was really not how I wanted this to end.  Me arrested, my scheme a failure, Emma getting off scott free with a family, friends and no major consequences for all the shit she’d pulled?

“Sir,” I spoke, trying to sound confident.  Would Emma recognize my voice?  “Let me check on Tattletale.”

“You can do that once you’ve surrendered,” he spoke.  He changed his posture so his Halberd was pointed in my general direction.  I winced.  I did not want to get the same treatment Tattletale had received.  Or would he not do it with people watching?

My eyes darted in the direction of the crowd, to Tattletale, who didn’t look up to talking.  All eyes were on the scene.  Why had he gone out of his way to get an audience?  Could I use it?  What had he been so upset about, when I’d met him at the ferry?  What had Tattletale gone out of her way to stress to us about Armsmaster?

Reputation.

“I need to make sure you didn’t do any serious damage,” I spoke, just a hint of accusation in my voice.

“She’s fine.”

“I want to verify that for myself,” I said, standing.  How far can I push this?  “Please, she was surrendering and you hit her so hard.”

“You’re lying.”

“The fuck she is!” Regent joined in, “Tattletale walks up to you, ready to be cuffed, and you smacked her across the room, you fucking lunatic!”

I didn’t dare to glance at the crowd.  Armsmaster was the person we needed to get a reaction out of, here.

“Enough.  This is a fabrication,” Miss Militia spoke, her voice raised maybe a bit to carry to the rest of the room.

“Why do you think we’re so reluctant to surrender, if that’s the treatment we’ll get!?” Regent shouted, “It’s not like we’re not totally fucked!”  Miss Militia moved the machete to remind him it was there.

Armsmaster’s head turned toward me.  This was my huge gamble.  How would he respond?  If he called me out as a traitor within the Undersiders, would people buy it, would my team buy it, or would it only hurt his credibility?  He didn’t know that Tattletale would be able to tell it was truth.

“Miss Militia has a blade at my teammate’s throat,” Grue broke the silence, “I think it’s pretty clear you don’t pull your punches.”

Armsmaster turned to his teammate, “Perhaps a less lethal weapon would be more appropriate.”

Miss Militia’s eyebrows knit together in concern, “Sir?”

“Now.”  He left no room for argument.  Then, to ensure they still had control of the situation, he turned to his nearest available hostage.

Me.

I was flat on my back and couldn’t back away fast enough to escape, especially with my having to slip my arms from the straps that held the tank of containment foam to my back.  He pointed the head of his weapon at me as he strode over to me, the threat of his firing it serving to keep me subdued.  I glanced at Grue, but he was frozen, two of his teammates at the mercy of the city’s leading heroes.  Tattletale was struggling to her feet, but she couldn’t accomplish much.

Above Regent, the sword shimmered and turned into that black and green energy.  In that moment, Regent struck, drawing his knees to his chest, then kicking up and to the side to drive both of his heels into Miss Militia’s upper stomach.  A second later, he shoved both of his hands in the direction of her collarbone.

The black-green energy of her power continued to arc around her without solidifying as the contents of her stomach began violently heaving their way out of her mouth, spattering into the flag-scarf that covered the lower half of her face and overflowing onto the floor.  Regent had to roll to one side to avoid being bathed in vomit.

I took advantage of the distraction and brought every bug in the room down from the ceiling, sending a fair majority of them toward Armsmaster.  He swiped at his face to remove them, then lifted his weapon.  I grabbed for the pole with both hands before it could strike the ground, and pulled myself across the floor to situate my body between the pole and the ground.

It didn’t feel like I thought it might, the electrical charge.  As the end of the Halberd made contact with my body, it was as though someone had dropped a handful of live snakes onto my chest and they were writhing in place there, a single tendril rushing up the skin of my right arm and over my fingertips.  It didn’t hurt much at all.

And the bugs around Armsmaster didn’t die.  Very few of the ones on me, even, perished.

I’d known spider silk was insulated to some degree.  I was really glad that it was insulated enough.  Really, really glad my interference was enough to stop the energy from conducting through the area and zapping the bugs out of the air.

“Hm,” looming over me, Armsmaster made a noise of disapproval, “Not smart.”

“Bitch!  Dogs!” I hollered, “Grue!  Shadow me!”

Of all the times to lapse into caveman grammar.  Still, he smothered me and Armsmaster in darkness.

When Armsmaster managed to wrest the Halberd from my hands, I had enough bugs on him to tell he was bringing the bottom end of his Halberd down hard against the floor, away from me.  My bugs didn’t die, and continued to settle on the exposed skin of his lower face, crawl up under his visor.  The charge or whatever other stuff he had going on to direct it wasn’t conducting through the darkness.

Before he could strike at me, I headed in the other direction.  Staying in close proximity to Armsmaster wasn’t a good idea, with my power being one that worked at range, and him being the close-quarters combatant.  I felt him move away from me, clawing the bugs away from his mouth and nose, heading out the opposite side of the cloud of darkness to strike the ground, kill off the swarm I’d set on him and then turn his attention to the charging dogs.

I wasn’t two steps outside of the darkness when I had Velocity in my face.

