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To the Victor…
Chapter 11: Truth, Lies, and the Fourth Estate
by Tog

Mourning walked into the HomeSec office to meet with Agent Waters.  By her side were Tog and Lista.  After waiting for a few minutes, they were shown into a room similar to the one they had been in a few months before.

“Glad you could make it,” Agent Waters said.  This is big.  A lot bigger than we’d thought it might be.  We managed to break the cipher.  They were using standard English, but the punctuation was put in the cipher as well.  There were 8 different characters that meant ‘repeat that letter’, so a word with two or more pairs of letters, like ‘bookkeeper’ could have the same symbol for the second O, K and E.  Anyway, we got it cracked easily enough once we figured that out.

“Most of the early messages were sort of a proof-of concept thing.  Nothing really interesting, just a way to be sure they were being received by those that needed to get the messages.  The first real test was the tournament back in October.  The cards picked by Isaac were the commands to start a riot in the zip codes that he mentioned.  One hand was ‘5 6 – 6 0’ so any zip code that ended with any number from 56 to 60 was to start.”

“The second Tournament was more specific.  The riots there were to serve as distractions.  In Paragon, it seems the plan was to kill some of the governors at that banquet.  The assassins had specific ones in mind, but were relying on the riots to keep the heroes busy.”

“Any idea why they would want to kill specific governors?” asked Mourning.  “Did they all share some political opinion or somethin’?”

“That, we can’t figure out yet.  As near as we can tell, no.  The only thing they have in common is that they were all elected to their first term last November.  Even that’s not really a connection, because the ones that were not on the list were also elected then.”

“There’s no other connection at all?”

“None we can find.  They all vary on the major issues, and nothing about them stands out in any way from the non-targets.”

“So, then, the only thing we really know is that the attack was politically motivated.  Or it was another ruse.”

“How so?”

“Well, what if only one person was the real target.  You give ten assassins ten different targets so no one knows who you’re really after, and to get the investigators thinkin’ it’s some huge conspiracy, rather than just one really angry little guy.”

“You think that’s possible?”

“Yes.  I don’t think it’s likely, but if you have a list of the intended victims, it might worth going over each one as if they were the only target and see if anythin’ changes.”

~~~~~

The three returned to the base and went into the common room to see what was happening.  Like so many times in the last few months, the common room was silent except for the voice coming from the large monitor.  Many heroes were gathered around, watching the news reports.  The news wasn’t good.

Since the start of the year, the number of reports that heroes were crossing that line between hero and vigilante were increasing.  Criminals were being released as fast as they were being caught thanks to a few judges that seemed to want to send a message that heroes had to play by the rules too.  The odd thing about all this was that despite the vast news coverage, there were never any details about the time or place it happened, or who may have been involved.  Things were changing in the city, and many felt those changes were not for the better.

When the news had ended, Lista turned the channel for Sliss, which prompted Epim to look over with a pained expression.  “Lis, you really shouldn’t let Sliss watch that stuff.  If he’s going to watch TV, he needs something with some substance.”

“Hey, Can you be Normal? has substance.  Span-Dexter has to work in a gas station and try to just stand by as it’s robbed this week.  He’s got a bad case of Scrapper Fever, so he pretty much chases down anyone that runs past him.  The first week they took him to a track meet and he knocked out three runners.  It should be really dramatic, and it will teach Sliss about control.”

“While I agree he could use a bit more restraint, I really don’t think crap reality TV is going to teach it to him.  He needs to run a few days without Cursed Phoenix.”

~~~~~

Sliss was tall and thin, and mostly green.  As near as anyone could tell he had been a normal Chinese Water Dragon before getting tossed in the sewer and eating the bugs that fed on the discarded stuff from Dr. Vahzilok’s experiments.  Days after Tog found the little guy in the sewer, back before Christmas, the small lizard began to grow.  A few weeks later, it was walking on two legs and showing signs of having the same type of powers as the Eidolons.  By the end of January, he had stabilized into a rather tall bipedal lizard using radiation and dark energy in a very instinctive manner.

He was young and impressionable, and when the Supergroup began looking into forming a team of new members to become a strike team, he was accepted.  That was four months ago, and the team was at its peak.  He was now a full member and one of the Defenders on the team.  He took his role very seriously, and performed it well, though he was a bit reckless when it came to his own safety.  Outside of the team, he was more like a child, with a short attention span and seemingly limited intelligence.

