Author Topic: Chapter 5  (Read 8918 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 5
« on: July 29, 2022, 05:37:40 AM »
A year ago if I'd been curious about the Sage Grove riot, I would have looked into the surviving orderlies. At the time, I knew that the higher-ups would never give a straight answer, especially about their patients. What I didn't know was just how limited the orderlies' access to the facility would be. I'd learned since then.

This time I focused on the IT people. Mental institutions usually had an extensive CCTV camera network, and someone had set up and maintained that system. Even if the cameras weren't in the rooms themselves, they'd definitely cover the halls. A few hours with the footage and I might be able to compile a list of patients in Sage Grove.

I was in luck this time. Their IT guy had been let go after the riot, and was now living in Phoenix, which was just over six hours away. Or IT gal, I should have said. Amanda Knowles, who'd worked at Sage Grove for over four years.

She had zero social media presence, no listed email or phone, and no living relatives. Just getting her address had required asking another favor from my FBI friend. She probably wouldn't be receptive to visitors, but I didn't have much else to go on. I had to know why Kieran had been sent to Sage Grove, and I couldn't go through official channels or the Vought people would know.

"This could be a wild goose chase," I warned Tyler, but he just shrugged and got into the car anyway.

"I could use some time away from El Paso anyway right now. Sally's between big movies, so her stress level should be pretty low right now. I'll want to be back before next week- that's when her next big shoot starts."

I smiled. Sally did rely on him a lot when she was stressed. I was buying gas for this little excursion, just on principle, so I wouldn't have to take my own car. For all I knew the Vought people really had figured out who I was, and were watching it. "There's construction on the main road. We should take a left and head out on the 180."

He obliged, and soon we were underway.

I'd known Tyler for years, since just after college. He'd put an ad out for a roommate who was ok with occasional weed use, and I'd responded. It was a risky thing at the time, given that Texas is one of the slowest states to legalize weed. Still, we haven't gotten in trouble yet, not that I smoke it with him.

He hadn't brought any with him this time, thankfully. Given that he was driving, I wasn't exactly looking forward to seeing him high on the highway. Not that he was a lightweight or anything, but he didn't hold back either.

The trip passed quickly enough, for two guys whose commute was usually only ten minutes or so. Or mine was anyway. His varied greatly. He occupied the time listening to various weird radio stations, including a podcast native to Arizona concerning supes. I tried to hide my annoyance. Everything seemed to be about supes these days.

Amanda Knowles lived on the southern edge of Phoenix, in what looked like a converted factory. The loading dock had been refurbished as a garage door from the looks of it. Sharing a bemused glance with Tyler, I knocked on the door next to it. It was only after a few seconds of silence did I notice the camera mounted on the corner of the building. It was pointed right at us.

There was a click, and a woman's voice came through the speaker. "What do you want?"

Paranoia might have been off-putting to me in other circumstances, but in this case it was a good thing. "I'm Ahab, and this is Tyler," I introduced us. "We're looking for Amanda Knowles. Is that you?"

"You haven't answered my question."

Sharing another look with Tyler, I nodded. "I understand you installed the security system at Sage Grove, four years ago, and worked there up until a few months ago. A friend of mine was a patient there, but I can't find any records of him. He's in trouble, and I need as much information about the place as I can get."

There was a long silence coming from the speaker. "What's this friend's name?"

"Kieran Morris, but for all I know they put him in under a different name. I know it sounds paranoid, but everything I dig up about this place is shadier than the last thing," I said, hoping it would resonate with her.

Suddenly the flap on the door opened, and a small device extended from it. "Stick your finger on that," the voice instructed.

"Why?" I looked at it suspiciously.

"It'll take a sample of your blood. I need to test you for Compound V. Both of you."

That was surprising. "You think we're supes?"

"Doesn't matter what I think. I need to be sure. Now stick your finger on that or leave."

Shrugging, Tyler reached for it. I hesitated until she retracted it, and then apparently replaced the blood-test kit for me. Thoughts of my weird time experiences flashed through my head. What if whatever Kieran had done to me had left Compound V in my system? It was unlikely, given that adults given injections usually either went insane or died. Or both. Still, maybe he'd microdosed me when he touched me.

There was nothing for it. I reluctantly reached for it and felt the pinch as a needle pricked my hand. "How long will it take you to find we're not supes?"

"It'll take as long as it takes," she retorted, and I heard something whirring in the background.

