Category Archives: Try Try Again

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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