Category Archives: You Can Choose Your Friends

You Can Choose Your Friends 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else?” Leon asked.

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

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

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

So, I’m correct,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I lay back, trying to relax physically.

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

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

Other than me, you mean?” Leon asked.

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

Point taken,” Leon conceded.

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

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

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

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

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

Less than two inches hidden,” Leon commented.

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

I sighed, putting down the ruler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She must have been pretty convincing,” I said.

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

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

Where was this?” Leon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agree with them,” Leon said.

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

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

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

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

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

What are we, then?” Leon said.

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

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

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

True,” Leon conceded.

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

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

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

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

What’s up?” Leon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t fix everything,” Leon said.

I’m not trying to,” I said. “But can’t we fix something? I almost wish my powers just printed money, but I don’t know if that would really solve anything in the long run either.

In the long run, Mary’s boss is a major threat to a lot of people,” Leon said. “I think most of them would agree that it’s best for us to put our focus there, for now, and I think the ones worth listening to would tell you to get some rest. You need down time.

I know,” I said.

We fell silent as I kept walking. I didn’t feel depressed or sad, just…aimless. I didn’t even know what questions I wanted to ask, but I felt confident no one else knew the answers.  If someone did have them, they certainly hadn’t shared them yet.

I glanced down at my feet and hid them for a moment, looking through them at the ground. Two little dead spots remained, almost symmetrical, still impossible to hide with my abilities. A strange weakness. Those seemed to be the only chink in the armor, and I still wasn’t sure why.

I wonder if we’ll ever learn where these powers come from,” I said. “It’s so strange, the way these things just appeared. But no one has an answer. Even the Philly Five don’t seem to know why or how. We’re just…here.

Are you all right?” Leon asked, radiating concern.

I think so,” I said. “I just feel like a raft on the ocean. I’m drifting along without knowing where we started or where we’re headed. Maybe I can try to catch a current, but there’s no guarantee it will work, and it’s hard to tell them apart anyway.

No one ever knows everything about the past,” Leon said. “And no one ever knows anything about the future. We can make good guesses, educated ones, but for all we know a comet could come from the heavens next week, or something. Uncertainty is the only sure thing.

I don’t even want certainty, though,” I said. “I just want to know what I should do with myself. Comet, Bloodhound, their whole team…they have a sense of real purpose. Raquel does too, somehow. Even Heavyweight knows what he is and isn’t willing to do. Meteor…I don’t know if she seems uncertain or not. And then there’s me, tagging along to avoid the guilt I’d feel for doing nothing. I never really thought I’d be a hero, but this is farther removed from that than I hoped, let’s say.

It’s more than that,” Leon said. “Raquel and Feral are friends, aren’t they? We’re kindred spirits, if you’ll pardon the pun. We’re connected. And I know we both feel a desire to help Mary and the others.

Do I?” I wondered. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell if I like helping people or if I just feel bad being lazy. I just…

What?” Leon asked.

I shook my head. “Shouldn’t I care about them more? As individuals, I mean? Most of the people I’ve tried to help, it’s like they’re not all the way real to me. I mean, they’re people, I know, but…I don’t know them. They’re just faces, mostly. Sometimes they have names. I feel like it’s necessary to keep some detachment, like if I let myself care about every last one of them I’ll go nuts. But if I’m helping them like a robot then doesn’t that defeat the purpose? When I’m in the moment it’s one thing, but looking at it after the fact it just seems inhuman.

Leon paused before answering. “I don’t have any answers either,” he said. “There is no way to care for each and every individual, David. There are too many humans in the world for that. No one can sustain that level of investment, and you must understand that. If you’re asking whether you care enough, my answer is yes, without hesitation or qualification.

What about the men who died so we could save Dustin?” I asked.

What about them?” Leon said. “We didn’t try to kill them, or neglect to save them. We didn’t rejoice when they died. We pulled a man out of that building, as I recall. If we could have pulled two, we would have.

Shouldn’t I know their names? Know something about them?” I said. “I don’t even remember their faces, really. I know I’m on the right side, but do I really belong there if they’re just corpses to me?

If you think you aren’t bothered, then why are we having this conversation?” Leon said. “David, I wish things had gone better that day. I wish we had known everything we know now from the start. I wish we could save everyone, care about every life, and erase injustice and sorrow from the world. But we’re not gods. We lack the power, the wisdom, the judgment – everything. The one thing I can tell you is that dwelling on these feelings – and it is a matter of feelings, not of facts – will help no one. It takes from you and gives to no one.

I feel tired, Leon,” I said. “Not just sleepy, or overexerted. I mean bone tired. I’m tired of making decisions that could kill someone and having no idea if I’m right. I’m tired of pretending I have any idea how to handle all this crap. How do the others do it? Keep going through this? Even Raquel seems more together than me, and she’s a kid!

They’ve had longer than us to adapt to this sort of strangeness, you know,” Leon reminded me. “David, this kind of responsibility may be new to you, but I think we’re coping fairly well. We do the best we can at any given moment. When we have time, we ask questions. We look for peaceful solutions, we try to avoid violence when we can. That’s the whole reason everything is so quiet right now, after all; because we’re trying to learn enough to end this without a bloodbath. We intervened for Dustin and Jameson because they were in immediate, time-sensitive danger. I don’t see how we could approach things better than we already are.

I kicked an empty soda can and kept walking. “Yeah,” I said. I took a deep breath in and let it out slowly, then looked around me, turning in a circle. “It’s quiet here. Not much to do except think.

True enough,” Leon said.

I looked up at the sky. A few stars were visible, between the patchy clouds, but most of the sky was a hazy screen. “Let’s go home.

Sure,” Leon agreed.

We were silent on the way back. I couldn’t deny what he’d said; I couldn’t think of anything I wasn’t doing that needed doing. Still, I felt quietly anxious anyway. My head knew that things were going well, and thought that I was handling my situation pretty well. My gut felt unsatisfied. I hoped it was just a mood that would pass.

It was a long walk back home.

“Have a seat, please. I know you’re all exhausted.”

It took me a second to place the voice, match it to what I was seeing, and realize that it was another vision. In that time, I sat down, settling gingerly into a chair. I started to glance around, but then Mrs. Murphy continued speaking and I rushed to pay attention. It felt like walking into a room where people are watching a movie, and I wasn’t certain if I’d missed anything important or how far along the scene was.

“We’ve got two shifts covering things at the moment,” Murphy said, her voice a bit thin and reedy. “I doubt we’ll be attacked again right away, so that should be sufficient. Still, it’s clear this facility is no longer safe. Your defense bought us time we need, but we’re going to pull out. We vacate the premises tomorrow morning, if possible.”

“Where are we going?” I asked. No matter how many times this happened, it still felt disconcerting to feel the muscles in my throat move and hear a voice I didn’t recognize.

“I can’t say, yet,” Murphy said. “In fact, I don’t know myself for security reasons. But they found us too quickly for us to stay here. It’s clear they traced us somehow when we abandoned the old building, even though we took every possible precaution. So we’re going a great deal farther, this time. We’re leaving the continent. We’ll pack up anything critical, destroy anything that isn’t, and getting out of here as soon as we can. I’d have us out the door now, if I could, but one of the research teams is still in the middle of something, and they can’t stop early. Before you all go get some well-deserved rest, though, I need to present you with a choice.”

“What kind of choice?” Charlotte asked. She was sitting to my right, and when I glanced at her I saw that there were scrapes on her face. She was dressed for a battle, the way I’d seen her in my very first vision, with her helmet on the table in front of her. Others in the room looked similar, with most sporting minor injuries. One man was cradling a wrist, while another fiddled with the bandages on an arm that had been splinted already, and a woman had one leg similarly immobilized.

“I know you’re all here for more than just the money,” Murphy said slowly, “but you are employees, and your contracts don’t cover forced relocation to another continent. Frankly, things are worse than we planned for, and we hadn’t covered this exact contingency. So here it is: If you want to leave with me and the research team and continue to protect their work, then you have that option, but I can’t compel you to do it. If you prefer, we’ll leave you behind when we exit the country, or drop you off between the border and our final destination. You’d be on your own, without the foundation’s resources, but you might not be a target. I’d advise you not to come back here, but that’s your choice to make. If you do come with us, then I’ll need to ask for a permanent commitment. The radical elements among the Wavers are acting more openly and violently, and I suspect it won’t be long until this conflict becomes public. So this is decision time, ladies and gentlemen. If you’re with us, then we’ll need you to be with us all the way. If not, I’ll hold you to your contracts until we’re outside the country, but once we’re away from here you’ll have the right to go your own way – whatever that is.”

“What do you mean, ‘permanent commitment’?” I said slowly. “A lifetime contract?”

Murphy shook her head. “We’ve run the foundation largely as a series of interconnected private businesses and research organizations. That’s coming to an end, now. To put it bluntly, this is no longer even remotely about money. It’s about power. The Wave has reached the point of dispatching strike teams inside the United States, and we know they’ve penetrated the government to some extent, through the combined powers of their members. I don’t know for certain, but I think we’ll probably be ceding North America entirely in the near future, and possibly South America as well. We’ll establish ourselves where we can, in whatever way we can, and continue to search for ways to equalize the balance of power between supers and other humans. If things go well, that will mean partnering with governments, and we might come back one day. If things go poorly, and groups like the Wave take over, then we’ll try to form decentralized resistance movements against them and spread what we know as widely as possible while we continue to look for long-term solutions.” She paused to let that sink in. “This isn’t a war, but it might become one. We intend to be ready for that possibility.”

I felt my eyes widen in surprise, and the expressions I saw on other faces mirrored that, except for Murphy. She swept her eyes around the room, looking at each of us for a moment. When she looked at me, my eyes locked with hers, and I was impressed with the resolve I saw.

“This isn’t our worst case scenario, but it’s close,” Murphy said. “Now, I’m sorry to put you on the spot after what you’ve just been through, but I need to make travel arrangements, and that means I need to know how many people are coming. If you stick with us after today, this will be your life’s work, not just a contract. I hope you will; your experience would be invaluable, and I believe I can trust all of you. But as your employer, I can’t make you come. So what’s it going to be?”

For a few moments everything was very still. No one moved. My mind was reeling with the implications of everything that she’d said, and I couldn’t imagine a world like the one she’d just painted a picture of.

I felt a shift next to me, and I looked at Charlotte. She looked back at me. I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it again, cocking my head to one side.

She gave a slight nod, the tiniest motion of her chin.

We stood up together. “We’ll come along for the ride,” I heard her say. I nodded firmly.

Murphy gave us a genuine smile, the first I’d seen from her. “Thank you,” she said.

After we broke the tension, others stood up, following our lead. A few didn’t, including one or two I recognized from previous visions; members of my squad or Charlotte’s.

“I’ll keep my contract,” one of them said. “But once we’re out of the country I’m leaving. I signed up for security work, not politics or guerilla warfare.”

