Tag Archives: Heavyweight

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.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Meteor again?

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

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

Probably,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was opening my mouth when he spoke up first.

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

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

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

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

I saw her clench a fist.

Relax,” I said.

Sorry,” Feral said.

Raquel’s fist relaxed, and I felt uneasy.

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

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

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

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

“Could you-”

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

Damn, but this was terrible timing.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Heavyweight said.

He left.

That went well,” Feral said acidly.

“Damn it all,” I said.

Raquel sighed. “So, now what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Later,” I said. “Feral, goodbye.

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

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

Well, no reason not to hope for the best.
 
 
 
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If At First You Don’t Succeed 2

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I could sense Leon communicating with someone – it had to be either Feral or Menagerie. I blocked it out. The heat washed over me in a wave, and for a few moments it was just about the only thing I noticed. My eyes were closed, and I checked on my reserves – they were a bit lower, and dropping as my body rapidly healed. I screamed for a few seconds, though I doubt anyone heard me. When the wave of heat had passed and I could feel the pain starting to recede I forced myself back to my feet, looking around.

Michaels and Dustin were walking toward the door together, trying to leave. All but one of the thugs was moving, now, trying to get out of the room, though they were all in bad shape.

Menagerie, we’re going to need firefighters to go with the police,” I said, stunned. Things had gone very wrong, very quickly. It took me a moment to start thinking again.

I got up and sprinted at Michaels’ back, jumping over the reaching hands of one goon, and tackled him to the ground. The kid stumbled and fell forward, turning to look at us fearfully, and Michaels kicked backward, hitting my face. I bit my tongue and tasted blood, but stood again.

Michaels and Dustin are heading downstairs. Almost everyone else is pretty messed up, and Michaels got to Dustin’s head,” I said.

I was about to follow them when I turned and looked back into the bedroom. The goons there were moving, but not in a reassuring way; if I left, they could burn to death.

“God dammit!” I yelled. I went back into the room.

I’ve got to keep these assholes from burning to death, Menagerie,” I said. “You guys will have to stop Michaels. Is Feral under control yet?

There was a brief pause. “Feral’s out of play for now,” Menagerie said. “Heavyweight and I will handle Michaels, then help you empty the house.

I walked into the room, helping one of the thugs stand; he looked at me in shock.

“Help him get out!” I yelled, pointing to one of the other guys. Then I moved to a second. There had been five thugs in the room, and I had shoved one out through the hole in the floor; that left four. The one I’d just helped looked like he was in the best shape, overall, despite being a bit dazed. The guy he was helping was hurt worse, but looked like he was thinking more clearly; together, the two of them should be all right. The remaining two were another story. One was the guy who’d been under the door, and his leg was bleeding badly; it had soaked part of the carpet by now, and he was pale. The other wasn’t moving at all. I ran to him first, trying to feel for a pulse; I couldn’t tell if he had one or not. He didn’t seem to be breathing. I slapped him a few times, hoping for some reaction, but he didn’t move.

I looked at the other guy. I couldn’t carry them both. I made a decision.

I went over to the man under the door – actually, he was out from under it now. He took a weak swing at me, and I caught his fist.

“Do you want to stay here or not?” I yelled, pointing at the fire.

He looked a little dazed. I couldn’t tell if it was blood loss, surprise at what had happened, or something else. I repeated myself, shaking him a bit, and his eyes seemed to focus a bit as he shook his head.

“Then let me help you!” I said.

He nodded, coughing.

I got an arm under his shoulders and we managed to get him hobbling on one foot, leaning on me for support. We got to the stairs and I could see that the other two guys I’d sent on ahead were at the bottom, moving toward the front door.

We started down.

Flicker, hurry,” Menagerie said. “Dustin is keeping Heavyweight back, and I can’t do much right now!

The first few steps were a bitch, but the guy clinging to me for dear life was motivated; we got into a rhythm. At least we were going down; he was partially dead weight, but I just had to make sure I wasn’t dropping him. While one of his legs was a bleeding mess, the other looked fine.

It was still hard. I was focusing on one step at a time, blocking out almost everything else, and I was actually surprised when we reached the bottom; it felt like it happened too fast given the pace we were moving at. A glance back showed me that the fire was spreading fast. The two guys who had been downed by Feral were no longer in the area by the front door, though they had left bloodstains and a partially crushed gun behind.

We shuffled out the front door, and I saw the situation. Heavyweight was standing in front of their car, in the driveway, refusing to let them leave. Dustin had a little patch of fire on the ground in front of him, with one hand held out, palm down, over it. Michaels was next to him, with a hand on his shoulder, two goons standing next to him with guns – I recognized one of them as the same guy who’d given me so much trouble before, and the bastard had his shotgun back again, or another like it. The rest of them were sprawled on the ground, but one guy was bandaging the others, at least. I couldn’t see Menagerie anywhere.

As we came out, Mr. Shotgun turned toward us. He started to raise his gun and then lowered it again, eyes narrowed in anger, but he kept it ready as I walked my rescuee away from the building.

Then two cars and a van pulled onto the street and headed our way, at least one burning rubber as they squealed to a stop.

The doors opened and Mary Wade got out of the car, with three more armed guys. Two of them had pistols, but the third had what I thought was a rifle. The other two vehicles stayed further back, and no one got out of them. Mary surveyed the situation. For a few seconds we were all eyeing each other uneasily, trying to figure out what to do. The police would be along at some point; when that happened, things would turn in our favor. At the same time, we had serious problems. Dragging this situation out, even as a standoff, could cause some of the goons to bleed out. Given what I’d seen from Dustin so far, I wasn’t prepared to write them all off as “bad guys, don’t feel guilty if they get hurt,” and even if I had been I didn’t want them to die. Leaving the one guy upstairs was bad enough, despite my confidence that he was dead already. I didn’t want more on my conscience.

Menagerie, where are you?” I asked.

Across the street, behind the new arrivals,” she said.

What’s Feral’s deal? Is she still flipping out?

I really don’t want to bring her back out right now,” Menagerie said.

Fuck. That was at least three different flavors of bad.

I set my rescuee down on the ground, bending down as if to help him, then vanished. I closed my left eye and checked my reserves – Leon was down to basically nothing, I was at about two-thirds. All that moving around while invisible had taken something out of me, and so had healing from the burns I’d taken, along with the shot to my leg.

Once I was invisible, I stepped back and to one side a few feet, then crouched. I tried to look at everyone at the same time.

Heavyweight seemed to take it as a signal, or maybe that was when he had his idea; in either case, he moved. He jumped up and back, over the car behind him – the one Michaels had used to get here. When he landed on the other side, he stepped forward and brought one fist down on the car’s hood in a crashing blow. I could see the metal dent inward. He hit it twice more like that, quickly, then leapt at Mary’s car.

I got it as he was moving; without the cars, they’d have a much harder time getting away from the police, who Menagerie had called. Even if he couldn’t get them all, they might have to leave some people behind. Plus, it would be easier for us to stall them. The wounded guys wouldn’t even want to run, if they were smart; without cars, being arrested was probably their best chance at prompt medical attention.

He stopped in midair, folding as if his stomach had hit something, and I noticed Mary; she was looking up at him, one hand outstretched. He hung there for a moment, then went flying back.

She’d said she couldn’t just let us win if it came down to it. Considering that she’d warned us she was coming, I was inclined to trust her. Still, she was the only one of them who could even slow Heavyweight down, except for Dustin; if I gave her a good enough excuse to “lose”, and I was right about her being on the level with us, then we’d have an advantage.

I stayed invisible and started walking toward her as quietly as I could, with her group on the street in front of me, the house behind me, and all the other bad guys plus Dustin to my left.

Mr. Shotgun spun towards me, his weapon coming up, and he pulled the trigger, at which point I remembered what Mary had said about his powers. I dove for the ground and felt another set of stings, this time on my left leg instead of my right, and I lost my focus. I became visible again, and he brought his gun up for another shot. Before he could do anything, Heavyweight came rushing in – Michaels shouted a warning, and he dived to the side, but Heavyweight grabbed him in both hands as he landed, ripping the shotgun away and then breaking it over his knee. The guy ran, and Dustin sent a stream of fire at Heavyweight, screaming incoherently with what could have been any emotion, or maybe just pure adrenaline.

Heavyweight retreated, and I looked up to see Michaels whispering in Dustin’s ear, still keeping a hand on his shoulder in an avuncular way that was profoundly disturbing under the circumstances.

Then an ear-splitting roar rang out. It sounded like Feral, but not quite. Everyone turned to look in that direction, and I shuffled out of the way as Dustin unintentionally sent his fire over a wider area in the process. One of the wounded goons was lying in the way; his jacket caught, and he ditched it immediately, crawling feebly away from the flames.

Menagerie ran across the street towards us all, but as she ran she dropped to all fours, her form distorting to look almost like Feral’s, and she sprang at Mary and her three guys. Before she could hit, she was struck in mid-air; she wasn’t stopped like Heavyweight had been, but she was launched up and over them. She spun and flipped in mid-air, landing on the wrecked car in the driveway on all fours, and I got a good look at her. She looked like Feral, now, but more solid somehow. Her front paws flexed and her claws lengthened, scoring gouges in the car’s roof and then tearing right through it.

She roared again and jumped at Michaels and Dustin.

Michaels fell backward and pulled Dustin down on top of himself, and a curtain of fire sprang up between them and the cat.

Menagerie, are you okay?” I said frantically. “What the hell is going on? Is that Feral or you?

There was no immediate reply, and Feral/Menagerie jumped to the side, running around the fire, then hit one of the guys with guns – three of them emptied their pistols into the charging form, but it didn’t slow as it tackled the middle guy to the ground. Claws slashed out at the guy on the left, and he stumbled backward, barely avoiding them. The cat bent over and the guy on the ground screamed for a second before he was cut off by a disgusting, wet sound. I couldn’t see him well, but he stopped moving almost immediately, and when the cat straightened it spat a mouthful of something on the ground.

Help me!” Menagerie screamed. It felt far away, muffled somehow.

She felt terrified, sick, and angry, all at once, but the anger was the strongest. For a second, the cat seemed to twitch and shudder, crouching low and shaking its head, but then it roared again and attacked.

It stopped cold, hitting one of Mary’s orbs, and I realized that she’d moved closer when I wasn’t watching. I was standing in the open like a gawking bystander, but everyone was so busy watching the cat that they didn’t give a shit.

Michaels got back to his feet, pulling Dustin with him, and they started backing toward Mary. The other guys were doing the same, whether they were armed or not. One of them stumbled and the cat’s head swiveled toward him. It took a single step forward, and he screamed in fear, a high-pitched wail, before emptying his gun. He stumbled again, falling to the ground, and crawled away from the cat, staring at the ground in front of himself. He was obviously too terrified to even look at it.

Shotgun Guy came at me, and I only noticed because of Leon’s timely warning. I ducked under a hook punch and got kneed in the stomach. He grabbed my collar and wrenched me down to the ground, pulling a knife from somewhere and stabbing down.

I shoved a hand in front of my face, letting him impale it, and then yanked the knife away and pulled it from my hand. He punched me in the stomach with one hand while trying to keep the knife down on the ground with the other, and I covered his eyes with my free hand, then gave him another flash of light right in the eyes.

“Fucking lights!” he grunted. “Fuck you!”

It gave me a second in which his grip was weaker. I used my free right hand to grab his, letting me bring the knife into play again; he dove away from me, rolling to the side. Unable to see, he didn’t have much choice. I kicked his leg, tripping him, and he landed on his stomach. I put the knife to his throat.

“Don’t move,” I said.

He stilled, and I looked up, trying to see what else had changed.

The cat – I was trying not to think about the fact that Menagerie was in there – continued to prowl back and forth as the bad guys retreated, taking Dustin with them toward the three vehicles. He was out, and Michaels was carrying him; the cat was staring at the kid and looking angrier every step he moved with Michaels. Mary stopped retreating, looking at me.

Heavyweight came back. He jumped into the center of the group of bad guys, knocking them down as he landed. Mary had been looking at me and hadn’t seen him in time to stop him, but when his fist lashed out toward her face it was stopped cold again, inches away. When she hit him again, Heavyweight grabbed for Dustin and missed – then latched onto Michaels instead, taking him along for the ride. Dustin fell on the ground, clearly unconscious; he didn’t look hurt.

The cat sprinted after them, and I figured Michaels was a dead man. I let Shotgun Guy go, sprinting after Heavyweight, and bent space hard. I shot through the middle of the bad guys in a step or two, catching a brief glimpse of surprise on Mary’s face.

Heavyweight saw or heard the cat coming; as it lunged at Michaels, lying on the ground groaning, he hit it with an uppercut under the jaw and it twisted, nearly falling on its back. He kicked it twice, his heavy booted foot making a dull sound as it hit, and the cat was knocked onto its side.

“Get her out of here!” I said.

Heavyweight glanced at me for a second before turning back. He charged the cat as it regained its feet, tackled it shoulder-first, and jumped away. I saw him throw the thing away from himself before he landed out of sight. It looked like one of its feet hit him before I lost sight of them. I could still hear them fighting, though.

I bent over and grabbed Michaels, lifting him up by his neck, and put my knife to his throat, turning to face Mary and the guys with her. At this point, two of them were still in the fight. The others were injured too badly, or caring for those who were. One was edging toward Dustin.

I started walking towards them, shoving Michaels ahead of me, and the two who were in good shape pointed their guns at me. I wanted to run off and help Menagerie and Feral – or at least try to – but I had a bad feeling that if we left without Dustin they might not calm down at all. Not to mention the fact that leaving the kid with these people for any longer was completely unacceptable.

Leon and I conferred for about two seconds.

Before they could do anything, I swept my hand sideways in front of Michaels’ throat and kicked him to the ground, then vanished.

It was dark, and the faint, dark red light I’d held in my hand must have sold the lie; they all reacted like they’d just seen me murder someone and vanish into thin air. Before Michaels could talk and spoil it, I sprinted straight into the group, scooped Dustin up in my arms, and ran. I closed my left eye for a second, gauging how much energy I had: it dropped below one-third.

They shouted behind me and I heard a gunshot, but when I finally turned to look back – halfway across the lawn of the next house – Mary was hurriedly rushing the guys into the cars, including Michaels. One of them stopped and ran back from the van with a container, and I quickly realized he was spreading something – maybe gasoline – over the lawn and the wrecked car. They took two or three unmoving bodies with them; I wasn’t sure if they were dead or just unconscious.

They drove away, leaving the burning house and bloody ground behind them. I was too exhausted to move, but I gratefully let my invisibility drop – I had just a sliver of energy left as I sank to my knees, putting Dustin down for a moment.

Maybe a half-minute after they were gone, a figure came running out of the burning house, and I wondered if it was the last guard – the one I’d left for dead.

When he turned to look back, I caught a better look and realized it was the balding guy who’d picked up the drugs at the storage place. The one we’d thought might be a doctor, or something.

I stood up, holding Dustin in my arms, and started to circle the property, steering clear of the fire and the light it cast, trying to work my way towards where I’d last seen Heavyweight fighting…the cat. The doctor, or whatever he was, turned and ran. He didn’t look like he was going anywhere except away, and I couldn’t blame him. He’d apparently been scared enough to hide in the burning house until it looked like everybody was gone, and given that he hadn’t tried to join the cars before they left, I didn’t think it was Feral that had scared him. Or not just Feral, at least.

I soon heard the sounds of fighting again, as I got farther from the fire. I closed in cautiously, afraid of what I would see.

What I found was Heavyweight smacking the cat with a piece of a fence like it was a baseball bat, hitting it on each side. It was obviously disoriented. The wood broke and he dropped it, laying into the cat with his fists and feet. The firelight was mostly blocked, so I couldn’t see too well; my eyes were adjusting to the decrease in lighting.

I thought a quick prayer. God didn’t owe me any favors, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. This qualified as a time of need.

“Dustin’s safe,” I said loudly.

They both jerked toward me in surprise.

“He’s not hurt,” I said. I meant physically, of course. I wasn’t a doctor, but he seemed fine. Mentally was another matter; I wasn’t sure whether Dustin or Raquel would be more messed up after tonight. Fortunately, I was too exhausted to think it through right then.

The cat looked at Dustin, then me, then growled again.

Feral, it’s over,” Leon said.

Raquel, the fighting is done,” I said. “It’s done. Dustin’s here. We can take him home. Take him back to his mother.

The big cat shook its head fiercely, then slashed at the ground.

A moment later it just dissolved away into nothing, and Raquel fell to the ground. After a few seconds she jerked her mask off and threw up, pushing herself to one side and falling next to the puddle of vomit. Lying there, she retched and sobbed. When nothing more came up, she caught her breath for a few seconds before shoving one hand, finger extended, into her mouth.

She threw up again, convulsively. When it was finally over, she stumbled to her feet and away from the spot, then fell again and kept sobbing, curling up into a ball.

I stared at her, then looked at Heavyweight. He looked back at me, frozen.

I walked up to him and held Dustin out, and he took the kid in his arms.

I grabbed Raquel’s mask, stuffing it in a pocket automatically. No sense leaving extra evidence. Hopefully the fire would destroy the evidence of us, along with the evidence of the bad guys. I walked over to Raquel, kneeling next to her, and put a hand on her shoulder gently.

She twitched violently, but not away from me. She just lay there, shuddering. I squeezed her shoulder. I couldn’t find the right words, assuming any existed. I wasn’t even sure if I could talk, let alone whether I should. I was exhausted.

Raquel’s shudders turned to shivers, then started to slow. After a minute or two, she turned toward me, but she couldn’t quite meet my eyes. It was too dark to see much, but her face was drawn. She tried to talk once, twice, then a third time.

Finally she just looked away.

I’m sorry,” she said silently. I could feel her disgust, a powerful wave of nausea and self-loathing like nothing I’d ever felt from someone else. Leon’s emotions had never been that intense, and Feral always seemed to be a bit aloof when we’d communicated. Raquel felt like she was at sea, clinging to a piece of wreckage and wondering whether she ought to let go.

It’s not your fault,” I said. I didn’t even know if it was true. I certainly didn’t believe she’d intended any of…that…to happen. My stomach was turning as I remembered, but I forced myself to focus on now, on helping Raquel. Everything else could wait.

We need to go,” I said. “The cops will be coming soon.

She didn’t react.

I squeezed her shoulder again. “Please,” I said. “I’ll take care of things, but I need you to get up. We need to move.

Raquel sat up, looking up at me, and this time she did meet my eyes.

I tasted his blood,” she said numbly. “I remember swallowing it.

I grabbed her gently by the armpits and lifted her up, looking her in the eye, then took my mask off so she could see my face.

We’re going to fix this,” I said. I gave it all the confidence and sincerity I could. More of the latter than the former. Leon backed me up.

Raquel closed her eyes, not saying anything else aloud or privately, but when I put an arm under her shoulders, she let me guide her as we walked.

We made it to the car before we heard the police sirens. It was a mostly abandoned part of town. Response times were slow. Besides, it hadn’t actually been that long.

There were towels in the trunk. I’d thought ahead a bit, and figured that we wouldn’t want to bleed on my rented car. I certainly didn’t want to answer any of the questions that would raise, or pay the fees. They went on top of the seats.

Heavyweight and Dustin went in the back. I eased Raquel into the front passenger seat, and the open doors triggered the car’s ceiling light, showing me her face.

She didn’t look hurt. She just looked horrified. Dustin was still out cold. In the dim light from the car, I finally noticed that my shirt was mostly gone, burned away by Dustin’s fire. I took off my mask, got into the driver’s seat, and got us away from that damned place, wondering what the body count was.

I’d have to ask Mary. I’d have to ask her a lot of things.

First things first, though. Get away from the crime scene. Help Dustin and Raquel.

Then I could try to figure out whether I was about to turn into a psychological wreck. I really didn’t want to answer that one yet. I wasn’t sure whether Heavyweight was calm, numb, or just locked up tight behind his mask.

We didn’t say a word as I drove away.

Raquel was still crying in the seat next to me, barely moving as tears dripped down her face.

