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To the Victor…
Bert walked into the command center and looked at the report in his hand again. This was big.
“Athena, lemme talk to ‘em all.”
“Sure thing, Chief. You’re patched in.”
“Attention, Harborites. We’ve got a situation in IP. The Freedom Phalanx is asking for all heroes to come to the north end of the zone at 1700, that’s for most of us. They plan to drop some massive depth charges to force that big sea monster to the surface so we can take it out once and for all. Any of y’all that can make it, be there. Thanks.”
Just before , members of the Freedom Phalanx began dividing up those heroes already present into smaller groups and giving out instructions on how everything was going to happen.
At the south end of
“Alpha 1, in position. Over”
“Alpha 2, in position. Over”
“Two, set delay? Over”
“Offset needs to be 10.4 seconds. How copy? Over.”
“Good copy. 10.4, set and ready. Going hot. Over.”
“Copy that. Find cover. Out”
The leader toggled the transmitter to the alternate frequency and spoke softly into the microphone. “Peaches.”
The voice on the other end acknowledged the transmission. Fifteen seconds later, there was a brilliant light from the massive explosion at the far end of the zone. Thirteen seconds after that, the sound of the explosion reached the three figures hidden among the machinery in the south end. The echo masked the sound of the two smaller charges going off in the southern end. It did nothing to mask the huge explosion which occurred two seconds later.
Near , Tog entered the day room at the end of their hallway and collapsed into a chair. Lista was already there with her head down. The others were still coming back.
“Lis, you awake?”
“Barely. I’m sleeping here though. Too tired to go to bed.”
“Yeah. I’m with you on that one.”
The door slid open to reveal Sliss and CP both looking refreshed and rested. “Hey. Hey, Tog. Tog! Hey!”
“Gah! What, Sliss?”
Sliss was jumping around the room, obviously very excited. “That was fun huh? You see the explosions? I liked the 5th one best, all that water went way up into the sky. Kah-POOOOOSH!”
“Yes. That was neat, but it’s really late, I’m tired, and Lista is about to freeze you solid and lock you in the cooler.”
“I don’t like that game,” he said as he stopped bouncing and looked as sad as his face could allow.
“I know, Bud. But be nice to the mammals okay. Some of us don’t just don’t have your energy.”
Lista mumbled something into the table. Sliss and CP headed off down their own hall and the door slid open again.
Epim came in and sat down. “Lista dead?”
“Haven’t checked. Too far to lean.”
“Any idea what was up with that southern explosion?”
“None. I figure we’ll hear all about it soon enough. Manticore sure seemed interested in it though.”
“Yeah. I saw that too.”
Epim genuinely thought she sat up a little. “Yeah, you know anything about it?”
“Not specifically, but I know someone who was there when it happened. Slisser here.”
Tog and Epim exchanged looks then said, “What?” in nearly perfect unison.
“Yeah, you know how he’s not too good with directions?”
“You mean like ‘Don’t eat that, that’s not food’, and ‘Stop following CP into rooms’?” said Tog.
“I was thinking north and south, but yours are good too. Anyway, he told me he went through the Brickstown gate first because he thought it would be closer. He was running around down there looking for us when the first explosion went off. He swears he saw a smaller explosion on that tank, just before the big one. He rushed in to see if he could help, and saw the plant medical staff helping the injured, so he took off to join us.”
“Why didn’t he say anything?”
“Nobody asked him. He only told me because he was he was embarrassed about being late and wanted to know if anyone noticed. Ready for the best part? He thinks he saw someone drop into the water from the top of a crane. Not like a body falling, but like a high dive.”
Epim stared at the table. Tog leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Lista made a little slurping noise. Finally, Tog spoke: “I actually think I’m too exhausted to even think about what that might mean.” If you’re not going to sleep any time soon, maybe you could head over and take a look at things?”
“Sure. Not a problem. I don’t sleep,” she said with a hint of anger.
“Sorry. I just meant that since you didn’t stay in your room and seem to be more alert than the rest of us, that maybe you were planning on staying up. I didn’t mean to imply that you had to do anything.”
“No, you misunderstood. I actually don’t sleep. Ever. One of the side effects of the treatments Crey put me through. I’ll go poke around. The only thing on TV this late anyway are those stupid infomercials.”
With that, she stood up and walked to the lift, and the exit.
The following afternoon, Tog awoke to find CP sitting in the day room.
“I have news,” she said. “You’ll want to get the others.”
