Tag Archives: Bloodhound

Who Pays the Piper? 3

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I was in class when Lyle called, so I couldn’t just answer; fortunately, my phone was set to vibrate, so nobody noticed. I excused myself as soon as I could, ostensibly to use the restroom, and called him back. I assumed it wasn’t an emergency; I’d told him to text if that was the case, since I could check a text message without anyone noticing regardless of where I was.

“Flicker?” he said.

“Yes, doctor,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Well, it’s not an emergency exactly, but I felt like I should warn you that Kaylee got some bad news. I talked her out of going to the police right away, though! She’s upset, but I convinced her to be patient, at least for now.”

I blinked in confusion, starting to worry. “You still haven’t told me what the actual problem is. What was the bad news she got?”

“Oh, right!” Lyle said. “She, well, she got fired. She was taking sick days, since we were afraid of the…of my former bosses finding her, you remember? So she couldn’t go back to work yet. I convinced her not to go to the police because it’s too late now, her boss probably wouldn’t give her job back anyway, the asshole. And I have enough money to take care of her rent and bills for a while, until we get this sorted out. But…well, she’s still really angry. I, um, don’t know if she’ll be willing to keep waiting too much longer.”

I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. The possibility of something like this happening really should have occurred to us, but it hadn’t; we’d been worried about keeping everyone alive and safe, and leaving town to guard Lyle and Kaylee hadn’t really been an option. If I had gone, or Raquel had gone, it would have taken us away from Berkeleyport, where all the bad guys were, and left Mary without backup at a critical time. With Alena, Lindsay, and Doug now in town, and the new danger to Heavyweight, leaving town seemed like an even worse idea; of the four people in town who I could trust, including myself (but not Leon and Feral, since they couldn’t really move independently of Raquel and I), two were effectively under constant threat. Raquel and I had to be on call to help them if something happened, and that meant we had to be present.

There weren’t many of us, and we were outnumbered. We were basically depending on secrecy to keep us all safe, and we hadn’t had much choice other than to hide Lyle and Kaylee, as well, at least for now. I tried to think of some alternative option that we had failed to consider, but nothing came to mind. If we were the police, or trusted the police fully, Lyle might have been a candidate for the witness protection program or something similar. Maybe if we brought the Philly Five into things more, they would be willing to help us cover all of the bases, but they had their own problems; I’d gathered from something Bloodhound let slip the other night that they were still trying to pick up Collector’s trail, and that was pretty damn important too.

“Flicker?” Lyle said.

I blinked again, realizing that I’d spaced out. “Yeah, I hear you, sorry. Are you two going to be all right for now?”

“Probably?” Lyle said, his tone uncertain. “I just wanted to warn you. I don’t think Kaylee will do anything, but, well, the longer we’re stuck here the more likely it is. And, uh, she’ll probably be really angry the next time you talk to her.”

“Okay, thanks for the heads-up,” I said. “I’ll pass it on.”

“Sure,” Lyle said.

We hung up, and I put away my phone, stashing it in my pocket. It had felt weird, at first, to be carrying around two phones all the time, but I’d grown accustomed to it.

Once again, I feel blindsided by things going wrong in a mundane way instead of a dramatic way,” I noted.

We prioritized life-threatening problems over mundane ones,” Leon replied. “It’s a blind spot, but one that we developed from a sensible approach, at least.

Maybe, but I can’t help noting that doing what we decided – you, me, and Mary – cost someone her job. Heavyweight’s in danger, too. I’m starting to wonder if our methods are the right ones,” I said.

You’re not ‘starting’ to wonder anything,” Leon said. “We’ve been through this before. Something goes wrong, and we feel doubt, then try to make the best plan we can for the situation we have, rinse and repeat. This is unfortunate, but it’s not really significant in a broader sense. It doesn’t change the situation, and it shouldn’t change our approach. Now come on, let’s get to your next class.

I took a deep breath and shrugged off the doubts. Leon was right; they weren’t anything new. I’d been questioning everything since the day I met Raquel, especially after any setbacks.

Right,” I said. “Introspection later, education now.

That night, we had another vision; Leon and I noted that the pace seemed to be accelerating. We were both pleased; the two of us had certainly been eager for more after the end of the previous one. In any case, this one seemed to pick up where the last had left off. Murphy was leading Charlotte, Hector, and David along. They followed her through three heavy doors, each of which had a different security check. The first scanned Murphy’s retinal pattern, the second checked her palm print, and the third required her to enter a combination of letters and numbers into a keypad. After the last door, there were more people waiting inside; guards that I hadn’t seen before. There were five of them in the room, each armed with an automatic weapon, wearing body armor, and looking menacing. One had a dog on a leash. They held the group at gunpoint as the dog sniffed at each person in turn, and only when it was done were we allowed to advance.

This is like a professional course in paranoia,” Leon observed.

Definitely,” I agreed.

Eventually the security checks ended, and Murphy led us to meet someone new. Off of the hallways we passed through, I caught a few brief glimpses of computers and a few gadgets that I didn’t recognize, but which looked suitably high-tech; all together, it made me feel like I’d walked onto the set of a near-future sci-fi movie, where the director had just ordered the set designer to make it look expensive without worrying about the specifics. I lacked the background to make sense of what I was seeing beyond that. There were several multi-monitor setups on the desks that I saw, although none of them were displaying anything when we passed by, not even a desktop screen; the monitors were all turned off, at least in the rooms I could see into.

More security,” Leon guessed. “The three of them are cleared to be back here, but not to see everything, maybe? Good attention to detail, if so.

I didn’t reply, except to register a feeling of agreement. At the same time, there didn’t seem to be many people.

I guess they probably find it difficult to find qualified, trustworthy personnel who will agree not to leave,” I mused.

That would make sense,” Leon said.

It was a short walk, despite my fascination with the newly-revealed wing of the facility, and soon enough Murphy took us into a room where a man waited, sitting down at a table; I realized after a moment that it looked almost the same as the meeting room I’d seen in previous visions, albeit smaller. The chairs were the same type, too. They were probably cheaper in bulk.

“So, these are the new folks?” he said, standing up as we entered.

“Yes, they are,” Murphy said. She moved out of our way. “Hector, Charlotte, David – this is Geoff Worthington. Geoff, these three just got their security clearance upgraded, and they’ve volunteered to try out your teaching skills.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Geoff said. He stepped forward and shook hands with everyone, moving energetically. “I’m excited to have some new faces! We don’t have much opportunity to meet new people, as you can imagine. So, I take it you’ve already got a clear idea of what we do. Should we jump right into it?”

Murphy chuckled. “Breathe for a second, Geoff. It might not hurt to give them a little demonstration, first.”

“Of course, sure,” he said, his grin shrinking to a smile as he stepped back. “Why don’t you sit down, I’ll only need a minute to concentrate.”

We did so, and Geoff returned to his chair. Moments later, he cupped his hands and held them up, holding a small, bright white light in them.

“This was the first trick I learned,” he said, grinning again. “Not too impressive, I know, but a year ago I couldn’t do it.”

As he started to elaborate, I felt a powerful sense of déjà vu. His words were different, and his manner was different, but the explanation was very familiar, with a mix of certainty and uncertainty, an emphasis on danger, and a warning about trial and error.

We need to talk to Bloodhound again,” Leon said, and I agreed. Going by our recollections, the explanation Geoff gave was almost identical to the first lesson Raquel and I had gotten from Bloodhound, functionally speaking. We listened with rapt attention, trying to pick out any differences and see if Geoff had any more details than Bloodhound had offered us since we began learning from him, but he didn’t say much that was new or different. Nothing contradicted what we’d learned already.

When Geoff got around to testing the three of them, it felt like a foregone conclusion, based on what we’d seen before; Hector didn’t seem able to learn anything, but Charlotte and David both managed a flickering, unsteady light on their own after a while. It looked exactly the same as the first thing Bloodhound had taught us as a learning exercise, and I didn’t believe in massive coincidences.

The vision didn’t reveal anything else, but the connections were too numerous to ignore. We sent messages to Raquel and Bloodhound after we woke up, trying to arrange a meeting as soon as we could for a non-emergency situation.

It took a few days to get everyone together. Given how we’d interrupted the Philly Five recently, I didn’t begrudge Bloodhound the time. Leon and I were surprised that the visions didn’t continue before the meeting finally arrived, but it seemed we wouldn’t be getting our answers quite so quickly.

When we did meet, I was surprised to find that Bloodhound had brought someone else along; the friend who’d showed up before to vet Leon and Raquel, and guarantee that they weren’t suppressing us or vice versa.

She stayed back at first. Bloodhound didn’t give us a chance to ask why she had come along, instead explaining as soon as we were close enough to hear him.

“Given what you told me, I thought it would be better to bring her along to consult with us,” Bloodhound said. “Otherwise, I thought I would just end up calling her on the phone and forcing us all to wait for her to get here. If you two don’t want her around, she can leave, but she may know something helpful.”

I glanced at Menagerie, but she only shrugged. Feral was out, in her small form, walking a perimeter around us.

“It’s fine with us,” I said to Bloodhound. He half-turned and beckoned her, waving with one hand. “Is there something we can call her?”

“She doesn’t really have a call-sign the way we do,” Bloodhound said.

“I think I told you guys when we met, I prefer to stay away from the fighting,” she agreed.

I took a second look and tried to think back; we’d only met briefly, and I hadn’t seen her face, but I thought it was the same person Bloodhound had introduced as a friend before. Her voice sounded the same, at least.

“Okay,” I said. “Everyone feel free to grab a seat. I’ve been having some dreams that seem more like visions, or someone else’s memories. It’s a bit of a long story, but I was wondering if you’d experienced anything similar, or if you could help me make sense of what’s happening.”

I laid out everything about the visions: names, descriptions of the places I’d seen and what the people looked like, and any other detail I could think of that might matter. I described them in the order I’d seen them, noting that the events didn’t seem to be perfectly sequential but I wasn’t sure what it meant. By the time I was done explaining what Leon and I had seen and what our attempts to investigate had turned up, my throat was sore and my voice was starting to get a bit hoarse. At the end, I rubbed at my throat and wished I’d thought to bring some water to drink.

Menagerie had heard some of it before, and accordingly was the least surprised. Bloodhound’s friend looked curious, I thought, based on her posture. He seemed tense.

As the silence stretched out, I felt compelled to fill it.

“I don’t know what it means,” I said. “I’m not sure why I’m seeing it, I’m not sure where or when it could be, and basically every time I see a new vision I have new questions. If you can shed any light on this, please do. Other than that, I just wanted someone else to be aware of what’s happening, if only to be prepared in case something happens to me.”

“Sounds freaky,” Bloodhound’s friend commented. “You said the guy you’ve been seeing through has the same name as you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I hope you aren’t offended that I’m not telling you my name,”

“Nah, nothing like that,” she said, waving my concerns away with one hand. “I just feel like that can’t be a coincidence. Um…unless it is. I get that you don’t want to say what it is, but can you tell us if your name is common?”

I hesitated for a moment, deciding how to answer. “It’s pretty common, yes. I don’t know if it’s in the top ten, but it might be, and you probably know at least a few people with my name. So it’s not totally out of the question for that to be a coincidence.”

She shook her head slowly. “Still, though…doesn’t seem like good odds.” She scratched at her chin and her eyes flicked to Bloodhound for a moment before returning to me. “Can you describe how it feels when these visions start, again?”

I did. She drew in a breath to speak again, but Bloodhound preempted her.

“Your companion, Leon, tried to remember his past before, correct?” Bloodhound said. “But it just hurt him.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It hurt him too much to try again. Why?”

Bloodhound shook his head slowly. “Just trying to make sure I’ve got things straight.”

“I’ve heard of something that sounds similar, on the surface,” his friend said. “Someone I know has what I can only call visions. But her description of the experience isn’t quite like what you describe, and they impose a kind of mental strain that can be dangerous. I understand you don’t seem to have control, but you should be as careful as possible.”

“Dangerous how?” I asked.

“The kind of dangerous that renders people insane, or close enough that there’s no noticeable difference,” she said evenly. “I’m not saying you’re going to end up that way, but if I were you and I found a way to turn the visions off, I would probably do it for safety reasons.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. Leon noted that her advice was as ominous as it was unhelpful. “What about the other aspect of it? The way they were taught was very familiar. I’m guessing you noticed the similarities.”

“It does seem a lot like how I taught both of you,” Bloodhound admitted. “I lifted most of the first few lessons from the way I was instructed, to be honest. Maybe my teacher was tied to what you saw somehow. Unfortunately, he’s no longer around, so we can’t ask him. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do to help you investigate all of this, but I can make a few calls, at least, if you’re willing to let me. There are one or two friends of mine who know a bit of magic, and it’s possible one of them has had a similar experience. I wouldn’t tell them anything about you, of course.”

“That’s fine with me,” I said. “Leon and I aren’t sure what to think, but the links popping up are a bit too much to discount, and I didn’t want to risk writing it off as nothing when there was a chance you might have heard of something similar.”

“I’m sorry I don’t have more helpful answers,” Bloodhound apologized. “I may be your teacher, but in some ways I’m still groping blindly as much as you are.”

