Try, Try Again 3

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I felt disjointed and adrift. I tried to get my bearings in the vision, but I was also attempting to understand what the boss had been saying at the same time. It was too much to figure out at once, and I felt something else, besides: a different sort of disorientation. It wasn’t in the vision, and I couldn’t place it, but it was familiar somehow.

My mind seized on a single fact; he’d said the name “David”. Did he know about David somehow? But how could that be possible? And before that, he’d been addressing me directly, clearly aware of the way David and I had bonded to each other, or whatever it was that had happened to us.

Leon, you okay?” David asked. He felt my confusion, and returned his concern.

No,” I admitted. “I didn’t understand what he said, but if he knows who you are we’re in trouble. I wish we could will ourselves awake.

What he said? What who said?” David sounded as confused as I felt, but for some reason he wasn’t worried.

The boss!” I replied. “If he knows your name…but it seemed like he was talking to me, and I don’t see how he could know. Even if Mary had betrayed us, you never told her your real name.

Mary betra- what the hell are you talking about?” David asked.

The boss!” I said, getting frustrated. “Hopefully whatever he did didn’t affect Bloodhound. If so, we’re probably safe, but we need to wake up!

Leon, calm down and start making sense right the hell now please!” David said. “The boss said something? When? We’ve never been able to find the bastard!

If I had a stomach of my own, I would have felt a sinking sensation.

David, what’s the last thing you remember?” I asked.

What? Fine, whatever,” he said, brushing off the strangeness of the question. “Um, we talked to the Philly Five and everybody else, settled on our plan, and set up a meeting for tomorrow. Mary’s trying to get us a location on the boss, and if it works we’ll try to take him out sometime in the morning or afternoon, while she leads most of the muscle on a wild goose chase. We came back, ate dinner, and went to bed. Now will you please, for the love of god, start making sense?

That was impossible. Somehow, David had forgotten a whole day? Maybe it was more like half of a day in terms of elapsed time, but it had been a pretty fucking important half day. There were two explanations that came to mind: either my memories were false, and what I remembered hadn’t happened, or his memories had been erased somehow.

Could that be the boss’s power? It was certainly potent enough to explain a great deal. Mary had said that he knew when she was going to try to get away. If he had caught her and made her forget, he could then pretend that he knew what she was planning beforehand, thus making escape seem impossible even if it wasn’t. Could that be what was going on?

I dragged myself away from the jumbled train of thought to pay attention to the vision as I saw something shocking.

David, just hold on,” I said. “We need to pay attention to this and sort it all out when we’re awake. Trust me.

Okay,” he said reluctantly. He was confused and alarmed, which seemed appropriate, but I pushed that aside.

Standing in front of us was the very man I’d just been thinking about, but the boss looked different. His face was less worn and he carried himself nervously, without the confidence I’d seen. The man I’d observed had been certain even in the face of apparent defeat. The one in front of us came up short in comparison, at least in terms of first impressions.

“This is Francis,” A voice said, and we reached out and shook his hand. I struggled to catch up to what was happening in front of me, but the time I’d lost talking to David had deprived me of the signposts I needed to orient myself, it seemed. Usually the visions had begun slowly, giving us a chance to get acclimated, but if this one had done so I’d missed my chance. It took me a few seconds to place the voice and connect it to the man we’d seen in the previous vision, Geoff Worthington.

“Francis mostly works on his own,” Geoff continued. “I’ll still be the one teaching you, pretty much, but you’ll see him around. Francis, this is David.”

I lost track of the vision again as it finally clicked. I’d been staring at the pieces to a puzzle and thinking that it was too hard, but the problem was that it had already been assembled right in front of me and I’d expected to do more work.

Idiot. I was an idiot, and I could have killed us all.

The boss had called me “David” because it was my original name. I’d chosen “Leon” for myself, and I liked it well enough, but I’d always known it wasn’t my old name. I had never even considered going by “David” because it would have been too damn confusing, sharing the name of the person who I talked to most often and shared a body with, but now that I thought about it there was something in me that felt right when someone talked to us and called him David.

The practical part of my brain noted with relief that this probably meant the boss had no idea where to find us or what David’s name was. The obnoxious part of me noted that if was going to keep thinking about this, I’d also need to keep referring to myself as “Leon”, if only to avoid confusion when I tried to explain everything.

Still, knowing my original name restored something to me. I felt more whole and complete than I ever had before.

Then I started paying attention again.

Francis was walking away with a cup of coffee, and I noticed that I was standing in what looked like the kitchen of a small apartment. Geoff and I were sitting down at a table, and I soon realized that we were eating lunch when I started to chew.

After Francis had been gone for a minute, I swallowed and spoke again, and it struck me that the voice I was hearing was genuinely mine; it didn’t belong to the David whose body I now shared or to some unknown third party, as I’d previously thought.

“So, how come I haven’t seen him around much?” I asked.

If it was really me, if I was this David, then these had to be my memories, but how could that be? We’d researched the things we saw, and some of the details were wrong. They didn’t fit reality.

“Francis is kind of obsessive,” Geoff said. His volume dropped as he spoke, and he glanced at the doorway as if to make sure no one was listening. “He doesn’t like to talk about it, but this is all pretty personal for him. I don’t know the whole story, but someone close to him was a casualty in a fight between supers. They were buying a car, is the story I heard. Some super went on a rampage, and by the end of it the whole dealership was trashed. Everyone else got out alive, although there were injuries. I think what really burns him is that they were just in the crossfire, not even a target, but he doesn’t talk about it much and we don’t ask. Anyway, he’s not really social, but he’s a decent guy. If you don’t bother him, he won’t bother you.”

I was reluctant to read too much into things, but that suggested a possible explanation for what Francis was doing setting himself up as “the boss.” It might even explain his saying that I should join him and commenting that it was all in a good cause, not that it excused any of his actions.

Still, maybe I could use his invitation to get close to him. It would be risky, but it was something to consider.

Dammit, I was getting distracted again.

“So, what’s next?” I was asking.

“Well, you and Charlotte are both coming along pretty well,” Geoff said. “I’m impressed with the invisibility trick, for one thing. It seems like you’ve almost got it right. If you can just manage to hide your eyes, then I think it’ll be as good as it’s going to get.”

“I think so too,” I agreed. “The tricky part is that I can only do that perfectly if I know who I’m hiding from, whether it’s real eyes or security cameras. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to turn the whole thing into one effort, once I’ve got all the pieces worked out. Doing the different parts separately is too tiring, mentally.”

“I’m sure you’ll get it,” Geoff said with an encouraging smile. “I know I haven’t taught many people, but it does make me optimistic to see you two progressing so quickly.”

“Especially Charlotte,” I said. “You missed the test we did yesterday, but she cut through reinforced concrete with her claws. She wants to ask one of our super-durable types to volunteer if we get a chance. See if she can scratch his skin.”

“Alena told me,” Geoff said. “Apparently they tested it against her force field trick and it went through, too.”

“Oh, I missed that one,” I said. “I wonder what she’ll work on next if they’re as sharp as they can be? We’ve kicked a few ideas around, but she hadn’t made any decisions the last time it came up.”

More information to process. If I was this David, could the other people we saw correspond to different individuals like me? If Charlotte had claws, could she have become Feral? If she wasn’t remembering anything, why not?

Did Geoff correspond to anyone?

Come to think of it, why was Francis apparently around normally, while I was a disembodied spirit? That didn’t seem fair.

He’d mentioned an Alena, too. Could that be the same one working for the boss now? Why was she working for Francis, and how much did she remember?

The answers were giving me more questions, but for once it didn’t feel frustrating. I felt like I was finally formulating good questions, the kind that meant I was close to figuring things out.

Belatedly, I realized that I was missing more of the conversation again.

“…until we have to move to a new spot?” Geoff asked.

I sighed. “I think we’ll have to do it soon. I know the move from our previous location seemed to go cleanly, but from what Murphy said at the briefing they might be close to finding us again anyway. I’m not sure how, but it seems like we find out about a new power variation every week, sometimes. Maybe they recruited someone who can see the past, or something.”

Geoff raised his eyebrows. “If they have someone who can do that, then there’s probably no point running, is there?”

“Maybe,” I said, “but it depends on exactly how their powers work. I was reading up on it in the files. Experiments with two psychometrics found that they had trouble looking into the past in rooms where stuff was moved around a lot, and one couldn’t see anything useful after a road was re-paved. The theory is that whatever they do, it works by getting an impression of past interactions, maybe down to the molecular level. So even a weak one can tell that someone walked across a floor, but one thing that they have trouble with is a lack of solid ground. One of them went to a swimming pool as a test, and could barely tell anything about who had been in it, even recently, maybe because the individual drops of water never totally stop moving. If that really is the reason why, then there is something we can do to lose them entirely.”

Geoff’s eyes widened in understanding. “Leave by boat.” He considered for a moment. “Or plane? If it works with water, it has to work with air, right?”

“In theory, yes,” I said, “but remember that it is just a theory. We don’t actually know if that’s how it works, and even if the theory is right they could track us some other way.”

“Still, having a bunch of ocean between us and them would have to slow them down,” Geoff said.

“I hope so,” I replied. “But yeah, I’m guessing we make a big move soon. You notice Murphy hasn’t had us finish unpacking everything? I don’t think we’re going to. I think this is just a waystation while they finish planning the logistics.”

“Well, if you’re right I hope the next place is a bit more comfortable,” Geoff said. “I admit I wouldn’t mind leaving again, either. I know we can go upstairs and on the lawn sometimes, but that’s no substitute for actually walking around.”

“Cheers,” I said, raising my glass to agree with the sentiment.

This vision seemed to be before the previous one, chronologically, even though I was seeing it after. I started to wonder what determined the order of the visions, but stopped myself.

That sort of digression would have to wait.

I waited for the two of us to continue discussing Francis, or move to another important topic, but it didn’t happen. The conversation turned to lighter topics, and while I might have been content if this was just another freebie at night, a minute of utterly meaningless small talk was intolerable now. We had no idea what the situation was back in reality.

I tried to use the time productively.

David, listen carefully. This is going to be strange even for us. As far as I’m concerned, we already made our move against the boss. You and I managed to take out Tuggey and Michaels without any major problems, but when we found him he spotted us even though we were invisible. We cornered him, and we were winning with Bloodhound’s help while Feral and Comet dealt with his guards, and then he said something that indicated he knew about me. He told me I should join up with him, and called me ‘David’. I didn’t understand everything he said, but he seemed to think he had the situation under control, and a second later we were asleep and having this vision. Are you with me so far?

Leon, I don’t remember any of that,” he said, confused and worried. “And why do you say he called you David? Is that what you were talking about before?

Yes, it was, but I didn’t understand it right away. I do now. David, we were right that it isn’t a coincidence we’re seeing these visions, instead of someone else. They aren’t visions. They’re my memories, from before I became whatever I am now. Do you follow? What we’re seeing is my past, somehow.

Okay…that sort of makes sense, a bit,” David said, “but how is it possible? When you tried to remember before, it just hurt like hell, didn’t it? I remember that, and it wasn’t pleasant. Besides, you weren’t aware of the first one, were you?

Maybe my attempt to remember worked, but not immediately,” I said. “I don’t know. We’ve only had the visions while asleep, and that’s got to mean something. But you have to trust me on this; I know they are my memories. That’s why some parts of it have felt familiar to me. For that matter, I suspect the reason I was drawn to you might have something to do with your name – I doubt it’s a coincidence, anyway. But the important thing is that I’m sure the David we’ve been in the visions is who I used to be, and I think Charlotte was Feral. Remember what they said about her claws? And this David was just talking about mastering invisibility.

Right, that part I follow,” David said. I could feel him absorbing what I was saying. “But wait, you said the boss knocked us out? We need to wake up! This stuff can wait.

I don’t think we can,” I said. “It’s never worked before, remember? Besides, I suspect that there’s a reason we saw this right now, as well. The man we were just introduced to – Francis? If he’s not the boss, then they’re twins. Given that he seemed to know me, and expect me to be missing memories, I think it’s safe to say that we’re not ready to go up against him yet. He knows far more about us than we do about him, apparently.

Leon, our friends could be in trouble,” David said urgently. “We have to find a way to wake up.

We can’t,” I said. “I’m sorry, but we’ll just have to ride this out. I just wish we were seeing something more important in the meantime.

In addition to the fact that the two men – my past self and Geoff – were talking about unimportant stuff, the vision had also grown increasingly vague to all of my senses as it continued. It occurred to me that the two trends were probably linked rather than coincidental. Memory is tricky, after all; it’s possible to recall some details very vividly while others slip away entirely. In fact, now that I thought about it, all of the visions had seemed to work that way: important things, familiar faces, and events had always been clearer, probably because they took up the bulk of my attention at the time, while people on the fringes, random objects, and peripheral things were vague to the point of being indecipherable. When I speculated that the visions were being sent, it had seemed strange, but if they were incomplete recollections it was only logical.

As I articulated the thoughts, the vision-memory was already fading, and I wondered if it was in response to my desire to see something more important. Everything I’d seen so far had arguably been very closely related to what was happening; could I have been subconsciously looking through my memories for the highlights, the most important events and people, and cherry-picking the relevant information? There had to be some reason that the first memory we’d seen just now was of meeting Francis.

I hoped we would wake up, but instead a new vision started, coming into focus as the first receded. This one was sharper and crisper, much like the first time we’d had the experience.

Also like the first time, it wasn’t a peaceful memory.

It took me a bit to realize that we were on the side of a highway as I crawled out of the vehicle. It was a minivan, flipped most of the way over, with the roof leaning diagonally against a tree. After I got out, I glanced back into the vehicle, but the only people I saw were unmoving. I couldn’t tell whether they were unconscious or dead, but I could hear the sounds of fighting loudly enough that they had more urgency, so I turned away from the van and back toward the road.

There were more overturned vehicles there, on their sides or roofs, including at least two freight trucks, another minivan, and several cars. Other vehicles were frantically speeding away in all directions, a few of them going against traffic in their rush to get away from the fighting. One turned and drove right off the road and into what looked like someone’s backyard, then kept going into the driveway and turned out of my sight.

This is the highway outside of Berkeleyport,” David said, subdued. He lapsed into silence as we both waited, afraid of what would happen next.

I could see familiar faces on the highway: security people I recognized from the facility, most of them at least appearing to be in civilian clothes, although in a few cases I could tell that they were wearing bulletproof vests underneath shirts and coats. There were one or two supers on our side, as well, including the hydrokinetic from the past memories, who looked to be struggling to find anything he could use by the roadside.

They were crouched behind the overturned vehicles, standing behind trees, or in some cases just standing in the open, but the ones in the open didn’t last for very long.

Their enemies were all supers, and they weren’t weak ones. To my left, I saw a man whose eyes were constantly moving, and I quickly realized he was a telekinetic. Wherever his eyes turned, disaster followed. One man on my side glanced down and found that the pin had been pulled from his grenade; when he threw it away, it turned around and came back like a boomerang. A small cluster of two men and a woman were shooting automatic weapons. One of them was sprawled on the ground, only his upper body sticking out of the second van, while the other two leaned their sides against it to stay up while they fired. Seconds after the grenade exploded, the three of them struggled to keep their guns in their hands. One man’s arms were jerked around in a wild arc, and when he tried to stop it from pointing at the other two the trigger pulled itself and shot him instead. The other two followed moments later.

I felt the effort as I turned invisible and started to approach, but someone else got there first. There was a second attacker standing by the telekinetic, guarding him, and he turned and sprinted to meet a familiar figure as Charlotte charged him in the open. She’d dropped her weapons somewhere, presumably to avoid having the other guy turn them against her, and after a quick glance he ignored her, letting his bodyguard handle things instead.

I started sprinting and shrinking distance, heedless of the drain I felt as I used two powers at once. Judging by how low-energy I felt, I deduced that I must have been injured in the crash and expended more power healing myself, which made sense. There was no way to know how much of the fight I’d missed, but judging by what I glimpsed it had likely been a brief and extremely violent ambush.

The bodyguard met Charlotte, swinging with his bare fists, and I assumed he was a brute or something similar. He didn’t appear unusually fast, at least.

She ducked under the swing and swiped at him with both arms. I couldn’t see the effects, but I saw him fall to the ground and I heard him scream in pain as she kept running past him. He didn’t get up.

I stopped for a moment, staring in shock. As far as I knew, this was the first time Charlotte or I had used our powers in a fight; maybe that was why.

The telekinetic heard the scream and gave Charlotte his full attention, ducking back so that a truck was between him and the gunmen. He started to throw rubble at her, ripping pieces off of cars, and I realized that he seemed unable to affect people directly; a limitless telekinetic wouldn’t need to wrestle for guns when he could just crush skulls or snap necks with a thought, but this one wasn’t limitless, and he looked afraid as Charlotte drew closer to him, starting to call for help.

She was still closer to the man than I was, but I returned to my senses and started running at him again. As the memory unfolded, I could feel David’s unease, and I knew that part of him – like me – was thinking of the night we’d rescued Dustin and the fights against Blitz. This was worse, since both sides were actively trying to kill each other.

On my way to help Charlotte I saw a super stumble behind a car, her clothes soaked through, and I figured our hydrokinetic must have found something he could use. She was clutching at her eyes and whimpering, her back pressed against the vehicle.

I drew my knife and slashed her throat, then kept going. As she fell, I realized that her eyes had been cut by shards of sharpened ice when some of them fell to the ground through nerveless fingers. One of them caught the sunlight as it fell, reflecting it in a way that would have been beautiful if not for the drop of blood clinging to shard.

I kept moving, eyes turning forward again. David felt sick. I would have too, but I knew that I had been fighting for my life and the lives of those with me. Besides, all of this had long since been decided. There was no way to save anyone here from the horror show that we were watching.

Charlotte reached the telekinetic, but someone heard and answered his call for help before she could do anything. A man appeared between them with no warning and gave a single shout, and she was propelled backwards at least ten feet. She hit the ground in an uncontrolled roll, and I guessed that the impact would have broken a bone or two, at least. When I got close, hoping stealth would serve me better than speed had served her, the man turned to look at me and shouted again. I was still taking in his features when I was lifted bodily into the air.

I had expected it, though, and I managed a less painful landing, rolling backward over one shoulder and quickly rising to my knees. I retreated, hoping to regroup with Charlotte and looking to see who else was left, but the battle was clearly turning against us. It seemed like we had surprised them with the strength of our resistance, but I could see at least five or six enemy supers still in play, and they were cutting us down fast. In the handful of moments it took me to recover from being thrown, I caught a glimpse of our hydrokinetic dying along with a handful of normal security guards.

My radio crackled.

“Testers, find Francis,” Geoff’s voice said. “We’re trying a Hail Mary.”

I didn’t know what he meant specifically, but I didn’t have any better ideas, so I headed back toward one of the cars. I assumed that my past self had known which car Francis was travelling inside.

When I arrived, he wasn’t there, but Charlotte was arriving too. She cradled one arm – clearly broken.

I reached for my radio. “Where are you?”

“Treeline, across the road,” Geoff’s voice came back.

I glanced around again. It seemed like they had escaped the fighting for now, probably because the supers were busy with people who were fighting back. That wouldn’t last much longer, though, because most of the security people were already dead. I stopped, staring at the carnage for what felt like a long time, but I knew it could only have been a second before Charlotte punched my shoulder with her good arm and I looked at her.

She was covered in dirt and her right side was a mess. Her clothes were torn and I could see bloody scrapes underneath, and now that she was close I could tell her arm was mangled. I looked at it and started to say something, but she shook her head before I could get the words out.

“Later. Fucking move!” she ordered.

She took off running and I followed her. Crossing the highway wasn’t as dangerous as it could have been; people had noticed the fighting, and just about everyone had either sped up to pass it faster or turned around, depending on which direction felt safer. It had only been a couple of minutes, I thought, but the immediate stretch of road was nearly empty.

I wondered what Geoff and Francis were planning, and wondered what my past self had felt and thought at the time he experienced this. I could feel his body moving, feel his pulse and breathing, and that gave me some clues, but I couldn’t actually read his mind.

We crossed the road without looking back, but when we reached the trees I couldn’t resist a glance. It looked like the fight was just about over, and I turned away to keep going forward.

Charlotte led the way and I followed close behind her. There was a small, nervous group waiting for us: Francis, Geoff, a woman I didn’t recognize, Murphy, and a single guard.

I noticed that Murphy, despite her inability to walk, looked by far the calmest as she sat with her back to a tree. I also noticed that she appeared very comfortable with the revolver in her hands. In contrast, the guard looked grimly determined, Francis looked like he was on the verge of panic, and Geoff and the woman didn’t look much better off.

“Come on,” Murphy ordered. “You weren’t cleared for this, but we’re out of options. Francis is going to try something he’s never done outside of a lab, and he needs to pull any energy he can from the rest of you.”

I blinked, and interpreted the gesture as surprise. In the memories I’d seen, no one had ever hinted that it was even possible to do that.

“He can do that?” I asked. Apparently it was news to past-me, too.

“He can,” Geoff said. He clapped Francis on the shoulder. “He’s only done it in the lab before, but I’m sure he can swing it. Get over here. You need to touch him. Just put your hand on his shoulder.”

Charlotte and I complied.

“What’s he going to do, exactly?” Charlotte asked, panting. I glanced at her again; she was talking like it hurt to breathe, and I wondered if she’d broken a few ribs as well as the arm.

“If it works, he’ll give us all a second chance,” Murphy said. “Now Francis, I don’t mean to rush you, but the gunfire just stopped. Everyone shut up and let him focus.”

I had a lot of questions, and I assumed I must have at the time as well, but we all obeyed, shutting our mouth and gathering around Francis.

I could hear the noise of cars, albeit muffled by the trees, but for a few long seconds nothing happened.

“I can’t do it!” Francis said. “It’s slipping away.”

“You can,” Geoff said. “Look, we’re all here to help. You ‘re the man, you can make it happen.”

I expected to feel a draining sensation, whether it was physical fatigue or what I felt when I used up magic, but I didn’t. Either nothing was happening, or I was so tired that I couldn’t tell the difference. After a few seconds, Charlotte eased herself to the ground, sitting cross-legged next to Francis and keeping her good hand on his shoulder.

“You’ve got it,” she said steadily. “Okay? Don’t stress. Do it like in the lab, just take whatever you need.”

Whether it was her words or her manner, it seemed to help more than Geoff had. I could see him relax slightly, and a moment later the expected draining sensation started.

“Okay,” Francis muttered. “Just…just drag everything back a bit. I can do that.”

“What did she mean, give us a second chance?” I murmured to Geoff.

“A do-over,” he said, looking me in the eye with a smile. “A second shot at today. But we can do it all different.”

I understood, but the idea was too much to accept, at first. He couldn’t mean what I thought he meant, not even if it would explain everything.

“Time’s up,” Murphy said. She and the guard started shooting.

“Alena!” Geoff said.

“R-right,” the unfamiliar woman answered haltingly. She had an accent I didn’t recognize.

I was just thinking that she didn’t look ready for trouble when she held one hand up in front of herself and moved to stand between the rest of us and the road. A tree snapped, cracked, and fell, but she raised her hand and then turned it to one side and the tree stopped like it had hit an invisible wall, then slid to her left – the way her palm was facing. When a second tree came at her face like it had been thrown, she turned her hand toward it, and it stopped in midair just like the first.

For a few seconds there was silence except for Murphy reloading her gun. The guard was turning his head, trying to spot the enemy, when a figure dropped from above, landing next to him and then flicking him with a finger. He fell to the ground and then froze, motionless, and the newcomer (I couldn’t see him or her clearly) reached down and grabbed the gun from Murphy’s hand.

Then the figure picked her up bodily by the hair and throat and pressed her against a tree.

“How are you hiding them from me?” he demanded. “It’s obvious they have powers, but I can’t feel them. How? Tell me and you’ll live, or at least die quickly.”

Murphy didn’t struggle, but she didn’t talk, either. She just stared into his eyes. When he turned his head to look at us, she spat in his face.

“Francis, do it now!” she yelled. I barely caught a glimpse of her right hand, emerging from her pocket with what looked like a grenade.

The guy holding her noticed too, and he dropped her as he sprang away, but after Murphy pulled the pin and let go the grenade changed course in midair to come at us. Alena was in the way, and she tensed in fear as she held up her hand.

The explosion blinded and deafened us all for a second, and I looked around frantically, trying to spot attackers. The man who had held Murphy was there, only a step away, and if he didn’t know what we were doing he was still clearly smart enough to spot that Francis was the key to it.

Geoff closed his eyes, cringing, as he stepped between Francis and the attacker, but Charlotte recovered faster than any of us, and at some point she had stood up again without my noticing. She yanked Geoff back with her good arm, and as she kicked at the attacker I saw the familiar claws forming from her toes, instead of her fingers.

They did the job just as well, and the man barely kept from having his face slashed by sacrificing his shoulder instead. He stumbled and fell, and Charlotte turned back to Francis, putting her hand on his chin and turning his head to stare into his eyes.

“Do it!” she ordered. “Take everything, just do it!”

And then we woke up, sweating, in bed.

David, check your phone! Right now!” I said.

He could feel my urgency, and he didn’t argue, even though I knew he wanted nothing more than to sit down and have a long, long conversation explaining what was happening. We were both keyed up from the memory, too, and found ourselves jolted fully awake all at once, without the normal moment of partial awareness.

He grabbed his phone and turned it on, then unlocked it.

Date: December 17th, 2011

Time: 3:30 AM

It was the middle of the night before we went after Francis. He’d given himself a second chance, snatching victory right out from under us, and this time he knew in advance that we were coming for him.

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Try, Try Again 2

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David’s excitement was contagious; I could feel it in our body, and I wasn’t immune to the effects of physiology on the mind. I could feel adrenaline threatening to narrow my thinking, and it took an effort to stave off the influence.

We were sitting in a little cluster, with nothing but a single wall and a little open space between us and the building where our main target – the bad guy in charge of all of this – was waiting. Michaels and Tuggey were down, with no signs of alarm here and no bad reports from Heavyweights group or Mary. I considered it a pleasant surprise that things were actually going according to our best-case plan so far.

David looked at our assembled allies, and I took the opportunity to take stock of them. Menagerie seemed relatively calm, which suggested that Feral was too, even though I couldn’t see her. Bloodhound looked ready for action. He’d briefly checked a few pockets, apparently making sure he had all of his gear ready, but since finishing I hadn’t seen him betray any signs of nervousness. Comet seemed to be a bit restless; no doubt waiting outside while we had snuck into the house to take out Michaels and Tuggey had been difficult. She didn’t look anxious either; she just seemed energetic.

Lastly, I focused on Uplink, and I wasn’t pleased by what I saw there. He was the least accustomed to this sort of thing, as far as I knew, and looking at him seemed to confirm that understanding. I found myself wondering if his nerves would be a problem; we were depending on Uplink to keep in touch with the rest of our allies, and if he faltered in a difficult situation it could sabotage our efforts and put us all at risk.

We didn’t really have any alternatives, though. We didn’t have the sort of equipment that we would need to talk to each other technologically, unless we used cell phones, and those weren’t precisely the fastest or most secure method of communicating. Besides, they would have required us to keep our hands free, which was unlikely to happen, to say the least.

I allowed myself to hope that Stalker would be able to pick up any slack that Uplink let drop. She seemed far steadier, from our past encounters, and she was known to be experienced in these sorts of matters, as a full member of the Philly Five. We would just have to trust her to keep him on an even keel.

David and I returned our attention to Menagerie, relaying what Feral could see to the rest of us.

“I think I see him,” Menagerie said aloud. “He matches Mary’s description, and he’s giving orders, anyway. There are at least ten guards in the building…it looks like it’s a community center, or something? The inside is mostly a basketball court, with some offices and a kitchen on one side. There are folding tables and chairs stacked next to the court, so I guess they use the space for other things too. Let’s see…the boss man is in one of the offices; the bigger one next to the kitchen.”

“What’s around the building?” Comet asked. “Houses, or what?”

“Right,” Menagerie murmured to herself. “Um, it looks like there’s a house to the left. I think there are a few more guards in there. On the right is empty. Like, a vacant lot. Across the street I see a corner store, a used car dealer, and there’s a gas station and a fast food place a bit farther away in either direction. I think they’re open, but they aren’t busy.”

“Okay,” Comet said. She looked at us. “Flicker, can you go again? Do you need a few minutes to recharge?”

David shook his head. “No, I’m good to go,” he said. “No point putting it off, I think.”

I agree,” I told him privately. “We’re pretty well charged, and the longer we wait the greater the odds that they’ll find out about Michaels and Tuggey.

Once again, we’re on the same page,” David said.

He stood up, looking at the wall we were hiding behind, and then glanced back at Comet. “Can you give me a little boost to the top? Just so I can reach it easier.”