Once everyone had gathered, she began to explain. “By the time I got back there, the EPA had investigators all over the place. I overheard some stuff about that tank not leaking, and signs of some sort of explosive liquid being spilled on the ground under it. There was a system in place to clean up any spills, but it was destroyed by a small explosive. Whatever was done there was done deliberately.”
One of the long time members of the group, a presumably ex-mercenary, spoke up from the back. “Probably used the sound of the first blast to cover the sound of their own. That makes all that stuff we did last night just a distraction for a smaller op.”
Mourning said, “Yeah. That’s reasonable, but I’m guessin’ it went the other way. Our attack had a real purpose, and support from hundreds of heroes from all over. Nothin’ about it seems like a fake mission to me. I’d say our attack was real, and that a very small group chose to use it as a distraction.”
“What the hell is the difference?”
“The difference is in the number of people that would know about it. It was set up by the Freedom Phalanx. If it was all a cover, then they would all know about it. If it was a real operation, and one member wanted to use it for something more, then only that one would know and the rest of the team would be shielded from the fallout.”
Morning spoke up again. “It’s odd though. If the plan was to use the sound of the first explosion to mask the smaller ones, then why set them on somethin’ that was going to blow up that big?”
“To make it look like the explosion was an accident,” said the mercenary.
“Maybe. But then why disable the clean up system? If the stuff was goin’ to explode anyway, there wouldn’t have been time to activate it. I’m thinkin’ that that big explosion wasn’t supposed to happen. Oh, maybe that would explain the EPA being on scene so fast. It’s odd that they had a full crew available at such short notice. We should look into why they were there so fast.”
“I’ll check with some of the people from the old days. Maybe someone I know will be buying a few rounds this week,” said the mercenary.
“I’ll ask around a bit and see if I can’t come up something from the other group leaders,” said Bert. “This might be something we want to stay away from. We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. For now, I’d kind of like it if no one got directly involved with this. Not ‘til we know more.”
A murmur moved across the room as the meeting disbanded. Some stayed to talk amongst themselves, while others went to one of the common rooms or left to see a contact. Tog saw Sliss speaking in an animated way to Zach, but a page from Athena informed him of a visitor in the guest lounge. No matter, Zach was a good man, Sliss wouldn’t aggravate him too much.
Tog arrived to see HAAL standing by the large video monitor.
“It is getting worse,” said the little robot.
“I got your message about Danforth. Did he give a reason for pulling his support?”
“Nope. Just said it wasn’t something he wanted to get involved with at this time. I didn’t actually speak to him, and he hasn’t returned my calls.”
“Where does that put us?”
“Well, we’ve been teaching in the streets for months, there’s no reason for that to change.”
The following morning Bert appeared in the main common area with an announcement.
“Hey, ya’ll. I got in touch with every other group I could last night. None of ‘em are working on anything in IP that might be related.” Anyone that wants to go snooping is welcome to do it.”
Once Bert had left the room, Mourning asked Athena to locate Lista. Lista called back a few minutes later.
“What’s up, MA?”
“We need to check out some hotels in Brickstown. Well, I need you to. Can you meet me there in about 15 minutes?”
“Whenever you get here. I’m already at one of them. I’ll meet you at the train.”
Mourning arrived to find Lista on the platform. “So, what’s the job?”
“We need to find out what hotel the EPA people are usin’ and see if we can get a line on why they all happened to be here, with their gear before the ‘unexpected’ explosion the other night.”
“Oh, you could have asked that on the phone. I hooked up with one last night.”
“Nope. She was actually pretty cool too. We talked quite a bit about stuff. Turns out her team was sent here for a mock toxic spill clean up that was supposed to happen sometime this week. They were to monitor the effectiveness of the local clean up teams, but the explosion happened the night they arrived so they took off to do it instead.”
“Did she say anything about what they found?”
“Yeah. All the records indicated that that tank was supposed to have water with a very high salt content in it. That’s it. They can’t have anything too nasty that close to the bay.”
“Salt water doesn’t explode.”
“True. It turns out that what was really in the tanks was some sort of liquid that reacted badly when it was exposed to sunlight. They don’t know what it is, but Crey is co-operating fully, well, sort of fully, with the investigation.”
“Really? I’ve heard that they tend to be pretty closed mouthed about things.”