We spent a while talking things over; they asked me questions, clarifying specifics of what I’d seen and heard, or probing in hopes of learning more, but there were so many questions that Leon and I couldn’t answer. We couldn’t explain why he hadn’t seen the first vision when I had, or what triggered them. In the end, it proved a lot more frustrating than I’d expected, since we ended up rehashing a lot of things that Leon and I had wondered ourselves, but for three other people, all of whom were justifiably curious. Feral barely spoke at all; I didn’t notice until Leon drew my attention to it after the fact, but she had seemed a bit withdrawn.

Eventually, there wasn’t anything more to say, and we went our separate ways. Menagerie and Feral went home, Bloodhound and his friend left, and I headed back to my dorm.

I was worried about getting more bad news, but nothing happened for a couple of days. Heavyweight eventually agreed to hear us out and try to work out a plan for dealing with the situation, and Mary managed to stall in the meantime, so things were looking up.

The next time Mary called and asked to meet us, I thought it was just to check in and update each other on what was happening, but I was disabused of that notion the second I got a look at her face. She looked like she was on the verge of crying; it was the first time I’d seen her look really upset. After the mess when we got Dustin, she’d been angry and worried, but now she just looked crushed.

I started to ask what was wrong, but she just shook her head and told me to wait until Menagerie arrived. She had said that she would be a bit late. I frowned, but let it pass, and we waited for a few minutes in silence. Heavyweight had been invited, but said he couldn’t make it unless it was an emergency.

Leon, what do you think?” I asked.

I see what you see, and we’re thinking the same thing,” Leon said. “I don’t know. I’m confident it’s going to be bad news, but that’s all.

When Menagerie finally got there a few minutes later, she walked in and apologized for keeping us waiting, then stopped suddenly as she noticed the atmosphere.

“What happened?” she asked.

Mary took a deep breath and drew herself up, standing with laborious effort. “We’ve been patient, and we’ve been trying to stretch things out until we can learn more,” she said. “I don’t think we can afford to wait any longer. We need to make our move.”

I was shocked, and immediately started imagining reasons for her change of opinion.

“Does the boss suspect you?” I asked.

Mary shook her head. “No. It’s…you know I was doing what I could to keep Tuggey and Michaels out of things, lying low and not causing trouble? I thought it was working, but it’s not anymore.”

“That’s it?” Menagerie asked, confused.

I realized that Mary was looking past us; we didn’t have her full attention. She was thinking about something.

The bad feeling in my gut got worse.

“Mary,” I said, “tell us what happened.”

She looked up and met my eyes, nodding almost absently. “Right…right. I got word about the two of them today. I thought I had a lid on things, but Tuggey was, he was,” she drew in a shuddering breath before finishing, “Tuggey was getting rid of a pair of bodies. I’m not sure who they were, but from what I heard, they weren’t involved in a big way, or anything. They just got in the way at some point.”

We were all silent. Leon didn’t say anything, but I could tell that we felt the same sense of weight pressing us down.

The quiet lasted for maybe a minute before Mary spoke again. “We can’t wait any more,” she whispered. “I think I can get the boss into the open, at least briefly. Enough to give us a shot at taking him down. I was hoping you guys could call the Philly Five, and ask them to help. Between them, you two, Heavyweight, and me, I think we have a good chance of ending things quickly, without letting it turn into a war in the streets. Maybe we can talk to the FBI too, I don’t know. If it’s the best way to stop the boss, then I think we have to.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said at Leon’s prompting. “You didn’t kill them.”

Mary looked away. “I know,” she said. “But maybe if I hadn’t been so set on keeping things quiet, this would be over already.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe half of Berkeleyport would be on fire. Anyway, we all agreed, so even if you were right you wouldn’t be the only one responsible. Okay?”

She nodded, but she didn’t look comforted. I hesitated for a second, then stepped forward and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. She tensed up for a moment and then relaxed, head bowing.

“This isn’t on you,” I said. “The only people responsible for murder are the murderers. That’s all there is to it.”

The next time she breathed out, Mary seemed to stand a little straighter. I glanced at Menagerie to see how she was taking things, and found her kneeling and holding on to Feral, who was nuzzling her cheek.

I cleared my throat. “If we can come up with a decent plan, I’m willing to make our move,” I said. “But I don’t want to just get ourselves killed over this, too. It wouldn’t save anyone. You have to know that.”

Mary nodded, and Leon silently agreed.

I gave her shoulder another squeeze before letting go. “I’ll send the Philly Five a message and say that we want to meet. Important but not this second. Okay? We’ll pull in whatever help we can, call in the FBI once we have a handle on the situation, and then hit them fast. You might have to play it cool for a few more days. Can you do that?”

Mary didn’t answer at first, and as the seconds stretched on I wondered if she was considering her answer or if she was thinking about something else entirely.

“I’ll have to avoid Tuggey and Michaels,” she said finally. “I don’t think I can look at them without starting trouble right now. I’ll sit on Alena and the others as long as I can, but I can’t do nothing for much longer, okay? Tell the Philly Five we need to hurry.”

“I will,” I promised. “Just try to play the part a little longer, and then it will all be over. We’ll finish this.”

“Okay,” Mary said.

I drafted my message to the Philly Five on the way home, then spent the rest of the bus ride going over the powers and assets that Mary’s boss had at his disposal, thinking about what we were up against.

We’re going to need all the help we can get,” I said silently.

Yes, we will,” Leon agreed.
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Who Pays the Piper? 2

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Arranging for Mary and her new subordinates to find us under controlled circumstances was a tall order. The easiest option would be to troll Heavyweight in front of Alena as bait, or for Raquel or I to turn off the magic Bloodhound had showed us, which made us undetectable. The latter option would tell her a lot about us, though, and she might pass that information on, which we didn’t want. Plus, it would be suspicious if we then turned it back on to disappear again. We were trying to stay under the radar, not trying to get taken more seriously as a threat.

As for letting her find Heavyweight, that would only work if we got his agreement. Even then, we’d need to find a way to hide him afterward to avoid long-term problems, or possibly just get him out of town. If Alena flipped to our side, that wouldn’t be an issue; she could just say that he’d disappeared, and that she didn’t know how. But we didn’t know whether that outcome was even on the table, so banking on it was out of the question.

If we did nothing, though, there was a good chance she would eventually find him anyway. At that point, we’d have the same situation on our hands, except it wouldn’t be on our terms or with timing of our choice.

If only Heavyweight would see things that way, I thought, life might be much easier. Raquel and I had been talking to him for a while, explaining the situation and trying to convince him to play ball, but he just wasn’t listening.

“We need your help,” Raquel was saying. “We can’t draw them out without giving away where our powers come from, and-”

“Look, I said no,” Heavyweight repeated. “No. No. No. Can I say it more clearly? Do you need it in another language?”

“So you’d prefer to gamble that they won’t find you, despite the fact that they are in town explicitly to find us?” I asked. “You’re being stupid. I understand if you don’t want to fight, but you’re already involved in this, and sticking your head in the sand won’t protect you. If you work with us, we can decide when and where this happens. If you want to pretend that nothing is wrong, we can’t stop you, but we’re not going to follow you around twenty-four seven to play bodyguard, either. At least, I’m not. That means they’ll probably find you when you’re alone, or maybe at work or at home. Maybe you’ll be eating dinner. Maybe you’ll be asleep. Maybe you’ll be in the bathroom, for all I know. You want that instead?”

Heavyweight reached up to run a hand through his hair in frustration, but with his mask on it didn’t work. “So help me hide from her like you guys do!”

“We don’t know how, genius!” I said. “We already fucking told you that! What we’re hiding from her is something you don’t have in the first place! I can’t teach you, she can’t teach you, and even if we did it would not fucking help. Are you listening? IT. WOULD. NOT. HELP.”

Raquel put a hand on my shoulder, obviously urging me to calm down, but I was pissed off. We’d been patient. We’d explained the whole thing twice before Heavyweight gave us an answer, and now he’d been talking us in circles for what felt like an hour, even if it was probably less than half that. I was internally debating whether he was stupid or just unwilling to comprehend what we were telling him, which essentially qualified as a different flavor of stupid, at least as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t think of a third alternative.

“Bloodhound taught you guys, right?” Heavyweight said. “Get him. I want to talk to him. I bet he’ll teach me.”

I threw up my hands in frustration. “Fine! You want me to send a message to Bloodhound? I’ll send a fucking message to Bloodhound. But when he tells you the same damn thing we’ve been telling you this whole time, will you please, for the love of god, stop being a fucking moron?”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Raquel said, stepping in front of me. “Go send the message, and come back when you get an answer.”

I felt an irrational surge of anger and stalked away. I knew she wasn’t really taking sides, and I knew I hadn’t been acting in a particularly mature fashion, but damn it, Heavyweight was getting under my skin in a big way. I could sympathize with his fear, but we’d come to him trying to help solve a mutual problem. It wasn’t like we’d shown up, laughed in his face, and said he was screwed and we didn’t care. In fact, if we did nothing, he was the only one likely to be in danger! We were actively going out of our way to make him safer, for fuck’s sake!

“Fucking dimwitted moron,” I muttered, glancing over my shoulder. Raquel was talking to him calmly, which, admittedly, was probably a better approach than mine under the circumstances. Or most other circumstances. I didn’t think this qualified, though.

Any suggestions on dealing with unreasonable ass-clowns?” I asked Leon.

Unfortunately, no,” Leon said. “When someone is sufficiently invested in not hearing what you have to say, there isn’t much you can do about it. Being reasonable only works on reasonable people, after all, and Heavyweight doesn’t seem like he’s in the mood to be very reasonable.

So where does that leave us?” I asked.

I don’t know,” Leon admitted. “I really do think we need him to make this work intelligently. In theory, Dustin might be workable as bait, but I think we can all agree that involving him in this is a non-starter, both practically and morally.

I glanced back again as I pulled out my phone. “Damn right. Don’t suggest that in front of Raquel, even as a hypothetical.

Yes, I suspect she would react badly to that,” Leon agreed. “In any case, I’m not sure where to go from here either, if we can’t secure Heavyweight’s cooperation.

I hesitated before sharing my next thought, then realized he could probably tell what it was anyway. “Maybe one of the Philly Five? Other than Bloodhound, any of them should be able to play bait, right?

I’m not sure that’s appropriate,” Leon said. “It sounds like a good idea at first, but there’s still a lot they don’t know about the situation, and if they learned everything we have no guarantee they would agree with our way of handling things. If they thought a direct approach would be more appropriate, they might proceed regardless of our opinions, and we couldn’t really stop them.

That would be pretty high-handed of them, and I don’t get that vibe,” I said. “I’ll raise the idea with Mary and Raquel if Heavyweight won’t agree, I guess. No point rushing ahead.

I sent the message to Bloodhound and waited to see if I would get a prompt reply. In the meantime, Leon and I tried to imagine how we would fight the three new additions to the other side if we ended up facing off against them alone.

Lindsay seems straightforward enough,” Leon said. “If he keeps moving, the only question is whether we can catch him. If he stays still long enough, we should be able to strike him invisibly. As long as we deal with him decisively, that should be that.

Right,” I agreed. “Doug is a bit trickier. He’s supposed to be strong, fast…a little bit of everything. But we don’t know how much. Going after him without that information seems like a bad idea. Maybe the thing to do is for us – you and me, specifically – to bait him and disappear. That might get him to show off where we can watch.

And then we have Alena,” Leon said. “I noticed she wasn’t too specific about what she can defend herself against, either.

Yeah,” I said. “So…she might be immune to just about anything. If all else fails, Feral might be able to cut through, but I think Menagerie will probably feel a bit skittish about trying that in a fight, after what happened before. Still, if she can cut Meteor and Heavyweight, I’d be surprised to find something she can’t handle. On the bright side, Alena didn’t mention anything offensive, and as far as we know she doesn’t have a teacher, either. So even if it’s hard to stop her, she probably can’t do anything to us that a normal person couldn’t. Even if we can’t beat her alone, you and I should be able to get away.

True,” Leon said.

I checked my phone. Still no reply from Bloodhound, unsurprisingly.

Now that you’ve calmed down, I hope you’ll hear me out,” Leon said after a minute.

I felt an urge to get defensive and tried to stifle it. “About Heavyweight?

Yes,” Leon said. “I know he’s being aggravating, but consider his perspective. He told us before that he wished to be less involved. He doesn’t trust Mary, or want to meet her. Yet now we approach him, asking him to take the biggest risks in a plan that involves trusting her a great deal.

I can break it down as easily as you can, Leon,” I said. “He’s still being dumb. His choice isn’t between facing this and not facing it. It’s between facing this intelligently and getting blindsided at an unknown future moment. That would probably be true even if he’d never met us before, too, given what we know about Alena.

That assumes you trust what Alena told Mary, and what Mary told you,” Leon pointed out. “He likely trusts neither.

I sighed. “I get that, yes. But if Mary’s telling the truth, it’s counterproductive for Alena to lie to her unless she’s on our side. If Mary isn’t telling the truth, then a lot of what has happened already makes no sense. I can’t think of a single plan her boss could have that would justify all the risks so far and letting us learn as much as we have. If he just wanted to capture or kill us, then a whole posse should have been waiting when you and I went to help the doc, and Mary could have just apologized afterward and said she hadn’t been told if we escaped. It’s not that hard, and I refuse to believe that I can come up with a better evil plan without trying than the actual bad guys can when they have plenty of time to prepare. I’m not stupid, but I’m not that smart. And if they were that dumb, then they probably would have been caught by the cops months ago, before Mary even met the boss.

