Thursday, August 13, 2111
It's been about two weeks since the district attorney made a deal with Camouflage. Since then, Challenger has been digging up whatever he could about Tempest and Combustion in hopes of finding out who hired all of them. So far, he's come up with nothing. However, a recent development may change that.
Combustion has agreed to make a deal. He is willing to give the authorities information on who hired him and Tempest to kill Challenger in exchange for a shorter sentence. Challenger and the rest of the founding members were very eager to accept the deal. I'm excited too. This is the first real lead we've had in months as to the identity of the rogue. But we don't get to hear any information yet. Challenger and Combustion have to set out the legal terms of the deal before anything moves forward. That's the reason we went to Tartaros today.
I've never visited the metahuman prison before. It was pretty intimidating. The prison itself is on a manmade island twenty miles off the coast of Manhattan. Escaping it is nearly impossible without help. The security measures are extremely high-tech. Each inmate has to wear a shock collar. In case there's any trouble, the warden just has to push a button, deliver one shock, and everyone is knocked out. The collars are adjusted depending on the inmate's abilities, so some have stronger shocks than others, and in the case of electrical powers, no shock at all. The cells are modified for each individual as well. Combustion's cell, for example has several canisters of dry powder (the stuff used in fire extinguishers) within the walls. If he ever tried to escape again, he would be smothered in fire retardant chemicals. His cell is also kept twenty degrees cooler than the rest of the facility.
"How does he not freeze to death?" I asked as I wrapped my cloak around myself to stay warm. It was cold just standing outside the door.
"He has a higher core body temperature than the average person. It's a side effect of his abilities," Challenger answered as we waited to go inside the cell. He turned and looked at me. "Remember, you're only here to observe. Let me handle the negotiations."
"I understand," I said with a nod. For once, I was content to just be an observer. The only reason Challenger let me come was because I helped put Combustion back in Tartaros.
The guard took his time entering the passcode to unlock the cell. Combustion was waiting inside, handcuffed to a table. As soon as I saw his orange eyes, I had a flashback to when we last met. Screech's terror-filled eyes looked at me, Tempest's cold voice echoed in my ears, and Combustion's pyrokinetic energy scorched the bottom of my foot. Unintentionally, I rubbed my left foot nervously on the floor, feeling the scar the third-degree burn had left behind. Combustion smirked at me as I shuffled in behind Challenger.
"Hello again bait," he greeted me. I scowled. So did Challenger.
"Dante Byrn, you will keep a civil tongue if you expect to make a deal with the SAA," Challenger told him sternly. Combustion shrugged casually as Challenger and I took our seats. "Let us begin."
For the next four hours, I listened as Challenger and Combustion fought over the details in the legal agreement. Combustion kept trying to make unreasonable requests. He asked for everything from a full pardon to his own personal chef. Challenger shot every single request down. It was like watching an unstoppable force meet an unmovable object. By the time they were both satisfied with the agreement, visiting hours were over and Challenger and I had to leave. It was disappointing to go home empty-handed, but I figured we'd finally get some answers tomorrow.
Challenger and I walked in silence through the halls. I dared to look into the different cells as we passed by them. Many of the faces I recognized. Most I didn't. Even after a year of looking through the metahuman criminal database, it still surprises me how vast Tartaros actually is.
"I hate this place," Challenger finally muttered as we exited the facility. I was shocked to hear him say that.
"I didn't think you hated anything."
"Well, this is the one exception." I nodded, acknowledging his feelings, but I couldn't bring myself to ask for an explanation. Challenger gave me one anyways. "Most of the world has come to tolerate metahumans, but this place was created out of hatred. All I have to do is come here and I'm reminded of how cruel humanity can be."
"I thought Tartaros was created so that metahuman criminals could be properly contained," I said, confused by his statement.
"True. That was its initial purpose, but keep in mind it was built more than fifty years ago. This country was much more contemptuous towards metahumans back then," Challenger explained. "Government officials discussed the possibility of expanding Tartaros to house all dangerous metahumans, not just criminals, in an effort to maintain public safety. During that time, the line between a criminal and an individual with dangerous powers was severely blurred. Many young adults were unjustly imprisoned because they lacked control over their powers." I was horrified to hear that. If I had been born during that time, I would have been one of those innocents who were imprisoned. My powers can definitely be classified as dangerous.
