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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Slow and Steady 8

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“Look, I’m sorry,” Lyle said. “I was living on the streets, and I couldn’t think of anyone I could trust. I didn’t know who else to call.”

Kaylee shook her head and punched the dashboard. “God damn you, Lyle,” she said tiredly. “I drove half the night to get to you, then you have me wait, then you have me meet you somewhere new, and now I find out you’re a damn criminal. What happens if they follow us to my house? I don’t have anywhere else to go either!”

“I’ll make it up to you somehow, I promise,” Lyle said. He didn’t sound insincere – quite the opposite – but it was plain that he wasn’t very good at comforting people.

Or apologizing, for that matter,” Leon noted sourly. “He seems lacking in the ‘bedside manner’ department.

“Oh fuck you!” Kaylee said in an exasperated tone, apparently sharing our opinion. “You’re so full of shit. You didn’t even think twice before dragging me into your mess, did you? I’ve spent years fixing things for you but this is just the absolute tops.”

Lyle shrank away from her anger, and for a second I wondered if she would hit him.

It would be kind of ironic if he got beaten up by his sister after we spent all night protecting him,” Leon noted.

I stifled a tired chuckle, camouflaging it as an uncomfortable cough.

The quiet descended again, with Lyle looking out the side window and Kaylee’s head resting on her hands, and after a minute I decided that there was no point sitting on the side of the road wasting gas.

“Look, we’re all tired,” I said. “I doubt we’re going to get anywhere tonight. Let’s find someplace to hole up and then talk about what happened and what to do in the morning. Okay?”

Kaylee looked over her shoulder at me. “You talk a lot of sense for someone stupid enough to help my brother.” She shook her head, then looked at Lyle. “All right. We’ll talk about this in the morning. What do we do for now?”

“I have money,” Lyle said. “If we can just find a motel or something, I’ll pay for it.”

I grabbed his shoulder. “With a card, or cash?”

He blinked at me. “I was going to use a check. Even if they can track it somehow those take time to process. We’re only planning to stay one night, right? It won’t matter. But I have cash if we need it.”

“Al right,” I said.

It didn’t take us too long to find a place to stay, thankfully. If I hadn’t had such an insane night, I would have worried about missing school the next day, but there was just no point. I was too tired to stay awake through classes even if I attended.

I was a bit surprised that the doctor got us each separate rooms, but he didn’t think about it. I guess he wasn’t used to being on the run or conserving money. That made some sense, though. He didn’t seem like the best long-term planner. I wondered what his definition of ‘living on the streets’ had been like.

Regardless, I was happy enough to have a chance to sleep. I pretty much collapsed on the bed, and I was out almost at once.

When I felt the vision start, I was more irritated than anything else.

Did it have to happen tonight? Seriously?” I said. “Fuck this.

David, look!” Leon said.

I pushed my mental fatigue aside and started to pay attention, as he’d urged.

We were sitting in the conference room from before – the one where Charlotte and the other David had been talking to their people – with Charlotte next to us, though I could barely see her in our peripheral vision. Not being able to turn my head was annoying. Several other people were also in the room, sitting around the table, including a long-haired black woman in a wheelchair. She seemed to be the focus of everyone’s attention. Our body didn’t feel significantly different, so I assumed we were inhabiting the same person again – the other David. The room’s lights were dim.

“Watch closely, please,” the woman in the wheelchair instructed. She had a laptop on the table in front of her, and she did something on it. “This is the best we’re going to get, in terms of a debriefing.”

A video started to play on the screen. A man appeared, heavily bandaged and sitting up in a hospital bed. His features looked Hispanic, I thought.

“Take your time, Hector,” someone said off-screen. “Tell me what you can.” The picture wobbled as the voice – female, I guessed – spoke, and I assumed it belonged to the person holding the camera.

The man in the bed drew in a labored breath before speaking. “I don’t know for sure how they found us,” he said hoarsely. “They came after Jimenez, but I don’t know how much they knew. Three people that I saw, plus at least one with a rifle. There could have been more.” He paused to swallow, then coughed. The camera shook as the woman holding it reached over to grab a plastic cup of water and hold it up to let him drink.

Hector took a deep breath before speaking again. “They hit us quick, so they must have figured out our procedures, at least mostly. We were moving Jimenez to the airport – to his private jet. They ambushed us on the way through the city. One of them folded the streets and alleys up – I think it was a spacial effect, some kind of warping. It could have been telekinesis or gravity manipulation, though. Whoever it was, they just folded part of the road up, almost at a ninety degree angle. Caught us between two cross-streets and trapped us there.” He took another sip of water. “We hit the panic button right away. They jammed the phones somehow, but the backup should have destroyed the Jimenez vault by now, unless they raided it while they hit us. We couldn’t get help from the local police, either. Anyway, as soon as they had us trapped two of them came in to get us. One was bulletproof with sonic powers, the other one had regeneration. Whoever did the initial trap separated all three of our vehicles as soon as we stopped, and we started taking fire from above. I think there was more than one shooter, but I could be wrong. I was focusing on the supers. I saw them hit the rear car just as the barricade was going up. The bulletproof one just charged. He didn’t scream or anything – or not so I could hear, anyways – but I saw them cover their ears and blood coming out. The regenerator attacked with him, and then I got hit in the side while we lost sight of the other cars. I went down. Jimenez pulled me back into the car and got in the driver’s seat, and he went into the building – it had glass windows and stuff, so I guess he figured it was worth a shot to drive through it, but it didn’t work. Anyway, I heard the front car returning fire and I could see the enemies ducking. I grabbed Jimenez and we ran into one of the buildings. We got out a window on the other side, I hotwired a car, and we drove like hell. The alarm was going off, but we had bigger problems.”

At the prompting of the camerawoman, Hector took another gulp of water. “Thanks,” he said.

“Anyway, we figured it was too risky to go to the plane. If they knew our route, then they had to know where we were going. We were almost out of the city when they caught up. I don’t know how they tracked us, but they did catch up, and they had a brick too. She just…tore the roof off the car, grabbed Jimenez, and left. The regenerator came after me, but I shot him and he fell out of the car. I did my best to lose pursuit, accidentally totaled the car, then got as lost as I could for two days before I called in for pickup.”

He drank greedily again.

“Thanks, Hector,” the woman said. “Anything else to add?”

Hector nodded. “I didn’t get a good look. But I think the brick had a Waver tattoo. Can’t confirm it, though.”

“Okay,” she said, standing up. “I’ll-”

The video ended and the lights were turned back on. My attention returned to the room and the woman in the wheelchair.

“Hector was the only survivor from the protective detail we assigned to Jimenez,” she said, clasping her hands and leaning her forearms on the table. “The rest of them are confirmed dead. We have no information on the status of Jimenez himself.”

She let that point linger in the air for a moment.

“Some of you know Hector in passing, some of you never met him, and a few know him well. He recruited his team and trained them all – very well, if I may say so – but without supers supporting them, they didn’t have a chance.”

Charlotte, sitting next to me, raised a finger, and the woman turned her head in acknowledgment. “Yes?”

“Under the circumstances, Mrs. Murphy, may I ask what this has to do with us?” Charlotte said.

“You may,” Murphy said. “Raul Jimenez was a fictional identity that I helped to create about ten years ago, when the foundation was just getting started. We were already concerned about the Wave and other elements that seemed to be gathering power, and we wanted to find some sort of counterbalance, something that would even the odds between normal humans and supers. Mr. Jimenez was a friend who shared our convictions, but he had little to contribute in terms of resources. Instead, he agreed to serve as a middle-man, discreetly funneling money into the foundation. Those of us in possession of the kind of wealth required were already in the public eye; for them to do it could have attracted attention to the foundation. With Jimenez as a go-between, we could make the original source of the funds almost impossible to trace, and since no one cared about him he could keep a relatively low profile.”