Silence, for a few minutes. I got some distance, then parked the car when I thought we had privacy. I glanced at Raquel, and saw that her face was still wet. She wasn’t wiping the tears away, so I couldn’t say for certain whether she was still crying or not. I looked back at Heavyweight and Dustin. Heavyweight still wore his mask, and he had one hand holding Dustin upright in his seat.

I sighed.

“Okay,” I said. “Michaels probably got to Dustin. We need to figure out what to do about it.” I rubbed at my eyes absently as I thought. “I’m going to call the Philly Five, see if they can help.”

Raquel didn’t say a word.

Heavyweight cleared his throat. “We should hand the kid over to the police,” he said.

I looked back at him. I didn’t have my mask on, I realized, but it didn’t seem all that important at the time. He still wore his. “The police can’t help him with his brain, and the FBI is a maybe at best. If the Philly Five can’t help, then we can still go to them. If we take him to the FBI first, they might not be able to let the Philly Five try to help, even if they want to. It’s probably against the rules. Assuming they have rules that remotely cover this. If not, then one guy who wants to keep his job could screw him over,” I said, gesturing at Dustin.

He hesitated for a second before nodding. “All right.”

I pulled out my phone and put together a message to Bloodhound. Once it was sent, I looked at Raquel and Heavyweight.

I sighed. “I have no idea when they’ll see my message, or how long it will take them to get here,” I said. “If you guys need to go home, you can.”

Raquel didn’t react. Heavyweight looked at Dustin, then back at me. He didn’t speak, but I could see his answer plainly enough.

I played with my phone a bit, then saw that I’d gotten a message from Mary. Two, actually. One was from before, warning us that she was on her way. The second was more recent.

“Going to lay low for a few days, at least. Please don’t do anything else until we talk. Probably moving to new apartment, too; don’t try to reach me at old one.”

“Dustin okay?”

-MW

I sent back a quick reply.

“Got it. No noise for a bit.”

“Dustin not wounded.”

I showed Raquel the messages, hoping to give her something else to focus on, but she barely noticed.

Raquel, talk to me,” I said. “What are you thinking?

Nothing. I reached out with my right hand, gently taking hold of her left. Her head drooped forward, hiding her face from me, and I looked away.

She’d need to talk to someone, sooner or later. Heavyweight didn’t know as much about her as I did, and couldn’t relate to her connection with Feral the same way. Neither could her mother. As far as I knew, there was no one else who knew as much as I did about this part of her life, so I was nominated by circumstance.

So, should I try to talk to her now, or let it wait?

Hard to say. I generally preferred to be left to myself when I needed to think, or grapple with something tough, but that didn’t mean it was the healthiest choice for me, let alone for her. I didn’t really know that much about Raquel as a person, yet.

We could talk silently, but there was still a difference between conversing alone and talking with two people in the backseat. I decided to wait.

I didn’t let go of her hand, though. Hopefully, the human contact would help her stay sane for now.

It took more than an hour for Bloodhound to reply, but I was just grateful he had gotten to it that night. He said he was on the way with help. I had followed the rules we’d established previously, which meant I couldn’t describe the situation explicitly, but I’d managed to make it clear that we weren’t fighting anymore, and to hint pretty blatantly that the problem was mental tampering. I was hopeful.

“They’re on the way,” I said. “Shouldn’t be too long. I’m taking us to the meeting spot now.”

We went back to the familiar park spot, complete with remnants of a playground. We all sat in the car, waiting.

Bloodhound was as good as his word; they made the trip faster than I’d expected. Comet, Bloodhound, and a third person. Someone I didn’t recognize.

I got out to meet them, and Heavyweight joined me. Raquel stayed where she was. I offered her mask and helped her pull it on when she accepted.

“So, what’s the problem exactly?” Bloodhound asked.

I gestured back to the car. “The kid was kidnapped, held for days. One of the people who had him is supposed to be some kind of telepath or something. When we went to get him, things got messy and he attacked us. It was a pretty bad situation, but I think his head’s been messed with. Some kind of manipulation to make him more loyal, or something like that. We want to get him home, but if he’s just going to snap and start lighting everything on fire, there’s no point. Can you help?”

Bloodhound and Comet turned to look at the third figure. “Stalker?” Comet prompted.

Stalker was female, dressed mostly in black or something dark enough that I couldn’t tell the difference at the time, and shorter than Comet. That was about all I could determine, although I was distracted. Her whole body as concealed, and her outfit looked thickly padded enough that I couldn’t tell how much of her bulk was her body and how much was armor. Even her hair was hidden. It seemed to be a theme for the group, hiding as much as possible about themselves.

Her voice was a bit muffled, too. “Maybe,” she said. “I’ll need to take a look at him. Bring him out.”

The request was clearly directed at me. Heavyweight and I walked back to the car, pulled Dustin out, and brought him over. We set him down on a bench, lying on his back.

We were lucky he hadn’t woken up yet. I hadn’t even seen him fall unconscious. I wasn’t sure what had done it. I had checked his pulse and breathing, just in case, and he seemed fine.

Stalker stood over him, looking down, and didn’t move for a minute. Not wanting to disturb her, I walked over to Comet and Bloodhound.

“I get the feeling you won’t be specific, but does she have a power that might help?” I whispered.

“Yes,” Comet said.

Leon got my attention; he was thinking more clearly than me. When we’d gone up against Blitz, the Philly Five had said they had a telepathic defense, and that one of the group had set it off. At the time, the way they’d said it made me think of a device of some sort. Something one of them or an ally had built.

Now we had an alternative theory to explain it all: Stalker was a telepath. That might explain the odd, contradictory stories about her powers, the fact that she didn’t often reveal herself, and the reason they wouldn’t share a telepathic defense – they couldn’t. If Stalker protected them against other telepaths, presumably she had to be present to do it. Using her powers might not require her targets to see her, so anytime she was seen would be because it was unavoidable, and the rest of the time she would just hide. Why not? It was the smart thing to do. If I was a telepath trying to stop super powered bad guys, I’d just find the edge of my range and set up with a pair of binoculars or something.

We waited. I glanced at Raquel, sitting in the car, a few times. She stayed unmoving.

After a few minutes, Stalker sighed.

“I can help, but this is going to take a while,” she said. “Hours, at least.”

“Okay,” I said.

Raquel, Stalker says she can help but it’s going to take hours at a minimum. Do you want a ride home?” I asked silently.

She didn’t answer. I walked over to the car, opened the door, and leaned down. “Menagerie, do you want a ride home?”

This time she nodded.

I looked at Heavyweight. “You need a ride?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m good. But I have to go. Work tomorrow. Early.”

“Okay,” I said. I looked at Comet. “I’m going to give Menagerie a ride, if that’s okay, but I’ll be back afterward.”

“Sure,” Comet said.

“Any of you need some patching up?” Bloodhound asked.

I glanced at Menagerie, then back at him. “No,” I said. I’d checked before; she wasn’t hurt. Whatever had happened, she’d been protected while it lasted, at least. “I’ll see you shortly.”

“I wouldn’t mind a little patching up,” Heavyweight said quietly. He glanced at Menagerie. I didn’t think she heard him.

Heavyweight walked over to Bloodhound, and I got back into the driver’s seat, starting toward Raquel’s house. I hadn’t driven there before, of course. I knew enough to get to the general area, though, and I managed to get her to talk enough to direct me the rest of the way.

That had been Leon’s idea. A way to get her talking without thinking, if it went well. Distract her.

I stopped the car on her street, before we got to her house, and reached out, putting one hand on her shoulder.

“We’re here,” I said. I took a deep breath before continuing. “When you want to talk about it, get in touch, okay?”

No reaction.

“Raquel,” I said, “promise me that you’ll tell me when you’re ready to talk about it. Please.”

She shook her head. “I don’t even want to think about it,” she said.

“But you are anyway,” I pointed out. “I have a feeling that’s not going to change if you try to just forget.”

“Maybe,” she said.

“Look, it doesn’t have to be me,” I said. “But you’re going to need to talk to someone about what happened. I probably am, too.”

More waiting.

“Don’t leave me alone with her,” Raquel whispered. “Please.”

Her? She didn’t mean her mother.

Oh. Of course.

She meant Feral.

Leon and I were the only ones who could even talk to Feral, besides her. There were others, presumably, but she didn’t know them personally. Bloodhound’s friend, whom we’d met before, might qualify. But she wasn’t around and Raquel didn’t trust her anyway.

Leon and I were silent for a moment, both thinking of what to say.

I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” Feral said to all of us. “Raquel, I‘m sorry. You must know I didn’t mean it, that I didn’t wish for it.

Shut up!” Raquel screamed. Her hands went to her temples, as if she wanted to squeeze something out of her head. “You promised me. You promised that you would never do that to me, but you did. You locked me in my own mind!

Her eyes were tearing up again, though I don’t think she noticed, and her face was contorted with grief and anger.

You know I didn’t want to hurt them,” Feral said. “I’ve always tried to use restraint. Always.

Leon broke in gently, trying to head off the argument. “I think neither of you may have been wholly responsible,” he said. “You’ve both displayed self-control in the past. Remember what Michaels’ powers are? I think he may have done something to you.

That was a frightening possibility that I hadn’t considered.

Leon may be right,” I said quickly.

If he wasn’t, then we were trying to absolve them of responsibility for murder. I really wanted him to be right. Regardless, I thought Raquel and Feral would be a lot less dangerous to everyone if they didn’t have a breakdown.

I felt a stab of sadness as I realized I would be keeping a closer eye on both of them from now on, regardless of what happened from here on out. Maybe Raquel had lost control because of how much she cared about Dustin. Maybe Feral had lost control for some other reason. Maybe Michaels had pushed one or both of them. It didn’t matter, in a sense; they couldn’t be trusted as much as before, at least around Michaels. Someone needed to watch them. Leon and I were there.

Raquel, you were as angry as I was,” Feral said. “Both of us were blind with rage. Leon must be right.

Now I was second-guessing how quickly she seized on the idea. Dammit.

I squeezed Raquel’s shoulder again.

I know you both,” I said. “I believe in you both. You’re better than that. Michaels must have done something. Maybe it was part of trying to turn Dustin against us, or maybe his powers didn’t work right – he could have been planning something else entirely.

Maybe,” Raquel said. “I guess…maybe.

There was a spark of hope there. Now we just had to keep it alive long enough for her to bounce back.

I’m sorry I couldn’t help you both,” I said. “Maybe if we learn more, we can keep it from happening. But for now…you need to let it go. You guys set out to save someone – a kid. A lot went wrong tonight, but we still got him out. The Philly Five are helping him, and pretty soon he should be going home to his mother. That’s because of you guys. Without you, Heavyweight and I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved, and we wouldn’t have found Mary either. You’ve done some good work. Don’t beat yourselves up over things going wrong when you couldn’t have known they would.

A second later, I realized I was holding my breath and let it out slowly. I didn’t want Raquel and Feral to realize how nervous I was.

The truth was that I remembered what the thing they’d become had been like. It hadn’t looked that different from Feral’s form, but it had felt different, somehow, and when it had torn out a man’s throat it had made the act look natural. I wasn’t over that.

“Thanks,” Raquel said.

On instinct, I pulled her into a quick hug. “Come on. You need to rest. Let’s get you home, okay? Tomorrow can take care of itself until you’ve gotten some sleep. I promise I’ll be in touch first thing, to let you know how everything goes with Dustin.”

She nodded. “Okay.”

I drove up in front of her house and let her out, and both of them thanked us as they walked to the front door. I saw Raquel’s mother open it before she got there, letting her in and sweeping her into a hug.

I guess she’d been worried. Part of me wondered if I should tell her everything that had happened, but there was no way I’d betray Raquel like that. Still, maybe I could encourage her to tell Carmen more, if she didn’t do it on her own.

That wouldn’t be remotely hypocritical.

Sleepy sarcasm. I needed rest too.

Think they’re okay for now?” I asked Leon.

For now, yes,” he said. “What about you?

I snorted. “Right now I’m worried about Dustin, Raquel, and Feral. I’m in one piece and I don’t think I’m scarred for life. That’s good enough for now.” I rolled my shoulders, trying to release the tension I suddenly noticed there. “How about you?

All right, I think,” Leon answered. “Worried about them, like you. I guess we’ll see where things go from here.

Ready to head back?” I asked.

Yes, let’s,” he said.

Okay.

I turned the car around. Carmen gave me a little nod before she closed their door.
 
 
 
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If At First You Don’t Succeed 1

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“Done. He should be moving soon.”

I glanced at Raquel, sitting in the passenger seat next to me. She put her phone away after reading the message.

“You ready?” she asked.

“Not really,” I said. I took a deep breath. “Let’s go see an asshole about a kid.”

I felt stupid after saying it, since we didn’t go anywhere right away. For lack of anything better to do, I checked my mirrors again to make sure they were in the right position.

Heavyweight – whatever his real name was – had turned to the side, his hood hiding his face from me. He was essentially trusting Raquel and I not to look at his face, since wearing any kind of mask in the car was likely to attract attention and defeat the purpose of using it.

I hadn’t expected him to show up; when we told him what was going on he’d been a bit unhappy with our handling of the situation, and he’d also said that he could only make it if he could trade shifts with someone. Apparently that had worked out.

I pried my eyes away from the mirrors. I wasn’t planning to peek at his face, but I’m not immune to curiosity. Raquel leaned back and closed her eyes, presumably so she could look through Feral’s and block out her own senses more easily. We were sitting in a Zipcar I’d rented; after some thought, we’d decided that trying to follow Michaels as Flicker, Menagerie, and Heavyweight was too risky. If he recognized us, things could go badly. If someone else recognized us, things could go badly. If someone else didn’t recognize us, but thought we looked suspicious, things could still go badly.

So I’d had the idea of renting a car instead. Flicker, Menagerie, and Heavyweight, running down the street and going over buildings, were blatant and suspicious; David, Raquel, and a random guy in the backseat, sitting in a car, were boring and unremarkable. Michaels shouldn’t know what we looked like. Feral, warned by Mary Wade (or whatever her real name was) of where to go, had been waiting for Michaels in the parking lot of his hotel, ready to hop onto the underside of his car and hang on before he could leave. We were in the parking lot of the McDonalds across the street and down a bit, waiting to see which direction he would go.

“He’s out,” Raquel said. “And…she’s on the car. Honda, green. Not new, but in good shape.”

I started my car and pulled out of the space, heading unhurriedly for the exit. I stopped myself from asking which way to go; she would tell me as soon as she knew.

“Our left,” Raquel said.

I pulled out, turning left. Traffic wasn’t bad. We’d had the advantage of coordinating with Mary and knowing when she was going to give the all-clear signal to Michaels, and we’d intentionally waited until traffic was low. School was over for the day for both Raquel and I, too, which had apparently made her mother happier, though I gathered that – despite our fairly pleasant first meeting – she was anything but happy about the situation. Resigned, maybe. Regretfully proud was the description Leon had come up with.

On the bright side, Raquel was less tense. She hadn’t said it straight out, but Leon and I had decided that her conversation with her mother must have gone well, overall.

I was wondering what kind of job Heavyweight had. I got the impression that it was normal for him to be working at these hours, when most people were home or headed there.

We shouldn’t think about it,” Leon broke in. “Let him have his secrets. We keep ours, too.

I acknowledged the little rebuke, and brought my thoughts back to the present, focusing on the road. The light turned green, and I put my foot down to get us moving again.

“Is the car in sight of us?” I asked Raquel aloud.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Hang on.”

She opened her eyes and leaned forward, looking around. “Yeah, there – you see it? Light green, one lane over, ahead of us.”

She pointed, and I spotted the vehicle; there were a few cars between us.

“I see it,” I said. “Okay. Looks like we’re turning.”

I moved over into the turning lane, thankful there was room already, and hit my signal. Less traffic didn’t mean no traffic, since we were fairly deep in the city, but I regarded that as a good thing; it should mean that we wouldn’t stand out too much.

Following a car without being obvious isn’t easy, but with Feral clinging to the underside of the trunk and Raquel sitting next to me I had a completely unfair advantage. We stuck behind Michaels, keeping a car or two between us for a while. When it was down to just our two vehicles, I turned right and then moved onto the street parallel to the one Michaels was on, trusting in Feral and Raquel to make certain I didn’t lose track of our target; we were moving out of toward the fringes of the city, and I was more nervous about the possibility of us getting recognized.

Michaels turned at one point, then drove in a little loop, doubling back on his own course. When we realized what he was doing, I almost panicked, fearing that he’d spotted us, but he soon returned to his previous direction.

“Maybe it was just a precaution?” Raquel said. “Even if he isn’t particularly worried about today, maybe what happened before is making him feel cautious.”

I didn’t reply.

We passed into an area that was nearly abandoned-looking, with warehouses, some empty lots, and a few other businesses that had closed. Almost no cars or people. Michaels’ car turned into the parking lot associated with a storage business; long rows of individual rooms (or lockers; whatever they’re called). I started looking for a place to park that was out of sight, letting Raquel and Heavyweight out first. I managed to park in a couple of minutes.

On my way,” I told Raquel.

He’s parked, but it looks like he’s waiting for something,” she said.

I walked away from the car and put on my mask and gloves – I’d bought a pair of leather gloves, figuring it would be nice not to leave fingerprints all over the place – and started sprinting toward the storage facility. It was surrounded by a fence, of course, and had a guard at the booth watching the entrance, but I didn’t think we’d have trouble getting around that problem.

I caught up to Heavyweight and Menagerie, waiting in an alleyway across the street from the storage facility. We couldn’t see the parking lot from where we stood. Heavyweight was leaning back against a brick wall, arms crossed, while Menagerie was crouched and hunched forward. As I got closer, I saw that her eyes were closed again. Both were now masked, and Heavyweight still had his hood up.

“Is Feral still with him?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Menagerie said. “He’s just leaning on his car. I don’t get it.”

“Waiting for something,” Heavyweight chimed in. “Someone?”

“Maybe,” she said.

Nothing happened for a few minutes.

“He’s on the phone, hang on,” Menagerie said. “Sounds like someone is about to get here.”

“Let’s get up high so we can see,” Heavyweight suggested, jerking a thumb upward.

“Okay,” I agreed. I didn’t think I’d see much – it was getting dark – but I remembered that Heavyweight had better eyes than me. He might spot something that Feral couldn’t without giving herself away.

“I’ll need a lift,” Menagerie said.

“I got it,” Heavyweight said. He picked her up easily and just jumped, going almost straight up. Despite how impressive it looked, he landed with surprisingly little noise.

I jumped after him and stretched. The roof wasn’t too tall, but I slipped and barely caught the edge instead of landing smoothly. Without words, Heavyweight grabbed my arms and helped me up and over.

“Thanks,” I said quietly.

“No problem,” he replied.

We both walked to the edge of the roof, looking out. After a couple of minutes, another car pulled into the lot.

“A couple people getting out,” Heavyweight said. “Looks like-”

“Shh!” Menagerie cut him off. “Feral can hear them.”

Heavyweight and I waited silently.

“Three guys,” Menagerie said quietly. “Looks like two are muscle, probably. Not sure about the other one.”

“They’re moving,” Heavyweight commented.

I couldn’t see well at all; there were some lights in the parking lot, but not much lighting elsewhere, and I quickly lost sight of them.

“We need to get in there,” I said. “Heavyweight, can you jump the fence while carrying us?”

He turned toward me. “One at a time, yes. Both is iffy.”

“Me first,” I said. “Now.”

Heavyweight picked me up and walked to the edge of the roof, then backed up a bit and got a running start before leaping; my stomach felt like it was somersaulting as I saw the street below us turn into the storage area, and I shrank the distance to the ground as much as I could, trying to soften our landing. I assume it worked, since there was less noise than I’d expected.

“Hey,” I whispered as he put me down, “I know it’s ridiculous to say, but try to be as quiet as you can. I’m going to get where I can see them.”