"That was never in my history book at school," I whimpered, still thinking about what could have happened to me.
"People have a tendency to try and forget the more painful parts of our history. After the creation of the academies, everyone wanted to focus on creating a better future instead of dwelling on past mistakes."
"Yeah, but those who forget our history are doomed to repeat it," I retorted. Challenger smiled at me.
"And that's why I hate this place," he said, patting my shoulder. "Because no one wants to remember how it used to be." I get it now. There are things that shouldn't be forgotten, yet they are. When school starts up again, I'm going to ask my new teacher about Tartaros. At the very least, maybe my class will learn a piece of history that was left out of our lessons.
Friday, August 14, 2111
In one night, things have gone from promising to abysmal. Combustion died last night. To be more accurate, he was murdered. Challenger called me early this morning so we could go to Tartaros and investigate.
When we arrived, the whole place was in turmoil. The inmates were restless and trying to break out of their cells. Extra security was called in just to keep them at bay. As Challenger and I rushed through the halls, I had to watch more than one criminal go unconscious from the shock collars. It was scary to watch.
"They've been like this ever since we found Combustion this morning," the Warden Marshall told us. "It will take days to get things back to normal."
"A man has been murdered and that's all you can think about?" I asked angrily. Challenger gripped my shoulder, giving me a silent warning to watch what I said. Fortunately, the warden didn't seem to mind my comment.
"Kiddo, when you're in charge of a few hundred psychotic villains, then you can choose what to worry about," he said. "I'm just glad you two will be handling the search for the murderer."
"Combustion was a person of interest in a larger investigation," Challenger stated, "and he was about to divulge relevant information. It's very likely he was killed for that."
"That is certainly a possibility. I've left the scene untouched so you can figure that out for yourselves," Warden Marshall informed us as he unlocked Combustion's cell. "Let me know if there's anything else I can do to help," he offered.
"We'll need to review all of the security footage from last night. If you don't mid setting that up for us, I'd appreciate it," Challenger told him. Warden Marshall nodded and departed, leaving Challenger and I to look at the chaos in Combustion's cell.
The stench alone was overwhelming. Combustion's body hadn't been moved since he had been found. He had been beaten so viciously that I couldn't even recognize his face. The dry chemicals in the walls had been activated some time during the attack. White powder coated the ceiling and every wall. The floor was a different story. A broken sink on the wall sprayed water, making Combustion's blood pool everywhere. It took every ounce of willpower I had not to run from the room and vomit.
"It had to be Tempest," I said, fighting back my nausea. My mind was focused on the broken sink and the water spraying out. Challenger looked at me, unconvinced. "It's obvious isn't it? Combustion was about to relinquish information regarding their employer. She must have received orders to stop him before we learned anything. We already know she's been in contact with whoever hired her to kill you."
"Nebula, I've warned you before not to jump to conclusions," Challenger told me, shaking his head. "Gathering evidence will lead us to the culprit. Although, Tempest is certainly suspect." I nodded, a little satisfied to hear that. Challenger continued looking around the room before turning back to me.
"Tell me what you see," he ordered. A bit surprised by his request, I began scanning the room, taking in the details.
"The dry chemicals were activated," I pointed out.
"And what does that mean?" Challenger asked, coaxing me to put the pieces together on my own.
"It means Combustion used his powers some time last night. He was probably trying to fight back."
"Good. What else?"
"He was beaten to death," I answered, daring to look at the body again. "There's no sign of suffocation." I pointed to the sink. "Tempest would have used the water to drown him."
"Also, even if she did decide to change up her act and beat him to death, she wouldn't have succeeded. He's much bigger and stronger than her. Unless she's secretly a master martial artist or something, she wouldn't have been a match for him."
"So, is it safe to say that she is most likely not the murderer?" Challenger questioned me.
"I suppose so," I said, a little disappointed. My eyes continued to glance around the room. Something didn't add up.
"Now we can move on to finding the actual culprit. Maybe there will be something on the security videos." Challenger moved to leave the cell.
"What about a security guard?" I asked, noticing something.