Murphy took a breath and a sad expression flitted across her face, making a few wrinkles on her forehead stand out.

“We were already concerned that some supers might regard us as a threat to their supremacy and attempt to shut us down one way or another, so we did our best to lay a convincing trail. That was one of the reasons his protective detail was comprised solely of normal humans, in fact; if he had been able to afford mercenary supers, it would have attracted too much attention to him, and he might have run afoul of the US and Mexican governments. That could have exposed the false identity. If we’d recruited supers to guard him for ideological reasons, that could have drawn even more attention.”

Charlotte frowned. “I understand the logic, but I’m still not sure why we’re being briefed on this.”

Murphy planted her palms flat on the table. “Well, now we come to the heart of the matter. Mr. Jimenez was very professional, and did his best to learn as little as possible about the foundation. He had no security clearance, only perfunctory contact with anyone affiliated with us, and generally ensured that he couldn’t and didn’t know our most valuable secrets. For example, he literally can’t tell anyone the locations of our facilities or what we do at each one. He knows my name, but I’m already as far underground as I can get, so that’s irrelevant. But what he does know, that matters, is that he made campaign contributions to New York Congressman Beauregard Raleigh. Jimenez doesn’t know why, because he didn’t need to. Their aides handled the shady meetings, so he lacks any incriminating details, but he knows the name, and that means the Wave probably knows it by now as well. Mr. Raleigh’s office smoothed over some potential issues back when we were building our New York state facility in his district, and that, unfortunately, means that the Wave is a step away from finding our facility there.”

Murphy smiled wanly. “Technically what I’ve told you could get a lot of people in trouble, but given how much else you’ve been trusted with, this is fairly small potatoes. The reason you’re all being briefed is this: research materials from the New York facility are going to be moved here, soon. This facility is still secret, as far as we know, and we’re going to try to keep it that way. If we can’t, it’s more defensible than the New York site. You’ll all have assignments pertaining to the move. We’re clearing out the office and all of our personnel – some of them have been relocated already, in fact. The first shipment of cargo is already on the way here, but it won’t arrive until the day after tomorrow, so there is some time before then.”

“What about the research we’re doing here?” a well-dressed man to my left asked.

“It will continue,” Murphy answered. “We’ll have to share our facilities, and that’s going to be a pain, but the reports from New York are too promising to ignore. It shouldn’t be too bad, though. The work there wasn’t using up a lot of space, and we still have a bit of spare room left here.”

Someone else cleared her throat, and I looked over to see a tall, muscular blonde woman. Her right foot bounced nervously. “Are we getting any help securing this site?”

“Yes, miss Johansdottir, some of the New York security personnel will be coming here,” Murphy said. “It’s not clear yet whether that will be a permanent measure. We depend on secrecy first and foremost, and there are concerns that raising our profile here might defeat the purpose of any security measures we implement.”

Our body asked the next question. “What about the Congressman?”

“The Congressman has federal protection,” Murphy said. “That will have to cover it. His best defense is that he genuinely doesn’t know anything about the foundation, and we are not going to rob him of it. Regardless, that’s not a problem the people in this room are going to solve. Our only concern is keeping this facility secure.”

We nodded, as did several others around the room.

“What about Hector?” Charlotte asked.

“He’s in the most secure facility we can find for him,” Murphy said. “We’re trying to make certain that he wasn’t followed or tracked in any way, but given the security breach that occurred, it’s possible that he’ll need a new name for his everyday life. For now, no one should contact him via external means, but short personal messages can be sent securely, if you want.” She smiled tightly. “It might do his recovery some good. I’ll inform you when the situation changes.”

“Thank you,” Charlotte said.

“Not at all,” Murphy replied. “Now, we’re going to break up into groups. I’ll be discussing facility usage with the researchers. Security personnel will remain here for more specifics on what will be different in the coming days.”

The vision started to end, but instead of waking up I felt another one begin.

Leon, still there?

Yes,” he said. “Why can these things never be consistent?

In terms of length, timing, or anything else, you mean?” I said. “Good question.

When things returned to focus, I almost thought it was the same situation again, but only for a moment. Mrs. Murphy was in the room, but her face looked more lined. Charlotte was still sitting to our right, looking mostly the same at first glance, but Johansdottir was no longer to our left. Instead, her seat was filled by Hector. He looked mostly healed, but his arms were covered in scars and his face wasn’t in much better shape. The other seats were occupied as well, and there was tension in the room.

“Mrs. Murphy,” Hector said quietly, “I believe in our goals, here. But vague principles aren’t going to cut it anymore. We’re dying. We need to know what we’re dying for.”

“And if a telepath sifts it out of your brain while you’re at home, sleeping?” Murphy asked. “What then? Or what if they kidnap and torture you? Not knowing could keep you alive. Knowing definitely won’t make you safer, and it would compromise our security,” she said firmly. “The foundation is losing people and resources. We can’t afford to throw away our secrecy. It’s our greatest asset.”

“Hector’s right,” Charlotte said. “And you need to understand that this isn’t just us saying this. The grunts signed up for the job because of more than money, but we can’t just take your word for it forever. Not when we’ve lost this many people. We need to know that it’s worth it. Otherwise we won’t be able to do our jobs.”

Murphy sighed. “You know no one who knows everything gets to leave,” she said. “I haven’t been off this property in over a year and a half. It’s not because I love this place. I understand that it’s not fair, but you were all told the rules when you signed up, and you agreed.”

“We knew it would be dangerous,” our body said. “We didn’t know we were going to lose a dozen people in a single day.”

Murphy crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “It’s tough all over,” she said bluntly. “I’ve had plenty of friends die for this too, and I wasn’t able to tell many of them what they were dying to protect. Do you think I like that? I don’t. But the rules exist for a reason. No one who knows all our secrets can leave. Not me, not you, not any of your men and women. Not the supers we’ve recruited. Not the researchers, or the technicians, or the janitors. No one.  The risks are unacceptable.”

She doesn’t look like she’s budging,” Leon remarked.

“Not budging?” our body said. “Fine. See if you can find someone else to die for you.”

We started to stand, but Charlotte grabbed our arm and gave us a look, and we sat back down. Then she looked at Murphy.

“Look,” Charlotte said. “This isn’t a hissy fit. This is a morale issue. If you want us and our people to stand firm the next time there’s an attack, we have to know the reason matters. You talk a good game, but that’s not enough anymore. You have to meet us halfway, here.”

Murphy’s lip curled a bit, and she let out a sharp breath.

“The rule is not negotiable,” Murphy said. “If one of you wants to be able to vouch for the research being a good enough cause, I’m willing to brief you in, assuming I get the agreement of the head of research. But if that happens he or she will stay on the property at all times, just as I do. Any attempt to leave the property will result in that person being shot, and if that person tells anyone else what they know that individual will also be restricted to this base. You can think about it first, if you want.”

With that, she left the room.

The three of us sat back and looked at each other, along with the other handful of people in the room. Other squad leaders, possibly? Most had the same combat-ready look, so it seemed likely that they were security people, at least. I didn’t recognize them, although the me in the vision found them familiar.  They probably worked different schedules, if the facility were guarded around the clock.