I agree with everything you said, but you’ve had plenty of time to consider all this, remember,” Leon said. “We only approached Heavyweight just now, and he doesn’t seem like the deepest thinker. I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m saying you’re pushing too hard. Try to keep in mind that we don’t know his reasons for saying no, David. He may have a family he’s afraid for, or he could just be short on sleep and not thinking straight.

Neither of which would change the logic in any way,” I said. “But fine, I’ll try to be nicer. I reserve the right to think he’s an idiot in my own head, though.

Fair enough,” Leon said. “Just keep in mind how you’d take the news if someone said you might get attacked at any time.

I did get that news, remember?” I said. “And I took it better than him.

You also got help preventing it within hours, whereas he hasn’t been offered any such help or assurance,” Leon said. “Don’t be difficult.

Fine, fine,” I acquiesced.

I waited a little longer, and to my surprise I got an answer from Bloodhound.

I walked back to share the news.

“Hey, I said. “Heavyweight, I’m sorry for snapping before. It- well, I shouldn’t have. Sorry.” It wasn’t my most sincere apology, but it wasn’t forced, either. I hoped he would take it well.

“Thank you,” he said. He sounded a bit smug or maybe superior, like he thought he’d won something. It made me want to kick him.

“I heard back from Bloodhound,” I said instead. “I don’t think he’ll be able to help, but he’ll try.”

“Good,” Heavyweight said.

I glanced at Menagerie. The two of them had still been talking when I got back, and she looked a bit tired. Her shoulders were slumped, and I suspected he hadn’t been less difficult after I left.

Sorry,” I said to her. “Didn’t mean to flip out and leave you to clean up.

Aren’t older people supposed to be more reasonable than teenagers?” Menagerie asked sarcastically.

I nearly laughed out loud. “In theory, yes. In practice, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Less dramatic, usually, but all the petty stuff still happens.

Oh, joy, something to look forward to,” Menagerie commented. I heard her take a deep breath. “So, when can we meet?”

We managed to meet later that night. I hoped Bloodhound hadn’t been pulled away from anything vital, especially when he confirmed what we had already expected; namely, that he couldn’t help Heavyweight.

“I’ve never heard of someone who can find other supers,” Bloodhound said. “I have a hard time believing it, almost, especially if she’s like the two of you.” His head turned toward Menagerie and I momentarily, then back to Heavyweight. “I’m sorry I don’t have better news. The closest thing I’ve ever heard of is Collector, who certainly seemed to have a knack for finding people…but most of the supers he picked up seem to have given some sign of their existence beforehand. We retraced his steps, and some of them appeared in local news stories, or tabloids, or other places, if only briefly. Besides, I’m fairly certain it was people like me, or Menagerie and Flicker, that he was hunting. I have some idea how he tried to find us, too. But supers…I don’t know what this woman could even be looking for. I’m certainly willing to look into it, but I can’t promise that I’ll have results at all, let alone in any kind of helpful timeframe. I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help.”

“You’re sure?” Heavyweight asked for the third time.

“Quite sure,” Bloodhound said.

Heavyweight sighed and turned to look at me. From his posture, I had a feeling he was glaring. “Well, say you told me so.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want to be right.” I felt a flash of minor disapproval from Leon, but ignored it. “Look, we’ll try to help you whether you go for our idea or not, okay?” I turned to Bloodhound. “Thanks for coming out. Whenever we call you guys, I start wondering if I’m interrupting anything important. Either way, I hope the drive isn’t too miserable.”

“No drive this time,” Bloodhound said. “I flew Air Comet, since it seemed like it might be time-sensitive. Not very comfortable, but on the bright side I didn’t have to waste time going through airport security, and it saves on gas money quite a bit.”

“That sounds like a weird experience,” Menagerie said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like.”

“It really isn’t like anything,” Bloodhound said. He looked at all three of us. “Do you want our help with something else?”

“No, thanks,” I said. “If we do, you should get some warning in advance. Take care.”

“So long,” Bloodhound said. He left again, and I turned to look back at Heavyweight.

He was still standing there, unmoving, and I was a bit surprised by how hard he was taking the news.

“I need to sleep on this,” Heavyweight finally said. “I…yeah. Let me sleep on it. I’ll call you tomorrow, Menagerie.”

“Okay,” she said softly. “We don’t expect any trouble just yet, and we should get a heads-up before anything happens, but just in case, don’t forget to call for backup. We can’t camp outside your door, but if you need us we’ll come running, and we both run pretty fast, all right?”

“Yeah,” he said heavily. “Yeah, thanks.”

He left, presumably to head for home. Menagerie and I didn’t have much to say, so we did the same shortly afterward.

Leon and I went to sleep, and this time when another vision began we weren’t so disoriented. We’d been through the routine enough times, now, to get our bearings quickly. It helped that our communication was easier than it had been in the past, too. We could both tell that we weren’t in control of our body, and we could both grasp the other’s surface thoughts without effort. Instead of experiencing the strange and uncomfortable sensation of trying to use my eyes and turn my head to look around, and then wondering why I couldn’t, I slid into the observer’s role as soon as the vision began. Leon did the same. It was almost like we were sitting next to each other at a movie theater, whispering as we watched what was going on through borrowed eyes.

It was still weird, of course, but it was a familiar sort of weird, and we’d adjusted to it somewhat. Even the sensations of the other David walking around, his frame broader and heavier than mine, didn’t feel as subtly wrong as they had the first few times. It was like putting on familiar shoes that were a half-size too small, almost. Wrong in one way, but no longer strange or surprising.

We were entering a different room, one we hadn’t seen before. Charlotte and Hector walked in ahead of us. Murphy was waiting inside, behind a desk; she looked comfortable enough that I guessed it was her office. I tried to take in the paraphernalia, but most of the items in the room, particularly on the shelves behind her desk, were blurry and indistinct. I could tell there were a lot of books and files, but I couldn’t read their labels.

She gestured us to three chairs that were situated in front of her desk. They were folding chairs, clearly brought in for this meeting; a more comfortable chair had been pushed to one side to make room for the three of them to fit side by side.

We sat in the chair on the right. Charlotte took the center, while Hector took the left.

Murphy took a deep breath, looking us each over before speaking. “Well,” she said. “I hope your last weekend of freedom was enjoyable. If any of you wants to retain it, this is your last chance to say so.”

Charlotte shifted in her seat, leaning forward, but no one replied.

“Very well,” Murphy continued after a momentary pause. “In that case, I’m going to tell you something very few people know. You know the foundation has been looking for ways to counter supers for years, and you’re aware that we’ve always pursued multiple avenues of research. Advancing technology may provide some countermeasures, but the core of the whole thing is the powers themselves. Despite years of research by governments and independent groups, ours included, no one understands where powers come from. We know that some seem to be passed down from parents to children, but others apparently are not. Based on the research we have done, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of skipping generations. Some powers just aren’t inherited. That suggests that even if there are genetic markers – and no one has found any – they wouldn’t provide a complete picture. All attempts to study powers themselves have been largely fruitless.”

Murphy stopped to take a sip of water from the glass on her desk, and Hector leaned to one side, resting his chin on one hand.

“Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to keep track of what powers exist, and even that has been a Herculean labor,” Murphy continued. “We don’t have a comprehensive list. Neither does the Wave, or the Chinese or American governments, or any other party you’d care to name with an interest. Some of them identify themselves freely, but many don’t, especially in recent years. We have managed to recruit a few, however. Some of them help us secure our facilities. A very small number have tried to infiltrate the Wave, without much success. A few have volunteered to help us with research. Of all of them, one had a power unlike anyone else we’ve ever seen. The fruits of her work were in the New York facility.”

We felt our eyes widen, and saw Charlotte perk up a bit, sitting taller as we got to the point.

“I don’t know how to describe what she could do,” Murphy admitted. “Frankly, even she was always a bit nervous about experimenting with her power. At first, we thought it was just an unusual form of teleportation.  She would instinctively bring things to herself when she needed them. She apparently discovered it when she was an adolescent. She was staying with a friend, and had forgotten her toothbrush; it appeared in her hand. Later, she said she mostly used it to find her car keys, or TV remote, or anything else she misplaced or forgot. Once, she got her wallet back after getting mugged, and everything that had been inside it. Suffice to say that we didn’t think it sounded very helpful, but one of the New York researchers had an instinct that there was more to it, and they worked together for a while.”

Leon and I were both listening eagerly. I could feel that some answers were coming, at last.

“Frankly, it’s a good thing that the foundation isn’t a for-profit company,” Murphy said with a tinge of amusement. “They didn’t produce any meaningful results for more than three years. Attempts to develop teleportation technology by studying her powers failed miserably. Her powers didn’t work on anything living, which was another dead end. The researchers got nowhere, and eventually most of them gave up and were moved to other projects. But I digress.”

Infuriatingly, she paused again to sip at her water.

“In the end one man – the one who’d been pushing her from the start – finally had a new idea. Instead of worrying about how her power worked, he wanted to see what it could retrieve. They tried something they’d never done before. Rather than having her bring a familiar object, or one that she’d seen before, he told her to try to find something totally new. She focused on an idea, the abstract rather than something concrete. She tried to bring something that could help them with their research into the lab, and the only caveat was that it be safe. And it worked.”

If I could have, I would have held my breath; the other David did it for me, and I could physically feel the sense of shared anticipation.

“What they found that first day, we still don’t know,” Murphy said. “It’s locked up downstairs. But attempts to determine its source were completely unsuccessful, even by psychometry. After months of other methods failing, the foundation eventually hired a discreet consultant with more skill to try again, and that failed, too. All he could tell us was that the object was very old – at least hundreds of thousands of years, old, in fact, based on his experience identifying historical objects. He once picked a single fake, manufactured by a forger, out of a whole room full of Van Gogh paintings. Even afterward, it took experts years to spot the inconsistencies in the art itself. To this day, we have no idea where the mystery box – that’s the nickname for it – comes from. But it did confirm our researcher’s hunch, and the two of them kept testing her power. She tried to focus on different things, hoping to bring us something that would let us understand powers, and finally tried to bring us something to fight them. And that brings us to this.”

Murphy opened her drawer and pulled out several photographs, then slid them across her desk. Hector grabbed them and started to examine them, passing each one to Charlotte as he finished; she passed them on to us in turn.

The photographs showed what looked like an obsidian sphere, so smooth and perfect it had to be artificial. I could feel our body frowning as we looked up at Murphy.

“That,” Murphy said slowly, “probably represents the single greatest stroke of luck the foundation has ever had. When the researcher touched it, he suddenly knew a way to teach people skills that could counter the powers we’ve seen, letting them fight on an equal footing. He was even able to manifest some rudimentary abilities of his own. You know that some supers can sense others; we had one working security, and brought him in. He picked a hydrokinetic, a telepath, and a brute out of a lineup, correctly identified six normal humans, and said that the researcher was a seventh. He didn’t register. If he had walked into a meeting of Wave sympathizers, he could have passed for normal.”

“Dios,” Hector whispered.

Murphy nodded. “There are a few who suspect as much, in fact. To get exactly what we’ve spent so much time looking for, at a moment in history when our need is growing rapidly…well, I’m not religious, but one colleague noted that divine intervention seems to be an explanation that fits the facts, as it were. The super who’d initially brought us the object tried to find more, or something that explained where it came from. She was killed before the work could progress, suffocated by someone who didn’t need to touch her to do the job. All of the research and information related to her was copied and spread to other facilities, and we’ve been looking for someone else with her powers ever since – in vain, I’m afraid. But the researcher did survive. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by the same group that killed the woman. He’s been moving around ever since, trying to teach others as much as he can before they catch up with him. I don’t know if he’s still out there, but he did manage to find several people who could learn from him – unfortunately, not everyone can. There were a handful at the New York facility before we cleaned it out, and they’re here now. They’ve been making some limited progress.”

“How limited?” Charlotte asked. “I notice you haven’t had them fighting with us.”

“No, we haven’t,” Murphy said coolly. “They are more important than everyone else in this facility combined. You don’t risk a general to protect a private, as I’m sure you understand.”

Charlotte grimaced, but nodded her understanding.

Murphy sighed. “Besides, they haven’t been focused entirely on direct combat applications of their abilities. There are two things that are more important, which they’ve been doing their best to advance.”

“And those are?” Charlotte asked.

“Blocking telepathy, for one,” Murphy said. “They aren’t there, yet, but we’ve actually been making progress on that front. Two of our…students, for lack of a better word, have managed to resist an active telepathic intrusion. They couldn’t stop it, but they slowed it down. If we can perfect that, then we can spread the method to others, and in time there should be a whole segment of the population immune to mental abilities. If we get that far, then we may have a chance against groups like the Wave in the long-term. The idea of people without powers holding government office without fear of coercion will be back on the table. As much as I value your lives, and those of your people, there is nothing more important than the research we are protecting. That is why you and your men and women should be willing to fight. That is what people have died to protect. It’s possible that another facility has produced similar results, and we haven’t received word yet. It could be that a courier is on his way here right now, to tell us to pursue other research. But my current information doesn’t indicate that. As far as I know, this facility is the home of a project that could quite literally save the world.” Murphy looked us all in the eyes again, one at a time. “I hope that is a good enough answer for you.”