“Sure,” Comet said. She stood with her back to the wall and cupped her hands, one on top of the other. David used her hands as a step, and she casually lifted us, floating slightly off the ground to let us grip the top of the wall. A second later, we turned invisible, and she gave us a little push the rest of the way up and over; from there, we dropped into a crouch on the other side, bending our legs as we landed. It wasn’t that high, but going over the wall hopefully meant that no one would be really looking closely in our direction. Our invisibility still wasn’t quite perfect, even if it was close.

We repeated our earlier feat, but this time I felt more nervous, even though David seemed calmer. He’d quite reasonably felt most concerned about being spotted by Michaels and Tuggey, given their powers, but to me the unknown powers of the boss were more threatening. I carefully reined in my disquiet, however, trying to avoid interfering with David’s concentration. It helped that I found David’s progress impressive, when it came to stealth. Walking quietly is a lot harder than most people think, but he was making a credible effort, even if I would never nominate him for ninja of the year.

The yard between the building and the wall was relatively wide, but not that long. We crossed it quickly, and the grass meant that sounds were fairly muffled. As expected, no one seemed to be particularly vigilant or waiting for us. I kept waiting for something to go wrong, but things continued smoothly and we reached the building without incident.

Now we just had to get in quietly. Mary hadn’t been able to help us with this part; she hadn’t even known about this place, and as far as the boss was concerned she still didn’t. She had barely managed to point us toward the head honcho’s location this morning; after that, we’d followed him here. David and I both thought it was a bit of a strange place for him to be, but I assumed there was some kind of logic to his presence.

In the meantime, we did what we had done at the house, earlier, walking around the outside of the building. Unfortunately, all the doors were locked and the windows were closed.

David crouched behind a bush, scratched at our chin, and let out a faint sigh.

Wait?” he asked.

Maybe not,” I said. “Did you look up much on the way in?

Not really,” he said.

The office part has a bit of a second floor, I think,” I told him. “With windows. If one of them is open, we could get in that way.

Let’s find out,” David said.

We were halfway around the building when the back door opened. One guy held it while a second took two trash bags out, throwing them in a dumpster. I felt David tense, turning toward them, then relax as he thought better of it.

Better to play it safe,” I agreed.

I know,” he said. “I just hate throwing away the opportunity.

Unfortunately, we weren’t close to the door. David took slow, cautious steps toward the two men and our possible entry, but while they quickly finished their business they didn’t go back inside. Instead, one man pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, offering to share with his friend. The second guy accepted, and the two of them were soon leaning back against the wall and letting the door close on its own. While it was presumably unlocked, unless they were forgetful or dumb, they would certainly notice it opening if we walked in before their smoke break ended. Attacking them first would be too noisy.

Wait for them to finish?” David asked.

I’m not sure,” I said. “Seems risky.

We’ll try the second floor,” David decided.

We crept the rest of the way around, until we were looking in through the windows at the office and kitchen. A quick glance revealed that there were plenty of handholds in the old façade, but it was still concrete and I didn’t think we would be likely to make much noise. I’d been a bit worried that this side of the building might be made of wood, or something else that was more likely to creak.

Climbing the side of the building was a minute’s work, with the judicious use of our ability to shrink distances, and soon we were peering in the windows.

It looked like the upstairs had two bedrooms. I assumed that the room I couldn’t fully see into was a bathroom. Both bedrooms appeared empty, but neither had an open window.

That made sense. It was winter, and even if today wasn’t particularly cold for the time of year, most people wouldn’t be leaving windows open.

However, it appeared that luck hadn’t forsaken us.

The second from our left,” I said. The windows all had simple locking mechanisms, and the one I was pointing out had the little levers facing the opposite direction from the others. “I think it’s unlocked.

David took a closer look and smiled. “Good eyes. Metaphorically speaking.

I let him feel my amusement, but in fairness to me it was hard to tell whether the windows were locked through the screens over them. David’s hand went to a pocket and he pulled out a recently-acquired Swiss Army Knife, readying the screwdriver on it, and he went to work removing the screen.

The alternative option was to cut through it, but I had no idea how loud the sound of cutting a screen window was. What was the screen even made of?

Such were the trivia that could prove vital to a super hero’s vocation, apparently. Sometimes reality seemed to lack a sense of drama, I reflected. At the moment, I didn’t mind.

The quieter things went today, the happier I’d be. I hoped for boredom as soon as possible.

It took a few minutes to remove the screen noiselessly, but we managed it, even though David’s screwdriver wasn’t a perfect fit. I wondered if the others were growing impatient, by now. If anything had gone wrong, we’d know, of course, but waiting behind the wall with no information beyond what Feral could see without acting suspiciously was probably a pain in the ass.

Moving very carefully, David made sure we had solid footing and then started trying to get a grip on the window to pull or push it open. It was a simple window, with a top half and a bottom half, and the top half set closer to the outside while the bottom half was set closer to the interior. After a few seconds of trying to open the top half quietly, David tried the bottom half instead.

He tried pushing a little harder and his hand slipped; he caught himself, but in the process his knee bumped the windowsill with a dull thump.

We froze, and I marveled that the deer-in-the-headlights sensation of trying not to be heard was pretty much the same with or without control of the body. That hollowness, the anticipation that was a mixture of fear and hope, was a unique experience.

No one seemed to react to the noise, and no one entered the bedroom from the inside. We couldn’t really see the second room, from here, or see into the downstairs. For the sake of caution, David slow-counted to seventy before we tried to open the window again.

I almost asked why he’d picked seventy, since it seemed quite arbitrary, but I decided not to distract him.

When the count was over, he checked his footing again, leaned on the window sill for better leverage, and pushed upward.

The window opened, but it wasn’t silent, and I felt his heart quicken. Rather than opening the window an inch at a time and prolong the noise, he pushed it open far enough to climb through, went through head first, and then quickly turned around and closed it behind us as quietly as possible. That made a lot less noise, for whatever reason. I guess the window was only sticky in one direction.

David hesitated, but left the window unlocked.

I felt and shared his momentary sense of relief.

Just like last time, we’d gotten inside the building without incident. The next order of business was to search until we found the boss himself, then get into a position where we could take him out immediately, preferably without being shot the second we hit him. Once he was down, we’d secure him, go back for Michaels and Tuggey, and then Mary could call off her search for the day. Ideally we’d win with no shots fired, and then we could take our time to learn all the details of the boss’s network and dismantle it safely, without warning anyone that we were coming.

I let myself hope it might go so well.

It wasn’t a large building, but when one moves at a snail’s pace for fear of discovery everything takes longer than it should. We spent a few minutes searching the upstairs area, going down, and then waiting in almost complete stillness by the bottom of the stairs. We could see the kitchen to one side and the offices to the other, both occupied. The boss, as described to us, didn’t appear to be in the kitchen, but someone else was. The two guys who had been smoking outside had returned at some point, and appeared to be getting lunch; someone else stood in the doorway, talking to them, and David and I looked on with bated breath, waiting for him to pick a direction to go. The hall was both short and narrow; if we tried to go in either direction and he went that way too, he would either walk into us or force us to get out of the way, which could make noise that would reveal our presence.

It felt like they talked for five minutes, but eventually the man turned and re-entered the kitchen, joining the other two. It sounded like they were talking about some TV show.

David took one last look in each direction before going to the office. Inside were a few desks, a pair of old computers, filing cabinets, cheap chairs, and five people.

One of them fit the description we’d gotten from Mary, and was wearing the clothes Menagerie had described to us before we vaulted the wall: a long-sleeved t-shirt, cargo pants, and an unzipped hoodie.

The man himself was unremarkable to look at, at least while he was sitting in front of the computer. His brown hair was long, for a man’s, tapering to a ponytail in the back. His face seemed youthful but lined, as if he’d had some hard living. He was broad-shouldered and strong looking, but not like a bodybuilder; I estimated that David was stronger, unless he had powers that helped in that regard.

I could feel David’s sense of recognition as we finally put a face to the description and got our first look at the man. At odds with his calm, I felt suddenly afraid.

David, something’s wrong,” I warned.

What is it?” David asked. I felt his concern for me as he reacted to my words and the feelings that accompanied them, but in the meantime something inside me was screaming that we were in danger.

I don’t know,” I said. Was it the boss, or was it something else? Could it be Michaels, somehow? He’d had a strong influence on Feral, before, even if her presence had seemed to shield Menagerie from his direct influence. Was it some new threat? Another super that we didn’t know about?

Leon, calm down,” David urged. “Talk to me. What’s the problem?

I don’t know!” I said, frustrated. “I just feel danger, but I don’t know if it’s from outside or just me…could Uplink be trying to warn us of something?

I couldn’t see it, but I could feel David’s face twist in a frown. “He seems to do information, not emotions…I don’t think it’s him. He would just tell us.” After a moment’s hesitation, he returned his eyes to our target. “Whatever it is, I think we should take this guy out and call for help. No more waiting. Whether it’s Uplink, Michaels, or something new, this might be our best chance to get this guy. Ready?

I tried to push down my sense of fear, but it grew even stronger. Was it the idea of going up against the boss?

It didn’t matter. David was right; if something was about to go wrong, it would be better for us to act sooner rather than later. Delaying wouldn’t be to our benefit.

“Let’s do it,” I agreed.

David took a deep, slow breath in, and crept into the office, heading for the boss.

On our third step, we heard something and David turned to look over his shoulder. One of the other men was walking into the office. If we didn’t move, he would walk right into us, but the place was so cramped that there wasn’t any place good to get out of the way.

David didn’t panic; I felt him drawing on our powers as he moved to one side, pushing up against the nearest desk. As the man drew near, David strained to do something we hadn’t really practiced; instead of shrinking space, he tried to stretch it, giving us more room.

If the guy at the desk got up, or the guy walking toward us moved the wrong way, they would stumble into us.

My anxiety reached a fever pitch, but the man passed us by without incident, and I realized he was carrying a cup of coffee to the boss. We stayed still, waiting to see if the man would turn around and leave the way he had entered.

“Here,” the guy said, putting down the cup. “Cream but no sugar, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” the boss said. He looked up and took the cup from the other man’s hand – only to immediately drop it as his eyes widened, staring at us.

Fuck!” David and I thought in unison. I wordlessly urged him to run, and he was already thinking the same thing. We took two long steps back to the doorway and then went through, pressing our back against the wall to one side.

Feral, Menagerie, he saw us!” I reported. “He can see us when we’re invisible! He’s warning the others now!

I couldn’t actually tell what he was shouting, to be honest, but I couldn’t imagine he’d be doing anything else at a time like this. David cursed again, mind racing to plot our next move; the man had looked up at the worst possible time and caught us mentally unprepared.

Suddenly, a familiar sound rang out, horribly loud in the close quarters, and David gasped in pain. Being slightly removed from the body’s sensations, I was less inconvenienced, but I was still a bit shocked to realize we’d just been shot in the shoulder.

I urged David to move, highlighting a direction, and he did as I suggested. A pair of long steps took us down the hall, away from the office and toward the kitchen. We arrived outside the doorway, still invisible, just in time for the two men still there to run out, one pulling a pistol free as they ran.

What’s going on? Are you all right?” Menagerie asked.

Definitely not!” I answered. “He just shot us in the shoulder. Menagerie, he can see us. If he can see magic, he can probably use it too! We need backup, ASAP. Be ready for anything.

David was too busy to talk. Fortunately, the two men in front of us still couldn’t see us, and they were confused. David stuck out a foot to trip the first man as he exited the room, and he went spilling to the floor. The second tripped over him, and David relieved the man of the gun he’d been drawing. With one hand on the wall to maintain balance, David kicked the guy on top in the side of the head, stepped over the two squirming, tangled bodies, and turned back to look at the office doorway.

The boss started to step through a moment after we looked, his eyes instantly turning to us.

Exact position on you and the boss?” Feral requested.

We’re running from the office, and he’s leaving it to chase,” I answered.

We’re coming in,” she said.

A moment later I heard the sound of glass shattering. The boss was still raising his gun to aim at us when the noise came from behind him, and he spun to see what the new threat was.

David and I had identical reactions; this split second of distraction was our opportunity. One step took us past the two men on the ground, and with a second we retraced our path back to the office doorway. Out of the corner of David’s eye, I could see Feral roar at the men inside as she swept one’s legs out from under him with a swipe of her left foreleg. Her claws seemed to be retracted, and the man wasn’t cut, but he still fell to the floor. It seemed like she had the complete and undivided attention of everyone in that room.

David’s right hand was reaching for his taser while the left surged forward in an artless punch to the boss’s gut.

He was bringing his gun the rest of the way up when the blow hit him, and he doubled over in pain. He shoved the gun toward us roughly, trying to get a shot he didn’t need to aim for, maybe, but David’s left hand grabbed his wrist and yanked him forward, off balance. Our right hand gave up fumbling for the taser in favor of grabbing the boss’s ponytail and we rammed him, face first, into the wall.

The interior wall was just wallpaper over drywall, I realized; the boss grunted in pain, but the cheap material gave way easily, and he wasn’t really hurt much. The boss suddenly turned to dead weight, falling away from us and twisting onto his back, and I realized he was trying to get a clear shot.

David realized it too, and took a single step past the man, onto the stairs. He blinked in confusion and turned his head to try to track us, but by the time he was reorienting David was coming at him from the other direction, and he couldn’t spin around fast enough to avoid getting kicked in the head.

David grabbed the boss’s wrists while he was reeling, and we twisted in an inelegant struggle to get control of the gun, with David forcing the man’s arms into uncomfortable positions while the boss flailed his legs, attempting to kick us. As we struggled, I saw the two men from the kitchen getting up and staring at the spectacle; with David still invisible, it must have looked very strange.

Apparently, it wasn’t just strange but also unnerving; one of the men stumbled backward before running away, and the other was white-faced as he watched.

David managed to wrench the boss’s hands around so that the gun was pointed down and towards the empty kitchen and he slid a finger onto the trigger, pulling it until the gun stopped firing. When it was empty, he immediately let go and took a step back, then started kicking the man as he pulled the taser out of his pocket.

The boss dropped the gun and groaned, rolling away. His eyes fell momentarily on the third man in the hallway, who was still staring at us. “Dammit, help me you idiot! Just shoot down the hall, you can’t miss him!”

The guy obeyed orders reflexively, it appeared, drawing the gun and firing indiscriminately down the empty-appearing hallway despite the fear that was plain on his face. As the boss was speaking, I indicated the ground, and David correctly interpreted my advice by letting himself fall onto his stomach. The bullets passed harmlessly over our heads, and as the man worked to reload we went for the boss again.

Now that we were reduced to fighting with our taser against his bare hands, we seemed to have the upper hand against the boss, even if he could see us. As long as we were close to him, the guy behind him wouldn’t be able to shoot, either.

The boss noticed the taser, and when we approached he backed up, clearly trying to delay.

That made sense, but it stopped being a good idea a second later. Rather than crashing through it dramatically and smashing it off of its hinges, Comet quietly opened the back door before flying up behind the henchman-type and disarming him. She did that by the simple expedient of grabbing his gun with one hand and his wrist with the other and then pulling them apart. If he’d held on it would have meant broken fingers at best; he didn’t hold on.

Bloodhound was only a few steps behind her, with a baton in one hand as he came up on the other side of the boss.

The boss heard the noise when Comet disarmed his thug, of course; the sound of the man groaning in pain and gasping in shocked fear was impossible to miss. He turned his head to look that way and bolted for the kitchen door at the same time.

We were right behind him. He seemed to be muttering under his breath, but I couldn’t make it out. David let our invisibility lapse, clearly thinking that there was no point using it against the boss alone.

When we reached the doorway, he was already going out the other way, onto the basketball court. We followed him at once, only to be stopped by a kick to the groin as we stepped through the doorway. David’s thoughts halted for an instant as the pain kicked in, and I was able to observe but not help as I saw a kitchen knife come toward us. I warned him, and David managed to move his head out of the way, instead letting the knife hit his still-healing shoulder.

The boss brushed off our feeble attempt to grab his hands and wrenched the blade free an instant later, but when he tried to stab us a second time Bloodhound grabbed his exposed wrist, yanked it through the doorway, and then brought one knee up to strike the boss’s arm. The boss screamed in pain as the knife clattered to the ground, but his other hand went into a pocket. Still catching his breath and unable to speak a warning to Bloodhound – who couldn’t see the boss’s free hand yet as he started to come through the doorway – David kicked him behind the knees, spilling the man to the floor. Bloodhound let go of the arm he’d struck to avoid being pulled down with our quarry, and when it hit the ground the boss screamed again.

David rose to a kneeling position and grabbed the boss’s good arm, twisting it behind his back.

“The fucking Philly Five,” the boss muttered, still seeming to talk to himself. “How did you find me?” he demanded, neck craning as he tried to look at us.

David didn’t answer, and neither did Bloodhound as he started to search the man, emptying his pockets and feeling for any concealed weapons.

“Bloodhound and Comet,” the boss muttered. “Plus these two…” He twisted again, trying to look at us. “Invisibility, healing, and maybe something spatial, huh? I guess I know who you are.” He was still panting in pain between words. “You fuckers don’t even know how big a mistake you’re making today. You have no idea. In fact, you’ll never understand how bad an idea this was.” He laughed a bit, still clearly pained. It sounded bitter, but also genuinely amused.

Bloodhound ignored the words, and so did David, but my sense of fear from before had come back stronger than ever.

Was that his power? Was he trying to make me afraid? But that only made sense if he could only do it to one person at a time. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he use it on Bloodhound? But if he had to direct it, why had I felt the fear before he noticed us?

Bloodhound might be protected from the effect, somehow. Maybe that was the answer.

Suddenly the boss took a deep breath in. “Any chance I could convince you to change sides, invisible man? I’ve got shitloads of money, and I can probably get anything else you want. It really is a good cause, too, if you’ll just give me the chance to explain it.”

“Not interested,” David said contemptuously.

The boss’s voice took on a note of annoyance. “Not you, you useless meat sack. I’m talking to the guy with the powers. I recognize you, buddy. I can help you get anything you want. Answers, freedom, whatever it is. I can even help you get a different body, if you don’t like that one.”

David froze, stunned, and even Bloodhound stopped for a second, eyes riveted to the boss’s face.

“Oh, that got your attention?” he asked. “How about this? I’m always in the market for more friends, including incorporeal ones. As a sign of good faith, I’ll tell you your name, so if you can take control I suggest you do so and help me. I can recognize you by your abilities.”

“What is it?” David asked for me.

The bastard smiled. “If you ever want to know more, just come find me, David. I promise we’ve got a lot to talk about.” He looked Bloodhound in the eye. “So long, assholes. I look forward to meeting you all again.”

And then everything was gone.

I’d half-expected him to disappear, after his words, but that wasn’t what happened. Instead, it was as if the whole world had disappeared. One second, we were there, holding him, and the next we weren’t there, he wasn’t there, and there wasn’t there. I had no sense of place or location.

And then a vision started, and I knew we were asleep.
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Try, Try Again 1

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“Everyone ready?” Comet had asked. “We only get one shot at this.”

I remembered taking one last look at the others, thinking that we’d assembled an interesting little group. The full roster of the Philly Five, plus Uplink, Heavyweight, Menagerie and Feral, and myself and Leon. Mary wasn’t with us, but she was ready to do her part.

We’d taken the time to stop and plan things out, to the best of our ability. Feral and I had done a little stalking, too, and Mary had risked exposure to get us the information we needed to finally find the boss himself, and bring him out into the open where we could get him. After weeks of alternating crises and sneaking around, it was time to make our move at last, and hopefully end this whole mess.

I had a few misgivings about the team and the plan. We’d debated going to the FBI, the cops, or both, but ultimately decided against it; Mary’s warning that past attempts to seek official help had failed, and the fact that we didn’t know why, seemed like a bigger problem than the risk of going in without sufficient backup. We’d also turned down possible assistance from Meteor. Comet had considered calling her, but given us veto power over whether to ask for her help, and Menagerie had used it. Leon and I weren’t certain it was the right call, but Heavyweight had sided with her immediately, and I’d decided that it was better to go in with a cohesive team and one less person rather than bring in a super who the rest of us still felt a bit skittish about, despite her powers and apparent skill in using them. No one else had argued, either.

All told, there were ten of us (or twelve, depending on whether you counted spirits), up against the boss and everyone working for him. In terms of supers, we had a numerical edge, but he had plenty of normal people working for him too, and we had the handicap of not wanting anyone to die. On top of that, it was still unclear what powers the boss himself possessed. Assuming we still had the element of surprise, the odds were far more even than any of us were comfortable with.

On the bright side, we had reason to believe that some of the supers on the other side weren’t in town right now. Mason Walker, the captured-and-coerced golf course owner, and at least one other were supposed to be away. That removed one very tough customer and one unknown from the equation, at least in the short-term. If things went badly, we were expecting to face the boss himself, Tuggey, Michaels, the three newest additions who were working under Mary, and whatever guards they could gather on short notice.

We’re in good shape,” Leon evaluated. “Our advantages are sufficient to overcome our disadvantages, I think. The Philly Five should be strong enough allies to tip the scales in our favor.

I think you’re probably right,” I said. “It’s the ‘probably’ that I’m not wild about. But we’re as ready as we can be. We’ve got our team, we’ve got our window, and it’s past time to end this.

Our private conversation had been interrupted when Bloodhound answered Comet’s question. “Ready,” he said, apparently calm.

“Ready,” Stalker agreed with a nod.

“I’m set,” Newton said, standing straighter.

“Ready,” Tin Man said quietly.

“Yeah, I’m ready,” Uplink agreed.

We were standing in a circle, and I recalled eyes turning to me.

“We’re ready,” I’d said. “Have to include you, right? Who else would watch our backs.

Much appreciated,” Leon said.

“Ready,” Menagerie said with a nod. Feral, large enough to ride, rose to stand at her side.

“Yeah, okay,” Heavyweight said. “I think I’m ready.”

Tin Man clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine. We’ll watch your back.”

Heavyweight seemed to take some confidence from the gesture, and gave Tin Man a grateful nod.

“All right,” Comet had said at last. She looked at us all again, taking a deep breath. “In that case…places, everybody. It’s almost showtime.”

Then we’d gone our separate ways.

Our plan wasn’t all that complicated. Basically, it amounted to “surprise the bad guys and disable them as quickly as possible, especially Michaels and the boss.” If we grabbed the two of them, it should effectively destroy the organization. There would be a lot of mopping up to do, but it could be done in a more leisurely fashion if need be. Tuggey and most of the other supers were just muscle, as far as we could tell. The boss was running the whole show, and Michaels was a linchpin, letting him maintain control of a lot of people. With all of that in mind, we’d decided to try to avoid fighting altogether, if we could. Mary was staying undercover, in the hopes that she could get us the boss’s location if he slipped away from us, but she would be leading Alena, Doug, and Lindsay in a search for Heavyweight, who would be driving around the city aimlessly, staying in public, and generally doing nothing. Some of the Philly Five would be nearby, providing backup in case the boss ordered Mary to attack. The rest of them, along with Menagerie, Feral, Leon, and myself, would be launching our actual surprise attack.

Mary had suggested the basic outline of the plan. Comet and Leon had contributed some specifics, while the rest of us mostly listened. Menagerie, Heavyweight, and I had been content to let Comet slide into the leadership role.

With the last face-to-face meeting officially over, it was time.

I had peeled off from the larger group, along with Comet. Heavyweight left separately, followed by Newton, Tin Man and Stalker. Bloodhound and Uplink formed a third group with Menagerie and Feral. We were spreading ourselves a bit thin, but it was the best plan we’d been able to come up with. Comet and I were only expected to face Michaels, Tuggey, and a few gunmen. Menagerie’s group would be dealing with the boss, with our support if possible, while Heavyweight’s group led Mary on a wild goose chase.

We’ve got it memorized,” Leon said soothingly. “Relax. We’re not going to forget our part.

It’s damn hard to relax,” I admitted. My heart was already pounding just from anticipating what was going to happen, and I found it hard not to start considering increasingly unlikely bad scenarios, even though I actually felt pretty confident.

I’d felt real fear a few times, now; this was more like stage fright. I felt acutely aware of what people meant when they referred to feeling ‘butterflies in their stomach’, or any of the other idioms for nervousness and anxiety; I definitely had that feeling. It was very similar to how my stomach had felt when I’d been on a roller coaster, years earlier, and I was barely aware of my surroundings until Comet and I arrived at our destination. It felt almost like falling, experiencing the brief moment between losing your footing and hitting the ground.

Maybe it was just the anticipation that made it feel like that.

We set up briefly on a roof near the house where Michaels was staying, getting the lay of the land. It was another nice home, like the one we’d found him at before; apparently he was house-sitting for someone under a fake name at the moment. We weren’t sure if he’d been in the other home under a similar arrangement.

The two of us waited until we heard from the other groups – communicating through Uplink and Stalker telepathically for security and speed – and then I went in while Comet hung back and waited for my signal.

It was more than a little intimidating to think about the fact that I was in charge of starting things off. My anxiety only grew as I dropped down from the roof, crossed to the house, and searched for Michaels and Tuggey. Mary had gotten a key for me to use, but I walked around the outside first, trying to figure out which part of the house they were in; it was pretty big. I was particularly nervous due to walking around the house in broad daylight, depending on my camouflage to hide me. Part of the reason we were moving during the day was so that the ambient noise of the city could mask the sounds I made walking around, hopefully preventing Tuggey from detecting us too soon, the way we had during Dustin’s rescue, but knowing that didn’t keep me from feeling exposed.

The house was big enough that I estimated it had more than four bedrooms, so there was plenty of space to concern myself with. I went up to the front, first, and peeked in through the windows where I could. Most of them weren’t covered, but I only spotted a pair of guards, not the people I was actually looking for. Around the sides, it was more of the same. In the back, the windows were covered. Unsurprisingly, given the time of year, the pool was empty and no one was in the backyard.

I reported all of that to Comet, then went around again, starting to look in through the windows on the second floor. Most of those weren’t covered, and I was about two-thirds of the way done when I found Michaels and Tuggey, sitting next to each other on a sofa and playing video games. Michaels had a beer next to him, while Tuggey was drinking soda.

I left as quietly as I could, mentally reporting back to Comet again. The sensation of telepathy, relayed through Uplink, was surprisingly different from what it felt like to talk to Leon. I wasn’t sure if Uplink was just being polite and avoiding unnecessary details, but I didn’t get any sense of anyone’s emotions or thoughts the way Leon and I did when we spoke to each other; it was a lot more like sending mental text messages.

Found them,” I told her. “No guards in the room. At least four in the house. I think I can get in unnoticed through the back door; it didn’t look like anyone was watching it.

You sure?” Comet asked.

Call it ninety-plus percent,” I said. “Tell everyone we’re starting as soon as they acknowledge.

Okay,” Comet said. “One sec.

I ‘heard’ her conferring briefly with Uplink. I wasn’t speaking to him directly because it was apparently hard to multitask, even for a telepath. He could help me talk to Comet and have her talk to him directly, along with the other team leaders, but just linking everyone in the whole group together was apparently too much for Uplink and Stalker to manage, even combining their efforts.

I didn’t really understand the explanation they’d tried to give us about why, but I didn’t need to. As long as I knew what they were doing, the how wasn’t really important to me at the moment.

They’re in place,” Comet said. “Call me if you need me, and I’ll provide some shock and awe.

I won’t let them make any calls,” I promised.

Then I walked up to the back door, unlocked it, and entered the house.

The security system was on, but Mary had provided me with the key to that, too. It had been another risk for her to learn the information, but none of our plans involved her staying undercover for very long, and we wanted to preserve the advantage of surprise as long as we could. I entered the number quickly, praying that none of the guards happened to be looking at the keypads when I came in; they flashed a light when the door opened, even if the alarm was canceled by my entering the code. Judging by the lack of shouting, it seemed like my prayer was answered. I managed to enter the code correctly, although there was a half-second after putting in the last digit when I blanked out, unable to remember what the last number I’d just hit was, or even what it was supposed to be. When the alarm failed to go off, I felt like my heart was starting up again.

I felt my stomach settle a bit. That was the moment I’d dreaded the most, for some reason that even I couldn’t fathom, but now I was in the building, invisible, and the bad guys didn’t know it. This was the riskiest part, in many ways, since both Tuggey and Michaels had a chance to notice me approaching, but it had been agreed by everyone that I had the best chance to sneak up on them except, perhaps, for Feral. We’d considered having me try to surprise the boss, instead, but without knowing his powers that had seemed chancier, and she’d volunteered for that risk. Her lack of a physical body meant that nothing the boss could do should be able to hurt her, as far as we knew. As for Tuggey and Michaels…well, if they saw me coming I had my regeneration to fall back on, and Comet was only a thought away. Judging by what I’d seen, she could easily cross the distance between her current position and mine in less than five seconds.