Battery and Velocity were both speedsters of a sort, giving them the ability to move at a ridiculous pace.  They were very different kinds of speedster, though.  As I interpreted it, from all the stuff I’d read online and in the magazines and interviews, Battery could charge up and move at enhanced speeds for very short periods of time, sort of like how Bitch’s power pumped up her dogs, but concentrated into a few brief moments.  It was a physiological change, altering her biology and then altering it back before it became too much on her body.  The actual act of moving at the speeds these guys could manage was an incredible strain on the body.  There were only one or two parahumans on the planet who could manage that kind of movement without any workarounds or limitations, and Battery and Velocity weren’t among them.

Velocity, in contrast to Battery, was more like Shadow Stalker.  He changed states, and while I had no idea what this meant exactly, whether it was him shifting partially into another dimension or altering the way time or physics worked in relation to himself, I did know that it made him able to move very fast, without needing to rest like Battery did.  Fast enough that my wasps couldn’t really land on him, and those that did were dispatched before they could start stinging.

The drawback, though, was that while he was moving like that, he wasn’t hitting as hard, probably for the same reasons he wasn’t shattering his bones by hammering his feet against the ground ten times a second, getting torn to shreds by friction or running out of oxygen due to an inability to breathe.  His speed came with a reduced ability to affect the world around him and be affected by it.  He couldn’t hit as hard, couldn’t hold or move things as easily.  An effective loss of strength proportionate to how fast he was capable of moving.

So as fast as he was moving, having him hit me wasn’t much worse than getting punched by an eight year old.

Problem was, he was hitting me a lot.  His perceptions were ramped up, too, which meant he had the luxury of what must have been seconds in his own senses to see my reactions, calculate the best place to stick that next punch or kick to knock me off balance or inflict pain.  It was less like being in a fistfight and more like being caught in a gale-force wind that had every intent of screwing me over.

Velocity was forcing me to back up, stumble and overall just working to herd me in one direction – towards an open window.  Either he’d force me through and leave me hanging from the ledge, helpless to avoid arrest, or I’d have to give up or let myself be knocked to the ground instead, at which point it would be pretty much over.  Once I was down, he’d either keep up the onslaught until another cape could finish me off, or he’d turn off his power long enough to knock me over the head a few times with a chair or something.

Across the room, Grue was working with two of the dogs and Bitch to keep Armsmaster hemmed in, while one of the dogs and Regent were keeping Miss Militia out of action.

I couldn’t win this one on my own.

“Grue!” I hollered.  I got struck in the mouth three times before I could bring an arm up to fend Velocity off and speak again, “Need cover!”

He spared me a glance and a blast of his darkness.  In an instant, I was blind and deaf, with only my bugs to go by.

But Velocity was slowed down, and I had my suspicions that it wasn’t just the fact that he had to use his hands to find me before striking.  Grue had said that Shadow Stalker’s powers were somehow less effective in his darkness.  Could that apply to Velocity too?  Or was it just the extra resistance of Grue’s power versus normal air, combined with Velocity’s low strength?

My bugs were now successfully settling on him, oddly giving me a better sense of his movements than my eyes had, and I was directing them not to sting or bite, so he wouldn’t have an easy time finding them.  They began to cluster on him, and somehow I felt like that was slowing him down even more.

The onslaught had been softened, and he wasn’t half as effective at keeping me off balance, now.  He couldn’t effectively see my posture to know the optimal places to strike, so I was able to get my feet firmly on the ground.  I lashed out twice with my fists, but my hits lacked impact.  Something to do with his power, I suspected, as well as his ability to move fast enough to roll with any hits he felt connecting.

So I grabbed a weapon he couldn’t react to, my pepper spray, and directed a stream of it into his face.  Then I instructed the bugs I’d gathered on him to bite and sting.

The effect was immediate, and dramatic.  You’ve never really seen someone flip out until you’ve seen a speedster flip out.  He fell to the ground, stood, tumbled over a chair, then was up the next second, lunging for a table, blindly patting it down in the hopes of finding something to wash his eyes out with.  I felt him slow down dramatically, increasing his own strength enough to allow himself to check the cups and pitchers.

I had bugs on the table he was searching, and the only liquid there was wine.  Anticipating he would continue looking for some relief, I moved closer to the table nearest me.

Sure enough, he darted over to the same table and began searching.  I took one long step to my left, reached behind my back, and gripped the foam handle of my extendable baton with both hands.  Like a golf club, I swung it up and between his legs.

My rationale was that I needed to hamper his mobility, but I didn’t want to deliver any permanent injury, which was a possibility if I hit him in the knee or spine.  Besides, the Protectorate had top notch costume designers, and what male superhero with an expensive costume would go out without a cup?  Right?

Unless, the thought crossed my mind as Velocity keeled over, he’d foregone the cup for extra mobility and to reduce friction.

I’d find some way to make it up to him, after all of this was over with.

He pulled weakly against my grip as I brought his left arm and his right leg together, and cinched them together with a double-set of plastic handcuffs.  I then cuffed his right arm to the table in front of him.  Velocity was out of action, for all intents and purposes.

Though every impulse told me to get out of the darkness and get a look at what was going on, I stayed put, crouching and feeling out with my bugs.  With their legs and bodies serving as thousands upon thousands of tiny fingers I could use to feel out my surroundings, I got a sense of the situation.

Since doing whatever he’d done to Miss Militia, Regent had taken to standing guard over her.  He had one hand outstretched in her direction while she struggled on the floor, dry heaving now, with her limbs twitching.  Tattletale was with him, one hand still pressed to her stomach, but she was standing, watching the crowd for anyone who might step to Miss Militia’s rescue.