We waited for another minute or so, before the door clicked open. "All right, come in for now, but don't touch the wires on the inside unless you like getting shocked."

The entryway was a sealed chain-link cage, and I could hear the hum of electricity running through the wires. On the other side of it, a short-haired woman with piercing green eyes was aiming a shotgun at us. Even Tyler seemed to get serious at the sight of that, raising his hands slowly.

I followed suit. "Is that really necessary?" I nodded at her shotgun.

"You're not supes, but that doesn't mean you don't work for Vought," she said harshly. "Now how did you find me here? I'm not on any public lists."

"What does Vought have to do with anything?" Tyler wondered aloud.

I shook my head. I'd suspected that Vought had transferred Kieran out of the group home and sent him to Sage Grove because he was a supe, but this confirmed it. "I have a friend in the FBI. That's how I found you. And I think Vought was running Sage Grove. Whatever was going on there, it wasn't any ordinary loony bin. Most likely it's where they kept the crazy supes. Not that the Seven are particularly sane from the looks of it."

"What kinda weirdness are we mixed up in here, Ahab?" He asked me slowly.

"I'm not sure. I was hoping she could tell us. That is if she doesn't blow our heads off first."

Reluctantly, Amanda lowered the shotgun. "Nice shiner, by the way. I guess you're only this diplomatic when you're talking to me."

"Oh, you're all kinds of special," I assured her, and she smiled darkly.

"Anyway, Sage Grove wasn't what you think- they didn't send supes there. That's where they made them!"

I let out a breath of understanding. Ever since hearing about Compound V and Stillwell's experiments, I'd been wondering how they'd gotten the data. Sage Grove must have been where they gave the injections. Or one of the places- there'd probably been more. "Were there any kids at that facility?" I asked urgently, stepping closer to the wire mesh. "Kieran was only eight when he was sent there."

She nodded, slowly. "I remember him. Not just because he was a kid, but because of who brought him in." She hesitated a moment longer, and then reached out and pulled a lever. I heard the hum in the wires die off. "Come with me."

I tentatively reached for the handle to the interior door and opened it. Together, Tyler and I followed her through what looked like several more layers of internal security, and then into a server room. I probably didn't want to know how she'd gotten hold of much of this equipment. "Nice," I said casually, and Tyler made a noise of agreement.

She ignored me, and pulled up a list of video files. "After Sage Grove was shut down, a bunch of Vought people showed up and cleared out all the evidence, but I was ready for that. I'd been copying their video files for years, and had plenty of backups."

Tyler cocked his head to the right slightly. "Why would you spy on your employers and risk getting fired?"

She looked grim. "When you see some of these recordings, you'll understand." It was mostly hidden by her body, but I could see her hand move slightly to her side. Probably to a sidearm she had tucked away there. She was testing us, waiting to see how we reacted to the video.

I'd known a little of what to expect from reading up on Compound V, but actually seeing the experiments was truly gut-wrenching. Dozens, maybe hundreds of test subjects, injected and then studied to see what happened. Many died in pain, their internal organs exploding or liquefying. Others lost control of their new powers, harming themselves or other people. I started as I recognized one of the orderlies holding onto a struggling man. "That's Lamplighter!" He looked different out of his usual Seven uniform, but the former superhero was definitely there.

Amanda nodded, pausing the recording, and I was grateful to notice her hand had relaxed again. "He was responsible for sterilizing the rooms after their failures. He got rid of the evidence."

Even Tyler looked sick at this, his eyes wide and his mouth moving wordlessly. Eventually he stared over at her. "This was going on for years? Why didn't you tell someone about it?"

"Who could I go to? The law? Half of them think Vought walks on water! The media? I had no way of knowing if they were in Vought's pocket either. If I went to the wrong person, I'd be dead, and all of this would just vanish. Besides, the people don't want to know about any of this. They'd rather not see how the sausage is made, right?"

"Things have changed since New York," I said softly, still staring at the struggling man paused on the screen. "Now that people know about Compound V, you can come forward with this."

She shook her head firmly. "Not enough people. I saw the news coverage. There were crowds in New York chanting to allow Compound V for use in law enforcement! Vought can always escape consequences for what it's done. There are never enough who can see the truth for themselves!"

I sighed. As important as this was, it wasn't why I'd come. "You said you remembered Kieran. Do you have any footage of him?"

"Yes, from the day he was brought in. He was only there for a few weeks, but they didn't give him any injections. Probably because he was turned as a kid, right?"

