Author Topic: Chapter 2  (Read 9480 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 2
« on: July 29, 2022, 05:37:54 AM »
The main set of the interview was winding down, with Alex focusing more and more on the work the Howland family was doing for El Paso.

"People talk on and on about MS-13," James was saying, looking seriously out at the crowd, "but these Barrios Azteca people here in our city can be just as brutal. Sandra can understand that better than anyone."

His wife looked pained at that, and nodded. "I can see into the minds of the few we've managed to capture, and I can tell you they're not like you or me. All men are emotionally shut down- that's what it means to be a man- but these guys are something else. It's like they're dead inside. I can only feel anger and hate from them, most days."

"We felt it was high time you knew the truth about the BA gang," James went on for her. "For months now we heard of a new leader of the gang- someone who crossed the border from Mexico and killed the previous people in charge. He went only by the nickname 'HC', and we've only recently gotten more detailed information about him. The truth is, HC is a supe, like us."

I'd already learned about HC from reading briefs cycling through the news office, but it was still impressive to see how this news affected the crowd. Fear was evident on nearly every face, and the group went silent as a grave. Alex was the first to recover. "Do you know what this... HC's powers are?"

"It seems to be mind control of some kind, but I'm sure it's not telepathic," Sandra said with some confidence. "I've gotten close enough to sense him twice, and he's not an empath in any way. Most likely it's an airborne chemical. Some kind of dust or drug that he exudes, that makes people around him suggestible and controllable."

"That explains how he was able to take control of the whole gang single-handedly," Alex said shakily, and James and Sandra nodded. "The people under his, uh, chemical influence; are they permanently under his control?"

James shook his head. "We've tested the various victims of him and the other Barrios Azteca, and determined that the effects only last a few hours. The gang members are another matter. They're with him almost 24/7, so they've been exposed to his drug repeatedly. Fortunately, it seems like supes are immune to his drug. My family and I are safe from his powers, just not his people."

"So he's controlling them? They're not really responsible for their actions?"

James clenched his hands into fists. "Make no mistake on this. These are dangerous, hardened criminals. They deal drugs to everyone including kids, regardless of the harm it causes and the lives it destroys. They will kill you without hesitation if you're in the way, or if you're even in the area they're operating. They've been around HC for so long they've developed a tolerance to his... sickening gift. These rapists and murderers follow him by choice. He's not controlling them with his power- I'm certain of it!"

Sandra put a hand on his shoulder, and he leaned back, looking a little drained. "The Barrios Azteca gang recruits from both sides of the border, whether it's Mexicans or Latinos in our fair city. They destroy the livelihoods of decent, hardworking Americans, and then use the desperation they caused as a recruiting tool! It's evil, is what it is."

"How would you respond to the average citizens from Mexico who want to get into America?" Alex asked carefully, glancing over at her super-strong husband. "The people who just want a better life for themselves and their children, and want to stay on the right side of the law? Can you really blame them for crossing the border illegally to get here?"

"Of course I feel for them," Sandra said, looking sympathetically at the cameras. "Those poor souls just want the same opportunity we have on this side of the border. But they can't just come here willy-nilly. They have to enter our country the right way. The legal way. Otherwise, how can we tell if they're any different than the criminals we face every night on the streets?"

It was a total cop-out and I knew it. Administration after administration had been making it harder for Mexicans to become Americans. The 'right and legal' way could take decades, during which time the asylum seekers at the border lived in constant danger and hardship. But clearly the Howlands didn't see it that way. Maybe if they were able to capture this HC person, it might ease tensions on the border. If they could find some antidote to this drug he put out into the air.

That was it for the main interview, but the next phase included audience questions. People would step up to the lectern, and ask one or two things of the Howlands, either as a group or individual. I was actually looking forward to this part, because these Q and A sections weren't usually scripted. At least a part of this whole interview had been.

