The chaos that had settled upon the Overton sports field in the aftermath of the sonic boom and subsequent collapse of a corner of the old bleachers was momentarily silenced by the massive explosion at the corner of the campus, less than a mile away. Then the pandemonium returned tenfold as thousands of screaming people fled the small stadium and sought to put as much distance between themselves and the blast as possible.
In the panicked crowd, a few stood out as acting with more thought and less emotional reaction. Several larger students were suddenly present near the exits of the field in order to direct their less rational classmates and to prevent the hysterical mob from trampling those who fell in the rush. The two football teams, in a surprisingly fast reversal from competitor to collaborator, ascended to the crumpled bleacher section and began to wrench the steel supports into something resembling their original shape so that the few trapped there could get out, or be carried out in some cases.
Most surprising of all, none of the thousands of people on the campus tried to go and see the source of the blast. Campus safety officers arrived far faster than they'd ever previously demonstrated they could in order to start cordoning off a wide area around the blast site, none of them questioning why they were treating the area as so dangerous without any orders telling them to do so. It was this scene that three FBI Crisis Response Teams and one Special Agent in Charge Marcus Hughes discovered when they arrived to take over.
Marcus paused to take in the whole scene for only a few seconds before he began barking orders to the teams accompanying him.
“Jimenez! Round up the Campus officers on scene and get them back over to van 1 so I can interview them in a minute. Smythe! Take your and Golde's teams and take over that perimeter. Rodgers! Get the sniffer bot in there and find out what the hell blew up.” The analyst and three CRT leads immediately jumped to carry out their assignments.
The brown haired senior agent moved up to the edge of the cordon to get a better view of the actual blast site. It appeared, from this distance at least, to be an oversized drainage culvert. That makes no god damned sense at all. Put a bomb in a buried steel pipe and it's not gonna do much unless it's approaching a nuclear payload. Smoke looks weird though... “Cordon teams! Masks on! Treat this as a dirty detonation!”
Marcus turned and strode quickly back towards the van where his analyst was assembling the Campus safety officers, incidentally putting some extra distance between himself and the unusual looking smoke. At least it all seems to be stuck in that ditch, and the wind is relatively calm today. “Who's in charge here?”
The question, professional but with a brusque urgency, did not draw the same rapid response that the FBI Agent was used to from his own people. It took several moments of milling about and murmuring as the Campus officers seemed to be working that out for themselves. Finally a large man with salt and pepper hair and signs that he was working towards developing a full on beer gut stepped forward. “Reckon I'm the most senior officer on scene, sir.”
Marcus' eyes flicked down to the copper tab above the silver shield the large man wore on his uniform. “Officer David is it? Tell me what happened here.”
“Just David, sir. We all know we ain't real officers or anything like that.” David offered an easygoing smile as he spoke, before his expression turned serious. “As for what happened, some crazy shit went down over at the stadium,” a large arm was waved in the direction of the steel bleachers that were easily visible at this distance, “and then a god damned bomb went off over here. Campus dispatch got flooded with calls a few minutes ago, something about a big bang over there and some bleachers collapsing, and then this over here went BOOM.”
“And none of your people approached the blast site before you started putting up those barricades?”
“No sir. We may only be private security for a college campus, but we have our own handbook. Any explosion or bombing on campus, unless we have strong reason to believe there are injured at the blast site we are to block off the area and keep people out until the pros can get here.” The large man gave the agent in front of him an appraising look. “Your lot sure did get here quick today, sir.”
“We were actually on our way back from a wild goose chase when radio traffic went crazy about a bombing on the campus. We were only a couple miles away.” Marcus was forced to suppress a smirk at the slightly suspicious look the Campus officer gave in response to the explanation. Stare all you want big guy, the FBI is telling the truth for a change.
“Agent Hughes! You need to see this!” The shout from the direction of van 3 drew the attention of all the gathered Campus officers and the Special Agent interviewing them.
“Well David, unless anyone here can think of anything else I believe that concludes the interview.” The brown haired man started to turn away from the officers when he saw no sign of anyone else stepping forward, but stopped and turned back again. “Though there is something your people could do to help us out.”
“As long as it's not violating any rules or laws, we're happy to help, sir.”