Which left only Armsmaster.  Except ‘only’ wasn’t the right word.  Bitch, her three dogs and Grue had Armsmaster surrounded, and even with that, I got the impression that he was in control of the situation.

He’d formed the head of his halberd into a loose ball again, and had the chain he used for the grappling hook extended partially so it could serve as a flail.  There was something of a stalemate as my teammates remained where they were, staying spaced out, just out of reach of the weapon.  Armsmaster, for his part, was standing in a loose fighting posture, holding the long pole of his Halberd as he swung the flail head in a loose figure eight.

Brutus growled at his quarry, moving a half step too close, and Armsmaster seized the opportunity.  The chain extended with a faint whirr and the flail moved with surprising quickness to collide with Brutus’ shoulder.  From Brutus’ reaction, I would have thought he’d just been hit by a wrecking ball.  Either Armsmaster was far stronger than he looked, or there was something about his weapon that was giving it a little extra oomph.  Given that he was a tinker, it could have been anything.

Armsmaster didn’t stop at felling Brutus.  As he finished giving the ball the necessary momentum, Armsmaster reversed his grip and lunged at Grue, swinging the bottom end of his weapon like a baseball bat.  Grue avoided the swing by stepping back and ducking, but wasn’t able to recover quick enough to avoid the follow-up.  Armsmaster kept moving forward, not pausing as he slapped the end of the pole back into one of his hands and rammed the midsection of the pole against Grue’s chest, hard.  Grue hit the ground with enough force that he almost bounced, and was driven hard into the ground a second time as Armsmaster brought the end of the pole down into his stomach.

Without thinking, I stepped forward out of the darkness, then stopped myself.  What help could I offer by jumping in there?

Bitch whistled for a dog to attack, but Armsmaster was already reacting, drawing his elbow against the chain to control the movement of the flail’s head.  He dropped the pole and grabbed the chain to pull the ball towards himself, caught it out of the air with his free hand and turning in a tight circle to preserve the momentum from flail-head’s flight, slammed it full force into Angelica’s ear.  Bitch had to skip back out of the way as Angelica collapsed to the ground where she’d been standing.

Without glancing down, Armsmaster put one armored boot underneath the pole as it rebounded against the ground, then kicked it straight up to chest level.  He caught his weapon in one hand and reeled in the chain.  The flail-head snapped back into a blade shape as it reconnected with the top of the pole.

Two dogs and Grue down, and he’d made it look effortless.

It struck me just what made Armsmaster a step above other tinkers, above other people with the ability to invent and perform mad science, and it wasn’t the insane amounts of training he had probably put himself through.  Tinkers tended to have a knack, a special quality specific to their work.  According to Tattletale, Armsmaster’s ability let him cram technology together and still have it work.  Other tinkers were limited in what they could carry and have access to at any given point in time, but Armsmaster?  He had a solution for every problem he’d been able to think of, without having to worry about economy of space, the weight of his hardware and the room on his utility belt, or whatever.  And with all of that, his main gear, his armor and Halberd, were still devastating and completely reliable in their own right.

While Armsmaster had his back turned to her, I saw Tattletale step to one side, surreptitiously.

Judas lunged, and in the same moment Armsmaster reacted, Tattletale made a move for the crowd, drawing her gun.

I glanced towards Armsmaster, and my view of him was blocked as Judas collapsed to the ground between us.  Through my bugs, I sensed him extend his weapon towards Tattletale, felt the recoil as the head of it rocketed off.  The grappling hook caught her gun hand with enough force to screw up her aim, and the tines of the hook closed around her arm.

He reeled in the chain at the same time he pulled it back toward him, and in doing so, flung Tattletale across the floor.  The tines let her go just in time to send her careening into one of the flimsy cocktail tables.  Armsmaster jerked the pole of his weapon to control the flight of the hook as it reeled back in, striking Tattletale’s gun out of the air and shattering it into pieces.

“No hostages,” he said, “No guns.”

Grue started to stand, fell, then managed to stand successfully on his second try.  The three dogs Armsmaster had dropped were taking longer to get upright.  Angelica shook her head violently, twice, paused, then did it again.

Armsmaster looked at Bitch, then slapped the pole of his weapon against the palm of his armored glove.

“Rachel Lindt, AKA: Hellhound.”

“Armsmaster, AKA: dickhole,” Bitch retorted.

“If this goes any further, I can’t promise those animals of yours won’t suffer permanent damage.”

I could see her eyes move behind the eyeholes of her mask as she cast a sidelong glance to her left to look at Brutus, then to her right, at Angelica.  Then she met his gaze, “You do lasting damage to any of them, we’ll find you and do ten times worse to you.  Trust me, old man, they know your smell, we can track you down.”

Again, the pole slapping against his glove with a sound of metal against metal.

His tone was measured as he asked her, “Why risk it?  You’ve already lost.  We had enough footage of your dogs that I was able to put together a simulation of their fighting patterns.  I know how they attack, how they react.  I know how you think in a fight, the commands you give, and when.  All of that is wired into my suit, into my heads up display.  I know what you and your beasts are going to do before you’ve decided on it.  None of you are walking away.”

“It’s not just me and the dogs,” Bitch spoke.

