Tag Archives: Liz

You Can Choose Your Friends 4

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

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

What’s up?” Leon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t fix everything,” Leon said.

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

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

I know,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?” Leon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True enough,” Leon said.

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

Sure,” Leon agreed.

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

It was a long walk back home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you believe this?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon?

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

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

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If At First You Don’t Succeed 5

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That hadn’t been the nightmare I expected.

After the events of the previous night, I was anticipating nightmares in the near future. It wouldn’t be odd, under the circumstances, and I’d had vivid dreams on occasion. This was something else entirely.

It hadn’t felt like a dream at all, in fact. Sometimes dreams were vague, and sometimes they were sharp, but that whole experience had been a confusing mixture, with some details shockingly clear and others not so much unclear as difficult to remember. It was like anything that wasn’t vital had been blurred out, while critical images and information had been preserved. On top of that, while I hadn’t been in control, the sensations had felt shockingly real. I’d felt my heart pounding, sweat dripping down my nose and soaking through my shirt, and more. Even emotions had come through clearly, with fear being the dominant one. Even now, awake in my room, I was still keyed up, as if I expected to be attacked. I wasn’t still afraid, but adrenaline had definitely kicked in at some point.

I got up and looked out the window, then opened the door and poked my head out, looking out into the hallway, just in case it was some sort of extremely odd premonition. I didn’t see anything unusual in either direction; my room’s window looked out over the parking lot behind the dorm and into the small grassy area around it, and the hallway was pretty much empty, though I thought I heard a few people talking from the direction of the common room.

I closed the door again, locked it, and sat down in my chair.

Leon, did you see any of that?” I asked.

I assume you mean your dream?” he replied. I gave a nonverbal agreement, the silent equivalent of a nod. “No, I did not. I assume it was intense, given your reaction. Something related to last night?

No, it wasn’t,” I said. “Related to last night, that is. It was definitely intense. It didn’t feel like any dream I’ve ever had. I’ve got no idea what to think of it.

Can you remember what happened?” he asked.

That’s part of what’s weird,” I said. “I remember the whole thing, start to finish. I guess I might be forgetting part of it and not know, but it feels like the whole thing. It was really strange. Vivid, alive, contiguous, and it was all pretty straightforward, too. I mean, I’ve never been one for interpreting dreams or symbolism or anything, but this didn’t feel abstract at all. It was literal. An experience. Does that make sense at all?

I think so,” Leon replied. “Can you describe it to me?

I did.

Leon didn’t reply immediately, but I could feel his shock.

What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong?

I don’t know,” Leon told me. “It’s not familiar, but I feel as if it should be. I don’t understand.

You don’t feel confused, you feel shocked,” I said.

“David, could you always tell what I felt?” he asked suddenly.

I blinked at the sudden change of topic. “Um, sort of? Maybe not so well.” I considered for a moment. “I guess it seems to come a little more naturally. Makes sense, though; we’ve gotten lots of practice.

I guess so,” he agreed. “But I think it’s more than that.

What do you mean?

I’m not sure, really. Just a hunch. But it’s not the only change. I wasn’t sure it was really happening at first, but lately, I’ve been getting a clearer sense for things – physically, I mean – than I used to. If I was plugged into your senses, this would be the equivalent of the connection getting upgraded. Everything is just a bit…more than it used to be. I’m not sure how else to describe it. Colors, sounds, smells, everything is more vibrant than I’m used to.”

I smiled a bit at that. As I’d gotten to know Leon, I’d come to regret the fact that only one of us could get the full experience of being alive at a time. It didn’t seem fair.

Well, good,” I said. “We can try switching sometime today – I’d like to see whether it’s the same for me when you’re in control.

Leon was pleased at that. “Thank you, David. And I agree, this could be important.

Getting back to the dream, though,” I said, “can you tell me why it’s bothering you so much?

I’m not certain,” Leon said. “But something strange did happen. It could be connected to either of the things we were talking about.