Hector’s right hand rested on the table, and his fingers drummed on its surface, one at a time from his pinky to his index finger and then repeating. Tap-tap-tap-tap. The sound was distracting in the quiet room.

Charlotte turned in her chair, facing the rest of us. “So, what do you all think? Should one of us try it?”

Hector shook his head. “I don’t think that’s good enough, for one of us to say he saw. We need more than that.”

“Is any of you willing to be confined to this place?” I asked. “Be honest. I’m sure it’s not as bad as it sounds, since we would probably have clearance for one or two more areas, but a cage is a cage.”

“Would it really be that different?” Charlotte asked. “Let’s be straight about this. I haven’t been on vacation for months. Time at my apartment might sound like a good idea, but it’s mostly a hole I sleep in, now. It’s not actually home anymore.” She glanced at us. “Anyway, I want to know. I want to know if this is pie-in-the-sky stuff or if we have an actual chance of lasting long enough to make a difference.”

“I need to think about it,” our body said. “I don’t know. I’d want to at least spend one last weekend in my place, I think. But I’m not deciding either way until I have a chance to sleep on it.”

Hector stopped tapping to scratch his scarred chin. “I don’t want to be stuck in this place, but I think you’re right,” he said, looking at Charlotte. “Not knowing is making me crazy.”

Most of the others agreed, though a few argued. In the end, the group decided to make a decision the next day and the meeting broke up.

The vision lingered a bit longer, and I kept hoping I’d get a chance to see the date, but our body stubbornly refused to pull out a damn calendar.

We may not know when, but it has to be current or recent past,” Leon said, “and we can look up the Congressman, at least. That’s a real lead.

Agreed,” I said. “That might finally give us something concrete to nail all of this down. And we now know that at least some of this stuff is happening in New York, and what we’ve seen probably isn’t too far away. That can’t be coincidence. Proximity is probably at least part of why we’re seeing these visions, or whatever.

I hope you’re right,” Leon said. “If they decide to say yes, I just hope we get to see that conversation, as well.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 7

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Unfortunately for me, the three guys whose car I was stowing away in didn’t start revealing vital information. They didn’t talk to each other at all, in fact. I guess they’d already said whatever they needed to before they got in. Benedetti turned to head east. I asked Leon to do a slow count and let me know how much time was passing, and it was a bit after the four-minute mark that they finally spoke up again. The guy in the passenger seat was checking his phone.

Meanwhile, I was sitting behind the driver, trying to watch all three of them and keep track of where we went while I felt my power slowly being used up, a bit at a time. I only moved to breathe, which kept the drain to a trickle, but in the close confines I felt acutely aware of it. If I ran out of power I’d have to attack them, and that would probably make Benedetti crash the car.

“Left here, then right a block down,” the passenger said. “Then it’s time to get out and search again. The boss said he went into a building?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Benedetti answered. “He knew he was spotted, so he ran inside. But they don’t know if he’s still there. We’re surrounding the block, and we’ll work our way into the middle. He might have backup, too.”

“What kind of backup?” the guy next to me asked. Some perverse part of me was tempted to reveal myself right then, if only because it was such a good prompt, but I restrained it. Other than serving drama and my ego, there wasn’t really anything to gain.

“Not sure,” Benedetti said. “They think it’s the local super types. Probably Flicker, but we might have Heavyweight or Menagerie. Maybe even more than one. We’re only here for the doctor, though.”

The guy next to me shivered and shook his head. “Man, I don’t want to fight those three. I don’t know. Any chance we can get there too late or something?”

The passenger looked over his shoulder. “Quit bitching. They’re ‘good guys’, we’ll be fine.”

I was a little offended by the sarcasm in his voice. I might not be perfect, but I thought I’d been doing pretty well in light of the fact that I was making things up as I went along.

The guy to my right barked a laugh. “Oh yeah, real good guys, definite superheroes. Haven’t you heard about what happened before? They burned down a house with people in it and Feral ate someone’s throat. If I hear a ‘meow’ I’m running the hell away. I don’t care who makes fun of me, nothing’s worth dying.”

“You’re afraid of cats now, Jeff?” the front passenger asked.

“Damn straight,” Jeff said. “You want me to deal with dogs, rats, or people, and I’m fine. You show me a cat and I’m gone. Supers are dangerous. I don’t want to fight ‘em.”

“Relax,” Benedetti said.  “The boss says Heavyweight is the only one who’s bulletproof, and nobody expects us to fight him. Flicker and Menagerie are tough, but not freaky super-tough. The boss says Menagerie’s normal, even if her cat is dangerous, and Flicker isn’t much tougher. Shoot him or zap him a few times and he should go down.”

My skin crawled a bit. It was hard to stay still and silent for this conversation. Fortunately, the car pulled to a stop, next to another. There was one man waiting next to the parked vehicle, and as I looked around I could see two more past him, at the next two street corners. The line seemed to extend in both directions; I assumed that at some point it would turn ninety degrees. From what I saw and heard, it seemed like the bad guys had figured out the doctor’s position and then decided to just surround the area and search inward. I wondered why Tuggey hadn’t done this before, back at the house, but I couldn’t think of a reason. I asked Leon.

Maybe they wanted to get his sister too?” Leon suggested. “They might have been worried that she’d disappear if he didn’t call her, or something. Maybe even file a missing person’s report. I don’t know if anyone has done that already, but it might be a problem for them in terms of keeping this whole mess quiet.

Could be,” I allowed.

Benedetti turned off the car and the three of them started to get out, and it was only then that I realized I might be stuck. Jeff closed his door behind himself immediately, and so did the other two. I couldn’t get out just yet without making my presence obvious.

There was nothing else for it, so I waited. They exchanged a few words that I couldn’t make out as they walked away, and I saw Benedetti pulling out his phone. I looked around again, as best as I could inside the car. Other than the line of men extending to the left and right, I didn’t think anyone was likely to spot me, even if I stood up, fully visible, and started to do jumping jacks. I’d overlooked it in my initial panic, but all of their attention was focused inward, on the square area they had surrounded. I let my invisibility lapse and sank to the floor of the car, waiting for Benedetti’s group to get farther away. After thirty seconds I got up, opened Jeff’s door, got out, and closed it behind me, invisible once again. When I closed it the guy to my right glanced over, but only for a second. I concluded that he had written the noise off as nothing and ran after Benedetti.

Do we have any way to find the doc first?” I asked Leon. “I can’t think of anything. We don’t even have the number for his phone.

No, we don’t,” Leon said. “We should have asked for it, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.

Feels like a rookie mistake,” I said. “Whatever, though. Time to move on.

I followed Benedetti, for starters, walking quickly to catch up. His group passed three more men and entered a building, and I hesitated outside before continuing, heading for the center of the area. If the doctor saw or heard the searchers coming, he’d try to move away from them. He might not realize he was surrounded. Regardless, the most likely gut reaction would be for him to retreat in a direction without people, and that meant the middle, the place that would be searched last.

I was only a few steps past the doorway when I heard a yell and stopped walking, then turned and ran into the building. It had been a corner store, probably selling a little bit of everything. There were remnants – discarded food wrappers, bottles of cleaning fluid, a few papers on the ground, and some empty cardboard boxes on the floor gave the sense that someone had been here recently, even if they were gone now. There was a rank smell coming from one corner. I followed the yells, moving through the shelves and into the back, where I found Benedetti holding a girl – probably a young teenager – by one shoulder while a younger boy crouched behind her, pressed against the wall. The two kids were filthy, wearing layers of torn clothes covered with worn jackets. It looked like they had a nest of sorts in the room, made of miscellaneous cloth and junk. Anything that would trap heat, I supposed.