After giving my heart and breathing a minute to slow, I started moving, walking into the house and looking for the stairs. Fortunately, it didn’t remind me of the place where we’d found Dustin; that had been a very middle-class sort of home, whereas this one clearly belonged to someone wealthy. The furnishings were all expensive, and the decorations leaned more towards ‘expensive art’ and less towards ‘family photos’.

Besides, when I walked in I’d felt a sudden urge to wipe my shoes so I wouldn’t track dirt around. That might have just stemmed from a desire not to get caught, but unfortunately I hadn’t thought of that ramification of invisibility until afterward, so I knew the instinct came from something more mundane.

In retrospect, I realized that a dirty mat just inside the door could give me away as easily as dirty carpets, but fortunately the mat had been dirty before I arrived. I was thankful for the minor stroke of luck, and took a mental note about the lessons I was learning when it came to sneaking around.

I passed through three rooms, including a very nice library, and finally reached the stairs in the foyer. I could see two of the guards I’d noticed earlier, sitting around. One was smoking and pacing, while the other read a book; apparently they weren’t taking their jobs very seriously at the moment. I felt entirely okay with that attitude.

I crept past them, slowly, walking as quietly as I could and praying that the stairs didn’t creak. I would hate to get shot because of creaky stairs.

You and me both,” Leon agreed. “Come on.

At least they were carpeted, so my shoes weren’t particularly loud when I set each foot down. I kept glancing back at the two guards, but they didn’t seem to notice me at all. When I got to the landing between the first and second floors and let go of the bannister, I realized my hand was shaking.

It’s all right, David,” Leon said. “We’re almost there, now.

I took another breath – not too deep, I didn’t want to be heard – and then went up the second flight of stairs, reaching the second floor. I was taking a moment to get my bearings when I heard a man laughing to my left; following the noise, I soon found myself looking into the room where Michaels and Tuggey were.

It looked like a rich kid’s shrine to pop culture. There were rows of movies in DVD and Blu-ray cases, and video games alongside them, all arranged haphazardly on a large set of shelves. There were multiple consoles on the ground, a DVR, and other devices under and around a flat screen TV that would have made me drool with jealousy if I weren’t otherwise occupied.

I noted all of that absently as I glanced around the room, making sure that it still had only two occupants, which it did. Michaels appeared to be the one laughing.

“Oh come on man, just try!” he said, looking sideways at Tuggey. My heart stopped for a second; if I wasn’t invisible, he would have seen me over the other man’s shoulder.

Tuggey sighed. “Look, you’re kicking my ass, okay? Now will you quit drinking? We’re supposed to be on call in case they catch Heavyweight.”

“Whatever,” Michaels said, waving a hand. “I’ve barely had any, and it’s just beer. I can handle his brain just fine, man. Now will you please make this interesting?”

Juvenile bickering wasn’t what I’d expected, but on the bright side it was pretty loud. So was the game, which meant that I might just be able to get close enough to hit them both before they noticed me.

I wanted to warn Comet that I was about to strike, but we thought Michaels might sense telepathy if it was this close to him. Of course, we had also thought he might notice me anyway, since people like Raquel and I, who were sharing our bodies with spirits, seemed to register differently to him than normal people.

Apparently he wasn’t paying much attention, like the guards downstairs.

So far, so good. I readied my weapon – a taser I’d stolen from one of the bad guys on a night that had gone a lot like this, in some ways – and started to move closer. If I could, I would get right behind the sofa unnoticed and strike them from within arm’s reach. If not, I’d attack as soon as they reacted to my presence.

I tried to time my steps to coincide with the noise of their game, and it seemed to work. Soon, I was only five steps away. I tried to breathe as quietly as I could, and kept my attention split between the two of them, giving slightly more to Tuggey; I thought he was probably more likely to notice me at the moment.

They were playing a racing game. One car hit an obstacle and spun out, and I advanced a step, then a second as it smashed into a building. Michaels took a sharp turn and lightly bumped another car, and I took a third step. A moment later he cut the vehicle off at the next turn. Simulated tires squealed, and I stepped closer again; I was almost near enough to touch them.

All of a sudden, there was a burst of noise; it took me a moment to realize that the race was over, and in my surprise I took a sharp breath in. My eyes had automatically gone to the screen, and now I looked back at Tuggey.

I held my breath, and saw him turn to look at Michaels; his expression a bit confused.

“Did you-” Tuggey started to ask a question.

I didn’t wait for him to finish. I took one last step and my right arm snapped out, pressing the taser against his exposed arm and activating it.

Tuggey spasmed, shocked in more than one way, and started to fall to the ground. By the time he hit, I was already turning to get Michaels. He didn’t put up a fight, either; he was still reacting to what had happened to Tuggey, it seemed, and hadn’t yet started to look for the person responsible when I zapped him, too. In moments, they were both on the ground. I pulled out two sets of plastic wrist cuffs – provided by the Philly Five, who were far better prepared than I was – and quickly tied their arms behind their backs the way I had been shown, then tied gags around their mouths. When Tuggey started to struggle, I shocked him a second time, finished gagging him, then stood up and poked my head out the door to make sure no one had noticed.

It was fortunate for me that the game’s volume was turned up so high, and that it kept making noise even on the menu screen that had popped up after the race ended.

Smooth,” Leon commented, pleased.

Comet, the two main threats are restrained,” I reported. “I’m going to move on to the guards now.

Understood,” she said. “I’ll pass it on. Remember, I’m here if you need me.

I took a quick peek at the guys in the foyer, but they hadn’t noticed anything. With my mind at ease, I went through the rest of the second floor, checking each room, then doubled back to look in on Michaels and Tuggey again. Tuggey was out cold, but Michaels glared at me when he saw me walk in. I hesitated, considering whether to try to knock him out, but I didn’t feel right using the taser unnecessarily, and I wasn’t confident in my ability to safely choke someone unconscious.

I don’t like him being awake,” Leon said. “But I think we need to prioritize the guards. They could still come up here, or get a call or something.

Right,” I said. I shook off my hesitation, double-checked that Michaels and Tuggey were both tied securely, and then went back downstairs to deal with the guards.

It seemed like the four guards I’d spotted before were the only ones present. Two were in the foyer, and the other pair was in the garage. It seemed like they were checking over the two cars that were parked there.

I decided to deal with the pair in the foyer first. They were less busy and more alert, so it seemed wiser to take them out of the equation. Leon agreed.

When I got back, I had a stroke of luck; the guy with the book got up and went to the bathroom. As soon as I heard the door close behind him, I went for the smoker, leading off with a kick to his gut that knocked the wind out of him. He dropped his cigarette and gasped for air, and I got him while he was still recovering. I just barely managed to catch him before his body hit the tile floor headfirst, and then I positioned my arms under his shoulders to drag him into the next room and around the corner. There, I shoved him onto his stomach and tied his hands behind his back. He started to struggle, and I shoved his face into a pillow to muffle him now that he had his breath back, then quickly gagged him, just as I had the two upstairs. I could hear the guy’s partner washing his hands as I finished, and I quickly left the room and turned invisible again, moving to wait just outside the bathroom.

The guard who liked reading went down more easily; whatever he had been ready for, it certainly hadn’t included getting tased as he stepped out of the bathroom, and he joined his partner in about a minute.

Good so far,” Leon said. “You’re doing well, David. Just keep your cool like you have been, and this should go off without a hitch.

When I walked into the garage, invisible again, I cursed his word choice. The two guys there were having an argument.

“We have to go, man!” the first said. He had a round belly and was on the tall side, and the look of fear on his face made him look like a caricature. I was grateful for the fact that they’d left the door between the kitchen and the garage open, because there was no chance he would have missed the sound of me opening the door to enter, given the way his eyes were darting around. He looked like a rabbit that had smelled a wolf. Somehow, he’d been pushed to ‘fight or flight’ and gone firmly to ‘flight’.

“What the hell are you talking about?” the other guy asked. He didn’t look remotely afraid, just confused, irritated, and a bit nervous. He was equally tall, but had an odd build; his neck was a bit long, and his legs looked short, as some of the length normally apportioned to the limbs had been transferred up his body.

Comet, I’m down to the last two guards. They haven’t spotted me, but one of them seems to be freaking out for some reason,” I reported. “I’m going to take them down as soon as I can, though.

Got it,” Comet reported. “What’s he freaking out about?

I was about to tell her that I didn’t know when Leon got my attention.

Michaels!” Leon realized. “He can’t talk; he’s trying to use his power to warn them!

I blinked as I followed the train of thought; it made sense. Apparently I should have made sure that Michaels was unconscious, because the bastard was smarter than I’d realized if Leon was right.

In front of me, the panicky guy started to calm down, and his buddy looked like he was about to put two and two together correctly. Fortunately, I’d been sparing in how I used my powers.

I stepped across the entire room with a single stride, moving past the car they had been looking at before, then pivoted and took a second step to close with them now that I was past the car, all while invisible. When the calmer of the two started to turn towards me, I closed in, covered my eyes, and let off a quick flash of light right ahead of me, blinding them. When I opened my eyes afterward, the fat guy was stumbling sideways and bracing himself against the car with one hand, while the other one fumbled for the gun at his belt. I stepped past the fat guy and then kicked him in the stomach, driving him backward and off balance and pushing myself forward toward his partner as he fell to the floor. The long-necked guy was just pulling his gun free when I grabbed his wrist with one rubber-gloved hand and then tased him. I let him fall to the floor and spun to do the same to his partner, only to find that he’d apparently fallen unconscious from hitting his head on the garage floor when he went down. I prodded him with my toe to make sure he wasn’t faking, then returned to the long-necked guy.

Two sets of cuffs and one report later, I was letting Comet in through the back door. She lifted each of the bad guys with ease, and we quickly dragged them all into the same room. With more time on our hands, we tied them up thoroughly, making sure they couldn’t get loose, and searched them each to remove any weapons, phones, or anything else that might cause us a problem. One guy had a Swiss Army Knife in a pocket, where he might have been able to reach it. Fortunately, he hadn’t had a chance. With all of that done, we left the six of them there, tied up inside the house. Long-term it would be inhumane, but we were planning to come back by the end of the day. The worst thing that might happen to them would be crapping themselves, and while that would be gross, it was hardly life-threatening.

Besides, as Comet had commented wryly, it was a risk we would just have to take. We could only hope that if anyone was so unfortunate, it happened to a real scumbag like Michaels, rather than someone he was manipulating.

When it was over, we left, Comet checking in with the others as we moved to meet up with Menagerie’s group. We hopped into a rental car I’d sprung for, and I started driving, following Menagerie’s directions. If all was going as planned, they should have the boss in sight, while Heavyweight continued to draw Mary and her three little helpers away from him. It had been one of Leon’s refinements to our plan: the idea was that if the boss managed to call for help, no one would be able to answer in time, hopefully. With Michaels and Tuggey now out of play and Heavyweight giving Mary an excuse to get further away from where the action would be, the boss shouldn’t have any help beyond a few normal humans as guards. To bring him down and counter whatever powers he might have, we would be fielding Comet, me, Menagerie and Feral, Bloodhound, and Uplink. It gave us a mix of powers and options, with a little bit of stealth, a little bit of speed, and a little bit of brute force. Uplink would be with us in case the boss proved to have his own telepathic abilities, and could also help us locate him if he teleported. If he could fly, Comet would be there to chase him down. If he turned invisible, Feral might still be able to smell him.

We’d discussed a lot of possibilities, trying to cover every power we could. With the first step complete, though, our plan’s chances of success were looking pretty good.

“Uplink says the boss isn’t reacting to what we did, so it seems like he doesn’t know,” Comet told me out loud. “The guards aren’t reacting either. No alerts, no additional people. Heavyweight’s group says no bad news there, either. They’re still in the city, but they’re getting close to the edge, so it’s unlikely he’ll be able to get timely backup from them. What about Mary?”

I checked my phone. “No news is good news,” I said. “She hasn’t sent any messages, so things must be on track for her too.”

Comet looked at me. “Nice work inside, by the way.”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “Thanks. I’ll be happy when this is all over.”

“You and me both, but don’t let your guard down,” Comet said. “We knew what they could do. We had the edge against them. We might have the boss outnumbered, but remember he’ll know more about us than we do about him.”

“I know,” I said. “But until he actually sees one of you, he shouldn’t have any reason to expect the Philly Five. I think you guys rate pretty high on the surprise scale. You’re bad news for bad people.”

Comet chuckled. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said. We fell silent, until she glanced at me again. “Thank you, by the way. For trusting us. It means a lot.”

“I’m only giving the trust you’ve earned,” I replied. “And I’ll admit, we need the help today. I don’t think we could do this alone.”

“There’s nothing quite like having someone to keep an eye out for you,” Comet said. I couldn’t quite decipher her tone. “Anyway, it may sound silly to thank you for inviting us to fight supervillains, Flicker, but I do see it as a vote of confidence, not just a sign of desperation. I hope that’s not too proud of me.”

“You’ve got some things to be proud of, I think,” I said. “No need for excessive humility.”

A minute later, we turned a corner, and I found a parking space where I had been told to expect it.

The one inconvenience of operating during the day was that we risked sticking out like sore thumbs if we used our powers to get around. Comet had stayed in the back of the car and stayed low while I drove to avoid attracting attention, trusting me not to look at her face while it wasn’t covered by her helmet. Similarly, I was trusting her not to try to see mine through the rearview mirror. Once I parked, we got out of the car and out of public view as quickly as possible so that she could put her helmet back on and ditch the jacket that was obscuring her uniform. I didn’t have a uniform, still, but I did put my mask on.

“Time to see the boss,” Comet said once we were ready. She walked to meet the others, and I followed her.
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Who Pays the Piper? 3

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I was in class when Lyle called, so I couldn’t just answer; fortunately, my phone was set to vibrate, so nobody noticed. I excused myself as soon as I could, ostensibly to use the restroom, and called him back. I assumed it wasn’t an emergency; I’d told him to text if that was the case, since I could check a text message without anyone noticing regardless of where I was.

“Flicker?” he said.

“Yes, doctor,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Well, it’s not an emergency exactly, but I felt like I should warn you that Kaylee got some bad news. I talked her out of going to the police right away, though! She’s upset, but I convinced her to be patient, at least for now.”

I blinked in confusion, starting to worry. “You still haven’t told me what the actual problem is. What was the bad news she got?”

“Oh, right!” Lyle said. “She, well, she got fired. She was taking sick days, since we were afraid of the…of my former bosses finding her, you remember? So she couldn’t go back to work yet. I convinced her not to go to the police because it’s too late now, her boss probably wouldn’t give her job back anyway, the asshole. And I have enough money to take care of her rent and bills for a while, until we get this sorted out. But…well, she’s still really angry. I, um, don’t know if she’ll be willing to keep waiting too much longer.”

I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. The possibility of something like this happening really should have occurred to us, but it hadn’t; we’d been worried about keeping everyone alive and safe, and leaving town to guard Lyle and Kaylee hadn’t really been an option. If I had gone, or Raquel had gone, it would have taken us away from Berkeleyport, where all the bad guys were, and left Mary without backup at a critical time. With Alena, Lindsay, and Doug now in town, and the new danger to Heavyweight, leaving town seemed like an even worse idea; of the four people in town who I could trust, including myself (but not Leon and Feral, since they couldn’t really move independently of Raquel and I), two were effectively under constant threat. Raquel and I had to be on call to help them if something happened, and that meant we had to be present.

There weren’t many of us, and we were outnumbered. We were basically depending on secrecy to keep us all safe, and we hadn’t had much choice other than to hide Lyle and Kaylee, as well, at least for now. I tried to think of some alternative option that we had failed to consider, but nothing came to mind. If we were the police, or trusted the police fully, Lyle might have been a candidate for the witness protection program or something similar. Maybe if we brought the Philly Five into things more, they would be willing to help us cover all of the bases, but they had their own problems; I’d gathered from something Bloodhound let slip the other night that they were still trying to pick up Collector’s trail, and that was pretty damn important too.

“Flicker?” Lyle said.

I blinked again, realizing that I’d spaced out. “Yeah, I hear you, sorry. Are you two going to be all right for now?”

“Probably?” Lyle said, his tone uncertain. “I just wanted to warn you. I don’t think Kaylee will do anything, but, well, the longer we’re stuck here the more likely it is. And, uh, she’ll probably be really angry the next time you talk to her.”

“Okay, thanks for the heads-up,” I said. “I’ll pass it on.”

“Sure,” Lyle said.

We hung up, and I put away my phone, stashing it in my pocket. It had felt weird, at first, to be carrying around two phones all the time, but I’d grown accustomed to it.

Once again, I feel blindsided by things going wrong in a mundane way instead of a dramatic way,” I noted.

We prioritized life-threatening problems over mundane ones,” Leon replied. “It’s a blind spot, but one that we developed from a sensible approach, at least.

Maybe, but I can’t help noting that doing what we decided – you, me, and Mary – cost someone her job. Heavyweight’s in danger, too. I’m starting to wonder if our methods are the right ones,” I said.

You’re not ‘starting’ to wonder anything,” Leon said. “We’ve been through this before. Something goes wrong, and we feel doubt, then try to make the best plan we can for the situation we have, rinse and repeat. This is unfortunate, but it’s not really significant in a broader sense. It doesn’t change the situation, and it shouldn’t change our approach. Now come on, let’s get to your next class.

I took a deep breath and shrugged off the doubts. Leon was right; they weren’t anything new. I’d been questioning everything since the day I met Raquel, especially after any setbacks.

Right,” I said. “Introspection later, education now.

That night, we had another vision; Leon and I noted that the pace seemed to be accelerating. We were both pleased; the two of us had certainly been eager for more after the end of the previous one. In any case, this one seemed to pick up where the last had left off. Murphy was leading Charlotte, Hector, and David along. They followed her through three heavy doors, each of which had a different security check. The first scanned Murphy’s retinal pattern, the second checked her palm print, and the third required her to enter a combination of letters and numbers into a keypad. After the last door, there were more people waiting inside; guards that I hadn’t seen before. There were five of them in the room, each armed with an automatic weapon, wearing body armor, and looking menacing. One had a dog on a leash. They held the group at gunpoint as the dog sniffed at each person in turn, and only when it was done were we allowed to advance.

This is like a professional course in paranoia,” Leon observed.

Definitely,” I agreed.

Eventually the security checks ended, and Murphy led us to meet someone new. Off of the hallways we passed through, I caught a few brief glimpses of computers and a few gadgets that I didn’t recognize, but which looked suitably high-tech; all together, it made me feel like I’d walked onto the set of a near-future sci-fi movie, where the director had just ordered the set designer to make it look expensive without worrying about the specifics. I lacked the background to make sense of what I was seeing beyond that. There were several multi-monitor setups on the desks that I saw, although none of them were displaying anything when we passed by, not even a desktop screen; the monitors were all turned off, at least in the rooms I could see into.

More security,” Leon guessed. “The three of them are cleared to be back here, but not to see everything, maybe? Good attention to detail, if so.

I didn’t reply, except to register a feeling of agreement. At the same time, there didn’t seem to be many people.

I guess they probably find it difficult to find qualified, trustworthy personnel who will agree not to leave,” I mused.

That would make sense,” Leon said.

It was a short walk, despite my fascination with the newly-revealed wing of the facility, and soon enough Murphy took us into a room where a man waited, sitting down at a table; I realized after a moment that it looked almost the same as the meeting room I’d seen in previous visions, albeit smaller. The chairs were the same type, too. They were probably cheaper in bulk.

“So, these are the new folks?” he said, standing up as we entered.

“Yes, they are,” Murphy said. She moved out of our way. “Hector, Charlotte, David – this is Geoff Worthington. Geoff, these three just got their security clearance upgraded, and they’ve volunteered to try out your teaching skills.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Geoff said. He stepped forward and shook hands with everyone, moving energetically. “I’m excited to have some new faces! We don’t have much opportunity to meet new people, as you can imagine. So, I take it you’ve already got a clear idea of what we do. Should we jump right into it?”

Murphy chuckled. “Breathe for a second, Geoff. It might not hurt to give them a little demonstration, first.”

“Of course, sure,” he said, his grin shrinking to a smile as he stepped back. “Why don’t you sit down, I’ll only need a minute to concentrate.”

We did so, and Geoff returned to his chair. Moments later, he cupped his hands and held them up, holding a small, bright white light in them.

“This was the first trick I learned,” he said, grinning again. “Not too impressive, I know, but a year ago I couldn’t do it.”

As he started to elaborate, I felt a powerful sense of déjà vu. His words were different, and his manner was different, but the explanation was very familiar, with a mix of certainty and uncertainty, an emphasis on danger, and a warning about trial and error.

We need to talk to Bloodhound again,” Leon said, and I agreed. Going by our recollections, the explanation Geoff gave was almost identical to the first lesson Raquel and I had gotten from Bloodhound, functionally speaking. We listened with rapt attention, trying to pick out any differences and see if Geoff had any more details than Bloodhound had offered us since we began learning from him, but he didn’t say much that was new or different. Nothing contradicted what we’d learned already.

When Geoff got around to testing the three of them, it felt like a foregone conclusion, based on what we’d seen before; Hector didn’t seem able to learn anything, but Charlotte and David both managed a flickering, unsteady light on their own after a while. It looked exactly the same as the first thing Bloodhound had taught us as a learning exercise, and I didn’t believe in massive coincidences.

The vision didn’t reveal anything else, but the connections were too numerous to ignore. We sent messages to Raquel and Bloodhound after we woke up, trying to arrange a meeting as soon as we could for a non-emergency situation.

It took a few days to get everyone together. Given how we’d interrupted the Philly Five recently, I didn’t begrudge Bloodhound the time. Leon and I were surprised that the visions didn’t continue before the meeting finally arrived, but it seemed we wouldn’t be getting our answers quite so quickly.

When we did meet, I was surprised to find that Bloodhound had brought someone else along; the friend who’d showed up before to vet Leon and Raquel, and guarantee that they weren’t suppressing us or vice versa.

She stayed back at first. Bloodhound didn’t give us a chance to ask why she had come along, instead explaining as soon as we were close enough to hear him.

“Given what you told me, I thought it would be better to bring her along to consult with us,” Bloodhound said. “Otherwise, I thought I would just end up calling her on the phone and forcing us all to wait for her to get here. If you two don’t want her around, she can leave, but she may know something helpful.”

I glanced at Menagerie, but she only shrugged. Feral was out, in her small form, walking a perimeter around us.

“It’s fine with us,” I said to Bloodhound. He half-turned and beckoned her, waving with one hand. “Is there something we can call her?”

“She doesn’t really have a call-sign the way we do,” Bloodhound said.

“I think I told you guys when we met, I prefer to stay away from the fighting,” she agreed.

I took a second look and tried to think back; we’d only met briefly, and I hadn’t seen her face, but I thought it was the same person Bloodhound had introduced as a friend before. Her voice sounded the same, at least.

“Okay,” I said. “Everyone feel free to grab a seat. I’ve been having some dreams that seem more like visions, or someone else’s memories. It’s a bit of a long story, but I was wondering if you’d experienced anything similar, or if you could help me make sense of what’s happening.”

I laid out everything about the visions: names, descriptions of the places I’d seen and what the people looked like, and any other detail I could think of that might matter. I described them in the order I’d seen them, noting that the events didn’t seem to be perfectly sequential but I wasn’t sure what it meant. By the time I was done explaining what Leon and I had seen and what our attempts to investigate had turned up, my throat was sore and my voice was starting to get a bit hoarse. At the end, I rubbed at my throat and wished I’d thought to bring some water to drink.

Menagerie had heard some of it before, and accordingly was the least surprised. Bloodhound’s friend looked curious, I thought, based on her posture. He seemed tense.

As the silence stretched out, I felt compelled to fill it.

“I don’t know what it means,” I said. “I’m not sure why I’m seeing it, I’m not sure where or when it could be, and basically every time I see a new vision I have new questions. If you can shed any light on this, please do. Other than that, I just wanted someone else to be aware of what’s happening, if only to be prepared in case something happens to me.”

“Sounds freaky,” Bloodhound’s friend commented. “You said the guy you’ve been seeing through has the same name as you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I hope you aren’t offended that I’m not telling you my name,”

“Nah, nothing like that,” she said, waving my concerns away with one hand. “I just feel like that can’t be a coincidence. Um…unless it is. I get that you don’t want to say what it is, but can you tell us if your name is common?”

I hesitated for a moment, deciding how to answer. “It’s pretty common, yes. I don’t know if it’s in the top ten, but it might be, and you probably know at least a few people with my name. So it’s not totally out of the question for that to be a coincidence.”

She shook her head slowly. “Still, though…doesn’t seem like good odds.” She scratched at her chin and her eyes flicked to Bloodhound for a moment before returning to me. “Can you describe how it feels when these visions start, again?”

I did. She drew in a breath to speak again, but Bloodhound preempted her.

“Your companion, Leon, tried to remember his past before, correct?” Bloodhound said. “But it just hurt him.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It hurt him too much to try again. Why?”

Bloodhound shook his head slowly. “Just trying to make sure I’ve got things straight.”

“I’ve heard of something that sounds similar, on the surface,” his friend said. “Someone I know has what I can only call visions. But her description of the experience isn’t quite like what you describe, and they impose a kind of mental strain that can be dangerous. I understand you don’t seem to have control, but you should be as careful as possible.”

“Dangerous how?” I asked.

“The kind of dangerous that renders people insane, or close enough that there’s no noticeable difference,” she said evenly. “I’m not saying you’re going to end up that way, but if I were you and I found a way to turn the visions off, I would probably do it for safety reasons.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. Leon noted that her advice was as ominous as it was unhelpful. “What about the other aspect of it? The way they were taught was very familiar. I’m guessing you noticed the similarities.”

“It does seem a lot like how I taught both of you,” Bloodhound admitted. “I lifted most of the first few lessons from the way I was instructed, to be honest. Maybe my teacher was tied to what you saw somehow. Unfortunately, he’s no longer around, so we can’t ask him. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do to help you investigate all of this, but I can make a few calls, at least, if you’re willing to let me. There are one or two friends of mine who know a bit of magic, and it’s possible one of them has had a similar experience. I wouldn’t tell them anything about you, of course.”

“That’s fine with me,” I said. “Leon and I aren’t sure what to think, but the links popping up are a bit too much to discount, and I didn’t want to risk writing it off as nothing when there was a chance you might have heard of something similar.”

“I’m sorry I don’t have more helpful answers,” Bloodhound apologized. “I may be your teacher, but in some ways I’m still groping blindly as much as you are.”

We spent a while talking things over; they asked me questions, clarifying specifics of what I’d seen and heard, or probing in hopes of learning more, but there were so many questions that Leon and I couldn’t answer. We couldn’t explain why he hadn’t seen the first vision when I had, or what triggered them. In the end, it proved a lot more frustrating than I’d expected, since we ended up rehashing a lot of things that Leon and I had wondered ourselves, but for three other people, all of whom were justifiably curious. Feral barely spoke at all; I didn’t notice until Leon drew my attention to it after the fact, but she had seemed a bit withdrawn.

Eventually, there wasn’t anything more to say, and we went our separate ways. Menagerie and Feral went home, Bloodhound and his friend left, and I headed back to my dorm.

I was worried about getting more bad news, but nothing happened for a couple of days. Heavyweight eventually agreed to hear us out and try to work out a plan for dealing with the situation, and Mary managed to stall in the meantime, so things were looking up.

The next time Mary called and asked to meet us, I thought it was just to check in and update each other on what was happening, but I was disabused of that notion the second I got a look at her face. She looked like she was on the verge of crying; it was the first time I’d seen her look really upset. After the mess when we got Dustin, she’d been angry and worried, but now she just looked crushed.

I started to ask what was wrong, but she just shook her head and told me to wait until Menagerie arrived. She had said that she would be a bit late. I frowned, but let it pass, and we waited for a few minutes in silence. Heavyweight had been invited, but said he couldn’t make it unless it was an emergency.

Leon, what do you think?” I asked.

I see what you see, and we’re thinking the same thing,” Leon said. “I don’t know. I’m confident it’s going to be bad news, but that’s all.

When Menagerie finally got there a few minutes later, she walked in and apologized for keeping us waiting, then stopped suddenly as she noticed the atmosphere.

“What happened?” she asked.

Mary took a deep breath and drew herself up, standing with laborious effort. “We’ve been patient, and we’ve been trying to stretch things out until we can learn more,” she said. “I don’t think we can afford to wait any longer. We need to make our move.”

I was shocked, and immediately started imagining reasons for her change of opinion.

“Does the boss suspect you?” I asked.

Mary shook her head. “No. It’s…you know I was doing what I could to keep Tuggey and Michaels out of things, lying low and not causing trouble? I thought it was working, but it’s not anymore.”