“Your friends?  I may not have a simulation set up for him, but I’m better than your leader, Grue.  Stronger, better armored, better equipped, better trained.  If your friend Regent turns his attention from Miss Militia for more than twenty seconds, she will shoot one or all of you, not that he could do anything to me if he bothered.  Tattletale?  Unconscious.  Skitter?  Not a threat.”

What was he doing?  Why was he so focused on getting Bitch to admit it was over?

Reputation, yet again.  He needed to salvage this situation, and the surest way to do that, to recoup his losses and come out of this looking okay, would be to get the meanest, toughest, most notorious of us to bend at the knee and concede defeat.

He really didn’t know Bitch, though.

She pulled her cheap plastic dog mask off and threw it to one side.  It was only a formality, really, since her face and identity were public knowledge.  Her smile, as it spread across her face, wasn’t the most attractive.  Too many teeth showing.

“Lung underestimated her, too,” she told him, looking at me.

Armsmaster turned to look, as well.

Seriously?  I mean, really, Bitch?  Passing the ball to me?  I didn’t have a plan.  There wasn’t much I could do, here.

“Velocity?”  Armsmaster queried me, casual.

I shrugged, miming his casual tone, while feeling anything but, “Dealt with.”

“Hm.  I think-”

As he spoke, I faced Grue and jerked my head in Armsmaster’s direction.  Armsmaster wasn’t oblivious, and took my cue as reason to drop into a fighting posture.  There was nothing he could really defend against, though, as Grue shrouded the two of us in darkness a second time.

The worst possiblity, that Armsmaster would tell the Undersiders what I was planning, was dealt with for the moment.  I doubted Armsmaster would continue to talk while under the effects of Grue’s power.

Which left me the problem of dealing with the guy.  I could sense the bugs I had on him moving, as he came through the darkness, towards me.  At the very least, if I could draw him away from the others, I could buy them time.

I ran for the glass door that led to one of the outside patios.  I glanced over my shoulder, and sure enough, I saw Armsmaster emerging from the cloud of oily shadow.  He spun on his heels to swing his flail into Judas, bringing the dog down as it emerged right after him, then whirled to face me again.  As I got outside, the chain reeled in, bringing the flail head back to the top of the weapon.  He paused.

Why?  There was only one reason he’d be staying back and reeling in like that, instead of closing the distance to get me in his reach.

I took a guess.  Knowing that the attack would come faster than I expected, from what had happened to Tattletale on the two occasions, I threw myself to the floor of the patio.

The ball came flying out of the end of his weapon, but my attempt to dodge did little good.  He whipped the chain to shift the sphere’s trajectory, and simultaneously opened it into its oversized grappling hook form.  The thing hit me in my side, with the tines passing over each of my shoulders and under my armpits.  I grunted with the impact, and as I tried to stand, I nearly slipped on the excess chain that spooled around me in the grappling hook’s wake.  I felt the claw of the hook tighten around my chest.

On the far side of the patio, Armsmaster planted his feet and raised his weapon to start reeling me in.

No, no, no, no, no.

I was not going down like this.

Not with Emma fucking Barnes and her asshole lawyer dad in the crowd.

I started to gather my bugs from inside, but stopped.  No use bringing them here, when Armsmaster could murder half the swarm with that souped up bug zapper he’d worked into his Halberd.  I moved my bugs into position indoors.

Still shaky from the hit, thankful for the armor I’d built into my costume, I managed to grab the excess chain below me and wind it around the patio’s railing behind me.  If Armsmaster wanted me, he’d have to come to me, dammit.  I wasn’t going to make this easy.

The chain grew taut, and Armsmaster tugged twice before deciding it would be less trouble to approach than to add to the property damage.  He closed the distance to me on foot, pausing only to free his chain from the patio railing.  He reeled in his chain to pull me the remaining two or three feet to him.

“Skitter.  I would have thought you would be quicker to surrender.”

Nobody else was in earshot.  “Whatever side I’m on, I don’t exactly want to go to jail.  Look, my offer stands.  I’ve almost got the last bit of detail I need from these guys.”

“Something you said you’d have weeks ago,” he replied.

“There’s no other way you’re going to salvage this, Armsmaster,” I stood as straight as I could with the grappling hook around me.  The damned thing was heavy.  Tattletale had gone out of her way, even got herself knocked out of action, to let us know how important Armsmaster’s status was to him.  I needed to use that.  “Only way you won’t look incompetent is if you can say I only got away because you let me.  That all of this tonight happened because you let it.  Because letting me get away with this meant I could get the info on who’s employing the Undersiders, on where the funding, equipment and information is coming from.  Then you clean up, and it’s two supervillain groups dealt with in the span of a week.  Tell me that doesn’t sound good.”

Armsmaster considered for a moment.

“No,” he answered me.

“No?”

“Don’t expect anything other than a prompt arrest for you and your companions for your antics tonight,” he shook his head, “A bird in the hand, after all…”

He gave me a little shake, as if to make it clear just who the bird was.

I took a deep breath, “You were right, Armsmaster.”

“Of course,” he spoke, absently, pushing me against the railing with one hand.  His grappling hook released me, reconfiguring into what I suspected was the same setup that had fixed Lung to the ground with bars of stainless steel, back in my first day in costume.  It was shaped like a rectangle, and there were two ‘u’ shaped bands of metal with electricity arcing around them, the tips of each ‘u’ glowing hot enough to melt against any surface.

