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Back at the base, he told everyone how it had played out, and held up the CD, which was actually a DVD with the words, “just a movie” written on it in red magic marker. They placed in a player and waited.
The blackness of the screen faded to reveal a man, or machine, in a wide brimmed hat and dark trench coat. His face seemed to shimmer and flicker as if it were being masked by a subtle hologram that would let him pass relatively unnoticed in a city like Paragon; a city where eye contact could be fatal.
“Lis’, you recognize him?” It was a loaded question and Tog knew it just s soon as he’d heard the words out loud. He breathed a quiet sigh of relief when she didn’t take the bait.
“I never actually saw anyone but Loop. I remember the smells though. The guy I thought was the leader, at least the one that did all the talking had a metal, electric, hydraulic smell. That could be him.”
“Our bad guy is a robot?” asked Sliss.
“Or possibly a human in a form fitting suit of power armor, or a cyborg,” offered HAAL.
A voice came from the screen, though the face seemed to move in a slightly unnatural way. “Ah. Doug. May I call you Doug? I feel a certain kinship with you, having gotten your father released in your name and all. It’s almost like we’re brothers. Except that I’m alive, I mean. That would be different than your real brother.”
Tog stiffened a bit at the words.
“That’s the same voice,” said Lista. “He’s the one that did all the talking.”
“While this is not going to be a confession of any sort, I do plan to offer some concession. Using a camera obscura to watch me from afar was inspired. I’d love to tell you exactly what mistake you made in your failed attempt to collect me today, but I’m afraid there are just too many options. Odds are good that you went with a car that looks like mine, although it would have a different stain from the UV dye you sprayed on it at the funeral.
“I suppose I should explain and save Mourning the hassle of working it all out. My presence at the funeral was an invitation for you to find me. Surely you didn’t think I’d sit there for that long if it was for any reason other than to be spotted?
“I had set up a counter surveillance capable of seeing anything that could get a view of that door. Once I saw the camera put into place, I knew it was just a matter of time before you hatched a plan to grab me. Having people loiter around the shop beside my little door was a pretty obvious ploy, even if they were people I had not seen before. Here’s where you went wrong. The cheerleader was there for a total of three days, spread out over two weeks. That’s a lot of time for a girl of her age to be alone in that part of town unless she’s powered in some way. Her little gloves and choker gave off a refined power signature that told me where to look for more information. I have a minion that makes similar devices, you see. It’s a small community, and people tend to talk ‘shop’. My point, here, is that she spent a total of three days loitering around a store from which it was pointless for her to purchase anything. This gave her away. The dark haired girl with the fondness for purple clothing is one of yours, too if I’m not mistaken. I counted eight in total.
“Once I knew you were having me watched, it was only a matter of time before you would make some sort of attempt to abduct me. The only reason to watch the door for that long was to study the arrival of my car, so I planned this opening around that idea. I do hope I didn’t just embarrass myself.”
“Smug bastard,” mumbled Tog.
“I’m not going to tell you everything. That would be foolish. I’m just going to tell you enough to make you see just what sort of odds you face. You see before you a man that is nothing if not patient. I have been planning this since the spring of 2000, when a series of appearances before the bench went very badly for me. I decided that the way this country was run needed to change. But what could one man do? A vote? A single voice among millions? Ineffectual. A scheme perhaps? Yes. Yes, a scheme could work quite well. The quiet overthrow of an entire nation requires a scheme. And would you like to know the best part?”
He leaned in and the face projected onto his visor gave an evil grin. “I didn’t have to push. I merely had to steer. When it seemed the country was on the verge of choosing between more than one course of action, I simply guided it in the direction that served me best. And look at the good I’ve done for this city! The police have more men on the streets. I’ve also produced the world’s first viable, solar powered car which is slated to go into mass production next year. That will free this nation from foreign oil and provide a huge boost to the economy.”