“Did you see anybody around here? An old white guy in a blue jacket. You see him?” Benedetti demanded.

“C’mon, trash, we know you’d see him if he was here,” Jeff said. “Just tell us if you saw him.”

The girl shook her head, apparently unable or unwilling to speak.

“If we find someone else in this building, I’ll know you lied to me,” Benedetti said. “I don’t like liars. If you saw something, this is your last chance to change your mind without getting a beating, got it?”

The girl shook her head again, and finally spoke. “Nothing. Nobody. Just us.”

Benedetti pulled her to her feet, yanking on her arm to bring her face closer to his own. “You sure, little rat?”

She nodded frantically.

Jeff glared at the boy, and he burrowed into an orange blanket, hiding his face.

Calm down, David,” Leon cautioned. I realized that my fists were clenched, and I had almost lost control of my powers, letting my invisibility drop. I took a slow, deep breath, trying to follow the suggestion.

We’ll settle up with these gentlemen later,” Leon said. “And try to do something for the kids, if we can. But we can only do one thing at a time.

If they hit those kids, we’re taking them out,” I said.

Agreed.

Benedetti only held the girl for a few seconds longer before letting go, roughly dropping her back to the ground. I got out of the doorway and let the three men exit, contemplating how vulnerable they were with their backs turned to me. After a moment’s hesitation, I reached into my pocket and pulled the cash I had out of my wallet. As I followed the three men out I put it down on one of the shelves, weighted down by a few coins.

I still felt shitty for not doing more, but I was in the middle of something time-sensitive. Jeff left last and let the door swing shut behind him, and I managed to get outside after them without making much noise. He glanced back at the door as they left, and looked right through me. I was thankful that all of this was happening at night. I still hadn’t worked out how to compensate for the weird visual effect around my feet that prevented me from becoming perfectly invisible, but at night someone would have to know what they were looking for to see it, and Jeff wasn’t staring at the ground in any case.

They went back inside, re-entering the same building through a different entrance, and this time I stuck to my plan, heading past them toward the center of the area. I took the first good opportunity I got to climb up onto a nice flat roof, scanning in every direction to try to figure out if I was in the middle.

I seemed to have found the center of the area. There were spots of light in every direction, as men in small groups used their flashlights to search indoors and out, but that was the only illumination that I could see. Anyone who wasn’t carrying a light was almost invisible. I didn’t have high regard for the doctor’s ability to hide, though.

They’re still searching, so they obviously haven’t found the doc,” I noted. “Either he was never here, they passed him, or he’s going to get found any minute. I don’t think they’re incompetent enough to gather everyone in one place like this if they weren’t confident that he’s in the area.

I agree,” Leon said. “The doctor is probably close. And since we neither see nor hear commotion, I suggest we descend and search this building. Perhaps he is beneath us right now.

I tried the door that led to the interior of the building, but it was locked. Instead, Leon suggested walking around the rim of the roof and searching for a suitable window. When I got to the third side of the building, I found one that was half-open and half-broken beneath me, on the top floor. I climbed over the lip of the roof and hung by my hands, then used my power to try to reach the window sill with my feet.

I had to scramble a bit, but it worked, and soon enough I was inside. I let my powers rest and recharge again. I’d recharged a bit on the roof, and I let myself remain visible to keep it going. If the doctor was present I didn’t want to surprise him. Either way, I thought I’d need the juice more later than I needed to be hidden now.

I started to make my way through the building, checking each floor and then descending to the next. It was an old apartment building, but it was on the small side, with only four floors and a handful of apartments on each floor.

I found the doctor on the second floor. He ran right past me and I followed him to a window, where he looked down at his pursuers. His left hand rose to his head and he started scratching furiously, clearly panicking. It was only the light from the window that let me recognize his face. I wondered how he’d gotten this far, since he’d failed to notice my footsteps right behind him, but maybe I was getting better at sneaking around than I thought. I walked back to the door and knocked, letting myself become visible.

He jumped, literally, spinning in the air to face me.

“It’s all right, doctor,” I said. “It’s just me. Sorry it took me so long to catch up to you.”

“Oh thank god,” he whispered hoarsely. His right hand clutched at his chest, and he gasped for air, while his left rested on the wall, helping him regain his balance.

“Good to see you again too, doc,” I said. “I wasn’t sure if I’d manage to find you before they did.”

“Please don’t do that,” he said. “My nerves are frayed already.”

I smiled. “Sorry, but there’s no way to become visible that isn’t jarring. And besides, we don’t have a lot of time to waste.”

He glanced out the window nervously. “No, I guess we don’t. I don’ suppose you can turn me invisible as well? I don’t know how else to get away from them. I tried to run, but they surrounded me.”

I patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I can’t turn you invisible, but I’m going to get you out of here.”

“I hope that means you do have a way to get me away from these people?” he said hopefully.

“I do,” I said. “All you’ll need to do is be quiet, hopefully. Wait here for a bit – I’ll be right back.”

I backtracked until I found Benedetti’s group. There was another trio right behind them, and others in every direction, but they hadn’t quite reached the center building where the doctor was hiding.

I went past Benedetti’s group, ignoring them and closing in on the trio behind them. There were others searching the other side of the block, and across the street, but none of the groups really seemed to be working that hard to communicate with each other. Despite what I’d overheard, they didn’t seem very concerned about me showing up.

I followed the trio indoors and waited to see if they would split up, but they didn’t. They stayed in sight of each other at all times, and made sure that at least one of them was watching the hallway that led to the entrance, so no one could get past them. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was a reasonable effort at thoroughness.

When do you think?” I asked Leon.

The deepest point into the building,” he suggested. “Not much time, so don’t wait for them to go upstairs. Just let them get away from the entrance.

I took his advice. As soon as the three men were deep enough in the building that I wasn’t worried about being heard, I attacked them. Their backs were all to me and the hallway was just wide enough to fit two people walking side-by-side, so the first man was alone while the other two were slightly ahead of him. I zapped the first guy with my stolen taser and then smacked his head against the wall and let him fall to the ground while I stepped over his body. The other two men were turning, but their reactions felt slow to me. I kicked the leg of the man on the left and he tripped and fell. The second guy, on my right, retreated. I took an extra-long step to catch up to him and zapped him.

Nothing happened. He must have felt the blow, even if the taser didn’t go off, and he reacted by kicking wildly. His foot hit my hip and I lost my balance. I let the taser fall from my hand and it became visible as it struck the ground, but that freed up my hand so I could get a grip on the wall and avoid falling. I leapt backward, shrinking the distance more than I’d meant to as I instinctively retreated, and there was a thump as my back hit the other wall behind me. The man who’d kicked me was freeing his own weapon, and the guy on the ground was reaching for something else.

Leon sent me an urgent nonverbal thought, indicating that the guy on the ground needed to be dealt with immediately. I reacted without thinking, jumping on top of him with both feet and then landing next to him. I kicked him in the face and then kicked his hands, and his cell phone fell on the ground. The other guy lunged at me, left arm sweeping blindly from side to side in an attempt to find me while his right hand held his taser. I stepped back and saw that the guy on the ground was clutching his face and moaning, giving me a moment to deal with his friend, then stepped past them both to get behind them. I kicked the standing guy in the back twice and he fell forward onto his friend. The guy on the ground rolled out of the way, but that took him away from his phone, still on the floor where it had fallen, and the second man’s taser fell from his hands as he tried futilely to catch himself by grabbing at the wall. I picked up the weapon and gave them each a jolt, then grabbed the phone to see if it had dialed.