“That’s it?” Menagerie asked, confused.

I realized that Mary was looking past us; we didn’t have her full attention. She was thinking about something.

The bad feeling in my gut got worse.

“Mary,” I said, “tell us what happened.”

She looked up and met my eyes, nodding almost absently. “Right…right. I got word about the two of them today. I thought I had a lid on things, but Tuggey was, he was,” she drew in a shuddering breath before finishing, “Tuggey was getting rid of a pair of bodies. I’m not sure who they were, but from what I heard, they weren’t involved in a big way, or anything. They just got in the way at some point.”

We were all silent. Leon didn’t say anything, but I could tell that we felt the same sense of weight pressing us down.

The quiet lasted for maybe a minute before Mary spoke again. “We can’t wait any more,” she whispered. “I think I can get the boss into the open, at least briefly. Enough to give us a shot at taking him down. I was hoping you guys could call the Philly Five, and ask them to help. Between them, you two, Heavyweight, and me, I think we have a good chance of ending things quickly, without letting it turn into a war in the streets. Maybe we can talk to the FBI too, I don’t know. If it’s the best way to stop the boss, then I think we have to.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said at Leon’s prompting. “You didn’t kill them.”

Mary looked away. “I know,” she said. “But maybe if I hadn’t been so set on keeping things quiet, this would be over already.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe half of Berkeleyport would be on fire. Anyway, we all agreed, so even if you were right you wouldn’t be the only one responsible. Okay?”

She nodded, but she didn’t look comforted. I hesitated for a second, then stepped forward and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. She tensed up for a moment and then relaxed, head bowing.

“This isn’t on you,” I said. “The only people responsible for murder are the murderers. That’s all there is to it.”

The next time she breathed out, Mary seemed to stand a little straighter. I glanced at Menagerie to see how she was taking things, and found her kneeling and holding on to Feral, who was nuzzling her cheek.

I cleared my throat. “If we can come up with a decent plan, I’m willing to make our move,” I said. “But I don’t want to just get ourselves killed over this, too. It wouldn’t save anyone. You have to know that.”

Mary nodded, and Leon silently agreed.

I gave her shoulder another squeeze before letting go. “I’ll send the Philly Five a message and say that we want to meet. Important but not this second. Okay? We’ll pull in whatever help we can, call in the FBI once we have a handle on the situation, and then hit them fast. You might have to play it cool for a few more days. Can you do that?”

Mary didn’t answer at first, and as the seconds stretched on I wondered if she was considering her answer or if she was thinking about something else entirely.

“I’ll have to avoid Tuggey and Michaels,” she said finally. “I don’t think I can look at them without starting trouble right now. I’ll sit on Alena and the others as long as I can, but I can’t do nothing for much longer, okay? Tell the Philly Five we need to hurry.”

“I will,” I promised. “Just try to play the part a little longer, and then it will all be over. We’ll finish this.”

“Okay,” Mary said.

I drafted my message to the Philly Five on the way home, then spent the rest of the bus ride going over the powers and assets that Mary’s boss had at his disposal, thinking about what we were up against.

We’re going to need all the help we can get,” I said silently.

Yes, we will,” Leon agreed.
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Who Pays the Piper? 2

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Arranging for Mary and her new subordinates to find us under controlled circumstances was a tall order. The easiest option would be to troll Heavyweight in front of Alena as bait, or for Raquel or I to turn off the magic Bloodhound had showed us, which made us undetectable. The latter option would tell her a lot about us, though, and she might pass that information on, which we didn’t want. Plus, it would be suspicious if we then turned it back on to disappear again. We were trying to stay under the radar, not trying to get taken more seriously as a threat.

As for letting her find Heavyweight, that would only work if we got his agreement. Even then, we’d need to find a way to hide him afterward to avoid long-term problems, or possibly just get him out of town. If Alena flipped to our side, that wouldn’t be an issue; she could just say that he’d disappeared, and that she didn’t know how. But we didn’t know whether that outcome was even on the table, so banking on it was out of the question.

If we did nothing, though, there was a good chance she would eventually find him anyway. At that point, we’d have the same situation on our hands, except it wouldn’t be on our terms or with timing of our choice.

If only Heavyweight would see things that way, I thought, life might be much easier. Raquel and I had been talking to him for a while, explaining the situation and trying to convince him to play ball, but he just wasn’t listening.

“We need your help,” Raquel was saying. “We can’t draw them out without giving away where our powers come from, and-”

“Look, I said no,” Heavyweight repeated. “No. No. No. Can I say it more clearly? Do you need it in another language?”

“So you’d prefer to gamble that they won’t find you, despite the fact that they are in town explicitly to find us?” I asked. “You’re being stupid. I understand if you don’t want to fight, but you’re already involved in this, and sticking your head in the sand won’t protect you. If you work with us, we can decide when and where this happens. If you want to pretend that nothing is wrong, we can’t stop you, but we’re not going to follow you around twenty-four seven to play bodyguard, either. At least, I’m not. That means they’ll probably find you when you’re alone, or maybe at work or at home. Maybe you’ll be eating dinner. Maybe you’ll be asleep. Maybe you’ll be in the bathroom, for all I know. You want that instead?”

Heavyweight reached up to run a hand through his hair in frustration, but with his mask on it didn’t work. “So help me hide from her like you guys do!”

“We don’t know how, genius!” I said. “We already fucking told you that! What we’re hiding from her is something you don’t have in the first place! I can’t teach you, she can’t teach you, and even if we did it would not fucking help. Are you listening? IT. WOULD. NOT. HELP.”

Raquel put a hand on my shoulder, obviously urging me to calm down, but I was pissed off. We’d been patient. We’d explained the whole thing twice before Heavyweight gave us an answer, and now he’d been talking us in circles for what felt like an hour, even if it was probably less than half that. I was internally debating whether he was stupid or just unwilling to comprehend what we were telling him, which essentially qualified as a different flavor of stupid, at least as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t think of a third alternative.

“Bloodhound taught you guys, right?” Heavyweight said. “Get him. I want to talk to him. I bet he’ll teach me.”

I threw up my hands in frustration. “Fine! You want me to send a message to Bloodhound? I’ll send a fucking message to Bloodhound. But when he tells you the same damn thing we’ve been telling you this whole time, will you please, for the love of god, stop being a fucking moron?”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Raquel said, stepping in front of me. “Go send the message, and come back when you get an answer.”

I felt an irrational surge of anger and stalked away. I knew she wasn’t really taking sides, and I knew I hadn’t been acting in a particularly mature fashion, but damn it, Heavyweight was getting under my skin in a big way. I could sympathize with his fear, but we’d come to him trying to help solve a mutual problem. It wasn’t like we’d shown up, laughed in his face, and said he was screwed and we didn’t care. In fact, if we did nothing, he was the only one likely to be in danger! We were actively going out of our way to make him safer, for fuck’s sake!

“Fucking dimwitted moron,” I muttered, glancing over my shoulder. Raquel was talking to him calmly, which, admittedly, was probably a better approach than mine under the circumstances. Or most other circumstances. I didn’t think this qualified, though.

Any suggestions on dealing with unreasonable ass-clowns?” I asked Leon.

Unfortunately, no,” Leon said. “When someone is sufficiently invested in not hearing what you have to say, there isn’t much you can do about it. Being reasonable only works on reasonable people, after all, and Heavyweight doesn’t seem like he’s in the mood to be very reasonable.

So where does that leave us?” I asked.

I don’t know,” Leon admitted. “I really do think we need him to make this work intelligently. In theory, Dustin might be workable as bait, but I think we can all agree that involving him in this is a non-starter, both practically and morally.

I glanced back again as I pulled out my phone. “Damn right. Don’t suggest that in front of Raquel, even as a hypothetical.

Yes, I suspect she would react badly to that,” Leon agreed. “In any case, I’m not sure where to go from here either, if we can’t secure Heavyweight’s cooperation.

I hesitated before sharing my next thought, then realized he could probably tell what it was anyway. “Maybe one of the Philly Five? Other than Bloodhound, any of them should be able to play bait, right?

I’m not sure that’s appropriate,” Leon said. “It sounds like a good idea at first, but there’s still a lot they don’t know about the situation, and if they learned everything we have no guarantee they would agree with our way of handling things. If they thought a direct approach would be more appropriate, they might proceed regardless of our opinions, and we couldn’t really stop them.

That would be pretty high-handed of them, and I don’t get that vibe,” I said. “I’ll raise the idea with Mary and Raquel if Heavyweight won’t agree, I guess. No point rushing ahead.

I sent the message to Bloodhound and waited to see if I would get a prompt reply. In the meantime, Leon and I tried to imagine how we would fight the three new additions to the other side if we ended up facing off against them alone.

Lindsay seems straightforward enough,” Leon said. “If he keeps moving, the only question is whether we can catch him. If he stays still long enough, we should be able to strike him invisibly. As long as we deal with him decisively, that should be that.

Right,” I agreed. “Doug is a bit trickier. He’s supposed to be strong, fast…a little bit of everything. But we don’t know how much. Going after him without that information seems like a bad idea. Maybe the thing to do is for us – you and me, specifically – to bait him and disappear. That might get him to show off where we can watch.

And then we have Alena,” Leon said. “I noticed she wasn’t too specific about what she can defend herself against, either.

Yeah,” I said. “So…she might be immune to just about anything. If all else fails, Feral might be able to cut through, but I think Menagerie will probably feel a bit skittish about trying that in a fight, after what happened before. Still, if she can cut Meteor and Heavyweight, I’d be surprised to find something she can’t handle. On the bright side, Alena didn’t mention anything offensive, and as far as we know she doesn’t have a teacher, either. So even if it’s hard to stop her, she probably can’t do anything to us that a normal person couldn’t. Even if we can’t beat her alone, you and I should be able to get away.

True,” Leon said.

I checked my phone. Still no reply from Bloodhound, unsurprisingly.

Now that you’ve calmed down, I hope you’ll hear me out,” Leon said after a minute.

I felt an urge to get defensive and tried to stifle it. “About Heavyweight?

Yes,” Leon said. “I know he’s being aggravating, but consider his perspective. He told us before that he wished to be less involved. He doesn’t trust Mary, or want to meet her. Yet now we approach him, asking him to take the biggest risks in a plan that involves trusting her a great deal.

I can break it down as easily as you can, Leon,” I said. “He’s still being dumb. His choice isn’t between facing this and not facing it. It’s between facing this intelligently and getting blindsided at an unknown future moment. That would probably be true even if he’d never met us before, too, given what we know about Alena.

That assumes you trust what Alena told Mary, and what Mary told you,” Leon pointed out. “He likely trusts neither.

I sighed. “I get that, yes. But if Mary’s telling the truth, it’s counterproductive for Alena to lie to her unless she’s on our side. If Mary isn’t telling the truth, then a lot of what has happened already makes no sense. I can’t think of a single plan her boss could have that would justify all the risks so far and letting us learn as much as we have. If he just wanted to capture or kill us, then a whole posse should have been waiting when you and I went to help the doc, and Mary could have just apologized afterward and said she hadn’t been told if we escaped. It’s not that hard, and I refuse to believe that I can come up with a better evil plan without trying than the actual bad guys can when they have plenty of time to prepare. I’m not stupid, but I’m not that smart. And if they were that dumb, then they probably would have been caught by the cops months ago, before Mary even met the boss.

I agree with everything you said, but you’ve had plenty of time to consider all this, remember,” Leon said. “We only approached Heavyweight just now, and he doesn’t seem like the deepest thinker. I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m saying you’re pushing too hard. Try to keep in mind that we don’t know his reasons for saying no, David. He may have a family he’s afraid for, or he could just be short on sleep and not thinking straight.

Neither of which would change the logic in any way,” I said. “But fine, I’ll try to be nicer. I reserve the right to think he’s an idiot in my own head, though.

Fair enough,” Leon said. “Just keep in mind how you’d take the news if someone said you might get attacked at any time.

I did get that news, remember?” I said. “And I took it better than him.

You also got help preventing it within hours, whereas he hasn’t been offered any such help or assurance,” Leon said. “Don’t be difficult.

Fine, fine,” I acquiesced.

I waited a little longer, and to my surprise I got an answer from Bloodhound.

I walked back to share the news.

“Hey, I said. “Heavyweight, I’m sorry for snapping before. It- well, I shouldn’t have. Sorry.” It wasn’t my most sincere apology, but it wasn’t forced, either. I hoped he would take it well.

“Thank you,” he said. He sounded a bit smug or maybe superior, like he thought he’d won something. It made me want to kick him.

“I heard back from Bloodhound,” I said instead. “I don’t think he’ll be able to help, but he’ll try.”

“Good,” Heavyweight said.

I glanced at Menagerie. The two of them had still been talking when I got back, and she looked a bit tired. Her shoulders were slumped, and I suspected he hadn’t been less difficult after I left.

Sorry,” I said to her. “Didn’t mean to flip out and leave you to clean up.

Aren’t older people supposed to be more reasonable than teenagers?” Menagerie asked sarcastically.

I nearly laughed out loud. “In theory, yes. In practice, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Less dramatic, usually, but all the petty stuff still happens.

Oh, joy, something to look forward to,” Menagerie commented. I heard her take a deep breath. “So, when can we meet?”

We managed to meet later that night. I hoped Bloodhound hadn’t been pulled away from anything vital, especially when he confirmed what we had already expected; namely, that he couldn’t help Heavyweight.

“I’ve never heard of someone who can find other supers,” Bloodhound said. “I have a hard time believing it, almost, especially if she’s like the two of you.” His head turned toward Menagerie and I momentarily, then back to Heavyweight. “I’m sorry I don’t have better news. The closest thing I’ve ever heard of is Collector, who certainly seemed to have a knack for finding people…but most of the supers he picked up seem to have given some sign of their existence beforehand. We retraced his steps, and some of them appeared in local news stories, or tabloids, or other places, if only briefly. Besides, I’m fairly certain it was people like me, or Menagerie and Flicker, that he was hunting. I have some idea how he tried to find us, too. But supers…I don’t know what this woman could even be looking for. I’m certainly willing to look into it, but I can’t promise that I’ll have results at all, let alone in any kind of helpful timeframe. I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help.”

“You’re sure?” Heavyweight asked for the third time.

“Quite sure,” Bloodhound said.

Heavyweight sighed and turned to look at me. From his posture, I had a feeling he was glaring. “Well, say you told me so.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want to be right.” I felt a flash of minor disapproval from Leon, but ignored it. “Look, we’ll try to help you whether you go for our idea or not, okay?” I turned to Bloodhound. “Thanks for coming out. Whenever we call you guys, I start wondering if I’m interrupting anything important. Either way, I hope the drive isn’t too miserable.”

“No drive this time,” Bloodhound said. “I flew Air Comet, since it seemed like it might be time-sensitive. Not very comfortable, but on the bright side I didn’t have to waste time going through airport security, and it saves on gas money quite a bit.”

“That sounds like a weird experience,” Menagerie said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like.”

“It really isn’t like anything,” Bloodhound said. He looked at all three of us. “Do you want our help with something else?”

“No, thanks,” I said. “If we do, you should get some warning in advance. Take care.”

“So long,” Bloodhound said. He left again, and I turned to look back at Heavyweight.

He was still standing there, unmoving, and I was a bit surprised by how hard he was taking the news.

“I need to sleep on this,” Heavyweight finally said. “I…yeah. Let me sleep on it. I’ll call you tomorrow, Menagerie.”

“Okay,” she said softly. “We don’t expect any trouble just yet, and we should get a heads-up before anything happens, but just in case, don’t forget to call for backup. We can’t camp outside your door, but if you need us we’ll come running, and we both run pretty fast, all right?”

“Yeah,” he said heavily. “Yeah, thanks.”

He left, presumably to head for home. Menagerie and I didn’t have much to say, so we did the same shortly afterward.

Leon and I went to sleep, and this time when another vision began we weren’t so disoriented. We’d been through the routine enough times, now, to get our bearings quickly. It helped that our communication was easier than it had been in the past, too. We could both tell that we weren’t in control of our body, and we could both grasp the other’s surface thoughts without effort. Instead of experiencing the strange and uncomfortable sensation of trying to use my eyes and turn my head to look around, and then wondering why I couldn’t, I slid into the observer’s role as soon as the vision began. Leon did the same. It was almost like we were sitting next to each other at a movie theater, whispering as we watched what was going on through borrowed eyes.

It was still weird, of course, but it was a familiar sort of weird, and we’d adjusted to it somewhat. Even the sensations of the other David walking around, his frame broader and heavier than mine, didn’t feel as subtly wrong as they had the first few times. It was like putting on familiar shoes that were a half-size too small, almost. Wrong in one way, but no longer strange or surprising.

We were entering a different room, one we hadn’t seen before. Charlotte and Hector walked in ahead of us. Murphy was waiting inside, behind a desk; she looked comfortable enough that I guessed it was her office. I tried to take in the paraphernalia, but most of the items in the room, particularly on the shelves behind her desk, were blurry and indistinct. I could tell there were a lot of books and files, but I couldn’t read their labels.

She gestured us to three chairs that were situated in front of her desk. They were folding chairs, clearly brought in for this meeting; a more comfortable chair had been pushed to one side to make room for the three of them to fit side by side.

We sat in the chair on the right. Charlotte took the center, while Hector took the left.

Murphy took a deep breath, looking us each over before speaking. “Well,” she said. “I hope your last weekend of freedom was enjoyable. If any of you wants to retain it, this is your last chance to say so.”

Charlotte shifted in her seat, leaning forward, but no one replied.

“Very well,” Murphy continued after a momentary pause. “In that case, I’m going to tell you something very few people know. You know the foundation has been looking for ways to counter supers for years, and you’re aware that we’ve always pursued multiple avenues of research. Advancing technology may provide some countermeasures, but the core of the whole thing is the powers themselves. Despite years of research by governments and independent groups, ours included, no one understands where powers come from. We know that some seem to be passed down from parents to children, but others apparently are not. Based on the research we have done, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of skipping generations. Some powers just aren’t inherited. That suggests that even if there are genetic markers – and no one has found any – they wouldn’t provide a complete picture. All attempts to study powers themselves have been largely fruitless.”

Murphy stopped to take a sip of water from the glass on her desk, and Hector leaned to one side, resting his chin on one hand.

“Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to keep track of what powers exist, and even that has been a Herculean labor,” Murphy continued. “We don’t have a comprehensive list. Neither does the Wave, or the Chinese or American governments, or any other party you’d care to name with an interest. Some of them identify themselves freely, but many don’t, especially in recent years. We have managed to recruit a few, however. Some of them help us secure our facilities. A very small number have tried to infiltrate the Wave, without much success. A few have volunteered to help us with research. Of all of them, one had a power unlike anyone else we’ve ever seen. The fruits of her work were in the New York facility.”

We felt our eyes widen, and saw Charlotte perk up a bit, sitting taller as we got to the point.

“I don’t know how to describe what she could do,” Murphy admitted. “Frankly, even she was always a bit nervous about experimenting with her power. At first, we thought it was just an unusual form of teleportation.  She would instinctively bring things to herself when she needed them. She apparently discovered it when she was an adolescent. She was staying with a friend, and had forgotten her toothbrush; it appeared in her hand. Later, she said she mostly used it to find her car keys, or TV remote, or anything else she misplaced or forgot. Once, she got her wallet back after getting mugged, and everything that had been inside it. Suffice to say that we didn’t think it sounded very helpful, but one of the New York researchers had an instinct that there was more to it, and they worked together for a while.”

Leon and I were both listening eagerly. I could feel that some answers were coming, at last.

“Frankly, it’s a good thing that the foundation isn’t a for-profit company,” Murphy said with a tinge of amusement. “They didn’t produce any meaningful results for more than three years. Attempts to develop teleportation technology by studying her powers failed miserably. Her powers didn’t work on anything living, which was another dead end. The researchers got nowhere, and eventually most of them gave up and were moved to other projects. But I digress.”

Infuriatingly, she paused again to sip at her water.

“In the end one man – the one who’d been pushing her from the start – finally had a new idea. Instead of worrying about how her power worked, he wanted to see what it could retrieve. They tried something they’d never done before. Rather than having her bring a familiar object, or one that she’d seen before, he told her to try to find something totally new. She focused on an idea, the abstract rather than something concrete. She tried to bring something that could help them with their research into the lab, and the only caveat was that it be safe. And it worked.”

If I could have, I would have held my breath; the other David did it for me, and I could physically feel the sense of shared anticipation.

“What they found that first day, we still don’t know,” Murphy said. “It’s locked up downstairs. But attempts to determine its source were completely unsuccessful, even by psychometry. After months of other methods failing, the foundation eventually hired a discreet consultant with more skill to try again, and that failed, too. All he could tell us was that the object was very old – at least hundreds of thousands of years, old, in fact, based on his experience identifying historical objects. He once picked a single fake, manufactured by a forger, out of a whole room full of Van Gogh paintings. Even afterward, it took experts years to spot the inconsistencies in the art itself. To this day, we have no idea where the mystery box – that’s the nickname for it – comes from. But it did confirm our researcher’s hunch, and the two of them kept testing her power. She tried to focus on different things, hoping to bring us something that would let us understand powers, and finally tried to bring us something to fight them. And that brings us to this.”

Murphy opened her drawer and pulled out several photographs, then slid them across her desk. Hector grabbed them and started to examine them, passing each one to Charlotte as he finished; she passed them on to us in turn.

The photographs showed what looked like an obsidian sphere, so smooth and perfect it had to be artificial. I could feel our body frowning as we looked up at Murphy.

“That,” Murphy said slowly, “probably represents the single greatest stroke of luck the foundation has ever had. When the researcher touched it, he suddenly knew a way to teach people skills that could counter the powers we’ve seen, letting them fight on an equal footing. He was even able to manifest some rudimentary abilities of his own. You know that some supers can sense others; we had one working security, and brought him in. He picked a hydrokinetic, a telepath, and a brute out of a lineup, correctly identified six normal humans, and said that the researcher was a seventh. He didn’t register. If he had walked into a meeting of Wave sympathizers, he could have passed for normal.”

“Dios,” Hector whispered.

Murphy nodded. “There are a few who suspect as much, in fact. To get exactly what we’ve spent so much time looking for, at a moment in history when our need is growing rapidly…well, I’m not religious, but one colleague noted that divine intervention seems to be an explanation that fits the facts, as it were. The super who’d initially brought us the object tried to find more, or something that explained where it came from. She was killed before the work could progress, suffocated by someone who didn’t need to touch her to do the job. All of the research and information related to her was copied and spread to other facilities, and we’ve been looking for someone else with her powers ever since – in vain, I’m afraid. But the researcher did survive. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by the same group that killed the woman. He’s been moving around ever since, trying to teach others as much as he can before they catch up with him. I don’t know if he’s still out there, but he did manage to find several people who could learn from him – unfortunately, not everyone can. There were a handful at the New York facility before we cleaned it out, and they’re here now. They’ve been making some limited progress.”

“How limited?” Charlotte asked. “I notice you haven’t had them fighting with us.”

“No, we haven’t,” Murphy said coolly. “They are more important than everyone else in this facility combined. You don’t risk a general to protect a private, as I’m sure you understand.”

Charlotte grimaced, but nodded her understanding.

Murphy sighed. “Besides, they haven’t been focused entirely on direct combat applications of their abilities. There are two things that are more important, which they’ve been doing their best to advance.”

“And those are?” Charlotte asked.

“Blocking telepathy, for one,” Murphy said. “They aren’t there, yet, but we’ve actually been making progress on that front. Two of our…students, for lack of a better word, have managed to resist an active telepathic intrusion. They couldn’t stop it, but they slowed it down. If we can perfect that, then we can spread the method to others, and in time there should be a whole segment of the population immune to mental abilities. If we get that far, then we may have a chance against groups like the Wave in the long-term. The idea of people without powers holding government office without fear of coercion will be back on the table. As much as I value your lives, and those of your people, there is nothing more important than the research we are protecting. That is why you and your men and women should be willing to fight. That is what people have died to protect. It’s possible that another facility has produced similar results, and we haven’t received word yet. It could be that a courier is on his way here right now, to tell us to pursue other research. But my current information doesn’t indicate that. As far as I know, this facility is the home of a project that could quite literally save the world.” Murphy looked us all in the eyes again, one at a time. “I hope that is a good enough answer for you.”

“Dios,” Hector murmured again. “You really mean it? It’s true?”

Murphy nodded. “It’s true.”

She cocked her head to one side. “Now, since you’ve been briefed in, would you like to see if you can learn anything?”

“Yes,” we said. It took me a moment to realize that the other David and Charlotte had spoken in unison.

Hector was still shaking his head in disbelief.
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Who Pays the Piper? 1

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“So, what do you think?” I asked, looking at Raquel.

She pursed her lips and her eyes became unfocused; at a glance, I would have thought she was looking over my shoulder, but I knew better. She was looking through an entirely different set of eyes. I sipped my coffee while I waited, glancing around to make sure no one else in the coffee shop was looking at us or listening to us.

“We feel it too, and see it,” Raquel said. “Whoever that woman is, she’s like us. She feels like you and me and Collector.” She paused. “Should Feral pull back? I know we’re supposed to be hidden, and I can’t sense you or anything, but we’re still pretty new at this. If we keep spying on them, she might notice.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. The only way to find out if she – they – can spot Feral is for it to happen. Besides, if she’s going to spot Feral she probably already has. In that case, we might as well learn all we can. If we’re lucky, she might give away how she did it. But for now, if she hasn’t noticed, I think we’re fine. What do they look like, anyway?”

“They don’t look particularly tough, but we all know that doesn’t mean anything,” Raquel said. “None of them seems to be challenging Mary at all, or giving her any trouble. If you’re up for it, I think I found a spot where we can see them without being seen.”

“Well lead on, then,” I said, standing up. “Can Feral hear them?”

“No, she’s not close enough for that,” Raquel said, standing as her eyes refocused. “Come on.”

She picked up her own coffee and we walked out of the shop, and I followed, dropping a handful of spent sugar packets and my empty cup in the trash on my way out. Raquel led me down the street and between two buildings, then down a few alleys. The last one smelled like garbage, but it was faint, and I thanked the season; winter cold could be unpleasant, but it had some nice effects at times, and I was happy to enjoy this one.

Finally, she stopped. “We’re here. Unless you can help me hide, I don’t want to get much closer, but it doesn’t really matter since I can see them just fine already. They’re in the French place across the street. It’s got a flower on the awning, but they’re through the window next to that part, not under it.”

“Thanks,” I said. I took a deep breath before walking around the corner. As soon as I could see the French restaurant Raquel had described, I looked around for a convenient place to sit, but I couldn’t find one; instead, I just stayed as far back as I could, well out of sight from most foot traffic on the street, and pulled out my binoculars. By now it no longer felt silly to be using them to look into a restaurant window; I’d seen and done enough odd things that this was just par for the course. I was a bit worried about someone noticing me, but if they did I was sure I could talk my way out of it. For our targets to notice me, they would have to look in my direction and have some sort of enhanced vision.

The problem was that we still didn’t know what their powers were. Enhanced vision wasn’t out of the question. For that matter, one of them might be able to sense when someone looked at them, although that would be spectacularly bad luck.

Still, we were here to learn what they looked like, as well as to back up Mary in case one of them realized she was double-crossing their boss; that was the whole point. It only took me a moment to find them and get the binoculars’ focus adjusted. As promised, Mary was sitting with them, eating dinner. They were all dressed casually, but in a nice way; the two men had collared shirts on, although they weren’t fully buttoned and the men weren’t wearing ties. Mary was dressed similarly, while the last woman was wearing a simple blue dress. It looked like a business dinner, which, in a way, it was. The only difference was that three of the four people eating didn’t know the full agenda.

I focused on the woman first; she was the one Feral and Raquel had warned me about, and now that I had her in sight I could tell that she was the source of that familiar feeling I had. I’d only sensed it before from Raquel and Feral, or Collector. Combining personal experience with what Bloodhound and the Philly Five had told us, I figured the woman I was looking at was probably sharing her brain with someone, much like I was.

Speaking of which, it was time to check in with my better (or at least smarter) half.

Leon, what do you think?

I’m just as curious as you are, David,” Leon said. “We’re resistant to Michaels, so she probably is too, which raises the question…is she being coerced by other means, like Mary, or did she sign on for criminal doings? But from what Mary told us afterward, Michaels didn’t say that he recognized the way it felt when he used his power on us…

Which suggests that he didn’t know about her, or at least that he never tried to use his power on her,” I said, completing the thought. “Yeah, we’re on the same page. And of course, the million dollar question: how much does Mary’s boss know about her, and, by extension, us?

Yes,” Leon agreed. “That is an answer I want very badly.

