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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.