“This was over from the moment we stepped into the room,” I finished.

Nearly seven hundred hornets exploded from underneath my panels of armor, all latching onto him, biting and stinging relentlessly, flowing underneath his visor, into his helmet, his nose, mouth and ears.  Some even crawled down beneath his collar, to his shoulders and chest.

I threw myself at the tail end of his Halberd, hugging my body around it.  With one hand he lifted me and the Halberd both, and slammed us against the ground.  Again, I felt those tendrils of electricity running over me, on top of the pain of having my stomach caught between the pole and the ground.  I was very thankful, the second time tonight, for the panels of armor I’d implemented into my costume design.

He repeated the process, lifting me two or three feet off the ground, then slamming the pole and me down again.  After the second time, I had to fight to place myself beneath the pole again in anticipation of a third hit, knowing he would weather the onslaught of hornets longer than I did this abuse.

Rescue couldn’t have come a second later.

Bitch, an unconscious Tattletale and Brutus were the first ones over the edge of the patio.  Brutus bumped against Armsmaster as he passed, knocking the man off balance and giving me the chance I needed to heave myself upright and pull the Halberd from his grasp.  I held it in my hands, and he was too distracted by the swarming hornets to even realize it.

I threw the Halberd over the edge of the patio and ran toward the door leading back inside.  I caught Grue’s reaching hand as he and Judas bounded through, so he could swing me up behind him.

As we leaped from the patio’s edge, I looked behind us and saw Angelica and Regent following.  Grue was banishing his darkness, to make the mess we’d created all the more clear for those of our audience that hadn’t yet managed to flee.  Our objective was to humiliate, after all.

For much the same reason, maybe as a bit of a spiteful ‘fuck you’ to Armsmaster, who’d made this all so much harder than it had to be, I left my bugs where they were, arranged on the wall to the right of the patio and the floor in front of it.  Half were gathered into the shape of two large arrows pointing to the patio door, one on the floor and one on the wall, while the other half were arranged into bold letters spelling out ‘LETS GO’.

I wrapped my arms around Grue, holding him tight as much in anticipation of our landing on a nearby rooftop as a farewell hug.

Chances were good that this was my last job as part of the Undersiders.

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Tangle 6.5

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My legs hugged the sides of Judas’ body.  I could feel his breathing beneath me, the expansion of his body as his lungs filled, then emptied.  He huffed out a breath, and it steamed in the cool night air.

He stepped forward, just a little, and I got a glimpse of the world below us.  Thirty two stories down, the cars on the street were visible only by the yellow and red points of their headlights and taillights.  I felt Tattletale clutch me tighter, from where she sat behind me.  Judas’ front paw rested on the stone railing of the rooftop, clutched it hard enough that the points of his nails bit into the concrete.

Getting up here had been easy enough – Tattletale had cracked the employee access door and we’d taken the supply elevator to the roof.  Had someone been alerted to our presence?  Spotted us on camera?  Hard to say.  But time was short, and we’d already wasted enough time waiting for the dogs to finish growing.  The moment Bitch deemed them set, we would move out.

This plan had been terrifying when we’d just been talking about it.  Actually being on the verge of doing it?  Ten times worse.

Still time to think of a reason to back out.

Bitch’s whistle, one of those ones that make you wince when you hear them a hundred feet away, cut through the faint, ambient hum of the city below us.

Last chance, Taylor.

A second later, Brutus, with Bitch and Grue astride his back, stepped over the edge of the roof.  Judas shifted forward under me, then followed.

Falling from a height like that, you don’t get to scream.  The wind takes your voice from you.  If you happen to have something to hold onto, you cling to that for dear life and you pray, even if you aren’t a praying type.  My hands clutched hooks of bone on either side of Judas’ neck hard enough that I thought I might break either the bone or my hands.

Three stories down from the roof, there was a patio.  As Bitch whistled and pointed from her position below us, Judas kicked against the wall just behind us, pushing out and away from the building.  My heart rose into my throat and stuck there as I saw the edge of the patio below us, surely out of reach.  Had he pushed too early?  The next chance we’d have to touch a surface would be when we spattered violently against the road.

His instincts seemed to be better than mine.  His front claws reached down and gripped the patio’s edge.  Every muscle in my body tensed in my effort to not be thrown off him as we stopped, even with his powerful body absorbing the worst of the fall.  He gripped the ledge, then pushed against it while leveraging his back legs into place.  With every muscle in his body, it seemed, he leaped.  Not down, this time, but out.

Time seemed to stand still as we left the building behind.  The only thing below us was the street, twenty-nine stories below. The wind blew through my hair with a painful bite of cold. We’d crossed the event horizon, it was do or die from here on out.  That made it eerily easy to cast aside all doubts and hesitation and steel myself for what came next.

The Forsberg Gallery was twenty six stories tall and was one of the more recognizable buildings you could find downtown.  If I remembered right, it had been designed by Architecture students at the university, a few years ago.  I wasn’t really a fan of the design, which resembled the late stages of a game of Jenga, with each section formed in tempered glass with steel bars and girders providing the base skeleton.  The entire thing was illuminated by lights that changed according to the time of the evening.

In the blue-gray of the evening, the tower was pink and orange, echoing the sunset that had finished just an hour ago.  As the leap carried us over it, a pink tinted spotlight consumed my vision.