I gave the woman one last look, memorizing her face and build as best as I could from the angle I had; she was sitting next to Mary, but Mary was behind her, so I had a decent view. The woman was blonde, and judging by her choice of clothing – the sleeveless dress during a cold December – I wondered if she might be the kind of person who ignores the elements.

You know, she could just be from Alaska or something, or her coat could be out of sight,” Leon pointed out. “Don’t read too much into things.

Yeah, I know,” I said. I paused for a moment, caught in a realization. “Hey wait. How did you know what I was thinking? I hadn’t said anything yet.

It just came through,” Leon said; I felt his surprise as he realized that I was correct. “Interesting.

Yeah, that’s a word,” I said. I suppressed a pang of concern; that could wait. We needed to stay on task.

I felt Leon’s agreement, and forced myself to relax and focus. We needed to take things one at a time.

I returned my attention to the woman; she had a tattoo on her right arm, which was the one facing me; I couldn’t tell if it was the only one or not, and seeing what it was from my current distance was out of the question, but if she went around without sleeves habitually it could help us pick her out.

With that done, I looked at the two men sitting opposite Mary. The one in the back was smaller, unfortunately, so I couldn’t really see him clearly. He was black, and had dark hair. So did the white guy in front of him, who was easily the bulkiest person at the table. He was built like a football player, and looked thick enough to support a roof.

I took a good long look and then turned around and returned to Raquel. Once I’d seen enough, sticking around could only increase our risks, and I was happy to be done.

She was waiting right where I’d left her.

“You said they didn’t look particularly tough,” I said. “That one guy looked like he was a whole defensive line.”

Raquel smiled. “Yeah, but so what? The strongest people we know are Heavyweight, Silhouette, Comet, and Meteor. Maybe Tin Man as an honorable mention. They’re all less muscular than that guy.”

I snorted. “By that standard, no one on the planet looks tough.”

Raquel kept smiling. “Pretty much, yeah.”

I pretended to glare at her for two seconds and then dropped it. In fairness, I should have known better than to ask her what they looked like right before seeing for myself.

“So what now?” I asked. “Just wait until they leave?”

Raquel shrugged. “I guess so, yeah.”

I glanced up. “You want to try getting a bird’s-eye view when they’re on the way out? I didn’t see all of their faces that well, and it might help.

Raquel frowned. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like they noticed us, but I don’t want to push our luck.”

“It’s not like I suggested we go bump in to them,” I said. “But I want to be able to pick them out of a crowd if we need to. Come on.”

Nothing went wrong, and soon enough we were meeting Mary.

After leaving the dinner, she pulled her car up to a corner a couple of blocks away; we were waiting there by the time she arrived, and we piled in, drove to a nearby park – the same one where Raquel and Heavyweight had been attacked by Collector’s group the day I met her – and sat at a picnic table.

“You got a good look at them all?” Mary asked.

“Yeah, we did,” I said. “Any problems during the meeting?”

Mary shook her head. “No, they were all polite enough, at least in public. I have a feeling Lindsay – the big guy – is going to be annoying, but that’s not important.”

“Lindsay?” I asked. “Hell, if my parents had named me Lindsay I might have a chip on my shoulder.”

“Actually, that used to be just a guy’s name,” Mary said.

“Really?” I asked. “Huh. Anyway, what about the other two?”

Mary looked into the distance, remembering. “Lindsay, Doug, and Alena,” she said. “Doug has basic strength, speed, and agility. He played it up, but I have a feeling Heavyweight could down him in one punch; he seems pretty full of himself. It’s hard to tell without seeing him in action, though, and a restaurant isn’t exactly the right place for a demonstration. Lindsay is two for the price of one. He said he can outrun a car on the highway, and he has some sort of sound-based thing, too. He said it’s strong enough to burst eardrums, and it hurts like hell. I don’t think it’s much good for property destruction, though. Anyone who can shrug it off can probably beat him, if they can catch him. The one I’m really worried about is Alena. I listened to her explanation, but I’m still not clear on what she does or how.”

Raquel and I both leaned forward, interested to hear the rest. “What did she say?” I asked.

Mary scratched her head and sighed. “She was creeping me out, honestly, and I think the two guys, too. She said something about ‘vengeance’ under her breath, and I didn’t like the way she was looking at me.”

“I thought you said they were all polite?” I asked.

“Oh, she was talking politely,” Mary said. “She just looked at me like I was tracking dog shit on her carpets. Seriously, it was weird – and it started before I even introduced myself.” Mary shook her head. “Anyway, according to her, she can find people with powers – even if they don’t know they have them. That’s her main thing. She also said that she’s immune to telepaths, and that she can shield herself if someone attacks her physically. She’s good enough to stop bullets, at least. I don’t know how someone gets that many powers that have nothing to do with each other, but life is not fucking fair, I’ll say that. I only get one trick, and she’s got the whole kitchen sink.” She looked at us. “Actually, it reminded me of you, Flicker. Anyway, that’s the scoop. If they have anything else up their sleeves, they didn’t tell me about it. But I’m guessing that Alena was probably one of the first couple people the boss recruited. That could explain how he found all of the others, except for me. Seems like I just got unlucky.”

“Damn,” Raquel said.

“One last thing,” Mary said. “I got a message from the boss before the meeting. He told me that if anything goes wrong, I should make sure Alena gets out of it okay – even if the other two get hurt in the process. So whether I guessed right or not, he considers her more valuable than both of them put together, and maybe me too.”

“It’s not hard to see why,” I said. “As long as he hangs on to her and Michaels, he can keep picking people up. It might take time, but still, that’s a hell of an advantage.”

“She didn’t notice us, though,” Raquel said. “Right? She didn’t say anything during dinner, did she?”

“No, she didn’t,” Mary said. “I was relieved, believe me. But I don’t think she was lying, because if she was then why would the boss even send her? I don’t know. I was thinking maybe it’s something she has to turn on and off, and she can’t do it all the time. I kept waiting for her to say something the whole damn meal, but she never did.”

Raquel and I looked at each other. “Or, it might be because our powers aren’t exactly like yours,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Mary asked.

I hesitated, then settled on a partial truth; I didn’t want to get into a long, convoluted explanation. “It’s tricky to explain. The short version is that there seem to be at least two kinds of powers, and Menagerie and I fall into a different category from people like you or Comet, among others. It’s what helped us resist Michaels, when we ran into him before. We seem to be protected from some things. Menagerie and I were able to recognize each other even when we hadn’t met because of it. We’re both hiding the signs now, at least enough that I’m not surprised Alena didn’t spot us, but we could tell just by looking that her powers are like ours. You said she muttered under her breath?”

“Yeah, why?” Mary asked.

“Did it seem like she was talking to someone else? Other than the three of you?” I asked.

“Sort of, I guess,” Mary said. “Maybe.”

I glanced at Raquel and she gave me a nod to go ahead. Maybe it was time for that long explanation after all. “Our powers come with some strings attached. They aren’t bad, but they’re complicated. This might take a little while to cover, so get comfortable.”

We didn’t give Mary every last detail of our powers, but we explained a lot, including the existence of Leon and the fact that Raquel and I were sharing our lives with Feral and Leon, respectively.

At first, she looked confused. When I elaborated, she looked sick.

“I’m sorry, but that just sounds really fucking creepy,” Mary said. “They’re just…there, all the time? Watching and listening to everything you do and say? How can you live like that?”

I was a bit taken aback. It was strange to realize how normal it seemed to me, now, to have Leon around all the time. “It’s not like that,” I said after I’d had a moment to think. “It’s not as if there’s someone following me around and spying on me. It’s more like having a close friend who’s stuck to you. You can’t split up, but the company’s good enough that you don’t mind much. Besides, neither of us chose the other, exactly. We’re both satisfied with the current arrangement, though. It’s worked out pretty well for each of us, in some ways. In fact, my invisible friend is part of the reason I’ve survived up to now, and not just because he came with the powers. He’s a smart guy.

Mary rubbed at her eyes. “You’re just screwing with me, right? This is part of a weird, elaborate practical joke and I’m the only one you two can play it on?”

I laughed, and Leon did too. “No, we’re totally serious,” I said. “And when you talk to the two of us, you really are talking to the four of us.” I felt Leon give me a mental nudge, and let him take over for a second; he had something to say.

“It is only speculation, but I think that the nature of our minds – the fact that we share them – may be why we are resistant to Michaels and others with similar powers,” Leon said.

Mary shook her head. “How is this any different from what Michaels does?”

Leon let me slide back into control. “Because my invisible friend is more like a permanent houseguest than a burglar or a squatter. Or like a friend crashing on my couch, maybe. I can kick him out anytime I want to, and I choose not to. I don’t know for certain that it’s like that for everyone, but Leon and Feral stay because we want them around.”

Mary shook her head again, but it seemed like she was accepting what we had explained at last. “Huh. So, does Leon turn into a lion, or something?”

“No,” I said. “He doesn’t manifest physically. Menagerie and Feral can talk to him, but unless you’re like us, there isn’t much evidence he’s even present. Which brings us back to the reason I mentioned all of this in the first place: Alena. You said she talked to herself, but Leon and I think otherwise.”

“Right,” Mary said. “So…if she’s like you, then she’s not one person, she’s two people. But I’m not sure how that makes a difference.”

“If she’s two people, then the first question is whether they are working together and which one is in charge,” I said. “The second question is why they are working for your boss. It can’t be because of Michaels, so either they’re loyal – whether for money, or perks, or something else – or, maybe, they are being coerced just like you. If they are, then the fact that they’re immune to telepathy makes recruiting them a very attractive idea.”

“No way,” Mary said, shaking her head. “Did you forget what I said? She was looking at us all funny, and she hated me on sight.”

“She did cover that,” Menagerie noted. She cocked her head, clearly wondering where I was going with my idea.

“I remember just fine,” I said. “But if the boss sent you to a new city and told you to take orders from another person with powers, what would your first thought be? You said she was looking at the two guys the same way as you. You were pretending to be a loyal little henchwoman, right? What if that is the reason she doesn’t like you?”

Mary scratched her head again, brushing hair away from one ear. “It’s too risky.”

I held up a hand. “I’m not saying we should go knock on her door right now and spill the beans,” I said. “But I think we should try to study her – all three of them, really, but especially her – and figure out if any of them might be looking for a way out. Sooner or later, there’s probably going to be a fight. If we can flip any of them to our side before that happens, I think it would improve our odds a lot. It could keep a lot of people from getting hurt, Mary. Think about it.”

“Maybe,” she allowed. “But we can’t, absolutely cannot, tell them about this until we’re sure. My life is on the line here, and my father’s too. Promise me you won’t approach any of them without talking to me first, no matter what we learn.”

“Done,” I said. “I’m not trying to find new risks to take, I swear. I’m just saying that we’ve got an opportunity, here. Doug, Lindsay, or Alena might be like you. Even if they’re not, they might be like the doctor, just waiting for a chance to jump ship. I just want to keep an open mind. Okay?”

“Okay,” Mary said.

“So, what now?” Menagerie asked. “Tracking them? Following them? If we’re going to learn about the three of them, we’ll have to stay close, and that’s pretty risky since they’re in town specifically to look for us. Not to mention the fact that we don’t know for certain that Alena won’t find us. I think she probably can’t, too,” Raquel said, glancing at me and anticipating my argument, “but it’s still a guess. We don’t actually know.”

“Well, the whole point of having them in town is for them to look for you,” Mary said. “They don’t have to find you, but if you’re up for it…maybe we should let them.”

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“I’m thinking of what you just said, and how we met,” Mary said, looking back and forth between us. “Remember? If one of them is looking for a way out, looking for help, then what they want most right now is probably to find one of you successfully…but in private. Just like I did. If you guys are right about Alena, then she has the least to worry about. And if any of them is like me, then a chance to ask for your help getting out might be all it takes. In fact, if I were in their position, getting this assignment would be a godsend. It’s a perfect chance to meet the kind of person they need to contact without drawing suspicion and getting the boss breathing down their necks.”

“I’m not sure about that,” I said.

“No, she’s right,” Menagerie broke in. “Think about it. It’s a good way to test the three of them, and it should help Mary keep her cover. If it seems like she’s close, the boss might even reward her. We might be able to give her a partial victory. That could be the break we need to find him, even if none of these three is good guy material.”

I’m inclined to agree,” Leon said. “The how must be plotted carefully, of course, but the basic idea is sound.

Yes,” I heard Feral add. “We are the bait the enemy wants, and the ally that they will seek if innocent. It is a good plan. We can let them find us, lead them on a merry chase, and then get ‘cornered’ by one alone. In private, they’ll show their true colors.

“Well, if all of you think it’s a good idea, maybe,” I said. “But if we’re doing this, I want some contingency plans for beating them in a fight, just in case we have to.”

“Of course,” Mary said. “For one thing, I want to designate a few places we can meet up in emergencies. If I get burned and need backup in a hurry, I won’t be able to sit still and wait for help, probably. I doubt I’ll have time for long conversations either. The same goes for you guys if you’re wrong about Alena’s power. We should pick a few spots around the city where we can rendezvous and help each other out at any time of day.”

“Sure,” I said. “I was thinking a bit differently – when I said ‘contingency plans,’ I meant that I want to talk tactics. If we get into a fight with these three, we should have some ideas for how to take them out or escape them.”

“Oh, shit!” Menagerie exclaimed.

We both looked at her. “What?” I asked.

“Heavyweight,” Menagerie said. “Heavyweight isn’t like us. Alena could find him anytime. If her power works the way we think, she could stumble right over him. I need to give him a call, warn him what’s going on.”

“We really don’t want him caught,” Mary said. “Go ahead.”

“I’ll be right back,” Menagerie said. She stood up and walked away from us, pulling out her phone. I looked back at Mary.

“How are you holding up?” I asked. “I know this must be pretty…stressful, to say the least.”

“You could say that, yeah,” Mary said. She leaned back. “I thought I’d feel better, now that I’m in a better position, but it’s just making me more paranoid. I’m not sure if the boss has decided he can trust me now, or if he’s spying on me and testing me. Speaking of which, I shouldn’t stay much longer. I tried to make sure no one was tailing me before I came, but I could be wrong.”

“Relax,” I said. “Menagerie had Feral watching for you. If she’d spotted anyone following you, she would have told us by now, and Feral isn’t easy to sneak by. She’s sharp.”

“Still,” Mary said. “I’m getting antsy.”

“We’ve got your back,” I said. “Don’t let it get to you too much.”

She looked at me, cocking her head to one side. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure.”

Mary looked at me for a few seconds. “You still don’t trust me, though.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The mask, obviously,” she elaborated. “You still both wear masks to meet me, or hide your faces somehow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not offended. But it’s a pretty clear sign that you don’t trust me.”

I glanced over at Menagerie, then looked back at Mary. “Would you prefer this?” I asked, taking off my mask and reaching for my powers.

“You don’t have to-” She stopped midsentence, blinking. “Whoa, freaky. How are you doing that?”

I chuckled. “If you can turn your whole body invisible, doing just the face isn’t too hard.”

“I can see through your head,” Mary said flatly. “That’s just…wrong. Really, really wrong.”

“I was thinking I could be the Headless Horseman next Halloween, maybe,” I said.

Mary laughed. “Oh man, you could make some kid scream so loud. Ten bucks says you could make someone faint, with just a little work on good presentation.”

“No bet,” I replied. “I don’t throw away money.”

I glanced over at Menagerie again; she was still on the phone, talking animatedly; her voice rose a bit, and I looked back at Mary.

“So, feel any better?” I asked. “For what it’s worth, I do trust you. It just feels like it would be stupid and careless not to hedge my bets a little.”

“No, I get it,” Mary said. “Really, I do. I mean, I still haven’t told you guys my real name. When we get right down to it, I don’t actually want to know how to ID you. If I do get caught somehow, I’ll probably end up spilling everything I know, sooner or later. If I don’t know who you are, I can’t tell the boss, and you’d still have a chance to take him down.”

“It’s not going to come to that,” I promised.

Mary looked straight at me, invisible face or no. “We don’t know the future, Flicker. I’m planning to survive this in one piece, and get my dad out too. But if I go down, I’d rather do it knowing that Michaels, the boss, and all the rest will get what they deserve. As long as you and Menagerie know what’s up, we haven’t lost even if I get caught.”

“I agree with you,” I said. “So does Leon. But Plan A is to keep that unnecessary.  We’ll solve this without escalating things, if possible. With a little luck, the only violence will be a few raids where we pick off the boss, Michaels, and the others one at a time, preferably while they’re asleep. I don’t see any reason to fight at all if we don’t have to.”

“That does sound ideal,” Mary agreed.  She breathed deeply, then let it out. “I’ve been thinking about what to do long-term too, actually. Cleaning up this whole mess afterward is going to be tricky, even if we win and nobody dies.”

“Yeah?” I prompted.

“Well, I know Michaels is bad, and the boss is bad,” Mary said. “Tuggey seems like he probably is, but I won’t pretend I’m totally certain. It’s like that for most of the others, too. They seem like bad guys, but they might be like me. And all the guys the boss uses as goons, I know they don’t deserve to be used this way. We’re going to have to find a way to help them. After you guys rescued Dustin, you said that you got some help deprogramming him. We’ll probably have to do that for a lot of people. Dozens of them. That’s going to take time.”

“Yeah, it would,” I said. “I’m no telepath, but it seemed like it was difficult. There are two or three people I can think of who might be able to help, but I don’t know if any of them can do the job alone, and I don’t know how much they’d be willing to do, either.”

“Right,” Mary said. “Here’s the thing. If we just get rid of the boss, the people who work for him could scatter. I mean, they might try to hide, or just run out of the city. They might run to the cops, which could be a problem for me, but I wouldn’t try to stop them from getting help. But if they just leave, we’d never be able to find them again, probably. Like, what if we’d taken down the boss and Dustin had run to Canada? What are the chances we could find him and help him put his brain back together?”

“Not very good,” I said. “Where are you going with this?”

Mary scratched her head again, a bit nervously. “I was trying to figure out what our best-case scenario is. I think, to make things turn out happily ever after, we’d need to take out the boss secretly. Then we could take out Michaels, and take our time sorting through everyone else. Figure out who’s a bad guy and who didn’t have a choice without having to rush the job. I think…I think it’s the only way we could help everybody.”

I blinked. “That’s…a pretty ambitious plan.”

Mary sighed. “I know. And I know it sounds kind of suspicious, too. But I just can’t think of any better way we could handle this. I understand if you’d rather just to the FBI, but if that happens I’m pretty sure my dad will end up back in jail, and I can’t do that. To him or anyone else in the same boat. Even if it was just temporary, it could take years for the authorities to sort everything out, and find some standard of proof that he wasn’t guilty, and that’s assuming we could afford a good lawyer, which we probably can’t. He’s old enough that he could die in jail. I won’t risk it on purpose.”

I thought about it, looking at her, weighing and judging. I’d always tried to think of myself as a rational person, one who considered the information and then made a logical call, but here the evidence fit both possibilities too well; if she was telling the truth, then it all made sense. If she was lying, then she might want to use Raquel and I to supplant the boss, in theory. That would be a huge risk, though. In fact, as plans went, it seemed prohibitively complicated.

Agreed,” Leon said. “There is an easy way to cover our bases, though.

I smiled at his idea. I tried to pretend I was rational even when I relied on gut feeling, but Leon was just a better planner.

Sometimes, it was really nice to have him around.

“I think you’re right,” I said. “If we could end things that way, we’d have the best chance to help the most people. But just in case things go bad and we all get cement shoes or the equivalent, I’m going to leave a little package to be delivered in the event of my death. Insurance. That way, if the boss catches us, someone else will have all the information I had, and they won’t have to start from scratch. Make sense?”

“Yeah,” Mary said, looking relieved. “Yeah, that would be good. If we buy it, I’d like to go down knowing the bastards won’t last much longer, at least.”

“Good,” I said. “Just in case Menagerie and I go down and you survive, though, would you mind if I included what I know about you in the package?”

Mary hesitated for a moment. “I…guess. Just be careful to make sure no one can find it early, okay? It’s my life on the line.”

“No problem,” I said.

“Should I ask who you had in mind to receive this package?” Mary asked.

In my head, Leon and I were already hashing out the specifics. We’d leave a just-in-case present for Bloodhound. They already knew some pieces of what was going on, and they were tough and experienced. As a bonus, I was confident that they would be willing to hand everything to the authorities if they deemed it appropriate, and I figured we’d have to ask them for help with the deprogramming end of things anyway.

“I was thinking of the Philly Five,” I said.

Mary looked a little impressed. “That’s good backup, yeah. I mean, I knew you know them, but damn.”

If Mary double-crossed us, they would know where to find her. Conversely, if she was dealing honestly and got left alone again, they could provide her with some much-needed help, and ensure that the boss wasn’t free to operate again, and I didn’t need to violate Mary’s trust in either case. It wasn’t airtight, but it was as close as I could conceive.

I was still working out the last details when Menagerie walked back over.

“Well, Heavyweight wasn’t happy,” she said, rejoining Mary and I. “He felt like I was trying to drag him in, or something. I warned him about Alena, though, and I said he can call if anything happens, so at least that’s taken care of.”

“Good,” Mary said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Menagerie, we need to catch you up on what we were talking about. After that, I still want to talk tactics a bit before we go our separate ways, just in case we find a fight on our hands before we’ve had time to plan things out…like, for example, if Alena does find Heavyweight and he calls for backup.”

Menagerie leaned back, folding her arms across her chest, and I leaned on my elbows as we started to hash things out.
Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                                                                             Next Chapter

You Can Choose Your Friends 5

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I had felt a little twinge of warning in my stomach when Tanya pulled me aside after our little group hangout split up, possibly because of the way she’d glanced at me before telling Alexis that she would catch up with her in a minute. Apparently my gut was smarter than my brain, because it had picked up on the warning signs and I’d written them off as nothing.

It hadn’t occurred to me that she might ask me out on a date.

Tanya was looking at me expectantly, and I was staring at her mute, like a dear in the headlights, trying to respond without stumbling over my words.

“Uh – I don’t think – I mean, no, sorry,” I said haltingly. “I like you, but I don’t want to go out.”

I was wincing inside. There’s no good way to say ‘I just want to be friends,’ but I was confident I’d just found one of the many bad ways to say it.

“Oh,” Tanya said, her face falling. “Okay.”

She stared at me, clearly not sure what to say next.

I started to reach out with one hand and thought better of it. “I’m flattered,” I said, managing to find my tongue at last. “Really. I’m just not looking for someone right now.”

I held another wince. That sounded too close to ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ another cliché.

“Sure,” Tanya said with a nod. I hoped that would help her feel a little better.

“Excuse me,” she said, turning to walk away.

I let her head back to her room, my good mood evaporating as I went back to mine. I’d never had occasion to reject a friend before. Seeing the look on her face hadn’t felt nice. I hoped it wouldn’t cause drama and break up our little group.

Alexis will help her get over it,” Leon said. “I’m sure it will be fine, given a little time.

Yeah, I hope so,” I said. “As long as Alexis doesn’t skewer me. She’s pretty protective towards Tanya, and I’m pretty sure I just made her shit list.

You’re borrowing trouble again,” Leon said. “Relax.

I gave Tanya another glance over my shoulder, and looked away when she started to glance back at me, retreating into my room and closing the door behind me. I flopped onto my bed and sighed, trying to let it go. “You know, I was in a good mood pretty much all day. I’m sure she was too. I wish we hadn’t had to ruin it.

Out of curiosity, did you have another reason for turning her down?” Leon asked.

I rolled onto my back, putting my hands behind my head and staring at the ceiling. “Do I need one?” I asked rhetorically. “Yes. Don’t get me wrong, she’s nice and she’s pretty, but I don’t think this is a good time to start dating anyone. With all the stuff that’s going on? I’d like to wrap up our current problems first, get Mary’s boss dealt with and the Jamesons back to their lives. Especially since there’s a non-zero chance that Mary’s boss will end up killing us, given how afraid of him she is and why.

If that wasn’t going on, would you have given it a shot?” Leon asked.

Maybe,” I admitted. “I like her, and not to sound shallow but she looks nice too. I’m not sure.

Anything else?” Leon asked.

Just come out and say it,” I told him. “You’ve clearly got something on your mind.

At the risk of sounding self-centered, I’m wondering if you might have turned her down in part because of me,” Leon said.

I hesitated for a second, and he read it the right way.

So, I’m correct,” he said.

I rolled my shoulders uncomfortably. “Look, the other reasons are true too. It’s not just you.

But they are temporary, and I am not, necessarily,” Leon said. “I think it’s something we’ll have to address sooner or later.

We’re a package deal,” I said. “It’s not that complicated.

Bullshit,” Leon said. “I think it’s fair to say that it is pretty complicated. Be honest. Would you be comfortable dating any girl as long as I’m in here?

Do we have to have this conversation now?” I asked.

Is putting it off going to help somehow?” Leon said.

Probably not,” I admitted. “But I’d still prefer to. Look, you want me to get blunt? I’ll get blunt. I’m not going to date anyone who doesn’t know about you. That’s off the table entirely, for obvious reasons which I will not go into at length, okay? As for dating anyone at all, that’s iffy at best. Two’s company, but three’s a crowd, as they say. I haven’t discussed it because I haven’t figured out what to do about it yet. Maybe one day we’ll figure out how to get you your own body, if you want that. But for now, kicking you out would kill you, and I don’t want that. I actually like having you around.

That’s nice, but it’s your life that I’m borrowing part of,” Leon said. “I don’t want to be cutting you off from other people.

You’re not cutting me off from anything,” I said. “I’ve got plenty of friends, including you. I wouldn’t have met Raquel and Feral without you, either, among others, and I’m glad I did. Even taking into account the increased likelihood that I’ll get splattered by a super-punch one of these days. So don’t go blaming yourself for anything, all right? That’s why I wanted to put this conversation off until I had a solution in mind.

You can’t blame me for feeling partially responsible,” Leon said.

Oh, shut up,” I said. “I can if I want to. Look, I’d still feel weird about it even if you weren’t around. I’ve got a lot of secrets, these days. Dating someone who doesn’t know any of them would feel off. It’s dishonest on a level I’ve never had to deal with or think about before. If I had powers but not you, I would have given her the same answer, okay? You being around doesn’t screw up my life. Maybe the reverse. Despite my doubts and misgivings, I think we’ve done some good, and if you weren’t here Collector might have killed Raquel the day we met. Personally, I’m glad that hasn’t happened.

That doesn’t have anything to do with this,” Leon said.

It doesn’t matter either way,” I said. “Come on, Leon. We’ve got a good thing going. It’s not perfect, but nothing ever is. One day we might split, if we figure out a way for you to survive it. Until then, you’re still not responsible for my choices just because you’re renting my real estate. I know what I’m doing and why, and that’s all any of us can get in the end.

I lay back, trying to relax physically.

All right, I suppose I’ll just have to take your word for it,” Leon said.

Since ‘it’ is my own damn opinion, that’s an affirmative,” I said. “It’s not like someone else has inside info.

Other than me, you mean?” Leon asked.

I smiled. “Poor word choice, but you know what I mean. Your info isn’t more inside than mine, is the point.

Point taken,” Leon conceded.

Tanya started avoiding me, I found, and that went for Alexis too. I tried not to read into it; despite what I’d said to Leon before, I figured Alexis was just keeping Tanya company and trying to cheer her up. She’d looked like she was taking it hard when I turned her down. I tried to steer clear for a bit, to give her some space to get over it. Hopefully things would return to normal soon, or close enough.

That left me without much to do during my free time, though. Shawn and Liz were off together, spending time as a couple before they got separated over the holidays. I had other friends, but they weren’t as close, and they all seemed pretty busy too.

With nothing else going on, and mindful of the looming issue of Mary’s boss, Leon and I doubled down on practicing our skills, trying to stretch them as much as possible. We attempted to do a lot of different things with magic, most of which failed. Fortunately, the only one that blew up in our face was an attempt to control a small flame.

Unfortunately, it blew up in my face rather literally, which hurt like hell for a few minutes until we finished healing the damage. I hadn’t been planning to throw fireballs around, but it looked like even my more modest ambition was going to have to be written off. I was nervous that someone would notice my eyebrows were singed off, or that my hair was shorter; the latter problem was easily fixed by going for a haircut, at least, but I ended up just shrugging at the former. Upon further reflection, Leon and I weren’t worried enough to devote time to figuring out how to control the speed at which my eyebrows grew back. We gave it a quick try just in case it turned out to be easy, but when it didn’t work we moved on. I figured that nobody would be inspecting me that closely.