It hadn’t. I turned it off and looked back at the two men, then stepped over them and left hurriedly. As soon as someone noticed they weren’t moving around anymore, I would be out of time, and I was depending on stealth yet again.

I ran out of the building and into the next one, looking for Benedetti’s group, but they weren’t there. I backtracked again, heading to the building the doctor was in, and found them about to enter it.

The doctor should be on the second floor, still; I decided it would be better to deal with the trio inside, where we were less likely to be seen or heard. When I made my move, they went down a lot easier than the last group; I went through their pockets until I found the car keys. Then I went for the doctor.

Searching for him, they have every advantage,” Leon said. “They have numbers, coordination, and time on their side. All we have is secrecy. We’ll need a distraction.

Not much I can do on that front,” I said.

They’ve left a lot of cars unattended – we must be able to do something with that.

Without keys?

I’m sure we can think of something,” Leon said. “It doesn’t need to do much, just be noticeable. How about it?

Okay, we’ll try,” I said.

I reached the doctor. “Hey, you ready to leave?”

“Are they downstairs?” he asked nervously.

“They didn’t call anyone,” I said. “They’re unconscious. Come on.”

He followed me quietly out the door. I went back the way Benedetti’s group had come. With the other group of three also knocked out, there didn’t seem to be any more men between us and the perimeter, where the cars were parked. I handed the doctor the keys when we got to the edge of the area.

“See that car? If you get a chance, go get in it. If not, wait for me here. I’m going to go cause a little ruckus somewhere else to distract them.”

He stared at me. “No offense, but splitting up didn’t go so well last time. Are you sure this is a good idea?”

I shook my head. “No, but we don’t have a lot of time. I’ll be right back.”

I ran this time, instead of walking quickly. It seemed to strain my invisibility more, and I was down to the last dregs of my power by now, but I didn’t see any other choice. Leon was describing his bare-bones plan as I moved. I ran until I reached the corner where their perimeter turned ninety degrees. Following Leon’s advice, I started slashing tires, heading down the line. The cars all looked used, and most of them weren’t very new models, either. Leon had been hoping we would find one with a nice, loud car alarm, but in the absence of that I just smashed a couple of windows, allowing the nearest thug to hear the noise, then come over and investigate.

Then I zapped him and left him twitching next to the vehicle, heading back the way I’d come. I managed to knock out two more guys before someone raised the alarm, and then they were all struggling to hold their phones, flashlights, and tasers at the same time.

Hey, why do you think they don’t have guns?” I wondered.

They probably don’t know how to use them well,” Leon responded. “Or perhaps their superiors don’t want people to turn up with gunshot wounds. I would think that would attract police attention quickly.

Soon a bunch of guys were coming from the center area to fill in the gap I’d created and figure out the damage. I passed them going the other way, and returned to the doctor. I passed him, heading to Benedetti’s car, and attacked the man standing nearest to it. He collapsed in a heap, and I moved up the line, doing the same thing to two more men, then went in the other direction and repeated my ambush. I felt a bit like the slasher from a horror film, except for the fact that no one was dying. Sneaking up on people in the dark was easier than I’d expected, and a small part of me wanted to hum the theme from Jaws while I crept around.

When I got back to the doctor, he was peering out, clearly weighing his odds.

“Time to go, doc,” I said, walking up to him. I was visible now. I could probably hide for another five minutes, if I didn’t move around, but there was no point anymore; everyone close by should be out cold.

The doctor and I went to Benedetti’s car. He climbed into the backseat while I sat behind the wheel, and I started to drive away. There were shouts, and I saw a man on a phone in the rearview mirror, but he was still raising it to his ear as I turned the corner and drove away. I headed northeast, toward the heart of the city.

“Call your sister,” I said. “Let’s meet up so you can get away from here.”

The drive was uneventful, and we managed to avoid any more run-ins with the bad guys long enough to ditch the borrowed car, meet the doctor’s sister Kaylee, and leave the city limits. Once we got that far, I started to relax.

Then all the adrenaline wore off and I wanted to sleep. It wasn’t light out, but I had a feeling it was going to be all too soon, and my body was feeling a powerful need to crash.

Don’t take it too easy,” Leon said. “Cordoning off that area and searching it would have taken a lot of men, especially on such short notice.

I know, but they can’t be everywhere. Now we just have to figure out how they knew where to go in the first place.

We were making a brief stop in a parking lot, just long enough to plan our next move. I was sitting in the back seat, while Lyle sat in the front next to Kaylee.

“Okay,” I said. “I realize you two may just want me to leave –”

“I’m not in a particular hurry for that to happen, actually,” the doctor said.

“I just want to know what the hell is going on, actually,” Kaylee cut in, her tone acid. “Lyle, I came because you sounded desperate, but that wild story you told me makes no sense! And I don’t think I even want to know why you’re running around with someone who covers his face all the time!”

“He probably saved my life tonight,” Lyle said. He turned to look at me over his shoulder. “Thank you for that, by the way.”

“Saved your life from what?” his sister demanded. “Why on earth would you be in any danger?”

“Ah, well…that is rather a long story,” Lyle said uncomfortably. He adjusted his collar and then began to fidget. “I didn’t know who I was getting involved with at the time, but I, ah, agreed to provide medical services to some people off the books, as it were. The kind of people who don’t want to go to hospitals or be asked questions.”

“You were…doctoring criminals?” she sounded incredulous. “Why in god’s name would you do something so stupid?”

Leon seemed to agree with her attitude.

Lyle scratched his neck. “Well, they paid very well, for one thing. It didn’t seem so bad at first, you know. I just cleaned and stitched up a few people, or made some antibiotic recommendations. And I didn’t have to pay taxes on it at all, and…” he sighed. “I don’t know why, in the end. I didn’t need the money, really. But it was such an opportunity, I couldn’t let it go.”

Kaylee shook her head. “You damned idiot,” she said resignedly. “So what happened? You saw something you weren’t supposed to?”

“Not exactly,” Lyle said. He hung his head. “It was a slow process, you know – took months. But I got more and more involved, until eventually it started to interfere with my normal business. I tried to cut back, but they didn’t like that, and I got stuck. Eventually they started having me watched all the time, never leaving me alone. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t find a chance until now, and then I was stuck in the city with no way to leave it. I knew they’d be watching my car, my house, and my office, and I thought they might keep an eye on the train station and the bus…I didn’t know what else to do, so I called you, Kaylee. If you hadn’t come, they might have caught me tonight.”

“You’re welcome,” Kaylee said sourly. “And are they going to follow me around, now? Am I going to be safe if I go home?”

“I…don’t know,” Lyle said.

“Well that’s just wonderful, isn’t it,” Kaylee said, angry again. “You’re out of the city, but now both of us are stuck with nowhere to go. I’m so glad we can have our lives ruined together, it’s just great! So wonderful to see you again, too, you asshole!”

She glared at him and he looked away. I waited a few seconds to see if either of them had anything else to say.

This is awkward,” Leon remarked.

Not helping,” I chided.

I was making an observation. What do we do now?

I scratched my head and tried to think, and the silence stretched on. The only bright spot my tired mind could pinpoint was the fact that Kaylee didn’t seem to be angry at me at the moment. It wasn’t much of a starting point.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 6

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Secrecy was great, but I was feeling the time pressure. I walked to the building next door, which was similar: three stories, probably another mix of residential and commercial space, possibly containing one or more dangerous, maybe-brainwashed guys in service to a super-powered criminal of unknown motives just waiting for me to come along and assault them.