What was it?” I asked.

Leon hesitated for a moment, again, before answering. “I think I fell asleep.

“What?”

I blinked and sat up quickly; it took me a second to realize that I was the one who had spoken aloud.

But that’s never happened. You don’t sleep. I mean, you never have, right? Not since you moved in.

No, I haven’t,” Leon said. “I rest, and I can stop thinking, but I haven’t actually slept since I found you.

That raised even more questions. “Um…how was it?

It was sleep, I guess,” Leon said. “I didn’t dream, that I recall, so there’s really nothing to remember. But I do feel good. Now, I mean. Rested, in a way I haven’t been since we met or before. I don’t have muscles of my own, but my mind feels a bit clearer and quicker.

Well…great!” I said. “That’s awesome. I always felt bad before, honestly, like you must be bored as hell when I was sleeping.

It wasn’t so bad,” Leon said. “A bit boring, perhaps, but it gave me time to think and rest, and lately I’ve used the opportunity to try to learn more about what Bloodhound has been teaching us. Still, sleeping – or rather, having slept – is pleasant. I’m trying not to get my hopes up too much, in case it’s a result of some bizarre environmental factor or something, but it would be nice to sleep again.

Yeah,” I said. “I can understand that. Still, I think we have to figure that you sleeping and me having that…whatever it was I had are connected, at least probably. Not definitely, but it seems really damn unlikely that both things happening during the same night is a coincidence.

I’m not going to argue with simple logic,” Leon agreed. “There almost has to be a link. But it’s strange. If I’m sleeping when you sleep, I would expect that you having a dream – or vision, or whatever you want to call it – would also cause me to have it.

We can try to get in touch with Bloodhound’s friend again if and when we get a chance, and ask her about it,” I said. “Maybe get Feral and Raquel there too. If we all compare notes, we might be able to scare up some answers for a change.

It’s worth a try,” Leon agreed.

We fell into silence for a few seconds, just absorbing it all. After a solid minute of staring off into space, I suddenly remembered setting my alarms to wake me up for class, and I looked at the clock.

It was well into the afternoon, but I’d woken up before my alarms went off. No surprise there. I didn’t feel much more rested than when I lay down, either, though I couldn’t tell whether that was because of the short amount of time that had passed or the way I’d woken up. On the bright side, I didn’t feel any worse, at least, now that my breathing had slowed down and I wasn’t in fight-or-flight mode.

I stood up and walked to the window again, looking out. It was weird to think that my life had changed when someone came up the wall and knocked on that window. I didn’t think I’d made the wrong choice, at the time, but I was a lot less confident about some of the choices I’d made since. Looking back, I’d been rushing into things, not just once but over and over again. First, because Raquel was in trouble and, if I was honest, because she was the first person I’d met who was like myself. I think I would have helped her anyway, but it had certainly made the decision easier.

Then I’d gone after Blitz, both because of what they had done and because they were an ongoing threat, like a knife hanging over my head. I didn’t know if or when they’d strike, but as long as they were out there I would have to wonder if they would be back. Then Dustin had been grabbed. Through it all, I’d reacted, just jumping in without really asking myself if there was a better way to do things.

I was not remotely okay with how things had turned out last night, but looking back on everything that had happened, I wasn’t sure what I could have done differently. There had been no reason to worry about Raquel and Feral beforehand, and I didn’t see how I could have known what was going to happen, let alone prevented it. The fact that Dustin had attacked us, even under such messed up circumstances, only seemed to underscore the importance of getting him away from Michaels as quickly as possible. From what Stalker and Agent Miller had said last night, we cut things pretty close to the wire as they stood.

“He’s not cured,” Stalker had said. “This isn’t something we can just erase. I might be able to with enough practice, but frankly I don’t want to get that much practice messing with people’s heads, even for their own good.”

Miller had nodded, firmly agreeing with that. “We need to find this guy,” she said to Turner. “What he does, it’s scary. Permanent.”