Murphy nodded. “Of course. Well, to those who will be staying, I look forward to having you with me. To those who will be leaving us, thank you for your good work. Stay here to talk to me about severance pay, please; since we’re leaving the country, I’ll need to go over the arrangements with all of you so that you can collect, and I’ll need to know who intends to remain in the United States and who will want a ride out of the country. For those coming with me, your pay will be transferred to accounts that you can access once we reach our destination. If any of you want to retrieve any personal items or write any messages to people who you’ll be leaving behind, talk to Allen. We won’t have lots of room, but you can each bring a single duffel of personal effects in addition to equipment, and I’m willing to let you go get something as long as you don’t take too long or sacrifice security. Those who are already living here full-time are not eligible for such trips, for obvious reasons. Sorry.”

Murphy looked at Charlotte and me as she said that last part, and I shrugged. We filed out of the room, followed by a cluster of people, while a smaller group stayed behind. Charlotte led me down the hall and then off to one side; she leaned back against a wall, and I Ieaned in close so we could talk.

“Can you believe this?” she asked.

I sighed. “Yeah, I can. I wouldn’t have when we got hired, but the world’s gone nuts while we were in here.”

Charlotte slid down the wall, pressing her back against it until she was sitting, knees bent, leaning back. I followed suit next to her.

“I can’t believe Hector didn’t make it,” she said quietly. “The guy survives that mess down in Mexico, then two more close calls, and finally gets killed by falling chunks of debris. He didn’t even get hit by the enemy.”

“He was damn good,” I agreed. “I guess his number just came up.”

Charlotte snorted. “You know David, I hate when people say that. It always makes me think of a sandwich shop, or the DMV. Like some bored asshole is sitting behind a desk with nothing to do but check deaths off a list.”

“I’ll take mine on rye, with potato chips,” I said quietly.

Charlotte chuckled softly, then put a hand on my knee. “Don’t be a jackass.”

I put my hand on top of hers. “Yeah.” My mouth felt dry, and I spent a few seconds trying to moisten it with my tongue. “You’re sure about going with Murphy?”

“It feels right,” Charlotte said. “I mean, are we going to find something more important to do? I know I mostly started because the money was good, but…after what I’ve seen, I think Murphy and her friends are right. If we don’t get a handle on things soon, we might run out of time.” She paused, and I glanced down the hallway; a few of the others from the meeting walked by, glanced at us, and kept moving, leaving us alone together.

“I think so too,” I said. “I’m betting the pay won’t be as good, huh?”

Charlotte laughed softly again. “Probably not. Saying we’re on board for life doesn’t establish a good bargaining position.”

I looked at her as she cupped her hands, and after a moment I realized that a small spark of light was coming to life there. Charlotte looked at it and smiled, then glanced sideways at me. “Still, maybe if we can learn enough we’ll really get in this fight.”

I cupped her hands in mine, and the light swelled as I felt the familiar sensation of power and energy trickling out through my hands. “Damn right we will.”

After a moment I closed my hands over hers, and we both let the light go. I stood and offered her a hand, then helped her to her feet. “Come on. Let’s get ready to leave.”

Charlotte nodded. “And then we practice. Last time I almost got a few tricks combat-ready, I think. It’s not stable yet, but with a little more work…”

“Me too,” I said. I put an arm over her shoulder. “Just think how much fun it will be the first time one of those bastards comes at us thinking we’re regular squishy, crunchy mortals and gets a face full of a different kind of power?”

Charlotte grinned. “That’s a day worth living to see.”

We walked down the hall with purpose. I still felt the fatigue and the aches, but from the way my body was moving I knew its owner felt energized, and a few strides later he and Charlotte were jogging side by side.

Leon?

Yes, David, it felt the same to me too.

Magic,” I mused. “Maybe there is a reason we’re seeing this after all.
 
 
 

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You Can Choose Your Friends 3

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Thanksgiving dinner went all right, and to my relief it was uninterrupted. Leon made fun of me for expecting something to happen, and I couldn’t argue with him about it; the closest I came to being in danger was when I went back for seconds on turkey, stuffing, and potatoes. When I’d asked Shawn’s aunt half-seriously if she used a secret family recipe for the stuffing, she laughed and said she just made it up one year, after trying different versions over the years and being unsatisfied with them all.

I felt like I’d eaten enough for three dinners, once I accounted for dessert. Shawn’s aunt and uncle had spent hours in the kitchen, while Shawn, Liz, and I entertained their kids. They’d had a friend of theirs over, too. He’d been a co-worker of Shawn’s uncle, and he’d been hilarious. Whenever we weren’t keeping the kids busy we were listening to him tell some story or other, while Shawn’s aunt laughed and his uncle kept having to remind the guy to keep it all PG (or not, when the children weren’t around). He’d managed, cutting a few stories short and skipping some parts that sounded interesting. If my parents had been there, I had a feeling they would have called him “a character.”

In retrospect, I don’t think Liz needed any backup,” Leon commented.

Are you kidding?” I said. “She played with their kids, she ate seconds, and they all had a great time. She’s golden. I bet she’d have to burn down their house for them not to like her.

I was back in my room, alone. Shawn and Liz had crashed at her dorm, probably because it was a little closer and we were all exhausted by the time we got back to campus. It gave me some privacy, anyway, which was fortunate because I’d felt a need to take off my pants after eating so much. The waist had been uncomfortably tight around my stomach.

I sat back in bed and leaned against the wall, putting a hand to my belly. “In retrospect, we might have gone overboard.

Sorry about that,” Leon apologized. “It was hard to stop once you let me have a turn.

Forget it, I pigged out too,” I said. “It was worth a minor stomach ache. I freaking love Thanksgiving, by the way. It’s nice to have an excuse to stuff myself once in a while.

Amen to that,” Leon agreed with amused reverence.

I checked my phone, quickly, just in case.

There weren’t any messages. We turned off the lights to go to sleep, taking pleasure in the moment.

For one evening, at least, I’d managed to forget about everything that had worried me the night before. I knew it wouldn’t last, but it was a pleasant respite.

My predictions proved untrue; the quiet did last beyond Thanksgiving. Mary kept in touch to let us know that Tuggey was tailing Michaels with a few men while the empath went from place to place, moving around and trying to attract our attention without being too obvious. According to her, Michaels was bitching about the uncomfortable arrangements and constant movement. We all agreed that his discomfort was a feature of the plan, rather than a bug. It was petty, but sometimes you have to take the satisfaction you can get. Tuggey was handling things better, but apparently was getting sick of Michaels whining. I was happy to let them hate each other’s company in peace.

Raquel and I both took the opportunity to catch up on our schoolwork, and I was motivated by the knowledge that winter break wasn’t too far off now that Thanksgiving was behind us. Christmas decorations started to go up, and I began to worry about the possibility of something going wrong while I was at home for break. Mary and Raquel were competent, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving them without backup. Heavyweight had powers, but I didn’t consider him reliable. That might be unfair of me, but it was the truth.

There was one big surprise shortly after Thanksgiving, though, when Raquel and I went to meet Bloodhound and his teammates for lessons and practice.

Bloodhound and Stalker weren’t the only ones present; Comet was there, and she asked us if we would mind if Meteor came by to talk to us.

We talked it over briefly before agreeing, mainly out of curiosity. When Meteor showed up, she was dressed like Comet, but all in black – the same thing she’d worn in the video I’d seen of the Battle of Philadelphia. She landed right outside the building and walked in, and the five of us (seven, counting Feral and Leon) turned to face her.

Meteor stopped just inside. “Hi,” she said. Comet walked over and gave her a hug, and after a moment’s hesitation she returned it. They whispered to each other for a moment, then walked back toward us together. Meteor glanced at Bloodhound and Stalker, then looked at Raquel, Feral, and I. She took a deep breath, clearly gathering her thoughts or her courage before speaking.

“So…we met under pretty strange circumstances, I guess,” she said. “I know I probably came across pretty badly. In retrospect, what I said then sounds kind of paranoid and…well, not good. I just wanted to apologize for flipping out right off the bat. It’s not the kind of first impression I would have liked to make, if I’d been thinking about it.”

“It’s all right,” Menagerie said. “I guess you’d just been through something pretty tough.”

Meteor turned her head to glance at Comet, then looked back at us. “It wasn’t a good day, no. That was my first real fight, actually. I managed to stay out of that kind of trouble pretty much my whole life. I’m sorry you were there when all of that came out, anyway. I already apologized to them,” she jerked a thumb at Bloodhound and Stalker, “and their teammates, but I wanted to talk to you guys too.”

I cocked my head to one side. “I’m guessing you meant some of what you said, though, right?”

Meteor shrugged, and Leon thought it looked a bit forced. “Yes, but not the way I said it. The truth is, I don’t have a problem with the Philly Five in particular, or with you guys. But what you all do does make me anxious. Secrets and lies usually breed, and I don’t really trust power that’s used in secret. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that, you know? It’s not about what I think of any individual. I just…don’t trust the overall direction. And I do worry about the example it sets. I don’t think any of you are bad guys, or bad people, but that’s kind of what worries me. It’s really easy to sympathize with you and take your side, but anyone with the right powers can claim to be supporting justice. The problem is that every one of us ends up defining that for ourselves, and we have a lot of muscle to make our definitions stick whether other people like them or not. That’s dangerous in a way the Collector and his people aren’t. They’re just criminals, at the end of the day. They don’t have an ideology. That’s what I would have said before, if I’d been feeling less…upset.”

“If you think we’re decent people and you don’t distrust us, how can you have a problem with us trying to help people?” Menagerie asked.

“Because people change,” Meteor said, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “Having power changes people, and using it changes them more. I know my life would have been very different up to now if I couldn’t do the things I can do. Knowing that I can fly away from any conversation I don’t like is just the tip of the iceberg. I remember being a kid and having to learn real fast that I couldn’t afford to throw a temper tantrum. Now, I just live every second of every day with the knowledge that I can throw a tank rattling around in my subconscious. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t change us is out of touch with reality.”

“You think it changes us that much?” I asked.

“We’re still human, in the end,” Meteor said. “In the good ways and the bad ones.” She let out a deep breath. “Let me put it this way: I’ve tried a few drugs, but power’s better than all of them. It’s too good. That’s my real problem. I guess I wish no one could do the things we can do. Even if I would have to give up flying.” Her voice turned wistful at the end. “That one’s pretty harmless on its own, I guess. But if I could snap my fingers and make these powers all go away, worldwide? I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

“We’re trying to help people and keep them safe,” I pointed out. “A few months ago, I was worried too. I wasn’t involved, and I stayed out of things partly because I was worried about making the world worse, which sounds a lot like what you’ve been saying. But if none of us did anything, then nothing would ever change for the better either, would it? I agree these powers are pretty unfair, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find good ways to use them.”

“Maybe,” Meteor said. She seemed to relax a bit as I redirected the conversation along more general lines. “But there’s a difference between getting involved in the world as Steve or Jennifer and getting involved in the world as Meteor or Flicker, isn’t there? Look, I don’t think having powers means that everything we do goes bad. It just…magnifies everything. The more power we have, the more impact our choices have. So our mistakes are bigger. Our successes might be too, but I’m just not sure that’s worth the risks.”

“Speaking of risks, we take some pretty big ones to do what we do,” Stalker interjected. “Doesn’t that count for something?”