“Dios,” Hector murmured again. “You really mean it? It’s true?”

Murphy nodded. “It’s true.”

She cocked her head to one side. “Now, since you’ve been briefed in, would you like to see if you can learn anything?”

“Yes,” we said. It took me a moment to realize that the other David and Charlotte had spoken in unison.

Hector was still shaking his head in disbelief.
Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                                                                             Next Chapter

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 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 1

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Sometimes she felt like a caged animal, and she reflected that the name she’d chosen was, perhaps, a bit too appropriate. Today, it felt barbed.

That wasn’t the hardest part, though.

The real difficulty was staying in her cage of her own free will. It was more difficult some days than others, but on those days a part of her often wished that she didn’t have so much freedom and power. If she was limited by something beyond her control, then she could have resigned herself to it. Instead, every moment that she lived in Raquel’s flesh was a fresh temptation. She envied Leon his lack of freedom. It must be easier to bear.

Feral knew that she had been alive, once, despite the absence of evidence. She had been a person with her own history and hopes and her own life to live, her own choices, relationships, fears, and ambitions. Now she was bound to Raquel, and although the girl was decent enough it chafed constantly.

It had been easier to try to be good when Raquel had seemed more troubled and in need of a good example, but however difficult her life might be the girl had changed. Raquel had adapted with surprising speed to sharing her life with Feral, given her sympathy, trust, affection, and even a few chances to feel the world again.

Those tastes of reality had been painful. Even as they began Feral knew they were temporary, a mere glimpse of what it was to live again, and that she would have to give them up. She’d cut the last two such outings (for lack of a better word) short. It had been necessary to hide her frustration, but it grew more difficult each time she relinquished the immediacy, the feeling of a breathing body, a heartbeat, and the sensations – too numerous to categorize – that went with living.

Even the smallest movements were so real, in Raquel’s body. It was heaven to feel muscles obeying her will, to be aware of her hair resting against her head, and even to feel a joint sore from sitting still too long or the fatigue that came after exertion. It was hell to know they weren’t truly hers.

It was shameful, but she resented Raquel. The girl was young, with an entire life to live. She was full of energy and promise, and if she was struggling, that didn’t diminish the strength she’d found, or the pride in helping people. Life was always struggle. She’d grown and matured a great deal in a short time, and come to prefer her new self. Her relationship with her mother was better than it had been when they first met, and that brightened her life as well. She had few other friends anymore, but the relationships that remained were stronger for having been tested. Raquel had thanked Feral for her part in these improvements, but the genuine gratitude only stung. It was like a mosquito bite, a maddening and constant itch that couldn’t be ignored once it was noticed.

Feral knew she could have freedom and life whenever she wanted, but only if she was willing to take it. To steal it, if she was honest. Thinking of it that way made it easier to reject the notion, to see it for the betrayal it was.

That part of her yearned to do it anyway made her feel sick inside. On some level she knew that it was only natural to desire her own life, and there was nothing wrong with it. But the longer they remained bound, the more Feral doubted herself. When they first met, she’d seen Raquel’s manner and rebuked her for the cruelties she inflicted on others, however petty, childish, and small they might seem, but now the girl didn’t seem to need such an example. She had even gone beyond Feral’s hopes, choosing on her own initiative to try to go out and help others at her own risk. Instead, Feral was the one wrestling with her own conscience. She wasn’t losing, but there was no end to the battle in sight, and it wore her down. It wasn’t growing harder to let Raquel retain control of her own body, but it was growing harder to want to.

There was really no way to put a good spin on that.

Raquel stirred. Feral tried to relax and push aside her various problems. The girl had enough on her conscience already, and Feral’s concerns were something she was, ironically, in no position to help with. Besides, thinking it over again helped nothing. There was no new information to analyze, no solution to find, and no benefit to stewing in her resentment and anger. She eagerly awaited some distraction that would give her something else to focus on and allow her to stop thinking about her situation. The amount of effort she put into not thinking sometimes amazed her, these days.

The spirit would love to talk to Leon or someone about her doubts, fears, and guilt, but she was afraid to do so. He might understand, but what if he did not? And there was another concern as well. He might tell David, or be compelled to do so. David had already shown he mistrusted Feral once, effectively urging the Philly Five to threaten and test her. If he, or they, felt that Feral was dangerously close to crossing the line, they might just extract her from Raquel for the girl’s safety.

Death was the probable result. Imprisonment of some kind might be an option, but Feral thought she would prefer oblivion to being more literally caged. At least now she could experience things.

Despite the way she fled from her own thoughts and emotions, oblivion held no attraction for her. It was better to be Feral than to be nothing.

Raquel looked around.

Did we show up too early or something?” Raquel asked. “Or is everyone else just late today?

I believe we are on time,” Feral replied. “It’s likely the others are just running a bit late.”

Feral opened her eyes and lifted her head from Raquel’s leg, examining the space for herself. They were sitting and waiting, Raquel cross-legged and Feral curled up by her side, roughly the same size. After agreeing to resume learning from Bloodhound, confirming his willingness to teach them, and setting a date to meet again, David, Raquel, and Feral had spent some time looking for a new place to practice. They’d found an old factory, apparently abandoned for years, on the outskirts of the north side of the city. No one lived immediately around it, there didn’t appear to be anything valuable left inside, and it was fenced in. It made for a relatively safe place for practice, where any mistakes shouldn’t endanger others. No one else had a reason to go there.

Concrete, brick, and rusted metal made for a pretty visually uninteresting setting, though, which meant that Raquel and Feral, having arrived early, were now bored.

Raquel dozed off briefly, leaning back on a wall, while they waited. Feral felt the shift in her connection to the girl as it happened, and decided to let her rest.

Finally, the wait ended.

Feral, Menagerie, hey,” David said. “Are you guys there?

We are here, yes,” Feral said. She gave Raquel a mental jolt to wake her the rest of the way. “What took you so long?

What do you mean?” David asked.

Raquel’s eyes were open, and she looked up, glancing around, but David wasn’t inside yet. “You guys are super late.

We are?” David said. He felt baffled. “Shit, really? Now I’m going to have to apologize to Bloodhound for wasting his time.

No, he’s not here yet,” Raquel said. “I meant everyone is late. Except me and Feral, that is.

More confusion. “Um, Leon, are you getting this?” David said. “I’m lost, here.

I don’t know,” Leon said. “But if Bloodhound isn’t here yet, either, it’s probably more likely that you two arrived early. I would expect the Philly Five to be punctual, based on our past meetings. They take all of this quite seriously.

David walked into the building, coming into view, and Feral could hear his footsteps. They were loud, echoing in the large, empty space. The concrete was scarred and even cracked in a few places, probably where machinery had been removed and dragged out, and David’s steps made echoing noises as his feet scuffed the floor.

Maybe we misread the time?” Raquel suggested hesitantly.

Perhaps,” Feral said. She tuned out the whole discussion. It was hard to care about time, from her point of view. Things happened on Raquel’s schedule regardless, or as a reaction to some unforeseen event. She didn’t get to schedule anything, so schedules had little meaning to her.

She didn’t start paying attention again until Leon addressed her privately.

Feral, are you all right?” he asked. “I know both of you have been through a great deal lately.

I am fine,” Feral said. “Only bored of waiting, like Raquel. And you?

Leon seemed to hesitate before answering. “I am well, I think, but confused. David and I shared a dream or vision last night. It seemed tied to a previous one that he experienced alone. Neither of us knows what to make of it all, but we agree that it seems unlikely to be a danger, at least directly.

What about indirectly?” Feral asked.

Leon sent her a sort of mental shrug. “Anything can be suspicious, if you’re paranoid. It’s something we can’t really evaluate, right now. We lack any defining context. The first dream was violent and intense, while the second was almost boring in comparison. He experienced one alone, while we shared the second. Given how little we know, it’s impossible to say whether this is happening because of some external force. One of the reasons I mentioned it is to ask if you’ve had any similar experiences: anything that seemed like a dream, vision, or memory, whether shared or unique to you.

No,” Feral said. “You recall the last time I tried to remember my own past, and that didn’t work. I’ve never seen a vision, or dream. I don’t think Raquel has either. I’ve never asked, though.

Then I think I will, if you don’t mind,” Leon said.

The answer came quickly enough: she hadn’t seen anything odd either.

We have another question, then,” David said. “Feral, have you started sleeping recently, or experienced any other changes between you and Raquel? Raquel, if you’ve noticed anything…

I have not,” Feral said. She put the two pieces together. “Leon, does this mean you’ve started sleeping?

Yes,” Leon said. “I’m not sure why. It’s a recent phenomenon, though. I was hoping that if we compared notes we might be able to figure out how and why it’s begun to happen.

 Feral idly scratched at the floor with one paw. “That suggests that the relationships between host and spirit may not be fixed. I always assumed they were, but if our state or our nature can change, perhaps other things can as well.

It’s possible,” Leon agreed. “That’s another reason David and I wanted to discuss things with you two, in case you’d started to see any changes or some occurred in the future. I suppose we’ve grown used to the ways things are and I know I assumed they would simply remain that way, but recent evidence suggests otherwise.

Feral felt a small surge of hope, but it quickly subsided. In the absence of any useful information, the news didn’t mean much. She didn’t want to get her hopes up only to have them dashed.

What about these visions, or dreams?” Raquel asked.

They’re confusing,” David said. He walked over and leaned against the wall, letting his back slide down until he was sitting on the floor next to Raquel. “In both cases, it’s like we’re inside someone else – a lot like what Leon experiences with me, from what he’s said. In the first one, I was inside this guy who was like some kind of soldier or security guard. He was in what looked like an office building or something, but it got attacked by four people with powers. A whole bunch of people fought them off: two supers and a bunch of normal people armed to the teeth. We didn’t learn what they were guarding or why, or who the attackers were, though. We basically just saw the fight. The fact that one side was just supers while the other side was supers and normal people could mean something, but without knowing more it’s hard to say what.

Feral looked up at them and began to pace back and forth. While it was nice to be able to move, her cat-body wasn’t real, and it didn’t feel real. It lacked the hundred little telltale signs of life. She felt no blood pumping, no muscles contracting, and the sights, smells, and even the cold of the floor were muted, removing any vitality from them. She received information, but that wasn’t the same as feeling it the way a real body could.

Still, she couldn’t resist pacing.

What about the second one?” Raquel asked.

We both saw through the eyes of a man – the same one, we think – as he met and spoke with a woman also from the first vision,” Leon said. “In David’s words, it seemed surprisingly irrelevant. I don’t want either of us to sound callous, and they were discussing the death of a colleague, but I have to admit that I agree. If someone sent us the first vision, I could imagine reasons for doing so. The second was personal. It didn’t seem to tell us much. I tried to think about it from the other direction, so I asked myself this: If I could send people visions, what would I try to send? The obvious answers are a warning, a cry for help, or perhaps an effort to get my story out, if I were dying.

It sounds like the most likely possibility is the cry for help,” Feral said. “Did these defenders seem to be winning?

David scratched his head. “Yes and no. They referred to other fights that we hadn’t seen, and they apparently didn’t lose, since the two people we saw survived them both, but they did have casualties, and they didn’t seem to think they could hang on forever. I don’t know.

Then maybe it was a request for help, after all” Feral said. “We should try to find these people, wherever they are, and learn more about their situation. Were there any clues about their identity or location?

David frowned. “Um, I don’t think so, really. In the first vision I never saw out of the building, and I didn’t see an address or anything. I’m not sure whose building it was. It could have been a government thing, or a corporate thing, or been owned by one really rich guy…I just don’t know.

There were clues in the second vision,” Leon said. “I’m not sure how useful they will prove, but we can try to look for them.

What are you thinking of?” David asked.

The restaurant and deli,” Leon said. “They were both called ‘Rose’s’, I believe. They were next to each other, probably named for and owned by the same person or people. It could be anywhere people speak English, I suppose, but I’m guessing it was in the United States somewhere, based on the menu and the way everything looked, which narrows it down a great deal. We can look for Rose’s, and if we find it we find the right town.

David winced. “I’m willing to bet there’s multiple Rose’s restaurants, but I guess one connected to a deli is a decent shot. We can try. I’m not feeling confident, though. What if it is in England, or something?

Raquel chimed in. “Um, was everyone driving on the right side of the road?” she asked. “I mean, I’ve never been to the UK, but I’m pretty sure there are ways to tell the difference between there and here. Same goes for Australia and stuff. If nothing else, people will have different accents.

David smiled wryly. “Good point. Okay, so it’s almost certainly in the US, and I don’t think anyone sounded particularly Southern or anything. Everyone sounded like they were speaking normally, to me, which probably means they aren’t from too far away from the northeast, although it’s not guaranteed. Still, it’s something.

It is indeed,” Leon said. “Thank you, Raquel, Feral. I’m glad we mentioned this. I think David and I have been so wrapped up in the strangeness of the experience that we’ve found it difficult to move to analyzing and planning.

No problem,” Raquel said. “By the way, have you heard anything new from Mary?

Nothing much since we talked,” David said. “Just the message I already passed on. I figure she’ll probably be in touch again soon, though, even if she had to slow things down to make sure she wasn’t noticed. And at least we got some good news with the bad.