My lenses absorbed the worst of the glare, and a second later, I was able to make out what was happening again.  Brutus, a matter of feet in front of us, slammed into the glass of the roof, sending cracks spiderwebbing across it.  Grue virtually bounced from where he sat on Brutus’ back, losing his seat, hit the glass of the roof with his shoulder, and began to slide.  There was barely any traction to be had, not even on the steel girder that separated the massive panes of glass, and the only thing at the end of that slide would be a very long fall.

He reached out and grabbed ahold of the end of Brutus’ tail, pulling himself to a standing position at the same moment that Judas, Tattletale and I crashed into the pane of glass to their right.

The damage Brutus had done on impact was enough to ensure that we could break through rather than simply breaking the window.  There was a moment where you could hear the sound of straining metal, followed by the sound of a lot of shattering glass.

Together we all dropped into the center of the Forsberg Gallery’s top floor, joined by a downpour of glass shards.  Grue landed on his feet and stumbled back as Brutus landed just in front of him.  All around us, there were people in fancy dress and uniforms.  Suits, dresses… costumes.  People ran screaming and running for cover.  Heroes stepped forward, some trying to grasp the situation in the midst of the chaos, others putting themselves between us and the civilians.

A matter of heartbeats after we touched ground, Regent and Angelica plunged into the room, landing just behind us.  Regent lost his seat as Angelica landed, but managed to roll as he hit the ground, bringing himself to a crouch as he stopped.  He almost managed to make it look intentional.  Angelica stepped up to Bitch’s side, wearing the same harness we’d fitted her with at the bank robbery, but with two large cardboard boxes strapped to her sides, rather than bags.

I felt weirdly calm as my eyes swept over the room.  The Protectorate was gathered around the stage at the back of the room.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia, Assault, Battery, Velocity and Triumph.  Dauntless was MIA.

Not far away was the ‘kids’ table with some of the heroes of the hour.  Clockblocker, Vista, Gallant and Shadow Stalker, interrupted from their mingling with the rich kids, teen actors and the sons and daughters of the local who’s who.  The platinum blonde in the white evening gown that was giving me the evil eye?  That would be Glory Girl, out of costume.

Standing guard by the front of the room, raising their weapons in our direction, was an on-duty PRT squad.  Their very recognizable uniforms were chain mesh augmented with kevlar, topped with faceless helmets.  The only means you had to identify them with were the badge numbers printed across their vests in bold white numbers.   Four of the five had what looked like flamethrowers.  They weren’t firing yet – they couldn’t.  They were packing the best in nonlethal weaponry, but there were elderly people and children in the crowd, and according to Tattletale, that meant they were prohibited from opening fire on us for the moment.

The civilians… men and women in their finest clothes and jewelry.  A combination of the richest and most powerful people in the city, their guests and those willing to pay the exorbitant prices for the tickets.  The tickets started at two hundred and thirty dollars and had climbed steeply as they’d been bought up.  We’d initially considered attending as guests, for one plan of attack, before we decided that it was too dangerous to risk having our secret identities caught on camera, or to have something go wrong as we attempted to smuggle our equipment, costumes and dogs inside.  Once we’d decided that much, we’d stopped checking the cost of tickets, which had gotten as high as four hundred dollars a person.  The guests could use thirty dollars of the ticket price to bid on an auction, but it was still pretty exorbitant.

I recognized the mayor – the first time I’d seen him in person.  There was a guy who might have been a lesser known actor – I thought I recognized him, too.  The rest were just people, maybe a bit better looking than the norm, a bit better dressed.

And Emma.

I could have laughed.  She was standing there in the crowd with her parents and older sister, looking scared shitless in a little sky blue dress and blue sandals. Her dad was a high profile divorce lawyer.  I supposed it was possible he’d worked for someone famous or powerful enough that his family hadn’t needed an invitation or expensive tickets to get in.

It kind of sucked, knowing I was about to give her an awesome story to share with the rest of the school when her suspension was over with.  I was really, really hoping it wouldn’t be a story along the lines of ‘these idiotic villains just pulled a stunt so dumb it would put Über and Leet to shame, and got themselves arrested in a matter of seconds’.

Tattletale laughed, with a nervous edge, “Holy shit!  Not doing that again!  Fucking intense…” Her voice trailed off as Grue blacked out the crowd, leaving only the spot where we stood and the very edges of the room clear of the darkness.  She gave him a dirty look.

“Bitch, Regent, go!” He shouted, as he stepped my way, grabbed my hand and practically pulled me from where I sat on Judas’ back.  Tattletale hopped down, following a pace or two behind us.

The three of us ran for the front of the room, while Bitch whistled for her dogs and ran for the back.  I sensed it when Regent unhitched the two boxes that were strapped to Angelica.  The boxes were heavy and  hit the ground hard, splitting at the seams.  Better than I’d hoped.  I had my bugs flow out from the top of the box and the split sides, and ordered them into the crowd.

If a few more of the biting and stinging sort headed in Emma’s general direction, it wasn’t due to a conscious choice on my part.

If everything went according to plan, Bitch, Regent and the dogs could delay or stop anyone who ventured beyond the cloud of darkness.  Everything else, our success or our humiliating arrest, hinged on Grue, Tattletale and I.

My bugs reached the front of the room just seconds before we did.  I could sense their locations, and this in turn gave me the ability to identify where the people, the walls, doorway and furniture were.