“Yes I’ve killed people, some innocent, but that is a small price to pay when you consider the overall goal. Wouldn’t you say? Continuing. With the influx of cash from the world markets, we will be able to withdraw from the world stage completely. No more US presence anywhere in the world, unless we are specifically invited. We will sit back, and wait. This nation will prosper.
“To make this a reality, I had to do certain things that were messy, but necessary. You see me as a criminal, or villain. Both may be true, but I am also the savior of this nation. By this time next year, there will be a new president. The campaign of whom I will help to shape. He will not know me. He will have no ties to me in any way, but he will be my puppet.
“For the past 6 years, I have been rigging elections to ensure that the people elected to various positions would be sympathetic to my ideas. This was mostly smaller things, like mayors, and police chiefs. Later, I had similar arrangements with judges, governors, senators and congressmen. You see, right now, whether they realize it or not, nearly 60% of the elected people in this nation owe their positions to me in one way or another. I either arranged to get them into office, or I arranged to not get them out of it. Those 60% are people that are predisposed to support my personal agenda. It’s only a matter of time until I can steer one of them into the presidency. That time is now.
“I have been taking similar liberties with the military and police departments around the nation. Normally, if a person that is predisposed to corruption and abuse of power joins the police or the military, there are some evaluations made, backgrounds checked, and training given to weed them out. Of the ones that do make it through, they are usually discovered and weeded out by those in the position that take that position seriously. So I ask you. If you are the only man with true integrity in a squad of 20, to whom do you turn? It will be those few honest ones that are set up, killed, or simply quit in frustration. I have been altering entrance examination scoring for quite some time. There are very few departments that are above my influence now, and it’s getting better for me with each passing day.
“Very soon, I will enact the final part of the set up. Contacts I made in prison, and those I have duped into believing in me will rise up in a massive crime wave lasting two full years. Those who are caught will go before judges who will set them free for the most ridiculous reasons until the nation is in such turmoil that the President will become overwhelmed and declare martial law across the nation. Because conditions will be so bad for the common man at this point, the idea will be met with widespread public approval, electing the one candidate willing to do what is needed to ensure the future of the nation. That candidate will have been guided in to position by me.
“Only two things stand in my way at this point. Heroes, and the skeptical citizen. I’ve taken a great many steps to undermine the effectiveness of the hero community. You are now more of a villain to most than I. The skeptical citizens in this case are those few that still feel obliged to think for themselves. The whistle blowers. I’ve been undermining them as well. The news tells them nothing but the bad. Movies are mind candy remakes of old television or movies, dressed up in shiny new wrappers. Television is an intellectual wasteland, with reality programming and insipid game shows replacing programming where viewer involvement and thought were as important as the plot. Documentaries detailing exactly how the Moon Base was faked air four times a year. I’ve got nearly 55% of the nation believing the Ritki invasion was a hoax. Public education has been undermined as well. It moves at the speed of the slowest student. No child can be left behind if every child fails to start.
“All of that does two things, and it does them remarkably well. It teaches the people that thinking is not worth the effort, and that there is nothing wrong with accepting the first bit of remotely plausible information that comes along. I can make an anonymous 8 minute video clip about Gregarin Station being part of an international plot led by the Masons and Illuminati to insert mind control agents into the food supply by way of orbital dispersal, and people will accept it blindly. Why? Because the fact that the chemicals dispersed from orbit would either stay up there or would become so diluted by the time they reached the ground that to have any reasonable effect would require such a concentration that the release of it would alter the orbit of the station is so much harder to understand that it’s just easier to accept there is a plot.
“The more outlandish the plot, the more intensely the people will believe it. The true irony of all of this is that the same skills that would let them see these ploys as the falsehoods they are, are the skills that would let them see what I’ve been up to for the last several years. Skills which I’ve gone to great lengths to suppress in preparation for my plan.