The first few questions were cookie-cutter: what kind of hobbies do you have, do you keep any pets, that sort of thing. The fourth person at the lectern was forty or so, with a light beard and a long jacket. That itself was unusual given it was only late fall, and the weather outside wasn't that cold yet. Still, the studio was heavily air-conditioned, and I remembered wishing for something like that myself more than once.

"Mr. Howland," he began. "It's been over a month now since the Plaza Theatre shooting, where you faced off with six Barrios Azteca enforcers during a movie. Five bystanders were killed and dozens wounded. Now that you've had time to think back over those events, is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight, or are you certain you did all you could?"

The question was phrased aggressively, but the man didn't look that accusatory. He just looked out at James Howland with an expectant expression. I found myself doing the same. The Plaza Theatre disaster had been a particularly vivid one for me- I'd been there taking photos of it after the fact. Some of those BA people had been pulverized by Howland's fists, having been hit hard enough to shatter bones and hurl them across the room. For someone who claimed to do everything he could to solve situations nonlethally, it had been a pretty brutal scene.

Howland stood and stepped forward a bit. "I still remember every detail from that night. Every move I made, every shot I heard. I can still hear the screams of fear and pain from the crowd as they tried to get out of there. As you said, I've had time, and time hasn't changed anything for me. Thinking back on it, I can't remember anything I should have done differently. Make no mistake, people: my family and I are fighting a war here. Not just one for safe and drug-free streets in El Paso, but for the very soul of America! As horrible a truth as it is, people die in war. There's no way around it. Civilians have died in droves, in every war in history, and not even supes can change that."

He sighed. "No, I regret that people died, but I'm absolutely certain that more people would have died if I'd done things differently. I hope that answers your question."

"It does," the man said quickly, "but I have a follow-up, if I may." He glanced over at the other Howlands on the stage. "You see, my best friend died in that incident. Based on your extensive experience in urban combat and shooting situations, I have to ask, how long do you think it will take... your wife to bleed out, after I shoot her?" He pulled a gun from his coat and aimed it.

The crowd around him screamed, and Howland's eyes widened. He darted back to the others, and their whole family clustered around Blake, who was in the middle. The attacker opened fire, spraying bullets up on the stage. At least two hit Sandra, in the back and arm as she wrapped herself around the kids! the nearest person who could stop him was at least ten feet away!

That strange buzzing feeling was back in my head, and I saw everything... slow down. The crowd's screams became muted, and then silent. The escapees slowed to a crawl, and then a stop!

The shooter's gun flashed with light again, and then I saw someone run out from behind Howland, jump down off the stage, and slap several things out of the air. It was Rick, the older child. He then balled up a fist and punched the shooter in the jaw, but it didn't seem to faze him. He was frozen too.

The buzzing ceased, and things sped up again. The noise was overwhelming, even from where I was up on the second level. The shooter jerked back from the direction in which he'd been hit, and collapsed on the ground, his gun firing once more into the ground.

Had I just watched Rick use his super-speed... and actually seen it as if he was just running normally? What was happening here?

James spent a few seconds with his family, probably checking to see if they were all right, and then turned to the crowd. "It's all right, everyone," he shouted out, apparently trying to reach even those now outside the studio. "It's safe now- he's down. Everything is under control."

Sandra shook, looking a little shaky, but smiled out at the people still in sight. "I'm all right." She spread her arms experimentally, showing some kind of bulletproof vest under her dress. The whole family was probably wearing them.

I'd been taking photos and video footage of criminal activities in El Paso for more than five years at that point. I'd been in four different active shooter situations. This one was different. I should have been trembling with fear and adrenaline, but I was just in shock. Not at the man who'd just tried to kill the town heroes, but at how I'd observed it.

-.-

"How the hell did he get a gun past your people? You said you would vet everyone, and searched them before letting them in the building, much less the studio!" My boss ranted from behind me, at the CGAC-TV head of security.

"The gun was one of ours, from the locked armory in the basement. I was just down there. The lock was cut clean through, and a gun was missing. He was obviously planning this for a long time. He must have checked out our security weeks or months ago, so he could sneak down there before the interview."