"Excuse me?" Challenger was completely puzzled by my question. I moved across the room and gently used my powers to move the overturned sink pieces. A long, black baton, the exact kind issued to Tartaros security guards, had been hidden beneath a chunk of ceramic. Challenger's eyes grew wide as he grabbed the baton off the ground.
"I think now might be a good time to go watch the security footage," I mentioned. Challenger hurried me out of the room and we flew as fast as we could to Warden Marshall's office. The warden didn't want to believe that one of his own had committed the crime, but it was hard to deny the evidence. Watching the videos would finally confirm what happened last night. I kept my fingers crossed that the murderer hadn't been smart enough to shut off the cameras. Then we could put a face to the crime.
It took hours to sort through the different camera footages. Then we reached a video timestamped 4:30 am. A male security guard began running through the halls, terrified. He kept swinging his baton around him, as if swatting at some invisible assailant. After running through the facility, he locked himself in Combustion's cell. Combustion was confused by the guard's presence and tapped him on the shoulder. That was a mistake. The guard screamed and began beating Combustion over the head with his baton. Combustion pushed the guard away, only to have his fingers bent backwards and broken. He began fighting back, despite his injuries, and the two became interlocked in an all-out brawl.
After several minutes, Combustion sank to his knees in pain. It was clear the head trauma was setting in and he was beginning to fade. In one last-ditch attempt to save his own life, he summoned a ball of explosive energy. He didn't get to use it. The dry chemicals shot out of the walls, blinding the camera. I could still hear the sounds of the baton hitting Combustion repeatedly. When the dust cleared, Combustion was on the floor, dead and bleeding out of several head wounds. The guard was shaking. The baton dropped out of his hands. Thinking quickly, he kicked his baton under the sink, which had broken off the wall during the struggle, and sprinted out of there. We all sat in silence, shocked at what we had witnessed.
"Who is that guard," Challenger asked, breaking the silence. Warden Marshall looked through his database.
"Carl Anderson," the warden answered, bringing up Anderson's profile. "He's been working the night shift here for about eighteen months."
"Did he have something against Combustion?" I asked.
"Not that I know of. In fact, it was rare for Mr. Anderson to even come in contact with the inmates. Usually he was assigned to outer wall patrol."
"Where does Mr. Anderson live?" Challenger began perusing through the profile.
"All of my guards are local. But if this was a planned attack, there's a good chance he won't be there anymore," Warden Marshall warned us.
"We have to start somewhere. Assemble a SWAT team. If Anderson is still at his house, he'll be armed and dangerous," Challenger ordered. Warden Marshall nodded and started making calls.
The video played again and again in the background as Challenger and Warden Marshall assembled the SWAT team. I watched that guard beat Combustion to a pulp at least seven times.
"Be ready to leave in ten minutes," Challenger warned me.
"Hold on," I groaned before vomiting, finally giving in to my exact feelings for what I had to see today. My body trembled from the sudden illness, but I just stood up and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. "Okay, now I'm ready."
Friday, August 14, 2111 (later in the day)
Okay, I am legitimately scared. And confused. Scared and confused are not good things to be. At least I'm in better shape than Carl Anderson. He's been institutionalized in a local psych ward. Hopefully his stay is temporary. Let me backtrack a bit.
Challenger and I arrived at his house with the SWAT team. We were expecting a big fight, but burst through the door only to find Anderson weeping and rocking in a corner. He was muttering something under his breath and didn't even notice us barge in.
"Mr. Anderson," Challenger said firmly as he stood above the security guard. "I'm going to have to ask you to come with us."
"It's not my fault!" Anderson screamed. He swung his hands around, trying to keep us away. Challenger was not phased one bit. He grabbed Anderson, handcuffed him, and led him out the door. All the while, Anderson kept screaming, "It's not my fault!" over and over. He was still covered in Combustion's blood.
Even though Anderson isn't a metahuman, Warden Marshall insisted we bring him back to Tartaros for the interrogation. Apparently he felt personally responsible for what happened. I'm glad Challenger wouldn't let him participate in the cross-examination. Anderson was scared enough having two supers sitting across the table. He didn't need his boss staring down at him too.
"Mr. Anderson, this morning, at 4:36 am, you murdered the criminal known as Combustion. We have video evidence. It would be a lot easier for everyone if you just signed a confession and told us why you killed him," Challenger laid out Anderson's situation for him.