Marcus didn't bother suppressing a smile at the qualifier the large man had placed on his acceptance. “It shouldn't break either of those things. Being a college campus I'm going to guess that there are hundreds of cellphone videos of this morning's events amongst your students. Jimenez here can get your people set up with some fancier copying devices if your men can head out and start tracking down those videos for us. The details could be important.”
Seeing that the Campus officers were nodding their assent, Marcus glanced at his analyst to make sure he'd heard the instructions before turning to move quickly to where his bomb disposal specialists were giving him very worrying looks from the other van.
“What have we got, Rodgers? Please tell me that whatever blew up over there isn't radioactive or some crazy bio-weapon.”
“I have no idea, sir. But someone does.” By way of explanation, the lanky CRT lead turned his control panel for the 'sniffer' robot his team used to check chemical residue at bombing sites so that his boss could read the screen.
“What the hell is a code X-88?”
“It's not in the manual OR the specs anywhere we've heard of, sir. It sent back that code, the 10 digits underneath it, and then the bot burned itself out.”
“Burned itself out, sir. Something else the specs didn't mention it could do, but it sparked up right after sending that message. It's completely dead as far as we can tell.”
“So I guess the next step is to call the phone number it posted with the code and see if that's tech support?”
The bomb squad all gawked for a moment at the suggestion from Agent Hughes, then Rodgers slapped a hand against his forehead. “I can't believe I didn't recognize that was a phone number. That's a DC area code too.”
Marcus already had his sat-phone in hand and the the number punched in.
“Please identify.” The completely apathetic female voice at the other end of the line drew a scowl from the Special Agent in Charge.
“This is Special Agent Marcus Hughes with the FBI. Who am I speaking with?”
“One moment, Agent Hughes.” Several seconds of silence nearly prompted the quickly angering agent to shout something unpleasant into the phone when the female voice returned. “Your voice print has been confirmed , agent. You aren't authorized for access to this number, where did you get it?”
Marcus forced himself to pause, take a breath, and respond professionally to the absolutely bored voice at the other end of the line. “With whom am I speaking?”
“Staff Sergeant Lisa Morgen, US Army, Pentagon. Where did you get this number, agent?”
“My team is investigating an explosive detonation and we sent in a Mark 5 – A7 ordinance disposal/chemical sniffer bot. When it reached the blast crater it sent back a code X-88 and this telephone number, and then it destroyed itself. Now can you tell me what the hell is going on?”
“X-88?” Marcus blinked as the voice on the other end of the line transitioned from total apathy to borderline panic in four syllables. “That's IMPOSSIBLE, special agent.”
“I can't tell you it's not some kind of glitch since I don't have the level of technical expertise to diagnose an advanced remote control robot, but that's what it sent back to the operator's control screen, at which point it fried itself. What the hell is an X-88?”
“You need to move your people back from the bomb site IMMEDIATELY, Agent Hughes.”
The Staff Sergeant's near-panicked state was beginning to make Marcus very nervous. “Our cordon is more than a quarter-mile from the epicenter, Sergeant.”
“Move back farther than that. What's your location?”
The brown haired agent paused his conversation long enough to bark a string of order out to move the cordon out another 50 yards from the blast site. “We're at the Overton college campus, about a half mile behind the Union building.” Marcus strained to listen as he heard several voices in the background on the other end begin yelling at once, then the line went dead.
“Special Agent Hughes!” Marcus turned at the shout from behind him and felt his jaw drop open in shock. A dozen men in US Army uniforms all bearing an unusual patch of the American Eagle clutching lightning bolts in each talon.
What the fuck... Force Ops is here now? The FBI Agent shook his head for a moment to clear it and strode out to meet the short man wearing captain's bars that had called out to him. “Don't take this the wrong way, Captain, but what the hell are your people doing here?”
“I don't take it the wrong way at all, Special Agent. This is one of many scenarios that should never happen.” The shorter man offered his hand as he stopped in front of the taller FBI Agent. “Captain Ray Dommeler.”
“Want to tell me what the hell this particular scenario is, Captain Dommeler?” Marcus accepted the handshake, though his expression showed little aside from suspicion.
