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To the Victor…
Chapter 14: Word on the Street
by Tog

“Good news today, class.  You won’t need your books, or even a notepad.  We’re just going to discuss some current events.  Of course, if I think anyone isn’t paying attention, I’ll be asking for a summary report due at the start of class tomorrow.”  Many in the class groaned at the words.

Paragon City had a few high schools, as well as some private schools.  All were likely on edge after the mass breakout from Zigursky Prison the week before.  Mrs. Armstrong’s social studies class was no exception.

“Before we really get started, is there anyone here that does not know what Zigursky Prison is?”  No hands went up.  “For those too shy to admit it, Zigursky Prison is the local prison in Brickstown.  It is home to some of the most vile human, and near human, beings ever captured in Paragon City.

“Last week, some group from the Rogue Isles broke out many of the inmates, while many more escaped back to the streets of the city.  That’s what I’d like to talk about today.  Does anyone have some opening thoughts on the matter?”

A girl in the back, dressed in black and gray camouflage pants and a black shirt with a bright pink heart on it raised her hand.  A pretty blond girl a few rows over rolled her eyes.

“Kym.  Go ahead.  Debi, you’re next.”

The first girl glanced over at the other, then spoke.  “I really don’t see that it will change things much.  I mean, most were gang members, so odds are, they will just go back to their gangs.  Maybe once they get back in, they will run into problems with too many people in the gangs now, and that could lead to turf wars, but most of it should be either gang on gang or internal gang fighting.  I really don’t see it affecting normal people all that much.”

“But,” began Armstrong.  “The police will still be pulled into it, and that will draw them away from their other duties.  That’s something that will affect everyone.”

“Paragon has plenty of heroes though.  They can augment the police force.”  This was met with several stifled laughs around the room, and one very loud and sarcastic “HA!”.

“Debi.  You seemed to have a comment on this?”

“Just that, ya’ know, most of the heroes in this town are getting to be as bad as the gangs.  I don’t think I’d trust any of them to come and save me.”

“Kym, do you have response to that?”

“Yeah.  Where was the last time a hero actually did harm to a citizen?  The actual time and place?  You just repeat what you hear on the news, but you don’t actually listen to it.  I guess that’s to be expected from a cheerleader, huh?  Someone shouts, and you repeat it.”

“Gah, jealous much?” snapped Debi.

“And second, what makes you think you’d be worth saving.  It’s not like you have a future.  You’ll probably be knocked up for graduation and working at the mall ‘til you die of an overdose in the bathroom.”

Debi started to stand up, but Kym was on her feet in a flash.

“Kym!  That’s enough!  I want a discussion not a brawl.  Both of you.  Sit. Down!”

“It won’t last long enough to be a brawl,” said Kym as she winked quickly at Debi and they both took their seats.

“You’d have to get through Rick to get to me, you freak!”

“Hell, you made it through the whole team in what?  A weekend?  I don’t think it would take long to get through one of them.”

“STOP IT!  The next one of you that speaks gets detention.  I want a serious discussion, not some childish name calling.  Debi actually had a good point.  As did Kym.  For a second.  Heroes have always been here for us, but there are a lot of stories in the news right now that they might be failing us.  As Kym pointed out, many of those are just stories.  We don’t have the facts to really examine them for ourselves.  It does bring up the next point I wanted to talk about, however.  How many of you have ever had a face to face dealing with a hero?”

Three hands were raised.

“And of you three, were you happy to see the hero arrive?”

All said they were.

“Did the hero do anything that you think was overly aggressive?”

None did.

“So it’s safe to say that in this class, one hundred percent of all hero encounters have been positive.  But the news makes it sound like they are more of a menace than the gangs.  Why would that be the case?  Yes, Mike?”

“Because people watch the news to see what happened.  People only really care about the bad stuff, so that’s what the news puts on.  I used to live in a much safer town.  We’d have maybe 30 murders a year total.  The news would always talk about one when it happened, but I never once saw a story that said no one had been killed that day.”

“Good.  Excellent point.  The news doesn’t really focus on the bad, though.  It focuses on the different.  If it’s normal for no one to be murdered, then there is no sense is wasting time telling everyone that nothing happened.  Kym, you have a comment?  A civil one?”