He nodded acknowledgment and jumped back the way we came, landing somewhere out of my view. I knew he hadn’t gone straight back up to the roof; presumably, he couldn’t, or at least he wasn’t confident that he could do it in the dark from so far away without making noise.

I turned toward the parking lot and ran to the closest row of storage lockers between me and it, going up the wall.

What are they doing?” I asked. “Still walking?

Yeah,” Menagerie said, “they’re on the far end, moving away from the parking lot; they haven’t found their row yet, I guess.

Thanks,” I said. I walked over the rooftop; it curved, and I didn’t think I could run without slipping and falling. I didn’t think I’d fall off the roof, but it would be noise, and with no other customers apparently present, Michaels and his friends might hear me.

We’re in,” Menagerie told me. “On the way.

I reached the end of my row shortly afterward. I could see the four of them walking, with Michaels in front, and I got a good look as they passed me. Of the other three, two looked a lot like the guys we’d seen the other night, although they weren’t in uniform. I wondered if they were employees of BPSC. The last guy had a bag and didn’t look like he was there to fight. He looked like the kind of guy who would be wearing glasses if he were on TV, despite not having a pair. He was partially bald, and he looked nervous; I wondered if he was there by choice or if he had been pressed into service.

They’re still moving,” I said. “Can Feral see them?

Yeah, she can,” Menagerie assured me. “So, how do we want to play this? Jump them as soon as they open their door, or what?

Let’s see what’s inside first,” I said. “Dustin might be here, but they also might be picking something up before they go see him. We can’t blow our opportunity.

Okay,” she said.

If he is in there, alone, then we should make our move, though,” I continued. “I’ll go for one of the two guys with guns. Feral can take the other. Menagerie and Heavyweight hang back for now.

A pause. “Heavyweight figures he should go first, with Feral,” Menagerie said. “You’re not bulletproof.”

Is he?” I asked. As we spoke, I was following the foursome across the storage lot; Feral came up to join me on the roof, nearly scaring the crap out of me. Thankfully, Leon warned me she was coming.

He’s not totally sure,” she said a second later. “He’s never actually been shot. But he got hit by Silhouette and walked it off, and she looked like she was in Comet’s weight class.

Not worth it,” I said. “For now, Michaels hasn’t seen Heavyweight. For all they know, he’s out of town on vacation or something. Let’s keep it that way unless we absolutely can’t; I may not be bulletproof, but I can heal a bullet hole if I need to. That’s good enough. Feral for one guard, me for the other. Then we take down the other two guys, call the police, and get Dustin on his way home. If he’s not there, we do nothing; we’ll leave and follow them when they finish here. If Dustin’s there with more guards…we’ll have to see what the odds look like.

Another pause as she conferred with Heavyweight again. “Okay.

I could feel her dissatisfaction, but I was pretty sure she was just unhappy with the situation, not with me. I couldn’t blame her for that.

I managed to keep up with Michaels and the people with him, and soon found myself on a roof, looking down at them. Feral was next to me, crouched low as if ready to spring, leaning down. I raised my eyes, looking around. “Where are you guys?” I asked.

Across from you and on your right,” Menagerie said. I saw her wave, briefly, returned it, and then looked down again.

Michaels leaned down and unlocked a door, then opened it, pulling it up – like a garage door.

I can’t see in clearly,” I said. “I’m hopping down.

All of them were looking in. I dropped down, using my powers to soften my landing and then turning myself invisible as soon as I had landed safely.

Leon, how are we doing?” I asked.

Check for yourself,” he suggested.

Oh, right. I still wasn’t used to it, but we’d managed to find a way for me to track how much power I had left at any given time. Leon had come up with the idea. It was rough, but it worked.

I closed my left eye, calling up a visualization. Magic doesn’t look like anything, as far as I know, but since we’re so accustomed to relying on our eyesight, and I couldn’t know directly how much energy I had at my disposal, we’d figured that a solution I could see would be best. Leon, inspired by my love of video games and looking for a simple answer, had come up with one.

With a few seconds of focus, my closed left eye ceased to be blind, instead showing me a clear – if artificial – image. It wasn’t based on Leon’s ability to hide me from sight, or on what Bloodhound had showed us, except in the most general sense; those, as far as I could tell, involved manipulating or creating real light. This was an illusion. Since it was only for me, it was very easy to create. The hard part was linking it to the magical…reservoir, I guess, is the best word, inside me.

Between the two of us, we’d gotten it figured out. What I saw was simple enough – a pair of vertical bars, parallel to each other. One was labelled “L”, the other “D”, for Leon and David respectively.

Both bars were still nearly full. One nice thing about driving to get here; I hadn’t used up any power en route. I was fully rested, and so was Leon. The minimal rooftop-hopping we’d done barely counted, although I knew that being invisible would drain me constantly, especially if I moved around. Still, for now I was fine.

Okay. Looks like we’re in good shape.” I noted.

I returned my full attention to the bad guys. The door was open, but I couldn’t see inside; the view was blocked by thin partitions, like the kind used in some offices. Michaels started to go around them, followed by the last guy, while the two dangerous-looking guys stayed outside.

I described the situation to Menagerie.

I’m following them,” I said. “We need to see inside. If anything goes wrong, Feral can jump down and deal with these two clowns; they won’t be able to see me inside anyway, and guns won’t hurt her.

Okay,” Menagerie said. “Be careful. Heavyweight and I will lay low unless you call us.

I walked as quietly as I could, hoping the two goons wouldn’t be that observant. I went past them and around the partitions, carefully. Inside, there were lights on already. I closed my left eye again, keeping an eye on my reserves. Leon’s were dropping steadily as I moved, although I thought it was still easier than during the day, which made some sense; there was less light now, after all.

Inside, I saw Michaels and the other guy walk over to a cabinet. It looked like the storage space was being used for its intended purpose.

Dustin’s not here,” I said. “Back off for now. Heavyweight, Menagerie, you guys should head back to the car. I’ll stay close for now in case they say anything. Feral can wait by their cars; if we’re lucky, this is a stop on the way to the kid.

The two men barely exchanged any words; Michaels helped the other guy – apparently a doctor, or something – find a couple of drawers. He pulled out a few bottles.

My stomach sank a bit. If they were stopping here to pick up something like that before seeing Dustin, that had implications I didn’t want to think about too much. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ignore them.

It looks like a supply run,” I said to Menagerie. “Some kind of drugs or something. Not sure what kind, though.

Those fuckers,” Menagerie said. “I wish we could juts tear them apart instead of leaving them for the cops.

Me too,” I said, with more sympathy than honesty. “Priorities, though. Dustin first.

Absolutely,” Menagerie said. “Assholes can always wait.

I hurriedly tip-toed for the door; Michaels and his friend looked like they were done.

I got out shortly before them, barely stopping myself from running. As they left, I instinctively started to follow them, then stopped myself; Feral should be waiting at their cars. I wasn’t needed there. I glanced back at the storage room’s number, noting it down on my phone for future reference, and then ran for the entrance, relieved that I could drop my invisibility.

Heavyweight, can you give me a lift again?

Yeah,” he said. “You ready?

Yup. Same place.

It took us a minute to meet up where we’d come in, but after that a safe, discreet exit was only one stomach-churning leap away.

I wished, not for the first time, that I could fly. Getting carried by a super-strong leaping guy isn’t a mode of travel I’d recommend to anyone, no matter how safe it may be.

We landed without incident. We got back to the car, we ditched our masks, and I got back in the driver’s seat.

“Michaels is getting in the car with two of the other guys,” Raquel said. “The last one is getting in the car he used to come here. It’s one of the goons. I figure we follow Michaels and the doctor.”

“Agreed,” I said. “Heavyweight?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Can’t see any reason to follow the other guy right now. Wish we could do both.”

“Me too,” I agreed, “but if he saw us and warned them, it might not matter. Besides, Michaels is the most dangerous one here. If he doesn’t lead us to Dustin, that should mean we have more time.”

Following the car was a bit more tense this time, since there were even fewer cars on the road now. It was all the way dark out, and while cities always have lights, Berkeleyport wasn’t all that busy. It was distinctly lacking in the nightlife department, and most of what it did have was localized – and we were in the wrong part of town for it.

With all that in mind, I tried to parallel the car we were following, rather than just pulling in behind them. Either Michaels or his driver was more paranoid than before, because they took a route that was circuitous at best and downright obtuse at worst, doubling back on themselves more than once. Without Feral’s timely warnings, we would have either been spotted or lost them completely at least three times. It made me wish I had someone who could teach me how to follow cars the right way, but for now I was just relieved we could cheat.

After at least a half hour of driving around, most of it spent going nowhere, they finally seemed to settle on a direction. With Raquel and Feral playing navigator, we kept up, and eventually they pulled into the driveway of a house on a street that looked abandoned. Feral warned us not to follow them, so we stayed back, parking the car on the previous street. When they stopped and got out, we did the same, putting our masks back on.

They’ve gone inside the house,” Feral said. “I couldn’t follow them without being spotted. We need to either look for another way in or give up on stealth.

I turned to Heavyweight and Menagerie. “I’m going around the back. You guys go where you can watch the front, preferably including both sides, and still stay together.”

“Okay,” Menagerie said. Heavyweight nodded. I took off.

There weren’t any cars in any of the other driveways, there weren’t any lights on in any of the other houses that I could see, and there were, in general, no other signs of human habitation except in the one house. All of them had gone inside, but if we followed they would probably know immediately, no matter how sneaky we wanted to be.

Why can’t they be considerate and at least leave a freaking window open or something?” I wondered at Leon.

He sent me a burst of amusement, but I could tell that he felt frustrated, as I did. We needed a way in, or at least a way to see in.

I made it to the backyard of the house next to the one they’d entered and tried to look more closely. Behind Michaels house was an overgrown garden and a couple of trees, but no fence, at least. I could see the back door and a few rear and side windows. I started to walk over, slowly, looking at where I put my feet. I didn’t want to kick something by accident and make noise.

Down!” Leon warned.

I dropped to the dirt immediately, tilting my head up so I could see and then staying still.

I heard something,” Leon said.

I frowned a bit. Leon was using my ears…but then again I had been focused on my eyes and where I was going. It wasn’t odd for him to pick up on something I’d missed.

What?” I asked.

Not sure,” he replied. “I’m warning the others to be careful now. Menagerie isn’t happy about it.

We can’t wait!” I heard her say suddenly. I could feel her frustration and impatience in the words. “They have drugs, Michaels is a telepath or something, and there’s a kid in there getting brainwashed! We’ve waited too long already!

David, look!” Leon said. I focused on the house and saw a window open. Whoever was inside turned the light in the room off, so I couldn’t see them clearly. After a few seconds, the window closed again.

Did he see us?” I asked Leon.

I don’t know,” he answered. “Maybe. We can’t be sure.

Menagerie, Feral, they might have just seen me,” I warned. “We should assume they know we’re here. There’s no point waiting long now; Feral, I think if you go in the front it should distract them. Heavyweight, you can join me back here and we’ll go in the other entrance, then work our way upstairs. Menagerie, keep an eye on the outside and warn us if any of them makes a break for it. Go ahead and call the cops; tell them there’s a disturbance or something. I imagine it’ll be true in a minute anyway.

Flicker, wait!” Menagerie said. “I just got a message from Mary – Michaels called for help. More guys with guns are on the way, and she’s coming too. She says we probably have a few minutes before they get here, but not long.

Dammit. Did she confirm that Dustin’s here at least?” I asked.

Michaels said he is, yes,” she responded.

Okay, then this is our shot. We need to take it. Everybody ready?

We’re good,” Menagerie said. “Heavyweight is on his way. Say when you’re ready and Feral will knock.

Heavyweight didn’t take long to get to me; rather than going around, he just leapt over the house. I wouldn’t have seen him until the last second if I hadn’t been looking up to watch the windows, but I was, so I saw him – or rather, saw a dark, person-shaped blur – coming down. He landed a bit away from me.

I pointed to the door. “Ready?”

“Yeah,” he said.

Go!” I said silently, and at the same time, “go!”

Heavyweight sprinted up to the door and kicked it without stopping, his foot striking just next to the doorknob. I heard something give way and the door was knocked open. I was running after him by then. A second later, I heard a shattering sound from farther away as I ran into the house behind Heavyweight.

I heard yelling and a few gunshots – I recognized that sound much better now – which seemed to be coming from upstairs. There were more crashing noises and a growl that I guessed was Feral, and I heard somebody scream and run – probably away from Feral, which was sensible.

Stepping in, I saw that we were in a living room or something like it, next to the kitchen. It was a pretty big house from the outside, I thought, but still in a city, so it wasn’t huge. Two stories. I expected the kid to be upstairs; this had been a sort-of long-term arrangement, and presumably if they were trying to make him loyal he’d have his own bedroom. Still, we couldn’t assume.

“I’m checking down here,” I told Heavyweight. “Watch the back door until I get back, then we go up.”

I didn’t wait for his reply. I figured they couldn’t get past him easily, and no one normal would be eager to jump from the second floor’s windows. I sprinted through the downstairs areas of the house, avoiding the bottom of the staircase, where I could see Feral knocking down another goon. There were two pistols on the floor. I barely registered anything about the downstairs rooms; all I cared about was whether or not they had people in them.

After less than a minute my circuit was over and I stopped in front of Heavyweight, nodding. “Done. Ready to go up?”

“Yeah,” he said.

Feral, we’re going to head upstairs. A distraction would be nice,” I said.

Done!,” she replied. I caught a strong sense of anger from her; enough that I was a bit worried. When Heavyweight and I reached the stairs, I saw that the two downed goons were in bad shape: one was clutching a leg that had –

I barely managed to stop myself from throwing up. There was a piece of bone sticking out of the guy’s leg, and it was bent at a horrific angle. The second guy looked better off, but that was a low bar to clear; his face was bloody, and it looked like he was holding some of the skin on with his bare hands as he lay there whimpering in pain. I ran past them, feeling sick.

Feral, what the hell are you doing? You don’t need to hurt these guys, just disarm them and stall them so we can get Dustin!

I know what I’m doing, David!” she snarled at me.

Menagerie, rein her in! She’s going to kill somebody if you don’t!

I wasn’t a doctor, but the amount of blood I’d seen on the ground was worrying. I wasn’t sure she hadn’t already killed somebody, even if they weren’t dead just yet. Heavyweight and I reached the stairs and I started running up; he just leapt straight to the top, going clean over me. I saw Feral rounding the corner out of sight as I set my foot on the first step.

More gunshots, and I saw Heavyweight flinch instinctively, although he didn’t look hurt and he didn’t start bleeding. Just the noise surprising him, I guess. I reached the top of the stairs, turning the corner to follow Feral, with Heavyweight just in front of me.

We were close behind Feral; as I turned I saw someone slamming the door shut and then she slashed with her claws – longer than I was used to seeing them – and I heard a scream as she tore a chunk from the door. She growled and leapt at it, and the door came off of its hinges, falling on the man on the other side, who had been trying to hold it closed. His leg was bloody too, though I couldn’t see how bad it was.

The first thing I noticed in the room was a line of four guys, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, each holding a gun. Two of them had pistols out. The other two had something else, and I didn’t wait to see what it was; I dove into the nearest doorway to any room other than that one, bending space as hard as I ever had, just in time to hear a deafening racket. Feral growled – in anger rather than pain – and I thought I heard Heavyweight grunt. I stood up, glanced around just enough to conclude that the room I was in was nearly empty – two twin beds were across from each other, each with a suitcase at its foot, and there was a single lamp, but that was it – and then cautiously moved back towards the door.

There was more shooting, and I saw Heavyweight walk past my doorway with one arm in front of his eyes. I assumed that he wasn’t sure they were bulletproof. He didn’t look hurt, that I could see, but he was moving fast. Feral roared and I heard another scream of pain.

Menagerie, you need to control Feral!” I yelled again. As soon as the shooting stopped, I turned invisible and poked my head out to see what was happening.

Shut up!” Menagerie yelled back. “Stop worrying about these assholes and help Dustin!

In the room it was chaos. The lights weren’t broken. I could see Michaels and Dustin in the back corner of the room. Just inside the doorway, one goon was still on the ground, feebly failing to crawl out from under the door with one arm and one leg while the other hand tried to hold the gash on his left leg closed. Further in, two more men who had guns a minute ago weren’t moving at all, though one didn’t look bloody. The last two were standing in front of Michaels and Dustin. One held a pistol, and his hands were shaking, while the other held a shotgun. He looked steadier. There was something familiar about him.

In the middle of the room, wrestling each other, were Heavyweight and Feral. Feral wasn’t foaming at the mouth, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if she started; she looked like her name, now, thrashing wildly as she attempted to break free, but Heavyweight seemed to have her partially pinned. He was behind her back, with one arm hooked around her forelegs and the other around her neck. He couldn’t hold her still, but he was preventing her from attacking anyone else.

They rolled over one of the motionless goons and he screamed in pain, retching, then tried to roll and crawl away from them. One of Feral’s kicking rear legs hit him in the back and he grunted again, then crawled faster.

Michaels looked scared, but Dustin looked absolutely terrified.

God dammit, Feral, you’re killing them and you’ve already scared Dustin shitless!” I yelled silently. “Fucking calm down!

She either didn’t hear me, or didn’t care. I decided that my only chance at saving this clusterfuck was ending the situation; maybe if I could get Dustin clear and take away her excuse for going insane, Menagerie would have an easier time calming Feral down. Leon suggested that Dustin’s situation was probably making Menagerie emotional herself; that could be part of the problem. If he was safe, then maybe Menagerie could assert control more easily.

I could hope.

Besides, I wasn’t up to wrestling Feral. I would just get in Heavyweight’s way.

I jumped over the guy still half-buried under the door and ran across the room, trying to get behind the two guys with guns, but one of them twitched, and I realized where I’d seen him – it had been a poor view, which was why I failed to identify him immediately. He was the guy who’d found Menagerie and I the other night, when we’d been running away from Michaels’ house. The guy that I’d injured badly, who Mary had said wasn’t supposed to be here.

I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, and it intensified when he turned toward me as I took my first few steps into the room.

Menagerie! Watch your back, Mary might have set us up!” I warned.

He was turning his shotgun towards me when Feral suddenly stopped struggling for a second, then roared again and slashed at the floor with her two free legs, even managing a flailing half-slash with the claws on her front paws.

The section of floor splintered, creaked, and gave out, and Heavyweight and Feral fell through into the kitchen. Dustin screamed in fear, Michaels stifled what sounded like a hysterical laugh, and the two goons jerked in surprise. The one with the pistol accidentally let off a shot towards the hole in the ground, and the guy with the shotgun lost his footing as the floor under him twisted, managing to fall away from the mess of splinters and the hole in the floor.

I stepped forward, next to the guy with the pistol – completely out of his line of fire – and grabbed him by the wrists, still invisible, as I kneed him in the gut. He moaned in pain and I yanked him forward, off-balance, then twisted his wrists until he dropped the gun. I kicked it into the hole and shoved him face first into the wall, then kicked the shotgun guy in the face twice while he was down, before kicking his gun down the hole too. He tried to grab my foot by feel, got my ankle with one hand, then let go when I dropped to my other knee and punched him in the stomach three times. I grabbed his head and slammed it into the side of the dresser he was next to, and he slumped to the floor on his side, dazed.

David, check batteries,” Leon warned. I closed my left eye for a second, and found that Leon was almost out of energy, though I still had plenty. We’d determined that using the powers I’d gained from Leon drained him, but he could resupply from me if needed.

I glanced around to make certain the goons were all down. The one who’d been under the door was still moving, slowly, but he was unarmed. The others were in similar situations; none of them was doing more than moaning and clutching at injuries. I dropped my invisibility, standing back up and facing Michaels and Dustin.

“Let the kid go and we’ll leave,” I said. It occurred to me as I spoke that I wasn’t sure whether we could keep that promise, the way Feral was acting. I stood there, staring them down, but neither of them spoke for a moment. I felt a sharp pang of guilt as it occurred to me that Dustin probably wouldn’t feel reassured to be going with the people who’d caused the mess he’d just witnessed part of. I couldn’t blame him for that. We’d just have to get him to the cops as soon as possible, and hope that he’d be all right.

