Chapter 229

                “I’m surprised you haven’t just killed me outright already.” Ralph was scared, terrified really, but he’d been in bad spots before and knew there was no sense in losing his head. Dean Blaine had him dead-to-rights, panicking or begging wasn’t going to change that.

                “It was tempting. Very tempting. You’ve made some serious errors, and I won’t pretend your love of tearing down Heroes wouldn’t add an extra level of joy to destroying you. But, for all your faults and failures, you did come through when it mattered. When those kids were on the verge of throwing their futures away, you gave them another choice. That act, and that act alone, is why we’re having this meeting, Ralph. Because under it all, part of me suspects that you might not be all bad. I think you’re a damaged man who takes out his pain on what he sees as justifiable targets, a man who makes poor choices to chase his goals, and a hypocrite who holds others to a high standard of law while excusing his own actions. In short, I think you’re a piece of shit. But there’s a large gap between that and a man who would knowingly allow a school to be attacked. So tell me, right here and now, did you know Nathaniel was going to come after Lander?”

                There was no way to tell if any telepaths were listening in, Dean Blaine might have forgone his negation powers to allow Ralph’s mind to be probed. Whether they were or not was largely irrelevant though. It was clear at the outset that Ralph’s only hope of making it through this was brutal honesty.

                “No,” Ralph said. “But I knew he would do something. That’s why I had the forms ready, in case the kids were compromised in public. I never imagined he would try to assault Lander directly though. It seemed crazy to think one nutjob would be able to pull something like that off. That was before I knew about the Sons of Progress, of course.”

                “Of course,” Dean Blaine echoed, his tone dry and harsh. “I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you didn’t think Nathaniel would go after our campus. Given that no successful, or even nearly successful, attack on an HCP had ever occurred it would have been unthinkable. Even my fellow deans and I never truly imagined it would happen. But you knew he was after Nick Campbell, and you knew he was escalating his attacks. You are culpable, Ralph. Your hands are stained with the blood of those we lost.”

                For the first time, Dean Blaine began to move from his chair, rising smoothly to his feet. Ralph started to mirror the move, but a withering glare made him sink back down into his seat. Methodically, every step chosen with intent, Dean Blaine made his way around the desk until it was to his back, with Ralph only a few feet away from him.

                “Right now, Graham DeSoto is listening to and evaluating the confession of Crispin. He is carefully determining which parts will be deemed classified and which will be used as evidence. There’s a lot to sort through, it really was an extensive recording. The section mentioning you and Nathaniel’s dealings, however, is unique. Nothing in it is necessary to the case of Crispin or the dismantling of the Sons of Progress. If he marks it as classified, then you’ll survive. If he doesn’t, your entire career is nothing but ash. But as I said, he’s not really the one making that call. I am. Funny how many people seem to trust my judgement these days, even as I find myself second-guessing so many of my choices.”

                “What do you want from me?” It was time to cut to the chase. Dean Blaine had demands, clearly, so better to get them into the open and start negotiating. Assuming Ralph could even manage enough leverage to negotiate at all.

                Dean Blaine leaned forward from his desk, looming over Ralph. “If I asked you to recant every testimony you’ve ever given, free or reinstitute all the Heroes you’ve punished for their mistakes, unmake all that you’ve done, what would you say?”

                “I’d say you should call your goons to come grab me, because I’m going to jail.” Ralph wasn’t sure if this was what Blaine wanted to hear or not, but he’d decided on brutal honesty and that was the tactic he was going to use. “My mistakes are my own, and I’ll pay for them if I have to. That doesn’t change the fact that I took some reckless, dangerous people out of positions of authority. I’m never going to give ground on that, so if it’s what you want then let’s save the time and get me a cell.”

                “Dangerous people? You mean like Mr. Reynolds,” Dean Blaine replied.

                “No, I mean real, proven threats. And you can hate me all you like for leaning hard on Vince, but we both know I could have leaned harder. More importantly, the world at large isn’t going to be nicer than me. You can all act like having a villain dad and a dangerous power constrained by an experimental procedure doesn’t make him any different all you like, the world won’t see him that way. At least now he knows that, and he’s ready for it.”

                “Such a noble act on your part, turning the screws on a scared student.” Dean Blaine paused, examining Ralph, every freckle on his nose and every drop of sweat on his brow. “You’re still a piece of shit, but at least it seems like you have some integrity. I’ve been looking over your record for a good chunk of the night, and while you’ve been too enthusiastic at times, I can’t say you don’t choose appropriate targets. And, believe it or not, some of us do agree that Heroes need to be held accountable. With our abilities, handing over unchecked authority on who lives and who dies is dangerous. I know firsthand how tempting it can be to abuse that power.”

                Slowly, Dean Blaine straightened back up and walked over to his side of the desk, retaking his seat. That done, he slid the folder over to Ralph and motioned for him to open it. With little other choice, Ralph complied. He’d barely gotten the pages uncovered before Dean Blaine began to explain what he was looking at.

                “That, Agent Ralph Chapman, is a full confession of everything Crispin indicted you on. There are currently two options before you. Sign it, and I tell Graham to deem both the document and that part of the recording classified. Refuse, and we prosecute you the hard way. Although I don’t think it will really be that hard, given the recording of Crispin and the one from this office.”

                Scanning the pages, they seemed to line up with what Dean Blaine said they were, not that he really could have slipped something much worse in there. “Then what? You own me for the rest of my life? You make me back off when one of your buddies screws up and I start sniffing around?”

                “You’ve got the part about me owning you right,” Dean Blaine agreed. “The rest, not as much. To be blunt: the Hero system is in need of retooling. Corruption has taken root, and it’s time to start yanking it out. Doing that will require the right implement. Someone with a reputation for being stalwart, for chasing a case no matter how unpopular it may be, someone accustomed to being hated. I want you to do what you’ve always claimed to devote yourself to, Ralph. I want you to find and expose those who have used their power to circumvent the law. Only now, I’m going to guide you to better-hidden targets.”

                “You expect me to believe that? You clearly hate me, Blaine. There’s nothing subtle about it. So why would you be willing to work with someone you detest?”

                For a moment, Dean Blaine broke eye contact, and Ralph caught the first sign of something other than fury in his gaze. It was… sadness, and regret. Guilt maybe? When he turned back, most of it was gone, yet a few traces still lingered.

                “Yes, Ralph, I’m willing to work with someone I detest. You made mistakes that led up to the attack on Lander, but I failed to keep my students safe. You don’t deserve the finality of a jail cell, just like I don’t deserve to forgive myself for that failing. We’re going to try and atone for our mistakes together, we’re going to take the hard path of effort and pain to try and make this world, and our Hero system, the littlest bit better. Because while redemption may not exist, we can at least make sure those people didn’t die in vain by forcing ourselves to push on in their memory. You can refuse to sign and be done with all of this, you can have the peace of a jail cell. Or you can prove that you truly believe in the shit you spout and cowboy up to try and help us. You’ve made plenty of bad choices already, don’t let this be another.”

                With a grunt of effort, Ralph leaned across the desk and grabbed a pen, then wrote his name on the blank at the end of the confession. Dean Blaine nodded and pulled the folder back, tucking it carefully into his drawer.

                “Welcome to the side of the Heroes, Ralph. Tread carefully from here on out, because we’ll be watching you. Closely.”