“But it doesn’t focus on the different.  I mean, okay, the break out was a big deal, but every night there is another story about some rumor about a hero hurting someone.  Every night.  And it’s always the same.  No names, no locations, no details of any kind.  Why even report it unless there is something bigger going on?”

“Paul?  Would you like to answer her question?”

“Um, sure.  Because it’s not that the attacks are out of the norm any more, it’s that they are out of the normal expectation.  People don’t expect heroes to beat them up, so when it happens, even if it happens every day, it’s news.”

Kym bristled.  “And I would agree with that, if there was any sign that it was actually true.  I mean, it’s like the news channels are all playing some joke on the city.  They’re telling us all this stuff to see what we’ll accept, but they can’t actually prove any of it.”

“How do you know they can’t?” asked the teacher.

“They haven’t yet.  ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’.  Carl Sagan said that, and it holds just true for the local news as it does for anything in cosmology.  Heroes running amok is an extraordinary claim.  A news report that gives no time, location, or names of anyone involved is not extraordinary proof, but people are eating it up.  It’s like we’re all just willing to be led wherever they want us to go.  Well, screw them!  I ain’t going.”

“Yes, Debi?  You have a comment?”

“Yeah.  If you think it’s fake, then where is your proof?”

“The burden of proof is on them.  They are the ones saying this is happening.”

“But you’re saying it’s not.  You need proof too.”

“Let me see if I can explain it to you this way.  Let’s say that I accuse you of stealing a cheer from another school.  How could you prove I was lying?  You couldn’t.  You would have to get a recording of every cheer ever done from every school that has ever existed.  Even then, I could just say that you missed a school, or they didn’t provide you with all of their stuff.  The burden would be on me to show that your cheer was nearly an exact duplicate of the one from Emmerson High, or wherever.  Just accusing you isn’t enough.  I need to back it up with real evidence.  It’s the same thing with the news.  Just because they show it, it doesn’t make it true.”

Mrs. Armstrong spoke again.  “Kym is actually right in this regard.  The news is not living up to their end.  Can anyone think of why?  Mike?”

“Nope.”

“Kym?”

“Probably Money.  It’s usually money.”

Debi made a loud, fake laugh. “HA!  Money?  How does the news make any money off of lying?”

“Advertising.  If all the news places get the same stories, they have to run them, rather than risk being the only station in town that doesn’t.  If people think they miss something by watching one channel, then they’ll stop watching it, ratings will drop, advertisers will leave, and we end up with even more crap TV.  Why do you think reality TV is on everywhere now?  It’s cheap to make, and people are dumb enough to watch it.  That gives it a huge profit margin so the networks love it, and it’s the relatively few people that like good, well written, well acted shows that suffer for it.”

“God you’re cynical.”

“Maybe so.  It seems to work for me though.  How has being a gullible sponge treated you?  Oh, right.  Cheerleader.”

“KYM!  Out!  Now!  You know the way.”

~~~~~

Mr. Marsden closed the door behind him and looked around the room.  Everything was still there.  His wife came in from the kitchen to greet him.

“Oh, thank God.  I was getting worried.”  She threw her arms around him.

“I know.  I’m sorry I’m late.  The police had check points set up all over. Where there weren’t cops, there were heroes or gangs.  I just don’t get what’s happening.”

“The news said more heroes are at it again.  This time the reports were from all over.”

“I don’t know which is worse anymore.  It’s getting to where I’m jumping at shadows.  I asked about a transfer today.  The boss said he’d look into it but there is quite a list of people wanting to get out already.”

~~~~~

Detective Betton entered the stationhouse and threw his jacket onto his chair.  Court hadn’t gone well at all.

“Case dismissed.”

The words echoed through his mind.  He had seen the shooting, chased the person who pulled the trigger for two blocks, caught up to him without once losing sight of him, recovered the gun proven to be the murder weapon from the hand of the man he chased, and the judge throws it out because the defense had a picture of a man wearing a similar shirt running away from the scene of the shooting.  This wasn’t the first time either.  That judge had a reputation for not actually presiding over a trial.  Few cases that weren’t newsworthy were given his attention.  Time would get him.  Bad things happen to bad people. 

