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Tinker, Taylor, Builder, Nexus

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Steaming brickwork still ticked and clicked with heat as Armsmaster stepped over the crumbled edge of what had been an exterior wall, armored foot grinding for purchase on worn, half-melted linoleum. The servo of his left knee whirred and whined with the motion - he’d been halfway through customizing this particular suit when the call had come, and the calibration was off. A detached part of his mind made a note to deal with the issue back at the Rig. The rest of him cycled his visor’s modes - the air was still thick with a heat-haze, smoke and fumes, thermal imaging was only slightly less than useless in the mess of everything radiating heat - maybe low-intensity light amplification?



“Uh, you know it’s not safe in there, right?” The swarthy civilian fireman (Armsmaster hadn’t caught his name on the first go and hadn’t really cared enough to find out later) assigned to escort him was clearly torn between his job (namely, telling him to get the hell out of his fire site) and gawping at one of Brockton Bay’s most famous heroes gracing his presence. Armsmaster was fully aware of the contrast between the deep blues and polished silvers of his powered armor suit versus the rundown brick of lower Brockton - it wasn’t quite the docks, but it still hadn’t exactly been a nice neighborhood before it got set on fire.

 

“I’m keeping an eye on it,” Armsmaster promised, glancing back over his shoulder, leaning in to have a closer look inside - structural analyzer in his visor highlighting places where the remaining structure was unstable, what spots would and wouldn’t hold his weight. The ceiling had taken the worst of it, smoldering debris piled on the floor where it’d fallen, the thin metal of the lockers lining the hallway wall warped by the heat, but the actual floor seemed mostly good. Mostly. “This is where it started?”



“Somewhere in the area,” the fireman agreed, ducking through the breach in the wall. “It’s an old building, and this place.. Probably wasn’t built to code to begin with. So when it went, it spread like hell.” There was a thoughtful pause. “Uh, so, I have to ask, since you’re here, is - do you think this was, you know, cape business..?”



Armsmaster frowned under his helmet. “That’s what I’m here to rule out,” he finally replied, curt. An evasion, but a necessary one. “Investigating potential parahuman incidents is one of Protectorate’s core tasks.” He paused for a moment. “Honestly I happened to be close by and equipped for this sort of a thing. Do you know if they’ve done the headcount yet?”

 

 “They were still at it when I last heard,” the firefighter responded. “Figuring out if anybody’s actually missing as opposed to just.. Skiving off. Haven’t found any bodies yet, thank Gooourrhhh.” His eyes crossed behind his mask. “What the hell’s that smell?”

 

Armsmaster tilted his head, took a breath. Then proceeded to thoroughly regret it. Holding back an undignified gag, he triggered the seal on his helmet, portions of metal sliding forwards to close around his bearded chin, deep breaths of blessedly recycled air at least diluting the assault on his senses. It was sickly-sweet, distinctly organic - rot and festering corruption, boiled to a truly stunning concoction by the heat around them - 

 

“Smells like hot garbage,” Armsmaster grunted, when he was finally confident he wasn’t going to vomit in his helmet if he opened his mouth. “Hot, rotten, garbage.” 

 

The hallway split in two here, and behind the corner - the scorched lockers were peeled open, thin metal heated and stretched into abstract shapes like the petals of a flower. Something glistened wetly in the bottom of it, a scorched mass of - garbage. Used feminine hygiene products, chunks of rotting food, dead insects, a melange of a dozen unidentified things, boiled in the fire into something downright impressively vile. Just looking at it was making him want to dry heave - he was absolutely sure his helmet was sealed, and a part of him was still convinced he could taste the mess if he breathed too deeply.

 

“Think we found where it started,” the firefighter pointed weakly, one hand trying to cover the lower half of his face. He didn’t seem to be doing too well, the poor bastard. “That looks, hllng . Looks like a gas pipe back there, behind the lockers. Definitely not to code. If whatever happened here compromised that, all you need is one spark and..”

 

Armsmaster nodded, steeling himself to look closer at the scene. The metal of the lockers was melted, blown outwards like something had exploded inside - no. There wasn’t enough shrapnel - it was like a giant hand had just grabbed the metal and pulled until it stretched like toffee. The locker in the heart of the eruption had burst open, the ones next to it crushed outwards. Glistening trails of thick dried fluid - some sort of a synthetic lubricant - trailed down the hallway.



“Who’d want to burn down Winslow High?”