“The short version, the part that I'm actually allowed to tell you, is that the chemical your sniffer bot found is BEYOND incredibly dangerous. We're basically here because we have the resources needed to quarantine the blast site before lots and lots of people die. FEMA will take over the site as soon as they can get their people in position, but we can't wait that long.”
Marcus found himself staring over the shorter military man in shock as he watched several dozen more Force Ops personnel arrive out of thin air. Teleporters, they're using groups of teleporters. What the hell IS this stuff?
Seeing the direction of Marcus' gaze, Captain Dommeler turned around to see that his people were already constructing a massive plastic 'tent' that would cover close to a square mile around the blast site. In this case the plastic was being created on the spot by a pair of uniformed military Supers and being put up by several more flying soldiers. “I'll try to get my superiors to forward as much information as possible to your investigation, special agent. I'm assuming that you're the lead on tracking down the bomber?”
Marcus snapped himself out of the daze he'd fallen into at seeing dozens of Supers swoop in and take control of his scene. Turning to look down at the Force Ops captain addressing him, he was more than a little surprised to see what looked like an earnestly sincere expression. “Yes captain, I'm currently the lead on this. Any intel your people can send my way would be greatly appreciated”
Hearing more shouting approaching the area, both men turned to observe a small group moving quickly towards them. Leading the group was a slightly overweight blond man that Marcus immediately recognized from the course of his investigation. “Looks like the University President is here and he brought friends. Is this your scene to explain or mine, captain?”
Marcus found himself suppressing a grin as the small man next to him literally vanished only to reappear much closer to where the soldiers were working. “Guess that answers that.”
A groan echoed through the cavernous office as the large man seated at the single desk attempted to force weary eyes open and was met with a stabbing pain. Several minutes of blinking and squinting followed as the well dressed man held his head in his hands and tried to piece together what was going on.
This... This is my office. Did I fall asleep? No, I wouldn't have a headache like this. Not a hangover, what the hell... The train of thought trailed off as he noticed the massive wall-mounted television to his right.
The TV was tuned to some news story about some sort of disaster somewhere with the volume turned off, but what drew the large man's attention was the neatly written letters in black marker across the screen.
'YOU OVERSTEPPED, PATRICK. NOW YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN.'
Patrick Goddard surged to his feet as adrenaline rushed into his system, chasing away the last vestiges of whatever ailment had been impeding him. As he stood he saw the black letters fade away, vanishing after a few seconds as if they'd never been there at all. At the same time, the volume on the television returned.
“...ust joining us you are looking at an aerial view of what appears to be a joint military and FEMA quarantine around a bombing site on the college campus in Overton, Texas. Reports at this time are still limited but sources inside the investigation have already informed this station that this attack is most likely the result of domestic terrorists, and the extreme precautions you see being taken here are due to the presence of a dangerous chemical meant to be dispersed by the device. No group has come forward to claim responsibility, and indeed the location of the blast away from the main campus near the freight access may indicate that this was a botched attack. We now go back to the studio for mo-...”
Patrick slammed a fist down on the desk console that controlled the screen, cracking the panel slightly as the TV powered off. This is impossible, we were making pushes against the HCP because... because...
The large man dropped heavily back into his chair as he shivered with sudden shock. I can't remember. I don't remember why we were pushing against the HCP... I don't even remember who WE are. I had... a partner? No, more than one, I'm sure of it. How... Leaning forward the dark haired man pulled the keyboard tray out and to the ready and began typing at an incredible speed for such fat-fingered hands.
It was hopeless. Whatever had been done to tamper with his memories, his computer had obviously not been safe. All traces of the security that SHOULD be present were gone, and while nothing seemed to be missing, he knew that there should have been some reference to the group he was certain he had been a part of.
They think I arranged the bombing, but that's far too crude an angle for me. Wasn't it? Did we get pushed that far? God damn them! I can't defend myself if I don't even know what I need to defend myself FOR! It took several minutes for the large man to pull himself back from the brink of a nervous breakdown, but when he began typing again it was with a look of steely resolve in his eyes.
So I went to far, and this is me getting cut out. Fine. But Patrick Goddard is NOT going down without a fight.
