Chapter 296

                “So far, satellite images we’ve gotten only show a sizable compound that has taken significant damage. However, we’ve since learned that this building is merely the front door for a much larger structure below the surface. What appears to be a team of mercenary troops has recently gone in through that building and yet to emerge, so we must assume the conflict is still ongoing. We’ve got no idea how big the underground area we’re looking at is, but our best analysts believe it goes deep, and could be comparable to an entire HCP campus.” Graham stood in the middle of the teleconference room usually filled with holograms, Casper at his side, bringing up satellite pictures of the location as he spoke.

                “That’s impossible,” Dean Jackson said, almost reflexively. “Building an underground complex like this takes millions of dollars, probably billions by now, not to mention all the Supers with the right power sets to even make it structurally sound. No single person could create something like that, especially without us knowing.”

                “They could if they were patient, determined, and had the ability to produce nearly unlimited wealth.” Dean Blaine didn’t come out and say the name, not yet. This was Graham’s show to run, Blaine was only here as a participant. He’d tried to reach Professor Pendleton as soon as he got the summons, but Sean had apparently left campus. When Professor Baker gave Dean Blaine the report, he’d initially been confused. Now, however, he was bordering on furious. Sean had found out about this and gone off to join, which was reckless, but far worse was that he hadn’t told Blaine anything about it. It was always his greatest weakness as a Hero, Sean Pendleton had a bad habit of running to fights on his own without communicating to his team. This time, that tendency could cost him his freedom, if not his life.

                Dean Fox leaned forward, smoothing his mustache as he looked at the photos. “That’s a very specific set of criteria, Blaine. I can think of a few Supers world-wide who might be able to fulfill those requirements, but only one is a US citizen and has enough clout to potentially pull this off. It doesn’t fit, though. Why would Charles Adair build a secret underground complex in the middle of nowhere?”

                “Never trust the rich, the more power they have, the less they feel inclined to play by anyone else’s rules.” Dean Silva was calm as usual, small flowers blooming along the braids of her hair. “However, I will concede, I can’t come up with a reason he would make such a place either. Perhaps we’ve got some international enemies trying to set up shop on our soil.”

                “Currently, all we know for certain is that the land is owned by some corporation that, as far as our people can tell, seems to be little more than a shell.” Graham retook control of the meeting, his gaze lingering on Dean Blaine briefly. “As far as the attacker, on that front we have more information. While not every member of the group has been identified yet, my DVA scouts and accounts from a guard we picked up running through the forest confirm who is leading the assault: Globe.”

                There was a squeak of a chair as Casper jerked backward in surprise, eyes going wide. “Sorry. I wasn’t expecting that. Spent so long thinking he was dead, I still get surprised he turns up. It definitely rules out Charles as the owner, at least. Globe wouldn’t attack him.”

                “He killed his best friend, what makes you think Charles is off limits?” Dean Bishop asked.

                Casper and Dean Blaine exchanged a brief glance before Graham answered for them. “Enough. I understand the desire to protect the secrets of Heroes you trained with, and I respect it, but we are past the point of such niceties. As the head of the DVA, it’s my call to make this public, and I’m doing so now. Globe’s real name is Phillip Adair, he’s the older brother of Charles. And while it saddens me to say it, I’m afraid Charles Adair is almost certainly the man who owns this land. Come here, Blaine.”

                Dean Blaine did as he was instructed, rising from his seat and standing next to the world’s first Hero. He stayed silent, waiting as Graham surveyed the room. Despite being aged down, the weight of his years was still visible on his shoulders as Graham looked each dean, and Casper, in the eye. Finally, he spoke again, and this time it was with the gravity only Captain Starlight could command.

                “I’ve never done a desk job like this. In my day, it was simpler. Bad guys stood up, we knocked them down. The systems were new back then, no one had figured out how to game them. We all tried our best to make them incorruptible, but in recent years it’s become clear that we failed in that endeavor. For that, I owe you all an apology. However, old failures aside, the world still needs Heroes. I believe that with every ache in my bones and breath in my lungs. Maybe there’s a diplomatic, bureaucratic way to salvage this. If so, I’m not the kind of man who can see it. When this is over, if the world decides there’s blame to be had, I’ll take it. I’ve benefited for years from being seen as the man who created Heroes, even though countless others helped make it happen. So it’s only right that I own the faults in the system, and the people hurt by them.”

