Gathering the Pieces, Assembling the Puzzles
Elena Martinez found herself wrinkling her nose in distaste at the acrid smell that greeted her as she materialized in the Overton HCP observation lounge. The hispanic coach was more than a little surprised to note roughly half the freshman class sitting calmly and observing the large monitor in the room, where Ramón Garcia and Kaori Kimura were running through the last steps of the standard freshman 'Hostage Rescue' final exam.
"You missed the big show, Elena." The muscular Combat Instructor didn't even glance up from the grading sheet on his clipboard as he greeted his colleague. "How'd your coincidence turn out?"
"Surprisingly coincidental. We caught him." Elena's response came very quiet as she settled into the open seat next to Rachd in an attempt to not distract the remaining students.
"Seriously? It was real?"
"It was real, and either the most impressive coincidence of my lifetime or I am going to have to send a nice batch of thank-you-cookies to whomever is behind our little conspiracy later." There was a pause followed by a grim smile. "Before I help you and Dani hide the bodies anyways."
The bald man next to her nodded in calm agreement of her statement. "I'm voting coincidence. These fuckers have a LOT of juice, but they don't seem to have the kind of intel or planning capabilities they'd need to find your ACTUAL serial killer for a distraction."
"So how are they doing?"
"Eighth team in, no failed objectives yet. Some of the kids seem a little bit shaky on the whole 'property damage' bit, but promising so far."
"Not exactly what I meant, James."
"They're coping better than I am. You know we offered the kids that stepped up and accomplished more shit than we'd ever have asked them for a free pass on the final after the earlier fiasco. Not one of them even considered accepting it." The muscular man shook his head as he continued to make notes on the score sheet in front of him. "Gauge straight up asked for an extension to take it tomorrow so his better half has time to put itself back together, and since his partner had no objection those two will be running solo tomorrow afternoon. They even excused themselves after watching Casse make her run with Martinez since that's the only pair going ahead of them."
"What about Amelia?"
"Doc says she's stable. We're not sure past that, but smart money says she's going to want her go tomorrow too."
"Her partner waiting?"
"Elena, the entire fucking class volunteered to run the final a second time to be Jacobson's partner." Rachd broke off from his discussion with the Alternative Instructor as he noted that Ramón and Kaori had reached their finish line and were staring impatiently at the camera watching them from there.
"Not bad. Carerra, B-. You need to check your surroundings a bit better and make sure that you are NOT fucking with any load bearing supports. Kimura, B. YOU need to not hesitate before engaging. Good work as a distraction, but you're relying too heavily on your partner to do the heavy lifting. Hit the showers." The two students nodded and moved quickly off screen, though it had been easy for those watching to see the deep frown that had crossed Ramón's face when Rachd had strongly enunciated the 'minus' attached to his grade.
"Owens, Glenn, you're up!" The muscular coach passed his clipboard to Elena as he stood and stretched. "I'm going to see if the Dean has changed her mind about letting me speak with our detainees. I'm sure you can handle the rest?"
"You know that's not going to happen, James."
"A man has to have dreams Elena. OWENS! GLENN! FUCKING HUSTLE!"
The petite woman leaned against the wall with a sigh as she tapped the 'ignore' button on her cell phone once again. Behind her were two occupied cells, normally employed to restrain HCP students that had committed acts warranting expulsion from the program, but perfectly adequate to detain one shape shifting imposter and one nearly catatonic personal assistant.
The three hours since the day's catastrophe had wound down had not been idle ones. Kathryn had prepared reports for the Senate HCP committee, the Department of Defense, and the Attorney General's office. In addition to relaying information on the missing Mr Raines and the subornment of military hardware for the purpose of murdering her students, the Dean had also been forced to arrange for the unfortunate next-of-kin contacts for a pair of army technicians that had been escorting RCUs 3 and 4 when the engagement in the simulation room had tripped them over to a live combat scenario. And when the politician's are done being optimistic, we also have a notification to go out for Bert.
Bert Rivera, the relatively average senior AG investigator sent to Overton as part of the Oversight Committee had been the only Oversight personnel unaccounted for, save Walter Raines, in the aftermath of the day's events. However with the man's ID card and a change of clothing found stashed in one of the storage closets on what WOULD have been the most direct exit from the facility for the shape shifter locked in the cell behind her, the Dean had little hope that further investigation would turn up more than the missing investigator's body.