His attitude in combat was widely regarded as being influenced by one of the Scrappers, a young woman that went by the name of Cursed Phoenix.  CP, as she was known to the other team members, had been infected with nanotechnology and seemed to be unable to die.  She also had a very disfigured face that never seemed to heal.  These combined to make her bitter, and it manifested in self destructive streak where she seemed to be constantly looking for that one battle that would give her rest.  For some reason, Sliss was very fond of her.  Some might think he had crush on her, though that really wasn’t the case.  Sliss was a bit on the hyper side, and CP was never one to allow herself to be bored for long.  He quickly learned that if he just hung around her she would get bored very soon and launch an attack on something.  That would give him an excuse to follow her and get involved himself.  Together, they made a decent team, and as part of the team, they were nearly unstoppable.

Sliss spoke with a hissing, breathy voice and the words of a child.  “I like this show.  It’s funny and the people are funny.”

“Fine, but keep the volume down a bit.  We’ve got stuff to talk about here.”

The volume lowered a bit and those around the table began to discuss the idea for training new heroes.  It was an idea that was presented to Tog by HAAL, the Hero Assisting Artificial Life-form, in response to Tog going around to various schools. The idea was to meet with a potential new hero just as their powers began to manifest then help them past the steepest part of the learning curve.  The only things really missing were a gathering point, and potential new heroes.

That’s where Mr. Danforth came in.  He was a multi-billionaire industrialist and inventor who was known for helping out people in need.  He had recently begun supplying police and federal law enforcement with vehicles.  Word was that power armor was soon to follow.  He had made contact with Tog the same day as HAAL, and it seemed that everything was falling into place all at once.

HAAL’s voice was odd.  Being a robot, it was naturally an electronic sound, but it seemed to come across many different tones as well.  This is actually exactly what it did, and was planned.  The idea was to allow the maximum number of beings, heroic or otherwise, to hear it.  Every sound uttered was a mix of 12 different sound frequencies, only 8 of which were in the range of human hearing.  “Has there been any further contact with Mr. Danforth?”

In contrast, Tog’s voice was deep and gruff, and far from melodic.  “Not yet.  After the last talk with him he made it pretty clear that we need to get a staff and enough students to justify the expense of getting a building.  We basically have the staff, but the students—not so much.”

Entimangler’s voice was a mix of an electronic speaker that broadcast in English, and the buzzing and clicking of her native speech.  It was almost always startling.  “No need for room.  Teach in street.  Gather new people in street, teach there.”

Epim’s voice was calm, almost hypnotic.  “We could do that, but we’d be limited to a small group each.  I think what we want is a larger group that we can talk to all at once, then split up for field work.”

Lista spoke with a voice much deeper than most thought she should have.  “I’m with The Bug on this one.  We need to get the word out and show people we’re serious, then invite those that show promise back for more training.”

Mourning Angel had a soft voice.  Her deep southern accent helped to make it that way.  The cold reality of her words often went unnoticed by those that found themselves lost in her tone.  “The problem there, is that it may take more than one session to see if someone has promise.  I mean, just because we clicked so well that first day, it really doesn’t mean that everyone will.  Some people may not pick things up when we’re on the street, but they would in a more controlled settin’.”

“You all make valid points, said HAAL.  “I agree with the idea that we form teams to meet with people on the street and make sure they have contact information for us.  This will allow those who want to continue with us the chance to do so, and provide us with a verifiable list of contacts to present to Mr. Danforth.”

“I would agree with this, on one condition,” said Mourning.  “We refuse no one that contacts us.”

Lista bristled.  “No one?  What if they suck really bad.  What if they show no redeemable traits whatsoever?  What if they…  I don’t know… smell bad?”

“No one gets refused.  If someone is so unredeemable that we can’t work with them at all, we can tell them that and send them on their way, but everyone gets a chance.”

The vote went around the table and eventually all agreed to it.

Tog rose from the table and said, “Okay, now that we have a plan, who gets the first run?  I’d take it but I have to talk to Bert, then do some snooping to try and get a line on where these stories are coming from.”

“I was planning on taking Kym out for her first patrol this week,” said Epim.  “I don’t see any reason that can’t be today.”