“So what did you end up doing?” I asked. “Assuming you can explain at all.”

“We sort of cross-wired things,” Miller said. “Dustin should distrust Michaels if he ever sees him again, and anyone he associates closely with the man. If Michaels tries to mess around again, we think it will protect him, at least for a while.” She shook her head, clearly dissatisfied.

Stalker spoke up again. “I wish we could do more, but it would be too experimental. Everything is connected, in people’s heads. Making any more changes would risk more side effects, and he’s going to have it rough enough already. Poor kid’s probably going to have night terrors for a while. He’ll need serious counseling, I think. But it’s better than having us try to flip a switch to make it better and end up dropping his IQ fifty points, or making it so he tastes purple for the rest of his life.”

The short exchange had stuck with me, and now I knew why. It was about consequences. I’d thought I’d been adapting pretty rapidly after getting thrown into the deep end, but although I had started to plan a bit more, I wasn’t really anticipating consequences. Like the possible consequence of people getting seriously injured or killed when we tried to rescue Dustin.

I’d told myself that I was ready to see the people who’d taken him get hurt, and even to do it myself, and that still felt true. When I’d been upstairs, the guy with enhanced senses and I had been fighting pretty viciously – savagely, even. He hadn’t pulled punches, and I had held back just enough to try to avoid killing or maiming him. I was bizarrely okay with that. It was hard to say why. It had been fair, in a sense. I had my regeneration, but he was trying to kill me instead of just hurt me. That felt like it balanced out somehow, or at least like I hadn’t been doing anything morally objectionable, even if he had. I’d pretended to kill a man, later on, but that didn’t bother me much either. I’d been careful to make sure he didn’t even get nicked, and he hadn’t been. At worst, I’d given him a bruise when he fell to the ground. The asshole deserved much worse.

Feral, on the other hand, had been untouchable. Looking back, it was obvious she could have plowed through that house and killed every living thing in it, probably including Heavyweight and myself, if that had been her plan. Her claws had managed to cut Heavyweight, at least – or had that happened only after Menagerie turned into the cat? I wasn’t sure. Regardless, part of what had made the killing so horrifying was the ease of it. The man she’d killed outside hadn’t had a chance. If not for Heavyweight and Mary Wade, there wouldn’t have been a single person there capable of even slowing her down. I certainly couldn’t have, and from what I’d seen Feral could probably follow my smell if she wanted to.

It was terrible, something I couldn’t let happen again…but at the same time, my choices had led me there, played a part in setting the stage for that mess to happen, and I didn’t think I would change them if I faced those same choices again. Leaving Dustin wasn’t in the cards. Letting Raquel and Feral handle things without help was even less acceptable than it had been before. What else could we have done? Waited? Called for help? We had called the police as soon as we knew where Dustin was, and the only reason we’d gone in right away was because they’d detected us. I figured the guy with superior hearing or smell or eyesight had spotted me in the yard, or maybe heard Heavyweight. At that point, I didn’t think waiting was an option. Even without that pushing us, waiting would have meant leaving Dustin with Michaels for longer.

What are you thinking?” Leon asked.

Mostly just brooding, I guess,” I said. “Unproductively. You know.

Well, knock it off,” Leon replied. “We’re officially a super hero now, you know. And we don’t have what it takes to pull off ‘brooding avenger.’ Your past isn’t traumatic enough. Your parents are alive, you don’t have amnesia, you haven’t escaped from a sinister organization of dudes who have a lair or anything. You don’t even have a trench coat or a cape. And your voice isn’t gravelly enough, either.

I laughed. “No brooding, yes sir. I’ll try to remember.

Good,” Leon said, amused. “So, let’s get ready for class. Proper education is vital and all that. Also, you should drink milk and eat your vegetables and do other healthy things, probably.

I glanced at the clock. “We’ve got a bit of time to kill before class,” I said.

