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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Slow and Steady 5

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I rubbed my eyes and glanced up at Shawn, sitting at his desk. His back was to me, and he was busy doing some kind of homework. I took a deep breath and pulled out my headphones, plugging them into my laptop and putting one earbud in. I didn’t want to be caught unaware if he tried to get my attention, since it could be awkward if someone saw my screen and wanted to know why I was looking up a private security company, but I needed some music to stay awake. Ever since Philly, Raquel and I had been pushing hard, and it was taking a toll.

Still, there wasn’t a good reason for me to be doing any investigating as an ordinary college student, and I’d been unavailable enough recently that my friends probably figured something was up already. I’d never been a social butterfly, but when someone starts disappearing off campus a lot it doesn’t take an investigator to notice.

The BPSC website looked very professional, in a spartan way; there weren’t a lot of fancy graphics, and things were organized very clearly and simply.  They provided security for individuals, companies, and special events, as well as private investigations. The website appeared to have been updated pretty recently. It also had a few embarrassing spelling and grammatical errors, but I wasn’t sure if that was a sign of a particular oversight by the company or the kind of thing that might happen a lot in the industry. Presumably most of the people running the business had other priorities, but I’d always thought that appearances counted for a lot in the corporate world. If the site had been put together by a tech person, and no one checked his or her work, it could happen easily, though.

There wasn’t much about any specific people involved in the company on the site, and certainly not a list of shareholders. I hadn’t expected one, but I had hoped there would be something. The site didn’t have many pages; basically, it was just contact information and a bunch of stuff describing the services they provided, some of it jargon that I couldn’t understand. Most of it was corporate-speak that made sense with a little careful reading and thought, like a section about Technical Security Counter-Measures. That was basically referring to security cameras, both real and fake, and listening devices.

It wasn’t any more informative the second or third time. I took a break, then made myself look at the site again, one page at a time, reading each paragraph and scrutinizing everything written there. I continued to learn nothing useful.

I tried to look the company up on other sites too, but it wasn’t high-profile enough to appear in many places. The entries I did find were essentially just listings with the address and contact information.

This isn’t telling us anything new,” I said.

No, it’s not,” Leon agreed. “And our other search is stalled as well. Unless you’ve done an excellent job hiding hacking skills from me, I think we’ll need to depend on legwork and patience.

I’ve never been a big fan of the tortoise,” I said. “Give me the quick solution any day of the week, as long as it works. But I think you’re right.

In my experience, the quick solution rarely works,” Leon said. “It often gives the appearance of working, but that is usually all. So, what shall we do now?

I don’t know,” I admitted. “I feel like there’s always something I should be doing lately, but I think I need a break. It’s too cold out to run around on foot, I don’t have the cash to rent cars all the time, and I’m too tired to do either thing right now anyway. We’ve looked up everything we can think of online. Sparring and practicing powers are both good ideas, but I’m just too worn out. Reading for class actually feels like a break now that I’ve got all these other…commitments claiming my time. I think I’m just going to sleep a bit early tonight, and hope we don’t dream.

Well, they don’t come most nights,” Leon said. “Statistically, we’re probably in good shape on that front. So if you’re tired, we might as well try to rest.

Yeah,” I said. “Let’s.

 I said good night to Shawn, turned off my computer, and faced toward the wall, away from the dim light over his desk, then shut my eyes.

When I opened them again, it took a moment for me to realize that my second phone – the one Mary had given me – was vibrating. I’d disabled the ringtone, hoping the vibrate setting would be enough to wake me up, and apparently it was.

I answered the call.

“What’s up?” I said blearily. I rolled onto my back and looked over at Shawn. I felt like crap, it was still dark out, and he was asleep, so I figured it was probably the middle of the night.

“Flicker?”

I rubbed tiredly at my eyes. “Yeah. What’s up?”

“They found the doctor,” Mary said shortly. “If you want to get to him, you’ll have to race; he’s expected to show up in an hour, maybe two. I have to go. I’ll send you the address where they’re waiting for him.”

That woke me up. I sat up, swinging my legs out of bed. “Who’s going?”

“I don’t know,” Mary said. “Not me.” There was a pause. “I have to go before someone notices me. I’m texting the address now. Get to the doctor. Get him away quietly if you can. Hurry.”

She hung up.

I felt tired. My head wasn’t aching, but it was foggy, and I knew I wasn’t thinking as fast or as well as I wanted to be. I knew it would still be dark for a while, too, and waking up in the darkness wasn’t pleasant.

Nothing for it, though. Ever since I met Raquel it felt like nothing had happened on my schedule. I got up, washed my face in hot water, and got dressed as quietly as I could, then slipped out of the building and off-campus. I caught a glimpse of someone else heading back to the dorm, but they didn’t bother me and I didn’t bother them. It wasn’t quite pitch-black out, but it was close enough, and the cold felt bitter. I added gloves to my coat and felt glad that my mask helped to keep my face warm despite the wind.

I texted Raquel, wondering if she would even notice, and looked at the message from Mary. It took a brief search to figure out where the address Mary had sent me was, but I was on my way soon enough, jogging along and compressing distance at a comfortable pace.

Moving through a sleeping city was a strange experience, even though I’d done it before. Every noise was amplified by the general silence, and this late there were almost no lights on anywhere. I found myself almost bored as I ran, but at the same time I was paranoid about being noticed.

From campus, I had to go north. If Raquel did notice my message, she wouldn’t need to go as far, so there was a decent chance she could catch up to me. My route wasn’t going to take me near her house, though; a side trip would add at least fifteen minutes to my journey, I thought, and I didn’t know if I had the time.

What do you think?” I asked Leon. “Is it worse to show up late, or alone?

If we’re in time, we can follow while avoiding whoever is sent to get the doctor,” Leon noted. “If we miss our window, it won’t matter whether we have help. I don’t think we can afford the side trip.

I glanced down at my phone unhappily, contemplating the map.

I’d been inclined to collect Raquel, but Leon was right.

Okay,” I thought. “Try calling Feral, and we’ll hope she notices.

Someone else might hear me if I do that,” Leon reminded me. “We don’t know if there’s anyone like us on the other side.

We don’t have any reason to think there is, though,” I said. “And we’re not going to be standing still afterward; if they want to find us, they will have to look. Do it.

I will,” Leon agreed.

We went past Raquel’s neighborhood, but not close enough to see it. Leon called, but no one answered. Either we were too far away, or Feral, like Leon, had started to sleep. Still, the farther we went after that, the more I found my stomach sinking. I hadn’t gone into any dangerous situations alone yet, really. Help had always been close by, even when things were at their worst. When Blitz grabbed me, having that help had saved my life.

We weren’t ready, then,” Leon noted. “We’re far more prepared, now.

Not prepared enough,” I countered.

No one ever is,” Leon said. “We’ll manage.

I kept running down the streets and alleys. I was breathing heavily now, but I’d found my rhythm, and each step I took covered a distance that would have required three strides, without my powers. My feet thumped softly on the sidewalks and streets, but I’d been doing enough running that they weren’t bothering me. A glance at the clock told me it had been about a half hour since Mary’s call, and looking at the map suggested I should make it with time to spare.

I was pretty far from campus, by now, and from the wealthier parts of the city. I passed through a neighborhood with signs in Spanish as well as English, and when I came out the other side I was nearly there. I slowed down, moving into an alley. A quick check showed me it was empty, and I crouched next to a wall, keeping the dumpster between myself and the street as I looked at the map on my phone, trying to pick a direction to approach from.

My head still ached a bit, I realized. Now that I wasn’t running, it was more noticeable, as if the rhythm of my feet had been masking the steady, dull ache thumping in my skull. It was one of those headaches you only feel on one side of your head – the left, in this case. I put one hand to my temple and stared at the map, willing it to make sense, but while the run had woken my body up all the way my mind still wasn’t working as fast as I wanted.

Help me out, here,” I said. “This headache is killing me. Approach direction?

It does hurt,” Leon agreed. “Try from the west, I think. Circle wide from here, then close in. Maybe get up on that roof, there,” he indicated a large building.

Okay,” I said.

I did as he’d suggested, going west and then north before I approached the address Mary had sent me. It took me a block and a half to realize what he’d said. “Hey wait, you’re feeling this too? I thought you didn’t get headaches.

I didn’t used to,” Leon grumbled. “I wish I didn’t now.

I blinked and pushed the thoughts aside. “Whatever. Need to focus.” I paused, trying to memorize as much of the immediate area as I could from the map before I put my phone away. I didn’t want its light to reveal me to anyone. Then I started moving again, until I found the building Leon had suggested – it looked like it was a decent-sized store of some kind, but I was coming at it from the back, so I didn’t know what it sold. It was definitely a chain, though. Maybe a national bookstore, or supermarket, or something. I wandered around the back briefly, until I found a dumpster I could hop onto. From there, I managed to get onto the roof, although it was a strain pushing my powers to get that high.

On the roof, I quickly looked around to make certain I was alone. Another glance at my phone indicated I had a few minutes before the doctor’s scheduled arrival.

Too bad we don’t know where he’s coming from,” I said.

Yes, but maybe we can see if anyone else is waiting for him,” Leon suggested.

Yeah,” I said.

I’d brought my binoculars, just in case; they were basically standard gear for me, at this point, and the whole point of climbing to the roof was so I could get a better view of everything around me, so I started looking, checking behind me first .

The back of the store was clear, and looking off of the sides didn’t reveal anything, so I started moving toward the front. Another check of my phone showed nothing from Raquel or Feral. No texts, no calls, no indication that they’d gotten either of our messages. They were probably asleep in bed.

I moved to the front of the roof, looking toward the address Mary had sent; it was an abandoned house. I found myself wondering why the doctor was meeting anyone here, but I was distracted again when I saw another text message from Mary, more recent.

“Doc 2 met sis. Wnts 2 leve twn. Tuggey thr 2 grab wth goons. Gd lck.”

Tuggey again,” Leon noted.

At least we know what he can do already,” I said. “He can’t rip us in half, fly, or chuck us through a wall.

True, but I think we can agree that getting shot in the face is still quite sufficiently dangerous,” Leon noted drily.

I didn’t bother voicing my agreement, even silently. I stashed the phone again, in favor of the binoculars, but I didn’t raise them to my eyes yet; first, I just tried to look around for light or movement that might warn me where Tuggey and his backup were.

The quiet felt so unnatural. In the distance there were faint sounds, of course; cities always had that background bustle, usually with at least one siren (ambulance, police, or fire department), even if it was too far to be heard clearly. But I was more focused on sights than sounds, and the area below me was desolate in that regard. I tried to pay attention to alleys, windows, doorways, and the streets surrounding me, but there wasn’t much to see for a few minutes.

There?” Leon suggested. I glanced and saw a window with a faint light inside; it went out after only a few moments.

Good odds,” I agreed. “So they’re probably waiting indoors, trying to stay out of sight. Should we wait for them to move, or go first?

I think we should get closer and try to listen to what they might be saying to each other,” Leon said.

I thought it over for a moment and agreed. My only edge was stealth; I needed to use it if I was going to manipulate the situation. So we went back across the roof, down the wall, and circled around again, until we could approach the building the light had been in from the rear, opposite the address Mary had indicated. We hoped that was the direction they were least likely to watch.

I knelt around a corner and took a second to focus and gather my power, then hid myself with it. In the dark, I had been an indistinct figure to begin with, but now I should be effectively invisible to the naked eye. I walked as quietly as I could across the street, over to the building, and looked for a discreet way in.

A broken window obligingly stood out from the others. It was on the second floor, but I only needed a little effort to reach. Remnants of broken glass cut my fingers through my gloves, and I had to stifle a pained yell, but I managed to pull myself in without making too much noise.

The building was only three stories; from the way it looked, I was guessing that the bottom floor was for businesses, while the top two were apartments, and a quick glance seemed to confirm that. The one I was in had a tiny kitchen, barely big enough for three average-sized adults to stand in if they were really comfortable with each other, a bathroom the size of a decent closet, two bedrooms, and a single living room. There was a disgustingly stained carpet in the living room, and there wasn’t any furniture except for the obviously broken refrigerator. A few of the kitchen cabinets were missing their doors, too. I searched the place quickly to make sure no one was there, then moved on to the rest of the floor. It was unoccupied, too. I found a window that looked across the street at where the doctor was supposed to show up, and I still didn’t see anyone outside.

It’s past the one hour mark,” I said. “But Mary said one or two. Still, I’m wondering if maybe they won’t show.

Mary sounded confident, but she’s not directly involved, it seems,” Leon said. “If her information is secondhand, we have no way to judge its accuracy until something happens.

I looked around, considering. “Third floor? Or straight to the ground?

It’s still quiet, so we should be thorough,” Leon said.

I paused at the stairs again, trying to determine if the voices I heard whispering to each other were above me or below me, but the stairway echoed weirdly. I went up the stairs to the third floor, wincing at every miniscule creak. It took me two minutes to make the trip, in my efforts to avoid noise, and I was conscious of the continuous drain on my powers as I tried to remain invisible, just on the off chance that someone might look in my direction.

On the top floor, I found more of the same: mostly empty and trashed apartments, though two showed signs that squatters had lived there at some point, and there were a few pieces of half-wrecked furniture that someone without better options might still use. In the last apartment I startled a few rats when I poked my head in. The smell of rotting food hit my nose the moment I walked in, and I stumbled back a step in surprise before Leon reminded me to be quiet.

I let myself be a bit squeamish and didn’t bother walking into every room of that apartment; with the rest of the building to choose from, I couldn’t believe that the goons would choose that room to hide in.

Down we go,” I said.

Leon encouraged me without words, and I started to creep downstairs to the first floor.

My return to the second floor was fine, but the instant I put a foot on the top step of the lower flight of stairs, I froze. It didn’t just creak; it groaned, loudly.

“Someone go check that,” a man’s voice said.

“Fuck you, you check it,” another grumbled back.

“Hadley, go check the noise,” the first voice said. “Or I’ll tell the boss how much time you waste bitching and whining about every little thing. Talbot, you too.”

I heard the rustling of movement, and put my hands on the banister, trying to remove myself from the stairs as quietly as possible and get out of sight. My invisibility wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t want to test it unnecessarily. The stairs creaked a bit, but it wasn’t as horribly loud with other noises coming from downstairs.

Two white men came into sight, stopping at the bottom of the stairs. One shined a flashlight up the stairs, moving it around for a bit; even if I hadn’t been using my powers, I didn’t think he would have spotted me.

“Nothing here,” he called. It was the same guy who’d complained before – Hadley, presumably.

The guy behind him snorted, and I heard someone else come over.

It wasn’t Tuggey, as I’d feared, but that made sense. He was supposed to have enhanced senses, and he’d struck me as being intelligent. If he wanted a noise checked, he would have taken backup and done it himself, I thought. Sending anyone else would be pointless.