Meteor hesitated. “It does, but when we take action we aren’t the only ones at risk. If I fly around recklessly and plow into a building, then all the people there are at risk, and they didn’t have a chance to say whether or not they want to accept that risk. We aren’t always the ones who pay the price for our choices. If I make a regular mistake, then that’s fine. But once powers get involved, it’s all a lot less evenhanded.”

I realized that we had started to drift into a line opposite Meteor, like we were going to argue her down. I drifted to my right, trying to turn the group into more of a circle.

“Well, I appreciate your apology,” I said. “It was a bit unsettling, as introductions go. But if that was your first real fight, I’d say you did just fine if getting a little angry and worried afterward is all that happened. I freaked out after mine, that’s for sure.”

Meteor shook her head. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I? I came here to apologize, not start a debate, but now we’re debating. Look, you should know that I admire what you’re trying to do, at least. I don’t necessarily think you’re making the right call, but I appreciate your motives. Does that make sense? That’s what I came here to say. I might hope you’ll change how you operate, but I know you’re trying to be on the right side, and that still counts for something.”

Leon and I weren’t really sure what to say to that. Menagerie and Feral seemed to feel the same way, so we just stood there awkwardly for a few seconds, until Meteor looked at Bloodhound. “Can I have a sec, by the way?”

“Sure,” he said after a moment. They walked off to one side.

“Thanks for hearing her out,” Comet said once she was gone. “I guess you probably figured out we’re close, after our little argument. I know she can be kind of hard to deal with sometimes, but I know she’ll have my back anytime I need it. She saved my life, that day.”

I glanced at Stalker, and Leon wondered if Comet’s teammates felt the same way – and whether Meteor was really deserving of Comet’s trust, either way. She’d practically ranted, the first time we met. Even taking into account the circumstances, and the fact that some of her points made sense, she’d seemed dangerous. I knew better than to judge someone’s entire personality based on a few minutes of interaction at a highly stressful time, but she seemed angry, underneath it all.

Not angry,” Leon disagreed. “Afraid.

Of what?” I asked.

I don’t know, David” Leon said. “But that’s my instinct. She was afraid, not angry. In any case, it’s good to see that she is calmer now. One thing she didn’t point out is that there is a vast disparity in the amount of damage people with powers can do, I think. You and I could cause serious trouble, but it’s not likely to happen in a single moment of carelessness or passion. Comet or Meteor, on the other hand, only need to make one mistake to hurt a lot of people.

True, I guess,” I said. “Not all superpowers are created equal, and all that.

“We all have it tough sometimes,” Menagerie said. She looked at Meteor and Bloodhound. “I’m surprised she cares what we think, though.”

“I think she just felt bad for letting our stuff splash on you,” Comet said. “So, how have things been in this neck of the woods?”

I figured we should accept the change of topic. “Not too bad. We’re keeping busy, trying to stay on top of things. There’s sort of a situation brewing. Not something we can talk about, but we might end up asking for some help at some point, if you can provide it. Particularly from you,” I nodded at Stalker.

Stalker seemed surprised, for a moment, but then she settled again. “Well, I’ll help if I can. I don’t think there’s much point to us talking if we don’t help each other out now and then.”

“I don’t expect you to sign a blank check or anything, don’t worry,” I said. “We’re not being mysterious just for laughs. It’s just that it’s still early stages. We’ll tell you more when we know more about what’s happening and what kind of help we need. For now, we’re playing the waiting game a lot.”

Menagerie nodded agreement. We’d talked about the situation a bit, before meeting the Philly Five, and agreed not to tell them anything specific yet. I’d favored saying nothing, after what Mary had told us about the boss, but Leon, Feral, and Menagerie had all wanted to at least give the team a head’s-up, in the hopes that they might be able to help us more quickly if something went catastrophically wrong. I’d held out until Leon suggested that we consult with Mary. She was a bit irritated that we wanted to share any of her secrets, at first, but after talking it over she ultimately took their side.

I hadn’t lost that argument very gracefully, but when everyone disagrees there isn’t much else to do.

“Does this have to do with what happened to that kid, Justin?” Comet asked.

“Dustin,” Menagerie corrected. “And it probably does.”

“Please don’t try to look into it yourselves,” I said. “We’re doing our best to keep a low profile. We don’t want the people responsible to realize we’re on their trail.”

“Okay,” Comet said. “Thanks for the warning. How worried about this are you guys?”

I scratched my head. “On a scale of one to ten, I’d say it’s a two or three for expecting something to go wrong, but more like a seven or eight for how bad things could get if it does go wrong. But there’s a lot of margin for error on that second part. Too much we still don’t know.”

“Anything else you can tell us?” Stalker asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

Bloodhound and Meteor walked back toward us and I watched them as I spoke to Comet and Stalker. “We’ll be in touch as the situation develops,” I said. “For now, I think we’d like to keep brushing up our skills. If and when something happens, I’d like to be ready.”

“Fair enough, I guess,” Comet said.

“Don’t wait too long to ask for help,” Stalker added.

Bloodhound and Meteor arrived at the spot where we were standing and rejoined the rest of us.

So, are they better or worse now?” I asked Leon.

Those two? I have no idea, actually,” Leon said.

I guess that makes two of us. Or one-and-a-half, maybe? Stupid idioms.

That’s idiots,” Leon said. “But I don’t think it really applies to me, so speak for yourself.

Hardy har har, aren’t you hilarious,” I said. We returned our attention to everyone else.

“So, what do you guys normally do here, spar and stuff?” Meteor asked.

“I’ve been teaching the two of them,” Bloodhound said. “With mixed results, I must admit, but it hasn’t been a waste of time. More recently, Stalker got bored and decided some sparring was called for. I’m assuming she reasoned that it’s sensible because I’m on hand to patch everyone up, as if I had nothing better to do.”

Comet and Stalker laughed, and Meteor shook her head. “Anyone mind if I stick around?” She looked at us, then added, “I won’t take it personally if you say yes. I recognize that I haven’t exactly been running an airtight popularity contest…campaign, thing.”

I started to shrug, but stopped myself. “Menagerie? Feral? Leon?

I don’t know,” Leon said. “What do you two think?

I’m a fan of apologies, and it seemed sincere enough to me,” Menagerie said. “Feral?

No reason not to let her stay,” Feral said.

“I don’t see any reason to kick you out of the unofficial club,” I said. “Just remember the first two rules of super hero club.”

“You do not talk about super hero club,” Stalker said immediately. “I think the second one says that Meteor is supposed to bring snacks. Donuts are preferable to bagels, since there’s no toaster.”

Feral and Menagerie didn’t get it, which in retrospect wasn’t surprising.

It’s from a movie, sorry,” I said. “I’ll explain later, if you care enough.

“I thought one of the rules said that if it’s your first time, you have to fight,” Meteor said, turning her head towards Comet. “Isn’t that right?”

Comet laughed. “We just made up, and you want to go a round? I think you’re unclear on how friendships are supposed to work.”

Meteor held up her hands. “Hey, if I don’t know something, take me to school. Are you ready to do this or not?”

Comet shook her head. “Fine, but keep in mind that we don’t want to have a repeat of the island incident.”

“Hey, that was on you,” Meteor said, waving one hand airily. “You’re the one who sank it.”

“You punched me through it!” Comet protested.

“Um, what?” Menagerie said. She sounded a bit like a deer looks in the headlights.

Stalker laughed so hard she doubled over, placing her hands just above her knees to support herself.

“We weren’t there, but I’ve heard the story,” Bloodhound said. It was hard to tell, with the way the mask distorted his voice, but it sounded like he was amused, too. “Apparently these two geniuses once found a small island and thought it might be a good place for a sparring match. It was out of the way, so tiny that it wasn’t really worth owning, and there wasn’t even anything living on it, really. Just sand and grass, a bit out from the shore. So they start sparring, slowly turning up the heat and using more of their powers a bit at a time, until eventually one of them punched the other one down at an angle that went through the island and into the water. Three times. Our fearless leader makes a pretty hardy projectile, so instead of the island breaking her fall, she broke the island.”

“It wasn’t very sturdy to begin with, in fairness to us,” Meteor said. “Not, like, a proper island. It was just some sand and grass anchored by a few rather large rocks.”

“It was smaller than a football field, but not that much,” Comet said. “And you broke it!”

“That’s ridiculous,” Meteor said, her voice dripping with the scorn of the dismissal. “How could I have broken it when I never touched it? Really, Comet. Don’t tarnish your reputation by being dishonest with these kindly folk.”

Comet stared at her for a second before breaking down in laughter, and I was almost surprised to see Meteor start chuckling too. I found myself laughing along a bit as well.

In the back of my head, Leon and I chalked the exchange up as further evidence of how close the two were. That exchange could have been friendship, but Meteor had alluded to them being family previously, and now I was inclined to think it had been the literal truth.

Sisters?” I asked Leon.

Could be close cousins or something, but yes, I think that’s most likely,” Leon agreed. “I think it fits with everything, and they do have the same powers, after all. Perhaps the abilities run in the family.

I frowned. “Do we have any evidence that powers are hereditary? They’ve all appeared in people whose parents didn’t have powers, I thought. Dustin’s mother isn’t pyrokinetic, as far as we know.

I don’t think we’ve ever seen solid information either way,” Leon said. “But it seems possible, at least. If not blood relatives, perhaps they’re just friends who have been close for years? The similarity in powers suggests a common cause, though. If they are related, it seems like a meaningful correlation, at least. I suppose it could also be a result of exposure to something, if powers are…bestowed, for lack of a better word. Maybe they both walked past the same magic tree one day when they were kids.

Meteor got herself under control first. “So, you up for it or not? We don’t have to, but it has been a while.”

Comet straightened up. “All right. But seriously, hold the power. We’re guests. Trashing the place would be rude.”

“No problem,” Meteor said with a nod. She started walking away from us. “So…stay indoors, no breaking the building, and no using spectators as shields. Shall we dance?”

Comet walked after her. “Let’s do this.”

“Come on, let’s get out of the way,” Stalker said. The rest of us followed her as she walked off to one side, away from the pair who, I realized, had stopped walking in favor of floating. Stalker was leading us away from the fixtures that remained, and I realized she was trying to make sure we had a clear view of most of the building’s interior. I would have criticized that, on the grounds that it would be smarter to stand behind something, but then I remembered that Comet and Meteor would have to be careful not to collapse the building by accident. There wasn’t any safety in getting behind stuff. Either I trusted their control, or I should be leaving the area entirely.

Comet’s teammates didn’t seem nervous, and I decided to trust them. The “island incident” might sound terrifying, but they’d checked for inhabitants first. If I’d had that kind of strength, I would have wanted to test it at some point, too.

Besides, I really wanted to see this. Each of them had fought Silhouette and Skyscraper, and I knew Comet had fought a few other tough supers over the years, but I’d never heard about a mirror match like this one. Meteor and Comet had apparently reached a comfortable spot, and they were both floating just a bit above the ground, facing each other. There were only a few yards between them, and I assumed either one of them could cross that distance in a heartbeat.

“I feel like we should be placing bets,” Stalker muttered.

“I bet this is going to be fucking awesome,” Menagerie said.

“I bet one of us pisses his or her pants before it’s over,” Bloodhound said.