It is nice to know that they’re officially staying away from Dustin,” Raquel said.

Unless they wanted even more attention, they didn’t have much choice,” Leon said. “Taking him once was bad enough, but the way they did it clearly shows that he was meant to disappear mysteriously. Given enough time, everyone might have essentially written him off as just another statistic. Since he was recovered, however, going after him again would have brought them further into the open. It could have triggered media coverage talking about a conspiracy, instead of just saying that a kid was kidnapped and then reunited with his family. That would lead to a very different sort of attention.

Feral yawned, mouth opening wide. She felt the need to practice the mannerisms she learned from real cats periodically, to ensure she could pass as a normal animal. “If they are so concerned with avoiding notice, then I don’t see why they would engage in kidnapping. Breaking Davis out of jail was also quite noticeable.

True, but in both cases the culprits initially avoided being seen or identified,” Leon said. “Obviously, they were willing to have the authorities searching for a mysterious menace, but not a defined group.

I suppose,” Feral said.

They sat there for a few moments, the quiet stretching out. David rolled his shoulders. “Okay, where the hell is Bloodhound, seriously?

Why don’t we see if he sent a message?” Leon suggested.

Yeah,” David said. He pulled out his phone, unlocking it and fiddling briefly. Then he frowned, stood up and looked around.

“Heads up,” he said. “Bloodhound said he was going to be late, and that he has reason to believe there might be trouble. He’s got a couple of teammates with him just in case something happens.”

Feral and Menagerie stood abruptly, copying David and looking around for any sign that something was wrong. “What kind of trouble?”

“The violent kind,” David said. “No real specifics, though, and he didn’t say how he knew, either. Just that something could happen today.”

Feral stretched and grew slightly, drawing on her connection to Menagerie. “I will go outside and walk a perimeter, to see if anyone is watching or approaching this place. You should wait inside, just in case.

Good idea,” Leon agreed.

Be careful,” Raquel said. Feral could feel her concern, light but unmistakably present.

I will,” Feral promised.

She crossed the large room to the doorway leading outside and then thought better of it, turning right and following the wall until she came to a small hole in it. It looked like it was the right size for a rat to fit through.

Feral shrank down to the size of a kitten and crept through the hole, scaring off a mouse that apparently lived in the pile of refuse on the other side. She waited a minute, returning to her standard housecat size, before climbing out into the parking lot.

The area she was in now had obviously been meant for employees to park. The road was to her left and in front of her, and to her right was a loading area, where whatever the factory had produced could be placed into trucks for transport. Feral walked off the lot, crossing the street with only a brief hesitation. There weren’t many vehicles in this part of town at any time, since it was off the main routes and largely abandoned. Almost no one ever needed to pass through it, on the way elsewhere, and no one had a reason to stay that wasn’t suspicious.

Once she was on the other side of the street, Feral started circling around, glancing into the surrounding buildings and streets. There were empty storefronts, belonging to shops that had long since closed, including a few that looked like they might have catered to the workers back when the factory was open. Some still had a few stray pieces of furniture, or signs that had never been removed, and Feral saw some ketchup packets on a floor at one point, in a place that was filled with more cobwebs than signs of human habitation.

She kept moving, trying to be as quick as possible without being obvious.

I see nothing yet,” Feral told Menagerie. “I am perhaps halfway around the perimeter. There is no sign of anything so far.

Got it,” Menagerie said. “Flicker is peeking into the other rooms in the building. Nothing from him yet either. It seems just as abandoned as before.

Feral jumped up through a broken window, landing on the sill, then leapt up on the counter on the other side, right by the door. The window was partially boarded over, but the gaps were more than big enough to accommodate a cat. Inside she saw the space was mostly bare, like all the other places, although there was a pair of shorts, still on the hanger, halfway under a bench that was built into the wall. Presumably it had been a clothing store.

A cursory glance revealed that the dust was undisturbed, and she moved on. The rest of the search proved similarly fruitless.

I’ve found nothing,” Feral said at last.

“Nothing here, too,” Flicker said. “It’s just the same old, same old. Bloodhound should be getting here soon, from his message. Let’s meet up and wait.

Feral returned to the building, but kept looking outside at irregular intervals. As Flicker had predicted, the wait wasn’t much longer. Bloodhound soon appeared, crossing the street to join them.

He’s here,” Feral said.

She examined the man carefully. He was dressed for a fight, as he had been when they first met, with a number of weapons and other pieces of equipment readily available. He seemed calm enough, though, walking without apparent concern or hurry.

Bloodhound entered the factory building and found them all waiting together. “Flicker, Menagerie, Feral, good to see you. It looks like you’ve found a good spot, too. Nice and out of the way. I’m glad you’re both still interested in learning what I know.”

Flicker shrugged. “Always better to have more options, right?”

“I agree, generally,” Bloodhound said. “Before we start, let me apologize for being late. We got a tip of sorts that something might happen today. We weren’t in a position to investigate much, but it seems like whatever happens will involve me and Comet, at least. I was debating cancelling the lesson, but the information isn’t very reliable, and there’s no way to know what impact that would have. If you guys are feeling gun-shy, you can call it off, but I did bring some backup just in case. Newton and Stalker are waiting by the car I used to get here, so if something does happen help is close, and Comet can get here pretty quickly if we just give her a call.”

“Do you know any more about this threat, or whatever it is?” Menagerie asked.

Bloodhound shook his head. “Not really. I just know there might be trouble, and if there is I’m probably going to be involved.”

Flicker and Menagerie exchanged a glance.

What do you think?” Flicker asked.

I don’t know,” Menagerie said. “I’d prefer not to get into any fights, but on the other hand if they’re after us it’s better for it to happen while we have backup, right? And if we call off lessons just because there might be trouble, we’ll never learn.

Sounds like you’re talking sense to me,” Flicker agreed. “Leon? Feral?

Feral stretched again. “Better to fight when forewarned than wait for trouble to come unexpected.

It seems to me that we can always run away later, if we need to,” Leon said. “And if we are going to be found somewhere, better here than at home or in public.

“We’re in,” Flicker told Bloodhound.

He cocked his head. “You don’t need to discuss it?”

“We did,” Flicker said. “We all agreed that there’s no point worrying too much about unknowns, and we want to learn. So, what’s on the lesson plan for today?”

“All right,” Bloodhound said. “If you’re all sure, we can begin. Newton and Stalker will be keeping their eyes open outside, just in case.” He walked a few steps over to stand directly in front of Flicker and Menagerie, then turned to face them. “We barely got started before, but from what we’ve talked about I gather Flicker has had some luck with manipulating light, and that he thinks that’s tied to his existing abilities. Menagerie, you haven’t really found a knack for anything, but you mastered the basic trick I showed you. I don’t want to jump ahead, but I’ve been thinking over some of my past experiences, and I think you two might find that what you can learn is limited by your spirits. If I’m right, you’ll find that your ability to do things like the powers they give you will be improved, but you’ll find it harder to learn anything else. I want to test that theory by showing you guys some things that are close to your powers, and some that aren’t. Then we’ll see how you perform.”

They had been practicing for perhaps an hour when Bloodhound stopped to answer his phone. Feral, curious, padded a bit closer to him and perked up her ears.

“Alison? What’s going on?” he said quietly.

“…happening here, now…back as soon as you can. Ask if they’re willing to help us. I’m going to try to buy time, but even Tin Man and Uplink need time to get here.”

“Can you wait, at least until the two of them get back?” Bloodhound asked.

“They’re tearing…apart. I have to go now.”

Feral thought the voice on the other end of the phone was female. Bloodhound had said that Stalker came with him, which meant it might be Comet.

“She said it was dangerous, remember?” Bloodhound warned. “Call for backup. You know at least two people who can probably get there, and you know they’ll come.”

“I don’t want mom there, and she’d take too long anyway,” the voice answered. “Just drop it. If you have time to argue, spend it getting back here. I’m going now.”

The phone beeped. Feral assumed the woman had hung up.

“Damn it all,” Bloodhound muttered. He immediately dialed another number, walking back towards Flicker and Menagerie.

“Listen up,” he said into the phone. “Comet just called. We’ve got trouble at home. Newton, Stalker, come pick me up, now.”

Feral was trying not to be obvious, so she didn’t eavesdrop further, but he must have gotten an acknowledgment, since he hung up almost immediately. He turned to face Flicker and Menagerie.

“I have to leave,” he said. “Before they get here, I need to ask: will you guys help us? Comet said it looked pretty bad, which means you’ll likely be in danger, but we need all the help we can get today.”

I’ll go, but that doesn’t mean you have to,” Flicker said to Menagerie quietly.

“We’re in,” she told Bloodhound immediately. “We owe you guys.”

Bloodhound nodded. “Thanks. I appreciate it. Unfortunately, we don’t have a really fast way to get around as a group, but Comet said she’s going to try to stall until we get there. Hopefully we’ll arrive in time.”

“Can you tell us anything about who we’re up against?” Flicker asked.

Bloodhound just shook his head. “I don’t know yet. I’ll try to make some calls on the way, find out that way. If it’s as bad as I expect, it might be on the news. Either way, we should have information before we’re in a position to use it.”
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If At First You Don’t Succeed 3

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Driving away, I wondered if I’d made the right call. I remembered how Raquel had sounded, almost begging me not to leave her alone with Feral, but the truth was that I couldn’t do that. Even if I’d stayed the night on their couch, sooner or later I would have to sleep, or leave, and the two of them would be alone together, in some sense. Like Leon and I, they were always together, and in a sense they were always alone, too. She had seemed calmer before walking into her house, at least. I hoped being there, seeing her mother, would help her relax. Now that she wasn’t blaming Feral for everything that had happened, it shouldn’t be an issue the same way.

I focused on the road, not letting my mind wander. I was too tired to obsess about all of the things that I knew would be haunting me later, fortunately.

I got back to the park and found Heavyweight already gone, presumably heading home as he’d said he would. Comet and Bloodhound were sitting cross-legged on the ground, while Stalker still stood over Dustin, lying on his back on the bench. It didn’t look like she’d moved in the minutes I’d been gone. I looked at her, standing over the kid, but didn’t approach. I didn’t want to distract her in the middle of her work.

I wasn’t comfortable with the situation. Of all the powers I’d heard of, telepathy was one of the ones most ripe for abuse. If someone like Comet, Heavyweight, or Silhouette punched a hole in a man, there was evidence. They could be discovered and tracked down by the police, the same way a man with a gun could. Arresting and incarcerating them might be a problem, but they couldn’t just vanish without a trace.

Telepathy didn’t leave fingerprints, as far as I knew. It didn’t leave traces that normal people could detect. It was wrong to abuse that power, but the law couldn’t make it criminal in any meaningful sense. Could a telepath even be locked up if they were caught?

Someone like Michaels probably couldn’t. It was a thought I’d had in passing after Mary explained his powers, and I’d been trying to put off thinking about it ever since, focusing on Dustin instead, but as I stood there looking at Stalker I couldn’t put it out of my mind. If Michaels got caught, convicted, and imprisoned, how long would it take for him to subvert the other inmates with his powers? More importantly, how long would it take him to get control of the guards and the warden? If put in a conventional prison he might just be able to walk out after a couple of weeks, telling his new friends to erase the security footage behind him and give him their car keys for good measure.

It was a problem that hadn’t been solved yet. So far, only a few powered criminals had revealed themselves. Some had been caught, mostly people whose abilities didn’t let them just walk out of prison. The types who weren’t bulletproof, and who couldn’t punch through walls. One or two had been killed resisting arrest. If I was remembering right, there was at least one somewhere who could escape pretty much at will, but who had surrendered herself into police custody willingly. She was convicted and sent to prison, but in an odd way she was on the honor system; stuck there only because she allowed herself to be.

I’d heard of a guy the Philly Five had caught more than once, who kept breaking out of custody – he could apparently teleport or walk through walls or something. The first time, everyone had been scared, but now he was a joke, mostly because he insisted that people should refer to him as “Larcenous Leonard” and he hadn’t actually hurt anyone. He just stole stuff, always from very wealthy people who could afford it. Once, he’d accidentally surprised an old woman into falling over and breaking her hip during a robbery. He’d called an ambulance for her and waited with her until it showed up, and there were rumors that he’d contributed significantly to the fundraiser that was launched afterward to help her pay for the medical care that she needed as a result. Basically, he was the opposite of threatening. People didn’t approve of him, but he seemed so sincere that you couldn’t possibly hate him (unless you were one of his victims, I suppose). One reporter had said that he seemed to have “stepped out of a comic book.”

So, on one side there were guys like that. Leonard’s powers, whatever they were, let him make a mockery of the law, but most people didn’t see him as a serious problem because he never endangered anyone intentionally. In the long-term, it was still an issue, but for now, as long as he was the only one, he wasn’t a real threat to society or anything. He wasn’t destabilizing the economy, or murdering people, or leaving them with mental scars. I’d never heard of anyone else with powers sporting that attitude, though, and Michaels clearly wasn’t playing around.

If we caught him and turned him over to the police, we’d have to tell them what he could do and…hope for the best, I supposed. It wasn’t a satisfactory answer. In fact, turning him over to the police would be placing them in danger very directly, in a sense, and it was a danger they hadn’t signed on for, unlike most of those they faced.