Sooner or later, Judge Evers would go down.  Hard.

~~~~~

Dr. Jensen sat in her office, listening to patient after patient go on about how worried they were that the heroes were somehow turning against the city.  It was all she could do to remain objective and helpful as each one talked about how frightened they were of her peers.  She tried to point out just how silly the reports were, and that the press was blowing things out of proportion, but it was clear that the damage was done.  For many it wasn’t just the stories of rogue heroes, it was also the breakout, or the seeming failures of the police to make a case against even the most common criminal.

More grating than any of that, at least as far as she was concerned, was the praise so many seemed to heaping on Danforth.  He was being lauded as the light which was guiding the city though troubled times.  His vehicles going to the police would reduce costs and allow more officers to be hired.  He was boldly speaking out against the hero community, despite the death threats.  Many said that he should be elected to some public office.  In the chair beside them, Dr. Jensen listened and did her best to understand, while the part of her that was Epim cringed at every word.

~~~~~

Tog stepped up to the podium and waited for those assembled to settle down.

“Ladies and Gentlemen.  Thank you for coming to this, the grand opening of Hero University.  It’s been over six months since we began this little project, and in that time we’ve had a few ups and downs.  At this time, I’d like to thank two—umm, people--that made this idea a reality.  The first is HAAL.  He will be in charge of the day to day operations of this school.  I would also like to thank Marcus Gauthier for his financial backing and support, which came, quite literally, in our darkest hour.  Thanks to you both.

“Finally, I’d like to thank all of the heroes who have offered to teach the up and coming generation the ropes; whether you are on staff or not.  Whether you were helping them out for the benefit of the city, or simply because they were scaring the hell out of you by doing what they were doing.  Thanks for passing along what you know.”

“Tog!  Tog!  Justine Almage here, with a question.”

“Yes.  Go ahead.”

“What will you be doing to control these new heroes, to stop them from acting out the way so many others are doing?”

“That’s sort of a loaded question.  As far what we’ll be doing to control them goes.  We won’t be.  They will be free to make their own choices.  We will teach them, and hopefully instill a sense of honor and responsibility, but we won’t ever try to control them.  If any member of the student body or staff is shown to be involved with anything that goes against the code, then sanctions will be made, but so far, there is only one confirmed instance where a hero was actually identified doing something like what you suggest.  I talked to him personally after the incident, and based on that, I passed around my recommendation to all other groups that he not only not be admitted to their groups, but that he be viewed as a potential threat.”

“Do you deny the reports that have been on every news channel in the city for months?”

“I don’t deny the reports, no.  I just question their accuracy.”

“You’re accusing the media of lying then?”

Tog’s voice raised as he spoke.  “No.  I’m not ‘accusing’ anyone of anything.  I’m stating, flat out, that when you report that someone, somewhere, witnessed something, but refuse to tell who, where, or what it’s not news.  It’s a rumor.  Get the full story, with sources, then it’s news.  Right now you have all the credibility of Herbie the Hobo.”

Mourning was already rushing forward along with Lista.

“Plan?” asked Lista.

“Encase his head in ice if you have to, just get him to shut up.”

The pair landed on the platform and as Lista whispered in Tog’s ear, Mourning announced that he was needed elsewhere and that she would be handling the rest of the opening.  As she spoke, Tog’s face changed.  He gave a quick wave, then leaped into the air behind Lista.

Later, when all had returned to the base, he apologized to Marcus and HAAL for letting his temper get away from him.

“What did Lis’ say to you to get you to stop talking so quickly?” asked Marcus.

“She said, ‘Pull, you idiot’.”

“That’s it?”

“Long story.  It was her way of letting me know that I was making an ass out of myself and that nothing useful could come from where I was going.”

“Well, Mourning did a good job at smoothing the ruffled feathers.”

HAAL’s melodic voice spoke up.  “It may have been helpful.  We got several new contacts today, shortly after the interview.  A few said that they were happy to see that someone was still on their side.”

“Wow,” said Marcus.  “Are you saying that all this bad press is actually stopping new heroes from getting out there?”

“That was the implication.”

“Well that’s not good.”

Athena’s alert chimed to let the room know there was a message for one of them.  “Tog, you have a telephone call.”

“Can you put it through to the room here?”

“Certainly.”

Tog moved over to the phone and spoke quietly to the person on the other end while Marcus and HAAL talked.  When the call ended, he returned to the table and sat down, obviously stunned.