Kathryn sighed again as her phone once more buzzed insistently. Another familiar number linking back to a Senator's office staff, and another push of the magic red button. As annoying as the constant attempts to contact her were becoming, Dean Jilles had absolutely no intention of playing out the day in any manner other than strictly by the book. Now that the initial reports had been filed she would not be exchanging more than empty pleasantries relating to the day's events with anyone related to the clusterfuck that had been dropped in her lap until she was interviewed by the formal DVA and DOD investigators immediately prior to her scheduled appearance before the Senate.
The petite woman closed her eyes and focused her ability back into the cells behind her again, another attempt to glean any minuscule tidbit of information from the minds of those incarcerated within. And an exasperated sigh as she met with the same results as her countless other attempts. Jeremy Kreid was, most definitely, not faking his shocked response to the events he had lived through earlier in the day. The man had basically shut down, his mind gibbering in panicked circles and not displaying ANY useful information. The man in the other room was fully coherent, though still struggling to function through a great deal of pain, and was employing a longstanding and very effective buffer to keep his thoughts from revealing anything incriminating. If one strained their ears at the door hard enough, they would just barely be able to make out the repetitive singing as the man repeated the lyrics of 'It's a Small World' endlessly.
Kathryn's attention was pulled back out of the rooms behind her by a flashing red light and a low beeping tone emitting from the console across the hall from her. Stepping quickly across the corridor the Dean accepted the internal call originating from the infirmary.
"What can I do for you Dr Saxe-..."
"No, get back on the bed, NOW!" The Dean was cut off as the Doctor's voice emerged from the speaker, somewhat muffled as the man was apparently not facing the mic right now. "You need REST. Dean Jilles, can you hear me?"
"Yes Doctor, what's the problem?"
"Ms Jacobson is attempting to leave the infirmary in order to take the final exam with her class."
"Already? Have yo-..."
"No, I have not yet had any luck. AMELIA JACOBSON, if you don't... Ah hell. Dean, I can't slow her down, and I'm not completely sure she's fully conscious and hearing me. Help?"
Kathryn shook her head softly as she found herself easily picturing the broken form of Amelia Jacobson pushing her way out of the infirmary and towards the simulation room without acknowledging her still debilitating injuries. It should have been a shocking image, but after reviewing the footage from the young woman's 'exam' and watching the tall blonde girl leap in front of her friends to catch an anti-tank missile with her bare hands, it was difficult to be surprised by a simple refusal to stay in bed. "I'll be on my way as soon as someone can get here to baby sit our detainees. How fast is she moving?"
"Slowly and unsteadily. Please hurry Dean."
"Yes, please do hurry Kathryn." The Dean spun quickly in surprise to see the white haired form of the Overton Focus Instructor had managed to sneak up on her while she was distracted by the call. "I can watch our guests at least as well as you can, although I may have to demand hazard pay if our imposter gets that damnable song stuck in my head."
"I'll buy you an extra pretentious drink later, Laurence. That song will be running through your brain in five minutes or less." The petite woman offered a wave to the older telepath as she hurried off in the direction of the infirmary.
Fortunately the walk was not long, and the pace being set by the horrifically injured Amelia was a particularly slow one. The Dean blinked a few times in shock at seeing the maimed girl marching determinedly out of the infirmary, swathed in bandages and looking for all the world more like a one armed mummy than a freshman college student.
"Ms Jacobson, what do you think you're doing?" The strident tone, and high volume, of the question barely seemed to register on the tall girl as she continued to stagger forward.
"Test. Gotta do test. Gotta."
Kathryn sighed. The tall girl's odd reflexive defenses were still fully engaged, more so than they had been at any other time since anyone had bothered noticing they existed. Even her telepathic probe was garbled, but the information it brought back confirmed what the doctor had suspected. Amelia was technically unconscious as she attempted to make her way towards the freshman final exam.
This is going to be hard. "You ready to catch her, Raj?"
"Do you think it'll work?"