“I bet we’ll all look back on this one day and agree with Menagerie,” I said. “And by ‘one day,’ I mean tomorrow.”

“Now,” Stalker said.

She must have been calling the start for them, because they moved at the second she spoke, flying towards each other. Meteor led with her right leg, extending it as they closed, and Comet ascended above the kick, attacking with a combination of rapid punches at Meteor’s stomach. Meteor dropped to the ground and then kicked off like a swimmer but moving straight upward. Her fist just barely missed as Comet slid sideways, and Comet’s shin caught Meteor in the stomach, knocking her backward.

Meteor dove right back in, but this time when Comet kicked at her Meteor came to a sudden stop, her upper body twisting in midair as she kicked with both legs, feet together. Comet turned but got hit in the shoulder and knocked back by the blow, barely stopping her momentum short of the wall.

The whole fight was like that, a constant back and forth. The way they flew let them move in three dimensions unlike anything I’d ever seen. I’d noticed it the day I met the Philly Five, but it was on another level now, with both combatants easily able to move forward, backward, left, right, up, down, or any combination thereof. They twisted and slid around kicks and punches, flipped upside down without a moment’s hesitation, and generally ignored gravity and slapped inertia across the face. Even without flight I could never have fought either of them, but now I realized that even if I was a match for them in strength and toughness I could never catch them in the first place unless they flew near me.

As the match continued, they started putting more force into the blows, although it did plateau, thankfully. I wondered if Stalker had reminded them to be careful and rein it in.

I started to feel jaded when I realized that I was actually getting less impressed by the spectacle in front of me. Only a handful of minutes had passed, and I was already accustomed to the sight of Meteor and Comet flying over and under each other, as casually as I might sidestep. It was still exciting to watch, though. I’d lost track of who was landing more blows, but it occurred to me now that there was probably no way for a match between these two to end unless it was serious or they just got exhausted. They were so durable that calling a winner in anything short of a fight to the death might be impossible. Their ability to fly meant that even taking out the legs might not be a disabling injury.

Finally, the maneuvering and exchanges of blows gave way to something else. Meteor and Comet started grappling with each other in midair, trying to get a hold of each other’s arms and legs. That was, if possible, even stranger to watch than what had come before, and it took me a while to figure out why. Grappling typically assumed that the ground was there to pin your opponent against, but that wasn’t always true for these two. Soon they landed, but Leon and I quickly realized that the trickiest part of grappling between these two was countering each other’s flying abilities. Even when pinned on the ground, each of them had the power to accelerate in any direction, regardless of where they were looking. At one point, Comet got Meteor’s arm and seemed about to pull it into a position where Meteor would have to give up or have her arm broken, but then Meteor suddenly flew sideways, not off the ground but simply sliding along it. She jerked in several directions, and the rapid changes of movement allowed her to free her arm. A bit later, Meteor grabbed Comet by the leg, and Comet flew up at an angle, then stopped, letting momentum carry Meteor along so that she lost her grip.

After a few frustrating-looking minutes of that, they called a halt and landed. Stalker started walking towards them, and the rest of us followed. Meteor took off her helmet and shook her head, then started wiping her face.

“Sweat in the god damn eyes,” she said, muffled by her mask. She tugged it back into its proper place a second later, then looked at Comet. “There’s nothing like fighting 3D.”

Comet nodded, then took her helmet off too. “Yeah. Thanks for the practice.”

“Back at you,” Meteor replied. She flopped onto her back, staring upward. “I feel totally gross.”

Comet laughed. “Hey, at least you live alone. You won’t have anyone complaining that your clothes stink.”

They looked up as we stopped near them.

“So for the record, that was awesome,” I said. “Which, I think, means Menagerie wins the bets we didn’t make.”

“Thanks,” Menagerie said. “I’ll make sure not to spend it all in one place.”

I looked at Bloodhound and Stalker. “So, I know telepathy probably makes sparring boring – either it doesn’t work or it just wins outright, I’m guessing – but do the rest of you guys ever spar either of them? Because the way they move, it just seems impossible.”

“It’s a pain in the ass, but the rest of us can beat Comet if we work together and get a little lucky,” Stalker said. “We’ve done it…what? Twice? Three times, I think.”

Bloodhound nodded. “Three times. We haven’t bothered to try that matchup very often, though. It’s not really fruitful training.”

Meteor broke in, sitting up and leaning back on her hands. “With people who can fly like us, there are only three ways to bring us down, really,” she said, glancing at Comet before she continued. “First, there’s dogged pursuit. It takes luck, but if the powers align right you can just keep chasing and we eventually make a mistake, if only due to fatigue.”

Comet chimed in, rolling her shoulders. “Second, attack something we have to defend. That can force us to get close, so we lose the mobility advantage. That’s how Blitz got me before. Third, prevent us from moving. Telekinesis might do that, or force fields, or other stuff like that. Or if someone with the right leverage and strength can just get a solid grip on us, they can keep us close. We have a lot of horsepower in our flying, though, and we can go in any direction, so that’s tough.”

Meteor picked the conversation back up. “Lastly, of course, there’s cheating. If someone’s powers just knock us unconscious without a fight, that would work too. So I guess that’s actually four ways.”

“How did you guys do it?” Menagerie asked, looking at Stalker and Bloodhound.

“It really does take all of us,” Stalker said. “Direct telepathic attack might change that, but we’ve avoided experimenting, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Telepathy can help arrange a coordinated attack and defense, though. Newton can just barely hold Comet down if he cranks his power up enough and just lays on the Gs. Doing that to a normal person might kill them, of course. Actually, he has to be careful not to turn the power up and down too quickly, or he can cause problems anyway. Something like the bends that divers have to worry about, if you know what that is. Has to do with pressure.”

“We’re getting a bit sidetracked, here,” Bloodhound said. “The answer is that we can beat Comet, if we all work together and get lucky enough. It requires favorable conditions, her making a mistake, or a genuine coincidence in our favor to catch her in the first place, but it’s doable. The more we can plan, the better the odds. Without that, though, she just takes us out one at a time. I assume things would work pretty much the same against Meteor, except that we’ve never practiced against her.”

“Speaking of powers, there’s something I’m curious about,” Meteor said. She looked at us – at Menagerie, I realized after a moment. “Your friend, the cat – she can cut through a lot of things. Do you know if she can cut us?”

“Um, I’m, uh, not sure,” Menagerie said. She sounded nervous.

“Relax, I’m not interrogating,” Meteor said. “I’m just curious. Could we do a little experiment?”

“What kind?” Menagerie asked.

“I don’t know, cut my palm or something?” Meteor suggested. “If not, it’s okay, but I have to admit I have wondered about it.”

“I’m kind of curious too,” Comet said.

“I don’t know…” Menagerie said.

I don’t think you need to worry,” I told her. “It’s their idea. No one’s going to get pissed at you, even if something does go wrong.

“I promise not to get mad,” Meteor said. “It’s not like I’m asking you to give me a papercut.”

“Wait, have you ever even had a papercut?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Comet said. “It would have to be paper from a super-tree, or something.”

Stalker hid her face behind one hand, shaking her head, then looked at Menagerie. “Don’t worry so much about it,” she said, pointing at Bloodhound. “We’ve got the magic doctor, remember?”

“Well, okay,” Menagerie said. “um, which…”

Meteor stepped forward, pulling her right glove. “Here. Just a nice shallow cut on the palm, please. I like my hand attached.”

Menagerie focused, and Feral appeared in her arms as a small housecat. Feral stretched briefly and turned to face Meteor. Meteor held out her hand, stepping closer.

Feral reached out delicately, a single claw lengthening, and then pressing it to Meteor’s palm. Carefully, she drew it across the extended hand.

Meteor twitched, pulling her hand away. “Damn. I can’t remember the last time something hurt like that.” She looked at Bloodhound. “Here.”

He took her extended hand in his own, closing them over it. It was a shallow enough cut, so I assumed it wouldn’t take long.

“It’s not working,” Bloodhound said after a few moments.

Everyone turned to look at Feral.

“Oh come on!” Menagerie protested.

“Relax,” I said. “Has that ever happened before?” I asked Bloodhound.

“I don’t think so,” he said, looking at Meteor’s hand. “Wait. There was one time…when I healed Heavyweight, the night you rescued Dustin. Some of his injuries seemed to resist being healed. Wait a moment.”

He concentrated again, and we all waited quietly. I glanced at Menagerie.

Heavyweight’s wounds inflicted by Feral resisted healing?” I said. “Did we know about that?

No, he left before we got back from dropping Raquel off, remember?” Leon said. “I note that he said ‘resisted,’ though, not that he couldn’t do it. Heavyweight certainly seemed fine the last time we saw him, so I think it must have worked eventually.

Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “I wonder if Feral’s claws would be harder for us to heal from, too.

Interesting question, but I don’t think I’m as curious as Meteor. I hope you aren’t, either,” Leon said.

No, I favor remaining ignorant on that score,” I said.

We watched Bloodhound, keeping an eye on Menagerie.

“There,” Bloodhound said. “Did that work?”

Meteor spat on her hand and rubbed some dried blood off so that she could see clearly. “Looks good. I guess your heal-fu is stronger.”

“Apparently,” Bloodhound said. He looked at Menagerie and Feral. “I hadn’t realized your claws might have this effect. Healing cuts they make takes more out of me, though it’s still doable, but if you learn to control the effect you might be able to make wounds easier or harder to heal, as you like.”

“I wonder how well it would have healed on its own,” Meteor mused.

“I’m not testing it again,” Menagerie said flatly. “I don’t like cutting people.”

I couldn’t think of the right thing to say, so I just reached out and gave her shoulder a brief pat.

“I wasn’t really asking,” Meteor said. “I’m curious, sure, but I don’t want to walk around with my hand bandaged for a week, if only to avoid coming up with an explanation. Thanks for trying it, though. Bloodhound, thanks for the healing action.” She looked at all of us. “Last time I left, I said to call me when things get bad. I said a lot of other crap too, but I want to take another stab at it: call me if you need some backup. I’m not too far away.”

“You’re heading home?” Comet said.

“Yeah, I think I better get back,” Meteor said.

The two of them walked toward the door together, and Comet put an arm over Meteor’s shoulder.

We all watched them go. It might have been Leon’s influence, but I found myself watching everyone else, too, wondering what they all thought of Meteor now.

Well, at least I could ask Menagerie outright, once we were alone.
 
 
 
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You Can Choose Your Friends 2

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Raquel and I were bundled in our coats, trying to stay warm while we waited outside. It was after five o’clock, and that meant it was already dark out, this late in the year. My butt got cold after I sat down on the roof of the Nautical Museum, and I doubted Raquel was any more comfortable on the concrete steps. It had been a relatively convenient neutral place to meet before, so we used it again, and now we were regretting it. The wind had picked up, and it made standing or sitting in the open brutally cold.

Fortunately, Mary’s car pulled up on schedule. Feral walked over and confirmed that Mary was the only one in it, and I came down from the roof, joining Raquel. We walked over and climbed in. I took the front passenger seat, while Raquel sat in the back.