I was moving with my knife drawn before Grue even banished some of his darkness to reveal a portion of the PRT squad that was stationed at the entrance.  As the cloud of black dissipated into tendrils of smoke, I was stepping behind one of the team members, drawing my knife against the hose that extended between the flamethrower-like device he held in his hands and the tank on his back.  It didn’t cut immediately, forcing me to try a second time.  As the knife severed the material of the hose, the PRT team member noticed me and drove his elbow into my face.  My mask took the worst of the hit, but getting hit in the face by a full grown man isn’t any fun with any amount of protective headwear.

I fell back through the doorway even as the tank began emptying its contents onto the floor.  It was a yellow-white, and as it poured onto the ground, it expanded like shaving cream.  The tank was probably close to three gallons, making for a hell of a lot of foam.

Grue leveraged all of his weight to bodily kick one of the squad members into the foam, then slammed the base of his palm into the next guy’s chin.  As the man reeled, Grue grabbed at the tank on his back and pulled it up over his head.  This not only pulled the man off balance, but the weight of the tank kept him that way.  Grue, his hands still on the tank, pulled the squad member’s helmeted face down at the same time he brought his knee up.  The pane of the helmet cracked, and the man didn’t even have the wherewithal to bring his hands up to soften the fall before hitting the ground.

A fourth squad member stepped out of the darkness, and Tattletale took hold of the nozzle of the man’s weapon, forcing it to one side before he could open fire.  I scrambled to my feet to help her.  As Tattletale began to lose the wrestling match over the weapon, I leaped over the still-expanding pile of foam, then went low as I landed to knock his legs out from under him.  He fell, hard, and Tattletale wrenched the weapon from his hands.  As he climbed to his feet, she pulled the trigger and blasted him in the face.  Grue banished enough darkness to reveal the final member of the team, and Tattletale buried him under a blasting of the foam.

I’d watched a discovery channel feature on this stuff.  The PRT, the Parahuman Response Team, was equipped with tinker-designed nonlethal weaponry to subdue supervillains.  This containment foam was standard issue.  It ejected as a liquid, then expanded into a sticky foam with a few handy properties.  It was flexible and it was porous when fully expanded, for one thing, so you could breathe while contained within it, at least long enough for rescue teams with a dissolving agent to get to you.  It was also impact resistant, so PRT squads could coat the ground with it to save falling individuals or keep heavy hitters from doing much damage.

The way it expanded, you could coat all but the strongest villains in it, and it would disable them.  Because of the way it denied you leverage and was resistant to impacts and tearing, even the likes of Lung would have trouble pulling themselves free.  Topping it all off, it was resistant to high temperatures and a strong insulator, so it served to handle the pyrokinetics and those with electromagnetic powers.

While the PRT member struggled ineffectually to remove his foam-covered helmet, I pulled the tank off him and helped Tattletale put it on.  Grue already had his on, and was getting a third one off one of the foam-captured PRT team members for me.

It was heavy, and I almost couldn’t handle the weight.  Rather than stagger around, I crouched and let the base of the tank rest against the ground.

Grue pointed to our left, and we aimed.  A second later, he made the darkness dissipate, showing the buffet table surrounded by the various Wards and Glory Girl flying a few feet above the ground.  They were swatting at the bugs crawling on them, but they weren’t so distracted that they didn’t notice the sudden emergence of light, or us.

“Glory Hole!” Tattletale heckled the heroine, before opening fire on her.  Grue directed a stream at Clockblocker, to the left, so I turned my attention to the person on the far right of the group.  Shadow Stalker.

I admit, I had a reason to be ticked at her, since she wrote a note for Emma’s dad, giving him fuel for that damned assault charge.  It was with a measure of satisfaction that I unloaded a stream of foam on her.

The stream was dead on, but she didn’t seem to give much of a damn as she evaded to one side.  I caught her square in the chest with another spurt, making her stagger a bit, but she didn’t fall or get caught in the stuff like the others.  Instead, she sort of ducked low, her cape billowing, and then rolled to one side, readying her crossbow as her feet touched the ground and she shifted to an all-out run.

Whether that was a tranquilizer shot or a real arrow, I was fucked if she hit me.

I went wide with my stream, aiming to catch her a little and either slow her down or mess up her aim.  She stepped on a bit of foam and was tripped up a little.  Tattletale added her firepower to mine, and with our combined streams, Shadow Stalker fell.  We took a second to bury her under the foam, and Grue added a measure of darkness to it.

“Next!” Grue hollered, pointing.  I hauled the heavy tank off the ground and moved closer to our next target before putting it down again and aiming.

This time, I deliberately moved a force of bugs into the area for some extra distraction.  The darkness dissipated, and it was the Protectorate this time, half of them.  Battery, Assault, and Triumph.

Battery was already charged up when Grue dismissed the impenetrable shadow that had covered them, and moved like a blur as soon as she could see where she was going.  She didn’t bolt straight for us, though.  Instead, she leaped to one side, kicked Assault square in the middle of the chest with both feet, and then careened off in the opposite direction.

Assault was a kinetic energy manipulator, and could control the energies of movement, acceleration and motion much like other heroes could manipulate flame or electricity.  He used the energy from Battery’s kick to rocket towards us, as Battery moved around to flank.

Grue directed a stream straight at Assault, but the first second of fire seemed to skim right off the man.  It did start taking hold after that, but the delayed effects gave Assault just enough time to slam into Grue and send him flying into the wall beside the Wards.  After that, the expansion of the foam kept him from moving much further.