                Graham paused for a moment, taking a slow breath. As he did, the years seemed to melt away. This wasn’t a power like what Casper wielded, it was simply the mundane marvel of watching the man who had brought Supers out into the open set his determination. When his eyes opened, they were blazing, showing no trace of the tired old man who’d been there moments prior.

                “All of that comes later, though. Right now, there are people who need help. Former Heroes, and perhaps at least one innocent life. I’m not a wily man, never have been. That means we’re going to deal with this threat the way I used to: storming in and doing our damndest to keep the good people alive. But there will be fallout, and while I’ll try like hell I can’t promise it will all stop with me. In one minute, Dean Blaine is going to read you all in on a secret mission he’s been undertaking to root out corruption in the Hero system. Once you know, you’re in, there’s no going back. Take that minute and think it over. Really consider your positions and your legacy. I won’t fault anyone who leaves, I know you’ve got entire schools counting on you. This is asking you to risk more than just yourselves.”

                None of the deans so much as twitched. Their stares were locked on Graham, who was standing patiently as time ticked down. Only Casper spoke, rising swiftly from his chair. “Well, sounds like you all have quite a day ahead. Let me get out of your hair, I’m not sure why I was brought down here in the first place.”

                “You were brought down because we’re talking about dealing with Globe and a small army of Supers. That’s the sort of situation where the world’s best healer might come in handy,” Graham told him.

                “Then you should probably call the best Hero healer you’ve got. That’s not me. I’m private industry, remember? If you want to cut a check after the fight we can talk, but I don’t do battlefields anymore.” Casper was heading for the door, purposefully avoiding everyone’s eyes.

                He was nearly there when Graham spoke again, hand only inches away from the button to call a lift. “There’s one more thing you might want to know. Part of the report I got informed me that there’s been an escape from one of our prisons, a very high security location. It seems the Super known as Crispin was sprung not long ago. You may remember him as the man who came for Lander a year ago, leaving a trail of blood in his wake.”

                Next to Graham, Dean Blaine’s face began to turn red as his fists clenched, but he said nothing.

                “And?” Casper’s hand was so close, it would be nothing to shove it that little bit forward.

                “And if you think that’s a coincidence, you’re an idiot. Which I know you’re not. Smart money says someone needed an amplifier, so they grabbed a willing one off the shelf. Either Crispin is still there, or he’ll have left a trail to follow. We all just watched a boy barely old enough to buy a beer fight with everything he had to show how much this place meant to him, and that was for a simple contest. I brought you down here with me because I thought that under everything else, if there was any pride or strength left in you, it would show up now. When a man who attacked this place was suddenly set free, free to kill more innocent people. Maybe I was wrong though. It happens. I’m old, I’ve been wrong a lot. The minute is up, Casper. Push the button or take a seat.”

                The hand lurched slightly forward. How many times had he been in these situations? How many meetings before the bloodshed? How many more lives would he fail to save this time, how many corpses would be put in the ground, how many grieving family members would stare at him like he should have been able to do something? It was too much. Too much. Most people who knew him thought it had been that day at the elementary school that had shattered Hallow, but the truth was he’d been fraying long before. He couldn’t handle the guilt, the weight, the expectations. At least in the air, he was free. He could go back there, right now. He could be free. All he had to do was turn his back on some people he’d once thought of as friends. It was what he’d been doing for years, so it should be easy.

                “Go ahead, Blaine.” Casper lowered his hand and slowly walked back to his chair, sitting down heavily. “But let me make one thing clear: nobody call me Hallow. A Hero’s name is supposed to mean something. I’m just a freelance healer helping some old friends, nothing more.”

                “So noted.” The barest twinkle was in Graham’s eye, a mere flash that was easy to miss if one wasn’t paying attention. “Blaine, the time for secrets is over. Tell them everything.”