The third guy who came into view was a bit shorter, but all three of them were bundled up in identical, warm coats, with winter hats on their heads. A close look indicated that their gloves looked the same too. Standardized winter clothes?

Probably cheap?” Leon speculated. “No one wants to spend much on the muscle, I suppose.

I nodded.

The third guy – apparently the one in charge – spoke with quiet authority. “Hadley, get up those fucking stairs or so help me I’m going to take that flashlight and shove it up your ass. Don’t even answer me. Just fucking do it. And when you have a report, report quietly. Talbot, if you laugh at the idiot instead of doing your job, I’ll find a flashlight for your asshole, too. Now shut up and move.”

Talbot nodded, chastened, but Hadley looked afraid. I found myself wondering how these guys had gotten here.

One problem at a time,” Leon said.

Yeah,” I agreed. I eyed the stairs, trying to figure out what to do, then realized I was overcomplicating things. I looked down – not at the bottom of the stairs, where Hadley and Talbot were starting up towards me, but directly below me, at the part of the first floor that was right under my feet. It looked like concrete – not particularly loud.

We’re going down, express style,” I warned Leon. I took a second to get a firm grip on the railing, hopped over it as quietly as I could, and hung for a second. I waited until Hadley and Talbot hit a particularly squeaky step, then let go, shrinking the distance as I fell, reaching for the ground.

Even I could barely hear the soft slap my shoes made on the floor over the loud stairs.

Obvious in retrospect,” Leon noted.

Remind me to think in three dimensions,” I said.

I looked around. The business might have been a restaurant, or something, I thought; the counters at the front had glass parts that might have held desserts. The door that would have separated the front from the back was missing, so I could see into the area clearly from the stairwell. I sidled quietly up to the doorway and poked my head through.

There were four guys standing there, each looking out a window. Apparently none of them had anything to do except wait for the doctor. The guy in charge of this group occasionally glanced at the others. One of them, I realized, wasn’t looking out the window; he was surreptitiously playing a cell phone game, letting his body block the light from the screen. I shook my head in amazement.

Not very professional,” Leon said, amused.

I appraised the others quickly. None of them was small. All of them were white. I wondered if that meant anything. Again, more of the same winter clothes. I couldn’t tell if they had guns or knives under the coats, but I assumed they were armed somehow.

I looked back to the leader, and he started walking around the room, looking over his men’s shoulders. As he drew closer to the guy playing on his phone, I hoped the man would fail to notice. It would be an excellent distraction.

We don’t have a plan to distract them from,” Leon pointed out.

These can’t be the only guys, if Tuggey is here,” I said. “He won’t be alone. I think we need to take them out to improve the odds, then look for the next group.

Take them out how?” Leon asked.

I hesitated. “I’m hoping they’ll have restraints or something we can use…hang on.

The boss stopped behind cell phone guy and cleared his throat loudly, startling the guy so badly he dropped his phone on the ground.

The other two men looked over, one stifling a laugh as the other shook his head.

“Quit being a fuck-up,” the leader said. He turned around and walked away without another word. The phone guy looked more embarrassed than anything else as he picked up his phone and put it away inside his coat.

When he opened the coat to do that, I saw that he had a tazer. “There,” I said. “We’ll get one of their weapons and try that. This isn’t long term, so I don’t think it’s really worth tying them up.

I don’t know how long those things incapacitate someone,” Leon said.

It varies, so I don’t know either,” I said. “But at a certain point we need to try something. I think having two of them out of the room may be our best shot.

All right,” Leon said. “It’s your call. But we can’t let them make noise or call Tuggey.

I looked around carefully, taking stock. The boss was back to looking out his own window, just like each of the other guys was doing. I hoped Hadley and Talbot would waste time doing a thorough job to avoid getting yelled at, rather than doing a quick, half-ass job searching the upper floors. Down here, I had four guys who were mostly busy looking outside, each with a weapon I could use in a holster that I should be able to draw from quickly. On the plus side, none of them was holding their weapons. The negative was that their coats were closed against the cold, so I couldn’t reach the weapons easily.

I assessed the four men. They were standing in a rough square, with two windows on the same side wall, one in front, and one to the rear, so that all of them had their backs to me. “So I need one of them to open his jacket or leave the room. What do you think?

The cell phone guy is fidgety,” Leon said. “Get close to him. We’ll wait a bit. If I’m wrong, we can still try going to the back area and making a noise, but I think that would be too suspicious.

I walked toward the cell phone guy. He wasn’t between any of the others, at least, so I could keep all four men in my sight while focusing on him. Leon was right about him being fidgety, too. He couldn’t stand still.

I startled slightly as the ceiling above us creaked, then realized it must be the other two men looking around the apartment there.

I was starting to worry when Leon’s guess proved wise. The cell phone guy unzipped his jacket halfway, reaching into it for something. It wasn’t enough for me to see his tazer, though, let alone grab it.

I glanced at the other men, hesitating. They were all looking out their windows.

It would have to do. I covered cell phone guy’s mouth with my gloved left hand, yanked his jacket’s zipper down with my right, then reached in and took his tazer, drawing it. His eyes were more confused than afraid as I pressed the tazer against his belly and set it off, drawing my hand away from his mouth.

He grunted in pain and fell to the ground, and the other three men turned to look, but I was still invisible. I took three big steps across the room, to the man at the rear window, and the boss started to walk towards cell phone guy, cursing under his breath.

“…have to be fucking kidding me, you stupid shit,” he breathed. “You’re literally dumb enough to electrocute yourself? Miserable…”

I tuned out his muttering, looking at the other two men. The boss was focused on the guy I’d just attacked. So were the others. I knelt next to rear-window man, pulled up his pant leg and jabbed the tazer against his skin, setting it off, then immediately sprinted across the room. I’d timed it carefully; the boss was halfway to my first victim, placing me and rear-window to his right and the fourth guy to his left. All of us should be in his peripheral vision, where we might go unnoticed, and the bulk of his body and the dim lighting should hide me and my second victim from side-window guy for a moment or two.

I only needed a moment. The boss hadn’t even noticed the second attack when I reached him, and I tazed him quickly, hitting his exposed neck and wincing as I did it. I didn’t think it was worse to get tazed near your head than anywhere else, but I resolved to do some proper research later. I didn’t want to go causing brain damage or something, even on bad guys.

There wasn’t time for that, though. Two more extra-long steps took me from the boss to the fourth guy, who started panicking. He pressed his back against the wall and reached for his own weapon, fumbling in his coat. I ducked and tried to shock his leg. It worked, but his flailing reaction knocked the weapon out of my hand and had me clutching my fingers as he fell. I recovered it immediately and shocked him a second time, then looked at the other three guys. The first one was clutching himself and the boss was panting. The second guy wasn’t doing anything; he looked unconscious. I went for the boss and shocked him again, then gave my first victim another dose. Then I crouched, waiting, in the dark.

Less than a minute,” Leon said. “No calls, no screams. I don’t think the men upstairs heard.

No restraints,” I said. “Disarm them? Take phones and weapons?

Yes,” Leon agreed.

I approached the first guy I’d shocked again, still invisible – I was using up my power steadily, already down to about half – and searched him with one hand. He didn’t react. I took his phone and flashlight and ignored his wallet. Then I did the same thing to the next two guys, leaving the boss for last. He was in the middle of the room, and I felt exposed as I searched him; I’d wanted to confirm that the other guys were out of it first.

It seemed to have worked well enough. They didn’t resist or do anything more than groan softly, anyway. The boss tried to push at me with one hand, but his eyes weren’t even open. I gave him another shock, feeling bad about it, and took his weapon, flashlight, and phone.

I used one of the tazers on the phones, and they fried very much to my satisfaction. I kept a flashlight and a tazer for myself, and dropped the rest out the window, into some bushes.

Then I waited again, looking out the window and occasionally checking on the four guys I’d attacked. They were all out of it at this point, it seemed. Three of them weren’t moving except to breathe. Ironically, the first guy I’d hit was the last one who was still struggling a bit. I decided to let him, for now; with these four dealt with, I wanted the other two guys to come back, and a little noise might help that along. I stayed close, though, to make sure he couldn’t do anything problematic.

The effort proved pointless; after struggling for a bit, the guy slumped to the ground and went still except for the rise and fall of his chest.

I kept watch, inside and outside. Now that I was still again, I could feel the difference, the way my power wasn’t being used up nearly as fast as it had when I was on the move. I wasn’t recharging, but I wasn’t losing much, either, this way. I hesitated for a minute and then let my invisibility lapse. In the dark, with no one conscious, I was wasting power I might need later.

I checked the time again. It had been nearly an hour and a half since Mary’s call; the doctor wasn’t late, but he could show up at any moment, and I still didn’t know how many more men Tuggey had brought, or where they were, or how much danger the doctor and his sister were in. The tazers suggested that the plan wasn’t to just murder them, at least, but that didn’t guarantee anything.

There’s only so much we can do,” Leon said. “Patience is working well, so far. Stick to it.

I didn’t conceal my dissatisfaction, but I didn’t argue, either.

There was more creaking above us. Not directly, but by the stairs.

They’re coming back, I think.” Leon said.

Yeah,” I agreed.

I moved to the doorway between the stairs and the storefront, going through and waiting. Hadley and Talbot came down, steps creaking as they descended from the third floor all the way to the ground floor, and I went invisible again, creeping over to the stairs and crouching at the bottom, with my shoulder against the lowest steps. The two men descended past me, then turned toward the doorway. I waited just long enough to let them turn their backs to me before I struck, kicking the back of Hadley’s left knee. I grabbed his collar and yanked back, then tazed him between his shoulders. Talbot started to react, but when I shoved Hadley at him he caught the man out of reflex. Another crouch, another shock to the leg, and Talbot fell down with Hadley on top of him, gasping.

I searched them both, taking phones, weapons, and flashlights. I noticed that Hadley had a knife and took that for good measure. When that was done, I gave them each another shock and slipped back into the storefront, checking on my first four victims and glancing out the window.

Still nothing.

Another check on Hadley and Talbot. Hadley was out like a log, and Talbot was weak enough that he couldn’t push him off. They weren’t moving.

If I left, one of the six men might get up and warn the others. If I stayed, I could maintain secrecy, but I couldn’t accomplish anything else.

Leon?

If they have scheduled check-ins or something, we only have a limited amount of time before they know something is up, regardless of what we do,” Leon said. “These guys look pretty out of it. Best to take advantage of the secrecy we know we have now, rather than rely on the secrecy we might have later.

All right,” I said.

I fried the phones, ditched them and the last two men’s weapons out back again, and left the building. I kept one tazer for myself, holding it in my hand, and pocketed one of the flashlights, just in case. Then I turned invisible and walked out the front door.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 4

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Bloodhound was working with Raquel and Feral, but he’d brought company just like the last time we met planning to learn from him. We’d been having difficulty when he tried to teach us together. Leon and I were doing well in making and manipulating light, to the point that Bloodhound said we’d surpassed him already, but Raquel and Feral weren’t progressing much. We’d backed off a bit to give them a chance to try one on one, in the hopes that some personal attention would be enough to get past the obstacle.
We were back in the factory, and part of me had been uneasy at first, wondering if we’d get another phone call with bad news, but nothing had happened so far. I was idly making a tiny ball of white light – no stronger than the average light bulb – orbit my wrist.

“I’m jealous,” Stalker said. The two of us were standing next to each other, and we’d been watching Bloodhound and Raquel. I glanced at her.

“Of me?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Stalker said with a sigh. “I always wished I could learn to do that stuff, but it just hasn’t come to me. I’ve tried, too.”

“Has Bloodhound taught anyone on your team?” I said. “If you can tell me, I mean. It’s not really my business.”

“We’ve all tried to learn, but only one of us really took to it at all,” Stalker said. “Tin Man can do the light, like you, but he can’t hold it for more than a few seconds, or control it for long. I couldn’t do anything. Newton couldn’t pick it up at all, either. Comet might be able to do more, if she works at it for years. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone pick it up like you.”

I blinked, a bit surprised at how casually she’d shared the information. Maybe she just wasn’t as paranoid as Bloodhound and Comet, the two I’d mostly spoken to in the past?

“Gotcha,” I said. I glanced at her, and she was standing with her arms crossed over her chest. Stalker was a bit shorter than me. She didn’t really seem to fill the space, either. Comet always had a presence about her. Tin Man and Bloodhound were similar, but the effect wasn’t as strong, while Stalker and Newton seemed low-profile by comparison. I realized that, of the Philly Five, I’d probably thought about them the least. They were famous as part of the team, of course, but they weren’t as awe-inspiring as the others. She seemed normal, while talking to Comet still felt strange, even after everything I’d seen and done.

“I’m bored,” Stalker announced. She nudged me in the side with an elbow. “You want to spar? Get in some hand-to-hand practice? I’m always starving for new opponents.”

I looked at her. “I’m not that good,” I noted. “I could hurt you by accident.”

“Light contact only,” Stalker suggested. “Besides, we’ve got Sir Heals-a-Lot over there and you regenerate. It’s a perfect excuse to screw up and hurt each other. And if you’re not that good, then I’m probably better, so I’m unlikely to get hurt in the first place.”

I thought for a moment, hesitating.

“Don’t be a wimp,” she said, playfully jabbing me in the ribs.

I laughed. “Leon?

Why not?” he replied. “We could use the practice.

“Okay,” I told Stalker. I grinned behind my mask. “Powers or no powers?”

She laughed like it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. “Powers, sure,” she said. “You can regen, cover ground fast, and do some stuff with light and hiding, right? Oh yeah, powers all the way. I want your A game.”

“Even if I’m immune to yours?” I asked.

I couldn’t see her grin, but I could hear it in her voice. “No offense, but I’ve been doing this for years now. If I lose to you it’s going to be because you earned it. Let’s go.”

We both looked around a bit. “Over there,” Stalker gestured, pointing to a spot a bit farther away from Bloodhound and Raquel. Almost the whole building was empty concrete, so it didn’t make much difference, but the spot did look a bit smoother, with fewer gouges and cracks.

“Fine by me,” I said.

We squared off opposite each other. I took a half-step back, turning partway to the side, and raised my hands. She took a similar stance, but I noted that she was leading with her right foot, while I was leading with my left.

“So, are you aggressive?” Stalker asked.

“I’ve been called offensive,” I joked. It was Leon’s line, though.

Stalker laughed, abruptly stopping to step forward and jab at my face, right-right-left. I jerked my head left, right, and then right again, but the last punch clipped my cheek. She turned into a kick, her left leg swinging around, and her shin hit my stomach solidly. I got the breath knocked out of me and took a step back.

Stalker let me catch my breath. “I think you’re supposed to distract the other guy with jokes, not yourself,” she noted.