Still, the sight of the man downstairs, with the bone poking out, flashed in my mind. I remembered that at least one goon in that very room wasn’t moving. He might be dead already.

David, he’s trying something,” Leon warned me after a second.

“Michaels, or whatever you want me to call you, give up the kid now,” I said. I tried to sound menacing. I’d never been a great bluffer, but presumably it works better when the other guy knows you can turn invisible. It was a less useful ability than I would have thought, but still potentially frightening, and if I could just intimidate Michaels into giving up, it wouldn’t matter that I was rapidly becoming less willing to hurt anyone that night.

Michaels finally moved, but he didn’t talk to me.

“I’m sorry, Dustin,” he said. I stepped forward immediately, afraid he would hurt the kid, but before I could act he continued talking. “I tried to hide you from them as long as I could,” he said.

What?

I opened my mouth, but froze for a second when I saw Dustin’s face – pale, drawn, and afraid. Currently, if I went by where his eyes were pointed, he was afraid of me.

I heard more scuffling below – presumably Heavyweight and Feral were still going at it – and then I felt a sudden pain in my leg and I fell backward.

I hit and my breath rushed from my chest, and then I felt fingers closing around my neck. The shotgun guy, the same bastard from the other night, dropped a table leg – that must have been what he hit me with – as he started choking me, straddling me so I couldn’t move. I twisted to try to loosen his grip, but I was slow getting my hands up and he was hanging on like his life depended on it. I couldn’t loosen his grip, and I lost track of time as my lungs started to burn with a need to be filled. I couldn’t think clearly.

There!” Leon thought, the notion highlighting the discarded table leg. I groped half-blindly for it, barely able to see it in my peripheral vision, and then swung it as hard as I could at the guy’s head. I missed the first time, hitting his shoulder weakly. The second swing narrowly missed his eye, and he twitched in reflex, recoiling slightly. I felt a trickle of air flow into my lungs and started to swing madly, bloodying his lip and scraping his cheek, embedding splinters there, but he wouldn’t let go and soon stopped flinching. With my right hand I managed to seize his left thumb, and I tried to wrench it back in the wrong direction; that hand loosened and let go as he tried to stop me from breaking the thumb, and I yanked that hand sharply to the side, as hard as I could, while I bucked up and in the same direction with my hips. The force was enough to knock him off of me, and we both landed on our sides, facing each other. He managed to grab the wrist of my free hand and he kneed my in the stomach. For a moment my grip slackened. I’d lost the table leg, and he tried to push me over onto my other side, so my back would be facing him. I stopped another knee by letting it hit me in the shin instead of the stomach or the groin, then he managed to yank on my shoulders and turn me over, and his arm locked around my throat. I tried to kick him, but the angle was bad and I couldn’t see what I was doing, so I missed. I still hadn’t gotten my breath back, and I knew I didn’t have long.

In a moment of inspiration, I remembered the last time I’d been caught. I bent space again, and it gave me just enough room to get the fingers of my left hand, then the hand itself, between his arm and my throat. My right hand grabbed the table leg – which I could see again – by the undamaged end, and then I blindly jabbed it backwards at him.

He screamed into my ear in pain and his grip loosened; my left hand levered his arm away from my throat, and I rolled over my side away from him, then stood up.

He rolled the other way, and grabbed a shotgun – not the one he’d originally had – using it to lever himself up. Before he could point it at me I stepped forward and hit it with my improvised club, knocking it out from under him. He fell back to the ground, and I started kicking him while he was down.

He wrenched the gun around and pulled the trigger, but it wasn’t pointed up at me. I jumped onto the bed, out of the way, but still felt a twinge of pain in my right leg; he’d probably hit me there. He started to stand again and I shut my eyes tightly, checking my batteries again as I triggered a bright, instantaneous flash of white light.

That got another reaction, and when I opened my eyes Dustin, Michaels, and the shotgun guy were all blinking furiously. I grabbed his right wrist – the hand that was holding the weapon while his left instinctively rubbed at his eyes – and yanked the weapon away. From his reaction, I might have broken a finger or two. I tossed it down the hole, then wrenched his arm behind him and yanked upward. I’m not sure what it did, but it definitely broke or dislocated something. Then I grabbed him by the hair and slammed his face into the nearest wall three times. I glanced down in the hole and didn’t see Feral or Heavyweight – they must have moved somewhere else – so I dumped him down there for good measure, wanting to be absolutely sure he’d stay out of my way this time.

Then I turned back to Michaels and Dustin.

Michaels lunged at me, wearing an unpleasant expression that I couldn’t read, and my kick caught him in the chest. He fell onto his back, between me and Dustin, and twisted his head to look “up” at Dustin, grimacing and gasping in more pain than he should have felt.

“Dustin,” he wheezed, “help!”

Dustin, looking even more frightened and unhinged, was shaking as his hands came up. A few weak sparks cracked out into the air.

I unfroze and stepped forward, and Michaels crab-walked away from me, letting out a panicked scream, but he was almost smiling.

I stopped moving and tried to say something, but I couldn’t think of the rights words.

Dustin raised his hands and closed his eyes, and a wave of fire poured out.

I felt heat as I dived back behind the bed.
 
 
 
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Knowledge is Power 2

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My hands reached the top of the wall and I scrabbled for a grip to haul myself up. Desperation gave me the strength to pull myself over the rim of the wall and onto the roof of the building – whatever it was, I hadn’t even had time to look – and I let myself fall forward and out of sight. I was getting fatigued and my stomach hurt like hell where I’d pulled Smith’s little present out, but Leon urged me on, talking me through his plan a bit at a time. At his direction, I sprinted like mad for the other end of the roof, looking over my shoulder, then quickly came to a halt and tapped into my other power, turning myself invisible. I’d been too slow.

As I stopped, Skyscraper’s head came into view, followed by more of him as he grew to massive size again. He didn’t look particularly angry, but it was still imposing as hell, especially since I was standing still with nothing between the two of us. Trusting my powers was one thing when I was using them to move out of the way; when I was standing still with people looking for me, it was a lot harder to do.

He looked around for a few moments, but it seemed like he failed to spot me, despite the small anomalies around my feet. He bent down, and I was on the verge of trying to hide somewhere else so I could let Leon heal me again when he came back up and deposited Collector and Smith on the roof. He ferried the rest of them up afterward, and I didn’t like what I saw on their faces. Collector looked pissed off, and Smith even more so. She was still clutching her nose with one hand. Once she came up to the roof, a pair of air conditioning units liquefied, and the metal started to spread out to cover it. She’d probably notice me when it reached my feet, if they didn’t find me sooner.

By now, all of them were on the roof. Skyscraper had shrunk down and let Silhouette bring him up after dropping everyone else off. Smith was walking forward, and the others were spreading out too. So far, I hadn’t really seen her use her power at very long range, and I – along with the other good guys – was hoping that she didn’t have much range to work with. At the very least, I knew she could move metal that was most of the roof’s length away, now. I resolved to measure the distance later if I got out of this and she escaped.

Recast looked a bit different again; his damaged arm hadn’t grown back, but his nose seemed a bit larger than I remembered, and he was turning around and sniffing at the air.

Shit,” Leon thought.

Recast took a few seconds to look at the roof, and it just so happened that the wind picked up – blowing from behind him towards me. I wasn’t sure if that could make a difference when we were standing yards apart, but I hoped it might. I didn’t know how close help might be.

I was thinking frantically. If they were going to spot me anyway, I should move first. With no backup, my best bet was probably to sprint for the edge of the roof and drop, using my power to reach the bottom while hopefully avoiding injury, but this building was a bit taller than the other one I’d fallen from. Even if I just twisted my ankle, that could make the effort pointless, since I’d never get away from them limping. But would they hang around long? Menagerie had been there when we teleported, which meant that we should still be in her range, assuming it wasn’t smaller than mine. Unless they’d been able to jump farther this time? But I couldn’t conceive of any reason they wouldn’t have jumped as far as possible in the past, and if that was the case then they should be the same distance away now.

With a sinking feeling, I realized that Menagerie and I had neglected to compare our respective ranges before Bloodhound had helped us hide. In retrospect, that had been a massive oversight. Her range might be half mine, for all I knew. We’d been on opposite sides of the motel before, but we’d been figuring out our ranges as we went, and trying to stay close enough to see the place through binoculars at the same time.

Recast’s head jerked toward me. His eyes moved back and forth, as if he expected to see something in the area where I was standing, but wasn’t sure what to look for. He looked confused; I prayed that he would stay that way.

Smith turned to Collector. “He’s gone. We should go now, before they find us again.”

Yes, please, I thought. Definitely do that. That would be the best present ever.

Collector looked disgruntled and angry, but he didn’t contradict her. His eyes flicked to some of the others for a moment. “Fine,” he said. “But I’m not done with this town. I want-”

“The fucker’s here!” Recast interrupted. I looked back at him and saw that he was looking in my direction and down – at my feet.

I didn’t know if he’d spotted the small anomaly in the light that I couldn’t hide, or seen drops of blood that had dripped onto the ground, but it didn’t matter. Leon and I were in complete agreement. I didn’t wait for them to figure things out; I switched from stealth to speed and crossed the distance to the corner of the roof in two strides, looked over the side, and jumped off. I shrank the distance as much as I could, landing on a closed dumpster, and while I stumbled a bit I didn’t fall. I hopped down to the ground and started sprinting away normally, letting Leon heal me and not looking back.

I heard a loud crash behind me, and risked a glance as I was turning a corner. Silhouette was there and chasing me. I wanted to use my speed, but I needed Leon to finish healing my stomach or I’d probably die anyway, so I just sprinted down the alley and hoped he’d finish before she caught me.

He didn’t. I heard her getting closer, but I couldn’t switch powers – I was worried that much more blood loss would be a real problem. She grabbed my arms roughly, spinning me around and shoving me into the wall.

“Struggle and I’ll just break your legs,” she told me. “Come on.”

I sighed, but I also let her lead me back to the building. I hadn’t gotten very far. When we arrived, she picked me up and leapt up to the roof with casual ease.

She dragged me over to Collector and held me in front of him. Proxy pulled out his gun, aiming it at my head.

“Thank you,” Collector said to her. “This should only take a minute,” he continued, seeming to address all of them, before he turned to me.

“Now, let’s see what you can do. Some kind of regeneration? That could be very useful. But how does it work?”

I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure how to answer, or what he wanted me to say. He looked at my stomach, which Leon had finished fixing as Silhouette brought me back.

“Hmm,” he said. “Seems to work pretty quickly.” He sounded pleased. Leon and I were frantically trying to think of something else to do to get away, but Silhouette had a firm grip and Proxy’s gun wasn’t moving either. I didn’t know whether Leon could heal brain damage. I wasn’t sure whether I’d still be me afterward if he did. It occurred to me that if I wasn’t, he could probably take over, but I wasn’t nearly desperate enough to consider that a viable option.

“Smith?” Collector said, holding one hand up over his shoulder. Smith smiled, placing her knife in the waiting hand, and Collector stabbed me in the arm and stomach.

I grunted, but managed to suppress the desire to scream. “Leon, try to call Feral.

We had no way to know if we were too far away, but I didn’t want wait to see where this was going.

I felt Leon call out, trying to get Feral’s attention and tell her where we were. We both thought that might break Bloodhound’s spell, but with Silhouette holding me still it wasn’t like stealth was really a big concern at the moment. The only other reason to hesitate was that Collector – if he was as much like me and Menagerie as we thought – might hear it and just decide to kill me immediately. We hoped that if Leon called Feral specifically, no one else would be able to hear it.

Collector didn’t react. Instead, he continued to watch the two wounds he’d inflicted close and knit themselves. When they finished, he stabbed me in the arm again.

That time, I screamed; I’d been focused on what Leon was doing, and he surprised me. Silhouette held me up, barely even noticing that I wasn’t supporting my own weight. I stared at Collector, feeling the pain start to recede. He continued to be fascinated by the healing.

When the wound closed, he stabbed me twice more in the arm. I screamed louder and felt Leon call out to Feral again. I remembered the people who’d run from the parking lot when we first arrived; even if Feral couldn’t hear Leon, help should be here soon.

It was strange to realize that I was probably better off if Collector continued his tests, or whatever he was doing. It hurt like hell, and I was still afraid of losing too much blood, but he wasn’t actually cutting that deep or causing much damage. It was all stuff that Leon could fix.

He didn’t stab me again. Instead, he wiped off Smith’s knife, took a deep breath, and then slashed his own palm, grimacing.

I watched the cut heal itself, and I felt a sinking sensation in my stomach.

Leon, did he just-”

Yes.

He looked back up at me, smiling slightly. “I don’t suppose you’ll be willing to demonstrate your other tricks?” he asked. “I would very much like to learn them as well.”

I didn’t answer. I wasn’t being defiant; I was just frozen in fear.

Then I heard Feral answering Leon’s call – and she was getting closer.

Get ready,” she told us both.

Play for time!” Leon urged. “Stall him!

I sighed. “Will you let me live if I do?” I asked.

Collector looked at me in surprise. “If you’re willing to cooperate, prove it and make yourself disappear again,” he said.

“I can’t do it yet,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady as I lied. “My powers don’t just work anytime I want. They’re more complicated.”

His eyes narrowed. “Complicated how?”

I hesitated for a second. “That’s hard to explain. They interact with each other in odd ways-”

Smith snorted. “He’s full of shit.”

“I’m telling you the truth,” I said, focusing on Collector. He was the boss; he was the one I needed to convince if I was going to stall. “The fact is, using one of my powers affects the others.” I was babbling, trying to sound believable without committing to anything.

Collector looked at me for a second. “Smith, I think you wanted the first crack at this guy?”

She grinned, stepped forward, and yanked off my mask. I almost hid my face, but that would prove that I’d been lying a second ago, and I thought that would probably get me killed immediately. In contrast, them seeing my face might get me killed in the long-term, but wouldn’t make a bit of difference right now.

Smith cracked her knuckles and punched me in the nose hard enough that my head was knocked backward into Silhouette’s chest. I’d never broken my nose before, but I was pretty sure she’d done the job.

“Now,” Collector said. “That was a bit of poetic revenge on her part, but if you don’t cooperate immediately we’ll move on to more painful things. Show me how you vanish.”

I stared at him for a few seconds, swallowed, and shook my head. “No,” I said quietly.

He just sighed and turned, walking away a few steps. Smith started lining up to hit me again.

When she hits you, the gun will be out of line for a second,” Leon said. “That’s our chance. Don’t miss it.

I swallowed, readying myself to use my main power to slide out of Silhouette’s grip again. On the way back to the building, she’d been holding me tighter and Leon had still been healing me. Now, she’d relaxed a bit. Smith kicked me in the stomach and I doubled over, then she grabbed my hair and yanked my face down to knee my broken nose.

It hurt. I’d been shot in the shoulder earlier, but adrenaline and the fact that I’d been focusing on other things had dulled that. This didn’t hurt more, exactly, but I was anticipating it, so I was more focused on the pain I was feeling. I tried to focus on bending the space my arms took up and sliding them free, pulling them out of Silhouette’s hands. Smith kicked me in the stomach again, I bumped into Silhouette, and her grip slackened for a second. I managed to move so that her grip was on a different part of my arm, but it wasn’t enough to get loose. Smith kicked me between the legs and I nearly fell on my face; Silhouette tried to adjust her grip to hold up my weight, and that gave me enough space to slip free.

Smith’s eyes widened as I stepped forward, still bent over, and rammed my shoulder into her stomach. I spun us both around so she was between me and Silhouette, and I got lucky enough that she blocked my view of Proxy for good measure, although I had glimpsed him turning to point his gun at me again.

I pushed my power as hard as I could, getting to Collector in two steps, grabbing him, and taking us both to the edge of the roof and over. Then I let go and shrank the distance to the ground, but only for myself.

I landed on my feet; it was painful but my legs were okay. He landed on his feet, too, but he cried out in pain and one leg gave out under him. I stepped forward and punched him in the gut as he tried to stand, but the second time I hit him I felt a jolt and fell to the ground, my muscles refusing to obey me. I fell on my back, and I happened to land so that I could see my hand – it was burned where I’d hit him, which thankfully was a very small area. My heart raced. I could already feel Leon starting to repair the damage, could even see the effects on my hand in real time, though some of the burned skin didn’t repair itself, of course; it was dead and beyond Leon’s help. It flaked off easily, though, as he disconnected the living tissue from it.

Collector stood angrily, and I saw him grip his leg and push the bones into their proper positions. I guess I had managed to break it with that fall.

He’d gotten scratched in the fall, too, and I saw the scratches close themselves. He glared at me as he held his leg. I stumbled to my feet, trying to look at him and look up at the same time. I was expecting his crew to be coming at any second.

Collector stood up, gathering flame in his hands, at the same moment I saw Feral round the corner. She looked fiercer than I remembered, with two long fangs protruding like a saber tooth tiger. Collector must have either heard her or seen my eyes glance at her, because he started to turn and threw his fireball at her instead of me.

I was back on my feet, muscles once more obeying me, and I sprinted out of the alley. I saw Feral dodge behind the same dumpster from before to evade the fireball, then shove the thing forward so that it nearly hit Collector in the side. Silhouette landed and pushed the dumpster back, and then I was rounding the corner and I nearly ran into Menagerie and Heavyweight.

“Are you okay?” Heavyweight asked.

I was too busy panting to talk, so I just nodded.

“Can you still run?” Menagerie asked.

I nodded again.

They glanced at each other.

“Fuck it, let’s go,” said Menagerie. Heavyweight picked her up.

“Follow me,” he said, and then he started running, taking huge strides that were more like hops, springing from one leg to the next. I walked after him, depending on my power to keep up. We were about a block away when I saw a bunch of cars – police and FBI – arriving. Heavyweight and Menagerie led me to several that were already parked or parking, and Heavyweight put Menagerie down when we arrived. As we got close, I cut my power and let Leon take over; he started using my other ability to hide my face.

I guess I probably looked creepy; Menagerie did a double-take when she glanced my way.

“You got another mask I can use?” I asked.

“Yeah, here,” she pulled one out of a pocket and handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll pay you back when I get a chance.”

I pulled it over my face and then let the invisibility drop.

Turner and his partner Valentine got out of his car, and Bloodhound exited the back seat. Miller and Parker got out of another vehicle.

“Are you all right?” Turner asked me.

I took a deep breath. “I’m fine, but I have bad news. Collector picked up one of my tricks.”

That got a reaction from everyone. “Which one?” Bloodhound asked.

“The healing – regeneration, whatever you want to call it. I’m not sure if he does it as well as I do, but I’m guessing yes.”

“Yes,” Menagerie said, her eyes closed. Presumably she was seeing whatever Feral saw. “He’s definitely fixed that broken leg. It looks like-”

She sighed, leaving the sentence unfinished, and opened her eyes. “They’re gone. I can’t feel them from here, I’m sorry.”

Turner looked at me. “And you? Can you tell where they are?”

I tried to concentrate on the feeling I’d felt before, but I was tired. Even if Leon had fixed my injuries and I wasn’t in pain, I’d expended a lot of energy.

Leon, you got anything?

No, I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’m too tired – it’s shortening my range. I don’t know where they went.

I shook my head at Turner. “I think I used up too much juice fighting. I can’t find them, I’m sorry.”

I noticed Turner’s left hand clench into a fist for a moment, but besides that he barely reacted.

“All right,” he said. “I’m glad you’re alive, at least.” He hesitated for a moment.

“Put me in a car,” I said. “I’m too tired to run and my range is shorter, but if someone else handles the moving I can tell you if I feel them.”

He looked at me in surprise. “You sure?” he asked.

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I was tired and I knew that walling off my emotions was the only thing keeping me functional at the moment, but I didn’t want this to happen again.

Menagerie said she was willing to help the same way, and we both found ourselves shown to cars. Heavyweight and the Philly supers gathered, waiting together so they could react quickly if we found anything.