Lt Susan Witt steeled herself mentally as she approached the underground conference room. A morning meeting with the supervising General of Force Ops had not been part of the day's expected itinerary. Nor had the THREE separate press conferences she had been forced to speak at as the military's liaison officer attached to the cleanup effort in the wake of the bombing. Because apparently there were no other Lieutenants handy to throw to the wolves. Though given the option, she would gleefully walk back through that gauntlet to avoid the one waiting in front of her.
Opening the door, the blonde officer entered a room that was completely silent. Eleven sets of eyes stared expectantly at Susan as she moved to take the last available seat, and she found the expectant silence FAR more disconcerting than screams and demands for information would have been.
“Before we begin, I'm going to have to ask that the Walkers and Mr Weaver exit the room. I haven't been cleared to share this informa-...”
“You've been cleared to share this information with the HCP senior staff and additional persons on a need to know basis. Everyone in this room NEEDS to know the real story about what happened this morning, Lieutenant.” The completely calm, level tone from the HCP's petite Dean held no hint of threat, but the look in the dark haired woman's eyes that accompanied the statement forced Susan's objection to die before it could reach her throat.
“Very well then. As everyone is aware, there was a terr-...”
“Skip to the part that everyone ISN'T aware of.” The gravelly demand from the military woman's right almost caused her to jump in her seat at the interruption.
Good lord, and I thought dealing with a room full of Force Ops brass was nerve wracking. Heroes are scary. Susan found herself ducking her face behind her metallic blonde hair for just a moment as she realized that both telepaths in the room had probably heard THAT thought quite clearly, but she recovered quickly.
“Alright then. The reason for the complete quarantine of the area around the blast is that the chemical added to the device is known to the US military as extremely dangerous. We made it ourselves, about 37 years ago, and it's not supposed to exist anymore. Anywhere. Had the bomb gone off in the stadium, the projection shows 100% casualties for all those attending the game, and likely more than half the rest of the campus would also have been dead within twelve hours. All told, this attack would likely have resulted in somewhere between twelve and twenty thousand dead, had it been successful.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from those seated around the table at the matter-of-fact way the alarming casualty numbers were stated.
“What the hell was that stuff?” The Weapons Instructor was the first to find her voice, though her question was little more than a loud whisper.
“This portion is completely classified. Please don't let it get out of this room as if it does you will likely be charged with treason, and so will I as I'm not OFFICIALLY allowed to know any of it.” Susan took a deep breath to steady herself before continuing.
“In the late 70's a research project was started in conjunction with the first major expansions of Force Ops with the express purpose of developing a rapidly deployable weapon capable of suppressing Super abilities, similar to the powers of a null-type Super. Approximately ten years into the project, the lead researcher claimed to have a breakthrough in the form of a chemical mixture that could be easily aerosolized but would oxidize and lose potency very rapidly.
“The problem came when the team realized that there was no effective way to prove that the simulations were safe enough to begin any form of human testing, and since there are no known animal Supers, the project suddenly seemed destined to die an ignoble death. The lead researcher, and don't ask me for his name because it was redacted in all the files I was shown, had some sort of breakdown at the idea that his project would never be allowed to even reach the proper testing phase, so he concocted his own test.
“The researcher took his chemical mix out of the lab and up to one of the Force Ops training barracks on site in the middle of the night, sealed the building, and pumped the aerosolized mix directly into the ventilation.”
“I take it we can all assume that the chemical did not function as advertised?” The dry injection from the Focus Instructor came after the lieutenant had paused for several seconds without continuing.
“That would be a completely accurate assumption. The chemical was designed to temporarily shut down certain portions of the brain that the research team believed allowed Supers to control their powers. The idea was that with no way to control their abilities, they wouldn't be able to turn them on in the first place. The problem with that approach is that no scientist has EVER been able to identify a single unified area of the brain that can be linked with Super's ability to have or control their powers. So instead of a Super nullifying chemical, all the team really managed to create was a horribly effective way to cause rapid, massive brain damage. Nothing temporary about it.
“Of the 228 recruits and base personnel that were exposed, only two Strongman type Supers survived, apparently due to their resilience not allowing the chemical to metabolize in the first place.”
“How the hell did RoH get ahold of a forty year old chemical weapon that isn't supposed to exist anymore?” The angry question from the University President was met with a helpless shrug from the military liaison.
