Tag Archives: Meteor

You Can Choose Your Friends 3

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Thanksgiving dinner went all right, and to my relief it was uninterrupted. Leon made fun of me for expecting something to happen, and I couldn’t argue with him about it; the closest I came to being in danger was when I went back for seconds on turkey, stuffing, and potatoes. When I’d asked Shawn’s aunt half-seriously if she used a secret family recipe for the stuffing, she laughed and said she just made it up one year, after trying different versions over the years and being unsatisfied with them all.

I felt like I’d eaten enough for three dinners, once I accounted for dessert. Shawn’s aunt and uncle had spent hours in the kitchen, while Shawn, Liz, and I entertained their kids. They’d had a friend of theirs over, too. He’d been a co-worker of Shawn’s uncle, and he’d been hilarious. Whenever we weren’t keeping the kids busy we were listening to him tell some story or other, while Shawn’s aunt laughed and his uncle kept having to remind the guy to keep it all PG (or not, when the children weren’t around). He’d managed, cutting a few stories short and skipping some parts that sounded interesting. If my parents had been there, I had a feeling they would have called him “a character.”

In retrospect, I don’t think Liz needed any backup,” Leon commented.

Are you kidding?” I said. “She played with their kids, she ate seconds, and they all had a great time. She’s golden. I bet she’d have to burn down their house for them not to like her.

I was back in my room, alone. Shawn and Liz had crashed at her dorm, probably because it was a little closer and we were all exhausted by the time we got back to campus. It gave me some privacy, anyway, which was fortunate because I’d felt a need to take off my pants after eating so much. The waist had been uncomfortably tight around my stomach.

I sat back in bed and leaned against the wall, putting a hand to my belly. “In retrospect, we might have gone overboard.

Sorry about that,” Leon apologized. “It was hard to stop once you let me have a turn.

Forget it, I pigged out too,” I said. “It was worth a minor stomach ache. I freaking love Thanksgiving, by the way. It’s nice to have an excuse to stuff myself once in a while.

Amen to that,” Leon agreed with amused reverence.

I checked my phone, quickly, just in case.

There weren’t any messages. We turned off the lights to go to sleep, taking pleasure in the moment.

For one evening, at least, I’d managed to forget about everything that had worried me the night before. I knew it wouldn’t last, but it was a pleasant respite.

My predictions proved untrue; the quiet did last beyond Thanksgiving. Mary kept in touch to let us know that Tuggey was tailing Michaels with a few men while the empath went from place to place, moving around and trying to attract our attention without being too obvious. According to her, Michaels was bitching about the uncomfortable arrangements and constant movement. We all agreed that his discomfort was a feature of the plan, rather than a bug. It was petty, but sometimes you have to take the satisfaction you can get. Tuggey was handling things better, but apparently was getting sick of Michaels whining. I was happy to let them hate each other’s company in peace.

Raquel and I both took the opportunity to catch up on our schoolwork, and I was motivated by the knowledge that winter break wasn’t too far off now that Thanksgiving was behind us. Christmas decorations started to go up, and I began to worry about the possibility of something going wrong while I was at home for break. Mary and Raquel were competent, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving them without backup. Heavyweight had powers, but I didn’t consider him reliable. That might be unfair of me, but it was the truth.

There was one big surprise shortly after Thanksgiving, though, when Raquel and I went to meet Bloodhound and his teammates for lessons and practice.

Bloodhound and Stalker weren’t the only ones present; Comet was there, and she asked us if we would mind if Meteor came by to talk to us.

We talked it over briefly before agreeing, mainly out of curiosity. When Meteor showed up, she was dressed like Comet, but all in black – the same thing she’d worn in the video I’d seen of the Battle of Philadelphia. She landed right outside the building and walked in, and the five of us (seven, counting Feral and Leon) turned to face her.

Meteor stopped just inside. “Hi,” she said. Comet walked over and gave her a hug, and after a moment’s hesitation she returned it. They whispered to each other for a moment, then walked back toward us together. Meteor glanced at Bloodhound and Stalker, then looked at Raquel, Feral, and I. She took a deep breath, clearly gathering her thoughts or her courage before speaking.

“So…we met under pretty strange circumstances, I guess,” she said. “I know I probably came across pretty badly. In retrospect, what I said then sounds kind of paranoid and…well, not good. I just wanted to apologize for flipping out right off the bat. It’s not the kind of first impression I would have liked to make, if I’d been thinking about it.”

“It’s all right,” Menagerie said. “I guess you’d just been through something pretty tough.”

Meteor turned her head to glance at Comet, then looked back at us. “It wasn’t a good day, no. That was my first real fight, actually. I managed to stay out of that kind of trouble pretty much my whole life. I’m sorry you were there when all of that came out, anyway. I already apologized to them,” she jerked a thumb at Bloodhound and Stalker, “and their teammates, but I wanted to talk to you guys too.”

I cocked my head to one side. “I’m guessing you meant some of what you said, though, right?”

Meteor shrugged, and Leon thought it looked a bit forced. “Yes, but not the way I said it. The truth is, I don’t have a problem with the Philly Five in particular, or with you guys. But what you all do does make me anxious. Secrets and lies usually breed, and I don’t really trust power that’s used in secret. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that, you know? It’s not about what I think of any individual. I just…don’t trust the overall direction. And I do worry about the example it sets. I don’t think any of you are bad guys, or bad people, but that’s kind of what worries me. It’s really easy to sympathize with you and take your side, but anyone with the right powers can claim to be supporting justice. The problem is that every one of us ends up defining that for ourselves, and we have a lot of muscle to make our definitions stick whether other people like them or not. That’s dangerous in a way the Collector and his people aren’t. They’re just criminals, at the end of the day. They don’t have an ideology. That’s what I would have said before, if I’d been feeling less…upset.”