When I looked at it in a sentence that way, it seemed strange.

There wasn’t time to dwell on the weirdness, though. I crept across the grass, invisible and moving as quietly as I could. This building was missing its front door, conveniently enough, so I just walked right in. The first room I found myself in was unoccupied, with a door ahead of me and another to my right. I went to the door on the right first, expecting it to be a dead end, and knelt next to it. I didn’t hear anyone inside, and there wasn’t any light coming from under the door. I hadn’t seen any signs of people through the windows, either.

I took my taser in one hand, yanked the door open, and stepped through, invisible, and then stepped to one side, clearing the doorway just in case.

Nothing. The room was as empty as I’d expected.

My heart was racing anyway. I turned around and left, going to the second door, and repeated the process.

More nothing. No movement, no sounds except when I moved, and no sign that anything other than a few bugs was in here. The stairs were ahead of me, and I walked up to them, looking up, but there were no lights on the higher floors, either.

Another time-related decision: should I check the upstairs to be thorough, or assume this building was clear and move on?

The doctor was almost late already. That might mean that Mary had given me the wrong time or place, that someone else had given her the wrong time or place, or that the doc was running late. Or it might mean that the doctor had already been caught somewhere else, or that he had been struck by lightning on the way here.

If not, though, he could arrive at any moment, and I had no idea how many men might be waiting for him beyond the six I’d already dealt with.

I looked up again, listened to the silence for a moment, and then turned around and left the building. It felt like a stupid risk, but Leon helpfully reminded me that every choice was a gamble of some kind. It was very comforting, and definitely not obnoxious.

Outside the building, I looked around again, trusting my powers to keep me unseen. I was right across the street from the address Mary had given me. I didn’t see any other buildings that looked like particularly good spots to ambush from, or any signs of occupancy.

Time to check around the back of the house,” Leon said.

I started walking that way. Crossing the street made me feel vulnerable, but at least it only took a few steps. Once on the other side, I decided to go ahead and walk right past the front of the house.

I frowned, thinking, as I reached it. “Leon, check me on this. If they want the doc, they’d be smart enough to search the house, right? His whole problem is that he’s alone. That’s why he called for help, I assume. So if you were the doctor, and you weren’t in the house, where would you be?

They might not have searched the house, David,” Leon disagreed. “I imagine Tuggey, like us, arrived here as soon as he could. Without knowing when the doctor plans to arrive, they would find it difficult to search the area without alerting him in time to leave, if he got here first. My guess is that Tuggey is doing what we’re doing and waiting for the doctor or his sister to show up. At that point, he’ll have to come out, if he’s here. The difference is that Tuggey can be confident that he has more than enough force to stop the doctor from escaping, whereas you and I know for a fact we’re too outnumbered to just sit and wait.

I blinked. “Tuggey doesn’t want to warn the doctor, but we do. Why not just go inside? As far as we can tell, those six men were the only ones watching the front of the house. If the doctor’s inside, we can talk to him and try to make a new plan. Maybe even avoid fighting entirely.

If there’s no one else watching the front door, then it’s a good idea,” Leon said, pleased with the notion. “The directness might catch them off guard, as well. But if anyone sees us go in, they’ll likely move on the house at once. If there’s a single spotter we missed…

If we let things play out, the doctor and his sister are pretty much guaranteed to be endangered,” I said. “We’ll have to either intervene immediately or wait, in which case they just might get executed. Let’s go inside.

I turned to the house. It looked old. The roof over the porch was supported by columns, there was a big window in what I assumed was the living room, and the siding was peeling. It was on a hill, with concrete steps leading up to the front door so that it was higher than street level. Before I walked up those steps, I took another look around, scanning the area. Across the street were the two buildings I’d entered. To one side was the larger commercial structure I’d climbed on top of and its parking lot. In the other direction were more houses. I didn’t see anyone. I hoped the houses on either side of the address I’d been given were empty, although it was possible the doctor – or people looking for him – were waiting in either of them, too. If this house was empty I’d search them next.

Before I could chicken out, I went up the steps and opened the front door as quietly as I could. There was space for a screen door, but it was missing. The main door was intact, but not locked. It looked like it couldn’t lock, in fact. The part of the mechanism that actually extended from the door into the wall was missing.

I managed not to make too much noise, but the wooden floor creaked when I set foot inside. I debated turning myself visible in the hopes of appearing less threatening to the doctor, since I would need to convince him to trust me, but decided against it. I still didn’t know whether he was in here; Tuggey’s men might be waiting for me instead. Granted, if I was the doctor I didn’t think I’d have come to the house, but I knew that people were hunting for him here and it was hard to forget that. He might not have any idea.

I moved around the house quietly. My eyes were adjusted to the dark, but even in this crappy, mostly-abandoned part of the city there were occasional street lights, so it took a bit for me to adapt to the dimmer conditions indoors. The living room was a bit brighter, with light coming in through the window; no one was there. The kitchen and dining room were empty, too, and so was the first-floor bathroom. I passed the stairs, heading both directions. There was one more ground floor room, but its door was closed. I took a deep breath and opened it, half-expecting to see the doctor crouching inside, desperately brandishing a knife.

I found someone, but he wasn’t cowering fearfully, teetering on the edge of a fight-or-flight response. Instead, he was snoring softly, legs stretched out on the ground as he leaned back against the wall. His head lolled to one side, half-supported by a wadded-up shirt or something on his shoulder. He had his hands stuck in his armpits inside his jacket, probably to keep them warm. The room was dimly lit by a lantern-style flashlight, and my eyes had to adjust again; the meager light seemed startlingly bright after all the creeping around I’d done. The flashlight was on the floor to one side. Next to it, I saw a paper shopping bag. I leaned over to peek and saw a half-eaten sandwich wrapped in paper and a flip phone on top of some other stuff, maybe clothes.

Well, I guess he doesn’t know anyone else is here,” Leon said. “Either he’s expecting a call when his ride arrives, or he fell asleep unintentionally.

We debated how to wake him up for a minute, trying to figure out the best way to avoid screaming, and eventually I gave up and knocked on the inside of the door.

He snored louder.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I said. “Isn’t this guy on the run and afraid for his life?

I knocked again, louder.

He cut off mid-snore, his head shifted a bit, and then he started again.

I shook my head in disbelief, stifled a laugh, reached down, grabbed his shoulder, and gave him a shake. I winced when his head banged against the wall. That was accidental.

That woke him up, finally. I let go of him at once, and he took a moment to get his bearings before he noticed me. When he did, he scrambled away, knocking over his bag and flashlight.

“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m not here to hurt you or take you back.”

He stumbled and fell. I let him, figuring that coming closer would just scare him more, even if all I did was help him stand up.

“Listen to me, all right? I’m not one of the bad guys. I’m Flicker. If you keep up with local news, you know which side I’m on.”

He gained his feet, holding the flashlight in one hand and peering at me. “I saw Flicker before. Stay back!”

I sighed a bit. I wasn’t going to do anything to the guy, but did he really think he could stop me if I had wanted to? It wasn’t insulting so much as irritatingly stupid.

“I found you here asleep,” I pointed out. “If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead. If I wanted to capture you, you would have woken up in the back of a car or something, probably tied up. I’m here to help you. Or if you want more honesty, I’m here hoping we can help each other. Okay?”

The doctor licked his lips nervously, bringing his lantern up higher, and I got a better look at his face. He had a small, unkempt beard, and dark circles under his eyes. Presumably he got a better look at my mask.