“Where does this put you? Basically, out in the cold. You see, the damage has been done. There is now one full generation that thinks the TV news is the best way to find out what clothes or music will be cool this season. When presented with two items of different sizes and disproportionately different prices, people will base their choice not on simple division, but on which one looks the best. Math is hard, and through my guidance, people have been taught that if something is hard to do, then it doesn’t really matter. Critical thinking is drowning in a sea of apathy and I’m the one holding it under.
“Even if you were to catch me and go public with this, it won’t matter. I’ve been planning this for far too long. This nation is incapable of functioning on it’s own at this point. Chaos is coming. You can be sure of that. I planned for it. Planned for every eventuality. It’s what I do. I know when things will reach the brink, and I know just where to stand to stop it from going over the edge. It’s true that you could stop me. There is actually one very simple way to do it. But at this point, should you?
“By the way, the disc you’re watching was coated with a special layer that melts when exposed to a narrow band of light; the light from the laser used in a common DVD player for example. Everything on this disc has been destroyed the instant the data was read. Too bad for you, since this is just the evidence you would have been able to use to show the people the truth. I would have anticipated this and dubbed it as it played. That’s why I’m winning.”
The screen faded to black and Tog stopped the disc and opened the tray. The disc was ruined. Any evidence they might have been able to pull from it was gone.
“DAMMIT!” Tog’s yell filled the room and echoed around the base. Zach, is there any way to salvage this?”
“Tog.” HAAL’s voice was drowned out in the din.
“Doesn’t look good,” said Zach. I’ll see what I can do.
“Mourning, what’s your take on it? Could he be serious?”
“Yes. Basically everythin’ he said has been a personal pet-peeve of mine for years. People don’t think anymore. It’s just too hard for most of them. They want to know stuff, but they don’t want to think get that knowledge. They just want people to tell them, and they won’t question it once they’re told.”
“But to have that many in on it? How?
“The way he explained it, they don’t have to be in on it, just predisposed to go along with it. Get a lawyer with an axe to grind against Heroes and make him a judge. He won’t be impartial. He can still be clean as far as criminal checks go, but he leans away from Heroes from the start. Now give him camera time and an audience willin’ to listen and you’ve got Evers.”
“Then use the power of advertisin’ to manipulate the TV networks into forcin’ the editors into pressurin’ the reporters, and you get Justine Almage.”
“TOG!” The call was underscored with a high pitched feedback that brought the room to a dead calm. “I made a recording of the images displayed on the screen as they played. I store all sensory data input for 24 hours by default. I will upload it to Athena for analysis.”
Tog stood in the auditorium before a larger screen. Facing him were nearly two dozen graduates and students of Hero University, and nearly as many members of Safe Harbor. A dozen more leaders of different groups were also in attendance.
“I’d like to thank you all for coming, and Bert in particular for organizing this thing. I assume you’ve all read the report so far, and you’ve now seen the video we got that day that explained things.
“It seems it was never about discrediting Heroes, anymore than it was keeping the criminals on the streets, or Can You Be Normal? on the air. It was all just part of a much larger plan laid by a person, or machine, or both. Whatever he is, he’s smart, and he plans things out years in advance. He also makes back up plans, and alternate back up plans, and sub-alternate backup plans. I know it was in the report, but I wanted to state it out loud, for clarity.
“He may be right about the damage being done. I don’t agree that his plan is the only way to fix it though. There have been a lot of people throughout history that had plans. Some were really good, some weren’t. This guy’s plan is working because he’s keeping it mostly to himself. That tells us that he’s afraid to trust anyone else with it. That tells us that it’s not fool proof. If it’s not fool proof, it’s not tamper proof. We’re gonna tamper with it. We’re gonna tamper the hell out of it.”
“Two days ago I got a call from a reporter that I’ve found I can trust. The information I was given said that all time off in the next two months was cancelled. No exceptions. I asked what might cause the bosses to do something like that and I was told that it’s not unusual if they get wind of something really big on the horizon.