Miller was driving the car I was in, with Parker riding next to her and me in the back. I asked them not to talk to me much so I could concentrate.

We drove around for what felt like a very long time, but Leon told me later it was only about an hour and a half. A little while later, Turner called, and I heard Parker talk to him; he was calling off the search, at least for now, although he said he’d have some people keep looking in case Blitz made a mistake.

“Would you be willing to have another little meeting?” Parker asked me. “Turner wants us all to compare notes, learn everything we saw Blitz do today. Anything on their powers, personalities, it could be useful. Especially if they leave town and we need to tackle them without your help.”

I agreed, and the others apparently did too. There was a brief discussion about where to convene our little meeting; given the possibility that the bad guys would be found again, no one wanted to disperse or to go too far away just yet.

I was only half-listening. Most of my attention was on what had happened; I was going through how I’d gotten caught and what had happened afterward and imagining all the ways I could have gotten killed. I tried to stop, but it wasn’t working.

I took a minute to check on Leon; he said he was still tired, but he would probably be better in a day or two, as long as nothing happened to tire him out more. If we did need to use our powers, he said he thought we’d probably have to keep it brief or risk having them run out on us in the middle of something.

That gave me a couple of ideas to think about later, but I filed them away. I wasn’t in the mood, and experimentation would have to wait until I was recharged anyway.

I listened to the road noise, the sounds of cars, and managed to pay attention to it instead of thinking. Miller and Parker didn’t really talk to me as we drove, and I was grateful. When we arrived at our destination and parked, I didn’t notice right away, only realizing we’d stopped when Parker got out of the car.

I didn’t even notice Miller leaning back until she put a hand on my shoulder.

“Hey,” she asked quietly, “are you all right?”

I stared at her for a few seconds. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “Just exhausted.”

She couldn’t see my face, but she could hear my voice, and she obviously didn’t believe that.

I swallowed. “A tiny bit shaken, maybe,” I said more quietly. “Thanks for asking.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them,” she said.

I shook my head. “Not your fault,” I told her. “Two on seven wasn’t very good odds.”

She smiled. “One on seven’s even worse. You did a hell of a job surviving.”

I grimaced, then realized she couldn’t see it. “I wish it was entirely down to me being a badass, but unfortunately Collector wanted to learn my powers. He learned one in about a minute and a half. I’m just glad he didn’t manage to pick up the other two.”

“It could be a lot worse,” she said. “Every time we’ve confronted these people, things have gone worse than the last. We send them running, but they’re hard to put down, and they’ve hurt a lot of people in the process. Today, I think we’ve only had two deaths. That’s not nearly as bad as it could have been.”

“What kind of body count do they have?” I asked.

“It’s not quite as bad as I made it sound,” she said after a moment. “The group used to be smaller, so they were less dangerous, but at least Collector doesn’t seem to love fighting for its own sake. They usually just run. But by now, I’m pretty sure they’ve killed at least fifteen cops trying to bring them in, counting the ones here.”

My first thought was that that wasn’t as bad as what I’d expected her to say. My second was that fifteen deaths was still fifteen too many, and that she’d said “at least”…and that that didn’t account for any bystanders. Granted, I hadn’t seen them target any random bystanders, and I wasn’t even sure they’d harmed any by accident, but there must have been some if they’d gotten into multiple fights with the authorities. And even if they weren’t running around trying to do damage right now, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t change their goals or methods later, especially if Collector kept adding new powers to his bag of tricks.

“Look, don’t worry about that right now,” Miller said, turning to exit the car. “We’re here.”

I was tired enough that I didn’t want to get up; it took real effort, as much mental as physical. I just wanted to sink into the seat and not move for an hour. Leon chided me, and I got up and out of the car. We were parked behind a police station, to my surprise, and Miller led the way inside and past a few police officers; all of them looked, but only some of them stared. I guessed that they’d known we were coming, and I wondered if we were in the back to minimize attention.

Miller took us to a conference room. The four Philly supers were there, along with all four FBI agents whose names I knew, with Menagerie, Heavyweight, and me bringing it to a total of eleven. It was crowded.

I gratefully accepted an offer of coffee. It was bitter as hell, but it was also warm, and I was grateful for that. Just having it in my hands was helping me feel more relaxed and less like I needed to be ready to run or fight at a moment’s notice.

I noted that none of the Philly supers took coffee, although I suppose they would have had to take off their helmets to drink it. Heavyweight accepted a cup, and drank it like it was water. Menagerie waved off the offer. Of the FBI people, Parker and Turner had some.

For a minute I wondered what we were waiting for, but then a man wearing a Kevlar vest and combat gear walked in. When Turner stood up and the two shook hands, I could see that he had SWAT written on the back of the vest. I took a closer look at his face, and realized that I’d seen him before, when we were planning our initial move at the motel. It was Lieutenant Patterson; I wasn’t sure if he was in charge of the city’s SWAT or just one of the top few guys, but it was something like that.

Turner showed him to a seat.

“All right,” Turner said, breathing out as he sat down. “Let’s get this done.” He looked at Comet. “Would you start us off with anything new you noticed about them?”

I tried to listen and pay attention, but I just couldn’t do it.

Leon, can you handle this?” I said.

Sure, I guess,” he answered. He felt surprised.

Thanks,” I said.

I tuned the conversation out, tuned everything out and tried to calm down. I was remembering being held by Silhouette, what it had been like to have Smith hitting me and Collector stabbing me while I wondered how long it would take help to arrive and whether they’d get there in time. Looking back, I wasn’t sure how I’d managed to hold it together enough to keep from just giving Collector what he wanted. I wasn’t sure if I could do it a second time, either. If they hadn’t been pressed for time…well, I don’t think things would have turned out so well.

I tried to stop imagining it, but I could envision the scene so vividly; what it would be like to be caught, trapped with basically no way out. They’d been a bit sloppy, and I’d gotten away, but if help hadn’t shown up I was sure they would have caught me again, and I wasn’t going to assume they would make the same mistake twice. Collector seemed pretty smart, judging by his ability to keep the other six in line and stay alive and out of prison.

Leon gave me a mental nudge, letting me know that my turn to talk had come up; I dithered for a second, then let him take control of my body. I just couldn’t deal with it right now. Maybe later I’d be able to talk things over, but not right now.

I could tell he felt a bit of joy at the opportunity, along with concern for me; I let him sit in the driver’s seat sometimes, but not very often, and while we’d never drawn up a formal contract or anything it was definitely a privilege rather than a right, so he tended to relish the opportunities. From what he told me, the experience of being in my body made sensations much more immediate than if he was just in my head, although it didn’t really change anything else. I was guessing that either the experience was novel because he’d never had a body, or he had and it was nice to feel the world for himself again.

I’d have to ask, one of these days, instead of putting it off forever. Recent events had made it pretty plain that the details of what Leon was and where he came from could be important, and my reluctance to mess up what was mostly a good thing would have to go.

He seemed to enjoy the coffee more than me, too. I wasn’t a big coffee drinker.

For me, letting him take over was relaxing, at least in the short-term. I felt my heart rate slowing, my muscles relaxing, and my fear receding. Fear is a physical thing, at least partly, and with Leon closer to my body I didn’t feel tightness in my stomach, adrenaline pumping through me, or all the other things that were symptomatic of it. It removed me from the fear, so that I was looking at it from the outside instead of feeling it in myself. I could examine it more objectively.

Under the circumstances, my lingering fear made plenty of sense. I’d never really been in mortal danger before, unless you count the risk of dying in some sort of freak accident, like being struck by lightning. The most likely cause of death in my life up to now was probably being in a car accident. Trying to be a superhero (and I felt like I deserved the name a bit more, now, even if it still seemed a bit grandiose) meant courting risks, and not just the risks of random chance.

I’d known going in that I would find myself in danger from the bad guys. I’d known that my past life experience, which was lacking in terms of time spent fighting, wouldn’t have prepared me for what that was like. It made sense that I would need time to cope after today, with everything that had happened; that was normal.

I tuned into my eyes as Leon glanced around, wondering what everyone else in the room felt like. The professional law enforcement personnel all looked…well, professional. I did notice that Patterson’s face was drawn, but then I remembered my little conversation with Miller. Most of the people on the scene had probably been his people, that he worked with or knew, and if anyone had died it was likely them.

I noticed Menagerie looking at me, but she looked away after a second. Feral was sitting in her lap in housecat size, curled up unmoving with one of Menagerie’s hands as a pillow. I wondered if that helped her stay calm.

The four from Philadelphia were almost eerie, and not just because I couldn’t see their faces. Their body language seemed even calmer than that of the professionals, now that I was looking. It was like this just wasn’t a big deal for them.

I tried to remember what I knew about the team, to figure out how they could be so calm, but I didn’t know. Maybe they managed to keep some of what they did out of the news? I knew they’d been doing this for years, but they just looked totally unfazed by everything, like it was as normal as going to buy groceries.

The memory of Collector and Smith hurting me popped to the surface again. It was easier to deal with, now that I felt detached and rational, but I felt apprehensive when I remembered that they’d seen my face.

They could find me.

Granted, they had a whole city to search, and that was only possible if they stuck around in the first place. On top of that, as long as Collector couldn’t sense me they’d have to just look the old-fashioned way. But it was still an unpleasant possibility.

I suppressed the fear for now, knowing I might have to deal with it later anyway, but I couldn’t think of anything that could be done about it. They’d seen my face, and that was that. I suppose I could have gotten plastic surgery or something, but even if I had the money I wasn’t willing to do that. I’d just have to keep an eye out and hope for the best, for now.

The meeting eventually wrapped up. I felt Leon’s attention on me, but he seemed to sense that I was still content for him to drive. We left, spoke to my colleagues briefly, and then headed for home. Leon had to work a bit to get me to my dorm room and bathroom without anyone seeing that my shirt was bloody, but he pulled it off just fine without my help, and soon enough I was in the shower. He asked if I wanted to take over again, and this time I said yes.

There’s no substitute for a hot shower. I cleaned myself up, feeling very grateful for the healing Leon had done and the fact that it didn’t leave me covered in scars, and went back to my room. Some clean clothes later I very nearly felt like a new man, and looking around my dorm room seemed so divorced from the reality of the rest of my day that I could almost forget it had happened, although that illusion broke when I looked at my chair and remembered Raquel sitting there, not so long ago, asking for my help.

I knew there were lots of things I should do, but I put most of them off. Instead of worrying about supervillains or my grades, I sat down and looked up what people were supposed to do after giving blood – thank you, Red Cross – and bookmarked the page. I wasn’t sure whether I’d lost more blood than people who donated, although it seemed likely; my wounds had closed quickly, and most hadn’t been that big to begin with, but there had been several. Still, I didn’t feel faint or anything like that, and while Leon couldn’t magically replace lost blood I was fairly certain that he’d minimized what I lost. So I’d be drinking extra liquids, foregoing any workouts, and looking up iron-rich foods to eat in the near future. For now, though, I was tired and hungry and I wanted to eat something I’d enjoy, preferably as soon as possible.

At Leon’s prodding, I peeked into the common room to see if any of my friends were around on the way out, but they weren’t, so I went to eat by myself. Or as close to “by myself” as I ever did anything, anyway. I walked away from campus a bit, until I got to a sandwich shop, and spent a couple of minutes staring at the menu before placing my order. I indulged myself with some chocolate milk to go with my BLT and potato chips.

It wasn’t healthy, but it felt good. Pleasant, in a mundane sort of way. Like I had regained my footing after being off-balance.

I let Leon drive for the second half of the meal as a little thank-you for looking out for me, and both of us took our time eating. We were in no rush to get back to the world or worry about things we needed to do; it would still be there afterward.

Eventually we finished eating. I took over again, walking home slowly and enjoying the chance to see part of the city just running normally, with people walking around, talking to each other, shopping, eating, working. A bus stopped in front of me, and I went around the people waiting, barely glancing up. The bus driver looked at me for a second, I suppose because he was wondering whether I was going to get on.

It started to rain as I was on the way back, and I ended up running halfway to the dorm. It was just starting to pick up as I got indoors, so I didn’t get that wet.

When I got back to my room, Shawn wasn’t there. Judging by the amount of his stuff that was missing, I guessed he was with Liz, probably staying there for the night, thus giving me the room to myself. I lay back in my bed, staring at the ceiling. I’d managed to calm down, to relax and let go of most of my fear, and Leon knew what I’d missed during the little meeting; I’d talk to him about it tomorrow.

I rolled over onto my stomach, closed my eyes, and stopped thinking, waiting for sleep to come.
 
 
 
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Knowledge is Power 1

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As I stood on a rooftop looking down the street, with the motel barely in sight, I wondered if calling the authorities and waiting for them had been the right call. I was blocks away from the place where the bad guys were hanging out, with Menagerie opposite me and a similar distance away on the other side. After the way they’d escaped last time, we were all assuming that they’d pull a similar trick. Their teleporter – or whatever they had – had gotten Collector out of my range and Menagerie’s pretty quickly, and odds were good that they’d retreat the same way as soon as they realized we were ready for them, or as soon as they realized they’d been found at all.

So, anticipating that they would try their vanishing act and mindful of the fact that only Menagerie and I could sense their boss, and only with limited range at that, we were split up to try to find them after they ran.  I kind of wanted to be present to help take them down, but I couldn’t argue the logic. Given that I’d gotten my ass kicked last time, I was feeling a bit relieved to be on spotter duty, really. Turner, the FBI guy who was running things, and Comet had agreed that the chance of them standing and fighting was slim, unless we ran them to ground. Basically, we hoped to keep the pressure on and make them overwork their teleporter so we could find his limits. Since they’d all clustered together before vanishing last time, part of the plan was also to separate them as much as possible in the hope that we could either make them wait too long and lose the fight or force them to leave someone behind. Based on what had happened before, we were all assuming he could move them at least three times in an hour or so, but we didn’t have any way of guessing his upper limits.

I glanced to one side, where another FBI agent (was that the right word for them all? I wasn’t actually sure) stood waiting with a fancy walkie-talkie and binoculars, ready to pass on anything I could tell them so the assembled forces of good (and law, justice, and possibly rainbows and unicorns) could react as quickly as possible. Somewhere nearby, Comet and her three teammates were waiting for someone with the legal right to do so to knock on the motel room’s door. I wasn’t clear on the precise nature of the legal requirements for the FBI to go into a motel room, or what they’d done to meet them in a hurry. I got the impression, from bits of conversation I’d heard, that it had involved some hurried phone calls and rushed documentation. Still, they were in town to find these people, and they hadn’t seemed surprised by anything except the fact that we’d actually called them.

My thoughts returned to the present when the person I was looking at turned her head to look back at me and Leon gave me a mental nudge to stop staring. The blonde-haired woman looked comfortable dressed for a fight, and she had no trouble giving orders to the three city cops sharing the rooftop with us – more spotters, waiting for me to tell them what direction to look in. She’d introduced herself as Agent Cynthia Miller. Generally, my past life experience hadn’t included much in the way of street smarts or the ability to recognize dangerous people, but I had a feeling that she was one. Something about the way she looked at me was unsettling, as if she could perceive more than I was giving away by standing there. I knew she had powers, and right then I was just praying they didn’t include seeing through my mask.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Just thinking over the plan.”

She gave a little nonverbal acknowledgment and turned back toward the motel.

Leon, any clue what she does?” I asked silently. “Or rather how she does it?

No,” he replied. “While her demonstration was impressive, I could not sense anything unusual. Her powers must not be…magical…in nature. I thought I overheard her asking to be stationed by you or Menagerie, however.

I frowned behind my mask. Why did she want to be near one of us? I would have thought she’d want to be near the Philly Five and Heavyweight, or maybe right at the motel. She’d cut a brick in half by chopping it with her hand, annihilating the middle of the thing and leaving perfectly smooth – but not straight – edges on the two pieces, but she said her power was only good at close range. So why stick her up on a roof?

The little demonstration had been part of a pre-battle attempt to ensure we didn’t all get in each other’s way if and when things got hectic. Several of us had done a little show-and-tell of our powers. It made sense, but was there much point if she was going to stand on a rooftop with me?

I was jolted from my reverie again when she straightened up at hearing something from the walkie-talkie.

“It’s time,” she announced loudly. “Get ready.”

We were too far to see what was happening with any clarity unless we had help, but I’d thoughtfully been given another pair of binoculars for my own use. I brought them to my eyes and looked down the street at the motel.

I could just barely make out enough to see what was happening, in a general sense. Someone went to the motel office, coming out shortly afterward with an employee in tow; they walked quickly, instead of running. Two other rooms were cleared out, presumably as quietly as possible. This had been the biggest issue, really: how to minimize the danger to random bystanders when they knocked on the bad guys’ door. None of us really believed they would come quietly, although they were being given the chance.

Another FBI guy – wearing Kevlar and a helmet, like Miller – walked up to the door. I couldn’t hear what he said, of course. There’d been some conflicting predictions about whether they would teleport away immediately or fight, but that mystery was solved when the door opened and a human shadow stepped out, immediately attacking the man who I assumed had just told them to surrender.

Silhouette staggered a bit when her fist failed to hit anything, passing through the stationary image of the FBI agent standing in front of the motel room. Another of the reinforcements the suits had brought in, Henry Parker had looked a lot like Cynthia Miller when they were introduced. Both had blond hair and blue eyes, and both looked serious. Parker had demonstrated that he could project his own image and swap his position with that of the projection at will. The image didn’t have any physical presence, though, which was why Silhouette’s haymaker had left her staggering instead of killing Parker.

She was only starting to get her balance back when Comet swooped down and kicked her in the side, moving so fast I only knew what had happened because I’d half-expected it. I lost sight of them immediately, keeping my binoculars trained on the door as I waited for more of Blitz to emerge.

I wasn’t disappointed; Claws came running out. He took a cursory-looking swipe at Parker’s image, still standing there, and then took a look around before running back inside.

Okay, I hadn’t expected that. Why come out and then go back?

Moments later, part of the motel’s roof and wall exploded outward. Dust and debris were sent up into the air. It sounded like there were two more explosions in rapid succession, and then Skyscraper’s form became visible, growing taller until it towered over the one-story building. He looked around, turning in a circle. His teammates followed him out the back of the motel, allowing them to avoid most of the cops who were waiting for them to come out the front or sides.

I tried to keep an eye on what was happening, but it got harder fast. Comet came back into view while I was looking at Skyscraper, appearing to smack him around like she had last time, but he seemed more prepared. She flew straight into his fist, and while he stepped back with one foot to steady himself he didn’t lose his balance. The giant was big enough that I could see his eyes narrow; when Comet came around for another pass he picked up two cars and threw them at the cops.

Comet detoured to knock them out of the sky and into the street where they wouldn’t hit anyone, but the big guy seemed to feel that if something worked he was going to stick with it. He kept throwing cars, chunks of motel, dumpsters, and anything else he could find. Comet was forced to play defense to knock most of it out of the sky so that it didn’t land on anyone.

I could hear what I assumed were gunshots – at this distance, they sounded surprisingly loud – and some of the bad guys were hunkering down, but not all of them. I still couldn’t see Silhouette, but I saw Claws just sprint right at a few cops, ignoring their gunfire to get close enough to start slashing. One seemed to put up a good fight after dropping into a boxer’s stance, but Claws cut his chest and he fell. Claws looked a bit different, again, sporting longer hair and longer claws, and he raised one arm up to finish the cop off.

Before that could happen, there was a loud noise and I saw a hole appear in his chest, spurting blood. He fell to the ground and crawled out of my line of sight. I couldn’t tell if the cop was all right or not.

I looked around again, trying to understand what I was seeing. Tin Man was nowhere, and Newton was out of sight too, although I saw a gas cloud that I thought might contain Tin Man and Silhouette. Tin Man’s armor made him one of only three people we had who could take a punch from Silhouette without dying immediately, and when they’d discussed using gas on Silhouette, Tin Man had noted that he should be able to breathe just fine regardless. I could tell Newton was around when I saw Claws emerge – looking almost fully healed, although he still had a hole in his shirt – next to Smith, the metal-controller. Smith tried to help Claws get up, but both of them were soon pinned to the ground, much like what Newton had done before. They crawled back into cover and out of sight.