“I don’t think I trust you,” he said. “How did you find me?”

“I’m not the only one looking for you,” I said. “Your…former employer got this address somehow. I don’t know how. I’ve been trying to learn more about the people you were working for, and I found the address through them. From what I heard, they’re expecting your sister to come and get you sometime soon, here. I’m assuming you wanted to get out of town. I don’t blame you for that. But it’s not safe here. There were some thugs waiting nearby – I knocked them out, but they could wake up, and there might be more. So I suggest you grab your stuff and we move someplace else. If you need to, you can call your ride. Okay?”

He hesitated again. “Show me your face!” he demanded shakily.

I sighed. “That’s not happening,” I said. “Even if I did, you don’t know what Flicker’s face looks like, so it wouldn’t prove anything. Now, I know you’re scared, and I know you just woke up, but try to think, man. I found you somehow. You know that for sure. You also know I’m not hurting you, and I don’t have a bunch of other guys here to grab you and take you away. All I’m trying to get you to do is go someplace else, where there aren’t people waiting to pick you up. All right? Me being here is proof that you’ve been found. The only way to prove that the bad guys found you too is to wait to get caught, and I don’t think you want that. Meet me halfway, here.”

Good,” Leon said. “He’s calming down already.

“Well…how do I know you aren’t trying to trick me?” the doctor asked.

“You don’t know for sure,” I said, “but as I already said, there’s absolutely no reason for me to. I found you without tricks. I don’t need to trick you. I need your cooperation, but only so I can save your ass. Now, can we please go?”

He blinked quickly. “I…all right, I guess. What do we do?”

Leon and I had given some thought to that question. We lacked long-term answers, but had a few short-term ones, at least. “First, call your sister. Tell her not to come here, that you had to go someplace else. How much does she know?”

“I told her that I got caught up in something bad, and people are chasing after me, and I told her that I needed help getting out of town,” he said. “I’m afraid to take a train, bus, or cab, and I know they must be watching my home. And I told her I was scared to call the police, because I think they get information from inside the department.”

I felt my eyes widen at that. “Is that true? How do you know?”

“I’m not sure,” the doctor admitted. “But I won’t risk it. You haven’t called them, have you?”

“No, I haven’t,” I promised. “I came here alone. The only person I told was Menagerie, and she couldn’t get here in time to help, it seems. No one else knows I’m here.”

“Good,” he said with relief. “Good. So…”

“Call your sister,” I reminded him. “I’m certain they’re waiting for her to get here. She seems to be running a bit late, but that’s good for us.”

“Okay,” he said. “Right.” He rubbed at his eyes, then looked around for a moment before he spotted his phone and picked it up. It looked brand new. I wondered if he’d gotten it after running away, perhaps afraid that his normal one could be traced somehow? He seemed like a nervous guy. But then again, he had good reasons to be afraid.

“I’m going to look out the windows and make sure no one’s coming,” I said. “As soon as you’re off the phone, we’re leaving.”

The phone was dialing when I got to the door and opened it. I took a quick glance back, having second thoughts about leaving the doctor alone. There weren’t any doors that led out of the building in that room, only the one I was leaving through. The windows were all closed, too, so if the doctor freaked out and tried to run from me, I should hear his ill-advised escape. I turned invisible whenever I was in front of a window, looking out, but I didn’t see any signs of movement around the house, and I didn’t hear anyone moving around except myself. When I looked out the front, toward the buildings I’d checked out earlier, I didn’t see any signs of light or people entering or leaving, so I was hopeful that the six men I’d dealt with were still out of action. I circled back to the doc, and he was hanging up.

“I don’t know where to meet her, now,” he said. “I told her I’d call again in a bit. Now what?”

I tried to project confidence. “Now we walk out the front door and leave. We’re heading generally south, and I’m going to get you away from here in one piece. If anything goes wrong, you’re going to run like hell while I deal with it. Cool?”

“But where do I go?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Where have you been staying?”

“The streets,” the doctor said, disgusted. “I kept feeling like they would spot me if I went to a hotel or something, or used a credit card. I got some money out of an ATM, but since then I’ve just been trying to avoid attention until my sister could come.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He grimaced. “It could be worse. I could have been caught.”

“True,” I agreed. I thought for a minute. “Leon, any ideas? I don’t know any place for this guy to hide, not if he’s avoiding the police and the bad guys.

We don’t have anything that qualifies as a safehouse,” Leon said. “One of many things to put on the wish list for what to buy if we ever become obscenely rich and don’t know what to do with all of our money, I suppose. In the meantime, I’d suggest picking a random landmark as a place to meet if we get separated. There’s that church just off campus, with the pretty windows. How about that?

It was better than nothing. The doctor agreed.

“Just so we’re clear,” I said. “I’m hoping you’ll tell me what you can about these people once we’re away, but I’ll help you regardless. Now, I’m going to go outside first. Give me half a minute. If nothing happens, follow me. If something happens, go in the opposite direction from trouble and then head south to the church. Got it?”

“Yes,” he said. “Thank you…Flicker.”

I smiled. “You’re welcome, doc. Hey, what’s your name, anyway?”

“It’s Jameson,” he said. “Doctor Lyle Jameson.”

“Well, good luck,” I said. “See you shortly.”

I opened the front door again and went outside. This time I let myself be visible. It was a risk, but I was pretty confident that no one was in a position to shoot me. And if they were, I really needed to know now, before the not-regenerating doctor came into the line of fire with me. The only thing I really feared was a headshot, and that was a pretty far-out possibility. I wasn’t an expert, but I knew enough to know that professionals rarely shoot for the head, and amateurs are unlikely to hit it.

You know, escort missions are widely regarded as the worst,” Leon said.

I stifled a laugh. “Really not a great time to distract me, Leon. Even if you’re completely right. Besides, I think the doctor is smart enough that he won’t get hung up on a wall or forget to run away if someone shoots at him.

No, we’re the only ones dumb enough for that tonight,” he agreed.

I was in the middle of the street, at that point, looking around.

The doctor was punctual. I had just about counted to thirty when he followed me outside. I waved one hand for him to follow me and started walking south. I could see three parallel streets running north-south from there. I picked the smallest one and we left the intersection. I took a brief side-trip to peek into the building where I’d left six men unconscious earlier, and they were all still there.

When we got a block away, I let myself start to feel good about how the night was going. I’d found the doctor, avoided the ambush, dealt with six guys on my own, kept his sister from driving into the trap blind, and now we were getting away and my powers were recharging steadily. All in all, the night was a big success so far.

I didn’t hear the sound of a car starting up until a few seconds later.

I looked around to spot the source of the noise, and saw the headlights shining out of an alley we’d just passed, behind us and to the right. I turned to the doctor. “Run. I’ll catch up with you.”

He started to answer, but I ignored it. I was busy sprinting toward the car and turning invisible. They’d clearly seen us walk past them, but they couldn’t see me at that moment.

The car pulled out of the alley, turning onto the street. I reached it just as it finished the turn, and pulled out the knife I’d confiscated earlier. I’d kept it in its sheath and put that in my pocket, and it seemed like the right tool for this job. I took a long step forward and stabbed the front right-side tire on the car, pulling the blade free, then took another step and slashed the rear one too. I heard the hiss of escaping air for a second, and the tires deflated quickly – I’d cut long slashes, so there wasn’t much chance for them to hold together. The right side of the car dropped, scraping the street, and it only took a few seconds for the people inside to notice and react.