Leon agreed with me, but he didn’t see any alternatives either. I remembered talking to Carmen, Bloodhound, Comet, and Raquel about what we did and why, and I found myself asking how much we should do. I couldn’t build a better prison, but someone needed to. There had to be some way to shut down powers, or contain them. But until we found it, we had a big fat problem with no solution.

I walked over to Bloodhound and Comet, sitting near them on the ground, and the three of us looked at Stalker.

I’d trusted Dustin’s mind and future to a stranger. The Philly Five were publicly known heroes, sure. Stalker was the least understood, but presumably still to be trusted.

Assuming that she didn’t use her powers on her teammates, anyway. Assuming she wasn’t using them on me to get me to trust her. Assuming a hell of a lot. Assuming, in fact, that I was still the one making my assumptions.

Damn telepathy. Paranoia fuel for all time.

I sighed. If Stalker was manipulating my mind, then there was nothing I could do about it. Subtle manipulation could leave the same evidence as no manipulation at all. Strong manipulation could leave me unable to notice it despite a lack of subtlety. It all depended on how her power worked, which I didn’t know. If I did notice something, then I could act. Leon would keep an eye on me, just in case. I would do the same for him. If someone’s power was strong enough, or far enough outside the box, there was no way to prepare for it in advance.

I didn’t want to mistrust the Philly Five. They hadn’t done anything to deserve it, as far as I knew. An obsession with secrecy wasn’t, itself, a good reason for mistrust. Not with the number of fights they had been in and the amount of attention they had received. For one thing, I was confident some people would try to sue them if they knew who the group was. For another, I had just gone from calm to completely paranoid on the mere suspicion that one of them might be a telepath. I could imagine that they didn’t want that. Presumably they had other lives that they liked to get back to, when they weren’t busy saving people, and that made sense too. Even if they’d been obsessed with becoming heroes, it wasn’t truly a full-time job. There had been entire weeks, maybe months when they didn’t even make an appearance, in the past.

I shook off the thoughts, turning to Bloodhound and Comet.

“Anything?” I asked.

Comet turned to look at me. “No news yet,” she said. “Not sure how much progress she’s making.”

“Okay,” I said. I turned back, watching Stalker and Dustin again.

“You all right?” Comet asked. “You all look a bit shaken up tonight.”

I almost laughed at the sheer understatement. “That’s one way to put it,” I said. I took a deep breath. “Sometimes things go well. Sometimes they don’t. Tonight they went bad very quickly.”

“Want to talk?” Comet said.

I shook my head. What had happened with Raquel and Feral was their business, and deeply personal. It was one thing to involve myself, to an extent. We were alike. We had a relationship – teammates, I supposed, though the team wasn’t official. I couldn’t tell the Philly Five the details any more than I could tell them to Carmen without Raquel’s say-so.

After a second, I reconsidered. Those details were out, but that didn’t mean I had to be silent about everything.

“The kid, Dustin, tried to attack me,” I said. “He was cornered with Michaels, the guy who messed with his head. We think he might have done something else, too. Sort of encouraged things to get violent, messier. Whether it was on purpose or not is another question, but it got pretty bad. At least one death, and a few serious injuries.” I looked over at her. “And I admit, I’m not used to getting shot. It doesn’t hurt anymore, but it still happened.”

I hadn’t meant to say that much. Looking at Comet, even through her helmet, I got the feeling that she knew that, somehow.

“Powers can make things about as unpredictable as they get,” she said. “Anything that hits your head instead of your body, it can be hard to deal with. I’ve been through that a couple times. It can leave scars on the inside.”

I didn’t have an answer to that.

“If you need to talk more, you can say so,” Comet said. “Anytime. I can’t drop everything instantly, but I know everyone needs a friend now and then, and it’s tough to talk about this with anyone who’s not in the business. That’s one reason we made a team in the first place,” she continued, gesturing to Stalker and Bloodhound. “Not just for the fighting, but for the aftermath. So we could have someone to talk to who would understand. Without that, I think we’d all be a lot less mentally healthy. It’s still different for all of us, of course. Different powers. The others can’t really relate to the fact that I can outfly a helicopter and punch it out of the sky, if I want to. I don’t really understand exactly what it’s like for Bloodhound, or Newton, or Tin Man. That’s unavoidable. But we all come closer than normal people, and that helps.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You need to think about how far you’re willing to go,” Bloodhound said abruptly. He turned to look at me. “We try to avoid killing people, but it’s possible you’ll face a choice at some point, between killing one of the bad guys or letting him hurt someone else. Even without that, there are risks. The more fights you get into, the more likely someone could die by accident – get knocked into the street and hit by a car, or hit by a stray bullet, or fall out a window. Can you live with it if that happens? Are you willing to risk your life to keep the bad guys alive? What about your friends’ lives? Heavyweight and Menagerie, I mean. It’s not one simple question.”

“I’ve been thinking about it a great deal lately,” I said.

“There’s another part of it, as well,” Bloodhound said. “Working with people who answer those questions differently can be a problem.” He glanced at Comet. “We don’t always agree on everything, but we agreed to play by the same rules – as a team. It’s one of the things that has kept us together. If you end up forming a group of your own, you may need to come to a compromise or two in the process.”

I didn’t answer him, but I didn’t think that would be difficult, really.

“Don’t take too long to decide,” he advised.

“Is that really something you can decide?” I said. “It seems to me like what you’re asking about is more a matter of attitude and emotion. We don’t pick our emotions.”

“True,” Bloodhound said, “but we can adjust our attitudes.”

Comet spoke up again. “The truth is, it’s better to know all that before the first time you go out. But most people just don’t know enough about themselves if they’ve never been in a life-or-death situation. Some things you can only learn the hard way.”

I remembered leaving the guy in the bedroom of the burning house. He’d been unresponsive, lying still, and I hadn’t detected a pulse or breathing. Still, I couldn’t help imagining him waking up on fire, only to find he couldn’t get away fast enough, burning as he crawled through the house until it finally collapsed on him.

He would most likely have suffocated, first,” Leon noted. “It doesn’t matter now, though. You could only help one escape, and you didn’t set the fire or wound those men. We aren’t responsible for any deaths tonight. We did the right thing, within the limits of our abilities and the choices of everyone else involved. In the end, that’s all we can do.

I know,” I said.

I did, really. My life hadn’t included a lot of life-and-death situations before, but I felt pretty stable, overall. I hadn’t killed anyone, or put anyone in a position to die. If we were right in our suspicions, Michaels was ultimately responsible for the fact that anyone had died; if not, then Feral and Raquel were partly to blame, but Heavyweight and I were still fairly clear, at least as far as my moral judgment was concerned.

It felt like it should bother me more. I suspected it would, later, when I was more awake; regardless, I knew I’d feel responsible if anything similar happened again, now that I knew what to watch out for.

I closed my eyes for a moment, shaking my head to try to clear the thoughts, and then opened them again and looked at Stalker and Dustin.

Still no changes; she stood there without moving, and he lay there breathing. I sat and stared, watching them in silence.

Minutes passed. As I sat there in the dark, the last leftovers of my adrenaline deserted me, and I slumped forward.

I’m not sure when I drifted off to sleep, or how long I was out, but I woke to find Comet shaking my shoulder. I was lying on the ground, on my side, and I was cold. It was still dark out; probably the middle of the night.

Comet was standing, and so was Bloodhound. I stood up automatically, not thinking about it, and started to reach up to rub my eyes, but stopped myself as I realized that my hands were probably dirty. Instead, I blinked. I felt sore all over, and my eyes were stinging more than a little; combined with how dark it was, I knew it couldn’t have been too long. Maybe a few hours. My head started to ache as I stood, and it throbbed as I focused my eyes and looked around before settling down into a dull but manageable sensation.

I noticed Stalker sitting on the ground, leaning back against the bench – Dustin was still on it. At some point, he’d had a coat draped over him to help him stay warm.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Problems,” Comet said. “Stalker has been going for a couple hours, and she says it’s not working. Whatever Michaels did, she can’t just undo it. It seems to be permanent, and she’s worried that tearing out the stuff he put in could have side effects.”

“What kind of side effects?” I asked.

“She’s not sure,” Comet said. “This isn’t something we’ve ever dealt with before. Generally speaking, Stalker has a rule against rearranging people’s brains, so she’s never really tried to do it. The point is, we can’t fix this on our own. We’re going to have to see if we can get help.”

“Do you know somebody else who might be able to help?” I asked hopefully.

“Not for sure,” she said. “But the FBI has at least one telepath. We’re going to have to hope they’re willing to bend the rules a bit again. On the bright side, I’m pretty sure there aren’t any rules for this specific situation yet, so we won’t be asking them to break any.”

I nodded, then looked away to roll my head around in a circle, trying to stretch my neck; I was still feeling pretty sore. “All right. I’ll make a call, see if I can get someone to come meet us. Is there anything specific you want me to say?”

“Just to ask for Agent Miller to be one of the people who comes,” Comet said. “She’s our telepath.”

“Okay,” I said.

I guess we’d built up some goodwill, because when I said that we had something on Dustin and needed to see the FBI’s people – including Agent Miller – they agreed to show up without much prompting.

I suggested that we could come to one of the city’s police stations, if they wanted. I figured that would make them more comfortable than any amateur hour cloak-and-dagger idea I could come up with. They weren’t thrilled with that idea, presumably because they didn’t want vigilantes stopping by law enforcement buildings to be a regular thing. We ended up agreeing to meet up at the parking lot where Dustin had been abducted in the first place. I was too tired to think of anything clever, and it was a location we would both recognize. That was good enough for me.

I took a side trip to my rented car and popped the trunk to put on a change of clothes; I’d stashed those anticipating that what I wore for the rescue attempt might get beat up. I’d figured that I wanted to be wearing something clean when I got back home. I’d managed to stay anonymous largely due to luck, so far, and Leon and I had agreed that we needed to do more planning to keep out of trouble. After that, I reunited with Comet, Bloodhound, Stalker, and Dustin, and we left for the meeting.

“Shouldn’t he have woken up by now?” I asked, pointing to Dustin. Comet was carrying the boy.

“Normally, yes,” Stalker said. “Don’t worry, Bloodhound checked him and he’s not hurt. I just encouraged him to stay asleep a bit longer. I can’t do it forever, but since he was already tired to start with it wasn’t difficult.”

We got to the lot first. The FBI people pulled in maybe ten or fifteen minutes after us, in two cars. Judging by their appearance, they’d taken the time to wake up all the way before coming. Four of them got out: Cynthia Miller and Clifford Turner were the drivers, with Stephen Gallagher and Noah Valentine getting out of their respective passenger seats. From past encounters, I knew that Miller and Gallagher were partners, while Turner and Valentine were another pair.

Leon and I ran through a quick refresher on what we knew about the four. Turner had been in charge in the past, and shown some willingness to work with us to stop bad guys. I didn’t think he’d break rules, but he’d already bent them. At the same time, it was plain that he’d prefer to have us come work for him, or his bosses, rather than doing our own thing. He’d said it flat out. Lastly, we knew he had some sort of power that let him see the past, or something like that.

Valentine deferred to him. If he had any powers, we hadn’t noticed or been told yet. He seemed professional and dangerous, and I was fairly certain that he’d put a hole in one of the bad guys with a rifle when we fought Blitz. I wondered if he might have been in the military before.

Miller, the only woman in the group, definitely had powers; maybe more than one, like me. She could apparently destroy or erase anything that got too close to her, and I’d seen her use it both offensively to attack Skyscraper and defensively to block bullets, destroying them before they could hit her. She looked a bit younger than Valentine or Turner, and Leon was guessing she was newer and less experienced. And, of course, the Philly Five were confident she was a telepath. That fit with some things Menagerie and I had overheard, and apparently she and I registered oddly to Miller, which I assumed was because of Feral and Leon. I’d ask Stalker later – I should have done it before, but I’d been too tired to remember.

Gallagher, I’d barely seen any of. We knew basically nothing about him. Based on what I’d seen from the others, I was going to assume he was dangerous in some way.

“Flicker, Comet, Bloodhound, and Stalker,” Turner said. His head cocked to one side. “Bit of an odd group. Does this have something to do with a house burning down tonight?”

Maybe scratch that goodwill idea I’d had. Turner looked neutral enough, but the others were making me a bit uncomfortable. Valentine and Gallagher were hanging back, but I hadn’t failed to notice that both of them had clear lines of sight – and potentially clear lines of fire – between them and us. Miller, who was the most dangerous one up close, was standing next to Turner. She looked loose and ready; I recognized the general way of standing from my own martial arts experience. I had a sudden suspicion that she could kick my ass in a fistfight even without her powers, and the way she was standing said that she was ready to do exactly that. Given the way her power worked, even Comet couldn’t ignore her as a threat, if something happened. One swing at someone’s head and she could probably kill them outright, super strength or no.

“It has to do with Dustin,” I said. “We found him – and when I say we, I’m talking about myself, Menagerie, and Heavyweight. The problem is what to do now. When we went to get him, he tried to set me on fire. Which, yes, caused a house to catch and probably burn down. We didn’t sit around watching.”

“They found blood around that house, and a corpse on the second floor, not to mention a trashed car and other signs of trouble,” Turner said. “Did one of you kill somebody?”