“We expect a new wave of riots to begin very soon. We won’t know when or where until they happen. The thing to keep in mind though is that they will be a diversion. If 300 Hellions swarm City Hall, you can bet the heroes will rally to stop them. The problem is that far too many will show up, leaving the rest of the city understaffed. The over abundance of heroes will lead to further public perception that we are abusing our power because you can be damn sure the press will be there with instructions to vilify us.
“What I’m proposing is a zone defense. When a riot starts, no matter where, each group breaks off to its own spot to watch for new problems. If a problem makes it out of one area, let the people in the new zone deal with it. We pick out spot in the city and we stay right there. No chasing down runners. We have to fight this fight defensively if we want to get the public back on our side. Once they see we can behave, we expand our zones.”
The lights in the room dimmed, and a face filled the screen. Tog continued.
“Some known associates to watch out for include a British ex-major named Nigel Hastings. He was ‘retired’ from the Royal Army for expressing his views on the British colonization of Africa with the phrase ‘The only reason you’re even allowed to be a country is that the Crown found the land and people to be not worth the effort it take to convert it to civility’. He said this to the Ambassador of that nation at a state dinner. He’s also expressed a longtime admiration of the life and acts of Cecil Rhodes, and has gone on record as saying that Rhodes’ single, biggest mistake was not pushing harder. He would like to see the world under British rule, and probably thinks he’s just using our guy as a stepping stone to that end. We know that he commands a small army of mercenaries and that he’s fairly skilled in guerilla warfare. Watch for traps.
“The other known, powered, henchman goes by the name Distortion King. Formerly he was a Hero named Feedback Loop. You may remember him from the news. He’s little more than a lackey as far as we can tell, but we have a positive confirmation that he’s with them, so watch for him.
The lights came up and Tog continued. “Unfortunately, that’s about all we know. That’s after three years of contact. He will probably have a good number of other pawns. He may have even worked his way into a regular Villain group and operates under their nose and without their knowledge.
“I’d hate for this to turn into some sort of turf war. We need to screw up his plans without getting sucked into something else he’s got running. Any questions on the basics?”
A hero in the back of the room stood up.
“Won’t he catch on pretty quickly to the fact that we’re not falling for his diversions?”
“Yup. By the time the distraction fails, he’ll know what we’re doing, and he’ll change accordingly. He may already be planning on us doing this, and his first attack won’t be a distraction, but an all out assault. We know what he wants. We’ll just have to be ready for the changes as they come. This is why I’d like to get as many SG leaders together as we can for strategy meetings.”
A new hand rose from the crowd. “Could this all be something dreamed up by Nemesis?”
“Could be, but we don’t think so. Right now, I’d like to turn the time over to Heather.”
A slight murmur filled the room as Heather walked to the front of the group. To those that didn’t know her, she was just a girl.
“Everyone, I’ll try to make this quick and simple. What Tog said about this being a zone was basically correct, in the same way that a banana slug and a human are both animals. This isn’t just a zone. It’s a living zone. Basically, we take the city and look at the zones. Take Atlas Park for example. It has high profile targets, like City Hall, and low profile ones, like that big pile of dirt by the Perez gate. Each city zone is divided into sections about 10 feet to a side. A value is then placed on everything in that 10 foot section. Hero zones will be assigned on the values of any given 300 foot area, with the bulk being not over the high profile target, but in a ring around it. This ring will get smaller and more diffuse until it overlaps another ring from an adjacent target. As far as the coverage goes, it will provide stable protection for the entire city. As far as each zone goes, there will be enough overlap that as one zone engages, the rest of the city can shift slightly to fill in the gaps. I’ve got a really cool presentation to explain how it all works. I stole the idea from slime molds.”
Tog was pleased to see that he was not the only one that didn’t fully understand the plan. He was also very pleased to see that for every few confused faces, there was a person that did understand and could break it down for them.
Things were coming together. Now all that remained was to put it to use.