I grabbed my stuff to go shower. It would help me stay awake, and more importantly, I wanted to wash off all the sweat that hadn’t soaked into my clothes. No need to inflict that on whoever sat next to me.

When I got back after class, I found Shawn and Liz in our room. She was lying on Shawn’s bed, on top of the sheets, reading. He was at his desk, bent over his computer.

“Hey guys,” I said. “How’s things?”

“Fine,” Shawn said.

“Pretty good,” Liz agreed, lowering her book for a moment. “Just finished class?”

“Yeah,” I said. She’d spent enough time in our room at this point that she had some sense of my schedule, and I knew some of hers.

“You hungry at all?” she asked. “I’m trying to talk Shawn into early dinner. I missed lunch.”

“Me too,” I said. “Let me take stock for a sec.”

I sat down and popped open my laptop, checking my emails and my account on superstuff.com, and glanced at local news. I didn’t see anything about Dustin yet, but Turner had said they’d get him home ASAP, so I figured he was with his family, and the word just hadn’t gotten out yet, probably.

The only important thing was a message from Raquel, asking me to come by for dinner again or set up a meeting so we could talk. She said she’d okayed it with her mom already.

We really need phones to use with each other,” I thought. “This weekend, we need to find something cheap.

If we keep going through clothes at our current rate, you know it’s going to be a problem,” Leon noted. “Even cheap, we can’t afford to replace stuff all the time. And when we start breaking phones – and let’s not kid ourselves, the way things have been going it’s going to be ‘when’, not ‘if’ – this is going to get out of our price range fast. Even renting that car was stretching things.

Yeah,” I said. “I know. And while mom and dad might be willing to help, that would require explanations that I haven’t given yet.

Explanations which you intend to keep procrastinating, I take it?

Don’t prod me about it,” I said. “I know I’m putting it off. Procrastination isn’t always the worst thing in the world.

What if we die next time?” Leon said, suddenly serious. “Say we get caught in, oh, just to be hypothetical, some kind of house fire. Let’s say, hypothetically, that our body gets recovered by bad guys looking to clean up the evidence, or burned and crushed so it’s hard to identify. You want them to hear that you disappeared, without knowing anything about why? You want them to maybe find out the truth weeks or months later?

No, I don’t,” I said shortly.

Then we need to do something about it, instead of just pretending that the power of denial will keep us alive,” Leon said. “I’m sorry to be pessimistic guy, but this is something important and we can’t pretend it away. And frankly, I think it’s been eating at you a bit. We can set up something just in case, if you’re not ready to tell them. Some kind of letter ‘in case of my death’, or something, okay? But doing nothing isn’t dealing with the problem, here.”

He let me stew for a minute.

Okay, I’ll do it,” I said. “Soon. Tomorrow, even. But don’t be on my case. You just finished talking me out of brooding a few hours ago, remember?

Yeah, okay,” Leon said. “Sorry about that.

I looked back at the message from Raquel. “What do you think?

You have to ask?” he said.

I deleted it – we didn’t keep messages once they’d been read. They were probably still out there somewhere on the internet, and they weren’t supposed to contain anything that would let other people figure out who we were, anyway, but we were trying to layer precautions.

No, not really.

Raquel and Feral needed friends today. I still felt a little bad for leaving her at home, even if I thought we’d done a decent job (or the best we could, at least) of helping them regain their footing first.

I sent Raquel a message saying I was on my way. I hoped her mom wasn’t going to kick the crap out of me for delivering her daughter home in worse condition than when she’d left.

“Looks like I’m going to have to bail on dinner,” I said. “Sorry, guys. Maybe tomorrow.”

Shawn was almost frowning as he looked at me, but not quite. He glanced at Liz for a second, so briefly I almost missed it.

“Sure, man,” he said. “Catch you later.”

Liz gave me a little one-handed wave, and I went out the door.