I chuckled weakly. “Fair enough. Shall we?”

It was a strange experience for me. I’d learned how to fight, and I’d been in life-and-death fights, but this was a previously unexplored middle ground between practicing and wondering if I was about to die.

I attacked first, the second time around. I was taller, so I tried to use my longer reach, kicking at Stalker’s front leg and stomach. She nearly caught my foot, and I made a mental note to clean up my technique. Stalker answered my attack by stepping forward and feinting a kick high, at my face, then hitting my leg instead, striking the back of my knee so I stumbled. I caught my balance without going down, but it was far from elegant. She took my next kick on her left shoulder, leaning into it, and bobbed under a jab-cross-hook combo that I followed up with, then stepped back a bit. When I pursued her, she hit my leg again, and this time I did fall.

I groaned, more at my stupidity than the pain. Stalker reached down with her right hand to help me up, and I accepted.

“Thanks,” I said. “I have a sudden feeling this is going to be better for my skills than my ego.”

She chuckled before proving me right.

After a few minutes, she raised a hand, motioning me to stop. “You realize you haven’t used your powers at all, right? I did say yes to sparring with them.”

“Yeah, sorry,” I said. “Just not used to it, I guess. I’m used to keeping the powers secret unless it’s the real thing, you know?”

“I get it,” Stalker said. “But that’s all the more reason to work on it here. I don’t have to worry about people seeing me use my powers, but there’s still some concern about keeping a low profile, even for me. Let’s try it, though. Ready?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

I tried to combine my powers with fighting, but it was tricky. I made a couple of attempts to blind her with flashes of light, but she must have had eye protection, because it didn’t seem to bother her at all, so I gave up on that quickly.

Next, I started to try the reverse, attempting to blur or distort my image, or hide myself. That worked better. When I got behind her at one point, Stalker kicked at me, orienting on the sounds of my footsteps, but she miscalculated and missed. I grabbed her leg and yanked it forward, pulling her off balance. Instead of fighting me and falling awkwardly, she jumped at me, pushing off with her free leg and then ramming her knee into my side. I was unprepared and I dropped her, stepping to my left. Stalker twisted to land on her side, kicked my leg, and then twisted again, hitting the back of my knees and my shins with both of her legs, like scissors, and dropping me onto my stomach. I rolled away over the ground, and we both regained our feet.

I compressed space, closing the distance to her in one step, and elbowed her in the side of the head, then moved back again the same way. Stalker turned and countered empty air, just barely too slow to strike me.

“Nice,” she commented, turning in place. “That’s going to be a pain in the ass to deal with.”

I didn’t answer, of course. I stepped in again, shrinking distance with my powers so that I could plant one foot right near her and then letting go so that my kick hit her stomach with the normal amount of force, then moved back again. Just like the first time, she reacted a bit too slowly to catch me.

“Definitely a good approach, I think,” Stalker said. “Still, you can’t win a fight without committing.”

I did one more hit-and-run attack, this time kicking her left leg, but I was a bit too slow in retreating, and she punched me in the stomach before I could disappear.

“Got your number,” she said.

Leon and I agreed that she’d been both skilled and lucky, that time. I circled Stalker, using my powers again and stepping as quietly as I could. She didn’t seem to hear me. I attacked from behind, kicking her back and then her legs behind the knee, trying to knock her to the ground as she had done to me earlier. Stalker fell forward, but managed to turn it into a roll and spun to face me as she rose again. I was already coming in on her right, though, kicking her stomach. She wasn’t ready, and stumbled to her left. I kept coming, trying to kick her legs, torso, or head – whichever was open. Finally, she managed to block one of my kicks and counter, and I landed on my back again.

“Whew, that was tough,” Stalker said. She put a hand to her side. “Definitely going to feel those bruises. I think I’m ready for a break.”

I reappeared as Leon and I let go of our invisibility, and she offered a hand to help me up again.

“I’m not sure how useful it’s going to be,” I said. “Doing both things at once drains us really fast. If we kept going I‘d probably run out of power in a few minutes, unless I slowed down the pace.”

“That’s a shame, because putting those two tricks together makes them a lot better for fighting than either one alone,” Stalker said. “Any chance you can do it more with more practice?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.” I prompted Leon to chime in.

I don’t think so, but I could be wrong,” he said.

Now that we had stopped, I realize I was sweating and I felt the adrenaline pumping through me. Checking my phone, I was shocked to find that we’d spent maybe a half hour sparring each other, total. I had sore spots all over, but a few of the ones I’d acquired early were already fading, thanks to my regeneration.

I looked at Stalker admiringly. “So how’d you learn to fight someone you can’t see?”

She shook her head. “I never have, really. But I’ve practiced under as many different conditions as I could, including being unable to see anything. It’s weird, but definitely made me a lot better.”

“Trying to prepare for future fights?” I said. “How do you decide which things are worth the time?”

“Like I said, as many different conditions as we can manage,” Stalker repeated. “I don’t know if anyone has a superpower that could make me lose feeling in my arms for example, and I’m not planning on losing them, but I’ve done some sparring without them. So if it happens, I won’t be totally unprepared. I try to get the whole team to do that, as much as we have time for. There’s only so much of your life you can give up in the name of preparation, though.”

I nodded. “I guess that makes sense. If you spend too many hours fighting or preparing to fight, you’d probably take a hit morale-wise.”

“Definitely,” Stalker said.

I wondered if she saw herself as the Philly Five’s designated morale officer. In theory, a telepath might be perfect for the job, after all; she’d certainly know if anyone wasn’t happy.

Stalker sat down and started stretching, and I followed suit. We hadn’t really done much of a warm-up, and I didn’t want my muscles to be sore later.

“You may want to practice more,” Stalker said. “I know it can be tough to switch between secrecy-mode and unleashing-the-powers mode, but that’s just another reason this is good for you.”

“Well, if we have a chance I’d be happy to do this again with you or your teammates,” I said. I glanced at Bloodhound and Raquel. “In fact, it might be fun to try some two-on-two sparring sometime, if our respective allies are up for it.”

“That sounds good,” Stalker agreed. “Maybe change the teams up every once in a while, too. Odd pairs. What we do, I think flexibility is probably the biggest thing. Never know what someone’s going to be able to do next, right? Personally, I think one of our biggest problems is that we usually haven’t fought a given set of powers until it’s for real. It makes everything riskier, since there are no tried and true tactics.”

“The bad guys only get to play the secrecy card once each though, right?” I said. “I mean, unless they have multiple powers, or something. I know it sucks, but it could be worse.”

“True,” Stalker said. “The downside of our approach, though, is that most of them have a very good idea of what we can do. Comet’s strong enough that knowing doesn’t help most people, and it helps that Bloodhound is a bit outside the box, but the more times we’re on camera, the harder I think it’s going to get. The downside of having a reputation. Everyone knows us, and most of them don’t want to fight us in the first place. But if someone is willing to, then they go into it knowing more about us than we do about them.”

“Is that part of why you guys teamed up?” I asked. “To cover each other’s weaknesses as that happened?”

“It’s a big reason,” Stalker said. “The other main one is to make sure we stayed good guys. Despite what Meteor said, that is something we’ve thought about. Teaming up means we all have four other people there to tell us if we’re about to cross a line. We have someone to disappoint, not just ourselves. People generally think of peer pressure as a bad thing, but sometimes it can have good effects, you know?”

“That makes sense,” I said. Having Leon, Raquel, and even Feral around to talk to did make me feel a lot better; I was confident that one of them would call me on it if I started to go too far. I thought back to Heavyweight, and what he had said earlier, and found myself wondering if that had been the sort of wake-up call that Stalker was referring to.

Something to discuss later, when Raquel and Feral aren’t busy, perhaps,” Leon suggested. “I am surprised at Stalker’s openness.

Me too,” I agreed.

She slapped my shoulder. “Relax, Flicker,” Stalker said. “Come on, let’s go see how our buddies are doing.”

She walked back over towards Bloodhound and Raquel, and I followed a few steps behind. They were sitting on the floor, facing each other. Bloodhound had a small spot of light in the palm of his hand, and he was muttering something, while Raquel sat, eyes closed. Feral was in her lap, head up, observing the light.

“I can’t,” Raquel said. “Here, look.”

She cupped a palm and a small light appeared.

“I can’t make it bigger,” Raquel said. “I lose it whenever I try.”

Bloodhound cocked his head to one side. “It’s all right. Just show me one more time, I’m sure we can figure it out.”

Raquel sighed, but the light began to grow. As it did, it seemed to waver, pulsing irregularly. Its brightness became more and more erratic as it dimmed and then grew stronger again, until it finally just went out like a balloon popping. Her shoulders slumped.

“Damn,” Bloodhound murmured. “I don’t understand. This is basic enough that I’m not sure what the problem could be. Is it the method, or…”

Raquel stood, pushing herself up with one hand and dislodging Feral from her lap abruptly. “Whatever it is, it’s not working. This is a waste of time.”

“Wait!” Bloodhound said. “You’re right. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked you to keep trying the same few things. I just can’t figure out the problem, and not knowing is bothering me. But we can move on to trying something else, instead. Maybe it’s just a talent thing. I know there are some things I’ve tried that haven’t worked, even though…other people can do them. I thought of light as basic, but maybe I was wrong. Perhaps it just came more easily to me.”

Raquel shook her head. “I’m happy to try something else, but I need a break, okay? Maybe try working with Flicker for a little while, if you have time.”

She headed for the nearest wall, and I patted her shoulder as we passed each other. “Sorry it’s been frustrating,” I said.

I’m thinking Bloodhound doesn’t have an education degree,” Raquel returned wryly.

I smiled, stifling a laugh. “I think you’re right,” I said. “If you get bored, try asking Stalker to spar, maybe? She just kicked my ass. Could be good practice, not to mention a nice way to work out some stress.

Maybe in a minute,” Raquel said.

Bloodhound looked up as I approached. “Flicker. Leon. Sorry about the long wait.”

“Not a problem,” I said. “I just wish it had been time more productively spent, but you never know until you try sometimes, right? Any idea why it wasn’t working?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. From what I’ve learned, anyone who can learn magic at all should be able to pick up what I was trying to teach, but then I haven’t had as much experience as I’d like. It seems my teacher may have been mistaken. In retrospect, that shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose. Your gift with light makes some sense in a way, since it seems tied to what you could do already. Perhaps we’ll find in time that you and Menagerie both have particular knacks and weaknesses…it could be part of sharing space with a spirit.”

“Seems like a reasonable guess,” I said. I thought of what Stalker and I had been talking about before. “If you have any normal students, maybe you should have them try to run through what you were showing Menagerie. Be the control group for our little experiment.”

Bloodhound rolled his shoulders and stood up. “A good idea. I’ll try it, if I can. In the meantime, let’s see what else I can teach you.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m not fully charged, since I was using my powers to spar Stalker, but I should have enough to keep up as long as it’s nothing really high-energy. So what’s next on the docket?”

“Well, I don’t want to go too quickly, but I was wondering if I could show you how to heal, a little,” Bloodhound said. “It’s a handy skill to have in an emergency, and it’s one of the things I’m best at, so if you show aptitude there’s probably a lot I can teach you. But the basics aren’t too difficult.”

He pulled a knife free from his harness, took off a glove, and cut his palm shallowly. “I can close this easily and the knife is sterile, so you don’t need to worry,” he said. Bloodhound cupped his palm and held his hand out. “Just try to focus and see what I do.”

He was beyond patient, sealing the cut very slowly for me to watch. Leon and I did so, and what he was doing seemed clear.

“Let me show you again,” he said, when it was done.

Wait,” Leon said. I repeated it aloud.

“What is it?” Bloodhound asked.

“We’re wondering if our process for healing my body is the same,” I said. “If it is, then I just need to learn to do it to other people. But if it’s different, then we need to start from scratch.”

“Ah,” Bloodhound said. He pulled out another knife, handing it to me. “Here.”

“Thanks,” I forced myself to say. I was on board with the experiment, but I really wished there was some way to test my healing without getting hurt first. Still, whining wasn’t going to teach me anything. I drew the blade across my palm, aping Bloodhound’s motion and trying not to do much damage. Leon and I watched, and we tapped into our powers.

“It looks different, sort of, but I’m not sure if that’s just because the energy is coming from inside me or if the actual process is different,” I said.

“Let’s find out,” Bloodhound said. He sounded genuinely curious.

I braced myself for what I hoped would be a few painful minutes.

Raquel and I walked briskly toward home together.

So, disappointing day for you too?” she asked.

Yeah, kind of,” I answered. “I was hoping I’d be able to learn to heal, too. But it seems like it really is different from what Leon and I do. Maybe I can learn with practice, but maybe not. I did manage to close a cut his way, at least.

Nice,” she said. “At least that’s something. I barely learned anything at all. Even sparring Stalker – if I used my powers I won without trying, but without Feral she could destroy me every time.

It occurred to me in passing that the four of us always seemed to lapse into talking mind-to-mind without thinking, now; speaking to Raquel aloud when no one else was part of the conversation almost felt unnatural.

Hey, she kicked my ass too, even with my powers,” I said encouragingly. “She’s just good, I guess. I wouldn’t be surprised if she practiced harder than all the rest of them, since she doesn’t have physical powers. I mean, that would sort of make sense.

Maybe,” Raquel said. “Anyway, I do think it means we need to practice more. I don’t really know how to fight like a normal human being. I don’t think Heavyweight really has training either, although at least his powers help.

If you wish, I can attempt to help you learn the basics,” Feral said.

You know how to fight? As a pers- a human? Um, isn’t that…weird?” Raquel said.

I hadn’t given it much thought, before,” Feral said, and I got a feeling of embarrassment. “But I think I do know, at least a little. I can show you what to do at home. If you practice with David and Stalker, that should at least get you started. It’s possible my skills are rusty or incomplete, though. As I said, it’s not something I’d thought much about, but I think I’ve known since before we met.

Interesting,” Leon said. “I think I’ve fought before, as well. Can you think of any other skills you might have that you never wondered about before? I know I took to using David’s computer a bit faster than I should have. I think I must have used one before, and it must have been fairly similar in terms of interface.

I glanced at Feral, padding along by Raquel’s side, and her ears twitched. “Perhaps. Raquel, would you be willing to test me in such a fashion? It could be interesting.

Sure,” Raquel said. “I guess. Hey, if you know how to do anything cool, like pick locks, teach me, all right?

I’ll see what I can come up with,” Feral promised.

It’s interesting, that you both have memories of skills,” I commented. “Your powers seem to be kind of instinctive, I thought, but it could just be that you’ve practiced that, too. Hey, does either of you speak a second language?

Yes, she does!” Raquel said. “Feral totally speaks Spanish, right?