I nodded, and she pulled up some other files. "Here he is."

A younger Kieran, looking scared, was entering the main gate. Holding his hand was a tall woman, with a strange haircut. "Holy crap!" Tyler breathed. "Is that Stormfront??"

"Everyone's favorite Nazi," I confirmed darkly. "Of course she'd be involved in this. It's very eugenicsy, and that's right up her alley."

Stormfront had been one of the Seven until recently. Files had been released to the press, revealing that her actual name had been Klara Risinger, and she'd been a literal Nazi. Because of her superpowers, she aged very slowly, and had actually been around during the original Third Reich. After the news came out, she'd been vilified by the public- or most of them anyway. According to a Vought press statement, she'd been 'neutralized', whatever that meant.

"If Stormfront brought Kieran in personally, he must have been important to her agenda," I reasoned aloud. "Do you have any footage of what exactly he was doing here?"

Tyler was wandering over, looking at the other files playing in the background. Hopefully his laid-back nature would help him cope with seeing all that horror.

Amanda shook her head. "They did that in private rooms with no records. But there was a constant stream of people being sent into his room, for days on end. People who hadn't been injected yet, from what I can tell."

I winced. "How many of them died?"

"None. As far as I can tell anyway. They would be sent into his room, leave a few seconds later, and then a few hours later another person would be sent in. I never figured out why."

"I have a theory," I responded. "When Kieran touched me, I experienced weird temporal shifts. Time would speed up for me, or slow down, seemingly at random. It only lasted a few hours, but I think it was because of him. They were probably testing him at Sage Grove, trying to figure out how to fine-tune his powers. Maybe they wanted to have people who could speed up or slow down time at will."

Amanda didn't look convinced, and I wasn't really, either. Even if it was true, it didn't explain why the Howlands had kidnapped him. It might explain why his mother had died, though. If she gave him up as a baby, and then tracked him down eleven years later, Vought wouldn't have wanted to let him go. They'd rather kill her and make it look like an accident than lose one of their precious supes.

"Hey, I know him," Tyler cut in. "I saw him on the news this morning."

He was pointing at one of the screens, and we both went over there. She paused the display, and it showed a man yelling at the camera from his cell, apparently in great pain. I didn't know him. "What was the news about?"

"It was about those Howland supes, and their fight against that gang. This is the guy they were fighting. Wee-wee something."

"Huehuecoyotl," I said softly. "He's named after the Aztec god of mischief. They call him HC for short. You're sure it was the same guy?"

Tyler gave me a wan look. "You know how I am with faces."

It was true- he was uncannily good at recognizing people. "What the hell was a drug-powered Mexican supe doing in an American psych facility..." I peered at the time stamp on the recording, "two years ago? I thought he was living in Mexico back then!"

Amanda gave me a surprised look. "I told you. This is where they're created."

I shook my head. "No, no. Foreign powers got ahold of Compound V and found a way to duplicate it. Some pretty bad people did, too. That's where superterrorists come from. That's where Naqib came from!"

Naqib was an Arab supe who had popped up in news coverage last year. Most of the information on him was classified, but he'd apparently been responsible for multiple bombings. Most likely his power was explosive in nature. According to Vought, he'd been killed months ago. Again, for whatever that was worth.

"So you really didn't know? Naqib was the exception, not the rule, Ahab." Despite her earlier harshness, Amanda's voice was comforting now. "Vought creates almost all supes, wherever they go and whatever they do. The public assumes what you did- that our supes are here to protect us from whatever superterrorists are out there, but it's all just a big game of chess to Vought. They control both sides of the board. Whenever they need to stoke fear and increase their support, they just let one of their pets loose. The Seven stop the threat, and are cheered as heroes, and the idiots doing the cheering couldn't find their own asses with both hands and a flashlight!"

"I can't believe this," I said, feeling breathless. "I covered the Barrios Azteca gang for years. Some are from across the border, but most are just American criminals. Are you saying they were all put in place by Vought? Just to get people to support the Howlands? And Capes for Christ, come to think of it!"

Amanda shook her head. "No, just the supes. The rest of the gang is probably just what they appear to be- criminals who are just after money and power. Only HC is working for Vought. In fact, he probably has an arrangement with the supe family working in El Paso. He gives them information on where to go so they can hit some meaningless small-time drug dealers. On camera, of course. Meanwhile he keeps the threat going in other places, and gets paid by Vought for his trouble."