The bus ride wasn’t that long, and I’d spent a bit more time on busses than usual, lately. I looked at my bus pass for a second before putting it away as I sat down. I’d been getting the monthly pass since I started at Berkeleyport College, so more trips didn’t mean more expense, which was nice, but it reminded me of the money issue. A phone to talk to Heavyweight, Raquel, and possibly the Philly Five would cost money. Depending on how paranoid I was going to get, it might make sense to have a separate phone just for calling the authorities, and possibly to replace them both every once in a while. Even on the cheapest plans around, keeping them active for any length of time would cost something whether I used them or not.

Then there was the clothing issue; as Leon pointed out, I’d lost a few articles of clothing since I met Raquel, to fire, bloodstains, and other damage. That would need replacing. And even if it didn’t, I should really come up with something to wear that would offer some genuine protection. Being able to regenerate wasn’t an excuse to ignore precautions. I had a feeling that if I was a member of the Philly Five, and I suggested that I didn’t need to wear anything protective, they’d laugh in my face.

Even if all of that wasn’t in play, there was the issue of a mask or helmet that was more durable. If I kept doing what I’d been doing, I might end up with the police looking for me. They might not look that hard, if I stayed on their good side, but all it took was one person in the right position to screw me over, if they found out who I actually was. The things I’d already done might be enough for someone who thought I was a menace to raise charges and start investigating.

I was a bit conflicted about the whole issue of concealing my identity. On the one hand, it was morally questionable, since I was basically taking justice into my own hands and answering to no one. That wasn’t something that drew me to keep going; it scared the shit out of me. On the other hand, I really didn’t want my life ruined because of bad luck and the proliferation of cell phone cameras. Even if I’d felt differently, Blitz was still out there. Collector wasn’t done with me, and if he found out where to find me I’d never have a good night’s sleep again.

So, if I kept going, I would probably need some cash to pay for equipment. Maybe it wouldn’t turn out to be that much, or maybe it would.

I have a thought about the disguise issue, actually,” Leon said. “I think the way we use light might let us obscure our face. And Bloodhound showed us how to make a light. If we can just figure out a way to make the effect persist, without interfering with other things, then we could have an instant disguise available, and it wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone when we’re being David and Leon instead of Flicker.

That sounds awesome, if we can make it work,” I said. “That’s a pretty big if, though. Still, worth checking out. Something else to ask Bloodhound, see if he can give us some tips.

Agreed,” Leon said. “He certainly seems willing to share advice. A bit on practical matters like how to get protective clothing doesn’t seem out of the question.

I suddenly wondered about the budgets of fictional super heroes. Of course, some of them were rich, and some of them were nearly indestructible, which helped a lot. Had anyone ever written a story with a super hero struggling to balance his private crime-fighting budget?

On second thought, that actually sounded really boring. No one wants to see Batman and Robin poring over the accounts to find out if they misplaced a crate of extra capes, or something. I wouldn’t want to see it. If I were in charge, I’d probably fire the guy who suggested it.

What I really need is a British butler…and millions of dollars,” I thought. “I feel strangely certain that would help with a whole slew of obstacles.

Leon laughed. “I suspect most people feel the same way, for some odd reason.

I sighed, leaning back in my seat. Maybe Raquel, Heavyweight, and I could talk about this stuff. Logistics. They could have ideas too, after all. Maybe we’d get really lucky, and Heavyweight would secretly be a junkyard owner, fashion designer, and engineer in his spare time. After all, comic book super heroes seemed to have more than twenty-four hours in a day when necessary. Why shouldn’t we?

Here I was, napping between classes and moving like a sloth after one night of good guy-ing. Why hadn’t my powers come with the ability to compress my sleep? That would have been handy. Better yet, I could bottle it and sell it to the world’s overachievers, and become the richest person on the planet.

I blinked, looking out the window. I was definitely a bit tired; my thoughts didn’t get this way unless I needed sleep. I was rambling.

I was in a bit of a mental fog for the rest of the trip.

Finally, we arrived. I stepped off the bus, walking toward Raquel’s.
 
 
 
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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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