In the end, three groups formed up.  Tog and Lista went to try to learn more about the reports passed along on the news.  Epim and Ent formed a team with Kym and anyone else they happened across.  Mourning and HAAL did the same.

~~~~~

Tog knocked on Bert’s door and said, “Hey, Boss.  Gotta sec?” 

“Hey.  Sure, c’mon in.  What’s on your mind?”  Tog stepped into the doorway of Bert’s office to find the leader hunched over some sort of mesh thing on a long pole.

“I’ve been thinking about this Hero University thing I’ve been working on with HAAL and Danforth, and, now that it’s starting to really come together, I’m having second thoughts about parts of it.”

“I think it’s a great idea.  What’re the issues you’re having?”

“Mainly there are two, but both have the same solution.  I’d like for Hero U to be separate from Safe Harbor; like, completely separate.  First, so that if it doesn’t go well, I don’t want to bring anything negative to the groups here.  Second is that I don’t want the status of Safe Harbor to give a boost to Hero U that it doesn’t deserve.  The thing is though, I don’t want to leave here to do it.”

“Yeah.  I don’t see how this could reflect badly on us, but if it’s a concern for you, I can respect it.”

“Thanks.  I think what I’m going to do is turn it all over to HAAL, I’ll just be sort of behind the scenes.  I figure if he has some decent help, he might be able to make a pretty solid run at it.  And that brings me to the next bit.

“Epim, Ent, and Lista have expressed an interest to me about helping out over there on a more or less full time basis, but still want to be a part of Safe Harbor as well.  Can that even be done?”

“I’ll have to run it by the other officers, but I think we can work something out.  Hey, do you have any experience sanding stucco off of ceilings?”

~~~~~

Tog and Lista, dressed in normal clothes, arrived at the Public relations desk of Channel 4 to see what details they might be able to uncover about the less than heroic heroes.  Tog approached the desk and eyed the receptionist, sizing her up for the best way to approach the subject.

“Hello.  I’m looking for more information on some stories you guys have been running.”

She barely lifted here eyes and replied, “Everything we have is presented in the stories, sir.”

“No, it’s not.  Many of the stories about the Heroes being too aggressive fail to include anything that would let anyone verify them.  I’d just like to get a list of times and places where some of these events are supposed to have happened.  Who would I talk to about that?”

“Further information would be available from the actual reporter covering the story, but I don’t think you’ll get anything more than what aired.  They have the right to protect their sources.”

“But this isn’t a source.  It’s a location.  You can’t very well report an earthquake leaves 30,000 homeless and not include the location, can you?”

“If you have an issue with the content of the stories, you can contact the editor.  I’d be more than happy to give you his mailing address.”

Tog stiffened slightly.  “Yes, an address.  That’s closer.  How about one for the location of the most recent incident.”

“Sir, you will need to make such requests to the reporter or the editor.  I can’t help you with details like that.”

“But you just said that the reporter probably won’t be of any help either.”

“That’s true.  It doesn’t change the fact that you need to talk to them, though.”

“Okay, the last one was aired by Justine Almage.  How can I get in touch with her?”

“I can set up an appointment.  It looks like she has an opening on June 7th, at 4 PM.”

“That’s over a month away!”

“Yes.  She’s very busy.”

“And she’s the only one that can fill in the details that should have been part of the story from the beginning?  Details that any 6 year old kid would have thought to include?  The only one?  In this entire office?”

“Sir, I need you to calm down before security is called.”

“Call them.  Maybe one of worked on the school paper when there were 9 and understands the basic premise of journalism.  Who.  What.  WHEN.  WHERE!  Why.  And dammit Lis’, stop pulling on my arm.”

Lista spoke for the first time, “Sorry for the hassle, we’ll be leaving now.”

She hustled Tog out the door and made one last apologetic gesture.  Once outside, she laid into him.  “What the hell were you thinking?  You can’t go into an office like that and use the same tactics you do on the street.  Did you think she would attack you, so could beat her up and get the info that way?  Seriously.  You can’t run in and aggro these people.  You need to pull them.  You need bait.  Next office, you wait outside while I do the talking.”

Tog looked at her for a moment and seemed on the verge of fighting back, but shrank back down and agreed he had handled it poorly.

Outside the Channel 6 office Lista peered in the window at the receptionist desk.  She then scribbled a note on the back of a small card and turned to Doug.  “Tog, you have a little pocket knife?”

“Yeah, here.  What do you need it for?”

“Bait.”  She took the small knife in her right hand and made a small nick in the edge of the fingernail on her left index finger.  She then used the edge of the blade to pry it up a bit to make sure it could be snagged on something.  Once she had finished, she walked into the office and up to the receptionist desk.

