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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.”