"How would he even known about the armory? We don't keep that information public, or even on our own servers."

"He must have been a former employee," the head of security responded evenly. "Or had help from one. Vought security has him in custody for now. When I get a crack at him, I promise you I'll find out if he was working alone, and if not, who helped him."

"I expect nothing less," my boss said darkly, and I was vaguely aware of him leaving the room. The dozen or so others around us seemed to noticeably relax as a result.

I'd barely been listening to the exchange. I was just playing the footage back, again and again on a small tv. The shooter pulled his gun, and then as Rick seemed to materialize in front of him, he collapsed on the ground, his gun clattering to the floor. That's what it showed each time.

But I'd seen it happen! I'd seen Rick run out there and punch him. Those things he'd been slapping at had probably been bullets, slowed down to just a few feet per second from my perspective!

By now we'd all given statements to the police and to Vought security. The remaining studio audience members had been detained and were being questioned. Vought International didn't mess around when it came to people trying to kill their supes. All of our own people were told to keep this in-house until our news team could figure out how to broadcast the story to the public. Unlike other people who'd tried to kill the Howlands, this guy wasn't any kind of obvious criminal or terrorist. His reasons, as proven in this recording, had been entirely personal. They'd probably describe him as a lone wolf and not a terrorist or gang member, since he didn't look Arab or Hispanic. I'd been in the business long enough to know that white people were never terrorists, even when they were.

No, I wasn't just disoriented or confused. This was twice now that time had been messing with me, just this morning. When anything weird like that happened, all GCAC employees had standing instructions on what to do.

It wasn't like I had any other options, anyway. We were all stuck in the building for now. At least I only had to go up two floors. The elevators were locked down for evidence, but the stairs were fine. A short climb later, I arrived at another reporter's door inscribed with: Gwen Sylvia, Supe Affairs Desk.

I knocked, and heard a faint 'come in' from inside. She wasn't at her desk, but next to the far wall in front of the tv. Which was showing the scene from earlier. She glanced back at me, taking in my ID badge. "Can I help you?"

"Ahab Kane," I identified myself briefly. "I'm an Assistant Reporter at the crime desk."

"Ah. So you were just down there for this?" She gestured at the TV, and I nodded. "Look at how they all cluster together as a family in a crisis. That's dynamite PR right there."

"Definitely, but I'm not here about the shooting," I said hesitantly. I wasn't sure I should go on at that point, but there really wasn't any going back. If Miss Sylvia was half as tenacious here as she had been back in New York, she wouldn't just dismiss my visit. She'd only transferred here a year ago, but had already built a reputation for taking no nonsense and giving none. "I've experienced something that the Supe Affairs reporter should know," I admitted in a rush.

I carefully outlined the two incidents so far, and she listened intently. "And you're sure there's nothing else that could have caused this... effect? Any change in activity or diet, or exhaustion. I know you've all been working overtime down there to prepare for this interview."

They were obligatory questions and I knew it, but it still stung. "I'm not hallucinating or imagining this. Time sped up for me, and then slowed down. I need to know why. Am I a supe? It sounds insane just saying it, but I can't think of any other explanation! I need your help, Miss Sylvia."

"Just call me Gwen," she said offhandedly. "And my whole job is to investigate the weird and insane, so by habit I don't rule out anything, no matter how strange it sounds."

She gestured me to a seat, and feeling a little relieved, I took it. At least she didn't think I was as crazy as... I did right now. "First off no, you're not a supe. The FDA classified Compound V as a controlled substance under the jurisdiction of the Pentagon, so I doubt you were exposed to it. And if you'd been injected as a child, you would have shown signs a long time ago. There's a reason Stillwell chose kids instead of adults for her illegal experiments. Infants can adjust to their changing DNA much more easily than grown-ups can."

"Then what else could have caused this?"