Tattletale and I focused our fire on Battery.  The woman ducked and dodged out of the way of our streams, moving too fast to follow reliably with our eyes.  She seemed to stumble into a cocktail table, one of those round ones large enough for four people to stand around, but any clumsiness on her part was an illusion of the eye.  A heartbeat later, she had the table in her grip and was spinning in a full circle.

She threw the table like an oversize frisbee, and I pushed Tattletale in one direction as I flung myself in the other.  The table edge caught the weapon in Tattletale’s hands and knocked it from her grip with enough force to make Tattletale roll as she hit the ground.

Which left only me standing, against Triumph and Battery.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia and Velocity were nowhere to be seen.  I could have used my bugs to feel out for them in the darkness, but I had more pressing matters to focus on.

Battery was charging again, taking advantage of us being off balance to build up a store of power again.  Heck, she’d probably built her whole fighting style around it.  I could see the normally cobalt blue lines of her costume glowing a brilliant electric blue-white.  I focused my attention on her, drawing every bug in the immediate area to her while I tried to get myself oriented to open fire again.  Wasps, mosquitos and beetles set on her, biting and stinging.

For just a fraction of a second, I saw the glow of the lines of her costume dim, before igniting again.  She needed to concentrate, it seemed, and my bugs had served to distract.  As I pulled myself upright and opened fire, she was a step too slow in getting out of the way of the stream.  I caught her under the spray and started piling it on top of her.

A shockwave blasted me.  I was knocked off my feet for the second time in a matter of seconds and my ears were left ringing.

Triumph had a gladiator/lion theme to his costume, with a gold lion helm, shoulderpads and belt, and skintight suit elsewhere.  He had managed to claw enough bugs away from his face to use his sonic shout.  He was one of those guys that was big, muscular and tough enough that you’d avoid him even if he didn’t have that other power, and his other power was one that let him punch holes through concrete.

Grue aimed and fired a stream at him, but Triumph was surprisingly quick in slipping out of the way.  As Grue reoriented his aim, Triumph kicked over a cocktail table and grabbed it with one hand to use as a shield against the foam.  I tried to scramble to one side, to attack him from another direction, but he opened his mouth and unleashed another shockwave that sent me skidding across the floor, dangerously close to the piles of foam that had the Wards trapped.  As I tried to raise my nozzle in his direction to spray more containment foam at him, my vision swam and I saw double, and a high pitched whine threatened to drown out everything else.  I lowered the weapon, sent more bugs his way and focused on regaining my senses.

“Here!” Grue hollered.  He raised his hand.  Triumph inhaled, gearing up for another blast-

And Brutus barreled through the corridor Grue had parted through in the darkness to slam into Triumph like a charging bull.

Maybe a little harder than I would have hit the guy, had I been the humvee sized monster making the call.  Still, you couldn’t fault a dog for not knowing.

Just to my left, Shadow Stalker pulled her upper body free of the goop and began the slow process of working her crossbow free.  Not normally possible, but her ability to go into a shadow state apparently made her more slippery than most.

“No,” I growled at her. “Stay down.”  I buried her under more foam.

I pulled myself to my feet, wobbled, straightened up, wobbled some more, and then worked on keeping my balance.

“Skitter!” Grue roared, “Move!”

I didn’t waste any time in throwing myself to the ground.  Out of the corner of my eye, I only saw a blur of blue and silver where I’d been standing.

I had to flop over onto my back to see Armsmaster standing six feet away from me, leveling the blade of his Halberd in my direction.  The silver of his visor made precious little of his expression visible.  All I could see was the thin, hard line of his mouth.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, quiet enough that I was pretty sure Tattletale and Grue wouldn’t catch it.  I aimed his way with the foam sprayer.

In a flash, he whipped his weapon around so the butt end was facing me.  There was a muffled ‘whump’ sound, and I felt something like a wave of intensely hot air that made every hair on my arms, legs and the back of my neck stand on end.  I realized the trigger of the containment foam sprayer was depressed and nothing was coming out of the end of the weapon.  I tried again.  Nothing.

That would be an electromagnetic pulse screwing up the machinery.  Fuck.

Before I could organize my thoughts and warn Grue and Tattletale, Armsmaster flipped the weapon around in his hands like you saw military cadets doing with their guns during a march.  As it whirled around him, I heard that ‘whump’ sound twice in quick succession.

Somehow, I doubted he’d missed them.

“Call off your mutant,” he spoke, in that kind of voice that people obeyed.  “I promise you, it would only get hurt if it attacked me, and I’d rather not subject an animal to that, when it’s the master that’s to blame.”

“Bitch!” Grue called, “Call him off.  He’s right.”

From a point I couldn’t see, Bitch whistled.  Brutus moved back through the corridor Grue had made to rejoin her.

“You were moving like you could see in my darkness,” Grue spoke, a note of wariness in his echoing voice.

“I’ve studied your powers,” Armsmaster told us, tapping the butt of his weapon on the ground.  Every bug within fifteen feet of him dropped out of the sky, dead.  “This was over from the moment you stepped into the room.”

Miss Militia stepped out of the darkness beside the stage, with what looked like a machine gun in her hands, Regent as her hostage.  He didn’t have his scepter.

Fuck.

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