It wasn’t all bad news, though. I put the minor disaster out of my mind as I looked into a full-length mirror and failed to see myself reflected in it. There was still that little patch of distortion, still noticeable around my feet, but other than that I had become completely invisible, and this time I had extended the effect to my backpack. The extra effort wasn’t too much of a strain, now that I’d worked out how to get it done, and it meant that I could sneak around while wearing thick clothing or hauling stuff with me, which was nice. I hoped to find a way to extend the effect to another person, but so far I wasn’t anywhere near skilled enough. I extended my right arm all the way out in front, pointing at my reflection with a finger, then tried extending my limbs in various directions; they stayed hidden. When I had tried holding up a stick, though, using it to point, most of it remained outside the area I was affecting, and I could see it with or without the mirror. I pulled out my ruler – I’d had to go buy one for the occasion – and held it out instead of the stick, looking down to see where it became visible.

Less than two inches hidden,” Leon commented.

I took a deep breath and focused, trying to push the effect further along the ruler and outward from myself; it grew increasingly difficult to hold, and I soon lost it. I managed to hold onto enough to keep myself invisible, but my backpack reappeared behind me, apparently hanging in midair. The straps were mostly hidden, but the pack was painfully obvious.

I sighed, putting down the ruler.

It seems like we can’t extend it very far if we go in every direction at once,” I said, disappointed. “Maybe we could hide someone else if they’re small and right next to us, but I doubt it. And if we’re ever carrying anything bulkier than my bookbag, I don’t think it’s going to work at all.

Try strapping the backpack on the other way around, on your chest,” Leon suggested. “Let’s make sure that works too.

Sure,” I said, following the suggestion. I let the invisibility (or was that camouflage?) fade as I did so, then reproduced the effect once I was done. It took a few seconds to get it right, but I managed to hide the bag again, without much more difficulty.

With that done, I took the bag off and put it down before grabbing the ruler again. “Let’s try something else.

Ignoring everything else and without the backpack, I held the ruler out, like before, and tried to extend my invisibility to cover it specifically, rather than the whole area around myself.

That worked a little better. I only managed to hide about half of it, though, which convinced me that distance from my body was a big factor, not just the size of the area I was attempting to hide from sight.

We kept at it for hours, testing and pushing until we were both exhausted. Over the next few days, we tried to hide better, we tried to shrink distance more while on the move, and we tried to add color while creating a small light. I didn’t have much success improving my movement powers, and attempts to drag something with me kept failing. When we moved onto light, though, it was another story.

We managed to create light in a vibrant red color, finally, and after that it was like we’d broken through a wall. Practicing in the dark, I soon found that I could generate light in various colors, and it only cost me a bit more power than just plain white light of the sort I’d get from a flashlight or lamp. Making more than one color at a time was another story, but I couldn’t think of any reason I’d actually need to do that.

Do you really think we’ll ever want to make a green light, either?” Leon asked pointedly.

We might, yeah,” I said. “I can’t think of a specific reason off the top of my head, but it could be helpful. Anyway, it’s fun. I think we’re still allowed to have fun.

Fair enough,” Leon said. “Still, I’d like to spend some time on something other than magic, if you don’t mind. I know the time we’ve been putting in is worthwhile, but I’m starting to feel burned out on this.

Do you have something specific in mind?” I asked.

No,” Leon said. “I just want a break. We haven’t talked to anyone much, except in class and at meals, and we’ve been spending all of our free time on work. Can we please relax? See a movie or something?

I guess, yeah,” I conceded. I had been pushing pretty hard, partly out of a desire to be ready and partly to avoid thinking about my worries, both the mundane ones and those involving powers.

I looked up the convenient theaters to see what was showing, and within a few minutes we had picked a movie and left my room, heading out.

A few days later, I’d had an awkward dinner with Tanya and Alexis, which seemed to be Alexis’ idea, and I was optimistic that we’d get things back to normal eventually, but I was still feeling vaguely lonely and bored. Tanya clearly felt a bit hurt, still, even if she wasn’t saying it. I almost apologized, but Leon pointed out that she likely wouldn’t appreciate my doing so in public, and reminded me that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong in the first place. I hadn’t been totally tactful, but that wasn’t some awful, terrible crime.

I tried to put it behind me and enjoy the quiet, reminding myself that “busy” had often equated to “in life-threatening danger” recently, but apparently my brain was either malfunctioning or just not up to code in the first place, because getting back to my normal life wasn’t a welcome relief anymore. Playing video games, reading, and sitting around was still relaxing and fun, but I felt less engaged in all of it, even after I’d had some time to get back into the routine. Trying to expand my powers with Leon was interesting, but it was also hard work, and I couldn’t do it all the time.

Finally, it occurred to me that I could get my Christmas shopping done, rather than waiting until the last minute the way I traditionally did. Starting in the first week of December was pretty unprecedented. With that in mind, I headed out to the nearby mall, figuring I’d begin there.

I tried to mentally review the ideas I’d come up with so far. Shopping for gifts for my parents was always difficult, and the last time I’d spoken to them I hadn’t thought of asking them for ideas of what to get each other, so I was on my own for the day. Beyond them, the only people I needed to get gifts for were Shawn, who was a close friend at that point, and my cousin Billy; I’d drawn her name in the family lottery.

Shawn should be the easiest, I thought. I’d get him a movie or two, or maybe a season of a show he liked. The mall had a Best Buy, and I should be able to find something there. My mom would be happy with earrings or books. Thinking back to something she’d said on the phone, I thought she needed a new winter coat and boots, too, so those were possibilities.

As for my dad, books were always an option for him, too. I wasn’t sure about practical stuff. I’d try looking for some music, probably classical or jazz; if I spotted something that looked good I could try calling mom and then ask her to make sure he didn’t have it yet.

The tough one was Billy. She was pretty close to my age, but I hadn’t seen her for a while, so I didn’t have a strong sense of what she was interested in these days. We got along well, but only saw each other around the holidays, for the most part. Maybe I could call her parents for suggestions? If I got really lost, I could always just call her, but that felt too much like giving up.

I was still mulling my list over when I got off the bus at the mall, and I was absorbed enough in my thoughts that I almost wandered in front of a car – not my brightest moment. The driver honked, and I sprinted across the parking lot and into the mall, feeling dumb.

I wandered the place for most of an hour, finally going to Best Buy in frustration. I hadn’t come up with anything for my parents, and Billy’s parents hadn’t picked up. I decided to just get something for Shawn and go home. I’d try calling again tomorrow, figure out what I was going to buy, and then give it another shot. Every year, I forgot how much I hated Christmas shopping. I always obsessed over gift ideas, having second thoughts and then waffling back and forth until I just bought something to end it. That was the reason I put off shopping in the first place. Giving gifts was nice, but picking them was another story.

When I was finished, I went home feeling frustrated with my lack of success.

Leon’s presence was still in the back of my mind, as always, but he hadn’t had much to contribute, so we hadn’t really talked much. Despite that, I had felt a pretty clear sense of his opinion whenever I stopped to look at something. It seemed like his attitude and emotions were coming through more clearly than when we’d first met.

I got an email from Raquel on the way back. No subject line, and when I opened it all I saw was a link.

The link sent me to a video which I quickly realized was showing Meteor fighting another woman with powers. I assumed it was Meteor, at least; with only the colors of their outfits to go by, there wasn’t any way for me to really differentiate Meteor and Comet unless they talked to me, and the video quality wasn’t good enough for me to make a guess based on height and build. Regardless, it was a short fight. I didn’t get a great look at Meteor’s opponent, but she seemed to manifest a pair of giant hands in midair, using them as weapons. Meteor was fast enough and tough enough that she dodged most of the blows, and when I watched the video a second time I realized that she was letting herself get hit a few times because there were people behind her. Finally, she moved out of frame for a few seconds and then came back, flying through a window and tackling her opponent to the ground, then grabbing her and flying up into the air.

When they came back down a minute later, the other woman surrendered to the police and Meteor flew out of view.

She must have been pretty convincing,” I said.

My guess is that she threatened to drop her,” Leon said. “I don’t know if she would have, but that’s the most obvious reason to fly the enemy up like that. And I agree, she must have been persuasive.

In the last few seconds of the video, the opponent-turned prisoner looked up before the police put her in the back of a car.

Where was this?” Leon asked.

I looked again. The video title didn’t say, but a quick glance at the comments revealed the scrap had taken place in New York.

I would think the FBI would be able to respond pretty quickly there,” I said.

They probably can, but Meteor and Comet have an advantage in terms of response time, after all,” Leon said. “They might well have been present. If it was a running fight, then she might simply have gotten ahead of them.

True,” I said, still looking at the comments. “Well, at least it was nothing like the Philadelphia battle. No fatalities, if the person who posted this knows what they’re talking about. Let’s see if we can learn more.

We didn’t find out much about what had happened until later; the story was too fresh when Raquel pointed us to the video, but details were released the next day. The woman apparently had a broken arm and bruised ribs when she surrendered, and was accusing Meteor of attacking her. No one was taking her claims very seriously, despite her injuries, because everyone else who had been present when the fight started agreed that Meteor hadn’t even been there at the time. In fact, she’d arrived only after the woman had assaulted two police officers who arrived on the scene of the call that had set off the whole mess, which had been a report of noise and vandalism. She’d been using her powers to destroy someone’s car – it wasn’t clear to me whether the owner was a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, or something else – but she apparently hadn’t been very discreet about it.

We’re lucky her lies are so transparent in this case,” Leon said. “I wonder how long it will take for someone acting as a super hero to be believably accused of a crime?

Technically, we’ve already committed a few crimes,” I pointed out. “Although as I understand it, Meteor probably didn’t do anything wrong except maybe leave the scene without even making a statement. There’s no rule against defending other people who are attacked, after all.

When I said ‘believably accused,’ I meant in the public eye,” Leon clarified.

I hear you. It probably won’t take too long, especially if more people start taking action like Meteor – or like us, for that matter. Someone is bound to go too far at some point, if only by accident.

 Am I right in thinking that prosecutors don’t have to advance any case they don’t want to?” Leon asked.

I think so,” I said uncertainly. “I mean, there’s always the possibility of pressure from the community, or the police, or the mayor, or anyone in a position of influence. But I don’t think anyone can force them to prosecute a case if they don’t want to. Why?

Just considering the ins and outs of our lifestyle,” Leon said. “The logical conclusion of this is that popularity with the local populace may influence how much someone like us can get away with.

That goes for anyone, to an extent, though,” I said. “I mean, we ignore personal shit that politicians do if we like them enough. Sometimes people even ignore blatant corruption. I’m not saying that’s great, but I don’t think you and I have any particular advantage in that regard, you know?

Probably,” Leon agreed. “As I said, I’m just thinking it over. Considering hypotheticals. How angry do you think people would get if the police tried to prosecute the Philly Five, for example?

I raised my eyebrows involuntarily. There was no one there to see it, but Leon could feel me doing it, so it had the same effect, I supposed. “People would be pissed, I’d expect,” I said. “They’re popular, they’re winners, they’re local, regional, and maybe even national heroes, and they would have to do something wrong where everyone could see it. Can you imagine trying to pick a jury for that trial? You couldn’t even hold it in Pennsylvania, let alone Philadelphia, without packing the jury with fans. I don’t think anyone else has quite so much reputation to trade on. Raquel might come close, around here, I guess. The way she saved Dustin the first time was extremely public, after all. Not to mention the other stuff. You and I are a bit more under the radar, but I imagine there are rumors floating around about us too. I’d bet that they’re mostly positive, locally, even if the FBI is wary of us.

You’re probably correct,” Leon said. “All of which makes me wonder what’s going to happen if and when the government tries to shut down vigilante efforts like ours.

I rolled my shoulders, glancing around. I was sitting in a chair in one of the more public parts of the library, close to the front desk, with my laptop on my knees. I glanced at the girl sitting behind the desk, and the students scattered around the room.

I wonder what they think of all this stuff,” I said. “Is Raquel popular with them? I feel like it would be tough to live here without knowing about her at least vaguely, and most people probably see her as a hero.

I agree with them,” Leon said.

I smiled. “Me too. I think you’re right that the status quo won’t last forever, though. Turner practically told us as much. But it is a thorny problem. I wonder if the FBI might try to bring some of us on board, somehow. Recruiting the Philly Five could be a major PR coup, if they could find a way. It would retroactively condone everything they’d done in the past, which might be a sticky point, but I don’t think they’ve ever gotten caught breaking laws, really. Maybe some minor stuff. Misdemeanors. But that’s probably not bad enough to cancel out the advantages, right?

Definitely not,” Leon said. “Some people might object to recruiting the Philly Five, of course, but they’re so popular I can’t imagine anyone in politics objecting too loudly. Maybe someone affiliated with the police, but I think the local cops like them. After what happened with Blitz, they may even love them, unless they blame them for the group showing up in the first place.

If it were me,” I mused, “I would probably get them to agree to some community service or something. If I had them for misdemeanors, I mean. That way no one could say I was ignoring their past completely, but I could still take the credit for signing them up. What do you think?

It has possibilities,” Leon said. “I can definitely imagine a world where that happens, from a government perspective. I doubt the Philly Five would go for it, though. They expressed concern about the idea of a government monopoly on powers.

Yeah, but there’s a difference between the government saying ‘no vigilantes’ and the government conscripting people with powers,” I said. “In the long run, we have to go down that middle route, right? Otherwise, doesn’t the idea of a law-bound society juts get left behind?

What are we, then?” Leon said.

I’m remembering when we talked to Bloodhound and Comet, a while back,” I said. “I think we’re a stopgap, really. I think we’re here to smooth the transition. To make sure it isn’t too rough, and keep society afloat while it adjusts. Like patching a boat’s hull while you work on repairing it. The patch might not be pretty, but you still need it to keep the water out while you’re figuring out the long-term solution.

Sometimes patches are permanent, you know,” Leon said. “I’m not sure your analogy works quite the way you intend it. I mean, people patch sleeves all the time, and leave them that way, or paint over cracks in a wall.

Yeah, well society isn’t a freaking boat, either,” I said dryly. “Or if it is, it’s one that we’re constantly redesigning and rebuilding while we sail it, which…makes no sense. You knew what I meant.

True,” Leon conceded.

I watched my fellow students for a minute, reflecting that things had changed a lot for me in a few months. With the exception of the people I was already friends with, I felt very separate from all of them.

I shook my head. “I hope we finish all this crap soon, and we can get back to a normal routine without the crime boss of Damocles hanging over our heads.
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You Can Choose Your Friends 4

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Shawn and Liz were hanging out and watching a movie again, while I did some homework with my headphones on. They kept the volume on the low side, but I could hear the movie faintly, and hear them laughing at the bad dubbing, and it was a bit distracting. Still, he was a good roommate and she was nice, so I turned the volume up instead of complaining.

Eventually, I finished, and when it happened I stopped short, a bit surprised and confused.

What’s up?” Leon asked.

I blinked, looking again. “It looks like I finally caught up. This is the first time in weeks that I’ve actually been caught up for real, you know? It feels like even longer. All my writing has been last-minute, and it feels like I’ve been cramming reading in wherever I could spare a few minutes. All the running around, trying to practice what Bloodhound taught us, and everything else has eaten up a lot of time. But I don’t think there’s anything I need to be doing right now.

It has been a while since that was true,” Leon agreed. “So, let’s relax. I’m guessing you won’t want to read for fun?

God, no,” I said. “I’ve been staring at pages of words. If I try to look at more I think my head will explode.

I leaned back in my chair and stretched my arms and neck. I hadn’t noticed with my face in the computer, because I was too focused, but my shoulders and neck were stiff and I could tell I had been typing a lot from the way my wrists felt, although I couldn’t put a word to that. I tried shaking my arms out and then stretching again, rolling my head in a circle to try to stretch my neck at the same time, and it helped. At the same time, I wondered what to do with myself. The last fun I’d had that was just fun, before Thanksgiving, had been playing cards, and some quick math reminded me that had also been more than two weeks ago, back at the beginning of the month.

Didn’t I have a social life once upon a time?” I asked rhetorically.

Yes, but then you started hanging out with a different crowd,” Leon said. “No reason we can’t rustle up something to do now, though.

I glanced over my shoulder at Shawn and Liz, and dismissed the idea of sticking around. They were doing the couple thing, and enjoying it. I didn’t want to screw it up. Instead, I got up, discreetly pocketed both of my phones, my wallet, and my keys, grabbed my jacket, and headed out.

“See you guys,” I said, giving them a quick wave.

“Headed out?” Shawn asked. Liz paused the movie.

“I finally finished,” I said. “I need to get out of the room for a change, be somewhere else.”

“Yeah?” Shawn asked curiously. “I thought you’d been out a lot lately. Hitting the library or something? You know we don’t want to be kicking you out of the room all the time.”

I shook my head. “It’s fine, man. I’ve just been getting cabin fever like crazy. Probably because there’s so little daylight. You know this place is built like a dungeon,” I went on, gesturing to the dorm as a whole, “it just makes me want to get out, walk around, or at least hang out by a window. That’s all.”

“Makes sense to me,” Liz said. “My dorm’s the same way. These buildings are all kind of depressing, really.”

Shawn opened his mouth, then closed it. “Sure, I guess. We’ll see you later? At dinner, maybe?”

“Probably, yeah,” I said. “I don’t really have a plan, I just want to be somewhere I can’t see my desk. Later.”

I closed the door behind myself, assuming they would want privacy, and went to the common room, looking out the windows. It wasn’t quite dark out, yet, although it had felt like it in my room. The dorm really was kind of depressing, and our room was pretty dim. I decided to head outside, at least until the sun went down.

I think Shawn is wondering what has taken up so much of our time recently,” Leon said.

Well, as long as he doesn’t guess right, I don’t mind,” I said. “I wondered if he wasn’t noticing because of Liz.

He may like her a great deal, but I don’t think he’s that oblivious,” Leon said. “Nor do I think that she is, for that matter. In any case, where shall we go?

I don’t know,” I said. “I just want to walk around. We’ve been cooped up all day, and most of yesterday too.

I zipped my jacket as I left the building, and after a few seconds I pulled out my gloves and put them on, too. It was colder than I’d expected.

My thoughts wandered. Physically, I had energy, but I was mentally tired, so they weren’t particularly deep or intelligent, but I was okay with that for the moment. I tried to enjoy not having anyplace I needed to be. Mary was doing her thing, and I was waiting. Raquel and Feral weren’t in a bad spot, I thought, and they should recover in time. The Philly Five were willing to back us up, and Meteor seemed willing to do so as well, which was a nice bonus. I had some concerns about her, still, but she had saved Comet and played a major role in stopping Blitz, and that counted for something too. Now I was caught up on school, with little left to do before the end of the semester except for final papers. They loomed large, but I had plenty of time to tackle them. Both sides of my life seemed to be in order. I didn’t have much money, but it would be enough to get me through Christmas shopping.

I lost track of where I was going at some point, paying just enough attention to avoid walking in front of a car. When my phone buzzed, a quick check showed me that Shawn and Liz were going to dinner with a few others and letting me know.

I ignored it. I didn’t feel like coming up with an excuse for why I wasn’t there, and pretending I hadn’t noticed the message was easier. Once my phone was put away, I looked around and realized I had unconsciously retraced my steps from the other night. I was back in the area where I’d found Dr. Jameson the second time.

It took a bit to get my bearings, but I managed to find the buildings I had entered before. I went through them, one at a time, walking the halls.  The sounds of my footsteps seemed loud, as did my breathing. The floors were all creaky in the old buildings. My steps disturbed some rats and a dog, and once I thought I saw a woman watching me. I pretended not to notice her and left, hoping I hadn’t frightened her. The last building I checked was the one where the two kids had been hiding out, and I was unsurprised to find that they were gone by now. I wouldn’t have stuck around either. The money I’d put down was gone too, so either they had seen it or someone else had come along and grabbed it. When I peeked into the back room, where they had been, I thought a few things were missing.

I turned around and walked back out, heading for the street where the cars had been parked and starting to walk the perimeter. There was still broken glass from windows I’d shattered. Other than a few faint signs, though, the area looked unchanged.

Before meeting Raquel, I’d seen only a few parts of the city, avoiding the rest of Berkeleyport. What I had found since then made sense; the city’s population had shrunk, and that explained the abandoned areas on the fringes, including the neighborhood where I was now. Raquel’s home wasn’t too far away from this place.

It was strange. I should have felt better about myself. I was trying to help other people in a way I never really had before, putting aside a few instances of community service when I was in high school. I did feel good, sort of. But I also felt responsible. It was that weight I’d talked to Leon about earlier, but more abstract, too. I didn’t suddenly want to clean up the whole city, or restore the abandoned areas, but what about the two kids I’d seen? Could I find them? Help them? That wasn’t too much to expect, was it?

We can’t fix everything,” Leon said.

I’m not trying to,” I said. “But can’t we fix something? I almost wish my powers just printed money, but I don’t know if that would really solve anything in the long run either.

In the long run, Mary’s boss is a major threat to a lot of people,” Leon said. “I think most of them would agree that it’s best for us to put our focus there, for now, and I think the ones worth listening to would tell you to get some rest. You need down time.

I know,” I said.

We fell silent as I kept walking. I didn’t feel depressed or sad, just…aimless. I didn’t even know what questions I wanted to ask, but I felt confident no one else knew the answers.  If someone did have them, they certainly hadn’t shared them yet.

I glanced down at my feet and hid them for a moment, looking through them at the ground. Two little dead spots remained, almost symmetrical, still impossible to hide with my abilities. A strange weakness. Those seemed to be the only chink in the armor, and I still wasn’t sure why.

I wonder if we’ll ever learn where these powers come from,” I said. “It’s so strange, the way these things just appeared. But no one has an answer. Even the Philly Five don’t seem to know why or how. We’re just…here.

Are you all right?” Leon asked, radiating concern.

I think so,” I said. “I just feel like a raft on the ocean. I’m drifting along without knowing where we started or where we’re headed. Maybe I can try to catch a current, but there’s no guarantee it will work, and it’s hard to tell them apart anyway.

No one ever knows everything about the past,” Leon said. “And no one ever knows anything about the future. We can make good guesses, educated ones, but for all we know a comet could come from the heavens next week, or something. Uncertainty is the only sure thing.

I don’t even want certainty, though,” I said. “I just want to know what I should do with myself. Comet, Bloodhound, their whole team…they have a sense of real purpose. Raquel does too, somehow. Even Heavyweight knows what he is and isn’t willing to do. Meteor…I don’t know if she seems uncertain or not. And then there’s me, tagging along to avoid the guilt I’d feel for doing nothing. I never really thought I’d be a hero, but this is farther removed from that than I hoped, let’s say.

It’s more than that,” Leon said. “Raquel and Feral are friends, aren’t they? We’re kindred spirits, if you’ll pardon the pun. We’re connected. And I know we both feel a desire to help Mary and the others.

Do I?” I wondered. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell if I like helping people or if I just feel bad being lazy. I just…

What?” Leon asked.

I shook my head. “Shouldn’t I care about them more? As individuals, I mean? Most of the people I’ve tried to help, it’s like they’re not all the way real to me. I mean, they’re people, I know, but…I don’t know them. They’re just faces, mostly. Sometimes they have names. I feel like it’s necessary to keep some detachment, like if I let myself care about every last one of them I’ll go nuts. But if I’m helping them like a robot then doesn’t that defeat the purpose? When I’m in the moment it’s one thing, but looking at it after the fact it just seems inhuman.

Leon paused before answering. “I don’t have any answers either,” he said. “There is no way to care for each and every individual, David. There are too many humans in the world for that. No one can sustain that level of investment, and you must understand that. If you’re asking whether you care enough, my answer is yes, without hesitation or qualification.

What about the men who died so we could save Dustin?” I asked.

What about them?” Leon said. “We didn’t try to kill them, or neglect to save them. We didn’t rejoice when they died. We pulled a man out of that building, as I recall. If we could have pulled two, we would have.

Shouldn’t I know their names? Know something about them?” I said. “I don’t even remember their faces, really. I know I’m on the right side, but do I really belong there if they’re just corpses to me?

If you think you aren’t bothered, then why are we having this conversation?” Leon said. “David, I wish things had gone better that day. I wish we had known everything we know now from the start. I wish we could save everyone, care about every life, and erase injustice and sorrow from the world. But we’re not gods. We lack the power, the wisdom, the judgment – everything. The one thing I can tell you is that dwelling on these feelings – and it is a matter of feelings, not of facts – will help no one. It takes from you and gives to no one.

I feel tired, Leon,” I said. “Not just sleepy, or overexerted. I mean bone tired. I’m tired of making decisions that could kill someone and having no idea if I’m right. I’m tired of pretending I have any idea how to handle all this crap. How do the others do it? Keep going through this? Even Raquel seems more together than me, and she’s a kid!

They’ve had longer than us to adapt to this sort of strangeness, you know,” Leon reminded me. “David, this kind of responsibility may be new to you, but I think we’re coping fairly well. We do the best we can at any given moment. When we have time, we ask questions. We look for peaceful solutions, we try to avoid violence when we can. That’s the whole reason everything is so quiet right now, after all; because we’re trying to learn enough to end this without a bloodbath. We intervened for Dustin and Jameson because they were in immediate, time-sensitive danger. I don’t see how we could approach things better than we already are.

I kicked an empty soda can and kept walking. “Yeah,” I said. I took a deep breath in and let it out slowly, then looked around me, turning in a circle. “It’s quiet here. Not much to do except think.

True enough,” Leon said.

I looked up at the sky. A few stars were visible, between the patchy clouds, but most of the sky was a hazy screen. “Let’s go home.

Sure,” Leon agreed.

We were silent on the way back. I couldn’t deny what he’d said; I couldn’t think of anything I wasn’t doing that needed doing. Still, I felt quietly anxious anyway. My head knew that things were going well, and thought that I was handling my situation pretty well. My gut felt unsatisfied. I hoped it was just a mood that would pass.

It was a long walk back home.

“Have a seat, please. I know you’re all exhausted.”

It took me a second to place the voice, match it to what I was seeing, and realize that it was another vision. In that time, I sat down, settling gingerly into a chair. I started to glance around, but then Mrs. Murphy continued speaking and I rushed to pay attention. It felt like walking into a room where people are watching a movie, and I wasn’t certain if I’d missed anything important or how far along the scene was.

“We’ve got two shifts covering things at the moment,” Murphy said, her voice a bit thin and reedy. “I doubt we’ll be attacked again right away, so that should be sufficient. Still, it’s clear this facility is no longer safe. Your defense bought us time we need, but we’re going to pull out. We vacate the premises tomorrow morning, if possible.”

“Where are we going?” I asked. No matter how many times this happened, it still felt disconcerting to feel the muscles in my throat move and hear a voice I didn’t recognize.

“I can’t say, yet,” Murphy said. “In fact, I don’t know myself for security reasons. But they found us too quickly for us to stay here. It’s clear they traced us somehow when we abandoned the old building, even though we took every possible precaution. So we’re going a great deal farther, this time. We’re leaving the continent. We’ll pack up anything critical, destroy anything that isn’t, and getting out of here as soon as we can. I’d have us out the door now, if I could, but one of the research teams is still in the middle of something, and they can’t stop early. Before you all go get some well-deserved rest, though, I need to present you with a choice.”

“What kind of choice?” Charlotte asked. She was sitting to my right, and when I glanced at her I saw that there were scrapes on her face. She was dressed for a battle, the way I’d seen her in my very first vision, with her helmet on the table in front of her. Others in the room looked similar, with most sporting minor injuries. One man was cradling a wrist, while another fiddled with the bandages on an arm that had been splinted already, and a woman had one leg similarly immobilized.

“I know you’re all here for more than just the money,” Murphy said slowly, “but you are employees, and your contracts don’t cover forced relocation to another continent. Frankly, things are worse than we planned for, and we hadn’t covered this exact contingency. So here it is: If you want to leave with me and the research team and continue to protect their work, then you have that option, but I can’t compel you to do it. If you prefer, we’ll leave you behind when we exit the country, or drop you off between the border and our final destination. You’d be on your own, without the foundation’s resources, but you might not be a target. I’d advise you not to come back here, but that’s your choice to make. If you do come with us, then I’ll need to ask for a permanent commitment. The radical elements among the Wavers are acting more openly and violently, and I suspect it won’t be long until this conflict becomes public. So this is decision time, ladies and gentlemen. If you’re with us, then we’ll need you to be with us all the way. If not, I’ll hold you to your contracts until we’re outside the country, but once we’re away from here you’ll have the right to go your own way – whatever that is.”

“What do you mean, ‘permanent commitment’?” I said slowly. “A lifetime contract?”