That accounted for Claws, Smith, and Silhouette. Skyscraper was still throwing stuff indiscriminately, while Collector lobbed fireballs in a similar fashion. They were wrecking nearby buildings – which I was fairly confident were already cleared, thankfully – and probably making sure that a lot of insurance companies and car owners would be unhappy. Fortunately most of the buildings were brick, so the fire wasn’t spreading much, at least. The last two members of the group, Proxy and Dealer, were near Skyscraper.

Bloodhound showed up, armed with his two sticks again. He stepped out of an alley swinging at the two who apparently weren’t fighters, and they seemed to panic. They ran toward their boss and Skyscraper’s legs, and I saw Collector turn and lob a few fireballs at Bloodhound before turning back to attack the cops. Skyscraper stopped throwing cars and tried to crush Bloodhound. I couldn’t see if he connected, but the second the debris stopped flying Comet went on the attack. She hit Skyscraper again, laying into him with repeated kicks to the head, and he fell onto his back. Before she could follow up, he raised a leg and kneed her through the air and I lost track of her. Skyscraper shrank a bit as he stood up, gathered the three teammates near him, and then moved to regroup with the others.

“It’s coming now,” Miller said to me. “Be ready.”

“I’m on it,” I told her.

It took a minute for them to gather themselves again, but they managed it, with Comet out of the picture. Silhouette had already gotten out of the gas – she looked less energetic than before from how she moved, but there wasn’t much anyone could do to keep her in there to get the full effect, unfortunately. As soon as they were all together, Skyscraper instantly shrank to normal size and they disappeared.

I closed my eyes, trying to focus on what Collector’s presence had felt like. Were they in my range?

There,” Leon said, and I turned around. I sprinted to the other side of the roof, before closing my eyes again, then pointed.

“They’re that way,” I said. “Not sure how far, but if we don’t move now I’ll lose them soon, even if they don’t jump again.”

“Okay,” Miller said next to me. “Let’s go.”

I heard one of the cops calling my report in to everyone else. Miller grabbed me and I stepped off the roof, reaching for the ground below with my legs. It seemed a bit harder than using my power alone, but I got the job done. The distance shrank in a second or two. We still stumbled as we landed, but we didn’t break our legs.

“That is freaky as hell,” she grumbled. “I can’t believe it works, even though we tested it first.”

As she spoke, she was mounting a waiting police motorcycle; as soon as she started the engine, I started speed-walking, stretching my steps to close the gap towards the bad guys. She wasn’t far behind me.

Now that I actually understood what the hell my power was a little better, I could tell I was covering ground a lot faster. It was hard to clock it, given that I hadn’t had the chance to experiment as much as I wanted, but I was keeping pace with – or passing – the normal city traffic easily. I could hear Miller close behind me as I walked, though there were no police sirens. If they thought they’d gotten away, we didn’t want to scare them into jumping again too soon.

Miller and I got closer and closer, and I slowed down, trying to get a better sense of where Blitz was and avoid stumbling into their line of sight. I followed them to a parking lot behind a line of stores, then backed off. Miller caught up to me, and I quickly motioned her to stop and wait, walking over.

“They’re here?” she asked.

I nodded. “In the parking lot. My guess is they’re stealing a car. I assume we still want to avoid being spotted as our top priority.”

She agreed, then held up a finger as she talked to her boss.

“Yeah, we’ve found them,” she said. “Flicker says they’re in a parking lot, probably trying to steal a car. If they don’t want to waste their teleporter, it would make sense.”

I couldn’t hear the reply, but they didn’t talk long.

“Okay, we’re sitting tight for now,” she said. “I’ve got to get this out of sight; don’t want to tip them off if they pass by leaving the lot. Let’s get scarce.”

She moved the bike up the street and then took it behind another building, and I followed her.

“They still there?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe their boss is picky about the cars he steals.”

She frowned. “Or maybe they’re trying to grab more than one.”

“That could be a problem,” I said. “I can only follow their boss. If they split up, someone’s probably going to get away.”

She called her boss again. “Yeah, ETA on backup?” she said. “They’re taking too long in the parking lot. We’re not sure why, and we can’t take a closer look without risking getting spotted.”

Another answer I couldn’t understand, but Miller reacted to it. She was…surprised? I wasn’t sure.

“Comet, Heavyweight, Menagerie, and Newton should get here soon,” she told me. “We’ll hold off as long as we can, but as soon as we have enough firepower to scare them we’re hitting them again.”

I just nodded, trying to hide outward signs of my nervousness and fear.

Still nothing from Collector.

“Do you think maybe they’re waiting to see if we find them?” I asked. I was trying to think of why they might sit there doing nothing. “I mean, they may not know how we found them in the first place, so…maybe they’re hoping to see if it was you guys or the Philly Five or us?”

“Could be,” Miller said, chewing her lower lip. “Or, maybe they want to give us a chance to spread out. If we had to look the old-fashioned way, it would take a lot of eyes to have any chance of finding them. Especially since they could have jumped again.”

The next few minutes felt a lot longer than they were. Comet arrived first, followed by Heavyweight and then Newton. One of the FBI cars pulled up, and Bloodhound stepped out along with Parker – the blond guy – and Turner, their leader. I still wasn’t sure if he had any powers or not. Turner’s partner, Valentine, got out a second later.

“All right,” Turner said, “here’s the deal. We’re setting up spotters again, and I’m hoping that if they jump a second time we can find them again. Miller, I want you to take Flicker and head south to nearly the edge of his range. We’ve got Feral doing the same thing to the north, just like before. Hopefully, we’ll stay lucky.”

Again, I felt relieved and a bit ashamed to be walking away from the fight, but Leon pointed out that I’d done my job the first time. If the system worked, there was no reason to abandon it. When I pointed out that we’d probably lose them if they jumped directly east or west, he didn’t have much to say, though.

I followed Miller, this time moving at a more relaxed pace as we got some distance. We pulled into a Wawa parking lot and she called Turner again, telling him we were ready. I could see several police cars on the streets, moving as officers repositioned themselves. A few, I knew, would have stayed at the first scene to keep an eye on things and secure it. If we didn’t catch any of them, the FBI was hoping they might get something useful from the room (or rooms) the crooks had been staying in.

“They’re going in,” Miller told me a minute later.

We couldn’t see anything this time, which made the waiting a lot harder. Unable to rely on our eyes, we listened to her radio as closely as we could.

“Noah, target the boss if you get a shot,” I heard Turner say. A second later there was a loud noise – an explosion, I thought – and I heard someone saying “man down”.

“Let Comet handle the big guy,” Turner was telling someone. “Be ready to-”

He stopped talking suddenly, and I felt my sense of Collector move again. Leon and I took a few seconds to figure out where it was.

“They jumped again!” Turner said. “Spotters, what have you got?”

“They’re this way,” I told Miller, pointing southeast. She hopped on her motorcycle and we started moving again, with her calling in the report as we ran.

“He’s not moving much yet,” I told her, shouting to be heard.

We were starting to get close when Collector’s slow movement changed direction and sped up.

They’re moving in our direction,” Leon pointed out unnecessarily.

Unable to spare the energy for talking to Miller, I led us on a detour, trying to see if he was right. Collector changed direction to follow. He stopped for a few seconds, then resumed moving, going faster now.

I quickly ran to the side, farther away from the roads, so Miller would follow me and stop.

“They’re coming towards us!” I told her as soon as she could hear me. Her eyes widened, and she started reporting in. I looked around, while asking Leon if he could figure out how they’d found us. Bloodhound’s spell (for lack of a better word) hadn’t worn off, as far as I knew, and Leon confirmed that it still seemed to be active. But if that was the case, then how the hell did they figure out where Miller and I were?

“Evade, but try to keep track of them,” I heard Turner order in response to Miller’s report. “If you can’t dodge them, try to get someplace unoccupied. Backup should start arriving soon.”

We did. I was stuck choosing our direction by default, since Miller couldn’t respond to Collector’s movements immediately. I led us away from busier streets, where people had been staring at us, and tried to circle around Collector so that he couldn’t get too close.

He stopped moving. I came to a halt myself and told Miller.

Seconds later I started hearing loud noise. Collector stayed still, but after a few moments we could both see Skyscraper headed our way, with at least one or two allies on his shoulders or in his hands. Collector started moving toward us again, but I could tell he wasn’t with the giant.

“Shit,” Miller swore as we caught sight of them approaching.

“Collector’s not with them,” I told her. “I think they’re just trying to take out the two of us so they can run.”

“Let’s not let them,” she said, starting up her motorcycle again.

We took off, trying to get away from our pursuers, but the motorcycle had barely started moving when I looked over and saw some of the metal beginning to flow and run. I grabbed Miller and pulled her off the motorcycle just before a tendril of metal could close around her ankle, taking two massive steps back from it and pulling her with me. She glanced back and we both saw the vehicle destroyed as its metal bits flowed into a single block, then she turned to look the other way and yanked on my arm, pulling me to her left. I instinctively went with the motion instead of looking first, taking the quickest big step I could in that direction before I turned around.

Skyscraper was almost on us, but Smith and Claws were already there.

“Which one do you want, Recast?” Smith asked.

“I’ll take the lady,” he said. “You can have your rematch with blur-boy over there,” he gestured at me.

“Don’t focus on them too much,” Miller whispered to me. “They’re probably trying to distract us from their teammates.”

Fortunately for us, Skyscraper – who was still coming our way – got a distraction of his own. Comet plowed into him yet again, making me realize that I’d lost track of how many times she’d hit the big bastard, and again he nearly fell. He yelled angrily, grew larger to the point where he was at least three or four stories tall, and started trying to swat or grab at her. She was fast, though; I tore my eyes away from her quickly to watch my own opponents, but I still caught a glimpse of her looping around Skyscraper’s arm when he tried to punch her.

No, Comet wasn’t the person I was worried about.

“Any ideas?” I asked Miller.

“We go for Smith together; bring me with you to get close,” she said quietly. “She’s way more dangerous than her buddy. Do it now.”

I let out a sigh, grabbed Miller by her right arm and left shoulder, and did just that. Again, I felt that extra effort to bring her along.

From her reaction, I guess the feeling of being dragged along on my big steps was uncomfortable. Claws – or Recast, I guess – had been moving toward us, opening up space between himself and Smith, so we passed him on the way to her. He was already reacting, but three steps carried us by without coming in reach, so I wasn’t too worried about him.

Looking at Smith, I could see that she was carrying a backpack. Her clothes were very normal aside from that. I knew she had the metal from the motorcycle to work with, but other than that I wasn’t sure what to expect.

When we were close enough, I let go of Miller before taking a step past Smith to get behind her. If she could only see one of us at a time, I figured, we’d have better odds of avoiding her tricks.

She turned to face me immediately, but at the same time metal came out of her backpack and dropped to the ground, forming into a puddle that flowed toward Miller. I stepped in and tried to kick her in the stomach, but apparently I’d underestimated Smith. She stepped to my left and kicked back, hitting me in the stomach, then followed up with three punches before I could step too far away. She looked angry, and she hit hard enough that it hurt. I tried to back up and get my breath back. Over her shoulder, I could see Recast getting close to Miller, who was practically running to avoid the metal puddle that flowed toward her.

I stepped in again, but when Smith tried to punch me I grabbed her arm with both hands and yanked, taking three huge steps and then shoving her into Recast. He hadn’t seen me coming and the pair of them went down. I stepped in to try to keep them down but Recast slashed at me with his claws again. They were still long – maybe as long as the distance from his wrist to his fingertips – and he was quick, so I had to either dodge fast or back off completely. As I evaded him, he stayed between me and Smith so I couldn’t easily get to her. Leon seemed to notice something else about the guy, but he didn’t say anything right away so I figured it could wait, especially since he saw fit to remind me that Collector was headed my way again.

I saw Miller draw her gun and fire twice at Smith, then aim toward Recast, and I got the hell out of the way. She fired two more shots.

Smith seemed to have gotten out of the way, but Recast definitely got hit twice, the two bullets punching holes through his back and out his chest. He stumbled, but when I moved in to take advantage he slashed wildly at me and I soon realized that the cuts were already closing themselves. Through the ragged, bloody holes in his shirt I could see the wounds sealing up and the blood loss slowing and stopping. It was a pretty damn impressive sight. As it happened, Recast watched me but didn’t do anything else; I glanced at the blood he’d lost on the ground, wondering how much damage it might take to prevent him from healing it all.

If we healed the same, then his claws would probably give him an advantage, in the long run. Otherwise, I figured that whichever one of us could heal more probably had the edge.

He came at me again. I let him, grabbing the guy and using my powers to take a big step and pull him with me so I could slam his head into a lamppost. The noise seemed way too loud. Instead of screaming in pain or falling down unconscious, he just grunted and slashed at me again, cutting two deep furrows in my right arm. I let go of him and stepped back, but he seemed completely unbothered by the blow as he stepped after me, slashing and stabbing again, and I took another big step back to get some distance. He glanced at my arm, saw it healing, and seemed to stop in surprise; I guess he wasn’t used to fighting someone else who could regenerate so quickly.

“I wonder which one of us heals faster,” he muttered. I took the opportunity to glance at Miller and Smith, and I saw that my ally was in trouble. She didn’t have her gun anymore – not a huge surprise, but still a bad thing – and she was stuck retreating away from the advancing puddle of metal.

I thought about her power, and glanced at Smith, who seemed perfectly content to stand still and do the hard work without moving. Leon was keeping track of Collector, who was still getting closer.

I sprinted toward Smith, shrinking the distance as I went and ignoring Recast completely, trusting Miller to figure out that I wanted to swap opponents. Recast shouted to warn Smith and she turned, seeing me coming. I hoped to catch her with her metal too far away to help much again, so I didn’t slow down. I ran forward and grabbed her, letting her punch me in the stomach so I could take a few big steps and get her further from Miller while distracting her. I managed to hang onto her right arm, and I used it to yank her around and off-balance, then kneed her in the stomach. I did it two more times for good measure, then hit her in the face. She screamed as I hit her nose – which I’d broken last time – and I barely stepped back in time to avoid getting stabbed with a knife she’d pulled from somewhere.

“Fucking bastard!” she howled, one hand holding her nose as it streamed blood. “I’m going to cut you into fucking pieces!” She threw the knife at me.

I stepped out of the way and it clattered to the ground, only to slide back to her. She picked the knife up again, then stopped, eyes wide, as I heard Recast scream behind me. I stepped in and punched her in the stomach, left-right-left, but she grabbed my arm after the third punch and stabbed me in the shoulder. I grabbed the wrist of her right arm, holding the knife, and yanked it out. Normally I knew that was a bad idea, but I could heal and Leon had yelled at me to get it out immediately; I trusted him to have a reason without explaining it in the middle of a fight.

I tried to hit her elbow or wrist with my knee, but she kicked my other leg and we both spilled onto the ground. I rolled away from her on my side, standing as fast as I could, but she was a bit quicker to get to her feet. I took the chance to glance over at Miller and Recast.

Miller had a cut on her left arm, but Recast was missing his completely. It was just gone. I couldn’t see a severed limb anywhere or anything; his arm just stopped about halfway down the forearm, as if it had never been there. I couldn’t tell if it was healing, because I had to tear my attention away as the rest of the bad guys arrived.

“Look out!” I shouted to Miller.

She did a forward roll past Recast and Silhouette’s two-foot landing cracked asphalt instead of pulverizing Miller. Silhouette shouldered Recast to one side and tried to punch Miller, but he grabbed her arm and yanked her back, putting his own body in the way. Miller’s punch, which would have hit Silhouette, hit Recast instead.

Anyone else would have hit his ribs with a glancing blow, but Miller’s hand never touched him. Instead, any part of him that was too close to her hand just seemed to disappear. It didn’t disintegrate, or do anything else that I could think of a word for. A chunk of his chest was just gone. I could see a couple ribs where the skin was missing, and as Recast screamed and pushed Silhouette away from Miller I wondered why he was having trouble healing from her attacks when he’d seemed to take being shot in stride. Then I wondered why he wasn’t screaming louder; it looked like it should have hurt more.

I ran over to Miller and grabbed her, then started pulling her as I ran away. Silhouette picked up Recast and jumped back, and Collector hit the area where they had been standing with a fireball. He kept targeting me with more, and I glanced at the ground as I dodged, worried about Smith.

I barely dodged her metal puddle trick and the fireballs at the same time, but once I got away from the metal it was a lot easier. Collector’s fire was hot – orange, mostly, with what might have been a hint of blue inside – but he wasn’t throwing them out too quickly, and it seemed like he had to concentrate to keep lobbing the things.

I could still hear and sort of see Skyscraper fighting Comet. I knew more help had to be on the way, so if we could just hold out we should be all right – we had numbers on our side, if we could just get them all to the right place at the same time.

As I was watching, the two non-fighters caught up to Collector and the kid grabbed his shoulder. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, because I was too far away, but Silhouette soon grabbed Collector, picked him up, and leapt toward us. Smith followed them, along with Recast, while the last two walked over more slowly.

Comet flew down, grabbed Silhouette, and then took her airborne. For a second, all of us were so surprised that we just watched them as Comet spun around, threw Silhouette straight up into the air, and then flew after and started punching her repeatedly.

I’d never actually seen someone air-juggled with punches and kicks before, but Comet was doing a pretty damn good job. Silhouette was still spinning and moving upward, and I figured she was too disoriented to really defend herself as Comet pummeled her like a very angry game of hacky sack.

I came to my senses and looked back at the people trying to kill me, and it was a damn good thing. While several of them were looking at the spectacle above us, Collector was just throwing his hands out and launching another fireball.

I grabbed Miller and side-stepped again, but Skyscraper – who had been fighting Comet – slapped at both of us.

“Mine!” Miller yelled, stepping closer to me and raising her hands toward the descending palm.

It hit and vanished, much like when she’d struck Recast earlier, but there wasn’t any blood. Skyscraper screamed in pain and recoiled before he could hit us, and the sound was so loud I could barely process it, though it thankfully grew quieter as he shrank suddenly back to normal size and stumbled over to his friends. I got enough of a look to see that he appeared unharmed after shrinking, despite the fact that a chunk of his hand had been missing a second ago when he was giant.

Smith grabbed Collector by the shoulder. “We’re not winning,” she said. “It’s time to go.”

He hesitated for a second, looking at her angrily, then jerked his shoulder out from under her hand. “Proxy?” he said questioningly, looking at the stocky non-fighter.

The guy hesitated for a second, his eyes moving quickly to Smith and then back to Collector. “They’re getting close,” he said. “We should go.”

Collector growled in anger. “Fine,” he said, turning back to us. “Grab the guy. I’m not leaving empty-handed. Skyscraper, pick me up and get your giants ass moving so we can help Silhouette with that flying bitch.”

I swallowed. Skyscraper, still looking pained, seemed to shake it off before starting to grow again. He picked up Collector, carrying him high into the air, and started to attack Comet and try to grab Silhouette, who was somehow still not on the ground. Collector started aiming his fireballs at Comet.

I couldn’t wait to see how that turned out, because Smith was walking towards us, along with Recast. I was calm for about two seconds, until I realized that Smith had had time to gather more metal now, and was working with a lot more than just a puddle.

Then Proxy pulled out a gun and shot at us.

I’d been watching Smith and Recast, assuming that the other two weren’t a threat. Leon tried to warn me, but I was too slow in reacting. I was holding onto Miller, preparing to move us both, but I felt her get propelled backwards, and because I was holding her but wasn’t prepared we both fell to the ground.

At the same time, I felt abrupt pain in my right shoulder. I could barely process the sensation, it was so unlike anything else in my experience. When I looked down, there was a hole in my shoulder with blood gushing out, and my other hand automatically reached to try to cover the wound. I looked up and saw Skyscraper depositing Collector safely on the ground, while Silhouette came leaping back from somewhere out of sight, looking a bit unsteady. They all started gathering, except for Proxy, Recast, and Smith, who were running towards us.