I…maybe,” Feral said uncertainly. “I thought I was getting it from listening to you and your mother, and your friends, or just because of our link. But it’s possible that I knew some already. I never thought about it.

Well, you didn’t seem to learn it gradually,” Raquel said.

Leon, how about it?” I asked.

I’m not sure how to tell,” Leon admitted. “I’ve tried to remember other things, but language didn’t really occur to me. If you don’t mind, David, I’d like to go online later and spend some time trying to jog my memory.

Depending on the answers, we might get another clue about your origins,” I noted. “I know lots of people in different places speak Spanish, but it still might be meaningful combined with other things.

Yes, it is a good idea,” Feral agreed. “I don’t want to get my hopes up, because it seems unlikely we’ll ever get all the answers we want, but this concept of examining what we know makes sense. Even if we don’t learn where we come from, it won’t hurt to have a better idea of our capabilities.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 3

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The last vision had left me with nightmares worse than the ones of fighting – worse than the actual fights I’d been involved in, even. I kept seeing Recast, taking people’s eyes or shifting to look like them as they died. Once, he was leaning over me, claws growing thinner and curving as he drew closer.

I’d woken up sweating from that one. The other David and Charlotte had seemed afraid, if controlled, and the people under their command had seemed restless and nervous. The more we saw, the creepier Leon and I found the visions. He’d told me that he thought they were building up towards something, though I hadn’t shared that intuition or impression.

We’d looked up what we could online, trying to see if there were any references to the things they’d talked about, but there was nothing helpful. Searching for information on “Guzman” and “trial” hadn’t turned up anything that seemed relevant, and neither had looking for the “Wave of Change” or “Wavers”. It sounded like some kind of creepy cult or militant organization, from the way they had been discussing it, but it didn’t appear to be in the news. We weren’t sure what that meant.

So, are we going crazy?” I asked Leon. “These visions, or whatever they are, we haven’t found any evidence that they’re real. We don’t know where they come from. What if we’re just losing it?”

I still feel rational,” Leon said. “And yes, I know how silly that sounds – to ‘feel rational’ – but it’s the truth. And as far as I can tell, you seem quite rational to me, as well. Is the reverse true?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You still seem like you’re playing with a full deck to me. I don’t know what to make of it all. It’s detailed, it’s vivid, but there’s the weird sense that some parts are out of focus. I keep coming back to the idea that someone is trying to ask for help, maybe with some kind of weird, instinctive or uncontrolled telepathy, but now I feel like I’ve come back to that explanation so many times that I can’t even be objective about it anymore. But…either we’re losing it, it’s an accidental phenomenon, or someone’s doing it on purpose. Those are literally the only possibilities, right? Crazy, random, or intentional. But I just don’t see any way to tell.

Maybe we should discuss the matter with Bloodhound?” Leon suggested hesitantly. “We could ask about visions in general terms without getting into specifics, or possibly lead him into bringing it up somehow.

I scratched my head, leaning back against the table behind me. “I’ve got mixed feelings on that. If we are going crazy, then someone should have a heads-up just in case we go all the way nuts and become dangerous. But if we start asking those questions, somebody could decide to be…preemptive.

I trailed off, but Leon’s thoughts paralleled mine.

Meteor shook me, too,” Leon said. “It almost seemed like she hated Bloodhound, once she got wound up. Do you think he told us the truth?

I don’t know,” I said, troubled. “She seemed pretty damn sure that trusting him was a bad idea, and that line about ‘advisors’ sounded like a euphemism to me, but I don’t know what it meant. I want to trust him, and the Philly Five have done right by us so far. The thing is, I’m afraid that I want to trust him so I can learn from him. That’s not a very objective position to evaluate from when he’s the only teacher I know of.

We sat in silence for a moment, and I took a bite of my sandwich, glancing to my right to glimpse the apartment building there. It was one of three Tuggey had stopped at, and I was camped out nearby, eating lunch, in the hopes that someone suspicious would arrive or leave. So far nothing interesting had happened, giving Leon and I time to talk things over.

Tell Raquel and Feral?” I suggested. “If we get weird, they can pass it on to the Philly Five, or even the FBI if necessary. But I’m feeling more confused than psychopathic, myself. That’s not really my big worry, despite everything.

All right,” Leon agreed. “I admit, I’m frustrated we couldn’t find Rose’s, myself. I hoped that lead would pan out.

Me too,” I said. “But it didn’t, and after looking up the trial, the group, and the diner, I can’t think of any other clues we might be able to use.

We could try using the names we know,” Leon said. “I know it’s a long shot, since we don’t have full names and the people we know aren’t at the top of their organization, but it could pan out. Maybe.

I sighed. “It’s a waste of time, but sure. For the sake of thoroughness, I guess. I don’t know, maybe we’ll get another clue tonight.

I hoped we wouldn’t. I needed a break from the visions, and regular dreams brought on by them. They weren’t coming every night, but they were happening more frequently as time passed.

On the bright side, we’d finally gotten a clear reference to what was happening at the place Charlotte and the other David were guarding. Some kind of research or testing, apparently meant to even the odds when normal people dealt with supers. David had suggested that normal people might attack the facility, though in the incident I’d witnessed only four supers had done so, that I could recall. Knowing that made it even more interesting that there had been supers defending the facility, as well. Could they be ignorant of what was going on inside? Maybe. David and Charlotte had indicated that they were short on specifics, and they were performing the same duties. But if they were in a fight that intense, it seemed likely that the supers knew at least as much as their peers.

We had so many questions, and so few answers. If I could just have asked someone in one of the visions for some basic context, it might make everything clear all at once. I found myself wishing that one of them would show me a workplace orientation video, or something. The information might bore the other David to tears, but it could well give me exactly what I needed to understand what I was seeing.

Well, there’s no point stressing about it,” Leon said, breaking into my train of thought. “Perhaps we’ll get lucky and see the facility’s name next time, and find that they have an informative, user-friendly website.

Oh, sure,” I agreed. “With lockdowns, paranoid security measures, on-site teams of supers and gunmen, and who knows what else, I just bet they’re always looking for publicity. Somehow, I get the feeling they don’t offer a lot of tours.

Leon chuckled. “Come now, I’m sure they’re always hosting events. Every day is probably ‘Bring Your Child to Work Day’ because it’s such a welcoming environment.

We laughed. “I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “Probably lots of company picnics out on the lawn, Casual Friday every week, and tons of uplifting special events.

I took another bite of my sandwich, glancing at the apartment building again. A car parked, and I pulled out my phone as three men – two black, one white – got out together and went inside. I tried snapping a photo, but missed their faces. I took another shot of the car, including the license plate. Maybe we could do something with that later.

Then I went back to waiting. A half-hour or so passed, with nothing much happening; I finished my sandwich, chips, and soda, and threw out my trash, then sat back down and fiddled with my phone for a bit.

It’s too damn cold out for this,” I complained.

I seem to recall this was your idea,” Leon noted. “Can you really whine about it now?

Sure I can,” I said. “Whine, bitch, complain. Groan, moan. There, see? And you’re stuck listening to it, too.

Leon laughed. “Ah, but I enjoy your misery, especially since it reminds me of the benefits of not having a fleshy meat-body of my own.

I shook my head. “Putting aside the lovely schadenfreude at my expense, I’m having genuine second thoughts about this. I’ve taken a few photos of people, a few more of cars, and accomplished nothing else here. I have serious doubts about whether it’s worth our time to do surveillance, mostly because we have no freaking idea what we’re doing. And I’m feeling kind of conspicuous, especially in this weather. A sane guy with no ulterior motive should be leaving. I think it’s time for us to relocate to a different spot, on the other side of the building or something at least.

Fine with me,” Leon said. “If I had an idea how to warm you up, I’d share, but I don’t think we’ve learned anything useful for this situation.

That would seem like a pretty wasteful use of funky super powers, to me.”

“Technically, it would be a waste of funky magic powers,” Leon corrected.

Thank you, Captain Pedantic,” I retorted. “As I recall, it’s still not entirely clear what the difference is.” I stood up and walked away from the apartment building, then circled around a few blocks so that I could see its other side. My new vantage point also let me see the road approaching the building, and I had a decent view of the parking lot, although I couldn’t see the front door.

I idly flipped through my photos, wishing again that I dared to go up to the front door and take one of the names on the buzzer, but it seemed to risky given that I was hanging around all day. I might be back, too; I didn’t want anyone inside to notice that I was suddenly hanging around.

I put the phone away, looking at the building again. Waiting and watching was the best idea any of us had, but it was wearing one me. I wondered if that meant I was doing something right or not. Stakeouts were supposed to be boring, or so I’d read and heard. If they noticed me I might have expected some sign of it, so maybe no news was good news?

I’m no more a trained detective than you are,” Leon said. “Stakeouts, warrants, proper ways of investigating…we’re lacking both resources and know-how, in some ways.

And in our favor, we have the ability to bend or break the law and the fact that no one tells us how to spend our time, plus powers,” I said. “Really making me feel good about our moral/ethical position, here.

Remembering Meteor again?

Kind of,” I said. “I do think the Philly Five have done some damn good things, so I don’t find myself wishing they’d never existed. I definitely think someone would have grouped up even if the hadn’t, too. But I’m realizing that if we keep doing this, every outing might involve a new negotiation of what lines we’re willing to cross. I mean, either we set up our own rules and follow them, or we do everything case-by-case, you know? Personally, I tend to think that case-by-case is better, but only when the right person is making the decisions. And if we do that, then we’re pretty much assuming we’re the right person to make all of those calls, every single time. That’s kind of the whole point of having laws, after all. Consistent rules that everyone knows. Any exceptions have to be explicitly built in and clarified.

In theory, at least,” Leon said. “In practice, laws can be twisted easily and often, depending on the time and place – and the people they’re being applied to. I find myself wondering what the law will look like in a century, or half of one. Our lifetime. I expect there will be some interesting changes by then.

Probably,” I said.

I don’t think it’s arrogant to say that I think we’re good people, but I wonder if she’s right about us doing more harm than good in the long run,” Leon said.

 I don’t know about that,” I said. “The thing is, I think this might have been inevitable, at least partly. Once people started getting powers, someone was going to try the super hero thing, no matter what. I guess they could have failed, and maybe then we could have gone a different route. But I think I agree with some of the things the Philly Five were saying, too. I’m not happy with the idea of the government recruiting the only organized force of supers. If not independent vigilantes, what are our alternatives? Corporate supers? Maybe supers supported by a nonprofit organization of some kind? I’ll admit, I hadn’t thought about this enough before, but…I just don’t see a good answer.

Maybe powers are just too unbalanced,” Leon mused. “There doesn’t have to be a solution, you know.

Now you remind me of Charlotte and David,” I said. “You have a point, though. I can certainly see why someone would try to work on a way to let normal people stand equal to us. God knows I’d probably feel better.

Shockingly, we didn’t come to any radical new conclusion, analysis, or solution that would enable us to solve the troubling effects supers had on society. We also failed to solve world hunger and everything else, so it was about par for the course.

The day dragged on. I switched spots again, and eventually it got dark. I stuck around for as long as I could, but eventually I left to go meet Raquel and Heavyweight.

We found each other near a convenience store, and we all walked around the back to talk. Heavyweight leaned back against the wall. We were masked.

I was opening my mouth when he spoke up first.

“Listen,” he said. “I know I asked you guys to keep me in the loop, and I’m glad you are. But this spying-on-people shit feels wrong. I’m out.”

Raquel and I glanced at each other, then looked back at him.

“It bothers you that much?” Raquel asked. I let her do the talking.

“Yeah, it does,” Heavyweight said. “Look, Menagerie, we’ve done some good stuff trying to help people when someone was running around breaking things. But this is different. This isn’t an emergency. This…I don’t think it’s right.”

I saw her clench a fist.

Relax,” I said.

Sorry,” Feral said.

Raquel’s fist relaxed, and I felt uneasy.

“Why?” Raquel asked. “Why is this so bad? We’re not spying on people to blackmail them, or stalk them, or something. We’re just trying to find the bad guys. Is that really worse than fighting them when they show up?”

“Look, I don’t like it and I’m not doing it,” Heavyweight said. “That’s all. If you guys get into trouble, I’ll try to help you, but I don’t think you should be doing this either. This is what we have the police and the FBI for. It’s the whole point of them. Just…give them what you know and let it go.”

“We were asked not to,” Raquel reminded him.

“Yeah, by someone shady who you trust because she didn’t attack you,” Heavyweight retorted. “Newsflash: most people don’t attack you. It’s not a claim to fame.”

“Could you-”

“Stop,” Heavyweight said flatly. “Okay? I said no. That’s it. I’m going home.”

Damn, but this was terrible timing.

“Wait,” I said. “Look…I get what you’re saying, really. I do. But I have to ask: how much of a problem is this for you? If we keep trying to investigate, then are you going to be okay with it or what?”

Heavyweight’s head tilted as he looked at each of us in turn, then he shook it. “Do what you want, but I’m telling you now it’s a bad idea.”

“Hey,” Raquel said. “Thanks for trying, I guess. We’ll be in touch, okay?”

“Yeah,” Heavyweight said.

He left.

That went well,” Feral said acidly.

“Damn it all,” I said.

Raquel sighed. “So, now what?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Leon and I were thinking it over, and watching the buildings seems pretty hit-or-miss. I’ve got some photos – a few faces and a bunch of license plates. But unless we have a way to follow up on them, it seems pretty pointless to continue.”

“Well, I had sort of an idea,” Raquel said. She shifted from one foot to the other and back again. “I was thinking maybe we could go to the library and try to look up more stuff on BPSC. Like, see if they appear in any news stories, and try to figure out who the owners are. Maybe learn more about them. I know Mary said they aren’t in on everything, but she could be wrong.”

I nodded. “Sounds like one more good idea than I have. We could try that out tomorrow, if you have the time.”

Raquel shook her head. “I can’t. I’ve got homework to catch up on. I’m getting by with help from my friends, but investigating like this is eating into my life as it is.”

“Yeah, it is time-consuming,” I agreed. “Sometimes I wish I could go without sleep at will. I mean, I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but it would be nice to have the option in an emergency – or when I needed to cram for a test, or something.”

“I hear that,” Raquel agreed. She yawned, raising a hand to her face and then realizing that her mask was still on. “Hell. I need to get home. I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”

“Later,” I said. “Feral, goodbye.

Goodbye, David, Leon,” Feral replied. Raquel just waved with one hand as she turned and left.

I headed for home myself, wondering if I’d have another vision or if tonight would be peaceful.

Well, no reason not to hope for the best.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 2

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“It’s weird how fast things got normal again,” Raquel said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“It’s like it barely happened, here. We’re not even that far away.”

I looked over my shoulder at her. “Everyone keeps talking about it at school. Is it different for you?”