Gwen shrugged a little. "Sometimes supes can affect others around them, intentionally or not. Take this HC guy for example. He exudes a dust which makes people suggestible. Unfortunately Vought keeps a tight grip on their supe files, so I can't exactly ask them if any of their heroes can cause temporal disruptions in other people. None of the supes I have on file can do that." She leaned forward, steepling her fingers above the desk. "You said time slowed down during the shooting. Most witness statements I've heard go either like 'it all happened so fast', or 'time seemed to slow down'. Are you sure it wasn't just an adrenaline response to sudden danger?"

"I'm sure. I've been in danger before, and this was completely different."

"All right. What about the first time, when everything seemed to speed up and you lost time? When did that happen exactly?"

I thought back. "It was about ten thirty. Or eleven, by the time I realized time had sped up."

"Had anything unusual happened just before that? Where were you?"

"I was on the third floor, in the hallways. I'd just gotten out of the bathroom." I took a deep breath. "Now that you mention it, there was something weird. When I was in the stall in the bathroom, the TP roll thing was empty. There was someone in the stall next to me, and I asked him for a roll. He handed one to me, but I heard him whisper, 'keep it a secret.' I have no idea why. He was still in there when I left."

"Ok, that is a little strange," she admitted. "Did you recognize his voice?"

I shook my head. "But we have security cameras on most floors. Can you look up the footage? We might be able to ID him."

This would be the point where most people would roll their eyes, but Gwen just nodded. "Give me a minute."

She tapped away at her keyboard for a moment, and I looked out the window. She had a pretty good view from up there. I wondered if I should have gotten into Supe Affairs instead of local crime reporting. Nah, it wasn't for me. Perks aside, I'd rather be out in the danger, reporting what I saw and heard, than just commenting on other people doing that.

"Here we go," she said, standing and turning the monitor to face me. "We have four cameras on the third floor. None in the bathrooms of course, but this is one hallway down."

She fast-forwarded through an hour and a half of this morning. I pointed out myself, as I walked down the corridor and turned left. Then again as I returned to the elevator. Over a dozen people moved up and down the hallway through the time, but only three turned left. There was another elevator on the other side of it, so that could mean anything. "Wait, stop." I pointed at the screen, as she complied. "That's Blake Howland! The youngest one. He was there... half an hour before I was!"

"Sounds about right. The Howland kids were getting bored with all the arrangements their parents were making for the interview, so they wandered the building for a bit. I saw the creepy one, Mary, myself." She looked unnerved. "I swear, that one gives me horror movie vibes every time I see her."

I chuckled. From her interview Mary had seemed normal, but she did at least look a little too picture-perfect to be true. Factor in the idea that she could literally duplicate herself, and she might actually have a future in the film industry. Actually, there was no chance of that- her parents would never let her do something so 'Godless'. "He could have been in that bathroom before me," I reasoned, trying to get back on track.

Gwen pointed to the gloves the kid was wearing on camera. "The hand you saw when he handed you that roll; was it gloved?" I shook my head after a moment, and she went on. "Did it touch you at all?"

"Actually, I think it did."

"Then it wasn't Blake," she said confidently. "You would have died instantly. It had to be someone else."

Her statement did make sense, but something about it was still troubling me. It was clear Gwen wasn't going to pursue that theory at all though, so I workshopped other ideas with her. After ten or twenty minutes of going through possibilities for what might have caused my time changes, we were running on empty.

"I don't know, Mr. Kane," she said sympathetically. "Until this time thing happens again, I think you just have to wait and see. If there was a supe wandering these halls that we didn't know about, they might have been able to cause this. If it helps, all of these effects supes generate in others are temporary. I've never heard of any of them lasting more than a few hours. A day at most. Just to be safe, I'm sending a recommendation over to the crime desk, and insisting that you go home for the rest of the day. They should be letting us out of the building any minute now anyway. That way if time messes with you again, at least you won't be in danger, or dangerous to anyone else."

"Thank you," I said dejectedly. "And call me Ahab. I'm sorry if I wasted your time."

"This is literally why I'm here," she reminded me, opening the office door. "Let me know if there are any updates, all right?"

"Will do. Have a good day."
« Last Edit: July 29, 2022, 05:41:07 AM by Daen »