“Mary,” I said. It was about the best greeting I could manage. My nose was freezing, and I sniffled as I settled gratefully into the car. Raquel just settled into the backseat, letting Feral climb onto her lap. I took off my gloves and put my hands in front of the air vents, pleased to feel warm air coming out.

“Flicker, Menagerie,” Mary said. She spoke absently, her attention on the road and her mirrors as she pulled out and started driving.

“So, what did you learn?” Mary asked once we were settled in.

“Not as much as I hoped, but there were some useful tidbits,” I said. “Lyle didn’t do his illegal work in his office. They set up a place for him, and stored drugs and supplies at a storage facility – the same one we first saw him at, actually, Menagerie. Apparently the boss or someone working for him owns the place. They keep illegal stuff there, and the staff all know not to pay much attention, I guess. Some of the space is just rented to normal people, of course, but some of the storage space holds medical supplies, guns, and all the other things people need to commit crimes. He told me where his workspace was, too. They might have cleared out by now, but it’s worth taking a look, I think.”

“Probably, yeah,” Mary said. “After you guys found Michaels at his house, they ended up arranging for it to get sold, so they might have done that again. Either way, we might be able to find out who used to own it. If we’re lucky, that could give us an address for the boss. I still haven’t been able to figure out where he lives.”

“Have you seen him in person recently?” Menagerie asked.

“Yes,” Mary said. “He’s…angry, definitely, but I don’t know if he’s so worried anymore. It’s weird. I’d expect him to be more worried over Lyle getting away, but even though he’s pissed at Tuggey he just isn’t acting very concerned about anything. After you guys got Dustin away he was on edge, but it’s like something took the pressure off.”

I blinked. “That doesn’t sound good for us. Has anything else happened that you can think of? Anything that might explain him getting less worried?”

Mary shook her head, but kept her eyes ahead, watching the road. “No, nothing. I can’t explain it. But for now I’m glad, since it means he isn’t making things more difficult for me right now.”

Menagerie broke in. “About that – your new assignment, I mean – did he give you a deadline or anything? Do you have much to go on to find us, officially?”

“No, no deadline,” Mary said. “And he hasn’t given me much to work with, either. Basically, he said he’s sick of you guys getting away from us. He wants me to find you, somehow, and bring you down. He said he wants Flicker alive if I can get you, and Heavyweight, but he told me to kill Menagerie. Said you’re too much trouble. So if we get into any impromptu confrontations, and only one of you can escape, it should be Menagerie. If I capture Flicker or Heavyweight, well, you guys will have a chance to get away. If Menagerie gets caught, I’ll have to blow my cover to help her, unless I can manage to just look incompetent. Either way, it will probably mean that I’ll have less access to information, so try to lay low. I’ll warn you if any emergencies come up, but unless you have to do something it would be good if you guys just…lived your regular lives for a little while. I’m going to try asking the boss for help bringing you in. If we’re lucky, he’ll give me a better idea of just how much muscle he’s got available in terms of powers.”

“Any idea why he thinks I’m too dangerous?” Raquel asked.

Mary hesitated. “I’ve got a pretty clear idea, yeah. He brought in Michaels and the three of us were talking tactics, going over the times his people have gone up against you guys. Tuggey fought Flicker, before, and we all saw Heavyweight and Menagerie in action. Basically, the boss thinks that if we catch you, Flicker, we can hold you as long as we need to. Heavyweight is trickier, since he’s so strong, but Michaels said he didn’t think Heavyweight was immune to him like you two are; he didn’t really try to affect him at the house because things had already gone wrong when he tried to use his powers on Feral, but he said Feral and Flicker kind of felt the same. Heavyweight felt normal. Anyway, I think that’s why. The boss figures Michaels can flip Heavyweight, and we can hold Flicker if he wants to, but he doesn’t think he can hold you, Menagerie. So he wants you dead.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Menagerie cock her head.

Well, that’s a twisted sort of compliment, I suppose,” Feral commented. “It actually sounds like he’s afraid of us.

A compliment I’m happy to do without,” Leon said.

“I wish he sounded less on top of things,” I said.

“Sorry,” Mary said. “I know no one likes getting bad news. But better you know what the story is than not.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Okay, so the boss – do you have a name for him yet, by the way? Something besides ‘the boss’ that we can call him?”

“Nope, sorry,” Mary said.

“Okay, whatever,” I said. “So the boss put you in charge of dealing with the three of us, which means capturing me and Heavyweight if possible and killing Menagerie. You’ve got men with tasers and guns, I’m assuming. How are you supposed to find us? And are any of the other people with powers working with you? Are Michaels and Tuggey in on this?”

“Tuggey is. And he doesn’t like doing what I tell him, which is the only fun part of this whole mess,” Mary said. “Michaels isn’t taking orders from me, exactly, but I’m kind of working with him, since I’m supposed to bring Heavyweight to him if I can catch him. That’s it for now. Like I said, I’m planning to ask for help. As far as supers go, I think he keeps Walker – the golf course guy – somewhere else, but I’m not sure where. I don’t know what he’s had him doing. He might send me Davis, the telekinetic I broke out of jail. I’m hoping he’ll send me someone I haven’t seen, and then we’ll learn what their powers are. If we’re really lucky, he’ll give me a choice, or at least let slip how many other supers he’s got.”

“What about finding us?” Menagerie asked.

“That’s the tricky part,” Mary said. “He doesn’t have a plan for that, as far as I can tell. I’m supposed to figure it out on my own. To be blunt, I have no idea what to do about that. I mean, whenever I try to think of a convincing plan that will make it look like I’m trying, I remember that I can call you up on the damn phone.” She snorted. “It makes it hard to think like a bad guy. And it’s especially tricky because I don’t want to come up with a plan that’s too good by accident, and then have it actually work. I feel like I’m trying to hit a really small bull’s-eye on this one, making it look good without winning or making a big splash that gets official police attention. Can you guys brainstorm? Come up with some ideas? Anything I can do that sounds good and looks good but won’t work, I’ll take.”

“Huh,” I said. “Okay, give us a minute to think.”

Leon gave me a gentle reminder.

“While we do that, do you know if the boss has an in with the police?” I asked. “Lyle said he was worried about that, that it was part of the reason he didn’t go to them for help. I’m not sure if it was true, really, since he also admitted that he didn’t call the FBI because he didn’t want to get put in prison for the shit he’s done.”

“As far as I know, he doesn’t, but I doubt he’d tell me,” Mary said. “That’s pretty vague, though. I mean, maybe he bribes someone for information, but doesn’t have any leverage or anything? There’s a lot of room between totally corrupt and completely honest. And he could always bribe some clerk without dealing with an actual cop, too.”

“Okay,” I said.

We rode in silence for a minute or two, thinking. Mary was taking us on a meandering route through the city, driving slowly. We weren’t actually trying to get anywhere.

“Here’s a thought,” I said. “We’ve showed up twice at places where Michaels’ was, and that’s got to look suspicious. If you assigned Tuggey to stay close to him and look for signs that he’s being followed, then that might get both of them out of your hair, at least temporarily. That could also make it more convincing when you ask for more muscle, if the two of them are already busy.”

“Nice,” Mary said, nodding. “I think I’ll try that. As long as you guys stay away from them, it will keep Tuggey busy without actually making any kind of difference, and if Michaels is laying low or running around playing bait then he shouldn’t be doing much damage. It’s a nice little time-waster.”

“I’m pretty happy with the idea,” I said. I chewed on my lip as I tried to put myself in the bad guys’ shoes. How would I organize a search for myself?

Leon, any ideas?” I asked.

Nothing useful, yet,” Leon said. “Given the lack of information they have about us, cornering us is difficult, and we don’t really want to change that. Because we’ve managed to maintain secrecy, the only real option is to lure us in, somehow, and hope we hear about it. Maybe Mary could find some way to leak information publicly…something that wouldn’t mean much to most people, but which we might recognize? That would allow her to set up a trap. We wouldn’t even need to show up, necessarily, if the point is just for her to look busy.

I passed that suggestion on, but I could tell that Mary wasn’t thrilled by it.

“It’s not a bad idea, but I just don’t think it’s going to cut it,” she said. “It’s worth a try, though. I’ll try to think of some reasonable bait. If you guys have any other suggestions, let me know. You never finished telling us what Lyle had to say, though – was there anything else useful?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “He was a bit hard to pin down at first. I had to play to his gratitude to really get him talking, although he was spooked enough that I don’t think he was holding back. Probably trying to paint himself as more of a victim and less of a co-conspirator than he really was, you know, but he wants the boss finished. Did you ever work with him or anything?”

“Not really,” Mary said. “I knew about him, but that was about it. Tuggey was mostly in charge of leaning on him, as far as I know.”

That reminded me of another question. “Do you have any idea why the boss didn’t have Michaels work on the doc? Or Tuggey, or you? I mean, I remember what you said before, that he maybe didn’t want Michaels to have influence over everyone. That makes sense. But it would have kept the doctor in line, and I can’t see any reason not to do it to him.”

Mary was taking a left turn, and she didn’t answer until it was done. “No idea,” she said.

I have a thought on that score, actually,” Leon said. “Aside from the concerns over giving Michaels too much power, I find myself wondering if Michael’s power might have side effects. All of those who he’s used it on have been people with little or no authority. What if too much control makes it more difficult for them to take initiative in other ways, as well as preventing them from rebelling?

Do you really think it could work that way?” I asked. “That seems like a pretty big weakness to me.

Consider what we’ve seen from the men that Tuggey and Michaels use as muscle,” Leon said. “They don’t seem stupid, precisely, but they aren’t particularly imaginative. When we retrieved Lyle, they were searching in an effective way, but it was also slow and plodding, relying on superior numbers. Having that many men mobilized was risky.

I didn’t think Benedetti or the others were dumb,” I said. “Searching has to be methodical. There’s only so much you can do to search better.

It is just an idea, but I find it telling that the only people we know haven’t been affected by Michaels are the boss himself, Mary, Tuggey, and the doctor. The doctor needed his complex skills intact, and he was controlled by greed and fear. Mary has said that she is similarly controlled by fear. Tuggey doesn’t seem to have a problem with his work, that we know of, though there’s no way to be certain, but Tuggey and Mary are both in possession of powers, making it risky to let Michaels control them, and both are in positions of authority over others. I don’t think that’s all a coincidence.

Maybe,” I said. “We do know that his power didn’t work like he meant it to against Feral and Menagerie, so it might be complicated in other ways too, I guess.

I shared the theory with the others. Mary seemed to think it might be right, but I was still skeptical.

“I think the boss is just using you all as checks and balances against each other,” I said. “I don’t think we should assume there’s more to it than that.”

“Maybe not,” Mary said. “Still, it’s worth keeping in mind. Anything else from Lyle?”

“Not really,” I said. “It seems like his work mostly came to him.”

Menagerie cleared her throat. “What about you, Mary? What else can you tell us? Any other places to look into? Anything else you’ve learned?”