“Right. Normally they are. My EPA friend said that Crey is insisting that they were offered some sort of deal from the government to let them use that plant for a few months in exchange for some sort of immunity deal to be named later. It’s now looking like the papers were forged and the deal was all a scam. Crey is pretty pissed.”
“Then Crey has no clue what that stuff was?”
“None. And it gets better. My friend thinks, thinks, that whoever called her team out here thought that that tank only had salt water in it, but staged the explosion as an excuse to get warrants for an emergency search of Crey records in order to find something on them.”
“Wow. This just got complicated.”
“I thought you might like it.”
“If she’s right, Group A arranged for the bombin’ and the visit from the EPA to get somethin’ on Crey. Group B was doin’ somethin’ shifty, and scammed Crey out of a facility. Whatever was in the tank hates sunlight, but no one knew that until it was too late. The only group that knew what it was, was Group B, and no one knows who they are.”
“Does it all fit?”
“I need to work on it a bit.”
Tog returned to the base to find Marcus waiting for him in the guest lounge. He approached the older man with a bit of caution, but was cut off by Zach.
“Tog, sorry to bother you, this won’t take a minute. I’m being called away rather unexpectedly. I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. If you see either Sliss or Cursed Phoenix, have them contact me as soon as possible.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Yes. I was working on a project for them. I finished, but I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to stick around.”
“I’ll spread the word you’re looking for them.”
Zach thanked him and left the room. Tog turned to face Marcus. “Hello, Mr. Gauthier.”
“Marcus. Please,” he said as the handshake came to an end.
“Can I, um, offer you anything? A drink or something.”
“Actually, no, thanks. I’m fine. Is there someplace we could talk? Someplace a bit more, private?”
“Umm, sure. Follow me.”
Once in the conference room, they both sat down. Marcus was looking at Tog in a rather unusual way as he spoke.
“I heard you were working with Danforth. I’d like to give you some advice about him.”
“Don’t trust him? Don’t make any plans around anything he says, because he’ll pull out at the last minute and leave you hanging? Something on those lines?”
“So I’m too late then. He’s a success, but he’s not a good example of it. I’ve had more than a few run-ins with him over the years. Honestly, he probably couldn’t find a way to turn a profit from your school, so he bailed out.”
“He knew that going in.”
“Not quite. He told you he knew it going in. What he probably had in mind was to part it off, or sell advertising on it or something. He doesn’t do anything unless it makes him more money.”
“Where were you a few months ago?”
“Sorry. This was the first I’d heard about it. I do have some good news though.”
“Sorry to interrupt, but why do you keep looking at me like that?”
“Was I? Sorry. I didn’t realize. It’s the cow suit.”
“No really, that’s all it is. This is the first time I’ve seen you in your work clothes.”
“No, not a ‘cow suit’. A ‘bull suit’.”
“Apologies. At any rate, the good news.
“I’ve decided to fund the school. I had a property set aside for another hotel here in Paragon, but the truth of the matter is, I’m sort of really happy with just the one thing to watch over. The place is nearly ready to go. All you have to do is move in. No strings.”
“Are you serious?” shouted Tog.
“Well, one string. My name will be associated with it in some way, so don’t make me look bad.”
“No promises, but I’ll do my best. I need to contact HAAL! Thank you. Thank you so much!”
Tog was still expressing his gratitude when they left the conference room. Once in the lounge he froze. Before him stood HAAL, staring at the large video monitor. On the monitor was Danforth.
“…two days ago. This was simply the most recent lapse in judgment by the hero community. When you take this into account with the blatant extortion, it’s clear that the so called Heroes of Paragon City are really little more than any of the other gangs that plague the streets. They need to be monitored. They need to be regulated. Their numbers need to be reduced. There was a time when the police were too understaffed to be effective. Thanks to my Green-Machine line of vehicles, this is no longer the case. The police will have more manpower, and better equipment to battle the common gangs. All they’ll need to do it, is fewer heroes getting in their way.
“My plan is a simple one. The first step will be to…”
The station logo appeared on screen along with a new voice. “This is a breaking news bulletin. We now take you live to Brickstown where Justine Almage is standing by.”
“This is Justine Almage,
reporting from Brickstown where a major assault on the Ziggurat Prison is
underway. Hundreds of villains, large and small, have fled the
maximum security walls. The few heroes already in the zone when
the attack began were quickly outnumbered by troops rumored to be from the
Bert’s voice cut across the broadcast as Entimangler bolted for the exit. “All hands suit up. We’re goin’ hunting!”