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It's already well past midnight by the time Mike Castillo finally sits down at his desk to write the article itself, but twenty-six years in the journalistic trade has taught him never to rush a good story - and this is a very good story indeed.

With all his research splayed across his desk, and a freshly-brewed coffee (his sixth of the day) keeping him buzzing, he knows he'll power through the writing of it - hell, he thinks, the premise was so good that he might even make the front page of some of the Sunday papers, as long as he can convince them to take his research for granted.

And Mike knows that that isn't going to be a problem: after all, he has the sort of exclusive which any self-respecting newsman would kill for. It begins:

Prominent Parahumans Purchasing Powers, New Analysis Suggests

Scientists have long investigated the cause, and origin, of parahuman powers. But, despite a budget allocation easily exceeding the sums which funded man's voyage to the moon, the sum total of their findings as to how parahumans are created is negligible at best. Researchers have consistently failed to extend our understanding of parahuman abilities beyond the basic facts taught to every school-child in the United States: that, at some point in the early 1980s, a small percentage of the population developed the potential to manifest parahuman abilities in unknown circumstances.

The catalyst for these trigger events has remained a mystery to this day. Some accounts suggest that the tendency is stronger in the physically or mentally gifted; others have pointed to a genetic component; while testimony from those rare parahumans who are willing to discuss gaining their powers suggests that undergoing traumatic events might play a pivotal role in both the manifestation of a power and, even more controversially, the nature of the power which manifests.

The actual vector for trigger events, Mike knows, is almost certainly trauma, even if the PRT takes great care to deny the idea that its paragons could ever have been so vulnerable as to suffer in that way. The other prevailing theories are specious at best, and he should know: he's wasted an inordinate amount of time investigating them, and neither astounding abilities nor genetic quirks provide convincing explanations for parahuman activity in their own right.

But that was a subject he could focus on in the next article which he got commissioned - or, if things went really well, in the book he hoped to write on the back of his breakthrough. The article continues:

However, groundbreaking analysis of financial documentation made publicly available by the Protectorate suggests a further, shocking source of certain parahuman abilities: namely, their provision to the wealthiest echelons of society by an unknown force.

That accusation's the hook for the whole article, and it's taken three painstaking months for Mike to put it together. Three months of poring through reams of heavily redacted financial accounts, which even Protectorate heroes (who are, after all, public employees) need to disclose; of careful cross-referencing those accounts with their social media presence and every presser the PRT puts out on their behalf; of reading the countless fluff pieces for heroes living and dead in the many websites and magazines devoted to their existence; and, ultimately, three months of (and none of this part will make it into anything he publishes, because Mike may be brazen, but he's not stupid) collating all that information to deduce the private identities of a certain few capes whose public information is just a fraction more revealing than it ought to be, just to vindicate his suspicions. It's the juiciest part of the article, and the words spill onto the page like magic:

Grounds for suspicion emerged from an initial demographic analysis of Protectorate heroes, conducted with reference to public disclosure of tax returns, which - as public servants - all members of the Protectorate are expected to provide. Information on publicly-known trigger events indicates that parahumans are, in the aggregate, are likelier to hail from working class communities than from wealthier ones; are comparatively likelier to be of a minority ethnicity or sexuality; and are likelier to be female than male. In other words, the wealthiest part of society - the (predominantly white) one percent of the population with an average household income exceeding $1 million per year - should, at most, comprise one percent of heroes serving in the Protectorate.

Of course, that's a bit of a fudge. If you were wealthy, you were less likely to be forced into a life of crime, after all, and there were more criminals than heroes in America, even if the actual ratio was highly contentious (and hotly disputed by the Protectorate, which had always been obsessed with projecting its strength). And Mike's a muck-raker, not a racist, so he certainly doesn't buy into any sort of bull about non-White capes being more inclined to lives of crime than heroism, either - especially given that the publically available statistics on the racial make-up of superpowered villains gives little credence to that idea.

But - even if you were to make the assumption that every wealthy cape joined the Protectorate (demonstrably untrue) and add to that assumption the even more spurious assertion that there might be four non-Protectorate capes for every member (unverifiable, but far in access of any sensible estimate), you still came to an undeniable conclusion:

In actual fact, forensic accounting has revealed that taxes paid by some twelve percent of the two thousand Protectorate heroes analyzed by the study indicate net worths ranging from the tens to the hundreds of millions of dollars - including, in seven cases, estate tax payments indicative of inheritances approaching a billion.

The conclusion is simple and inescapable. Either we are to believe that possession of wealth carries some inherent property which induces parahuman abilities; or the persistent rumors that powers both can be and are granted on demand have some truth to them.

It feels really good to write that sentence, and Mike grins at the words on the page before him. (He's not used a computer for years - doesn't trust the security or privacy when he's writing the really good stuff, not since ten years ago, when, he was sure, the Protectorate had used some bullshit Tinkertech monitoring to obtain an injunction against some particularly salacious gossip he'd dredged up about Eidolon's love life before he'd even had the chance to send it to anybody).

The next few paragraphs rocket by as Mike spells out, plain as day, just how blatantly clear it is that the rich must be buying their powers, and how despicable they are to be concealing the method, when the power granting method could do so much good for the world if used for the public good.