“No,” I said. “Heavyweight, Menagerie, and I didn’t kill anyone.” I gestured at the Philly Five. “They weren’t even in town at the time.”

It wasn’t precisely a lie. Feral might have killed someone, but that didn’t mean Menagerie had. I wasn’t going to get into our suspicions about Michaels for the moment.

“Last time we met, you seemed to say you were going to stay out of the way while we did our jobs. What changed?” Turner asked.

“We found out exactly where Dustin was, and we weren’t sure if he was going to be kept there or not,” I said. I was trying to sound as calm as possible. Their suspicious looks weren’t helping, although my fatigue did, oddly enough. “We had a window of opportunity, and we didn’t know if it was going to stay open. I’m not happy with how things went. None of us are. But for now we have Dustin, and he needs help.”

“You said Dustin tried to burn you,” Miller broke in. “Why?”

I sighed heavily. “We’re pretty sure the guy who kidnapped him did something. Some sort of telepathy, or something like that, which could help to explain why Dustin went with him in the first place. Brainwashing. He attacked me, and later tried to burn Heavyweight. Everything went to hell, but I managed to grab him and run for it, and at that point whoever had him was worried enough about the police showing up that they ran instead of chasing us. I called them,” I gestured to the Philly Five, “hoping they could help figure out what the bastard did to Dustin and undo it.”

I turned to look at Stalker and stepped to one side, out of the way. She walked forward, carrying Dustin, and passed him to Comet before addressing Miller.

“I’ve tried, but I can’t fix it on my own,” Stalker said, taking over the explanation. “I don’t have experience trying to undo brainwashing, so that’s not really strange, although it is disappointing. I was hoping that either you could do it, or we could do it together.”

Miller and Turner looked at each other.

“What do you think, Cynthia?” he asked her.

She considered for a moment, and I noticed her fiddling with her watch as she did so, sliding it around her left wrist with her right hand. “I’ve never tried anything like it before,” she said. “I don’t know.” Cynthia frowned, turning towards us. “How did you know I was a telepath, anyway?”

“Because she’s their ‘telepathic countermeasure’,” Turner said, gesturing at Stalker. “Is that it?”

Stalker nodded. “Yes. You should be more careful whose mind you try to prod, Agent Miller. We talked it over and decided not to hold a grudge, but not everyone is so understanding, even among people who are trying to belong among the good guys. I couldn’t figure out exactly how your ability works, but I know my teammates very well. Shielding them from you isn’t very difficult, and your effort to check them out revealed you to me.”

“Hmmph,” Cynthia said. “Fine, you’re on the ball and I showed my cards. But look, I don’t know if I can help with what you want to do, here. I’ve never tried to undo brainwashing either. In fact, my abilities aren’t even what I’d call invasive. I can’t change what people think.”

Stalker shrugged. “I understand. It’s not where my gifts lie, either. But there’s a brain that needs fixing, and we’re here. I don’t know any other telepaths who are available. Unless you do, then I think we should try. If we can’t fix it, it’s entirely possible Dustin will wake up violent. We should have a while before that becomes an issue, but he won’t sleep for ever, even with my encouragement.”

Cynthia turned to me. “Can you help? I can’t read you, either, and I know she’s not keeping you protected. It feels different.”

“I’m not a telepath of any kind,” I said. “I have a guess why you can’t read my mind, but it’s only a guess. I can’t help with this.”

Cynthia sighed. “So it’s me or no one, is that it?”

“Yes,” Stalker said. “So, are you up for it?”

Cynthia looked at Turner. I couldn’t see her face well enough to tell if she was reluctant, or what, but he nodded after a few seconds.

“If you think you can help, you can try it,” he told her. “Just be careful.”

“Before we start, I have to ask what you can do on your own,” Stalker said. “In the interest of fairness, I’ll go first. What I’ve managed so far is mostly just communicating mind to mind, with people I know. I haven’t spent too much time trying anything on strangers, and when I have it hasn’t worked very well. Sometimes, I can manage to tell if they’re lying, or what they’re thinking about, but that’s almost it.”

“Okay,” Cynthia said. “I’ve done the lie detector thing too, a few times. It’s not reliable, though. I’ve never run into another telepath before, as far as I know, so I’m not sure how this is going to work. My main thing is…well, like I said, I can’t change what people think. But if I try to get into someone’s head, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of how they see themselves. Not literally. I just get an image of what kind of person someone thinks he is, if that makes sense. So if a guy really has issues, it tends to be unpleasant to see, and if I run into the most arrogant person in the world, he’s probably going to look like a god. It took me a long time to even figure out what I was seeing, but that’s my main thing.”

“That’s good,” Stalker said, sounding a bit relieved. “I know you’re not used to changing stuff, but at least you’re used to tying into a stranger’s mind. That’s the main problem I was running into when I tried alone.”

We all stood there for a few seconds.

“Ready?” Stalker asked.

Cynthia took a deep breath, then let it out. “Sure. Let’s do this thing.”

“Actually, before we start,” Stalker said, turning to look at the rest of us, “can we find someplace to sit? The rest of you are probably going to be bored, and I’m tired of standing.”

“All right,” Turner said. “Let’s get comfortable.”

We sat around, none of us really doing anything as we waited for Stalker and Miller to wake up. The two of them and Dustin were in the back of one of the FBI cars, with Gallagher keeping an eye on them. Valentine, Turner, Comet, Bloodhound, and I were just sitting around with nothing to do, it seemed, although occasionally someone would get up and walk around. At first, I found myself checking the time frequently, but it was pointless and I soon gave up.

For a bit, I thought I was going to fall asleep again, but my headache persisted and I felt simultaneously tired and unable to sleep. I was probably going to be screwed up for a couple of days as my body tried to catch up on the rest it had been denied.

I tried to think about my current homework, or anything else, but that wasn’t happening. I gave up after fifteen minutes or so. Soon it was back to checking the clock with nothing else to do. I wished that I had a deck of cards or something.

That made me wonder how the FBI agents and the Philly Five would do at poker. I suspected that however things went, I wouldn’t be the winner in any hand including all of us.

Hmm. Maybe Leon and I had different tells. That would be fascinating, but also make some sense. We were distinct personalities, after all. And if somebody got used to dealing with me first, then we switched, it might give them fits.

I sat there doing nothing for a while longer, and eventually a car door opened. We all perked up, some of us standing, and Stalker stepped out of the car.

“It’s not perfect,” she said. “But I think we did good enough for him to go home.”
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Trust But Verify 1

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Bloodhound and Comet both showed up, with someone else in tow. It was obviously a female figure, which ruled out Newton. It could be Tin Man, or the fifth and final member of their team, who was called “Stalker”. Stalker was a virtual unknown, rarely seen, and there wasn’t much video of her. Stalker had showed up three times that I knew of; some people thought it was someone who wasn’t an original member of the team – they’d been called the Philly Four for a bit before she made her public debut. Secrets aside, people had some idea what the other four could do, but Stalker had never been seen using powers.

Supers seemed to have a thing for secrecy. I would have made fun of it, but I’d spent a lot of time thinking about secrets and lies myself in the last two weeks or so.

Her face was covered, but she was wearing normal clothes, which the team in general didn’t. Leon pointed out that she seemed to walk closer to Bloodhound. It was a subtle distinction that I hadn’t noticed, but I trusted him. Between Bloodhound and Comet, she looked small, but I realized it was how she carried herself more than anything else. Comet was pretty big, of course, but Bloodhound wasn’t much larger than average.

“Hi,” she said. “I don’t have a fancy name that I go by, so I’m afraid this won’t be much of an introduction, but I’m a friend of Bloodhound’s. You can think of me as a consultant on spirit-related stuff.”

Leon and I noticed it at the same time when we suddenly felt a presence –hers, but also separate and attached to her – appear in front of us. I didn’t say anything for a few seconds.

“You’re like us,” I said finally, thinking aloud. “But you were hiding.” I cocked my head to one side. “Can we meet your friend?”

“She’s not real big on talking to strangers, unfortunately,” the woman said. From her voice, I thought she wasn’t much older than me. I glanced at Bloodhound. Could she be his girlfriend, or something?

“When it comes down to it, neither am I,” she went on. “I don’t have a cape handle because I’m not in the business. I stay away from trouble, and it mostly stays away from me. But I hear you have a little spiritual problem, and I owe Bloodhound a solid, so I’m willing to help.”

“Which I appreciate,” he said, interrupting. “We’ll be even after today.”

“Okay,” I said, glancing at Bloodhound before I looked back at her. “And how are you planning to help, exactly?”

“That’s simple enough,” she said. “We’re going to meet your friend Menagerie, surprise her, and yank Feral right out of her. Then we’re going to ask if she was a good little spirit and paid her rent on time, and see if Menagerie wants her back. If she does, that’s that. If she doesn’t, we’ll need to ask why before we figure out what to do next.”

“I don’t know if Feral can survive outside of Menagerie,” I said. “Do you? Because I’m not too big on the idea of spirit murder, or whatever it would be called if there was a law for it. Especially since they seem to get along well, as far as I know.”

“I can’t give any absolute guarantees,” she admitted, “but I know that other spirits can survive on their own for a time even without help. It tends to cost them personality, but we should be able to prevent that between us,” she said, making a gesture that seemed to include me, Comet, Bloodhound, and herself. “Even in the worst case, I don’t think there could be any bad side effects unless we sat around for at least a couple hours. As long as we don’t waste time, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Leon?” I thought, prompting him for his opinion.

Go through with it,” he agreed.

“Okay,” I said. “So how do we do this?”

“Well, there’s just one thing first,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“This,” Bloodhound replied. Comet was behind me in a second, knocking me to the ground and grabbing hold of my arms. I managed to keep my face from hitting the dirt, but I coughed and blinked as the air left my lungs and I breathed in dust.

When my eyes cleared, Bloodhound was holding his sword.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not for you. But as long as we’re checking spiritual credentials, we figured we should start with your friend Leon.”

“You’ve got him?” the nameless woman asked Comet.

“He’s not going anywhere,” she replied calmly. I didn’t even bother trying to struggle. She wasn’t hurting me, but I felt like my wrists were being held by a vise, and her foot was on my back. I couldn’t even trip her, since she could fly. That meant that leverage was almost useless, even if I could find some.

“Okay,” the other woman answered, sounding a bit nervous. “I am sorry about that,” she said, looking at me. “It’s really nothing personal toward either of you. If you’re both playing fair, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

I didn’t say anything. It sort of made sense, but I was still pissed off, especially because I could feel Leon’s fear. Sure, they said a spirit could survive on his own, but I couldn’t be certain, and neither could he. Not until after the fact.

She sat cross-legged in front of me, a yard or so away. Bloodhound stood at her side, sword held up in both hands. It made me think of an executioner about to strike, which wasn’t helping me calm down.

The woman in front of me closed her eyes and bowed her head, then looked back at me.

“Okay, buddy,” she murmured. “Have you been naughty or nice?”

I felt a sudden sense of emptiness.

Leon, are you there?” I asked.

Nothing. He was out.

A small part of me felt relieved, and a much larger part of me felt guilty as soon as I’d realized that. I may not have asked for his company, but I didn’t think he’d asked for mine either, and he’d become a real friend.

Part of me had missed having my mind to myself, though. With Leon around, I’d never really had privacy.

“So, you’re Leon,” she said, looking at the air in front of me.

I couldn’t see anything. Remembering what Leon and Bloodhound had managed to teach me, I tried to perceive the world differently, to focus on the magic in it.

There he was – a poorly-defined figure that looked a lot like me, actually. He was turning around, looking in every direction.

“Hey, are you all right?” I asked aloud.

“David?” he answered absently. He was looking at himself, at his hands and body. He didn’t look normal, of course, since he wasn’t physically there, but for those of us who knew what to look for his presence was plain.

I noted that Bloodhound was looking at him; I couldn’t see whether Comet was. I also noticed that Bloodhound’s sword looked different, now that I’d switched to perceiving things the other way. That was strange, but it also made sense – they’d said it wasn’t for me, after all, which meant it could only be for Leon. Apparently he carried that thing around for at least one good reason I’d never suspected. I wondered whether he’d used it on any spirits before.

I was guessing the answer was “yes”.

“So, Leon,” the woman asked, getting his – and my – attention. “You and…Flicker getting along okay? You happy with things the way they are?”

“I would prefer to be independent,” Leon answered. “But unless that is an option, yes, I’m happy to be coexisting with Flicker.”

“Hmm,” she murmured. “How about you?” she asked, turning to me. “You want your…tenant back? Or what?”

I glanced at Leon, but I didn’t hesitate. “He’s welcome,” I said. “Unless he gets a better offer and wants to go.”

Leon laughed a bit at that. “I guess I wasn’t a bad roommate,” he said.

I smiled at him, and I felt Comet’s grip relax a bit.

“Okay then,” the woman said, waving a hand mock-dramatically. “I now pronounce you man and spirit. You may inhabit the host.”

With that she stopped doing whatever she had been doing, and Leon seemed to just slide back into place. The process only took a few seconds, but in those few seconds I felt like something clicked into place and I knew that we trusted each other even more than we had before, now.

Comfy?” I asked.

You should have cleaned this place while I was gone,” Leon joked. “One minute outside your brain and there are dust bunnies everywhere, what the hell.