Raquel hesitated, then shook her head. “I don’t know. Sort of. Some people keep talking about it. Others won’t say a word. There’s a guy in my class who thought his dad might have died when it happened, but he turned out to be okay. He’s still freaking out, though.”

We fell silent again, and I faced forward to go back to watching for movement. We were back at our previous spot, overlooking the BPSC offices. Last time we’d been trying to find and contact Mary Wade. This time, we had come for someone else.

“Lucky for us, him being here today,” Raquel said.

“Feeling suspicious again?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “You trust Mary too much.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But one of us had to, for her to work with us. Or at least, that’s my read. You’ve almost scared her off twice as it is.”

I couldn’t see Raquel, but I could practically feel her stiffening in the silence after that remark, and I cursed in my head. I was talking about our meetings, but she might think I meant the mess at the house the night we found Dustin. I hadn’t meant to remind her of that.

“I checked on him the other day,” Raquel said quietly. “Dustin, I mean. I asked his mom if he was okay. She was a little afraid of me, asked me not to go near him. He’s terrified of me.”

“Not your fault,” I said. “At all. Without you, he wouldn’t even be home, Raquel. Don’t forget that.”

“It bothers me more than Philly,” Raquel said. “Is that fucked up? I mean, I know why. I know him, at least a little. It’s normal. But isn’t it fucked up? He’s home okay, even if he needs therapy, and the fact that he’s afraid of me bothers me more than dozens of people dying.”

I turned around to face her, leaning back a bit on the roof and getting lower so I wouldn’t be too visible to anyone below us. “It is normal,” I said. “Philly was terrible, but it wasn’t personal for you, right? It wasn’t for me, either. We never even got to see it. Dustin’s more real to us. It makes sense for what happened to him to bother us more, in a way.”

I’d had some similar doubts myself, only the day before. Leon radiated a bit of pleasure; my words to Raquel were almost the same thing he had said to me.

There is always a great difference between personal tragedy and tragedy in the wider world,” Leon noted. “You shouldn’t be critical of yourself over it. You saved Dustin once, and wanted to do it again. The first time, you saved his life. The second time, you likely saved him from something worse than death would have been. It may have been a less complete victory, but I would argue it was a greater one. Either way, there’s no point comparing tragedies, Raquel. They’re always unique.

Raquel raised her eyebrows at me. “Did he give you that speech too?”

I nodded. “Yeah, because I needed to hear it too. What happened in Philly was so big, it feels like it should be more important to us on every level, but that’s just not how emotions work, I guess.”

You see?” Feral said. “I told you your fears were foolish. Just accept the strangeness and move on. There’s nothing else to be done.

Raquel ducked her head, sighing. “Okay.”

“Hey,” I said, reaching out and patting her shoulder briefly. “Don’t sweat it. Reality is crazy. We’re just living in it, that’s all.”

Confident that I’d said what I could, at least for now, I turned back to watching the building, hoping my own doubts would recede.

It felt strange to be proceeding with the tentative plan we’d hashed out with Mary, after Philadelphia. I agreed with Raquel on that much. I felt like we should have arrived in time to help against Blitz. If not, we should have been working to hunt them down afterward. But the truth was, we didn’t have anything special to bring to the table when it came to hunting them; certainly not compared to the FBI and the Philly Five (or whatever they should be called; it seemed their friends just kept growing in number, and I wondered how many people they could get together in an emergency. Uplink and Meteor were apparently both powerful, and they weren’t even members of the team).

Instead, we’d come home to Berkeleyport and the biggest impact on my life was that everyone was talking about Philadelphia. Meteor’s words had proved prophetic; the event was being called “The Battle of Philadelphia.” When Blitz came to Berkeleyport, the collateral damage hadn’t been that great, and very few people had gotten a good look at what happened. Video footage from the events was minimal; the snippet I’d watched online, from when they first attacked Raquel and Heavyweight, was actually the longest continuous recording from those days that was publicly available. The rest of the fighting hadn’t lasted very long, and it had been scattered, taking place in different locations, so there hadn’t been time for someone to arrive and set up.

Philly was a bigger city, with more people. Blitz had gone there intending to make a splash. They had stuck mostly to one area, devastating it, and a lot more of the fighting had been recorded; Smith hadn’t been shy about destroying guns with her powers, but Blitz hadn’t seemed to care much about cameras, reporters, or even people with cell phones, as long as they weren’t in the way.

As a result, video was everywhere. I’d watched a lot of it, including the flashiest parts, featuring Comet and Meteor flying around and fighting. They showed up the most, of the good guys. Silhouette, Skyscraper, and Collector had been seen the most when it came to the bad guys.

Seeing Comet lose had shaken me, and a lot of other people too. She was an icon, but she’d been beaten bloody and sent running, and I couldn’t forget it.

The media frenzy was still going strong days later, unsurprisingly, but there wasn’t much new information for them to relay or digest. Some people were saying that the Battle proved the current government approach to law enforcement dealing with supers wasn’t good enough, but others defended the FBI. They’d suffered few casualties, and Blitz had run away from them, after all. Some people said that wasn’t good enough, but others argued that when the enemy had a teleporter, expecting anyone to corner them was ludicrous.

A lot of people were unsatisfied with that, even if they couldn’t argue that it was wrong. I was one of those people. If Blitz kept disappearing any time it seemed like they might lose, no one would ever stop them.

He’s coming out,” Feral reported. “I’m in position. Get to your car.

I snapped out of my reverie. A glance showed me someone leaving the BPSC building, walking across the parking lot, and Raquel and I quickly left our roof.

I had rented the cheapest car I could that wouldn’t stand out too much. In a minute, Raquel was in the passenger seat and I was behind the wheel as we waited to exit the parking lot.

Tuggey is in the car,” Feral said. “We are turning right.

I pulled out, turning left onto the street that ran parallel to the one Tuggey had just chosen so I could follow him.

Mary had told us that he was visiting the office today, hoping that we could follow him as he left. Fortunately, his appointment had been at the tail end of the day, when Raquel was available. Mary speculated that it was because most of the employees had gone home, and he wanted privacy.

Regardless, he’d finished his business there for the day, and he was leaving. I’d lost track of time, but it was after dark, and there wasn’t too much traffic at the moment. Following him shouldn’t be too difficult. In the dark, I hoped he would be less likely to recognize a specific car and notice that it was pacing him, too.

We all fell quiet except for Feral and Raquel passing me directions. Tuggey drove north and west, and we followed him.

A few months earlier, I likely wouldn’t have noticed that he was going northwest without thinking about it. Maybe my sense of direction was improving.

We passed into one of the poorer parts of town. I assumed that neighborhoods in Berkeleyport had nicknames, but I didn’t really know what they were. Part of being there for college, I guess. We didn’t tend to mix with the locals too much. In fact, before meeting Raquel I didn’t think I’d had much of a conversation with anyone who had grown up in Berkeleyport.

Turning left,” Feral said.

I frowned. I had ended up on a parallel street to Tuggey’s right a few turns ago, and I didn’t have the option of turning left. We’d opted to stay out of his sight as we tailed the guy, but now it was coming back to bite us in the ass. I sped up, hoping to find a chance to turn before he got much farther away. I could see Raquel glance at me out of the corner of my eye, and I tuned out Leon explaining what I was doing to her. She had been sitting with her eyes closed, using Feral’s senses.

I missed a left turn, noticing it only as I passed it.

“Son of a bitch,” I grumbled. I glanced in my mirrors; no one was behind me. No one was in front of me either. A quick U-turn let me get back to the turn-off.

“Am I back on track?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Raquel said. “Make up some ground if you can, though.”

Her eyes were closed again. I kept driving, continuing through a yellow light that I normally would have stopped at. It took me almost twenty minutes to make up the distance we’d lost, but eventually I did; afterward, we got on the road behind Tuggey. There was room for a few cars between us, but I didn’t want to risk losing him again, like we almost had.

It started to rain as we caught up; just a light drizzle.

Soon enough, Tuggey turned into a parking lot, and we knew we’d arrived wherever he was going. I went past the lot before I turned off the road.

“Hey,” I said, “help me find a parking spot. I can barely see in this.”

Raquel sat up next to me, helping me look.

He’s out of the car,” Feral reported. “I’m following him. I’ll do my best to be quiet. It looks like he’s headed towards an apartment building, so it might be difficult to follow him inside.

“There,” Raquel said, pointing to the right.

I pulled into the parking space. We were in front of a few stores that all looked closed for the day; no one should care, though the car might stick out if anyone had a reason to look for it, since the lot was basically empty except for us.

We got out of the car and Raquel led the way across the street.

“And here’s me without an umbrella,” I muttered. The rain was still light, but it was damn cold, and I could feel a few drops starting to slide down my neck. My ears were already chilly after just a few seconds out of the car. Raquel had a hood up, at least.

Is he inside?” Raquel asked.

No,” Feral said. “He’s buzzing someone.

“Maybe I can catch up and follow him in,” I said. I started to walk faster, but Raquel grabbed my arm, stopping me short.

“Enhanced senses, remember?” she said pointedly. “We need to stay the hell away from this guy. We can try to find out more about the building another time.”

I hesitated, then nodded my acquiescence. “Yeah, okay. You’re right. Play it safe.”

Damn right,” Leon agreed. “Raquel, that’s the right call. We aren’t even sure how he spotted us last time, remember? We don’t know if he has improved sight, hearing, smell…or everything.

He’s opening the door. Do I follow him?” Feral asked.

No,” Raquel said. She glanced at me. “That would be too suspicious, I think. They might not know you can change size, but they might. And if they don’t, I don’t want to tell them. Stay outside and hang back, but watch through the door.” Raquel looked back toward the building. “I’m thinking we walk a little circuit around it? Maybe we can find a window or something.”

“Works for me,” I agreed.

“He’s inside,” Feral said. “Going up the stairs, so he’s on the second floor, at least. Wait.

Raquel and I moved into the shadow of the building; the rain was coming down at an angle, and we were mostly getting missed by it as we stuck close to the wall.

He’s going to the third floor, I think,” Feral said. “But he could be in any room up there. I’m sorry, that’s as much as I can tell.

Thanks, Feral,” I said. “So, circuit? Look for a window and try to see when he leaves, unless it gets too late?”

“Yeah,” Raquel said. “That sounds right.”

I steeled myself to get wet again as we started to walk around the building. I was paying closer attention to our surroundings, and I noticed that the cars in the parking lot all looked a bit old, from what I could see. Some of them were in better shape than others, but none of them were really new. The grass around the apartment building had a few trees and bushes, but they were overgrown or patchy in places.

I tried to be as observant as possible, but it was hard to see much in the dark and in the rain.

We didn’t get a chance to finish our walk around the building.

He’s coming back out,” Feral said. “Stay out of sight. Get back to the car if you can.

Raquel and I turned back and sprinted without talking, barely looking both ways as we crossed the street. I unlocked the car and we hopped in, slamming the doors.

Is he leaving?” Leon asked.

I think so,” Feral replied. “Yes, he’s driving again. Whatever he came here for, it must not have taken long.

I waited a bit before pulling out of the parking lot, hoping we weren’t too obvious.

The rest of the night went about the same way. We followed Tuggey to three more stops, the last one a home on the edge of the city. At the other two he parked, went inside, and then came out within a few minutes. They were apartment buildings too, so it seemed like he had to be meeting people. Otherwise, why go to three residential buildings?

We wrote down the addresses of each place, including the home. Once he got there, we waited for a little while, but eventually we left; the lights had been turned off, the car was getting cold, and we both figured he was done for the night. There was no sense sitting there any longer.. I dropped Raquel off at home and then went back to my room to get some sleep; whatever Tuggey had been doing, we’d have to figure it out another time.

Shawn was asleep by the time I got in. I grabbed a towel and dried off before climbing into bed.

I was tired enough that sleep came swiftly.

This time, when the dream started, I wasn’t surprised.

Leon?

Yes, I’m here David.

This was the third time, and the second time with Leon. The two of us had been waiting for it.

Think we’re in the same person again?” I asked.

It seems likely,” Leon said. “Everything feels the same, at least.

The man who’s eyes we were seeing through was walking into a familiar office.

This is the place I saw during the first vision,” I said to Leon. “The other David’s office.

We sat down at the desk, logged into the computer, and started checking emails. Leon and I read as much as we could, trying to pick up whatever information was available. Our eyes kept going to the clock in the corner of the screen, though.

I think he’s got an appointment or something,” Leon said.

Yeah, me too – hey, look at that one! A message from Charlotte. That was the woman’s name, right? What are the odds there are two Charlottes?

Not very high, I think,” Leon said. “Did you see the message?

Not really,” I said. The other David was going through his email quickly. It made a certain amount of sense – a lot of the messages were part of email chains, and he had the context we lacked. That allowed him to read faster and left us unable to understand half of what we saw.

Abruptly, we stood up again, walking out of the room. We turned left and walked down the hall into a meeting room where Charlotte was waiting at the head of a long table and sat down next to her.

Shortly afterward, a bunch of people started to file in – more than ten. I gave up counting so I could hear what they said as they all sat down. It took me a moment, but I realized that I’d seen them before – they were the same people who I’d seen meet David and Charlotte in the first vision, before the fighting started; their squads.

“All right, settle down,” Charlotte said, looking them over. “Brooks, practice your comedy routine on your own time.”

A man near the other end of the table cocked his head in response. His features seemed to grow sharper as he reacted, as if his movement improved my vision, and suddenly a vague face-like blob turned into a set of features that I could make out clearly, with a hooked nose that looked like it had been broken and improperly set. He had extremely broad shoulders, too.

“When are we going to get our own time again?” Brooks asked. He sounded respectful but the words were pointed. “We’ve been on lockdown for almost three weeks now, boss. I want to go home.”

Some of the others shifted in their seats as he spoke, and I couldn’t tell if they were uncomfortable or restless.

“That was part of our contracts,” Charlotte said bluntly. “If you weren’t okay with it you shouldn’t have signed. Look, I know the bunkrooms here suck, especially with you apes stinking them up,” she said, drawing a chuckle from most of the room, “but you all know how tough things have gotten in the last year. None of us is here just for the pay check. What’s going on is classified for a damn good reason, but it should be over soon, and then we’ll all be rotated out. I have it on good authority that we’ll be getting a full two weeks off while someone else takes on-site duty. After that, we’re scheduled for a lighter assignment for a while.”

One of the others – a woman with dirty blonde hair and a strong jaw – spoke up next. “We were supposed to be out this week,” she said. Unlike Brooks, she sounded resentful. “Why are we still here?”

Charlotte bristled, and we leaned forward, answering before she could. “Hempstead, we’re still here because they still need us here. After the way things have gone for the past year, you know the higher-ups are paranoid about having people coming in and out during a testing phase. It’s not like they can leave either, you know. Lockdown goes for them as much as us, and I know the Director and the rest of them want to get out of here to. After that shapeshifter got in, I don’t think they feel any safer than we do, either. Cut them some slack. We just need to stay frosty a bit longer.”