“Everything okay?” asked Marcus.

“Justine Almage wants to talk.  Off the record.”

“Probably a trap of some kind.”

“I mentioned that.  She said that anywhere and anytime I want is good for her.

“Athena?”

“Yes, Tog.”

“If I set up a room in the visitors lounge, could you sweep it for all electronic devices, or any other way that a person could record a conversation short of actually writing it down.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll need such a room the day after tomorrow at about 2 PM.”

“I will make the arrangements.”

 

The following morning, Tog got a message that fourteen new students enrolled in the class the previous day.  Most were young, and new to the life, but there were a few veterans as well.

That afternoon saw the first of many full teams of training missions sweeping the streets, of Atlas Park, Kings Row, and Perez Park.  All were without incident.  It was finally coming together.

Justine Almage arrived the next day, right on time.  The quick scan for any electronic devices revealed nothing, and she was shown into the room where Tog was waiting.

“Before you start,” he said.  “I’d like to apologize for my temper.  It probably doesn’t help my case any when I go off like that.”

“No need.  I understand perfectly.  And that sort of brings me to the reason for this meeting.  You are definitely passionate about what you do.  If you weren’t, you wouldn’t get so upset with me.  At the same time, I never once got the feeling that you would actually hit me, even if you could.  You might goad me into hitting you so you could hit back, but that’s not the same thing in my eyes.”

“Yeah.  I tend to do that.  Sorry.”

“Look, the stuff you said is true.  We don’t have anything solid.  We get the same stories that all the other stations get.  We’ve got at most two hours to get them ready to air.  Every time we suggest following them up, the editor shoots it down, saying the station owners will be upset if we fall behind in ratings.”

“So, it’s more important to popular than accurate?”

“Yes.  And I hate that, but there aren’t a lot of other career options for a reporter that ignores her editor.”

“Surely ‘journalistic integrity’ still matters in some places.”

“Yes, it does.  But the waiting list to get to a job where a reporter can actually report are choice spots.  The people that have them basically have to die before a spot opens up, and that causes a rush from all over the country to get in.

“It’s always been this way to some degree.  That sappy human interest piece at the end of every broadcast?  It’s only there to try to end on a high note.  After 40 minutes of death, and destruction, a 20 second clip of a gopher on a wakeboard will make everything better, right?”

“So what are you here about?”

“I’ve been doing some off the record digging and I found some stuff that is way out of my league.  I’m prepared to get it to you, or anyone you name, on two conditions.  First, no one can know it came from me.  I’m pretty sure that would be the end of much more than just my career.  Second, on the record, in public, I will still be spewing the same old crap, possibly busting your butt in the process.  That can’t change until this is resolved.”

“I’m okay with both of those, but I want to know what you found.”

“I know where to find a paper trail that shows what I think is a huge conspiracy.  I don’t know how big it is, or what the ultimate goal is, but I do know that Judge Evers is a part of it.  Those attacks on the new governors back in February were part of it too.  What’s more, it’s happening all over the country.”

“And you have actual, physical proof of this?”

“Yes.  Well, sort of.  I didn’t read it all, but I scanned it and stored it on a flash drive.  I had to hide the flash drive when I heard someone coming, but I’m positive it’s still there.  I tried to get it a few days ago but I didn’t get left alone.  Of the stuff I did see, I’m sure that all of it can be independently verified, once you know where to look.  What’s wrong?

“I’d like to have you watched over for a few days.”

“To see if I’m lying?”

“No.  I watched a lot of movies as a kid.  No one mentions evidence they don’t have on hand and lives more than 15 minutes.  It’s one of the nine ways to ensure a character’s demise.”

“That’s the movies.”

“I hang out with people that fly and shoot ice shards from their palms.  Indulge me.  Besides, there is a connection here to a lot of other stuff we’ve been working on.”

“Like what?”

“Still totally off the record?”

“Yes.  I swear.”

“The attacks on the governors were tied in directly with the riots the previous October.”

“Speculation?”

“Provable fact.  We have a direct link between them.”

“What is it?”  She slid forward on her chair.

“I’ll include that, when we get your stuff.”

“Fine.  Who would you have watch over me?”

“How are you with bugs?”






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