Proxy moved to the side, aiming at Miller, and pulled the trigger. I tried to get myself moving in time to help, but I was having a hard time focusing past the pain even with Leon rebuilding the damage, and I was too slow.

The gun was pointed at Miller’s head; I saw her bring her hands up to shield herself and waited to see blood.

There wasn’t any. Proxy pulled the trigger twice, cursed, and I saw Smith stop and look at Miller in confusion. Miller stood, hands still shielding her face, and charged toward Proxy, laughing. Recast tackled her to the ground, but when Proxy tried to shoot her again Miller wrestled Recast in the way and he jerked in pain as the bullet hit him. She threw him off and stood again, resuming her charge towards Proxy, but suddenly the ground seemed to slide out from under her. I saw Smith’s slightly-reflective puddle of metal again, with sharp points coming out of it, and redoubled my struggle to rise; my arm felt better than it had, and I managed to get to my feet. Miller managed to turn her fall into a forward roll away from the metal, though she got some cuts on her shins for her trouble. I took two quick steps to get to Smith and punched her in the side, hitting her ribs five times, then grabbed her hair and jerked her head back. I tried to hit her back with a knee, but I was off balance and I hit the back of her head, losing power in the process. She punched me in the balls, grabbed my arm, and jumped so that I was carrying all of our weight. I lost my balance and we fell on the ground again, the impact with the asphalt stunning me.

I fought to stay aware of what was going on, and when my vision cleared I saw the kid helping Smith to her feet as she clutched her side with one hand, glaring at me. Silhouette came over and picked me up, and as she did I saw Recast and Proxy headed our way while Collector and Skyscraper appeared to be in a stand-off with Miller. She was frowning unhappily, her hands mostly blocking my view of her face, while Collector stood with flames in his hands and Skyscraper, still normal-sized, waited next to him. They were watching for her to make a move, apparently.

Leon urged me to move immediately, to get away, but just when I started to struggle – which wasn’t working very well, since Silhouette was holding both of my wrists and didn’t even notice when I kicked her – Recast stepped up to me and plunged his claws into my arm. I felt my arm go numb, and the sensation began to travel throughout my body.

Then Heavyweight, Menagerie, and a mess of cops showed up. I couldn’t move well and the bad guys were blocking my view, but I saw Turner and Bloodhound get out of a car, Collector throw a few fireballs, and Feral bounding toward me, but then Skyscraper and Proxy came back and everything vanished.

For just a second, everything seemed to disappear, and I wasn’t aware of anything except my body. I wasn’t looking at blackness or hearing white noise; there was literally nothing to see or hear. It was like being in a complete void, and I’m glad it didn’t last long.

At the same time, the numbness left my body. I could feel everything again, and it felt pretty good; Leon must have finished most of the repair work. I exhaled in surprise, and before I could finish breathing out the moment ended. I could see the bad guys standing just where they had been before, in relation to me, and I could feel Recast’s claws in my arm again.

The numbness started to take hold, and I desperately tried to use my power.

I didn’t try to run; that was impossible with Silhouette holding me. But if I could shrink distances to stretch my steps, I hoped that I might be able to do something else. I tried to shrink the space my arm took up so that the claws – which were in pretty shallowly – wouldn’t reach into my body.

It worked. As soon as the claws were out, I could feel Leon starting to rebuild my body to work normally, and I brought my legs up to kick Recast away from me before he could stab me again. He wasn’t ready for it, and he stumbled back into Collector and Smith.

I tried to do the same thing again, focusing on making my wrists and hands take up less space so I could slip them through Silhouette’s grip.

Two for two. I slid free and stepped away as quickly as I could, narrowly avoiding a kick that could have crippled me.

Recast and Silhouette both started coming after me, and I dodged as fast as I could.

Smith’s eyes narrowed, and I felt a sudden pain in my abdomen. I screamed and glanced down. There was metal clasped around me, forming a spike and starting to dig in. A glance confirmed that it wasn’t like a belt that went all the way around my body, and I quickly grabbed the metal and yanked it off before it could penetrate deeper.  Pulling it free hurt even more than getting shot in the shoulder had, and I saw that I’d been wrong; rather than a spike, what I was holding looked more like a serrated knife. I clutched my hands over the wound, trying to hold everything together so Leon could fix it as I stumbled back and leaned against a wall. I looked around quickly, hoping my surroundings would help somehow.

We were in another parking lot. I wasn’t sure what we were behind, but it looked pretty big. There were a few people visible, most of them quite sensibly running the hell away, and at least one pulling out a cell phone. I saw one mother with two kids drop what might have been a grocery bag and shove the kids into the backseat before jumping into their minivan and driving away, scraping the edges of two other vehicles in the process.

I didn’t blame her one bit. I looked back at the bad guys. Recast was on my left, Silhouette was on my right, and they were both moving closer. My back was quite literally to a wall. Collector formed another fireball and tossed it straight at me.

I looked up and jumped, reaching as high as I could and praying that it would be enough.
 
 
 
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Ignorance is Bliss 5

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I was still trying to figure out what to do about Raquel and Feral when I got back home, but I hadn’t come up with anything. The more I considered the situation, the more afraid I felt of making the wrong decision and provoking Feral to take control and disappear. I had no doubt she could avoid me for the rest of our lives if she was so inclined.

If we both learned Bloodhound’s trick, then it might be impossible for anyone to track her, which meant I couldn’t postpone this much longer. I needed to make a call and do something before we had our little lesson.

I’d been more aware of what was going on this time, so I was careful about security and traffic cameras on my way home and my ski mask was off before I reached campus. I’d worn generic jeans and a t-shirt that hopefully wouldn’t stand out even if someone did catch footage of me.

The door was open a crack when I got to my room, with Shawn and his girlfriend Liz inside, sitting on his bed and watching some movie on her laptop. I gave them a nod but kept quiet, glad they had something to focus on besides talking to me.

Shawn paused the movie. “Hey man, you okay?” he asked. I guess my face was giving something away.

“Fine,” I said, “just thinking. What’re you guys watching?”

“Enter the Dragon,” Liz said, pointing to the DVD case. “You want in?”

“Thanks,” I said, “but I haven’t eaten yet, so I’m heading to the dining hall. You guys have fun.”

Liz looked at the alarm clock on the desk next to them. “Crap, it’s dinnertime already? I didn’t realize.”

“You want to eat something now?” Shawn asked, turning to look at her.

“Yeah, let’s,” Liz said. “We can finish the movie after.”

The two of them got up and pulled on their shoes, and we all headed downstairs and across campus to the dining hall. It wasn’t opposite Shawn’s and my dorm, but it was a few minutes away. Shawn put his arm over Liz’s shoulders, and the two of them walked close together. There was nothing wrong with the gesture, but they both seemed a bit self-conscious and excessively aware of everyone around them.

While Shawn was a fairly tall guy, Liz was a bit on the shorter side. It had been obvious to me from the start that they were self-conscious because Liz was white and Shawn was black. As far as I knew, they’d never had any actual trouble as a result, but Liz’s parents didn’t know they were dating yet, and I gathered she wasn’t sure what to expect, since it was a family first. The two of them were more relaxed than when they first got together, at least. Shawn and I had been roommates for a while, but Liz had seemed a bit nervous about how I’d react until we got to know each other better.

“So, why Enter the Dragon?” I asked, trying to give them something else to think about. “Any particular reason?”

“Just celebrating the weekend,” Liz said.

“So is that a tradition now?” I asked. “Martial arts movies on Fridays?”

Liz looked thoughtful for a second. “I guess it is,” she said, “but not on purpose.”

“Huh,” Shawn muttered. “Well, last week was Crouching Tiger, and the week before that was Jackie Chan’s First Strike, so yeah,” he looked at her with a smile. “I guess if three makes a tradition, then we started a new one by accident.”

“Everybody should watch Bruce Lee kicking the crap out of someone on Friday nights,” Liz said. “The world would be a happier place.”

We split up at the dining hall to collect our food. I grabbed some roasted chicken – the batch had just come out, so it was hot – and some green beans. I’d never loved green beans, but at least the dining hall never screwed them up. They were just kind of bland. I saw Liz at another station, getting some rice, and I went to grab some of my own. When I finished, Shawn was already claiming a table, so I went over to join him. He had a burger and some fries on his tray.

“So, how was your week on a scale of one to ten?” I asked.

He shrugged. “The school part was fine. I’m more worried about the supers fighting in town. The news didn’t get any video, really, but they fought in at least two different places. They said the Philly Five showed up, but no one got taken into police custody. That means that whoever started it all got away. I don’t know about you, but I don’t love the idea of living in a town where fights like that happen all the time. I mean, one of them threw a couple cars, man. If we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, we could just get squished.”

I grimaced, mostly because I wasn’t happy that the talk had turned to this particular subject, but I supposed it was unavoidable. It was the biggest local news, at least. If people had seen more, it would be the biggest regional or even national news, probably.

I wondered if the government might be encouraging people to report on other stories. I wasn’t a conspiracy nut, but the FBI guy had said they wanted Blitz dealt with as quietly as possible. Honestly, I couldn’t disagree with his reasons, either. I didn’t want to see others emulating their example.

“I hear you,” I said. “I’d be happier if the action was somewhere else.”

“That’s not very nice to ‘somewhere else’,” Liz chimed in as she sat, placing her tray on the table. “Me, I’m glad that whatever it was didn’t last too long.”

“Yeah, me too,” I said truthfully.

Shawn shook his head. “I don’t think it’s going to blow over this time. I’m not nuts over supers like some people, but I pay attention enough to know that sightings and activity are going up, not down. Maybe this is a bit more extreme than most examples, but I think it was probably just a matter of time.”

“What do you mean?” Liz asked.

“Well, you remember that thing in the Caribbean?” he asked. “Trinidad and Tobago, I think it was, or someplace like that. One guy with powers gets drunk, starts throwing stuff out of a junkyard, and pretty soon they’re calling in the military. He ended up surrendering, but it shows that it doesn’t take much, you know? That’s not even getting into all the rumors and unconfirmed reports from all over the world. I guess what I mean is, I don’t know how much longer it’s going to keep being lots of little news stories instead of one big one.”

“You might be right,” Liz said quietly. “Sometimes it seems like the world isn’t any different from when we were kids, but then something like this happens. Makes it hard to ignore. Ten years ago, no one had ever heard of Comet. Can you remember what that was like?”

We were all quiet for a few seconds. I found myself thinking about what it had been like meeting Comet; mostly I’d been grateful that she showed up. The fact that she’d arrived during a fight and saved my butt would probably have left me awestruck if I hadn’t been so afraid and tired. Looking back, I was amazed that I’d talked to the Philly Five so…normally. It seemed like it should have been weirder. I mean, if you meet someone famous isn’t it supposed to be a big deal? Not automatically life-changing, but at least impactful? For me, seeing the Philly Five was associated with being in trouble, now, and I suspected it always would be. I found myself hoping that they’d find themselves lacking any reasons to come back to town in the future.

Not that that seemed likely.

“At least there are good guys out there too,” I said, trying to lift the mood.

“Yeah,” Shawn said. “I did hear Comet showed up; that’s kind of awesome.”

Liz smiled, but elbowed him lightly in the side. “Don’t go looking at another girl on me, now.”

Shawn laughed. “Well, she’s out of my league so I’ll have to settle for you.”

She punched his arm, mock-glaring.

He rubbed the spot she’d hit. “On the bright side, if I was dating her and she got mad my arm would probably hurt a hell of a lot more, so maybe I’m better off.”

Liz and I laughed. “What if she did like you?” Liz said. “If she gave you a hug too hard, you might get crushed. You’re much safer with me.”

Shawn grinned at her. “Yeah, but you steal my fries whenever I get some. I bet I wouldn’t have to put up with that from Comet.”

“That’s a lie,” Liz said, reaching out to grab three fries and fighting to keep a straight face as she stuffed them into her mouth. “I would never take your food,” she told him seriously, the fries making her cheek bulge.

The rest of the meal was like that, without any more serious talk about supers. It took me a bit to relax and let my many worries go, but it felt nice once I managed it. I had stuff to do, but I decided that I’d put it off until tomorrow. For tonight, I’d take Shawn and Liz up on their invitation and watch the rest of the movie with them, then go to sleep. I had plans for tomorrow, and I wanted to de-stress before facing them.

When I poked my head out the window Saturday morning I found that it was chilly and cloudy again. The breeze wasn’t too cold but it was moving fast, making that whistling noise you get sometimes on windy days.

I dressed warm, but also tried to make sure I could move quickly. I hit the dining hall early – for a Saturday – and then left campus, heading to our appointed meeting spot. I was there early, but that was the plan; I figured the spot was as good as any to practice with my powers, and if Bloodhound or all of the Philly Five showed up before Raquel I really wanted to talk to them.

At the same time, I’d decided that whatever Raquel and Feral’s situation was probably shouldn’t be my top priority. I’d never seen or heard of any evidence of Feral doing anything wrong, and they’d been coexisting for a while, at least. If I didn’t get a chance to say something beforehand, I’d just bring it up when I could. The only thing driving me to investigate at all was my own paranoia.

I spent a few hours trying to get a feel for my powers. Before, I’d mostly thought that my “speed” was either on or off. Sometimes I’d tried to go faster, but the results had always been mixed. Now, with the hint I’d gotten thanks to Heavyweight, I had reason to believe that things worked differently.

I tried running, concentrating on my feet and my power. Running faster made a bit of a difference, but I didn’t feel anything unusual happening. When I tried to step farther, though, I made a breakthrough.

It was like my legs were stretching over the ground without straining at all. The weirdest part was that it didn’t feel like anything odd was happening in a physical sense. The sensation of my muscles contracting wasn’t changed at all. There was just a blur around my feet and my legs stretched too far. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it let me step a couple yards in one stride. I tried jogging, this time focusing on taking larger steps rather than moving my legs faster. It felt awkward, but I could plainly see that I was covering ground way faster than before.

I can’t believe neither one of us figured this out,” Leon remarked. “It’s lucky we didn’t need the edge during the fight before. At least we’ll be better prepared next time.”

                “Yeah,” I said. “I’m not sure how far I can make it stretch, though, and I don’t want to injure myself finding out.

I’d never had a pulled groin, and I had no plans to learn what it felt like. For the next hour or so, Leon and I experimented cautiously, trying to learn what the limits of my abilities were. I found I could double or even triple the length of my strides pretty easily, but doing more than that actually felt difficult. Jumping backward or forward, I could get a little extra distance, but I wasn’t sure if it worked as well. It didn’t seem to matter how fast I was walking or running, except in the sense that moving faster could make it harder to focus on using my power. It seemed like running might actually be slower for me than walking, that way, because moving my body faster demanded more focus. Weird.

Leon proposed an interesting wrinkle. “You should try to jump up or climb a wall,” he told me. “See if you can shrink a vertical distance, too.

I looked around, picked a two-story building, and walked up to it, standing under a second-story window. I jumped, kicking off the wall and trying to focus on moving upward.

It didn’t really work. I fell back to the ground, landing on my feet and reflecting that I probably looked pretty stupid. After thinking for a few seconds, I tried again, jumping up. Instead of focusing on moving, though, I focused on reaching upwards with my arms.

I felt my power again, and the distance to the window seemed to shrink. My fingers caught the lip below the window, and I looked down to see a drop below me.

In retrospect, I really should have figured out the way down first, even if it wasn’t all that long of a drop. Not very bright. Fortunately, Leon had another suggestion.

I dropped down, focusing on reaching the ground with my legs, and the fall was shorter than it should have been. It felt more like I’d jumped two steps on a staircase than anything else.

“Awesome,” I said. Leon was pretty excited too, and I thanked him for the helpful suggestions. I walked around the edge of the park, lengthening my steps artificially, and got back fast. Looking at the remnants of an old tire swing on the ground, I decided to try something else. Without moving closer, I reached toward it with my arms and willed them to grab it, then drag it back toward me.

It worked, but there was something really weird about seeing my blurry arms. In fact, the air around them looked distorted too, but when I dragged the tire swing over the ground – which looked normal – it covered the whole distance.

Check me on this,” I thought to Leon. “It seems like I can only stretch myself, and maybe my clothes or anything really close. Except instead of me reaching farther, there’s just less distance for my body to cover.

That seems like a good description so far,” Leon agreed. “Which also explains why we had trouble increasing speed in past experiments. You don’t run faster, you just shrink the distance you travel. That lets you get there sooner.

I tried to think of anything else I could do with my new and improved understanding of my power. I supposed that in a fight, I could probably hit people faster.

Actually, that wasn’t quite right, was it? Thinking it through, I walked over to the wall again. I kicked it normally, not using my power. I had done it just hard enough to hurt my foot a bit, but not enough to worry about it.

Then I tried to focus on using my power and kicked it again the same way.

It hurt less.

“Huh,” I mumbled, thinking aloud. “So if I cover less distance, I think I don’t hit as hard, which makes sense…but that means that I have to pick between hitting someone normally or faster and weaker. I can’t do both.”

Hit them with something heavy and it won’t matter so much,” Leon suggested. “Or maybe grab them? There are options.”

I know, I’m just thinking it through,” I replied. “Trying to catalogue my disadvantages, along with the advantages. I might want to get my hands on a taser, although I need to look up how dangerous they really are first. I don’t want to kill somebody by accident. But that doesn’t depend on strength to zap people; it just needs to touch, so it might be a good investment.”

Leon was on board with that idea. “We can look it up later. Maybe we can get some handcuffs or something, too. If they expect us to be slow, we might be able to cuff somebody to a fence or something, and then work from there.

                The two of us tried to brainstorm some more ideas, and I tried to figure out how I’d go about getting a taser without leaving a record of it, or handcuffs for that matter. I didn’t really know, but I suspected that doing so would involve breaking the law, at least for the taser. On the other hand, I didn’t want to run around beating people over the head, so I’d need to come up with some alternatives if I kept doing this.

Come to think of it, were tasers legal for anyone to carry? Was that a federal or state thing?

More research to do when I got a chance later.

Leon and I were still thinking when Raquel showed up.

“Hi,” I said, giving a brief wave. Leon added his own greetings, and they returned them.

We were both wearing masks already, but from the way she moved, she looked jittery. Neither of us really had anything to say at first, and she quickly started pacing, until she stopped and Feral appeared, her feline body next to Raquel. The pair of them walked over to an old, rusty metal bench and Raquel sat on it, Feral staying close and putting her head in Raquel’s lap like a pet. After a moment I walked over and joined them, watching Raquel petting Feral’s head and scratching behind her ears as if she were a housecat and not as big as a person.

“Nervous?” I asked.

Raquel’s head jerked up and down in a nod.

“We’ll be fine,” I said, trying to project confidence. “We’ll have even numbers this time, and the Philly Five have been doing this for a while. Plus, we’re not on defense. We’ll track them down, and if things look bad we just won’t start anything without calling in the cops first.

“We’ll see,” Raquel said. A second later she turned her head to look at me. “I know it sounds like it should work out, but I just have a bad feeling about all of this. We still don’t know what happened to Davis, that telekinetic. It can’t be a coincidence. He went somewhere.”

“How tough was he?” I asked.

She snorted. “Stupid, but very tough. No subtlety, not much control, but he had lots of raw power.”

I didn’t have an answer to that. Trying to think of something to say, all that came to mind was my concern about Feral. We sat in an awkward silence for a bit, until Leon reminded me we did have something else to discuss; he’d thought of it overnight.

“So, Heavyweight doesn’t really know about Feral, and I never mentioned Leon to him,” I said. “But if we’re going to be tracking down the bad guys, he’s going to wonder how.”

“Crap,” she said flatly. “I forgot about that. I hope he doesn’t mind that I never mentioned it before.”

I half expected Heavyweight to show up right then, but he missed the cue.

“So we tell him together?” Raquel asked.

“I guess so,” I answered her. “I don’t really have any evidence to show him, but at least it should sound less crazy coming from both of us.”