"One way to find out." With those words, the Dean closed to within about an arm's length of her injured student and focused her entire self on the mind in front of her. The odd little subset of her own Advanced Mind ability that had inspired her Hero moniker all those years ago, an extremely short ranged ability to put a person into a sleeping state deep enough to be nearly comatose, rammed full force into the mind of one Amelia Jacobson and hammered into the barrier it found there.
It took significantly less effort than the Dean had first assumed it would, less than a second under the psychic barrage and the girl before her collapsed bonelessly to be carefully caught by a combination of small Indian doctor, and telekinetic power. Strangely it was the small doctor who had better results.
"My God, what does this girl weigh?" At this range the petite telepath should have been able to flip a tank with only moderate difficulty, and her ability was reporting back to her mind that the maimed body in front of her had to weigh nearly that much.
"It's her ability trying to defend her. It's a miracle that Ms Abbott was able to teleport her into the infirmary at all. We're assuming it worked because whatever it is that's powering her reflexive defenses hadn't yet identified teleportation energy and was caught off guard."
"Can yo-..." The Dean's plea was cut short by the arrival of two student healers who quickly lifted Amelia onto a rolling gurney and wheeled her back into the infirmary.
"No, I can't carry her either. But THEY can." The petite woman mock-glared at the jovial expression on the doctor's face as he answered her unfinished question, then his expression darkened. "I don't know if I can put her back together again either, Kathy."
The Dean's eyes widened as she absorbed Saxena's statement. "I thought her defenses were temporary?"
"In the past, the barrier her body puts up against all outside energy has always receded on its own after several minutes without being further prodded. However on this occasion Ms Jacobson suffered truly catastrophic injuries, and was almost immediately then subjected to a healing force so intense that it managed to overwhelm her rather impressive defenses."
"I have no idea, Kathy. It could be a few hours, it might not recede until her body actually manages to heal on its own. You know, we were wrong about her not having any heightened recuperative abilities? She doesn't really heal faster than a normal person, but based on what my ability tells me, she will eventually regrow her missing arm on her own." Noting the look of disbelief on the Dean's face the doctor further elaborated. "At the present rate of healing it will take her the better part of six years before the limb is fully restored."
"That's... awful, Raj. There has to be a faster way, the HCP is RESPONSIBLE for its students dammit..."
"I'm sorry, but there's nothing more I can do. I might be able to accelerate the process a bit, but she needs someone a lot more powerful than I am to get an overnight fix."
"Ms Johnson demonstrated an absolutely incredible level of power in overwhelming Ms Jacobson's defenses and stabilizing her. After a few more years of training, she might have sufficient focus to be able to regenerate a missing limb."
The Dean's entire body sagged slightly with grief as she rolled over the problem in her mind. "We're going to have to hold back our top student, Raj. This is all kinds of unfair." Before the doctor could answer, Kathryn's phone interrupted the conversation with another urgent plea for attention.
Glancing down at the device, the petite woman was surprised to see a name from a bit closer than D.C. attempting to get her attention, and from the subscript below that name, apparently not for the first time today.
"Hello, Riley. We're a little busy today."
"Good afternoon Kathryn, I'm hoping it's only a bit of overworking that's caused you to miss SEVEN call from me in the past two hours?" The University President managed to maintain a cheerful, businesslike tone as he spoke, but there was a nervous edge to it that set off several alarms in the Dean's mind.
"I'm sorry to force you to be brief, Riley, but I really have a lot of balls in the air and not much time to spare for a chat right now."
"Brief works for me, Kathryn. Can you assure me that my campus will not be attacked by heavily armed robots today?"
The Dean felt the blood run out of her face as she processed past the casual tone to the actual content of the question. "What do you know, Riley?"
"I've been getting calls from reporters for the last two and a half hours. Someone, or several someones, leaked to various press agencies that there would be a 'catastrophic event related to the Overton HCP' and as a result of that event we would likely be seeing a recreation of the 'Robot Rampage' from five years ago play out at my school."
Kathryn paused for a moment before replying, as she attempted to make sense of this information. Even if the RCUs that had been suborned and secretly fully armed had managed the level of destruction they would have needed to attempt a move to the surface, there was no way for them to get out. It would have taken a pair of the HCP staff to authorize the heavy cargo lifts to get them topside, and once there the robots would have been contained in a nearly impregnable garage unless FURTHER assisted by the senior faculty. "I'm sending some of the Instructors up to keep an eye on the campus, Riley. There won't be any rampaging machines coming up from down here, but we can make sure that someone doesn't have some other plan."