“A few things, yeah,” Mary said. “I think I’ve got a pretty solid list, now, of the people at BPSC who know about the illegal stuff, and a pretty good idea of how much they all know. Not one hundred percent, but I’m pretty close. The money people definitely don’t know that much, like I thought. So there’s that. There are a few other businesses that I think are indirectly connected. I think the boss owns them, or other people own them for him. I found out about a pawn shop, a bar, a car wash, and one or two more, but they aren’t really important, I don’t think. Still, it could help later. If I play my cards right, I think I’ll be able to find him, and that’s the most important thing. If we could take down the boss and Michaels, I think we’d be past the two big obstacles.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Let’s trade details, make sure we each have all of the information just in case something goes wrong. Then I think we should split. Don’t want to spend too much time together and get spotted.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Mary said. “I mean, I’m not ignoring the chance, but I think we’ll be all right.”

“Cool,” I said. “Before we do that, though, there is one other thing on my mind.”

“What is it?” Mary said.

“After talking to Lyle, I got to thinking,” I said. “He only ran after the fight at the house, but he’s frankly a lot more afraid than you are, I think, or at least more controlled by his fear. You’ve said you’re afraid of the boss, but you don’t know what he can do. I think you’re pretty sharp. Smart enough that you could have made a run for it, like Lyle, and done a better job, even without his money. You could have just gotten on the train and never looked back. Starting over is tough, but I think you’re smart enough to find a way. So I have to ask: why haven’t you? If it’s really fear, what’s the boss got that has you scared?”

Mary hesitated long enough that I wondered if she was going to refuse to answer, but instead she pulled over, stopping the car. Once it was parked, she sighed.

“Got me all figured out, huh,” she said. “You think I’m that easy to read?”

“Not all figured out, no,” I said. “But you could have run. I think we need to know why you haven’t. Lyle didn’t go to the FBI because he’s a greedy ass. I’m guessing that’s not your reason, but you must have one.”

Feral was sitting up in Menagerie’s lap, and we all waited expectantly. I hadn’t really discussed this with Leon, but I could tell he agreed with my reasoning, and also wanted to know the answer to my question.

Mary scratched her head, hard. “Dammit,” she muttered. “You’re asking a lot from me. You know my face, you know I’m taking a huge risk. Do you really need to know this too?”

“We’ve been trusting you as much as you’ve been trusting us,” I said. “When you told me where to find Lyle, I went alone and got him out on your say-so. I trusted you then, and I still do. But I think this is important. You know why we do what we do, in a general sense at least. You know Menagerie cares about Dustin, and we don’t like the things Michaels has been doing, or the way Walker got grabbed. That’s why we’re in this. Why are you?”

Mary tilted her head back, and I waited, letting her think.

“What do you think about the guys they recruit?” Mary finally said.

I blinked at the subject change, but assumed she had a reason to ask. “I think they’re getting royally shafted. They’re on the other side, but if Michaels is controlling them or just influencing them a lot, they need help.”

Mary punched the dashboard, and I was surprised to see her so emotional. I waited for a few tense seconds as she sat there, still wrestling with something.

“When some of them died at the house, I almost cut ties with you,” Mary said. “How do you think the boss found me?”

I blinked at the non sequitur. “I don’t know. I mean, Walker and Davis both used their powers pretty publicly, but Tuggey and Michaels didn’t, as far as I knew.”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “I don’t know how he found Tuggey and Michaels, but he found me because of my father.”

I opened my mouth and Leon advised me to wait silently.

“He’d been out of prison for a few weeks when he started disappearing, hanging around people I wasn’t too fond of,” Mary said. She glanced at me, quickly looking away. “I never really used my powers, before. I just kept them to myself. They weren’t much good in my life, you know? I mean, I would try to use them to juggle stuff, for fun, or pick stuff up off the floor when I was alone, but that was it. Then I went looking for my father, and I found the boss waiting. I tried to fight him, and he had every base covered, like he knew what I was going to try. I thought he was a telepath, at first, but he never reacted when I was planning to run away or kill him or do anything. Anytime I actually did something, though, he was ahead of me. It felt like he let me try a few times, just so I’d learn. Then he disappeared my father and told me that as long as I did what he said, my dad would live and we’d both be comfortable.”

Mary stared ahead in silence. “So far he’s kept his word,” she said after a minute. “I was trying to find a way out, but I couldn’t figure out how to handle it on my own. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get rid of him without getting killed or getting my father killed ever since. I couldn’t go to the FBI. I tried that, once, and he caught me. When I ran into you guys, I thought it was worth a shot. I gave you my card, I’ve been as paranoid as I could manage this whole time, trying to take every precaution, but grabbing a kid was too much. I couldn’t do nothing about that. Taking Walker was bad enough, but if we end all this he’ll still be able to go home. Dustin’s a kid. Michaels could have destroyed his whole life. So after we took Dustin I grabbed the chance to work with you. He hasn’t found out, as far as I can tell, so it must be working. I don’t know why, though. It’s driving me nuts.”

We needed some time to absorb that, and Mary seemed content to sit in silence. She soon started the car again, in neutral, and I realized it had begun to get colder.

This explains a great deal,” Leon said.

“I’m sorry,” Menagerie said aloud.

Mary nodded, but didn’t speak.

I wondered whether she was offering sympathy or something else. When Mary saw men dead by Feral’s hands (some obnoxious part of my mind corrected the thought to “paws” and I cursed my pedantic brain and the way it noted irrelevant details), she was seeing men like her father, not just nameless unfortunates. I cared about them, of course, but it was mostly in an abstract way, the way one can feel empathy for a sweatshop worker on the other side of the world. That sort of empathy was always a vague thing for me, though, when thinking about anyone I’d never met. I’d tried to avoid hurting the men, but I guess, on some level, I’d still avoided considering the fact that they might be truly innocent of all the crimes they were committing now. It was too painful to think about that when we were taking the slow approach. I felt a sudden urge to deal with Michaels now, to find a way to free all of the men under his sway tonight, instead of putting it off.

It was a lot more personal for Mary. She probably felt that urgency every night, but she still had to go to sleep, wake up the next morning, and take orders from the asshole who was holding her father hostage, knowing that the men she was ordering around didn’t really have the ability to say no to her orders. She’d been doing that for weeks, somehow.

My skin crawled. I would have gone mad by now, in her position.

“We’ll help you get out of this,” I said. “Both of you. Thanks for the truth.”

She nodded again.

I wasn’t over it when I got back home, and eating dinner didn’t help either. It was strange to realize that even though I’d been fighting and evading and tracking men just like Mary’s father, I hadn’t wondered if they had families. I’d seen them as obstacles to avoid or overcome, mainly. The fact that I had really made an effort to avoid hurting them was the only thing that saved me from my conscience, which wanted to beat the crap out of me.

I have to remember this,” I said. “They’re people, connected to other people. Some of them must have wives, sons, daughters, cousins…those people probably don’t know what they do. They probably can’t tell them, maybe even if they wanted to. I have no way of knowing if they would be criminals or if they would have gone straight, on their own, without Michaels’ involvement.

It’s not as bleak as you’re thinking,” Leon said.

It kind of is, though,” I said. “Look, I know the world isn’t ending. It’s the same world I was in this morning. But I feel pretty fucked up about this. I mean, I really wasn’t thinking about what to do with all of these guys after we take out Michaels and the boss. They’re probably all going to need reprogramming, you know? Like Dustin did. That took two experienced telepaths working together. We have exactly zero experienced telepaths in town, and if we go to the FBI that might create some problems too, so what do we do? And if it takes hours to work on each one, what the hell do we do with them all while they’re waiting? And when it’s all over, then what? We just send them on their way and say ‘sorry you got your mind taken over, good luck?’”

When the time comes, I’m sure Stalker will be willing to help us,” Leon said. “The Philly Five are good people. If she can’t help these men alone, perhaps Uplink can assist her. If not, we’ll find another way. David, you can’t let yourself look at the whole task and expect to find a solution in one night. It will take time. It will be difficult, challenging, and complex. But we don’t have to solve everything now. Those men are alive. Mary and her father are alive. We have time. Our patience is for their good, not just our own. Give yourself, Mary, and Raquel some credit. Michaels killed a few of them, by accident, but we’ve taken great pains to avoid loss of life. Dustin is home. Lyle and Kaylee are alive, if unhappy for the moment, and right now we’re apparently the best available chance at setting things right.

Yeah,” I said. “Right. I don’t like being anyone’s best chance at anything, Leon. I don’t feel very competent as someone’s last hope. If I was my last hope, I’d ask if I was allowed to make a substitution.

We rarely get presented with the challenges we want or the problems we deserve,” Leon said. “You’re taking a detour into self-pity. Knock it off. We have the power to make things better, and we’re going to keep on doing it.

I sighed. “Yeah. I know. It’s just…this problem seems so goddamn big.

It was too early to go to bed, so I grabbed a book and tried to get some reading done, but my heart wasn’t in it. After trying to read it for most of an hour, I knew that I couldn’t give even a summary of what I’d just read, and that was after looking at every page at least three times before moving on to the next one.

I put it down and browsed the internet mindlessly, instead, just killing time while I waited for my body to get tired and my mind to slow down enough that I could sleep. I wasn’t going to get anything else done that night, and I needed the distraction.

I could feel the weight on my shoulders. Knowing that Mary was in a much worse position than I’d thought didn’t help, and I wondered if Feral and Raquel were feeling worse, like me, after what Mary had said. I picked up my phone, but decided not to bother them.

I noticed I had a message from Shawn, asking if I wanted to come to Thanksgiving at his uncle and aunt’s place in town tomorrow night. Liz was going, and apparently felt a bit worried at the prospect of getting grilled by his family with no one else there to distract them.

I couldn’t blame her for that, I supposed. As far as I knew, none of Shawn’s family had met her yet, so nerves were inevitable.

I stewed over it, wondering if I should just postpone the decision, but if I said yes then waiting would be rude. It was a last-minute invite, but that didn’t mean that his family wouldn’t want to know the answer as soon as possible.

Mary wasn’t expecting anything to happen, and had even suggested we lay low for a while, but what if something did happen? To this point I’d avoided any sudden, unexcused absences that were obviously linked to Flicker appearing somewhere, but if I were in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, got a call, and then ran off to bail Lyle out of trouble or something it would make it pretty obvious to everyone there who Flicker was.

That seemed so cliché, though. Actually, most of the big stuff I’d been involved in had been at night or over the weekends, largely because that was when I had free time. It was strange to realize that.

I waffled, going back and forth repeatedly, but finally decided to go ahead and say yes. Shawn wouldn’t have issued the invitation unless he had cleared it with the hosts first, I was sure. I didn’t really have a good reason not to go, and whatever Shawn’s aunt and uncle served was probably going to be better than dining hall food.

You realize you got far too hung up on that?” Leon said.

Oh, shut up,” I said. “I’m not in the mood for Incorporeal Life Lectures right now, okay?

It’s hard not to backseat drive sometimes,” Leon said. “Of course, it might be easier if you were smarter,” he joked.

I smiled. “You’re a dick sometimes, you know that? And I don’t know how someone without a body can be a body part. That’s just illogical.

I live to mock,” Leon said.

I laughed for both of us.

A nice Thanksgiving dinner was something to look forward to. It occurred to me that if I was going to keep accepting dinner invitations I really needed to figure out something nice to do for Shawn’s family and Raquel’s mother, Carmen.