Speaking of the people inside, I stepped back and tried to get a good look at them. The lighting wasn’t great for that, and I had to walk forward quickly to catch up to the car as it slid forward a bit before stopping. The car’s headlights had shined right into my eyes only seconds before, and I was squinting as I looked in. I glanced back the way I’d come and saw the doctor’s retreating back leave the area illuminated by the headlights, and returned my full attention to the vehicle.

There were three people inside the car: two in front, and one in the back. The one in the back was talking on a cell phone, and all three of them were looking around, probably trying to spot me. The guy in the passenger seat was cursing, while the one next to him told him to shut up. Leon noted that all three of them were apparently white, but I ignored that for now.

I didn’t want them regrouping, but they were mostly doing what I wanted, i.e. not pursuing the doctor, so I wasn’t sure what to do.

The front passenger started to open his door, and I guessed he would continue the chase on foot. I waited for him to start climbing out and kicked the door hard, slamming it on his shin. He yelled, clutching at the leg instinctively, and I did it again, this time smacking his forehead with the window and knocking him back onto the driver, getting them tangled in each other’s limbs – it looked like the driver had been unbuckling his seat belt, making the tangle worse, which was nice for me. I turned my attention to the man in the backseat and used the handle of my new knife to smash in the window, sending shards of glass all over the backseat. The guy with the phone recoiled, scrambling to the other end of the car and babbling incoherently into the phone.

I thought fast and ran around to the other side of the car, slashing the other two tires to make sure it wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. I looked around and found a brick on the ground, ran up and threw it into the windshield. It didn’t shatter but cracks spread across it quickly; no one could drive with that kind of hampered visibility.

I turned and ran, using my powers to speed up again. This car was out of it, and the three guys inside were scared, but they had seen which way we were going. I figured the man on the cell phone must have called his bosses, and if that was true then more cars were probably on the way. I needed to catch up to the doctor.

I was tempted to climb up to the rooftops so I could look down on the streets and alleys from above, but the buildings in the area were too irregular in height, and too far apart in some places. I’d end up climbing up and down repeatedly, and I’d lose time, so the vantage point wouldn’t be worth it. Instead, I just jogged after the doctor, hoping he was still going in the right direction. I let my invisibility lapse as soon as I was away from the car I’d ambushed, to save energy for later.

After three blocks, I figured something had gone wrong. The doctor had a head start, but not that much of one. Either I’d gone past him, or he’d lost his way, or something. It occurred to me that with only a flip-phone, he might not even be able to access a map if he got lost – a stupid oversight on my part.

Recriminations waste time,” Leon said. “Focus. What’s the next move?

I turned in a circle, looking and listening, but there were no signs of movement.

With no better ideas, I ran to the tallest building nearby. The door was locked, but there was a fire escape around the side. Reaching the ladder despite the fact that it was up was no problem. I ran up the stairs as fast as I could, only realizing as I went that I couldn’t remember using my power on stairs before – might it work differently than on flat surfaces somehow?

Apparently not. I took each flight in only a few steps, and soon I was at the top of the building. I’d tried to pick one that would give me visibility in every direction and be about in the middle of the southward path the doctor and I had been following, so if he only veered a little off course I would see him. Or so I hoped.

I looked around frantically for a minute, but I didn’t see anything useful. When I tried to look back at the car I’d dealt with, pulling out my binoculars for a better look, I couldn’t get a good angle, though I thought I spotted the headlights.

I’m stuck,” I said. “Do we pick a direction and go, or what?

Check your phone, just in case we have a chance at reinforcements.

I did, but there was nothing.

No go. Raquel and Feral must be sound asleep.

Leon and I hesitated.

He sighed. “We’re just putting off the potential mistake. Time to bite the bullet and pick a direction.

Okay,” I said. “Last we saw, he was running from the car. We were on the right side of the road, and he looked like he was going to the left. Let’s figure he probably kept going that way.

We re-oriented, looking south and east, then climbed down quickly. A straight shot east seemed like the way to start, so I went that way, crossing streets. After going over two streets, I climbed again, looking around for second time.

I didn’t see anything to the north, west, or east. I turned south.

Is that something?” I asked Leon, reaching for my binoculars again.

Maybe,” he said.

I was looking at a patch of light; as I watched it started moving, splitting into three. With my binoculars, I got a better look.

Looks like three men with flashlights, looking for something,” Leon said. “I think that’s more hunters. Do we meet them, or keep looking for the prey?

I felt like the whole night had been nothing but a procession of choices, all made with incomplete information and the knowledge that lives might be at stake. It was starting to wear on me. I didn’t answer Leon at first, instead looking around for any other signs of movement and life.

I gave up after a minute, heading toward the place where I knew the enemy was. It took me a few minutes to catch up to them. The trio was searching buildings one at a time, with one person staying outside to watch the entrance while the other two went in.

What about the back door?” Leon asked. “Some of these places must have back doors.

Either they’re ignoring it, or there’s a fourth guy around back,” I said. “It’s not like they can watch every window at once anyway. My guess is that they’re trying to spook him into running more than anything else.

Could be,” Leon acknowledged.

Two of the men went into the next building, the third keeping watch. I went around them and headed to their car.

It definitely wasn’t a new vehicle. I’d been too busy to notice much about the car the last trio had been driving except for where its tires were, but now I had the luxury of time and I felt able to observe and think. The car wasn’t rusty, but it had some dents and dings, and the paint was peeling in a few places. The windows and windshield weren’t clean, but they were intact, and they didn’t look like they would make it a lot harder to see. Overall, the vehicle looked used but fully functional. I had to turn on my flashlight to see whether or not the doors were locked.

The two front doors were, but one of the back doors was not, and I thanked my luck for other people’s laziness. I quickly searched the car for anything useful, checking the seats, the floor, the glove compartment, and the trunk. I didn’t find anything that mattered, though: just a used gum wrapper and a pack of cigarettes. With that done, I went back to the three men. They were just moving on to the next building when I caught up to them.

I was tempted to try to take them out, but that wouldn’t get me anything. If I was lucky, though, leaving them alone could help me.

I followed them as they searched three more buildings, and started to wonder if I should just head for the church. If the doctor had gotten away cleanly, he might be waiting for me there, and in that case I could actually be putting him in danger and wasting time.

Or he might have met up with his sister and simply left,” Leon said. “Although that would be a partial victory, at least.

I kept following them, staying back and staying quiet. One advantage of the approach was that my powers were recharging, since I wasn’t using them at all. The three guys weren’t looking behind themselves, and I gambled on their laziness to help me hide. So far it was working.

Finally, they got a call. I was frustrated that I couldn’t hear the other end, but I got close enough to hear the door guard talking.

“Yeah, Benedetti.”

“Where to?”

“Okay boss. We’ll be back to the car in a minute.”

I turned and sprinted to the car. Benedetti would need a minute to gather his two friends. I was thinking my options through as I ran. Should I slash the tires and go? Ambush them when they got into the car? There was definitely a window of vulnerability there. But that would only deal with this group, not the overall problem.

When they got back to the car, Benedetti unlocked the doors, and I held my breath to see if my idea would work. The three of them walked to their doors: two guys to the front and one to the back door on the right side.

I couldn’t help smiling. The guy who sat in the back had told me which seat he used by leaving his door unlocked, and not one of them noticed that the fourth seat in their car was occupied by an invisible passenger.

Benedetti started the car and pulled out of the alley, and I waited, invisible and breathing quietly, to find out where we were going. I just had to hope the guy next to me didn’t decide to stretch out his legs.
 
 
 
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