"It will be greatly appreciated, Kathryn. And please, join my wife and I at your earliest convenience. I have a feeling we have a lot to discuss."
"I'm feeling the same way, Riley. Hopefully we'll have time to get together this evening." The Dean was already punching commands into the infirmary console as she finished her conversation with the University President.
"Dani and Anthony, I need you two up top keeping an eye out. Someone leaked to the press that the Overton campus is going to be attacked by robots REMARKABLY similar to the ones we have converted to scrap down here."
"Seriously? More of them? On it boss!" The cheerful Weapons Instructor's reply came almost immediately through the console, a similar affirmative from the Ranged Combat Instructor followed a few minutes later.
The Dean found herself deep in thought as she made her way back towards the Focus Instructor and the pair of detainees. It appeared that yet further catastrophe might be on the day's schedule.
The slightly overweight blond man bowed gracefully as he opened the door to beckon his guest inside. "Dean Jilles, Kathryn, I'm so glad you could join us for dinner this evening."
The petite HCP Dean looked around the room as she entered, noting the smiling form of Janette Walker setting places around the large table, and the presence of the Walkers' personal assistant, Dale Sefo, heading into the kitchen.
As soon as the door was closed behind his guest Riley dropped his overly cheerful expression and punched a rapid code into a nearly invisible panel next to the door frame. He noted the expression of recognition on the Dean's face as the walls of his home began to vibrate slightly in response, a barely perceptible buzzing noise now omnipresent throughout the building.
"It's a very good white noise generator, and I'm assured that the frequency causes interesting interactions with what we hear and transmit if we're scanned by most Advanced Minds while it's active."
"It results in a minor headache for a well trained telepath, Riley, but I can assure you that there aren't any of those within two miles of us."
"Please, sit down Kathy." Janette Walker joined the conversation and beckoned the Dean towards the table. "If your day had been as busy as we expect it has, you probably haven't eaten yet."
Riley graciously pulled out a chair for his petite guest, and the woman sat down gratefully. It had obviously been a long day for the HCP's Dean. "So, let me make an educated guess. There was some major catastrophe during the replacement freshman final, military grade combat robots were involved, and your students ended up winning the day quite handily with the guilty parties that were present being captured. How'd I do?"
Kathryn eyes traveled back and forth between her two blond hosts for a moment before she responded. "You guessed there was a catastrophe because we've been expecting one and I've been hard to reach all day. You're assuming it had to do with the finals because we've been assuming that for weeks now. The robot guess is a result of the premature leak to the media that one or more such machines would be devastating your campus. How did you reach the conclusion that my students won, and that anyone was captured?"
"We assume that the Overton HCP freshmen won, first of all, because they are amazing." It was Janette that offered the first answer to the petite woman's question.
"We also assume they were victorious because we did NOT have robots rampaging across my campus." Riley sat down at the table as he spoke, but picked up a remote to activate the entertainment center across the room from the group. "We assume that you've captured someone because of this."
Kathryn turned towards the TV as the volume came on halfway through the news anchor's statement. "...LTD's Chief Operations Officer was found dead in his office by police and federal agents earlier this afternoon. Roger Wiels was about to be arrested in connection with contracted killings and attempted killings of multiple active duty Heroes when he appears to have taken his own life rather than submit to custody. Financial analysts are expecting the company's stock to plum-..." The sound muted again as Riley tapped the remote and waited for the Dean's response.
"This man, Wiels, he's the one who was hiring hitmen to kill interning Heroes?"
"He's at least one of those involved."
"How did this tell you anything about what happened underground today? I thought you were working under the assumption that the Hero killings weren't connected to our problems?"
Riley sighed deeply and leaned back in his chair. "We've been operating under a lot of assumptions, Kathryn. The reason we have to conclude that what's happening at Overton is directly linked to Mr Wiels is a simple one."