Murphy shook her head. “We’ve run the foundation largely as a series of interconnected private businesses and research organizations. That’s coming to an end, now. To put it bluntly, this is no longer even remotely about money. It’s about power. The Wave has reached the point of dispatching strike teams inside the United States, and we know they’ve penetrated the government to some extent, through the combined powers of their members. I don’t know for certain, but I think we’ll probably be ceding North America entirely in the near future, and possibly South America as well. We’ll establish ourselves where we can, in whatever way we can, and continue to search for ways to equalize the balance of power between supers and other humans. If things go well, that will mean partnering with governments, and we might come back one day. If things go poorly, and groups like the Wave take over, then we’ll try to form decentralized resistance movements against them and spread what we know as widely as possible while we continue to look for long-term solutions.” She paused to let that sink in. “This isn’t a war, but it might become one. We intend to be ready for that possibility.”

I felt my eyes widen in surprise, and the expressions I saw on other faces mirrored that, except for Murphy. She swept her eyes around the room, looking at each of us for a moment. When she looked at me, my eyes locked with hers, and I was impressed with the resolve I saw.

“This isn’t our worst case scenario, but it’s close,” Murphy said. “Now, I’m sorry to put you on the spot after what you’ve just been through, but I need to make travel arrangements, and that means I need to know how many people are coming. If you stick with us after today, this will be your life’s work, not just a contract. I hope you will; your experience would be invaluable, and I believe I can trust all of you. But as your employer, I can’t make you come. So what’s it going to be?”

For a few moments everything was very still. No one moved. My mind was reeling with the implications of everything that she’d said, and I couldn’t imagine a world like the one she’d just painted a picture of.

I felt a shift next to me, and I looked at Charlotte. She looked back at me. I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it again, cocking my head to one side.

She gave a slight nod, the tiniest motion of her chin.

We stood up together. “We’ll come along for the ride,” I heard her say. I nodded firmly.

Murphy gave us a genuine smile, the first I’d seen from her. “Thank you,” she said.

After we broke the tension, others stood up, following our lead. A few didn’t, including one or two I recognized from previous visions; members of my squad or Charlotte’s.

“I’ll keep my contract,” one of them said. “But once we’re out of the country I’m leaving. I signed up for security work, not politics or guerilla warfare.”

Murphy nodded. “Of course. Well, to those who will be staying, I look forward to having you with me. To those who will be leaving us, thank you for your good work. Stay here to talk to me about severance pay, please; since we’re leaving the country, I’ll need to go over the arrangements with all of you so that you can collect, and I’ll need to know who intends to remain in the United States and who will want a ride out of the country. For those coming with me, your pay will be transferred to accounts that you can access once we reach our destination. If any of you want to retrieve any personal items or write any messages to people who you’ll be leaving behind, talk to Allen. We won’t have lots of room, but you can each bring a single duffel of personal effects in addition to equipment, and I’m willing to let you go get something as long as you don’t take too long or sacrifice security. Those who are already living here full-time are not eligible for such trips, for obvious reasons. Sorry.”

Murphy looked at Charlotte and me as she said that last part, and I shrugged. We filed out of the room, followed by a cluster of people, while a smaller group stayed behind. Charlotte led me down the hall and then off to one side; she leaned back against a wall, and I Ieaned in close so we could talk.

“Can you believe this?” she asked.

I sighed. “Yeah, I can. I wouldn’t have when we got hired, but the world’s gone nuts while we were in here.”

Charlotte slid down the wall, pressing her back against it until she was sitting, knees bent, leaning back. I followed suit next to her.

“I can’t believe Hector didn’t make it,” she said quietly. “The guy survives that mess down in Mexico, then two more close calls, and finally gets killed by falling chunks of debris. He didn’t even get hit by the enemy.”

“He was damn good,” I agreed. “I guess his number just came up.”

Charlotte snorted. “You know David, I hate when people say that. It always makes me think of a sandwich shop, or the DMV. Like some bored asshole is sitting behind a desk with nothing to do but check deaths off a list.”

“I’ll take mine on rye, with potato chips,” I said quietly.

Charlotte chuckled softly, then put a hand on my knee. “Don’t be a jackass.”

I put my hand on top of hers. “Yeah.” My mouth felt dry, and I spent a few seconds trying to moisten it with my tongue. “You’re sure about going with Murphy?”

“It feels right,” Charlotte said. “I mean, are we going to find something more important to do? I know I mostly started because the money was good, but…after what I’ve seen, I think Murphy and her friends are right. If we don’t get a handle on things soon, we might run out of time.” She paused, and I glanced down the hallway; a few of the others from the meeting walked by, glanced at us, and kept moving, leaving us alone together.

“I think so too,” I said. “I’m betting the pay won’t be as good, huh?”

Charlotte laughed softly again. “Probably not. Saying we’re on board for life doesn’t establish a good bargaining position.”

I looked at her as she cupped her hands, and after a moment I realized that a small spark of light was coming to life there. Charlotte looked at it and smiled, then glanced sideways at me. “Still, maybe if we can learn enough we’ll really get in this fight.”

I cupped her hands in mine, and the light swelled as I felt the familiar sensation of power and energy trickling out through my hands. “Damn right we will.”

After a moment I closed my hands over hers, and we both let the light go. I stood and offered her a hand, then helped her to her feet. “Come on. Let’s get ready to leave.”

Charlotte nodded. “And then we practice. Last time I almost got a few tricks combat-ready, I think. It’s not stable yet, but with a little more work…”

“Me too,” I said. I put an arm over her shoulder. “Just think how much fun it will be the first time one of those bastards comes at us thinking we’re regular squishy, crunchy mortals and gets a face full of a different kind of power?”

Charlotte grinned. “That’s a day worth living to see.”

We walked down the hall with purpose. I still felt the fatigue and the aches, but from the way my body was moving I knew its owner felt energized, and a few strides later he and Charlotte were jogging side by side.


Yes, David, it felt the same to me too.

Magic,” I mused. “Maybe there is a reason we’re seeing this after all.

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You Can Choose Your Friends 3

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Thanksgiving dinner went all right, and to my relief it was uninterrupted. Leon made fun of me for expecting something to happen, and I couldn’t argue with him about it; the closest I came to being in danger was when I went back for seconds on turkey, stuffing, and potatoes. When I’d asked Shawn’s aunt half-seriously if she used a secret family recipe for the stuffing, she laughed and said she just made it up one year, after trying different versions over the years and being unsatisfied with them all.

I felt like I’d eaten enough for three dinners, once I accounted for dessert. Shawn’s aunt and uncle had spent hours in the kitchen, while Shawn, Liz, and I entertained their kids. They’d had a friend of theirs over, too. He’d been a co-worker of Shawn’s uncle, and he’d been hilarious. Whenever we weren’t keeping the kids busy we were listening to him tell some story or other, while Shawn’s aunt laughed and his uncle kept having to remind the guy to keep it all PG (or not, when the children weren’t around). He’d managed, cutting a few stories short and skipping some parts that sounded interesting. If my parents had been there, I had a feeling they would have called him “a character.”

In retrospect, I don’t think Liz needed any backup,” Leon commented.

Are you kidding?” I said. “She played with their kids, she ate seconds, and they all had a great time. She’s golden. I bet she’d have to burn down their house for them not to like her.

I was back in my room, alone. Shawn and Liz had crashed at her dorm, probably because it was a little closer and we were all exhausted by the time we got back to campus. It gave me some privacy, anyway, which was fortunate because I’d felt a need to take off my pants after eating so much. The waist had been uncomfortably tight around my stomach.

I sat back in bed and leaned against the wall, putting a hand to my belly. “In retrospect, we might have gone overboard.

Sorry about that,” Leon apologized. “It was hard to stop once you let me have a turn.

Forget it, I pigged out too,” I said. “It was worth a minor stomach ache. I freaking love Thanksgiving, by the way. It’s nice to have an excuse to stuff myself once in a while.

Amen to that,” Leon agreed with amused reverence.

I checked my phone, quickly, just in case.

There weren’t any messages. We turned off the lights to go to sleep, taking pleasure in the moment.

For one evening, at least, I’d managed to forget about everything that had worried me the night before. I knew it wouldn’t last, but it was a pleasant respite.

My predictions proved untrue; the quiet did last beyond Thanksgiving. Mary kept in touch to let us know that Tuggey was tailing Michaels with a few men while the empath went from place to place, moving around and trying to attract our attention without being too obvious. According to her, Michaels was bitching about the uncomfortable arrangements and constant movement. We all agreed that his discomfort was a feature of the plan, rather than a bug. It was petty, but sometimes you have to take the satisfaction you can get. Tuggey was handling things better, but apparently was getting sick of Michaels whining. I was happy to let them hate each other’s company in peace.

Raquel and I both took the opportunity to catch up on our schoolwork, and I was motivated by the knowledge that winter break wasn’t too far off now that Thanksgiving was behind us. Christmas decorations started to go up, and I began to worry about the possibility of something going wrong while I was at home for break. Mary and Raquel were competent, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving them without backup. Heavyweight had powers, but I didn’t consider him reliable. That might be unfair of me, but it was the truth.

There was one big surprise shortly after Thanksgiving, though, when Raquel and I went to meet Bloodhound and his teammates for lessons and practice.

Bloodhound and Stalker weren’t the only ones present; Comet was there, and she asked us if we would mind if Meteor came by to talk to us.

We talked it over briefly before agreeing, mainly out of curiosity. When Meteor showed up, she was dressed like Comet, but all in black – the same thing she’d worn in the video I’d seen of the Battle of Philadelphia. She landed right outside the building and walked in, and the five of us (seven, counting Feral and Leon) turned to face her.

Meteor stopped just inside. “Hi,” she said. Comet walked over and gave her a hug, and after a moment’s hesitation she returned it. They whispered to each other for a moment, then walked back toward us together. Meteor glanced at Bloodhound and Stalker, then looked at Raquel, Feral, and I. She took a deep breath, clearly gathering her thoughts or her courage before speaking.

“So…we met under pretty strange circumstances, I guess,” she said. “I know I probably came across pretty badly. In retrospect, what I said then sounds kind of paranoid and…well, not good. I just wanted to apologize for flipping out right off the bat. It’s not the kind of first impression I would have liked to make, if I’d been thinking about it.”

“It’s all right,” Menagerie said. “I guess you’d just been through something pretty tough.”

Meteor turned her head to glance at Comet, then looked back at us. “It wasn’t a good day, no. That was my first real fight, actually. I managed to stay out of that kind of trouble pretty much my whole life. I’m sorry you were there when all of that came out, anyway. I already apologized to them,” she jerked a thumb at Bloodhound and Stalker, “and their teammates, but I wanted to talk to you guys too.”

I cocked my head to one side. “I’m guessing you meant some of what you said, though, right?”

Meteor shrugged, and Leon thought it looked a bit forced. “Yes, but not the way I said it. The truth is, I don’t have a problem with the Philly Five in particular, or with you guys. But what you all do does make me anxious. Secrets and lies usually breed, and I don’t really trust power that’s used in secret. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that, you know? It’s not about what I think of any individual. I just…don’t trust the overall direction. And I do worry about the example it sets. I don’t think any of you are bad guys, or bad people, but that’s kind of what worries me. It’s really easy to sympathize with you and take your side, but anyone with the right powers can claim to be supporting justice. The problem is that every one of us ends up defining that for ourselves, and we have a lot of muscle to make our definitions stick whether other people like them or not. That’s dangerous in a way the Collector and his people aren’t. They’re just criminals, at the end of the day. They don’t have an ideology. That’s what I would have said before, if I’d been feeling less…upset.”

“If you think we’re decent people and you don’t distrust us, how can you have a problem with us trying to help people?” Menagerie asked.

“Because people change,” Meteor said, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “Having power changes people, and using it changes them more. I know my life would have been very different up to now if I couldn’t do the things I can do. Knowing that I can fly away from any conversation I don’t like is just the tip of the iceberg. I remember being a kid and having to learn real fast that I couldn’t afford to throw a temper tantrum. Now, I just live every second of every day with the knowledge that I can throw a tank rattling around in my subconscious. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t change us is out of touch with reality.”

“You think it changes us that much?” I asked.

“We’re still human, in the end,” Meteor said. “In the good ways and the bad ones.” She let out a deep breath. “Let me put it this way: I’ve tried a few drugs, but power’s better than all of them. It’s too good. That’s my real problem. I guess I wish no one could do the things we can do. Even if I would have to give up flying.” Her voice turned wistful at the end. “That one’s pretty harmless on its own, I guess. But if I could snap my fingers and make these powers all go away, worldwide? I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

“We’re trying to help people and keep them safe,” I pointed out. “A few months ago, I was worried too. I wasn’t involved, and I stayed out of things partly because I was worried about making the world worse, which sounds a lot like what you’ve been saying. But if none of us did anything, then nothing would ever change for the better either, would it? I agree these powers are pretty unfair, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find good ways to use them.”

“Maybe,” Meteor said. She seemed to relax a bit as I redirected the conversation along more general lines. “But there’s a difference between getting involved in the world as Steve or Jennifer and getting involved in the world as Meteor or Flicker, isn’t there? Look, I don’t think having powers means that everything we do goes bad. It just…magnifies everything. The more power we have, the more impact our choices have. So our mistakes are bigger. Our successes might be too, but I’m just not sure that’s worth the risks.”

“Speaking of risks, we take some pretty big ones to do what we do,” Stalker interjected. “Doesn’t that count for something?”

Meteor hesitated. “It does, but when we take action we aren’t the only ones at risk. If I fly around recklessly and plow into a building, then all the people there are at risk, and they didn’t have a chance to say whether or not they want to accept that risk. We aren’t always the ones who pay the price for our choices. If I make a regular mistake, then that’s fine. But once powers get involved, it’s all a lot less evenhanded.”

I realized that we had started to drift into a line opposite Meteor, like we were going to argue her down. I drifted to my right, trying to turn the group into more of a circle.

“Well, I appreciate your apology,” I said. “It was a bit unsettling, as introductions go. But if that was your first real fight, I’d say you did just fine if getting a little angry and worried afterward is all that happened. I freaked out after mine, that’s for sure.”

Meteor shook her head. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I? I came here to apologize, not start a debate, but now we’re debating. Look, you should know that I admire what you’re trying to do, at least. I don’t necessarily think you’re making the right call, but I appreciate your motives. Does that make sense? That’s what I came here to say. I might hope you’ll change how you operate, but I know you’re trying to be on the right side, and that still counts for something.”

Leon and I weren’t really sure what to say to that. Menagerie and Feral seemed to feel the same way, so we just stood there awkwardly for a few seconds, until Meteor looked at Bloodhound. “Can I have a sec, by the way?”

“Sure,” he said after a moment. They walked off to one side.

“Thanks for hearing her out,” Comet said once she was gone. “I guess you probably figured out we’re close, after our little argument. I know she can be kind of hard to deal with sometimes, but I know she’ll have my back anytime I need it. She saved my life, that day.”

I glanced at Stalker, and Leon wondered if Comet’s teammates felt the same way – and whether Meteor was really deserving of Comet’s trust, either way. She’d practically ranted, the first time we met. Even taking into account the circumstances, and the fact that some of her points made sense, she’d seemed dangerous. I knew better than to judge someone’s entire personality based on a few minutes of interaction at a highly stressful time, but she seemed angry, underneath it all.

Not angry,” Leon disagreed. “Afraid.

Of what?” I asked.

I don’t know, David” Leon said. “But that’s my instinct. She was afraid, not angry. In any case, it’s good to see that she is calmer now. One thing she didn’t point out is that there is a vast disparity in the amount of damage people with powers can do, I think. You and I could cause serious trouble, but it’s not likely to happen in a single moment of carelessness or passion. Comet or Meteor, on the other hand, only need to make one mistake to hurt a lot of people.

True, I guess,” I said. “Not all superpowers are created equal, and all that.

“We all have it tough sometimes,” Menagerie said. She looked at Meteor and Bloodhound. “I’m surprised she cares what we think, though.”

“I think she just felt bad for letting our stuff splash on you,” Comet said. “So, how have things been in this neck of the woods?”

I figured we should accept the change of topic. “Not too bad. We’re keeping busy, trying to stay on top of things. There’s sort of a situation brewing. Not something we can talk about, but we might end up asking for some help at some point, if you can provide it. Particularly from you,” I nodded at Stalker.

Stalker seemed surprised, for a moment, but then she settled again. “Well, I’ll help if I can. I don’t think there’s much point to us talking if we don’t help each other out now and then.”

“I don’t expect you to sign a blank check or anything, don’t worry,” I said. “We’re not being mysterious just for laughs. It’s just that it’s still early stages. We’ll tell you more when we know more about what’s happening and what kind of help we need. For now, we’re playing the waiting game a lot.”

Menagerie nodded agreement. We’d talked about the situation a bit, before meeting the Philly Five, and agreed not to tell them anything specific yet. I’d favored saying nothing, after what Mary had told us about the boss, but Leon, Feral, and Menagerie had all wanted to at least give the team a head’s-up, in the hopes that they might be able to help us more quickly if something went catastrophically wrong. I’d held out until Leon suggested that we consult with Mary. She was a bit irritated that we wanted to share any of her secrets, at first, but after talking it over she ultimately took their side.

I hadn’t lost that argument very gracefully, but when everyone disagrees there isn’t much else to do.

“Does this have to do with what happened to that kid, Justin?” Comet asked.

“Dustin,” Menagerie corrected. “And it probably does.”

“Please don’t try to look into it yourselves,” I said. “We’re doing our best to keep a low profile. We don’t want the people responsible to realize we’re on their trail.”

“Okay,” Comet said. “Thanks for the warning. How worried about this are you guys?”

I scratched my head. “On a scale of one to ten, I’d say it’s a two or three for expecting something to go wrong, but more like a seven or eight for how bad things could get if it does go wrong. But there’s a lot of margin for error on that second part. Too much we still don’t know.”

“Anything else you can tell us?” Stalker asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

Bloodhound and Meteor walked back toward us and I watched them as I spoke to Comet and Stalker. “We’ll be in touch as the situation develops,” I said. “For now, I think we’d like to keep brushing up our skills. If and when something happens, I’d like to be ready.”

“Fair enough, I guess,” Comet said.

“Don’t wait too long to ask for help,” Stalker added.

Bloodhound and Meteor arrived at the spot where we were standing and rejoined the rest of us.

So, are they better or worse now?” I asked Leon.

Those two? I have no idea, actually,” Leon said.

I guess that makes two of us. Or one-and-a-half, maybe? Stupid idioms.

That’s idiots,” Leon said. “But I don’t think it really applies to me, so speak for yourself.

Hardy har har, aren’t you hilarious,” I said. We returned our attention to everyone else.

“So, what do you guys normally do here, spar and stuff?” Meteor asked.

“I’ve been teaching the two of them,” Bloodhound said. “With mixed results, I must admit, but it hasn’t been a waste of time. More recently, Stalker got bored and decided some sparring was called for. I’m assuming she reasoned that it’s sensible because I’m on hand to patch everyone up, as if I had nothing better to do.”

Comet and Stalker laughed, and Meteor shook her head. “Anyone mind if I stick around?” She looked at us, then added, “I won’t take it personally if you say yes. I recognize that I haven’t exactly been running an airtight popularity contest…campaign, thing.”

I started to shrug, but stopped myself. “Menagerie? Feral? Leon?

I don’t know,” Leon said. “What do you two think?

I’m a fan of apologies, and it seemed sincere enough to me,” Menagerie said. “Feral?

No reason not to let her stay,” Feral said.

“I don’t see any reason to kick you out of the unofficial club,” I said. “Just remember the first two rules of super hero club.”

“You do not talk about super hero club,” Stalker said immediately. “I think the second one says that Meteor is supposed to bring snacks. Donuts are preferable to bagels, since there’s no toaster.”

Feral and Menagerie didn’t get it, which in retrospect wasn’t surprising.

It’s from a movie, sorry,” I said. “I’ll explain later, if you care enough.

“I thought one of the rules said that if it’s your first time, you have to fight,” Meteor said, turning her head towards Comet. “Isn’t that right?”

Comet laughed. “We just made up, and you want to go a round? I think you’re unclear on how friendships are supposed to work.”

Meteor held up her hands. “Hey, if I don’t know something, take me to school. Are you ready to do this or not?”

Comet shook her head. “Fine, but keep in mind that we don’t want to have a repeat of the island incident.”

“Hey, that was on you,” Meteor said, waving one hand airily. “You’re the one who sank it.”

“You punched me through it!” Comet protested.

“Um, what?” Menagerie said. She sounded a bit like a deer looks in the headlights.

Stalker laughed so hard she doubled over, placing her hands just above her knees to support herself.

“We weren’t there, but I’ve heard the story,” Bloodhound said. It was hard to tell, with the way the mask distorted his voice, but it sounded like he was amused, too. “Apparently these two geniuses once found a small island and thought it might be a good place for a sparring match. It was out of the way, so tiny that it wasn’t really worth owning, and there wasn’t even anything living on it, really. Just sand and grass, a bit out from the shore. So they start sparring, slowly turning up the heat and using more of their powers a bit at a time, until eventually one of them punched the other one down at an angle that went through the island and into the water. Three times. Our fearless leader makes a pretty hardy projectile, so instead of the island breaking her fall, she broke the island.”

“It wasn’t very sturdy to begin with, in fairness to us,” Meteor said. “Not, like, a proper island. It was just some sand and grass anchored by a few rather large rocks.”

“It was smaller than a football field, but not that much,” Comet said. “And you broke it!”

“That’s ridiculous,” Meteor said, her voice dripping with the scorn of the dismissal. “How could I have broken it when I never touched it? Really, Comet. Don’t tarnish your reputation by being dishonest with these kindly folk.”

Comet stared at her for a second before breaking down in laughter, and I was almost surprised to see Meteor start chuckling too. I found myself laughing along a bit as well.

In the back of my head, Leon and I chalked the exchange up as further evidence of how close the two were. That exchange could have been friendship, but Meteor had alluded to them being family previously, and now I was inclined to think it had been the literal truth.

Sisters?” I asked Leon.

Could be close cousins or something, but yes, I think that’s most likely,” Leon agreed. “I think it fits with everything, and they do have the same powers, after all. Perhaps the abilities run in the family.

I frowned. “Do we have any evidence that powers are hereditary? They’ve all appeared in people whose parents didn’t have powers, I thought. Dustin’s mother isn’t pyrokinetic, as far as we know.

I don’t think we’ve ever seen solid information either way,” Leon said. “But it seems possible, at least. If not blood relatives, perhaps they’re just friends who have been close for years? The similarity in powers suggests a common cause, though. If they are related, it seems like a meaningful correlation, at least. I suppose it could also be a result of exposure to something, if powers are…bestowed, for lack of a better word. Maybe they both walked past the same magic tree one day when they were kids.

Meteor got herself under control first. “So, you up for it or not? We don’t have to, but it has been a while.”

Comet straightened up. “All right. But seriously, hold the power. We’re guests. Trashing the place would be rude.”

“No problem,” Meteor said with a nod. She started walking away from us. “So…stay indoors, no breaking the building, and no using spectators as shields. Shall we dance?”

Comet walked after her. “Let’s do this.”

“Come on, let’s get out of the way,” Stalker said. The rest of us followed her as she walked off to one side, away from the pair who, I realized, had stopped walking in favor of floating. Stalker was leading us away from the fixtures that remained, and I realized she was trying to make sure we had a clear view of most of the building’s interior. I would have criticized that, on the grounds that it would be smarter to stand behind something, but then I remembered that Comet and Meteor would have to be careful not to collapse the building by accident. There wasn’t any safety in getting behind stuff. Either I trusted their control, or I should be leaving the area entirely.

Comet’s teammates didn’t seem nervous, and I decided to trust them. The “island incident” might sound terrifying, but they’d checked for inhabitants first. If I’d had that kind of strength, I would have wanted to test it at some point, too.

Besides, I really wanted to see this. Each of them had fought Silhouette and Skyscraper, and I knew Comet had fought a few other tough supers over the years, but I’d never heard about a mirror match like this one. Meteor and Comet had apparently reached a comfortable spot, and they were both floating just a bit above the ground, facing each other. There were only a few yards between them, and I assumed either one of them could cross that distance in a heartbeat.

“I feel like we should be placing bets,” Stalker muttered.

“I bet this is going to be fucking awesome,” Menagerie said.

“I bet one of us pisses his or her pants before it’s over,” Bloodhound said.

“I bet we’ll all look back on this one day and agree with Menagerie,” I said. “And by ‘one day,’ I mean tomorrow.”

“Now,” Stalker said.

She must have been calling the start for them, because they moved at the second she spoke, flying towards each other. Meteor led with her right leg, extending it as they closed, and Comet ascended above the kick, attacking with a combination of rapid punches at Meteor’s stomach. Meteor dropped to the ground and then kicked off like a swimmer but moving straight upward. Her fist just barely missed as Comet slid sideways, and Comet’s shin caught Meteor in the stomach, knocking her backward.

Meteor dove right back in, but this time when Comet kicked at her Meteor came to a sudden stop, her upper body twisting in midair as she kicked with both legs, feet together. Comet turned but got hit in the shoulder and knocked back by the blow, barely stopping her momentum short of the wall.

The whole fight was like that, a constant back and forth. The way they flew let them move in three dimensions unlike anything I’d ever seen. I’d noticed it the day I met the Philly Five, but it was on another level now, with both combatants easily able to move forward, backward, left, right, up, down, or any combination thereof. They twisted and slid around kicks and punches, flipped upside down without a moment’s hesitation, and generally ignored gravity and slapped inertia across the face. Even without flight I could never have fought either of them, but now I realized that even if I was a match for them in strength and toughness I could never catch them in the first place unless they flew near me.

As the match continued, they started putting more force into the blows, although it did plateau, thankfully. I wondered if Stalker had reminded them to be careful and rein it in.

I started to feel jaded when I realized that I was actually getting less impressed by the spectacle in front of me. Only a handful of minutes had passed, and I was already accustomed to the sight of Meteor and Comet flying over and under each other, as casually as I might sidestep. It was still exciting to watch, though. I’d lost track of who was landing more blows, but it occurred to me now that there was probably no way for a match between these two to end unless it was serious or they just got exhausted. They were so durable that calling a winner in anything short of a fight to the death might be impossible. Their ability to fly meant that even taking out the legs might not be a disabling injury.

Finally, the maneuvering and exchanges of blows gave way to something else. Meteor and Comet started grappling with each other in midair, trying to get a hold of each other’s arms and legs. That was, if possible, even stranger to watch than what had come before, and it took me a while to figure out why. Grappling typically assumed that the ground was there to pin your opponent against, but that wasn’t always true for these two. Soon they landed, but Leon and I quickly realized that the trickiest part of grappling between these two was countering each other’s flying abilities. Even when pinned on the ground, each of them had the power to accelerate in any direction, regardless of where they were looking. At one point, Comet got Meteor’s arm and seemed about to pull it into a position where Meteor would have to give up or have her arm broken, but then Meteor suddenly flew sideways, not off the ground but simply sliding along it. She jerked in several directions, and the rapid changes of movement allowed her to free her arm. A bit later, Meteor grabbed Comet by the leg, and Comet flew up at an angle, then stopped, letting momentum carry Meteor along so that she lost her grip.

After a few frustrating-looking minutes of that, they called a halt and landed. Stalker started walking towards them, and the rest of us followed. Meteor took off her helmet and shook her head, then started wiping her face.

“Sweat in the god damn eyes,” she said, muffled by her mask. She tugged it back into its proper place a second later, then looked at Comet. “There’s nothing like fighting 3D.”

Comet nodded, then took her helmet off too. “Yeah. Thanks for the practice.”

“Back at you,” Meteor replied. She flopped onto her back, staring upward. “I feel totally gross.”

Comet laughed. “Hey, at least you live alone. You won’t have anyone complaining that your clothes stink.”

They looked up as we stopped near them.

“So for the record, that was awesome,” I said. “Which, I think, means Menagerie wins the bets we didn’t make.”

“Thanks,” Menagerie said. “I’ll make sure not to spend it all in one place.”

I looked at Bloodhound and Stalker. “So, I know telepathy probably makes sparring boring – either it doesn’t work or it just wins outright, I’m guessing – but do the rest of you guys ever spar either of them? Because the way they move, it just seems impossible.”

“It’s a pain in the ass, but the rest of us can beat Comet if we work together and get a little lucky,” Stalker said. “We’ve done it…what? Twice? Three times, I think.”

Bloodhound nodded. “Three times. We haven’t bothered to try that matchup very often, though. It’s not really fruitful training.”

Meteor broke in, sitting up and leaning back on her hands. “With people who can fly like us, there are only three ways to bring us down, really,” she said, glancing at Comet before she continued. “First, there’s dogged pursuit. It takes luck, but if the powers align right you can just keep chasing and we eventually make a mistake, if only due to fatigue.”