"I don't know how this happened!" Anderson wept. "I don't even remember killing him."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"All I remember is that I was doing my rounds. It was a quiet night. Then, I started seeing snakes everywhere," Anderson began telling us what happened. "They were hunting me. I tried running away, but they were fast. I was finally able to get away by hiding in a cell. But when I turned around, there was a huge one right in front of my face! I began beating it away with my baton. It screamed and tried to strike back. I broke its fangs before it could hurt me, but that just made it angrier.
"It thrashed and attacked and I did everything I could to keep it from killing me. Then the whole room was filled with white powder. The snake was blinded so I took the opportunity to hit harder. It screamed and struggled, but eventually it fell to the floor. I stared at its lifeless body, relieved. But then the snake turned into Combustion. It didn't make any sense! I looked around, trying to figure out what had happened. There was blood everywhere! I can't stop seeing the blood!" Anderson began rocking in his chair, trying to deal with what he had done.
Challenger stood up slowly and left the room. I followed, since Anderson wasn't going anywhere. Outside, he called the Bureau over his intercom and requested a telepath come over to confirm Anderson's story. Warden Marshall just paced and mumbled to himself, still baffled by the recent events.
"This just doesn't make sense," he muttered. "We're very careful when hiring our security guards. There was nothing in his profile to suggest he was mentally unstable."
"Which is why we're bringing in a telepath to confirm his story," Challenger informed him. I wasn't satisfied with that. There were still a lot of unanswered questions. Then a thought occurred to me.
"You said he patrols the outer wall most of the time, correct?" I asked the warden. He nodded. "Was he scheduled for the outer wall last night?" The warden nodded again. "I need to ask him something," I said as I walked back into the interrogation room, not bothering to ask Challenger if I could.
"Stay away from me! I'm dangerous!" Anderson tried to throw his arms up again, but they were still handcuffed to the table.
"Nebula," Challenger said, giving me a warning. I ignored him.
"Mr. Anderson. Do you remember seeing anyone outside of the wall last night? It would have been right before the snakes appeared." Anderson whimpered. "Please, try to remember. It's important!"
"Nebula that's enough!" Challenger barked at me.
"There was someone," Anderson uttered in a very quiet voice. "An albino man in a trench coat. He had a scar above his right eye. He looked right at me and smirked. Then there were the snakes . . . and the blood." He began weeping again.
"Sounds like psychic manipulation to me," I stated, proud that I had proved my theory. "Are there any known telepaths who fit that description?" I asked, looking up at Challenger. His face was drained of color. "Challenger," I asked hesitantly, "who is the albino man?"
"Illusion," was his answer. I gasped. I've never seen Illusion myself so I never knew what he looked like. After my last encounter with him, I had been too scared to look up his profile on the Bureau database.
We went to check to security footage, hoping to find Illusion on camera. No luck. Minutes before Anderson killed Combustion, all of the outer wall cameras went black. There was no video evidence that Illusion had been there. Challenger growled in frustration.
"How can he possibly be involved in this?!" he asked aloud, not expecting an answer. "He's not smart enough to pull all of this off on his own."
"What do you mean?" I asked carefully. It was disconcerting to see Challenger so upset.
"We know for sure that Illusion is involved with the Lionman incidents," Challenger stated, "We know that Combustion was involved with Tempest and a third party who wanted the Scepter of Ma'at. That third party is also involved with last year's Tartaros breakout. To accomplish the breakout, it would have been necessary to hack the Bureau computer systems. It's very likely that whoever was responsible for that is also responsible for the other system malfunctions and the bombs."
"So is Illusion that third party?" I was still trying to follow his train of thought.
"Unlikely. Illusion isn't capable of hacking the computer systems at the Bureau or Tartaros. If he is pulling the strings behind these events, then he would have an accomplice in the SAA," Challenger answered.
"You're speculating," I said with a frown. "You always tell me not to speculate."
"I'm not speculating," Challenger defended himself. "I'm making a hypothesis from the evidence we've gathered."
I let out a sigh instead of asking the question that burned in my mind. One look from Challenger answered it, though. There was still a rogue member in the SAA and we still don't know who it is.