Pleasant anticipation helped, but I still felt the weight on my shoulders, the shadow hanging over my thoughts. It was more than I’d ever carried before, higher stakes, and even as my muscles relaxed I felt a sense of pressure in my chest, weakened but still present. I’d been keyed up on adrenaline in the past, and I’d felt angry, fearful, and exhilarated, but the pressure, the doubt about the unknown future, was worse than other feelings that had kept me awake in the past.

It was a long night.
 
 
 
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You Can Choose Your Friends 1

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Waking up, David and I were thinking of all the things we needed to do, and it was a varied list. First, he rolled over onto his side and checked his phone.

He’d been just barely awake enough to let me send a quick text message to Mary and Raquel, letting them know that things hadn’t gone badly last night, and now we had replies. We had a series of messages from Mary. The first:

“Good work. Tuggey pissed & in trouble, boss angry about fuckup. No deaths. Men avoided cops, but had to abandon a couple cars.”

The next message had come hours later:

“Tuggey maybe demoted. I might be moving up.”

Finally, there was one more:

“I just got assigned to hunt you down 🙂 Will call later.”

I could sense David’s surprise as he laughed, and I marveled at the stroke of luck. It made some sense, though. Tuggey hadn’t done very well in dealing with us. Mary had been involved in two incidents with us, and both had ended with the bad guys’ apparent escape, despite some problems. We’d gotten away with Dustin at the end of one fight, granted, but that had started before she arrived. She’d been present at Dustin’s abduction and gotten away with that cleanly; problems had only cropped up later. Aside from that, she had some sort of work at BPSC, and we hadn’t disrupted their legitimate operations at all, so she might look pretty good compared to Tuggey at the moment.

We also had a message from Raquel. She apologized for missing our earlier requests for backup, promised to set her phone to ring louder at night, and said she’d be in touch after school unless we told her we had an emergency.

Once that was done, we rolled out of bed and cleaned up, then knocked on Lyle and Kaylee’s doors. They both answered pretty quickly, so either they’d been awake already or they were light sleepers, and in relatively short order we went out, picked up some food and coffee at a doughnut shop on Lyle’s dime, and came back, inviting them to come to our room and eat. David wrestled with whether or not to put on his mask, but I talked him into it, pointing out that Lyle owed us and vouched for us to Kaylee. We didn’t have anything to prove to either of them, and I was perfectly all right with them feeling awkward for the minute it took to get used to it.

They came in and started to eat, and both of them were clearly very hungry. I realized that I didn’t know when they’d last eaten, but since Lyle had been laying low and Kaylee had been driving much of the previous day it wasn’t surprising.

While they did that, David and I looked up Beauregard Raleigh, eager to see the results. The two visions we’d shared the previous night seemed like the most promising yet, in terms of finally getting some answers. We’d thought things over while getting breakfast, and reasoned that the visions were skipping around in terms of time rather than progressing forward in a purely linear fashion, but the name was still by far our most promising lead.

We combed through search results, but couldn’t find him. Beauregard Raleigh didn’t seem to be a current or previous Congressman from New York, although when we tried only his last name we managed to find references to a Raleigh in the state legislature and another, possibly related, who was a judge. Neither was named Beauregard, but it might be something.

After that, we did a quick search to see if there were any news stories about a businessman named Jimenez being murdered or abducted, and had similar results, discovering nothing useful.

David leaned back in his chair, trying to process what it all meant.

It’s the future, or a future, perhaps,” I suggested. “Seen through one pair of eyes. If not, the only thing that comes to mind is the phrase ‘alternate universe,’ but in the absence of any other evidence that such things even exist I’m a bit leery of leaping to that particular conclusion.

David absently grabbed a doughnut for himself and scarfed it down, glancing at Kaylee and Lyle. They were talking quietly in two chairs by the window, while we sat on the edge of the bed. For the moment, we weren’t inclined to disturb them; they seemed to be working through personal differences, and there was no rush to interrupt that, really. Today was a lost cause for anything other than dealing with the pair of them, as far as we were concerned.

I feel really weird about the idea of getting visions of the future,” David said. “You have some memory of our other powers, right? I mean, some instinctive sense of how to use them, and a sense that they’re yours. But you don’t remember getting visions, do you?

Yes to the first question and no to the second,” I replied. “But my impressions are imperfect, and if it is a power I always possessed, I might not have known how to use it. Or it might be triggered by some particular circumstance, or something.

David shook his head. “But only I saw the first one, for some reason, not you. That doesn’t make sense, really, if they’re a power of yours. I mean, I’m not sure how it makes sense any other way either, I guess.

Perhaps not,” I said. “Regardless, we know for certain that the visions do not correspond to our past or present. All that remains is the future or a separate timeline of some sort, unless something truly ridiculous is going on. Something like, say, an individual or group erasing all evidence of a congressman from the internet. That possibility is outlandish enough to discard, I think. If anyone has the power to affect memories and information storage media worldwide, then that person or group is essentially god, and they would have to do such a good job of concealing themselves that it would shatter my credulity anyway. So…what we’re seeing is either what will happen, or what may happen. The alternate universe possibility isn’t really worth considering either, since we have no way to affect anything in that case.

It didn’t look like a distant future,” David said thoughtfully. “I’m inclined to agree with what you’ve said, so let’s run with it. The cars, phones, the diner, the computers we saw…none of them were my main focus at any point, but they all looked pretty comparable to what actually exists now. I don’t know guns well, but I don’t think the ones we saw looked strange or unusual. Neither did the body armor. We saw smoke grenades, gas masks…it was all pretty standard stuff. So all of this, it can’t be too far ahead, technologically speaking. If it’s the future, it’s a future that isn’t too far down the road. That makes me think of the warning angle again, the idea that someone is trying to tell us to stop something. But if that’s true, who are we supposed to stop? Don’t get me wrong, the idea of supers forming squads and attacking people they don’t like is scary, but so is the idea of a shadowy group with a private army conducting vague research to counter people with powers. They pretty explicitly weren’t the government. If someone sat me down and showed me these visions as a film, I’d wonder why they were leaving out so much, and I’d wonder why we never find out what the actual research is. It all makes me feel sympathetic to the other David and the people on his side, but what if they’re experimenting on people like me? Or worse?

It’s possible,” I said, “but there were supers defending the place as well, and that could be meaningful.

It might,” David allowed. “Or they could be mercenaries, or traitors. The whole reason betrayals hurt is because they’re unexpected and hard to understand. Quisling and Benedict Arnold are loathed for cause.

True,” I acknowledged. “But it’s dangerous to read too much into the fact that we saw two supers there, as we’ve said before. We’re rehashing old ground again. I think it’s time to move on.

David agreed, and we looked over at our breakfast companions, grabbed another doughnut, and went to join them.

“So,” David said, “I hope you two feel better after getting some sleep?”

“Marginally,” Kaylee said. She drank some more coffee. “Thanks for getting food.”

“No problem,” David said. “Lyle paid, anyway. I just had to walk.”

She nodded, taking another sip. Lyle looked grateful.

“Ready to talk things over?” David asked.

“Yes,” Lyle sighed. “I suppose I am.”

“Great,” Kaylee said. “Start by explaining why we aren’t going to the police?”

“Because I think the people I was working for are paying off at least some of them,” Lyle said.

“Sure, in Berkeleyport,” Kaylee said. “But we’re not in Berkeleyport anymore. Besides, there are people with powers involved, right? Call the FBI. It’s their job to deal with that stuff.”

David winced, and I had to agree. It was the obviously correct thing to do, in some ways. In fact, I was wondering why the doctor hadn’t done it. It might have been difficult to convince them he wasn’t making a crank call, but once he did the FBI were the best people to contact, especially since he’d seemed afraid of me at first.

Lyle looked down at his feet. “Because I don’t want them to lock me up.”

Kaylee’s eyes narrowed angrily. “I see. So what you’re saying is you put my life in danger because you don’t want to face the consequences of your own actions like an adult, is that it?”

He didn’t answer. I prodded David, who was feeling uncomfortable, to stop this before things continued in their current direction.

“Actually, it may be a good thing that he did that,” David said. Kaylee shot us an incredulous look. “I know that sounds ridiculous, yes. But the fact of the matter is that the people Lyle was mixed up with are very dangerous, and if they were backed into a corner, I have reason to believe a lot of people would get hurt. I don’t think the FBI are stupid, but I don’t think they’ve dealt with anything like this before, either. A lot of the people Lyle dealt with may not have been fully in control of their own actions. There are several criminals with powers in the organization, and I know that at least one of them is affecting the minds of others.”

Kaylee blinked. “Well…why didn’t they do it to Lyle, then?”

Lyle cringed as we glanced at him. “I don’t know,” David said. “But if the police or even the FBI dealt with this the normal way, it’s likely that a lot of people could get hurt who don’t deserve it. I got involved because I’m trying to help someone in a similar situation to Lyle – someone else who’s being coerced.”

As David spoke, my thoughts returned to the conflicts of the previous night. We’d done our best to avoid inflicting any permanent harm on anyone, although both David and I knew that tasers weren’t perfectly safe. Reports on their effects were somewhat conflicting. Still, we’d kept from shocking anyone after they stopped fighting, and we hadn’t left anyone in a particularly dangerous position. None of the men we’d hurt should wake up with more than bruises, perhaps a sprain here or there, and a lot of discomfort. It was a lot better than the debacle the night we’d freed Dustin, which still weighed heavy on all of our minds, especially Raquel and Feral. David was a bit naïve about some things, I thought, including his failure to understand how harshly that night’s experience might be affecting them. I wasn’t certain what we could do about it, though, other than being willing to listen if and when they needed to talk.

I dragged my attention back to the moment. Kaylee was frowning uncertainly, and I couldn’t blame her. She was afraid to go home until Lyle’s illegal employers were off their tail, and that meant that the faster resolution would be more appealing to her, as would the idea of going to the government for help. Institutional power could be a comforting thing, when it was on your side. But while I was concerned about Mary’s secrets, I had to admit that she seemed to be genuinely on our side, and she felt strongly about the need to avoid open confrontation. We had some idea of the FBI’s capabilities, and while I’d found their people impressive, the fact remained that any situation which ended in a straight fight against Tuggey and all the men working for him was bound to be horrific, perhaps as bad as the Battle of Philadelphia in its own way given the involvement of mind control.

If someone shot Collector or one of his people, at least they would be able to go home knowing that they’d killed a criminal. If the FBI had a shootout with Tuggey, Michaels, and their bunch, there could be innocent people on both sides. It was a problem we’d faced once already, with terrible results, and I had scrupulously avoided suggesting that we learn more about the men who’d died in the fight to recover Dustin, but I wanted to know. I was afraid that Feral and Raquel might not recover if we learned that they were innocent men, though, and I doubted David would hide the information if we learned it.

“I know this is a lot to take in,” David said, “especially since you didn’t have a clear idea about any of it until last night. But lives are depending on us not handling this the wrong way. For now, the bad guys know Lyle got away, and we helped him. If they think they’re about to be discovered by the police, then they may get desperate and start taking more extreme actions. I’ve been working with a few people to learn everything we can about them, trying to move slowly and keep from scaring them. I only acted last night because your lives were in jeopardy. I hope neither of you will take this the wrong way, but if Lyle hadn’t run away on his own I wouldn’t have tried to help him yet, not unless I knew he was in immediate danger. Do you understand?”