It's not that he actually gives a crap about what's 'good', public or otherwise, of course. But any decent journalist could tell you that you should always find a compelling angle to theme your work, and corruption and greed are good for that if nothing else. The segment after - where he lays out the various theories about this granter of powers - is even easier to write, because it's pretty much hearsay dressed up as fact, and that's a long-time specialty of his.

There's a tell-tale clattering of bins outside, and Mike groans.

"God-damned raccoons," he grouses, hoisting himself from his chair and lumbering over to the window. "I swear, they get worse every summer -"

He unlatches the window, savors the cool night breeze that wafts in (always a pleasure in a Texan summer), and yells for the raccoons to get lost: a minute's silence is enough to satisfy him that he's frightened them off, so he trots back to his desk, leaving the window ajar for the relief the fresh air offers.

Frustratingly, though, the distraction completely kills his flow, and he spends the next twenty minutes staring at his draft, trying to figure out a conclusion that he's happy with:

As with so many revelations, we can only conclude that the Protectorate is not, and has for many years not been, acting in our best interests -

No; the story's not exactly about the Protectorate; if they knew how to give people powers, they'd have been advertising that fact for years. And he doesn't want to narrow the focus of the article that way: he's theorising a global conspiracy, not just an American one.

Billionaires are not in the habit of wasting money, yet the hundreds of millions of dollars seemingly thrown away by certain families can only be understood as -

No; that comes far too close to revealing the follow-up work he did, after his unofficial unmasking of a couple of those wealthy peons who'd come into their billions; even if the sentence would only unmask them by vague implication, it's still far too risky for comfort. The PRT, after all, utterly lacks a sense of humor when it comes to unmaskings, and he's way too old and unfit to survive a spell in jail.

Just as he's getting back into the flow of things, someone strolls along the sidewalk out front, whistling some tune or other. Mike spends a few moments trying to place it before he recalls that it's the McDonald's motif, then groans at the realization that he's totally lost his train of thought again.

"Screw it." he mutters, clambering out of his chair. "I'm hungry, anyway."

Of course, he can't be bothered to spend an hour in the kitchen, and the tune he heard has him craving a Big Mac. There's a 24-hour McDonald's he likes to frequent, and it's only a ten minute drive away, so he grabs his jacket and scurries to his car.

The car (a vintage 1987 Cadillac Allanté, because he absolutely refuses to buy any of that tinker-boosted crap the Big Three make these days) has been showing its age for years, so Mike doesn't even notice that the handling seems a little looser than usual when he sets off. In any case, he pays more attention to the chick he spots further down the road when he leaves, still whistling some tune or other: looks pretty good for her age, in his opinion, but the fedora's a weird choice, even for Austin at two in the morning.

The I-35 is quiet this late at night, and the Cadillac was made to go fast: Mike's no speed demon, but even at fifty-seven, he's not above a bit of high-velocity action when he gets the chance, and he's soon cheerfully racing down the interstate - quickly enough that he almost misses his exit when he comes to it.

"Crap!" he yelps, and, tugging at the steering wheel, slams his foot on the brake - only to hear a horrible little crunch from somewhere in the car's workings, and realize that the brake's been totally jammed, locking the car into an uncontrollable spin that sends it plowing across the shoulder and straight through the crash barrier. A thirty foot drop gives Mike just enough time for a horrified scream - and then he exits both the interstate and the realm of the living at the same time.

Mike doesn't have a wife to be devastated by the news of his death (and he's alienated enough folk over the years that he's short on the loving family front, too), but if he had, a policeman might have told her something like this after she confirmed who the twisted body had belonged to:

"It was a terrible accident, ma'am: the brake line ruptured and the fluid must have emptied out when he was driving, so he lost control of the car at the worst possible moment. It's a well-known risk with these older automobiles, if they don't get serviced enough - they're just not safe like modern cars are, you know? Real bad luck for it to break right then, though - a total freak coincidence, not his fault at all. So sorry for your loss."

But Mike has been single for years, and sorely lacking in the friend department to boot. So there's nobody to tell about the accident; nobody to care enough to ask why the wear marks where the line ruptured are so concentrated on that area; and, most of all, nobody to wonder about the peculiar woman in a fedora who, a few minutes after Mike leaves for his last ride, clambers deftly through his open window, gathers up his research (and the backup research he hid under a loose floorboard out of long-standing habit) and patiently feeds it into the garbage disposal unit until it's been thoroughly destroyed.

Contessa pauses for a moment, eyes unfocused, as she runs through a last set of queries, because due diligence always more than justifies the extra time it takes. Eventually, she satisfies herself that nobody else has to have a terminal accident because of Mike Castillo's idiocy. And so, after a muttered instruction to an empty room, she steps through the sudden hole in reality she's summoned, leaving Cauldron's work secure once more - at least until the next person decides to do something terminally stupid.

Truly, she thinks, a woman's work is never done.


AN: Just a little one-shot, because I like to imagine that - whenever she's not dealing with the bigger-picture stuff - Contessa pretty much serves as Cauldron's one-woman safety net. Running a global conspiracy is hard work!