"Good God. I mean I knew Vought was hiding things- big, big secrets- but this is worse than I ever imagined. This is... diabolical!"

-.-

I'd barely noticed how long the trip back home took. My mind was too preoccupied with what I'd learned, and the implications therein. I had to keep reminding myself that my priority was Kieran first, despite how important everything else was.

Thankfully, Amanda had agreed to help us. She wasn't willing to give us any copies of her recordings for fear they might be traced back to her, but she did tell us how Vought kept in contact with its pawns, and how it paid them. With her help, I was confident I could expose HC's true allegiance to the public. Not that it would help Kieran at all. Vought would just prop up another bad guy, and he'd be back to square one again.

It took another few days to nail down the exact details of HC's relationship with the Howlands. Amanda was mostly right- he did call them on a secure phone in advance, telling them where and when to hit some fringe members of the gang. There they could publicly fight crime, gaining accolades from the people. All this time I thought I'd been reporting the truth. In reality, I'd just been another dupe.

But no more. As fate would have it, HC was planning on a showdown with the Howlands tomorrow night. No doubt he and James and Rick would have some highly televised, yet somehow-also-secret clash. There would probably be a heaping pile of property damage, maybe a few civilian casualties to add flavor, and then a dessert where a defeated HC would supervillain away into the shadows, for a later confrontation. Now that I knew the whole score, it was so obvious in hindsight! I felt like an idiot.

I compiled my evidence, or at least the truth about HC himself, and made my way in to work. Thanks to Sally, I looked at least somewhat presentable. I hadn't worn makeup since a dare back in college, but I'd seen myself in the mirror. Even I, with my experience around tv cameras, would have had a hard time noticing the bruise.

Gwen was in her office, and ushered me in after I knocked. "Welcome back. I hope you're feeling better- you were gone for several days."

"I am, thanks. I actually took some of the time doing some investigating of my own. Here," I handed her a flash drive with the information on it. "I've been looking into HC- the superterrorist with the drug powers. Apparently he's been chatting with the Howlands, secretly!"

Gwen's eyes widened, and she glanced down at the drive. I held my breath a little. I had to be very careful here, with exactly what to tell her. Not because I didn't trust her, but because telling her too much would only put her in danger.

"How do you know that?"

"I have a source inside the BA gang," I lied. "He thinks his boss is reporting to the DEA, but I checked the number. It's James Howland's!"

"Are you sure he didn't just call to taunt, or to threaten Howland's family? It wouldn't be the first time the Barrios Azteca gang has gone after family- that's why they have security in the first place!"

"I'm sure. My source sent me HC's phone records. He's called Howland dozens of times now! It's always just a few hours before the family goes out patrolling and runs into the gang. That's more than just a coincidence. They have to be coordinating this. That must have been what K- what that kid was saying with his SOS message. He must have known what his dad was up to!" At least I hoped it looked that way. Lies were always easier to believe if they were close to the truth.

She went over to her computer and plugged in the drive. All the phone records were there, just as Amanda had promised. "This is incredible!"

I breathed a sigh of relief. I'd nearly messed up, saying Kieran instead of Blake, but she apparently hadn't noticed. Then she straightened up, looking grim. "I'm sorry, Ahab, but we can't broadcast this. Vought owns GCAC-TV, and the Howlands are supes. It would never get approval even for editing, much less distribution!"

I nodded. "I know. It's just my luck, right? I stumble on the juiciest story of the decade, and I have to sit on it because of some ownership rules. Look, I get that we can't release that, but I just wanted you to have that info. I don't know if my source is talking to anyone else. If he is, this story will break somewhere else. If and when that happens, you'll need that info for whatever superhero story you're going to write. It'll give you a leg up, at least."

She looked surprised, but then nodded gratefully. "It will. Thank you. May I ask what you're going to do now? About the Howlands and HC, I mean."

I shrugged. "Go back to work, I guess. Just because I can't do anything about this doesn't mean there aren't other stories waiting to be found. If I found this one I can find others."

She smiled slightly. "I'm glad to see this hasn't discouraged you."

"Perish the thought," I said easily, nodding to her and then heading out. As I closed the door, I breathed a sigh of regret. Leaving that with her was more of an insurance policy than anything else. I still didn't know for sure if Vought knew I was looking into them. If they did, I was a dead man, and someone had to know at least some of the truth. Maybe if the story got out without me, Kieran would have a chance to escape from his captors.
« Last Edit: July 29, 2022, 05:39:36 AM by Daen »