We returned to awkward silence after that, while I tried not to stare and Feral, until Heavyweight arrived a few minutes later.

“Hey,” he said to both of us. Then he looked at me. “So, you think of a name yet?”

I was about to say no when Leon spoke up. “I was thinking you might want to go with Flicker,” he said to me. “Covers both of your powers, in a way, but it doesn’t really tell anyone much.

I blinked. “Well, I’m thinking about Flicker,” I said. “Haven’t really thought it through yet, but we can try it for today.”

“Flicker, huh?” Heavyweight asked. “Okay. I’m not sure I see it, exactly, but it’s your name, not mine.”

I shrugged. “Like I said, I haven’t been thinking about it for long.”

In my head, Leon laughed. “That’s what I call an understatement.”

“So listen,” I began, “before our out-of-town ringers show up, there’s something you don’t know.”

He cocked his head, listening.

“Raquel and I are, ah, not exactly like you,” I said, struggling to find the right words.

Fortunately, Raquel jumped in. “You know what I do,” she said, standing up and pointing to the large cat sitting at her feet. “It’s not just a thing that I control. Feral, the cat, she’s some kind of…person without a body.”

He stood silently before turning to me. “So you can…create something like her?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No, I showed you my powers yesterday, except for healing. But they come from a guy named Leon, who doesn’t happen to have a body. I can’t prove to you that he’s here or anything, sorry. Actually, I’ve never told anyone about him because I figured it would just sound nuts. Any explanation that starts with, ‘the voice in my head is named Leon,’ or ‘well, the voice in my head thinks…’ I figured it wouldn’t go over well with anybody. Until I found out about Feral and Menagerie, I didn’t even know if there was anyone else like me around to find.”

“One of the people we fought, their leader, he’s like us too,” Raquel said. “We think that’s how he found us before, but Bloodhound helped us hide, at least for now.”

I couldn’t see his face, but I got the impression Heavyweight was having a bit of a hard time believing us.

“Okay, fine,” he said after a bit. “I guess that might explain why they found you later and not me, at least. But why are you telling me all this now?”

“Because we should still be able to find them the same way they found us, if we can get close enough,” I said. “That’s the plan for today. The Philly Five already knew about us, somehow, although I have no idea how. They seem to know a lot of things. Anyway, with Menagerie and Feral here I’m less worried that I’ll sound crazy telling you.”

“Pretty much the same for me,” Raquel said. “Even being able to point at Feral, I don’t expect most people to get it if I say she’s a real person with a mind and stuff. It’s pretty weird.”

“That’s one word,” Heavyweight said, but he sounded like he was taking us seriously, at least. “I guess I don’t blame you. Me, I’m happy to have just the one mind, no offense. Is there any way I can talk to them?”

I hesitated. I might be able to let Leon take over my body temporarily, but I didn’t think he would sound different or anything, so it wouldn’t really constitute evidence. To Heavyweight’s eyes, it should look the same.

“Not really,” Raquel said. “Feral can talk through me, but there’s no difference you can see or hear or anything like that.”

“Okay,” he said. “I guess I’ll just wait and see what the big fish have to say when they get here.”

We settled in to wait, not sure how long it would be. I fidgeted a bit, Raquel sat down again and returned to petting Feral, and Heavyweight sat and leaned his back against a tree. I was still trying to avoid staring at Feral when the Philly Five showed up just a few minutes later. They were short one member again. Bloodhound, Comet, Newton, and Tin Man looked pretty much the same as they had before. We said hello, I gave them my new name, Raquel thanked Bloodhound again for his help with her arm, and we got down to business.

“Menagerie, Flicker, I know I promised to show you how to hide yourselves,” Bloodhound said, “but if you don’t mind we’d like to put the search for Collector first. What I did should hold up for a while longer, so it shouldn’t be a problem, and we don’t want to miss our chance to find them today. I promise that even if we finish dealing with these guys, I’ll be willing to teach you later.”

“Okay,” I said gladly. Raquel agreed too, though she sounded a bit disappointed.

“I was thinking we could split up into two groups,” Comet said. “Menagerie and Flicker each go with one group, the rest of us keep an eye on them, watch their backs. If either group finds something, call the other one and wait for them to arrive, then we can decide what to do. I don’t want to rush this.”

Raquel and I nodded.

“So you know about their invisible friends?” Heavyweight asked, gesturing to us.

“Yes,” Comet said. “We’re basically depending on their invisible friends, when you get right down to it. It’s not a big city, but it’s big enough that we’ll never find the people we’re looking for the old fashioned way. The FBI might, with security camera access and funky software and stuff, but we wouldn’t stand a chance unless we got obscenely lucky. But with the two of them around, all we need to do is run a grid search and have them speak up if they feel somebody close by. It’s not perfect, since we have no way to set up a perimeter and the bad guys could have left already, but it’s pretty good. And if they have left town, then I’d call that a partial win.”

“I wouldn’t mind, myself,” Raquel agreed. “So how do we do this?”

“Well,” Comet answered, “We were thinking Bloodhound, Tin Man, Newton, and Menagerie would be one group. Heavyweight, Flicker, you’d be with me. That work for you guys?”

“Why split up that way?” I asked.

“It’s the best speed match we could come up with,” Comet said. “From what we saw, we figured you’re faster than Menagerie.”

I glanced at Raquel. “I might be faster, but I’m not sure how long I can keep up higher speeds. I’m still testing my powers out. Given that there’s a chance we’ll be fighting later, I hope you understand if I prefer not to tire myself out too much running across the city.”

Raquel looked up. “Someone else can ride with me, if they’re up for it,” she said.

Comet nodded slowly. “Okay, we can work with that. Let’s say me, Menagerie, and Bloodhound together? Flicker, Heavyweight, Newton, and Tin Man for the other group. That work?”

No one objected.

“Cool. Have a look at this, then,” she continued, pulling out and unfolding a map of Berkeleyport. “I figure we should pay less attention to the good parts of town, since people are more likely to notice and report anyone weird hanging out, so that means we should look toward the north, right?” She looked at us – the locals – for confirmation.

“Northwest is probably our best bet for that,” Heavyweight said. Raquel nodded agreement. “That’s the poorest part of the city. South and east are generally better.”

“Okay,” Comet said. She outlined her proposed routes, which were modified with a bit more input from Heavyweight – I got the impression he knew the city’s roads pretty well, and certainly better than I did – and soon enough we set out in our two groups. Newton and Tin Man ended up showing Heavyweight and I to a nondescript van they had parked nearby.

“It’s hard to get around inconspicuously in the suit,” Tin Man said, opening the back doors. We all got in and sat on two benches along the side walls, except for Newton; he went up front and took a minute to unmask where we couldn’t see him. Heavyweight, Tin Man, and I were out of sight in the back, but anyone could see Newton in the driver’s seat.

From what Tin Man had said, I guessed they moved around like this a lot; it made some sense. Newton could fly, I knew, but I hadn’t seen him go that fast. A car was probably faster a lot of the time; he definitely didn’t look like he could keep up with Comet. Tin Man and Bloodhound didn’t have any special ways of getting around that I knew of, so using some sort of vehicle made sense, although I wondered how they kept anyone from identifying the thing and following them home.

I didn’t waste my breath asking, though. We were working together, but I doubted that they would tell me something like that, especially after the way they’d handled the two FBI guys.

After a minute, we pulled out and Newton started driving us around town. I was anxious, although after the first half hour went by with nothing happening I started to feel bored and anxious, which I’d never known was possible. Without being able to see out, my whole world was pretty small: just the back of the van, with me, Heavyweight, and Tin Man. The two of them made me feel small, and the fact that they weren’t talking started to feel awkward, even if I knew they were just trying to let me focus. I became very aware of the sound of my own breathing in the enclosed space, despite the noises of the van and other cars outside.

After a while longer, Tin Man got a call. He talked for a few moments, then hung up.

“Menagerie found something,” Tin Man told us. “Newton’s getting directions now. They’re waiting for us to get there before doing anything.”

I made a conscious effort to relax, but the tension was getting to me as we turned to rendezvous with the rest of the group; I didn’t feel bored anymore. When we arrived, Newton parked behind a brick building. We gave him a minute to put his helmet back on before getting out, and he used his power on each of us one at a time so we could quietly ascend the wall. It was a strange feeling, as if the wall itself became a floor and I was walking normally, even though I could see the open sky dead ahead, but I had to admit that just walking up the wall was a cool experience. When I got to the top, Comet took my hand and helped me re-orient myself. Menagerie and Bloodhound were waiting, looking down the street. Newton came up last, the same way the rest of us had.

The seven of us gathered there – four almost-legends and three locals. Focusing again, I could feel someone else – possibly Collector – nearby, and I looked down the street to try to guess where he was.

“I think it’s the third building,” Menagerie said to me quietly. “There,” she pointed.

The first buildings I saw looked like empty storefronts. One had been a grocery store, identified by the Acme sign that was still present even though the parking lot had plants creeping up around the edges and the building itself looked almost completely empty inside. One had been a Borders bookstore until it went out of business. There were still a few small signs leftover, declaring that the location was going to close soon, though I was pretty sure it had done so months ago.

The third building was a motel, ratty-looking but still open. It was only one story, squat and a bit long. I tried to get a sense for the distance, but I wasn’t sure whether she was right; sensing people was a new thing for me.

There’s definitely someone there,” Leon agreed. “I think it’s him. Be careful, okay?

“I’m sending Feral to check it out,” Raquel said, louder. Feral shimmered into existence and then stalked forward to the edge of the roof before climbing down slowly.

“I’m not sure that’s the best idea,” Newton said as we looked at the cat.

“Wait a sec,” Raquel told him. When Feral reached the bottom of our building, she shrank down to the size of a housecat and assumed a more normal appearance. She was white and black, her fur an uneven mix that made her look like a normal housecat. She padded slowly down the street until she reached the motel.

Bloodhound pulled out a pair of binoculars and took a closer look; the cat was far enough away that I couldn’t see her clearly with the naked eye.

“They’re definitely in there, or at least Collector is,” Raquel said after a minute. “I’m still getting the hang of recognizing people, but Feral says he’s familiar, and that’s the only person it could be. She can’t get in without drawing attention, though. So what’s our plan?”

“We’ll have to wait,” Comet said. “No offense to you; I believe that Feral can recognize the guy. But I don’t want to start anything without seeing at least one of their faces and getting some sense for who else might be around. Menagerie, how about you stay here with Bloodhound and Tin Man while the rest of us spread out and check out the surrounding area. We can regroup here in twenty minutes or so. It seems like they’re probably just camped out for now, but let’s make sure first.”

“And if they are just camped out for now?” I asked.

“Then I say we call the government and drop the hammer on these bastards,” she said cheerfully. “I want everything we can throw at these people. If we’re lucky, we’ll finish them off today and we can all get back to our lives.”

I didn’t say anything, but I had my doubts. On the other hand, we already matched their numbers. With backup, we should have a significant edge.

We split up, as Comet had suggested. I went up the road away from the motel, trying to get a feel for the lay of the land. There was a gas station not too far away, and some cheap apartments. Past that there was a bunch of houses, mostly old but in decent shape. I saw a few little stores, a few offices – belonging to a doctor, a lawyer, and a real estate agent – and there was a barber shop, too, complete with the red-white-and-blue colored spiral thing that I don’t know the name of, but which a lot of older places seem to have for some reason. Nothing special or unusual. As I got further away, I saw a take-out joint, advertising pizza, sandwiches and stuff like that, the Greasy American standards.

I got around more easily than expected; the roofs were mostly a uniform height, and I could jump from one to the next across the narrow alleys separating them with a little use of my power to make it easier. Crossing the street would have been another story, but within the block I could get around pretty well. I had tried to step across one gap as a test and nearly fell; either it was too far or I just didn’t have enough practice yet. Concentrating on using my power to let me reach further, I managed to get a better grip and climb up from the edge of the roof.

I was standing on what seemed like an empty warehouse at the end of the block when I saw three people walk out of the food place together and head in the direction of the motel. One was a muscular, dark-haired, pasty-white woman I didn’t recognize. She looked pale enough that it almost seemed unhealthy. The second looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. His skin tone could have been from almost anywhere.

The third was Skyscraper at his normal size.

The second man is the one with the claws,” Leon said, once I’d spotted Skyscraper. “His skin tone is different, and some other things, but his facial features are mostly the same.

The three of them were walking along with a few grocery bags filled with what looked like take-out food and at least one bottle of soda.

I moved back from the edge of the rooftop and started pacing them. Sure enough, they went right to the motel and I found myself returning to the roof I’d started on, where Menagerie, Bloodhound, and Tin Man were waiting.

Bloodhound was watching me as I came back.

“You’re early,” he said.

“Spotted something,” I told him, pointing to the side. We all walked over to the roof and looked down for a moment before backing off. They had no particular reason to be watching for us, but four people lurking on a rooftop weren’t exactly inconspicuous, even if people usually weren’t in the habit of looking up. The three of them looked casual and relaxed as they walked, though, and I doubted they had any idea we were in the area.

“I’m pretty sure those are Skyscraper, the claws guy, and maybe Silhouette,” I said. “She’s the only one I didn’t see before; that could be what she looks like when her power isn’t on. Unless I’m mistaken, they’re bringing back lunch.”

Bloodhound was looking at them through his binoculars. “I see four or five sandwiches, maybe more in the other bags they’re carrying, so most of them are probably here. Nice.” He fiddled with the binoculars. “Tin Man, call the others. Have Comet swing around to pick up Heavyweight.”

“I’m sending Feral closer,” Menagerie said, closing her eyes and sitting down. Tin Man nodded at Bloodhound, walking away a few steps.

I almost told her not to, but Feral did look just like a normal cat at the moment, so it should be all right. Before, when she’d gotten hit, Menagerie had only been knocked out. As far as I knew, Feral couldn’t really be hurt in any permanent sense. It was still a gamble, but probably a worthwhile one.

The three we were watching got to the motel and knocked on a door, which someone inside opened. They went inside.

“Perfect!” Menagerie said. “Feral managed to keep the door open a crack. She’s sitting outside. We’ll see if they talk to each other.”

“Will they get back soon?” I started to ask Bloodhound, but Menagerie shushed me.

“They’re talking,” she said. “It looks like all of them are there except for the metal woman and the kid. Skyscraper wants to get out of town now, but Collector says he wants to finish here first. He wants at least one of us, and,” she stopped for a second, frowning. “He wants someone else, too. It sounds like he’s not sure who he’s looking for, but he knows they’re here.”

Bloodhound and I were silent, eager to hear more from inside the room. As Menagerie was talking, Tin Man seemed to finish his call and he walked back over to us.

“Someone – I think the guy with claws – he’s agreeing that they should leave,” Menagerie continued. “He wants to try showing up somewhere else, then coming back, hoping they’ll only have to deal with the locals that way. The boss is shutting them down, though.”

She cocked her head, and when she spoke again she sounded confused. “He says there’s something or someone important here, either magic or tied to magic, and he won’t leave without finding it.”

That was unwelcome news, but I reassured myself that we were starting to get a grip on what these people were after.

Newton got back; I noticed when his footsteps approached, so he must have come up to the roof discreetly. He started to speak, but stopped when Bloodhound gestured him to silence.

“It looks like they’re done talking for now,” Menagerie said disappointedly. “They’re all starting to eat their food.”

Comet and Heavyweight arrived soon, and we shared what Menagerie had overheard and seen. “I can’t hear so well now,” she told us. “Feral’s still outside the door, but one of them noticed it was cracked and closed it. I think the woman – probably Silhouette – is sitting on Collector’s lap, so they might be together. One of them got a call, though, and said that Smith and Dealer were coming back. I’m guessing that’s the metal woman and the kid. If we want to catch them all together, we may get our chance soon.”

We sat there, waiting. It was still overcast, but it didn’t really look like it was about to rain; it was just one of those days where everything looks kind of dim and gray, and it’s hard to tell that time is passing because the sky changes so little throughout the afternoon. Finally, we saw the kid and the metal woman show up, walking to the motel from another direction. The kid had a drink in one hand, and some sort of electronic device in the other; Bloodhound said it looked like it was a video game handheld. They were walking slowly, and I remembered that I’d hurt the woman in our previous encounter. Menagerie said her nose was partly covered with something, so I guessed I had broken it after all, and she seemed to favor one side slightly as she moved.

Menagerie didn’t want to tip anyone off, so she had Feral move away from the motel room and didn’t try the trick with the door again. She thought it was too risky, and Comet agreed. Once the door closed she sent Feral back, but regretfully reported that the cat couldn’t hear much of anything.

“Anyone got another way to spy on them?” I asked.

“My eyes are sharp, but my hearing isn’t particularly better than normal,” Heavyweight said. “I don’t think I can help.”

“This might work,” Tin Man said, pulling off a small device that was clipped to his suit. “But we’d need some way to get it into the room. It’s basically a glorified microphone.” He looked at Menagerie. “Could your pet carry it in if the door opened again?”

Menagerie glanced at the thing and shook her head. “Probably not without being noticed,” she said.

“I might be able to do it,” I said, thinking about my other power. “But they’d have to open the door themselves and I’d have to get really lucky to get through without them noticing, and then I’d either need them to open the door for too long again, or I’d be stuck in there. Besides, I don’t think it matters what else they have to say if we can catch them,” I pointed out.

Comet looked at me for a second before answering. “You’re right, I guess,” she said. “But I don’t like not knowing what brought them to town, and given how they got away before, I think pinning them down and bringing them in is going to be tough.”

I shrugged. “I agree, but if I go in there odds are I’m going to tip them off without us gaining anything. I think we’ll have to settle for what we know now, and call in the G-men. If we waste too much time, they might just leave on their own before we do anything, and we’ll miss our chance.”

She hesitated for a moment, but acquiesced. “All right. Tin Man, make the call and let’s see if the professionals are ready. Let them know we won’t make a move until they get here, and we’d appreciate it if they’d be willing to discuss things with us first.”

She looked back at the motel and let out a heavy breath. “As for the rest of us, let’s try to relax. Stretch if you want to, grab a drink of water if you’re thirsty, whatever you need. Menagerie, if you could have Feral keep an eye on the door and tell us if they try to leave, that would be appreciated.”

She suited her actions to her words, starting to stretch a bit. Bloodhound just sat, leaning back against an air conditioner or something that was sticking up out of the roof. Menagerie followed his example, though she slumped more. Tin Man walked to the other side of the roof, presumably to make the call, while Heavyweight and I paced back and forth a bit. I didn’t want to tire myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to sit, either. I was too keyed up for that.

Tin Man came back after a minute or two. “They’re coming,” he said. “The FBI guys want to meet us over there,” he pointed to an empty parking lot two blocks away. “It sounded like they’re serious, so don’t be surprised if this whole area starts looking busy.”

“Newton,” Comet said. Without further discussion, Newton helped us walk down the side of the building just like he’d helped us walk up, then floated himself down gently.

“Thanks,” I said. I’d considered trying to use my power to speed up the walk, but decided against it. I didn’t know the ins and outs of his power; if it interacted with mine in some weird way, it could have caused a problem of some kind.

“You’re welcome,” he said.

That definitely seemed like he was affecting gravity,” Leon observed. “I wonder how long his range is? He stayed in sight during the fight before, when it might have been better to hide. Do you think he needs to see people he’s affecting?

Maybe,” I answered. “It seemed like he was confident he could lock down three of them before, when they were pretty close together, so I’m guessing he’s not limited by people. It seems more like he affects an area, and he’s always kept it in sight so far, so probably he needs to see it to target accurately. When he flies, it’s not too fast…probably the same power, and he just can’t move the effect too quickly, which is why he’s slower than Comet.

Leon kept thinking about it, but I tuned out to pay attention to the other people I was with again.

“Would you mind taking care of the van?” Comet was asking Newton.

Newton got in their van and started driving it off. I assumed they just wanted it out of the way so it wouldn’t get trashed or identified by anybody. In the meantime, Comet led the rest of us over to the indicated parking lot to wait for our allies.
 
 
 
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