Comet chimed in, rolling her shoulders. “Second, attack something we have to defend. That can force us to get close, so we lose the mobility advantage. That’s how Blitz got me before. Third, prevent us from moving. Telekinesis might do that, or force fields, or other stuff like that. Or if someone with the right leverage and strength can just get a solid grip on us, they can keep us close. We have a lot of horsepower in our flying, though, and we can go in any direction, so that’s tough.”

Meteor picked the conversation back up. “Lastly, of course, there’s cheating. If someone’s powers just knock us unconscious without a fight, that would work too. So I guess that’s actually four ways.”

“How did you guys do it?” Menagerie asked, looking at Stalker and Bloodhound.

“It really does take all of us,” Stalker said. “Direct telepathic attack might change that, but we’ve avoided experimenting, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Telepathy can help arrange a coordinated attack and defense, though. Newton can just barely hold Comet down if he cranks his power up enough and just lays on the Gs. Doing that to a normal person might kill them, of course. Actually, he has to be careful not to turn the power up and down too quickly, or he can cause problems anyway. Something like the bends that divers have to worry about, if you know what that is. Has to do with pressure.”

“We’re getting a bit sidetracked, here,” Bloodhound said. “The answer is that we can beat Comet, if we all work together and get lucky enough. It requires favorable conditions, her making a mistake, or a genuine coincidence in our favor to catch her in the first place, but it’s doable. The more we can plan, the better the odds. Without that, though, she just takes us out one at a time. I assume things would work pretty much the same against Meteor, except that we’ve never practiced against her.”

“Speaking of powers, there’s something I’m curious about,” Meteor said. She looked at us – at Menagerie, I realized after a moment. “Your friend, the cat – she can cut through a lot of things. Do you know if she can cut us?”

“Um, I’m, uh, not sure,” Menagerie said. She sounded nervous.

“Relax, I’m not interrogating,” Meteor said. “I’m just curious. Could we do a little experiment?”

“What kind?” Menagerie asked.

“I don’t know, cut my palm or something?” Meteor suggested. “If not, it’s okay, but I have to admit I have wondered about it.”

“I’m kind of curious too,” Comet said.

“I don’t know…” Menagerie said.

I don’t think you need to worry,” I told her. “It’s their idea. No one’s going to get pissed at you, even if something does go wrong.

“I promise not to get mad,” Meteor said. “It’s not like I’m asking you to give me a papercut.”

“Wait, have you ever even had a papercut?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Comet said. “It would have to be paper from a super-tree, or something.”

Stalker hid her face behind one hand, shaking her head, then looked at Menagerie. “Don’t worry so much about it,” she said, pointing at Bloodhound. “We’ve got the magic doctor, remember?”

“Well, okay,” Menagerie said. “um, which…”

Meteor stepped forward, pulling her right glove. “Here. Just a nice shallow cut on the palm, please. I like my hand attached.”

Menagerie focused, and Feral appeared in her arms as a small housecat. Feral stretched briefly and turned to face Meteor. Meteor held out her hand, stepping closer.

Feral reached out delicately, a single claw lengthening, and then pressing it to Meteor’s palm. Carefully, she drew it across the extended hand.

Meteor twitched, pulling her hand away. “Damn. I can’t remember the last time something hurt like that.” She looked at Bloodhound. “Here.”

He took her extended hand in his own, closing them over it. It was a shallow enough cut, so I assumed it wouldn’t take long.

“It’s not working,” Bloodhound said after a few moments.

Everyone turned to look at Feral.

“Oh come on!” Menagerie protested.

“Relax,” I said. “Has that ever happened before?” I asked Bloodhound.

“I don’t think so,” he said, looking at Meteor’s hand. “Wait. There was one time…when I healed Heavyweight, the night you rescued Dustin. Some of his injuries seemed to resist being healed. Wait a moment.”

He concentrated again, and we all waited quietly. I glanced at Menagerie.

Heavyweight’s wounds inflicted by Feral resisted healing?” I said. “Did we know about that?

No, he left before we got back from dropping Raquel off, remember?” Leon said. “I note that he said ‘resisted,’ though, not that he couldn’t do it. Heavyweight certainly seemed fine the last time we saw him, so I think it must have worked eventually.

Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “I wonder if Feral’s claws would be harder for us to heal from, too.

Interesting question, but I don’t think I’m as curious as Meteor. I hope you aren’t, either,” Leon said.

No, I favor remaining ignorant on that score,” I said.

We watched Bloodhound, keeping an eye on Menagerie.

“There,” Bloodhound said. “Did that work?”

Meteor spat on her hand and rubbed some dried blood off so that she could see clearly. “Looks good. I guess your heal-fu is stronger.”

“Apparently,” Bloodhound said. He looked at Menagerie and Feral. “I hadn’t realized your claws might have this effect. Healing cuts they make takes more out of me, though it’s still doable, but if you learn to control the effect you might be able to make wounds easier or harder to heal, as you like.”

“I wonder how well it would have healed on its own,” Meteor mused.

“I’m not testing it again,” Menagerie said flatly. “I don’t like cutting people.”

I couldn’t think of the right thing to say, so I just reached out and gave her shoulder a brief pat.

“I wasn’t really asking,” Meteor said. “I’m curious, sure, but I don’t want to walk around with my hand bandaged for a week, if only to avoid coming up with an explanation. Thanks for trying it, though. Bloodhound, thanks for the healing action.” She looked at all of us. “Last time I left, I said to call me when things get bad. I said a lot of other crap too, but I want to take another stab at it: call me if you need some backup. I’m not too far away.”

“You’re heading home?” Comet said.

“Yeah, I think I better get back,” Meteor said.

The two of them walked toward the door together, and Comet put an arm over Meteor’s shoulder.

We all watched them go. It might have been Leon’s influence, but I found myself watching everyone else, too, wondering what they all thought of Meteor now.

Well, at least I could ask Menagerie outright, once we were alone.
Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                                                                             Next Chapter

You Can Choose Your Friends 2

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Raquel and I were bundled in our coats, trying to stay warm while we waited outside. It was after five o’clock, and that meant it was already dark out, this late in the year. My butt got cold after I sat down on the roof of the Nautical Museum, and I doubted Raquel was any more comfortable on the concrete steps. It had been a relatively convenient neutral place to meet before, so we used it again, and now we were regretting it. The wind had picked up, and it made standing or sitting in the open brutally cold.

Fortunately, Mary’s car pulled up on schedule. Feral walked over and confirmed that Mary was the only one in it, and I came down from the roof, joining Raquel. We walked over and climbed in. I took the front passenger seat, while Raquel sat in the back.

“Mary,” I said. It was about the best greeting I could manage. My nose was freezing, and I sniffled as I settled gratefully into the car. Raquel just settled into the backseat, letting Feral climb onto her lap. I took off my gloves and put my hands in front of the air vents, pleased to feel warm air coming out.

“Flicker, Menagerie,” Mary said. She spoke absently, her attention on the road and her mirrors as she pulled out and started driving.

“So, what did you learn?” Mary asked once we were settled in.

“Not as much as I hoped, but there were some useful tidbits,” I said. “Lyle didn’t do his illegal work in his office. They set up a place for him, and stored drugs and supplies at a storage facility – the same one we first saw him at, actually, Menagerie. Apparently the boss or someone working for him owns the place. They keep illegal stuff there, and the staff all know not to pay much attention, I guess. Some of the space is just rented to normal people, of course, but some of the storage space holds medical supplies, guns, and all the other things people need to commit crimes. He told me where his workspace was, too. They might have cleared out by now, but it’s worth taking a look, I think.”

“Probably, yeah,” Mary said. “After you guys found Michaels at his house, they ended up arranging for it to get sold, so they might have done that again. Either way, we might be able to find out who used to own it. If we’re lucky, that could give us an address for the boss. I still haven’t been able to figure out where he lives.”

“Have you seen him in person recently?” Menagerie asked.

“Yes,” Mary said. “He’s…angry, definitely, but I don’t know if he’s so worried anymore. It’s weird. I’d expect him to be more worried over Lyle getting away, but even though he’s pissed at Tuggey he just isn’t acting very concerned about anything. After you guys got Dustin away he was on edge, but it’s like something took the pressure off.”

I blinked. “That doesn’t sound good for us. Has anything else happened that you can think of? Anything that might explain him getting less worried?”

Mary shook her head, but kept her eyes ahead, watching the road. “No, nothing. I can’t explain it. But for now I’m glad, since it means he isn’t making things more difficult for me right now.”

Menagerie broke in. “About that – your new assignment, I mean – did he give you a deadline or anything? Do you have much to go on to find us, officially?”

“No, no deadline,” Mary said. “And he hasn’t given me much to work with, either. Basically, he said he’s sick of you guys getting away from us. He wants me to find you, somehow, and bring you down. He said he wants Flicker alive if I can get you, and Heavyweight, but he told me to kill Menagerie. Said you’re too much trouble. So if we get into any impromptu confrontations, and only one of you can escape, it should be Menagerie. If I capture Flicker or Heavyweight, well, you guys will have a chance to get away. If Menagerie gets caught, I’ll have to blow my cover to help her, unless I can manage to just look incompetent. Either way, it will probably mean that I’ll have less access to information, so try to lay low. I’ll warn you if any emergencies come up, but unless you have to do something it would be good if you guys just…lived your regular lives for a little while. I’m going to try asking the boss for help bringing you in. If we’re lucky, he’ll give me a better idea of just how much muscle he’s got available in terms of powers.”

“Any idea why he thinks I’m too dangerous?” Raquel asked.

Mary hesitated. “I’ve got a pretty clear idea, yeah. He brought in Michaels and the three of us were talking tactics, going over the times his people have gone up against you guys. Tuggey fought Flicker, before, and we all saw Heavyweight and Menagerie in action. Basically, the boss thinks that if we catch you, Flicker, we can hold you as long as we need to. Heavyweight is trickier, since he’s so strong, but Michaels said he didn’t think Heavyweight was immune to him like you two are; he didn’t really try to affect him at the house because things had already gone wrong when he tried to use his powers on Feral, but he said Feral and Flicker kind of felt the same. Heavyweight felt normal. Anyway, I think that’s why. The boss figures Michaels can flip Heavyweight, and we can hold Flicker if he wants to, but he doesn’t think he can hold you, Menagerie. So he wants you dead.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Menagerie cock her head.

Well, that’s a twisted sort of compliment, I suppose,” Feral commented. “It actually sounds like he’s afraid of us.

A compliment I’m happy to do without,” Leon said.

“I wish he sounded less on top of things,” I said.

“Sorry,” Mary said. “I know no one likes getting bad news. But better you know what the story is than not.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Okay, so the boss – do you have a name for him yet, by the way? Something besides ‘the boss’ that we can call him?”

“Nope, sorry,” Mary said.

“Okay, whatever,” I said. “So the boss put you in charge of dealing with the three of us, which means capturing me and Heavyweight if possible and killing Menagerie. You’ve got men with tasers and guns, I’m assuming. How are you supposed to find us? And are any of the other people with powers working with you? Are Michaels and Tuggey in on this?”

“Tuggey is. And he doesn’t like doing what I tell him, which is the only fun part of this whole mess,” Mary said. “Michaels isn’t taking orders from me, exactly, but I’m kind of working with him, since I’m supposed to bring Heavyweight to him if I can catch him. That’s it for now. Like I said, I’m planning to ask for help. As far as supers go, I think he keeps Walker – the golf course guy – somewhere else, but I’m not sure where. I don’t know what he’s had him doing. He might send me Davis, the telekinetic I broke out of jail. I’m hoping he’ll send me someone I haven’t seen, and then we’ll learn what their powers are. If we’re really lucky, he’ll give me a choice, or at least let slip how many other supers he’s got.”

“What about finding us?” Menagerie asked.

“That’s the tricky part,” Mary said. “He doesn’t have a plan for that, as far as I can tell. I’m supposed to figure it out on my own. To be blunt, I have no idea what to do about that. I mean, whenever I try to think of a convincing plan that will make it look like I’m trying, I remember that I can call you up on the damn phone.” She snorted. “It makes it hard to think like a bad guy. And it’s especially tricky because I don’t want to come up with a plan that’s too good by accident, and then have it actually work. I feel like I’m trying to hit a really small bull’s-eye on this one, making it look good without winning or making a big splash that gets official police attention. Can you guys brainstorm? Come up with some ideas? Anything I can do that sounds good and looks good but won’t work, I’ll take.”

“Huh,” I said. “Okay, give us a minute to think.”

Leon gave me a gentle reminder.

“While we do that, do you know if the boss has an in with the police?” I asked. “Lyle said he was worried about that, that it was part of the reason he didn’t go to them for help. I’m not sure if it was true, really, since he also admitted that he didn’t call the FBI because he didn’t want to get put in prison for the shit he’s done.”

“As far as I know, he doesn’t, but I doubt he’d tell me,” Mary said. “That’s pretty vague, though. I mean, maybe he bribes someone for information, but doesn’t have any leverage or anything? There’s a lot of room between totally corrupt and completely honest. And he could always bribe some clerk without dealing with an actual cop, too.”

“Okay,” I said.

We rode in silence for a minute or two, thinking. Mary was taking us on a meandering route through the city, driving slowly. We weren’t actually trying to get anywhere.

“Here’s a thought,” I said. “We’ve showed up twice at places where Michaels’ was, and that’s got to look suspicious. If you assigned Tuggey to stay close to him and look for signs that he’s being followed, then that might get both of them out of your hair, at least temporarily. That could also make it more convincing when you ask for more muscle, if the two of them are already busy.”

“Nice,” Mary said, nodding. “I think I’ll try that. As long as you guys stay away from them, it will keep Tuggey busy without actually making any kind of difference, and if Michaels is laying low or running around playing bait then he shouldn’t be doing much damage. It’s a nice little time-waster.”

“I’m pretty happy with the idea,” I said. I chewed on my lip as I tried to put myself in the bad guys’ shoes. How would I organize a search for myself?

Leon, any ideas?” I asked.

Nothing useful, yet,” Leon said. “Given the lack of information they have about us, cornering us is difficult, and we don’t really want to change that. Because we’ve managed to maintain secrecy, the only real option is to lure us in, somehow, and hope we hear about it. Maybe Mary could find some way to leak information publicly…something that wouldn’t mean much to most people, but which we might recognize? That would allow her to set up a trap. We wouldn’t even need to show up, necessarily, if the point is just for her to look busy.

I passed that suggestion on, but I could tell that Mary wasn’t thrilled by it.

“It’s not a bad idea, but I just don’t think it’s going to cut it,” she said. “It’s worth a try, though. I’ll try to think of some reasonable bait. If you guys have any other suggestions, let me know. You never finished telling us what Lyle had to say, though – was there anything else useful?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “He was a bit hard to pin down at first. I had to play to his gratitude to really get him talking, although he was spooked enough that I don’t think he was holding back. Probably trying to paint himself as more of a victim and less of a co-conspirator than he really was, you know, but he wants the boss finished. Did you ever work with him or anything?”

“Not really,” Mary said. “I knew about him, but that was about it. Tuggey was mostly in charge of leaning on him, as far as I know.”

That reminded me of another question. “Do you have any idea why the boss didn’t have Michaels work on the doc? Or Tuggey, or you? I mean, I remember what you said before, that he maybe didn’t want Michaels to have influence over everyone. That makes sense. But it would have kept the doctor in line, and I can’t see any reason not to do it to him.”

Mary was taking a left turn, and she didn’t answer until it was done. “No idea,” she said.

I have a thought on that score, actually,” Leon said. “Aside from the concerns over giving Michaels too much power, I find myself wondering if Michael’s power might have side effects. All of those who he’s used it on have been people with little or no authority. What if too much control makes it more difficult for them to take initiative in other ways, as well as preventing them from rebelling?

Do you really think it could work that way?” I asked. “That seems like a pretty big weakness to me.

Consider what we’ve seen from the men that Tuggey and Michaels use as muscle,” Leon said. “They don’t seem stupid, precisely, but they aren’t particularly imaginative. When we retrieved Lyle, they were searching in an effective way, but it was also slow and plodding, relying on superior numbers. Having that many men mobilized was risky.

I didn’t think Benedetti or the others were dumb,” I said. “Searching has to be methodical. There’s only so much you can do to search better.

It is just an idea, but I find it telling that the only people we know haven’t been affected by Michaels are the boss himself, Mary, Tuggey, and the doctor. The doctor needed his complex skills intact, and he was controlled by greed and fear. Mary has said that she is similarly controlled by fear. Tuggey doesn’t seem to have a problem with his work, that we know of, though there’s no way to be certain, but Tuggey and Mary are both in possession of powers, making it risky to let Michaels control them, and both are in positions of authority over others. I don’t think that’s all a coincidence.

Maybe,” I said. “We do know that his power didn’t work like he meant it to against Feral and Menagerie, so it might be complicated in other ways too, I guess.

I shared the theory with the others. Mary seemed to think it might be right, but I was still skeptical.

“I think the boss is just using you all as checks and balances against each other,” I said. “I don’t think we should assume there’s more to it than that.”

“Maybe not,” Mary said. “Still, it’s worth keeping in mind. Anything else from Lyle?”

“Not really,” I said. “It seems like his work mostly came to him.”

Menagerie cleared her throat. “What about you, Mary? What else can you tell us? Any other places to look into? Anything else you’ve learned?”

“A few things, yeah,” Mary said. “I think I’ve got a pretty solid list, now, of the people at BPSC who know about the illegal stuff, and a pretty good idea of how much they all know. Not one hundred percent, but I’m pretty close. The money people definitely don’t know that much, like I thought. So there’s that. There are a few other businesses that I think are indirectly connected. I think the boss owns them, or other people own them for him. I found out about a pawn shop, a bar, a car wash, and one or two more, but they aren’t really important, I don’t think. Still, it could help later. If I play my cards right, I think I’ll be able to find him, and that’s the most important thing. If we could take down the boss and Michaels, I think we’d be past the two big obstacles.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Let’s trade details, make sure we each have all of the information just in case something goes wrong. Then I think we should split. Don’t want to spend too much time together and get spotted.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Mary said. “I mean, I’m not ignoring the chance, but I think we’ll be all right.”

“Cool,” I said. “Before we do that, though, there is one other thing on my mind.”

“What is it?” Mary said.

“After talking to Lyle, I got to thinking,” I said. “He only ran after the fight at the house, but he’s frankly a lot more afraid than you are, I think, or at least more controlled by his fear. You’ve said you’re afraid of the boss, but you don’t know what he can do. I think you’re pretty sharp. Smart enough that you could have made a run for it, like Lyle, and done a better job, even without his money. You could have just gotten on the train and never looked back. Starting over is tough, but I think you’re smart enough to find a way. So I have to ask: why haven’t you? If it’s really fear, what’s the boss got that has you scared?”

Mary hesitated long enough that I wondered if she was going to refuse to answer, but instead she pulled over, stopping the car. Once it was parked, she sighed.

“Got me all figured out, huh,” she said. “You think I’m that easy to read?”

“Not all figured out, no,” I said. “But you could have run. I think we need to know why you haven’t. Lyle didn’t go to the FBI because he’s a greedy ass. I’m guessing that’s not your reason, but you must have one.”

Feral was sitting up in Menagerie’s lap, and we all waited expectantly. I hadn’t really discussed this with Leon, but I could tell he agreed with my reasoning, and also wanted to know the answer to my question.

Mary scratched her head, hard. “Dammit,” she muttered. “You’re asking a lot from me. You know my face, you know I’m taking a huge risk. Do you really need to know this too?”

“We’ve been trusting you as much as you’ve been trusting us,” I said. “When you told me where to find Lyle, I went alone and got him out on your say-so. I trusted you then, and I still do. But I think this is important. You know why we do what we do, in a general sense at least. You know Menagerie cares about Dustin, and we don’t like the things Michaels has been doing, or the way Walker got grabbed. That’s why we’re in this. Why are you?”

Mary tilted her head back, and I waited, letting her think.

“What do you think about the guys they recruit?” Mary finally said.

I blinked at the subject change, but assumed she had a reason to ask. “I think they’re getting royally shafted. They’re on the other side, but if Michaels is controlling them or just influencing them a lot, they need help.”

Mary punched the dashboard, and I was surprised to see her so emotional. I waited for a few tense seconds as she sat there, still wrestling with something.

“When some of them died at the house, I almost cut ties with you,” Mary said. “How do you think the boss found me?”

I blinked at the non sequitur. “I don’t know. I mean, Walker and Davis both used their powers pretty publicly, but Tuggey and Michaels didn’t, as far as I knew.”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “I don’t know how he found Tuggey and Michaels, but he found me because of my father.”

I opened my mouth and Leon advised me to wait silently.

“He’d been out of prison for a few weeks when he started disappearing, hanging around people I wasn’t too fond of,” Mary said. She glanced at me, quickly looking away. “I never really used my powers, before. I just kept them to myself. They weren’t much good in my life, you know? I mean, I would try to use them to juggle stuff, for fun, or pick stuff up off the floor when I was alone, but that was it. Then I went looking for my father, and I found the boss waiting. I tried to fight him, and he had every base covered, like he knew what I was going to try. I thought he was a telepath, at first, but he never reacted when I was planning to run away or kill him or do anything. Anytime I actually did something, though, he was ahead of me. It felt like he let me try a few times, just so I’d learn. Then he disappeared my father and told me that as long as I did what he said, my dad would live and we’d both be comfortable.”

Mary stared ahead in silence. “So far he’s kept his word,” she said after a minute. “I was trying to find a way out, but I couldn’t figure out how to handle it on my own. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get rid of him without getting killed or getting my father killed ever since. I couldn’t go to the FBI. I tried that, once, and he caught me. When I ran into you guys, I thought it was worth a shot. I gave you my card, I’ve been as paranoid as I could manage this whole time, trying to take every precaution, but grabbing a kid was too much. I couldn’t do nothing about that. Taking Walker was bad enough, but if we end all this he’ll still be able to go home. Dustin’s a kid. Michaels could have destroyed his whole life. So after we took Dustin I grabbed the chance to work with you. He hasn’t found out, as far as I can tell, so it must be working. I don’t know why, though. It’s driving me nuts.”

We needed some time to absorb that, and Mary seemed content to sit in silence. She soon started the car again, in neutral, and I realized it had begun to get colder.

This explains a great deal,” Leon said.

“I’m sorry,” Menagerie said aloud.

Mary nodded, but didn’t speak.

I wondered whether she was offering sympathy or something else. When Mary saw men dead by Feral’s hands (some obnoxious part of my mind corrected the thought to “paws” and I cursed my pedantic brain and the way it noted irrelevant details), she was seeing men like her father, not just nameless unfortunates. I cared about them, of course, but it was mostly in an abstract way, the way one can feel empathy for a sweatshop worker on the other side of the world. That sort of empathy was always a vague thing for me, though, when thinking about anyone I’d never met. I’d tried to avoid hurting the men, but I guess, on some level, I’d still avoided considering the fact that they might be truly innocent of all the crimes they were committing now. It was too painful to think about that when we were taking the slow approach. I felt a sudden urge to deal with Michaels now, to find a way to free all of the men under his sway tonight, instead of putting it off.

It was a lot more personal for Mary. She probably felt that urgency every night, but she still had to go to sleep, wake up the next morning, and take orders from the asshole who was holding her father hostage, knowing that the men she was ordering around didn’t really have the ability to say no to her orders. She’d been doing that for weeks, somehow.

My skin crawled. I would have gone mad by now, in her position.

“We’ll help you get out of this,” I said. “Both of you. Thanks for the truth.”

She nodded again.

I wasn’t over it when I got back home, and eating dinner didn’t help either. It was strange to realize that even though I’d been fighting and evading and tracking men just like Mary’s father, I hadn’t wondered if they had families. I’d seen them as obstacles to avoid or overcome, mainly. The fact that I had really made an effort to avoid hurting them was the only thing that saved me from my conscience, which wanted to beat the crap out of me.

I have to remember this,” I said. “They’re people, connected to other people. Some of them must have wives, sons, daughters, cousins…those people probably don’t know what they do. They probably can’t tell them, maybe even if they wanted to. I have no way of knowing if they would be criminals or if they would have gone straight, on their own, without Michaels’ involvement.

It’s not as bleak as you’re thinking,” Leon said.

It kind of is, though,” I said. “Look, I know the world isn’t ending. It’s the same world I was in this morning. But I feel pretty fucked up about this. I mean, I really wasn’t thinking about what to do with all of these guys after we take out Michaels and the boss. They’re probably all going to need reprogramming, you know? Like Dustin did. That took two experienced telepaths working together. We have exactly zero experienced telepaths in town, and if we go to the FBI that might create some problems too, so what do we do? And if it takes hours to work on each one, what the hell do we do with them all while they’re waiting? And when it’s all over, then what? We just send them on their way and say ‘sorry you got your mind taken over, good luck?’”

When the time comes, I’m sure Stalker will be willing to help us,” Leon said. “The Philly Five are good people. If she can’t help these men alone, perhaps Uplink can assist her. If not, we’ll find another way. David, you can’t let yourself look at the whole task and expect to find a solution in one night. It will take time. It will be difficult, challenging, and complex. But we don’t have to solve everything now. Those men are alive. Mary and her father are alive. We have time. Our patience is for their good, not just our own. Give yourself, Mary, and Raquel some credit. Michaels killed a few of them, by accident, but we’ve taken great pains to avoid loss of life. Dustin is home. Lyle and Kaylee are alive, if unhappy for the moment, and right now we’re apparently the best available chance at setting things right.

Yeah,” I said. “Right. I don’t like being anyone’s best chance at anything, Leon. I don’t feel very competent as someone’s last hope. If I was my last hope, I’d ask if I was allowed to make a substitution.

We rarely get presented with the challenges we want or the problems we deserve,” Leon said. “You’re taking a detour into self-pity. Knock it off. We have the power to make things better, and we’re going to keep on doing it.

I sighed. “Yeah. I know. It’s just…this problem seems so goddamn big.

It was too early to go to bed, so I grabbed a book and tried to get some reading done, but my heart wasn’t in it. After trying to read it for most of an hour, I knew that I couldn’t give even a summary of what I’d just read, and that was after looking at every page at least three times before moving on to the next one.

I put it down and browsed the internet mindlessly, instead, just killing time while I waited for my body to get tired and my mind to slow down enough that I could sleep. I wasn’t going to get anything else done that night, and I needed the distraction.

I could feel the weight on my shoulders. Knowing that Mary was in a much worse position than I’d thought didn’t help, and I wondered if Feral and Raquel were feeling worse, like me, after what Mary had said. I picked up my phone, but decided not to bother them.

I noticed I had a message from Shawn, asking if I wanted to come to Thanksgiving at his uncle and aunt’s place in town tomorrow night. Liz was going, and apparently felt a bit worried at the prospect of getting grilled by his family with no one else there to distract them.

I couldn’t blame her for that, I supposed. As far as I knew, none of Shawn’s family had met her yet, so nerves were inevitable.

I stewed over it, wondering if I should just postpone the decision, but if I said yes then waiting would be rude. It was a last-minute invite, but that didn’t mean that his family wouldn’t want to know the answer as soon as possible.

Mary wasn’t expecting anything to happen, and had even suggested we lay low for a while, but what if something did happen? To this point I’d avoided any sudden, unexcused absences that were obviously linked to Flicker appearing somewhere, but if I were in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, got a call, and then ran off to bail Lyle out of trouble or something it would make it pretty obvious to everyone there who Flicker was.

That seemed so cliché, though. Actually, most of the big stuff I’d been involved in had been at night or over the weekends, largely because that was when I had free time. It was strange to realize that.

I waffled, going back and forth repeatedly, but finally decided to go ahead and say yes. Shawn wouldn’t have issued the invitation unless he had cleared it with the hosts first, I was sure. I didn’t really have a good reason not to go, and whatever Shawn’s aunt and uncle served was probably going to be better than dining hall food.

You realize you got far too hung up on that?” Leon said.

Oh, shut up,” I said. “I’m not in the mood for Incorporeal Life Lectures right now, okay?

It’s hard not to backseat drive sometimes,” Leon said. “Of course, it might be easier if you were smarter,” he joked.

I smiled. “You’re a dick sometimes, you know that? And I don’t know how someone without a body can be a body part. That’s just illogical.

I live to mock,” Leon said.

I laughed for both of us.

A nice Thanksgiving dinner was something to look forward to. It occurred to me that if I was going to keep accepting dinner invitations I really needed to figure out something nice to do for Shawn’s family and Raquel’s mother, Carmen.

Pleasant anticipation helped, but I still felt the weight on my shoulders, the shadow hanging over my thoughts. It was more than I’d ever carried before, higher stakes, and even as my muscles relaxed I felt a sense of pressure in my chest, weakened but still present. I’d been keyed up on adrenaline in the past, and I’d felt angry, fearful, and exhilarated, but the pressure, the doubt about the unknown future, was worse than other feelings that had kept me awake in the past.

It was a long night.
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