“There was a sample kept under extreme security at the Army MRICD. They claim that any breech there would have been impossible without detection and haven't been particularly cooperative with attempts to confirm that their sample is still present, but that's the only place it could have come from.”
“Something like this is way beyond what RoH or their militia is capable of on their own. This has got to be our unseen opponents making a more direct attack, and the second time they've stolen military materiel to do it with.” The Subtlety Instructor leaned forward as she spoke, the words coming out softly and heavily laden with grief and anger. “And this time they got one of our students.”
Susan almost fell out of her chair at the final statement. The lieutenant hadn't heard anything about casualties.
“One of the sophomore HCP students went under the bleachers to locate an extremely annoying cellphone that someone dropped. She discovered the bag containing the bomb while searching, and got it to a safe location for the detonation. She didn't have time to get away from the blast herself.” Kathryn Jilles answered the question before the blonde officer could get the words out, and gave a curt shake of her head that interrupted condolences Susan was about to offer.
“We aren't the ones in need of your sympathy, Lieutenant Witt. Heroes have buried their own many times before, and we are all going to make DAMN sure that this Hero receives full honors for her sacrifice. Then we are going to track down the people behind all of this, and we are going to watch them burn.”
“We have some calls to make.” Janette Walker stood as she spoke, accompanied by her husband. “I think we are wholly finished in playing conservatively.”
“I have some contacts to go shake up as well.” Harold Weaver was nearly to the door as he spoke, the blond man moving quickly to exit the room. “With shit like this going down, maybe I can finally get this stupid Oversight crap called off so I can get back to some real work.”
Susan Witt sat frozen in her chair at the almost palpable aura of anger that seemed to flow from the HCP Instructors. Who the hell would be stupid enough to challenge the entire Hero community? These people are fucking INSANE.
“It's over! All lost, time to pack up and pretend none of this EVER happened.” The short man in an expensive business suit sounded already on the verge of hysteria as he pushed his way into the opulently decorated conference room and let the door slam heavily behind him.
“Lee, so good of you to join us so quickly. Please, have a seat.” The older man sitting at one of the three chairs surrounding the massive conference table smiled politely at the younger as he spoke.
“How the fuck can you pretend to be so calm, Edward? Joyce and Patrick... they've RUINED us. We were supposed to be poking and prodding, keeping the program off balance and unable to perform at full capacity. Instead those lunatics are starting a WAR with every Hero in the country!”
“You're being a little over-dramatic, Lee.” The tall man off to the side appeared to be pouring three scotches as he spoke casually over his shoulder. “I admit, it was a near thing when Joyce's pawns quite nearly succeeded at actually destroying the entire program. That woman has a truly remarkable way of getting ahold of things she shouldn't be able to, and then getting them to people who will use them without a second thought.” Harvin returned to the table and set one of the drinks down at the last empty chair, then began the long trek around the room to deliver drinks to his two associates.
“Wait, you WANTED them to do something like this?” Lee stood next to his chair, too high-strung to sit down. “You're both insane!”
“No, Lee. Not insane. Just very careful planners.” Edward paused to take a sip of the drink just delivered to him. “Although I will admit that it was mostly good fortune that the student who went in search of our planted phone was capable of getting the bomb clear in time. Another two seconds and we would have had to ruin the game by sending in a specialist of our own, and that could have set things back DRAMATICALLY.”
Lee stared at the older man, calmly seated and sipping the expensive scotch as if he was discussing a recent corporate merger. Then looked down at the drink Harvin had finally managed to deposit in front of him. “You... you wanted the HCP provoked, but not damaged. Why? All you've done is create a scenario where the Heroes will be out for our blood!”
“Yes, things will likely be a great deal more difficult from here on in. I honestly wasn't expecting Joyce's chosen lackeys to be capable enough to actually kill even ONE of the students. So now the plan has to be altered slightly.”
As Edward finished speaking, Lee jerked as a sharp, shooting pain lanced into his right butt cheek. The smaller man attempted to turn, but his legs gave out and dropped him to the floor instead. His already blurry vision could barely make out the shape of the large hypodermic needle Harvin had injected him with, and the last words he heard from Edward before blackness claimed him shot enough terror into his system that it almost fought through the drug. Almost.
“Now we have to give Overton's Heroes THREE targets to chase instead of just two.”