I laughed out loud and the others looked at me strangely as Comet let me go and helped me up with one hand.

“Uh, sorry,” I said. “Internal dialogue. You had to be there.”

“We’ve been here the whole time,” Comet pointed out, but she sounded amused.

“I meant ‘there’ as in ‘my brain’,” I said. “So, now that that’s done, if you’re satisfied that Leon and I are both on the level, can I ask if you’re planning the same thing for Feral and Menagerie? Because I’d rather not assault a friend, even in a good cause.”

“No, we’re not planning the same thing with them,” Comet said. “We were almost certain about you. We’re more worried about them. They don’t get the kid gloves.”

I wasn’t happy, but I also wasn’t willing to screw up our one chance to surprise Feral by telling her and Menagerie what was coming, and I couldn’t handle the situation on my own. That meant I was stuck doing it their way, however little I liked it.

Menagerie and Feral arrived expecting a lesson with Bloodhound. Instead, Newton turned up the gravity to keep Menagerie from moving, and when she called out Feral, Comet tackled the cat to the ground and restrained her while Bloodhound and his friend explained the score.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m not happy about how we’re doing this, but if either one of you is screwing the other one over we can’t just ask. They checked on me and Leon the same way. Nothing bad happened.”

“You fuckers,” Menagerie said, struggling to crawl out of the increased gravity. “Whatever’s between me and Feral is none of your damn business. I would have thought you would understand!” she added, looking at me.

“Look, if I could know for certain that you two were fine with each other this wouldn’t be necessary,” I said, trying to be logical. Not that defusing anger with logic often works, but it was worth a try.

“Think about it this way,” I said. “If Menagerie is abusing her power, then we can’t ask Feral and expect the real answer under normal circumstances. It’s the same thing if the problem goes the other way. The only way we can know for sure that you two are both all right is to separate you, at least temporarily. If you’re both dealing with us straight, then we could just ask, but if one of you isn’t such a good guy, asking would just tip them off. I know it sucks, but can you please just cooperate? If you do, it’ll be over faster and I can start apologizing.”

Menagerie looked over at Feral. I wondered if she would try letting the cat body evaporate and forming a new one – she seemed to be able to do that at will, which made confining Feral essentially impossible. The fact that the cat could change size just exacerbated the problem.

“Fine,” she said, practically growling. She looked like she was grinding her teeth. “Feral, let’s just play along and get this over with.”

Soon enough Feral’s cat-shape dissolved and she formed into a human figure, much like Leon had. Again, I could only see it when I focused. I noticed that her features looked different from Raquel’s, while Leon had looked a lot like me when we were separated.

“So, Feral, do you want to stick around in her head?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” Feral said. Even with poorly-defined features, she looked like she was glaring.

“And Menagerie, you want to keep sharing your body with the cat lady? If you say no, we can keep her in one piece. She won’t just die right away, or anything.”

“Yeah, I do,” Menagerie said. “Now is that it, or what?”

The woman started to speak, and then stopped, frowning. She looked at the two of them closely, before turning to Feral.

“If she wants you, I won’t stop you from going back,” she said. “Just make sure you two play nice.”

Again, the return took moments. Leon and I were paying close attention; when Feral returned to Menagerie’s body, she seemed to slip into control again, as she had before. Still, she gave it up immediately. I was still a bit uneasy – more about what I’d helped do than anything else – but they’d both had a real choice, and they’d both made it.

The woman was watching too, and she looked even more unhappy than before, but she didn’t say anything else to us.

“Now that I’ve met your friends and gotten on their bad side, I’m going home,” she said to Bloodhound and Comet. “Stay out of trouble.”

She left, and that was that. Time for the fallout.

“I’m pissed off,” Menagerie said, looking at all of us. “Actually, we’re pissed off. I’ll see you all next time, but I’m going home to cool down, ‘cause right now I just want to punch all of you. You could have fucking killed her if you were wrong.”

“Okay,” I said. “I am sorry.” I shrugged. “If I knew another way, I would have tried it.”

“Yeah,” she said, biting the word off. “Fine. Whatever.”

She stalked away.

The three of us who were left stood there for a moment, watching her go.

“That went better than expected,” Comet said once she was gone. “I thought she might actually try to hit me.”

Bloodhound snorted. “She would just hurt her hand, and she’s not that dumb.”

“Maybe,” Comet said. “I wonder about that spirit, though. How sharp do you think her claws can get?”

“Good question,” Bloodhound mused. “I’d be surprised if they cut you, but maybe I’m just too used to seeing you shrug stuff off. Powers don’t all seem to work the way you’d expect…maybe she could cut you.”

I looked at them a bit uncomfortably. They sounded like they were just wondering, but combined with the way we’d ambushed Menagerie and Feral, it was making me look at them a bit differently. They might be good guys, but somehow they seemed less heroic than they had the first time I met them.

I reminded myself that they’d probably saved my life – and Menagerie’s – the first time we met. Still, I had a feeling we wouldn’t end up being friends.

“I’m heading out,” I said. “I guess I’ll see you two around.”

“A bit shocked?” Comet asked. I guess I hadn’t been hard to read.

“Uncomfortable is more like it,” I told her.

She nodded. “That’s fair. Just try to keep in mind that if we seem a bit quick to act, well, it’s because we’ve seen things go bad when people hesitated. I don’t mean to be condescending, but you’re new to all this. Even Menagerie hasn’t seen that much, in comparison. Spirits aren’t our usual thing, but past experience tells me that when we find a possible problem, the best thing to do is handle it as soon and as carefully as possible. That’s all this was.”

“I get that,” I said. “And I even know that it wasn’t about mistrust. I’m the one who brought up the subject, anyway.”

“You’re right, it wasn’t about mistrust,” Bloodhound agreed. “It was about wanting to trust. Menagerie’s done good work here. So has Heavyweight, and so have you, even if you’ve barely started. Consider this: we are arguably the first team to work together like we do, and even if we don’t break the law outright, usually, we still bend it pretty damn far even on the good days. We knew, when we started fighting together, that we might inspire imitators. We figured some of them would be good guys, and some of them might not be. We feel a certain responsibility to try to make sure that the good ones survive, and the bad ones get put out of business.”

“That sounds like you’re talking about us and Blitz,” I said. “Are you still looking for them?”

“Absolutely,” Comet said. “We may not be responsible for their actions, but we let the genie out of the bottle when we started collaborating. One super can be dangerous. A team of them can be a catastrophe. We thought it was worth the risk, and we still do, but that doesn’t mean we’re blind to the consequences.”

“Someone else would have tried it if you didn’t,” I said. “No offense or anything. You guys are a big deal. But I’m not sure you changed history.”

Comet laughed. “You might be surprised. Not all of our fights are on the news, after all. As for making history, well, the records will show that we were around for years before Blitz became public, and they’re the first bad guy team I know about. We thought that would be better than having it the other way around.”

“Did you really think that far ahead?” I asked.

Comet hesitated for a second.

“Yes,” Bloodhound answered. “We have to, whenever possible. You should too. If you start causing massive property damage, it will affect us, Menagerie, Heavyweight, and anyone else on our side. If you save a cop, that will probably help us. Word gets around, and people group us together, even if we’ve never met.”

I nodded, then looked at Comet. “Were you going to say something?”

She seemed to think for a moment. “I have a friend with powers. We both found out what we could do around the same time. When we realized that we weren’t the only ones, she looked at me and said, ‘the world we grew up in just died.’” She chuckled. “Melodramatic, but she had a point. The day someone woke up able to fly, or run on water, or read minds, the world became inherently unfair. And not just a little bit; it’s monumentally unfair. People like us,” she gestured at all three of us, “are going to decide how unfair it gets, for better or worse. There may not be a lot of us yet, but we’ve done some brainstorming. Even without telepaths, I think our odds of taking over the world if we ever all got together would be pretty good. So, we do what we do. We stop some bad guys, help some people, and most importantly we set an example. The real wins aren’t when we beat the crap out of some guy and hand him to the cops. The real wins are when someone else decides that robbing a bank isn’t worth the risk of dealing with us, or decides that it is worth the risks to fight on our side. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying stopping bad guys is worthless. But in the long-term, the indirect effects are bigger.”

“Interesting take on things,” I said. “Do you really think it would be that one-sided if it was supers versus everyone else?”

“No,” Comet said, “but I don’t think we’ll ever see that kind of war. Even if it came down to it, some of the supers would take the side of the majority, and some of the normal people would side with the supers. Nothing is ever that clear-cut. If we recruited every super we could and tried to wipe out vanilla humans, I think we’d lose, if only because most of them wouldn’t sign up. But we could cause a hell of a lot of damage along the way, and trying to take over would be another story entirely. The FBI sees the danger too, from what they said. Sooner or later, some super is going to try to make himself a king. If he’s strong enough, if he can recruit enough other people to help him out, he might be able to make it stick. That’s mainly what I’m afraid of. And in that kind of conflict, there are a million ways he could get normal humans on his side. People do it all the time. A dictator with my powers probably wouldn’t be worse for his people than a regular one, but he’d be harder to take out.”

“So we try to keep them from dreaming big in the first place, then.”

Comet shrugged. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Or something like that, I’m not sure I’ve got the expression quite right.”

“All right,” I said. “I hear what you’re saying, I see how it applies to today. And I’m still grateful for the way you bailed us out in the past. I’ll try not to hold today against you guys…but this stuff is still new to me. I hope you understand. I’m not used to that sort of pragmatism, even if you did have a good reason for betraying my trust.”

“You may be glad we did, the next time you have to talk to Menagerie,” Bloodhound said. “She’ll likely forgive you sooner for it.”

With that, the two of them finally left, and Leon and I were alone again.

It had all happened fast, but I had a lot to sort through, between the way I’d felt betrayed and the guilt I’d felt over helping to ambush Menagerie. Even knowing it was all in a good cause, I wasn’t used to using people’s trust in me against them. And my own irritation just made me a hypocrite, given that I’d started it all in motion with the same sort of “it’s for your own good” logic. On top of that, the things Comet and Bloodhound had said were playing in my head. I felt like they had been honest with me, although Comet seemed to hesitate before telling me about her friend. Maybe it was a family member? Or maybe she just wasn’t sure whether to tell me anything personal? It did help me feel like they trusted me.

That might have been why she did it, but I didn’t think it had been a lie either way.

I walked home, wondering if they really did feel responsible for Blitz existing as a group.
Collector seemed to be the center of it, the one who’d brought the others in. He certainly could have gotten the idea from the Philly Five, but the truth was that the idea for a team of supers had existed in fiction before any actual supers showed up. That cat was well out of the bag from the start, I thought.

I wonder if we’ll ever see Bloodhound’s friend again,” Leon wondered. “Somehow I got the sense that she was more than a casual acquaintance. And she seemed very at ease with manipulating spirits. I’d like to find some way to stop her from doing whatever she did.

Agreed,” I said, losing my old train of thought. “If she could yank you at will, someone else might be able to as well. That’s a problem we need to solve, and sooner rather than later. When you came back, it felt like it happened naturally. Was there any effort on your part?

Not really,” Leon answered. “It was like she was pulling me through a door and I stretched, until I only had one foot on the side where I started, but then when she let go I just snapped back into place. It didn’t even hurt, really. I could feel the difference, but it wasn’t painful.

That’s what I thought,” I said. “When you were gone, I could tell, but when you came back it felt natural. Like settling my weight into a chair or something, you know?

Yes, something like that,” Leon agreed. “I think our link changed, as well. I actually feel more comfortable here than I used to.

I wondered if that was just me,” I admitted. “I think you’re a bit easier to hear now.

We should try to test things out sometime,” Leon said. “Maybe with Menagerie and Feral around as spotters? See if I can leave and come back at will. It could be educational. I’d like to know just what I’m capable of.

That could work,” I said. “And it would be nice to show that we trust them after today. Maybe with their help we can figure out how to keep you in here if someone else comes along and starts pulling.

My thoughts were on Collector just then. He’d learned healing by watching my healing, and he’d stolen other tricks like that from other people. I wondered whether he might want to try stealing Leon. If he could control him, it might be worthwhile for him to do it. Having Leon with me had some definite advantages, if only in terms of improving my ability to multitask. In the recent fighting, we’d found that he could use my peripheral vision while I focused on what was in front of me, and he’d warned me about trouble that way more than once. Even if he couldn’t do anything else, that alone was a significant edge, and Collector seemed like the sort of guy who wanted every edge he could get.

Leon could tell what I was thinking, approximately at least. “You think he’ll be back one of these days,” he said.

Yeah, I do,” I said. “He didn’t kill me because he wanted all of our powers. That’s got to be why he wanted us and Menagerie and Feral. Sooner or later he’ll make another run at us, somehow. And they saw my face. It’s still a whole city to find me in, but it’s not impossible. Just really damn hard. I think he’ll come back, with his whole crew, and I think if we’re not ready he’ll grab us, learn everything we know, and then cut my throat. Whether you’d die or get taken, I don’t know.

We were both quiet for a while.

Well, I guess we’d better make damn sure we’re ready,” Leon said. “You want to try to step up our practice schedule? Find some way to train more?

I think so, yeah,” I said. “Not sure how exactly, yet. Let’s both brainstorm overnight, then compare notes tomorrow.
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