"Based on what we can guess of your timeline underground today, all my efforts to trace the escrow account numbers we acquired from Mayhem suddenly stopped being blocked about thirty minutes after everything went South for the conspirators. An hour after that, there was a well hidden but incredibly solid trail of evidence leading directly to Roger Wiels." Janette Walker's voice was quiet as she spoke. "Too much evidence with all the right timestamps and tags for it to be manufactured, but all completely invisible yesterday."
"What does that mean?"
"It means, Kathryn, that the largest players in this game are NOT politicians." Dale returned from the kitchen bearing several plates laden with delicious smelling food as the overweight blond man spoke. "Major corporations and conglomerates, some of the richest people in the world, are backing this thing. Today was one member of a very well financed conspiracy taking a swing for the fences and striking out."
"This is the part where you make the puzzle make sense to the poor woman who doesn't have all the pieces, Riley."
"The Oversight Committee, all the attempts to force SI infractions on your students, an organized attempt to murder rookie Heroes, someone launching their own version of the 'Robot Rampage' inside your HCP, and the eventual intended stripping of Overton's status as an HCP University. We couldn't figure out how buying hits against fresh graduates from EVERY school fit into our opponents' plans, because we were assuming that this was a political power play simply intended to move the HCP from here to somewhere else."
"And you don't think that anymore?"
"Overton was just meant to be the narrow end of the wedge, Kathryn. The killings and the insanity today, I'm going to assume that the REAL Oversight Committee was not involved with it, correct?" At the Dean's nod, Riley continued. "We weren't thinking big enough. This isn't about someone trying to move one HCP, this is the start of someone's plan to privatize it."
The University President's statement was met with a long silence as the HCP Dean stared incredulously at her host. "Riley, that's insane. It could never happen, and what would be the point?"
"You know, go back forty years and tell someone that the government is going to privatize prisons and hire mercenaries to assist our troops in real war zones and they would have called you insane. Of course, the government was already technically doing BOTH of those things, it just didn't become really formalized until the 80's."
"The HCP is a bit diffe-..."
"We also don't go through a single major election cycle without at least ONE candidate somewhere bringing it up. Popular opinion is heavily against it, so it never really makes it anywhere. But all the crackpot 'experts' that get trotted out to provide anecdotes and fixed numbers about why privatizing Heroes would be a good thing were ALL on deck today to hit the news networks tonight. Most likely in anticipation of a tragic story where a Hero Certification Program overstepped in its zeal to turn out the best possible Heroes, under massive pressure from the government of course, and resulted in a massive, publicly destructive spectacle."
"What about the motive, Riley? Why do it?"
"That's the easiest of all, Kathryn. Money. Privately Employed Emergency Response Supers are a booming business, even with the occasional catastrophic losses of capitol, they bring in billions in profits annually. Heroes merchandising their own images, annually, bring in more than twice as much. Now imagine if you privatized the certification, and the company performing that service was ALSO offering itself up to act as a representative for all these new Heroes as they go out into the world."
The room settled into silence as Riley finished speaking again, eventually broken as a large serving of food levitated itself from the serving platters and made its way to Kathryn's plate.
"So that's it then. Someone had a plan, they overreached, and we win?"
Riley brought his hands up to his temples in response, and Janette leaned towards the Dean with a conciliatory expression on her face. "No Kathy, this round is a draw."
"A draw? What the hell are you talking about Janette?"
"Someone in this conspiracy took a chance, and paid for it. But they also reset the clock. Think about it. Your students performed marvelously this year, I believe you even said they might be the most promising class Overton has ever seen. But now, the Oversight Committee that was sent in was compromised by some outside force, an attempt on the lives of the students was made, and everything falls apart at the end. None of the data gathered this year is going to be given any serious weight, because with the current Committee infiltrated none of the data can be fully trusted. They either hit a home run, or get a mulligan out of the gamble."
"So what do we do next?"
"We do what we have to do." Riley's voice held a steely note this time. "We take everything we have and strip our opponent's of as many assets as possible. They overstepped when they used the Senate Committee to get them the hardware they needed, that should give us enough leverage to vacate some seats. Defense will be on your side, because it was their equipment that got suborned and they are NOT going to be happy about that. We go forward, we keep our eyes open, and the next time they slip up, we go for the throat."