The woman – Hempstead – didn’t look or sound satisfied. “How long?” she repeated. “I know what my contract said. It didn’t say they could keep us on standby for any length of time they want. Last lockdown was two weeks, this time it’s three. Is the next one going to be a month? This is getting ridiculous.”

“That’s enough,” Charlotte said, cutting us off. I had felt the other David’s mouth open, but he fell silent as she stared Hempstead down. “You can bitch in private if you have to. I don’t give a flying fuck. But I expect professionalism this week, just like I did last week. We’re here until the lockdown lifts, and the lockdown ends when the testing phase ends. Until then, you can spend your free time planning what you’ll do when we leave, but I want you all ready to roll at a moment’s notice, and I don’t want to hear complaining. We will all do our jobs for as long as it takes. Clear?”

“Yes ma’am,” they responded in unison. Hempstead looked disgruntled, but she sounded cowed.

Charlotte looked them all over one last time, then glanced at me. “David? Anything else?”

I cleared my throat, or he cleared his throat – it was getting more confusing the more I thought about this whole experience – and sat up straighter again. “No, I think that’s it. My squad, we all have some marksmanship drills scheduled shortly, then a walk-through inspection of the east entrance. Take five, then get ready. I’ll meet you all in the armory.”

Charlotte turned back to the others. “All right. My squad, we’re going to be briefed on some possible threats in a bit. Beddelman has the details. Get going.”

They filed out, while Charlotte and we remained seated. When they were gone, We looked at each other.

“So, how long do you think it will take?” Charlotte asked.

I shrugged. “Who knows? I’m just glad things aren’t going worse. I was talking to a buddy of mine who does threat assessment – do you know Jankowicz? Anyway, he told me recruitment for the Wave of Change has gone up ever since the Guzman trial video got leaked.”

“How much?” Charlotte asked.

“They don’t have hard numbers,” I said. “Conflicting reports. Enough to matter, though. They’re getting better at the grass-roots stuff. The point is, more Wavers probably means more people willing to attack us, in the long run. Both normals and powered. It might not happen right away, but they’ll come for us sooner or later. Even if only a few of them are militant, it’s enough to be a problem.”

Charlotte shook her head. “I don’t understand how their PR is so good, but do they even need more people? That shifter almost got in alone.” She shot me a look. “Have you read the full report on that yet, by the way? We were training this morning, so I haven’t had a chance yet.”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling a lump forming in my throat as I grimaced. “He was sort of…wearing the missing lab tech’s hand. That got him prints. Took the guy’s eyes for the retinal scan, too. He couldn’t copy his blood, but he did something weirder – kept a liter or so of it inside his body, sealed off from his circulatory system. Then, when it was time for the blood sample, he shifted internally so the tech’s blood went into the right vein, and his blood didn’t. It almost worked.”

“Damn,” Charlotte said, subdued. “That’s…damn.”

“Thank god for redundancies,” I said.

Charlotte shook her head, looking at me. “There’s no such thing as perfect security, David. We all know it.”

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, Charlotte,” I said. “It just has to last long enough to give us something to even the playing field with supers.”

She snorted. “Yeah, right. You say it like that’s not a tall order.”

I chuckled. “Okay, maybe it is. But what else is worth fighting for, right?” I shrugged and stood, looking at my watch. “I need to get going. Mandatory marksmanship isn’t just for grunts, after all.”

“Stay careful,” Charlotte said.

“You too,” I replied on the way out the door.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 1

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We were sitting in and around the van that had brought Bloodhound to Berkeleyport just a few hours ago. On the road partway to Philly, Comet had caught up to us. Not long after that, Bloodhound had gotten another call, and we’d learned that it was all over.

Menagerie, Stalker, Bloodhound, Newton and I were all still in shock, I thought. It was bad enough to hear what had happened, but we’d all been preparing ourselves, getting mentally ready for the fight of our lives, and now it was over before we’d arrived. I’d worried about being too late to make a difference once or twice, but it had never occurred to me that a crisis would come up and then be resolved before I could even arrive.

Now, we were sitting in the parking lot of an out-of-business bookstore on a Pennsylvania back road. I was slowly feeling tension and adrenaline drain out of me, and Newton and Stalker were both fidgeting awkwardly while Bloodhound knelt over Comet, lying on her back on the ground.

Seeing Comet bloody, part of me was grateful that the fight had ended before we could arrive, even if it meant Blitz had escaped. I sat and stared at her, lying there with her eyes closed, mask partially covering her face as Bloodhound held her left arm. After taking stock of her injuries, she’d let him heal her chest and stomach first, but then insisted that he take care of her wrist; she wanted to be fit to fight in case Blitz came back.

I glanced around. Comet was lying in the back of the van with Bloodhound next to her, and the rest of us were sitting on those little cement things they put at the front of some parking spaces. Menagerie was next to me, with Feral pacing anxiously beside her, while Stalker walked back and forth and Newton sat on the cement thing to our right.

Bloodhound had already said they would drive us back to Berkeleyport once he was done looking at Comet.

All I could think about was whether or not the fighting would start up again.

It was strange, but most of us probably knew less about what was going on than the average American with a television. During the trip, we’d been talking, trying to discuss possible tactics for taking down Blitz, instead of listening to the news coverage. Bloodhound had suggested that until we were close enough to make a difference, hearing the reports would just get under our skin, whereas talking calmly would help us get into a better frame of mind. I thought he was mostly worried that Raquel and I would wet our pants if we heard too much bad news, but I wasn’t certain he was wrong, so I went along with the idea.

Once we’d met up with Comet, Bloodhound had started healing her in the back of the van as we drove, but with the fight over he’d said he could do a better job if we weren’t moving. Besides, showing up to the scene now might make our identities easier to figure out, and it wouldn’t make a difference. I got the impression that while they weren’t worried about the van being traced back to their real identities, they would need to give it up if we drove it around blatantly while dressed for a fight.

I realized I was bouncing my right leg, but I couldn’t stop.

I was full of nervous energy, along with my actual fear. I stood up and started pacing, parallel to Stalker. Ten feet away, then back toward the van. Rinse and repeat.

There was a sudden ring, and Stalker pulled out her phone; all of us except for Bloodhound and Comet stopped moving and looked at her.

“Hey,” she said. “Yeah? All three of…wait, why is – no, I guess I get it. Yeah, okay. I’ll tell her he’s coming. Just give us a minute.” She hung up, turning toward us.

“Hey, Uplink, Tin Man, and Meteor are here plus one civilian,” she said, walking toward the van. “Someone who wants to see you pretty bad, Comet. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Menagerie, Flicker, they’re all going to be masked and stuff, but um…just try not to see anyone’s faces in case, okay?”

“Sure,” I said. My voice was hoarse. I hadn’t even realized my throat was so dry until I spoke.

A couple of minutes later we were joined by another car, and four people got out. The three men were in normal clothing, but wearing masks. I didn’t recognize any of them by sight. The last person was a woman, dressed in something reminiscent of Comet’s outfit but all in black.

Two of the newcomers stepped forward to embrace Newton and Stalker, while the last man and the woman went straight to the van. As they walked past, I noticed that the man looked clean and unhurt, unlike the others. Newton turned toward us, gesturing at the two men with him. “These are Tin Man and Uplink,” he pointed. “You already know Tin Man, of course, but it’s hard to recognize him out of the suit.”

Tin Man was short. He couldn’t have been more than one or two inches over five feet tall, if that. He was wearing jeans and a short-sleeve t-shirt, and there were burns, bruises, and scrapes visible on his arms.

Newton turned back to him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. He looked at Stalker. “The suit took most of the beating.”

“Good,” Stalker said. “That’s what it’s for.”

“It’s in the trunk, if you want to have a look,” Tin Man said. “Come on.” He led her back to the car, and they popped the trunk to look inside. I guessed that the suit must be disassembled to fit.

Uplink and Newton walked over to Menagerie and me.

“Pleased to meet you,” Uplink said, reaching out with his right hand. I took it a bit cautiously and gave it a gentle shake. He didn’t look hurt – just dirty – but I wasn’t sure. He shook Menagerie’s hand next, then took a step back and glanced over at the van before looking at Newton.

“Is she going to be okay?” he asked quietly.

“Bloodhound says yes,” Newton said. “That’s good enough for me. I know we’re not used to her bleeding, but she’s not brittle. She can take a beating better than all of us put together.”

“Yeah,” Uplink said. “I guess.” He looked relieved.

I took the opportunity to appraise him while they were talking. Uplink was a bit taller than Tin Man, but not by much. I thought I saw a bruise or two, and a scrape on his forehead that had bled not long ago, but it was small and he looked fine. His sneakers were torn up, but that was about the worst of it. As we stood there, he rolled down the sleeves of his flannel shirt and buttoned it closed, shivering slightly.

I wondered if he was someone else like us, or if the Philly Five thought of him as an unofficial team member, but a noise drew my attention to the van, where I saw the woman who’d arrived standing back while Comet sat up and hugged the man tightly.

“Thank god,” he said. “I was so worried.”

“I’m okay,” she said gently. “Really. I’ll be sore for a while, but nothing permanent.”

The other woman turned around and walked a few steps away, tapping Bloodhound on the shoulder, and he followed her. The rest of us all backed off, giving the pair by the van some privacy. I had a good guess who the man was, now, or at least what his relationship to Comet was.

Bloodhound and the other woman came over to us, and I saw that her black outfit was torn in a few places, but she didn’t look hurt. She wasn’t bleeding, limping, or showing any other signs of injury.

When they reached us, she stopped, staring intensely at Menagerie and I in turn. Most of her face was hidden by her mask, and the rest wasn’t giving much away.

“You two came to help?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, a bit uneasily. “Sorry we weren’t in time.”

She shrugged off my apology. “Whatever. Thanks anyway.”

“Menagerie, Flicker, this is a friend of ours,” Bloodhound said. He glanced at her. “She’s not part of the team, but I guess she heard what was going on and wanted to help out, since things were so bad today. You can call her Meteor.”

I gave her a choppy nod of acknowledgment, and Menagerie muttered a “pleased to meet you.” Meteor seemed to be on edge, and it was making me feel awkward.

She turned to glance back at the van, and my eyes reflexively followed. Comet and the man were still holding each other, and I looked away quickly. When Meteor looked back at us, her jaw clenched, and I wondered what was going on with her. Did she have some kind of problem?

She may just be keyed up from the fight, David,” Leon pointed out. “Don’t read too much into it. Especially if she hasn’t done this before. No one acts normally after their first battle.

Good point,” I said. “Thanks for being the voice of reason.

We stood in awkward silence for a few seconds, until Comet and the man released each other and she leaned back against the side of the van. Meteor immediately began walking over. Bloodhound hesitated for a second before following, and Menagerie and I drifted awkwardly in the same direction behind them.

Meteor walked right up to the vehicle, stepping quickly, but she stopped short.

“You okay?” Meteor asked brusquely.

“Yeah,” Comet said softly. “Thanks for-”

“Don’t, please,” Meteor cut her off. “Just…don’t. You’re family. There was no way I wouldn’t have come.”

Comet’s head tilted to one side. “What’s wrong?”

Meteor shook her head. “Everything,” she said. “Everything about this is wrong. I told you before that I thought even starting your team was a bad idea, and I meant it. I backed off because I couldn’t see any way to stop you except to fight you or out you, and that would have fucked our whole family over, and now I’m your accomplice.”

I hesitated. I had just picked up one secret that I didn’t think I was supposed to know, and Meteor sounded emotional. She might drop more.

So did I go with curiosity and paranoia, or with courtesy?

My moral dilemma never really got up to speed. I was too busy listening to them talk.

“Accomplice? We’re the good guys.”

Meteor dropped into a crouch, putting her face more level with Comet’s. “That’s the problem,” she said quietly.

She took a deep breath and straightened, then let it out. “I came to help because I’ll always put family before principles, and the hell of it is that I don’t know if that’s me stroking my ego or criticizing myself or both. I almost killed three people today, Comet. All I can think about now is the fact that I held back, and maybe I shouldn’t have. That’s the problem. We had Skyscraper unconscious and we fucked around. I had Recast and I punched his knee instead of his head, and I literally had Collector by the throat. I could have finished all of them, and they’re all confirmed murderers, and I can’t believe I let them get away. And that’s the god damned problem.”

Comet leaned back against the van’s side, then stretched out to put a comforting hand on Meteor’s knee. “You did the right thing. We’re not killers. We’re the good guys. We have to draw lines, and take them seriously.”

“No, you are the good guys,” Meteor said. “I am nobody. But because the six of you decided to play the part of being heroes, we’re stuck with the world you made, and if I had killed those men it would have meant something. I don’t know if that’s why I didn’t do it, or not. But the problem is you guys. The famous Philly Five. You created a world with heroes and villains, and now it’s too late to go back and we’re all stuck living in it. Do you get it? The story on the news today won’t be that a few insane people with powers struck out at the world. The story will be that you fought the battle for Philadelphia. That’s part of history, now. It’s never going to change.”

“You think it would be better if we let people like them do whatever they wanted?” Comet asked heatedly.

“No!” Meteor said. “Do you not get it? There used to be two sides to crime: society, and the bad guys. Okay? That was the idea everyone had in their heads. Now we have three: society, bad guys, and us. Self-appointed protectors. We’re the third side, now. And you don’t have any control over which people are going to decide to join your side, or how they’re going to fight. Tomorrow someone who idolizes you might kill someone because he’s afraid they might be the next Collector. You’re worse than the bad guys because you’re role models!”

Everyone stared at her, myself included. I hadn’t even noticed the others – Stalker, Tin Man, Newton, and Uplink – gathering, but we were all standing in a rough semi-circle around the back of the van, where Meteor stood looking down at Comet. The man who’d been holding her was sitting next to her, still, staring up at Meteor, but I couldn’t see his expression.

Meteor suddenly turned to look at all of us.

“Christ,” she said, shaking her head. “Who the fuck do you people think you are? You’re a cure worse than the disease! I know Uplink’s tried poking where he wasn’t invited. Only on bad guys, you’ll tell me, but so fucking what? Have you ever heard of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ or the right to privacy? I know for a fact that Bloodhound has killed, and you all know it too. And you sit here and look at me like I’m the crazy one? Do you not get what we are?”

“Je- Meteor, calm down,” Comet said. “Look, I know today was bad and you’re stressed, but you need to take it easy, okay? We’re not the bad guys here! We’ve been risking our lives to try to help people!”