“I understand just fine,” Kaylee said. She glared at Lyle. “But that doesn’t help me figure out what to do from here. So far, you’re just giving me lots of reasons not to do the sensible thing.”

I interjected, whispering some advice to David; he seemed like he was about to brush her off a bit.

“I understand it sounds like that,” David said. He paused to rethink his words and my advice. “Kaylee, I’m not saying we’ll never go to the police or the FBI. I’m saying that doing it right now is a huge risk, and I really believe it won’t go well. If nothing else, there’s never been a court case involving mind control. Even if everyone was safely taken into custody without violence somehow, there are more than two dozen men working for these people, and all of them might have been affected. If they all went to jail for crimes they never would have committed on their own, that wouldn’t really be just. That’s part of what we’re trying to avoid. But what we’re really afraid of is them dying in a shootout.”

She still wasn’t happy, but she seemed to appreciate the fact that we were addressing her concerns somewhat. “How long?”

David blinked. “How long what?”

“How long do you think it will take to fix all of this?” she said, waving a hand vaguely. “I don’t expect a date, but if you have a plan you must have a general idea, or at least a guess.”

“We haven’t really been approaching things that way,” David said. “The answer’s going to depend on a lot, including what I can learn from Lyle – I’m hoping that whatever he knows can let us round these people up. That’s the other reason I came to help him. I would have done it anyway, of course, but if he can tell me anything useful then it might let us wrap this all up faster.”

“I’ll tell you everything I can,” Lyle promised. “Most of it probably won’t help much. What I did was largely a matter treating minor injuries. I saw a lot of broken bones and the like. There were one or two gunshot wounds, some burns, and a few things like that, but I didn’t do anything too strange, really.”

“That’s all right, doc,” David said. “I’m not expecting you to hand me the answer on a silver platter. But if you can help us, we’d appreciate it, and it will help both of you get back to your lives sooner.”

Kaylee sighed. “I’m not entirely convinced, but if you’re both committed to this…are you really certain that contacting the FBI is such a risk?” she asked.

David shrugged. “There’s no way to know for certain, but look at it this way; if we tell them, it’s too late to take it back. Most of what the bad guys have done has been dangerous in a long-term way, as far as I know. They aren’t just slaughtering people in the streets, or anything like that. If they were, I promise you we wouldn’t be so patient about all this.”

“I’ll give you a chance, I suppose,” Kaylee said. “But I don’t intend to wait forever. I have a job and a life to get back to, and if everything you say about these people being controlled is true, then waiting too long might hurt them too.”

“It’s possible,” David said. “All I can promise is that we’re doing our best.” David was tempted to mention that we were friends of the Philly Five in an effort to solidify her trust, but I dissuaded him. Kaylee Jameson didn’t seem the type to hero-worship, not even those who had arguably earned it much more than us.

With that done, for now, David picked up a pad and pen we’d purchased while out, and we began to interview the doctor.

I tried not to imagine Kaylee calling the police as soon as she was alone, for the moment.

We took our time talking to Lyle, dutifully noting down everything he could remember, but I could tell that we learned less than David had hoped. Still, I was optimistic that it might amount to something when we got a chance to compare notes with Mary.

After that, we ended up hanging around for most of the day, talking to Kaylee and Lyle more and trying to make certain that they were willing and able to lay low. We got Lyle’s phone number. Kaylee called in to work and managed to get time off to take care of her brother, ostensibly because he was sick, which was lucky; if that hadn’t worked, I suspected she might have called the FBI regardless of what Lyle or David said. When we were sure she was willing to play along, we left the two of them, heading to the train station and riding it back. Lyle was kind enough to pay for our ticket, and we’d traded phone numbers, so now they could call us on the phone we’d gotten from Mary.

By the time we were on the train, it was getting dark, although the sun wasn’t down all the way yet. The ride back was short. David and I didn’t talk, for a change, instead staring out the window as trees and roads went by.

Raquel and Feral met us at the station and asked us about what had happened the previous night; telling the story ate up the better part of an hour, with David and I alternating as we explained. When it was over, Raquel looked impressed.

“Wow,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “It sounds like you guys were pretty sneaky.”

David shook his head. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “We got lucky more than once, too. I’m still not sure why they hadn’t grabbed Lyle before we even got there.”

I assume they wanted to catch Kaylee as well, not knowing how much he might have told her,” I said. “It seems to make the most sense. In any case, I agree that luck played a part, but we did do well, I think, given that last night was our first conflict alone. Humility may be a virtue, but we have good reason to be proud.

Yes,” Feral said, and Raquel nodded her agreement.

“Yeah,” David acknowledged, rolling his shoulders. “I guess we do. I do feel pretty good about it, overall, even if there are things I’d do differently.”

“So what now?” Raquel asked.

“Well, I have notes of everything Lyle told us, and I can always call him if we have follow-up questions or anything,” David said. “I figure we meet with Mary and see if we can figure out where the boss is, or at least Michaels. Talk strategy. Start nailing things down. Oh, I realized – those apartments Tuggey stopped at? I think those must be places where their men stay when they’re not on the clock. The ones who were out last night, or guarding the house where they held Dustin, I mean.”

“That makes sense,” Raquel said, nodding. “That’s probably it.”

David scratched his head. “I think I’m done for tonight, though, if you don’t mind? I got woken up in the middle of the night, and I’m still feeling kind of off, plus I had another one of those damn visions. I’m feeling pretty burned out. I just want to get home and sleep in my own bed, honestly.”

“Sure,” Raquel said. “I’ll let you go. Do you want to tell us about the visions?”

David hesitated for a second.

We probably should,” I said. “I hadn’t considered it before, but if these are some kind of warning of the future, we should make certain we aren’t the only ones who know, just in case something happens to us. I don’t mean telling everyone, but we can trust Raquel and Feral, at least.

Fine,” David said. “I guess you’re right. But you tell it, okay? I’m seriously exhausted.

I could feel the fatigue as well, but presumably it was worse for him. David and Raquel found benches and sat down. At least it wasn’t cold inside the train station.

By the time I finished going through the visions – all of them – in as much detail as I could, it was fully dark out, and artificial lights provided the only illumination. The sky was obscured, with low clouds hiding the stars as I finished the tale, and I wondered if it was going to rain. David had almost dozed off, leaning back against the wall, and I felt the lure of sleep pulling at me as well. I roused David and we said our goodbyes for the night.

As we walked outside, I heard Feral talking to me privately.

What is it like to sleep?” she asked wistfully.

Restful,” I said. “It’s one of those experiences beyond description, I think. As long as we aren’t interrupted by visions, it’s very pleasant. I was a bit frightened the first time, though. I didn’t realize what had happened until I woke up, and it was so unexpected I was afraid we’d been caught by Blitz or something. I still don’t know why it’s started, although I have been noticing some other changes. Physical sensations are a bit more immediate when David is in control, and it didn’t used to be like that. They were more removed, before, almost like the difference between reading a weather report and walking through the rain.

I envy you deeply,” Feral said. “Raquel has been afraid to let me out ever since what happened with Dustin. I’m trying to be patient, but those little tastes of life are…vibrant. I’ve no gift for waiting.

I’m sure time will restore her trust in you,” I said. “The experience was traumatic for her, that much is obvious. I remember how she reacted. Are you coping with it better, now that some time has passed?

I paused to give David a nudge; he’d nearly wandered into traffic in his fatigue, failing to notice when a light changed. A little prodding woke him up enough to be more aware of his surroundings.

I’m more concerned for her than myself,” Feral replied. “If I felt responsible, it might be another matter, but I know I wasn’t. I don’t think I can articulate how it felt – the rage from that night, I mean. I’ve never experienced anything like it, at least not that I can recall. It was incredible, like being swept downriver or caught in hurricane winds. I don’t want to sound callous. I regret the deaths and injuries, of course. But there’s a difference between regretting something and taking responsibility for it. Michaels killed those men when he tried to manipulate us, and as far as I’m concerned they’re another tragedy resulting from the abuse of his powers, something else he needs to be held accountable for.

It felt like her voice was growing a bit fainter, presumably because we were moving farther apart as Raquel and David walked home. I briefly envisioned a map of the city in my mind, placing the train station, and guessed that we wouldn’t move out of range yet. We were headed in roughly the same direction.

I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “Undeserved guilt serves no purpose except to hurt people, as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t believe you’re a murderer any more than David, Raquel, or myself. But if it does bother you, I hope you’ll tell me.

David walked down the street and I felt the air growing moist, but it still didn’t start to rain; I was certain it would soon, though.

There is something else,” Feral said. “Not about the fight. It’s…about Raquel and myself.

What is it?” I asked.

You can’t tell anyone, Leon,” Feral said.

I won’t,” I promised.

Not even David,” she said.

I can keep a secret, Feral,” I said.

She hesitated. “I don’t…I’ve been feeling trapped, lately. Sharing this body was fine at first, because it was just the only way I existed, but I don’t know if I can live like this forever. It’s not just because of the…trust issues we’ve been having recently. You know I could take over if I wanted to, though we’ve never discussed it much.

Yes, I know,” I said.

Raquel’s recent reluctance to let me out that way is making it worse, but it’s not the problem,” Feral said. “I want my own life. I want my own body, my own existence. My own choices. The longer this lasts, the more I feel the need to exist separately. I’ve caught myself fantasizing about it at night. About just taking over and leaving, going to Europe or Asia, seeing the world. Doing something, anything, that’s just for myself. I don’t think I can be this…parasite forever. Certainly not for Raquel’s whole life. When we finish dealing with Michaels, Mary, their boss…all of this…will you help me find some way to separate from Raquel and survive? She needs me for now, and I can’t walk away from this situation, but I would rather die than live this way until she does. It’s torture, having all of those possibilities within reach but knowing that I can’t take them because the one avenue open to me is betrayal.

Of course I’ll try to help you,” I promised. “Bloodhound and his friend would probably be willing to help, you know. They may have been a bit heavy-handed, when we met her, but given what happened I think that is one problem we could trust them with. If you’re not comfortable with that, though, David would certainly help you, and so will I.

Thank you,” Feral said, “but don’t tell him about it for now. It’s just an unnecessary distraction, until the current problem is resolved. It’s good to say something, though. Being alone with the thoughts was…particularly difficult.

I’m always happy to listen,” I replied.

She said nothing.

Feral?

If there’s no way out, no way to exist on my own…will you help me die?” she asked.

That stopped me short. I had heard what she said only moments earlier, of course, but there was a great distance between saying she couldn’t live connected to Raquel her whole life and saying she wanted to die.

I didn’t feel so trapped. For whatever reason, perhaps my own nature, perhaps the nature of my connection to David, perhaps because his life was more interesting to me than Raquel’s was to Feral, I suddenly knew that our experiences differed far more than I’d ever realized before.

I hope I can talk you out of that,” I said. “But if you decide that it’s what you want, if there’s no other way to free you…yes.

Thank you,” Feral said.
 
 
 
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