The receptionist was a very attractive woman with large blond hair and a most impressive set of fingernails.  She looked much more like part of the décor than a member of the staff.  As Lista approached the desk and waited.  Moments later, the woman looked up, huge blue eyes peering out though a forest of thick, black eyelashes.  “May I help you?”

“Hi, my name is Lisa Monet.  I should have an appointment to meet with Kyle DiSento.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t have you listed for today, what time was your meeting scheduled?”

“Let me see.”  Lista reached her hand into her pocket to retrieve the card she had written on moments before.  As she drew her hand from her pocket, she made sure to snag her nail on the hem and pulled hard.  “Ow!  Dammit!  Do you have a tissue?  Or a paper towel?  Oh damn!  It’s a bleeder.”

The receptionist had jumped slightly at the exclamation and then saw the torn nail and the blood beginning to drip down Lista’s hand.  “Oh my god!  Yes.  Here you go.  Oh wow, that’s a bad one.  Let me grab you a chair.  I do nails part time, I might be able to fix that.”

“Thanks.  I don’t suppose you have an ice machine?”

“Yes, down the hall, on the right.”

“Great, I’m going to go get some ice for this.  Sorry about this.  It’s been that sort of day, you know?”

Lista returned with her finger in a small cup of ice to find the receptionist had gathered up her appointment card for her.  “I’m sorry, Ms. Monet.  I don’t see you listed for today, or any time this week.  When did you make the appointment?”

“My assistant did it.  She said it was for today at 2 at Channel 6.  You don’t have me down?”

“I’m sorry, no.”

“Did she get the date wrong then?  I wasn’t supposed to be here yesterday was I?”

“I’m—I’m sorry, I don’t see you down at all, I went a month each way from today.  I can fit you in next Friday at 11:30?”

“Today just gets better.  Do you mind if I hang around in case he gets free?  I mean, that could happen, right?  My whole week couldn’t be like this, could it?”

“He’s actually due back from lunch in about 10 minutes; I might be able to put in a good word for you.”

“Thank you.  Thank you so much.”

~~~~~

That evening, the group was going back over their news for the day.  Tog was first.

“Here’s what Lis found out, and don’t ask me how.  I don’t want to talk about it.

“Where is she, anyway?” asked Epim.

“Lis’?  She’s out with the reporter.”

“Figures.”

“Okay, it works like this.  There is so much competition in the news world right now, that there are ‘clearing houses’ for news stories.  This is sort of the evolution of the teletype.  A big story hits, and everyone in that market gets a copy of it.  They fluff it up to make it interesting, but the details are all on the teletype.  They don’t have time to actually verify anything before it hits the air, because if they do, it would put them behind the other guys, and that’s bad for business.  He also told her that when mistakes do happen, they are quick to issue a correction.  But, if no one complains the story is wrong, they have no reason to dig to prove it.”

Mourning gave a heavy sigh.  “So, what you’re sayin’ is that they can say anythin’ they want, and we have to prove that they are wrong about it, even if what they are wrong about can’t be proven, because it was all a fantasy?”

“I think so.  Is that what I said?”

“Basically.  It also means that if someone could slip a bogus story onto the teletype, these local guys would just parrot it off like it was real.  As long as they don’t give out anythin’ that would let anyone verify it, no one can contest it either, so there’d be no diggin’.”

“Okay.  Well.  This sucks.  How did the groups do today?”

Mourning seemed lost in thought so Epim spoke up.  “We did pretty well.  We managed to meet up with a few people, and Kym is picking things up very quickly.  We met up with some guy that calls himself ‘Feedback Loop’.  Kind of cool, really.  Zach might like to meet him.  This guy built little gadgets when he was the roady for a band.  Things to help them be louder without stressing their voices or using microphones, and another whole set of things to keep them going after a rough party.  He’s a little rough, but we’ll run with him a few more times and see how it goes.  MA how about you?”

“Huh?  Oh, sorry.  No, no luck at all on our end.”

One of the other members of the group had entered the room and crossed to the television.  After checking that it was okay, he turned it on and went to the news.

“… said these new “Green-machines” would not only pay for themselves within the first year, they would also help to cut federal and local spending each year after that, which could help to get even more officers on the street.  Dave.”

“Thanks, Justine.

“In other news, more hero trouble in Paragon city today, as a dozen more people came forward to say that they had been harassed, and even extorted, by the very heroes they thought would keep them safe.”

Tog stood up quickly and said, “I’m going to bed.  This is where I came in.”






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