Meteor laughed bitterly. “Oh yeah, and the world’s way better, isn’t it? You’re secret fucking police without a dictator, Comet! You have no accountability, and you’re worse than a regular vigilante because if you go nuts no cop with a gun could hope to stop you!”

Comet stood up, plainly angry. “It that’s what you think then why did you come help us at all!”

“Because I’m a fucking hypocrite!” Meteor screamed. “Because I’m human and you’re family and I don’t want you to die!”

The two of them were panting, staring at each other, while the rest of us stood there, stunned. I wanted to glance at Feral and Raquel, but I was afraid to look away. I couldn’t see Meteor’s face, but she sounded like she might be crying.

Meteor moved first, turning away from Comet and then back to her jerkily. “Jesus, listen to me! You’re inspiring children to go fight! Fucking think about this, please! Okay? Look at them!” she pointed at us. “You fucking know Menagerie isn’t college aged yet. Flicker might be. Is that better? They could die, and they’re following in your footsteps! And what if they don’t, and we don’t? Are we going to keep networking and recruiting and mentoring until we have a whole army? What the hell are we going to be in ten years, Ali? You and I are powerful enough to take over a small country in a month already, and you want to get even more people together? More powers? Do you want a big country, instead? Do you want a continent? Because if we keep going we’ll end up with one by accident. We’re too dangerous!”

“You’re talking like we’re freaks or monsters!” Comet protested. “Dammit, we’re just trying to help people! Do you know how many lives we’ve saved while you were off being uninvolved? We’ve helped the police catch double digits of bad guys with powers! We’re not monsters!”

“Yes we fucking are!” Meteor yelled. “If someone came at me with a knife, I could be safe without even moving! I could fly away, or heal, or get Bloodhound to heal me, or punch his goddamn head off, or take a fucking nap! What do you think a monster is, Ali? We’re not normal people, we’re not like normal people! We don’t fear what they fear, we don’t think like they think, and we can do things that they can barely imagine! We might still be human, but we are fucking monsters! Wake up, all of you!” She turned, staring at us.

I stared back at her. I didn’t know what to think. She sounded hysterical, but that didn’t make her wrong. She was hitting a lot of doubts I’d had, some from the beginning and others that arose from my own experiences.

“Do you guys think this is okay? Even remotely?” Meteor pleaded. Her voice faltered. “Christ, just think about this! You must have family who are normal, or friends, or someone. We’re setting ourselves above them! Where do you think that ends? Please, all of you, fucking think!”

“We have thought about this,” Bloodhound said quietly. “Someone would have teamed up, Meteor. Blitz did. Would you prefer that we all joined the FBI? Do you trust the government with a private army of supers?”

“No, I don’t,” Meteor said sadly. “But I think I trust you guys even less. We’re not kids playing with fire, here. We’re babies juggling dynamite. And your little group is the biggest baby with the most sticks in the air, and sooner or later someone is going to jostle your elbow and you’re going to drop them all. You might survive, but the people around you won’t. Can you honestly tell me that this world is better than the one we’d have if the Philly Five never existed?”

“Yes,” Bloodhound said without hesitation.

Meteor stared at each of us in turn. I didn’t say anything, and neither did Raquel.

“Yes,” Comet said.

Tin Man nodded. The rest of the team followed suit, agreeing.

Meteor slumped, sitting on the van. “You won’t stop,” she said. “None of you wants to see it.”

“To see what?” Uplink asked. “How afraid you are?”

“Of course I’m afraid!” Meteor exploded. “God, why aren’t all of you? You’re holding the world in your hands and you aren’t worried about squeezing too tight or dropping it, and you should be! You should be fucking terrified! I’m afraid because you’re all bullshitting yourselves, pretending you’re just normal people as if that isn’t an even bigger self-delusion than whatever made Collector think he’s a god! You tell yourselves that you don’t kill people because of justice, or rights, or whatever, but the real reason is fear! Because you don’t want people to be afraid! You don’t want them to realize what we are, and you don’t want to admit that what we can do is fucking scary! And now you’re probably afraid of me because I won’t join your game of ‘let’s pretend.’ Wake up!  You should be afraid!”

“Are you even listening to yourself?” Comet asked, stricken. “Talking about ‘what we are’ like we’re things, not people?”

“Better than you!” Meteor said. “You guys have to see this! You’re changing the course of world history and acting like it’s just a day job that you clock out of, and it’s not! We are going to live in this world. Our kids and nephews and nieces and grandkids are going to live in this world. The world where the person with the best power sets the rules.” She seemed to run out of steam, all of a sudden, her voice dropping. “At least everyone can see that Blitz is the bad guys. They’re hard as hell to stop, but no one thinks they’re right.”

More silence. Meteor looked at each of us in turn, again. When she got to me I flinched and looked away instead of meeting her eyes.

After a minute that felt a lot longer, Meteor turned back to Comet. “I’m glad you’re all right,” she said, “but it doesn’t change anything. You’re still wrong, and I’m still afraid that we might end up on opposite sides one day if you don’t change what you’re doing. And I still fucking wish you hadn’t done this, because it could screw us all, and you made it so my only choices were to let you go commit your fucking crimes or betray my own family.” Meteor stood there panting, then suddenly rounded, pointing at Bloodhound. “And for fuck’s sake, don’t trust him and his advisors!”

Comet floated up and forward to give Meteor a hug. Meteor stood stiffly for a few seconds, but eventually she returned it, slumping tiredly, the tension draining out of her.

“It’s going to be all right,” Comet said.

Meteor shook her head. “It’s really not,” she said sadly. “It’s not going to be all right.” She turned away and walked a few steps, then stopped. Her shoulders slumped again, and she looked back at Comet one last time. “Call me if you need…” she shook her head again, sighing. “Call me when it gets bad.” She looked at Bloodhound. “You…be good. And pass the message on.”

It was plainly a threat. Before anyone reacted, she shot into the sky and flew away.

We all stood in the awkward silence for a second, looking at where she had been.

“I’m sorry about that,” Comet said quietly. “All of you. Bloodhound, I don’t know what her problem with you is.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Bloodhound said, at least outwardly calm. “She came through for us today, and I think she will next time too. And we should have someone around to doubt us. Someone who questions, but isn’t an enemy. If she ever feels strongly enough to side against us, maybe we’ll deserve it. Maybe we’ll need the wake-up call.”

“Have you killed?” Menagerie blurted out.

Everyone fell silent again, and she shrank in on herself. Feral padded closer to her, rubbing up against her left leg. I took a half-step towards her, leaning in her direction, while facing everyone else. It was impossible not to notice in the silence, but I hadn’t thought about it.

“Yes,” Bloodhound said. “I have. More than once. The first time was in self-defense. There have been two other times. On one occasion, I was defending others, and the last time it was someone who had killed repeatedly himself. I haven’t killed since I joined the Philly Five, though. That was part of the terms when we created the group.”

There was another tense silence.

“Is this going to be a problem?” Bloodhound asked. He didn’t sound threatening, but I couldn’t help reflecting on the fact that there were two of us and five of them, with Uplink and the (apparent) civilian hanging back, but sticking close to the Philly Five.

“Why didn’t you mention it before?” I asked. I tried not to sound confrontational, but I was really just trying to buy time to think.

Part of me was wondering how far the Philly Five would go to keep their secrets. We knew several that we hadn’t known before, and that made me nervous.

“Frankly, it’s none of your business,” Bloodhound said. “I don’t kill as a matter of course, and I haven’t done it for some time. I’ve never pretended I wasn’t keeping secrets from you, even when I was offering lessons. You both have secrets from me as well, and I haven’t pried into them, despite the fact that what I’m teaching you gives you more power which could be misused. I judge you both by your actions, just like the whole world judges our team. I think that’s fair.”

I noticed that the others let Bloodhound speak for himself, even Comet, the apparent leader. A glance showed me that the man with her – who had to be a boyfriend or husband or something – was holding her carefully, letting her lean on him.

Are you okay with this?” Menagerie asked me.

I don’t think anything is different from yesterday or this morning,” I said. “I’m not thrilled to learn that Bloodhound has killed, but I’m not sure how much it matters. Without knowing the details, we can either take his word for it or not. Basically, it’s just a question of whether we choose to trust him or not. If he told us all the details of the deaths, it would be the same – we weren’t there, and we don’t have any way to ensure he tells the truth or double-check his story.

“What about the rest of you?” Menagerie asked. “Have you killed anyone? Comet? Tin Man?”

“No, I haven’t,” Comet said.

“Me neither,” Tin Man said.

Stalker and Newton shook their heads.

“And Uplink?” I asked. “I don’t want to be unreasonable, but telepathy seems pretty ripe for abuse. Comet said you guys draw lines and sick to one side of them. Where’s your line?”

“I don’t go poking into everyone’s head on a whim,” Uplink said, crossing his arms. “I defend against other telepaths, and I’ll try to figure out where bad guys are and what they’re planning so we can take them down as safely as possible. I can’t control them, or anything.”

I turned to Stalker. “What about you?”

“I follow the same rules he does,” Stalker said slowly.

She had hesitated for a fraction of a second before answering. Was it the sign of a lie? None of the others reacted to it.

I looked at Menagerie.

Is that good enough for you?” I asked.

I don’t know,” Menagerie admitted. “Feral, Leon? What do you guys think?

Reputation doesn’t make people good, but they’ve earned it publicly, and we’ve seen firsthand that they’re willing to cooperate with other people, including the authorities,” Leon said. “I’m inclined to think they’re on the level, even if this is all dangerous. But I think Meteor and Bloodhound were right. Someone should watch them, just in case.

They’re strong, but don’t kill,” Feral said. “They don’t beat confessions out of people either, as far as I know, and they came to help us without needing to be asked. Trust them for now, but keep your secrets just in case. And if we can in the future, we should find a way to get in touch with Meteor. Just in case. They might be good today, but tomorrow is always a new challenge. Anyone can fall.

I think they’re right,” I said. “Menagerie? If it’s not unanimous, we can break contact, do our own thing. I’d be okay with that.

She took a moment to think before looking at Bloodhound. “I’m not sure what to think,” Menagerie admitted. “Meteor seemed to feel pretty strongly, and I can’t say for certain that she was wrong about everything. This is dangerous, and we’re all in over our heads. But if you’re still willing to teach us, I’d still like to learn, and if this happened again…I’d still want to help.”

“Thank you,” Bloodhound said.

We all stood for a second, not certain where the conversation could go from there.

“Well, that should make the ride home less awkward than the alternative,” Tin Man said.

We all started laughing, from shock more than anything else, and the tension disappeared from the air.

Tin Man looked over at Comet. “You know I love Meteor, but she never makes things calmer, that’s for damn sure.

Comet laughed a bit uncomfortably. “Yeah, she’s pretty…intense.”

“I wouldn’t care if she cursed at us for twenty minutes, after today,” the man with her said quietly. It sounded like his voice was nearly breaking, and he pulled her into another embrace. Comet tilted her head to whisper in his ear, and we all moved back to let them have some privacy again.

Bloodhound walked over to us, gesturing for Tin Man to follow.

“So, I imagine the two of you want to get home,” he said. “Tin Man, could you and Stalker take them back in the car? I’ll get the rest of the crew home in the van.”

“Yeah, okay,” Tin Man said.

I noted that he hadn’t volunteered to drive us, and I was glad.

A minute later, Menagerie and I were sitting in the backseat while Tin Man drove and Stalker sat next to him. The car pulled out and turned for home, and I started to relax for the first time since Bloodhound had answered his phone.

“So, what kind of music do you two like?” Tin Man asked, reaching for the radio.

“Jazz would be nice,” Menagerie said.

“A woman after my own heart,” Tin Man said approvingly. He started going through stations.

“So, can you tell us what happened?” I asked. “If you don’t want to rehash it right now I’ll understand, but I’d like to know.”

Tin Man paused, then turned down the radio. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess I can do that. Just give me a couple minutes, okay? I feel like I haven’t relaxed in forever.”

“Sure,” I said. “Take the time you need.”

I settled in to listen.
 
 
 
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Walk a Mile in Their Shoes 5

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“Well, that was closer than I’m comfortable with,” Brian said. He held his hands out toward Elise. “Elise, would you mind?”

She glanced at his hands and the handcuffs expanded, widening and falling off. The liquid metal flowed toward her across the ground, solidifying onto the toes of her boots.

Brian looked around; Dealer had brought them all to the parking lot where their getaway cars were waiting. Proxy was sitting in the back of the minivan, and Brian wondered if the telepath had bothered moving at all since things started. He thought not.

Smith, Dealer, and Recast were standing around; Smith was playing with whatever metal was handy and thinking, or waiting. She had that faraway look on her face that she got sometimes. Dealer was looking at everyone else, and Recast was tearing into a bag of chips. No surprise, since the shapeshifter had lost a lot of his body today. He was about a foot shorter than when they’d started, and thinner as well.

Silhouette and Collector were standing together, off to one side, and Collector had one hand on his own neck, while his face was pure rage. The two of them appeared to be arguing. Silhouette had let her power lapse, reverting to her true appearance.

“I want the bitch dead!” he shouted. “We sent Comet running, and we can do it again! We can finish the fucking job this time!”

“You almost died!” Silhouette yelled back. “We need to get the hell out of here! Who cares if we kill her today or tomorrow or next year? The rest of the Philly Five could show up anytime, and there are already too many people we don’t know showing up to fight us! Baby, we have to leave!” Her voice quieted. “We have to. They’re too ready for us now.”

Collector hesitated, though Brian couldn’t tell if it was because Silhouette was making a good point or because of the genuine fear and concern in her voice.

Elise cleared her throat, and in the silence everyone turned to look at her.

“Whatever we’re going to do, we can’t stay here for long,” she said. “Dealer, do you have any ‘ports left?”

Bert scratched his head. “Um, yeah. A couple. But if they find us all, then I might run out quick. I mean, Proxy and I can’t do anything except run away.” He looked at Collector. “And Smith might be good against guns, but if she meets that flying lady there won’t be much of a fight. I…think we should go, boss. We might need my ‘ports just to get out of town intact.”

“If we leave now, we should be able to blend into all of the people running away from us,” Elise said, smiling slightly.

Collector chuckled. “That does sound amusing,” he admitted. He looked back to Silhouette. “All right. I still think we could have taken them, but things have changed. They have more supers, and we don’t know if even more are coming. We’ll let them have this round. But when the time is right, I intend for us all to come back here, and we’re going to kill every last one of the Philly Five. If any of their friends come after us, we’ll deal with them, too. We don’t lose.”

Silhouette smiled. “Damn right we don’t,” she purred.

Once the decision was made, it didn’t take long. Collector and Sandra got into the minivan, with Bert and Paul in the backseat, while Elise and Brian rode in the back of the car. Recast drove, changing his face to something new and nondescript, and most of them changed clothes quickly, except for Sandra. No one had seen her clearly anyway, so changing wouldn’t make her any harder to recognize. They left the old clothes in a pile, and Collector burned them.

Recast leaned out the window. “You want point or tail?”

“Point,” Collector replied. “Give us a minute, then follow. Call if anything comes up and you have time. If not, you can always just make some noise.”

In a few minutes, both vehicles were driving toward the edge of the city. The farther they went, the busier the streets got, and when they hit the back of the traffic jam to get on the highway Paul’s powers were the only thing that let them see the front. Of course, the road the other way was almost entirely empty except for police vehicles.

Collector had relayed that much by phone when something far more concerning came up.

“There are National Guard vehicles,” he said. Brian shot Elise a worried look, and she grimaced back, shaking her head, but she didn’t look surprised.

“Paul isn’t sure if they’re stopping everyone or only some people or what, but I don’t want to find out,” Collector said. “It’s one thing to disappear. I don’t want people to think we got caught running.”

Elise held out a hand, and Brian gave her the phone.

“We should go back,” she said.

Brian looked at her questioningly.

“Philly’s a big city,” she said. “If we don’t make waves, people will start trying to get back to normal faster than you’d imagine, especially since most of the damage we did won’t get in the way of day-to-day stuff. We should head back into the city, find someplace to sit tight for a few days, and then wait. They can’t paralyze traffic in and out of town indefinitely, and even if they try Dealer can ‘port us past a roadblock if we need him to. But we shouldn’t do it without him being at full. If we run and get halfway, then he runs out, we might get screwed.”

“Hang on,” Collector said.

There was some talking, but Brian couldn’t make it out over the phone.

“It looks like they are stopping some vehicles, at least,” Collector said. “I don’t want to chance it. Elise, looks like you’re getting your way. Let’s regroup and lay low for a bit. They can try to search the whole city if they want, but they’re not likely to get very far.”

Hours later, Brian was happy to relax in the apartment they’d picked as a hiding place. It wasn’t near the areas where they’d fought earlier, and there wasn’t anything special about it; it was just another apartment in a building that hadn’t had a very sturdy front door. Elise had still insisted on bypassing the lock instead of smashing it, of course, and then done the same for the apartment’s door. It wasn’t small, but with the seven of them there it still felt a bit cramped.

Bert was back to playing video games, and had quickly staked out the most comfortable chair in the place. Sandra and Recast were making dinner for everyone, including extra so Recast could get back to his former size, while Collector was drinking a beer and watching the television, seeing what people had to say about the battle. Elise and Brian, for lack of anything better to do, had joined him. Elise was sitting on the far end of the sofa from Collector, and Brian was on the carpet, legs outstretched and head leaning back against her.

Collector turned off the television in disgust after listening to three different channels condemning all of them as monsters. Brian wondered what he had expected to find, and glanced up at Elise.

They’d managed to talk the boss out of continuing the fight, mostly because Sandra had been leading the charge, but Brian was nervous. The guy wasn’t reacting right. He’d nearly died and it had just left him outraged, and Brian didn’t get that.

He’d felt someone tear him apart from the inside, and he had been scared shitless. When she threatened to do it for real, he knew it was serious, and he didn’t want to meet that flying woman ever again. Tin Man had done something else that hurt like hell, and now that he was thinking back on it the rest of the fighting hadn’t gone all that well either. He could smash up normal people with ease, sure, but Collector seemed intent on getting them into fights with people who weren’t normal, now.

Brian glanced at Elise, leaning his head back to see her more clearly. She had warned them all against this whole thing, and she’d been right. It had turned into a huge mess, and there was still no guarantee that they would get out of it cleanly.

There wasn’t much talk over dinner or after, and the group split up quickly. Usually two or three of them would sit around and talk, at least, for a few hours after eating together. Other days, they would eat dinner in little groups, with Collector and Sandra going off together and others splitting up as well, but there was a silence hanging in the air that felt sullen, and most of it was coming from Collector.

After they were done, Elise headed to the apartment’s second bedroom, shooting him a glance of invitation, while Bert pulled some sheets out of a closet and started putting them on the sofa. Brian shook his head; at that age, he’d rarely made his own bed and he didn’t think he’d slept on a couch, either. It was strange how much could change.

Paul tapped his arm and offered a joint. “Want to smoke some?”

“No thanks, man,” Brian said. “Maybe next time, though.”

He walked after Elise, joining her in the bedroom, where she was looking out the window.

She didn’t move as he entered and walked over to his suitcase, or when he changed into his pajamas. Brian climbed into the bed and sat up, leaning back against the wall behind him. “You okay?”

Elise just shook her head. After a moment she turned toward him and gave him a wan smile. “I’m intact. That’ll have to be good enough for today, I guess. You?”

He shook his head. “Going to have nightmares about being torn apart from the inside, I think. I really don’t want to go through that again.”

Elise walked over and held him, his head against her chest and her head on top of his. “Sorry I couldn’t be there to help.”

Brian shrugged. “Shit happens. I’m just glad I survived.”

“I’m glad too,” Elise said. Her words were muffled by his hair.

They let go and Brian looked up at her. “Is something else bothering you?”

Elise hesitated for a moment, then glanced at the door, and he understood.

Paul’s powers meant that he could look through any of their eyes at any time, and they wouldn’t necessarily know he was doing it. Privacy could be hard to come by.

So Elise climbed into bed, and they pulled the covers around themselves. Then they lay in the dark, waiting to fall asleep.

Brian did have nightmares, though he remembered them only vaguely the next morning. Once they were both awake a quick check told Brian that Paul was asleep, and Collector and Sandra were still in their room. Recast was awake, but he wouldn’t bother them. Bert had looked like he was trying to go back to sleep.

They had a little while to talk undisturbed, and they huddled under the blankets; they’d gone to sleep pretty early the previous night, and while it was morning the sun hadn’t risen yet, so it was still dark.

Brian and Elise lay on their sides, facing each other.

“So, what are you thinking?” Brian whispered.

Elise’s eyes narrowed. “I think we have less time than I thought. The boss is losing it. I don’t know if it’s his powers or just pride, but he definitely used to be smarter. He almost died yesterday and he was so pissed he wanted to go back for another round. Even Sandra knew it was a bad idea, and she’s not usually the voice of reason or caution or good ideas. He’s going to get us killed. We need a fresh start. I’m thinking new faces, new names, and a new country. Get far away from here. After yesterday, I think Dealer will definitely agree, but we still need a way to handle Sandra, and I’m not sure what to do about her. And I want a backup plan for dealing with Collector, too, in case Bert wimps out.”

“What about Paul?” Brian asked.

Disdain and distaste twisted Elise’s face. “He’s nothing. His power’s great, but he’ll side with whoever gives him orders, and I don’t trust that. Recast…I just don’t know how to read. I think he’ll stay neutral and join us if we win, but I don’t know. Even if both of them were with us, though, I don’t think they could help take out Sandra. Not permanently. We need a solution that handles her for good, not just one that lets us run. If we take out Collector, she’ll be on her own, and I think she’ll come after us wherever we go. Even with new names and faces, our powers will probably give us away eventually.”

“I just don’t know,” Brian admitted. “It’s hard to come up with a lasting counter to raw strength. I mean, if I could chuck her into space that should work, but I can’t.”

“It might not, actually,” Elise said. She sighed. “I’m not convinced Sandra’s powers are as limited as we think. All that direct sunlight might be too good for her.”

They looked at each other for a few moments.

“She still breathes,” Brian said grimly.

“I know, but we can’t exactly put a plastic bag over her head,” Elise said.

Brian shook his head. “Yesterday, that flying woman attacked me from the inside. Strength didn’t help, because I couldn’t reach. You can do that to Sandra. No fighting.”

Elise’s eyes widened. “That…just might work. I’ll have to be in the right position to get it done fast enough…if she sees it coming you might have to hold her still. But I think we can do it.”

Brian spread his arms. “Problem solved,” he said. “So, now that that’s done, are we going to make sweet, sweet love?”

Elise laughed in his face. “Even if you were my type, I think that would have disqualified you,” she said quietly. “Come on. I’m hungry, and we need to keep up appearances.”

Brian sat up as she got out of bed. “Can I at least go to the bathroom by myself?” he said. “You look good, but there are some times a guy doesn’t want company.”

Elise threw a sock in his face. Brian dumped it on the floor, standing up. “Thanks for making it a clean one, at least.”

“Just hurry up,” Elise said. “I’ll wait, but not forever.”

Brian walked past her and out of the door to go to the bathroom, moving quietly so that he wouldn’t disturb anyone. Recast was reading something on his tablet, and Bert appeared to have fallen back asleep. The doors to the other two bedrooms remained closed.

Brian thought that Elise’s obsession with presenting the right appearance to the rest of the group was a bit much, and he did find that sleeping next to her tested his self-control, despite the fact that he wasn’t much interested in her. Then again, he mused, her attention to detail was one of the traits he found most impressive. And she seemed satisfied that Bert was too afraid of her to double-cross them, which was important.

When he was done, he rejoined her in the bedroom, closing the door as quietly as he could.

“Recast made coffee,” Brian said. He put down the two travel mugs he’d brought with him; while the group’s members were often on the move, they did like to have their own things, when possible. Every once in a while they’d needed to leave their stuff behind, but for the most part they’d been able to keep it with them, periodically replacing items as they needed to – or wanted to, in some cases. Bert certainly went through electronics faster than was strictly necessary, but what he did with his own money was his business.

Elise picked up her mug and sipped at it, shooting him a grateful smile. “Thanks.”

Last time he hadn’t remembered how she liked it. “Just being a good partner,” he said with an obnoxious grin.

She ignored the teasing. “So, can we eat?”

Brian shrugged. “Bert’s still sleeping. Up to you.”

Elise sighed. “Fine. Then I guess we’re stuck here for a bit.”

She grabbed her bag, opened it, and pulled out a book. Brian didn’t bother looking. Elise, he had learned, read a lot of biographies and other nonfiction. Brian wasn’t much of a recreational reader, so it wasn’t something they talked about.

Instead, he pulled out his phone and started looking for a new app to screw around with to kill time.

When Elise shook his shoulder to wake him up, it was light out. The blinds still covered the window, but they were cracked to let some of the daylight in, and Brian was surprised to see how bright it was; the sky was blue, there were only a few clouds and they were pure white without even a hint of gray. After the previous day’s disaster, it seemed inappropriate.

“Food’s ready,” Elise said. “Come on.”

“Right,” Brian said. “Just a sec.” He rubbed at his eyes, then wondered where his phone was. Elise, correctly guessing the source of his confusion, pointed to the nightstand on her side of the bed.

“Thanks,” he said, grabbing the phone and pocketing it. “So, I miss anything?”

“No,” Elise said. “Just my stomach rumbling.”

Moments later they opened the door and walked out together.

Bert and Recast were up and moving around. Sandra and Collector had joined them already, though Paul wasn’t there; Brian assumed he was still asleep.

Brian grabbed a plate. Breakfast was eggs and toast, but at least Recast was a passable cook, so simple things tended to come out tasting good.

They were quiet for the first few minutes, with little conversation as everyone ate, and Brian tried to judge the mood. Sandra seemed fine. Collector was calm, at least on the surface, but there was some tension in the way he was sitting. Elise seemed oblivious, but he knew that had to be a front. Bert and Recast were the least affected, Brian thought. Recast was always a bit of a loner, and Brian didn’t really understand what had convinced him to follow Collector in the first place, but then he’d joined the group first. Bert was similar, although Brian did enjoy playing video games with the kid on occasion.

When the food was done, they all went their separate ways again. Brian loaded the dishwasher while Elise took care of the trash; they were likely going to be here for a few days, and while they didn’t much care about the state of the apartment after they left it wasn’t fun to live in filth.

Bert went back to his games, while Collector turned the television on to look at the news again.

He wasn’t any happier with what he saw this time, and Brian steeled himself for an unpleasant few days. Collector wasn’t the worst, but he didn’t handle failures well and he liked being on the move. He’d start feeling cabin fever quickly, based on past experience, and he’d be miserable until it was time to leave again.

When they were done cleaning up, Brian and Elise went back to their bedroom. Having the excuse of their relationship to lay claim to privacy had its advantages, and Brian went online to check on his investments while Elise returned to her book.

He’d lost some money, unfortunately, but also profited in other areas. Overall, it looked like a net gain.

Patience was a difficult virtue to cultivate. When it came to investments, his father had always taught him that it was important not to panic, but that he also needed to develop a good instinct and get out if he thought it was time.

That instinct was the reason he’d sided with Elise, and seeing Collector today just confirmed the decision. The man wasn’t stable. Unpredictable investments weren’t always bad, of course – they could yield huge profits – but people who invested in too many risky ventures tended to run out of money to invest.

With that in mind, he started reading up on what was happening in business. No investor was better than his information.

The saying came to him easily, and it still burned a bit with betrayal. They had been his father’s words. The cold-blooded way his siblings had tried to deny him his rightful share of the family fortune when he had been the only one who really paid attention to the work of maintaining it had cut deeply, and even though he knew his father wouldn’t approve of his chosen methods he also knew that the man would have had nothing but contempt for his brothers and sister, hiding behind lawyers and outright lies, depending on their superior numbers to beat him in court.

It had worked, and that was the most galling thing of all. None of the particular lies they’d told even bothered him that much, really. They had alleged that he was making risky, irresponsible investments, tried to attack some of his business decisions, but in the end all of that had been an excuse for attacking him personally, mostly by implying that he was going to throw away the family money on women.

Brian had enjoyed showing women a good time; he admitted that much. But he’d never spent more than he earned, and that was more than the others could say. Unfortunately, with three voices raised against him and only himself on the other side, he’d lost.

It had taken more than a year for him to fall in with Collector and the others, plan his revenge, and go home, but it had been worth it just for the looks on their faces. His only regret was that his sister hadn’t been home at the time; he would have liked to see her, too. But at least she would see their childhood home burning, and with the amount of money he’d taken Brian had no doubt that his siblings would squander what was left; they’d fight each other for the scraps, and in the end the lawyers would get it all, or close enough. That was more fitting than killing them would have been, anyway. To leave them to savage each other as they’d gone after him? It was poetic. Elise had understood that, unlike Collector, who thought killing was the solution to everything.

Brian glanced at her, sitting up and reading next to him. She really wasn’t his type either, which was good. Brian knew he didn’t have the best track record when it came to healthy relationships. Like most of the best lies, those told by his family had had a grain of truth in them. But Brian hadn’t looked at Elise as a woman; he’d looked at her as an investment.

After today, Brian had a feeling that being Collector’s friend was a commodity of diminishing value. Elise, though…she might just be on the way up.

He pushed the thought aside and returned to his work. Whatever happened, money meant options.

Besides, making it was fun.
 
 
 
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