“If you think we’re decent people and you don’t distrust us, how can you have a problem with us trying to help people?” Menagerie asked.

“Because people change,” Meteor said, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “Having power changes people, and using it changes them more. I know my life would have been very different up to now if I couldn’t do the things I can do. Knowing that I can fly away from any conversation I don’t like is just the tip of the iceberg. I remember being a kid and having to learn real fast that I couldn’t afford to throw a temper tantrum. Now, I just live every second of every day with the knowledge that I can throw a tank rattling around in my subconscious. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t change us is out of touch with reality.”

“You think it changes us that much?” I asked.

“We’re still human, in the end,” Meteor said. “In the good ways and the bad ones.” She let out a deep breath. “Let me put it this way: I’ve tried a few drugs, but power’s better than all of them. It’s too good. That’s my real problem. I guess I wish no one could do the things we can do. Even if I would have to give up flying.” Her voice turned wistful at the end. “That one’s pretty harmless on its own, I guess. But if I could snap my fingers and make these powers all go away, worldwide? I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

“We’re trying to help people and keep them safe,” I pointed out. “A few months ago, I was worried too. I wasn’t involved, and I stayed out of things partly because I was worried about making the world worse, which sounds a lot like what you’ve been saying. But if none of us did anything, then nothing would ever change for the better either, would it? I agree these powers are pretty unfair, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find good ways to use them.”

“Maybe,” Meteor said. She seemed to relax a bit as I redirected the conversation along more general lines. “But there’s a difference between getting involved in the world as Steve or Jennifer and getting involved in the world as Meteor or Flicker, isn’t there? Look, I don’t think having powers means that everything we do goes bad. It just…magnifies everything. The more power we have, the more impact our choices have. So our mistakes are bigger. Our successes might be too, but I’m just not sure that’s worth the risks.”

“Speaking of risks, we take some pretty big ones to do what we do,” Stalker interjected. “Doesn’t that count for something?”

Meteor hesitated. “It does, but when we take action we aren’t the only ones at risk. If I fly around recklessly and plow into a building, then all the people there are at risk, and they didn’t have a chance to say whether or not they want to accept that risk. We aren’t always the ones who pay the price for our choices. If I make a regular mistake, then that’s fine. But once powers get involved, it’s all a lot less evenhanded.”

I realized that we had started to drift into a line opposite Meteor, like we were going to argue her down. I drifted to my right, trying to turn the group into more of a circle.

“Well, I appreciate your apology,” I said. “It was a bit unsettling, as introductions go. But if that was your first real fight, I’d say you did just fine if getting a little angry and worried afterward is all that happened. I freaked out after mine, that’s for sure.”

Meteor shook her head. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I? I came here to apologize, not start a debate, but now we’re debating. Look, you should know that I admire what you’re trying to do, at least. I don’t necessarily think you’re making the right call, but I appreciate your motives. Does that make sense? That’s what I came here to say. I might hope you’ll change how you operate, but I know you’re trying to be on the right side, and that still counts for something.”

Leon and I weren’t really sure what to say to that. Menagerie and Feral seemed to feel the same way, so we just stood there awkwardly for a few seconds, until Meteor looked at Bloodhound. “Can I have a sec, by the way?”

“Sure,” he said after a moment. They walked off to one side.

“Thanks for hearing her out,” Comet said once she was gone. “I guess you probably figured out we’re close, after our little argument. I know she can be kind of hard to deal with sometimes, but I know she’ll have my back anytime I need it. She saved my life, that day.”

I glanced at Stalker, and Leon wondered if Comet’s teammates felt the same way – and whether Meteor was really deserving of Comet’s trust, either way. She’d practically ranted, the first time we met. Even taking into account the circumstances, and the fact that some of her points made sense, she’d seemed dangerous. I knew better than to judge someone’s entire personality based on a few minutes of interaction at a highly stressful time, but she seemed angry, underneath it all.

Not angry,” Leon disagreed. “Afraid.

Of what?” I asked.

I don’t know, David” Leon said. “But that’s my instinct. She was afraid, not angry. In any case, it’s good to see that she is calmer now. One thing she didn’t point out is that there is a vast disparity in the amount of damage people with powers can do, I think. You and I could cause serious trouble, but it’s not likely to happen in a single moment of carelessness or passion. Comet or Meteor, on the other hand, only need to make one mistake to hurt a lot of people.

True, I guess,” I said. “Not all superpowers are created equal, and all that.

“We all have it tough sometimes,” Menagerie said. She looked at Meteor and Bloodhound. “I’m surprised she cares what we think, though.”

“I think she just felt bad for letting our stuff splash on you,” Comet said. “So, how have things been in this neck of the woods?”

I figured we should accept the change of topic. “Not too bad. We’re keeping busy, trying to stay on top of things. There’s sort of a situation brewing. Not something we can talk about, but we might end up asking for some help at some point, if you can provide it. Particularly from you,” I nodded at Stalker.

Stalker seemed surprised, for a moment, but then she settled again. “Well, I’ll help if I can. I don’t think there’s much point to us talking if we don’t help each other out now and then.”

“I don’t expect you to sign a blank check or anything, don’t worry,” I said. “We’re not being mysterious just for laughs. It’s just that it’s still early stages. We’ll tell you more when we know more about what’s happening and what kind of help we need. For now, we’re playing the waiting game a lot.”

Menagerie nodded agreement. We’d talked about the situation a bit, before meeting the Philly Five, and agreed not to tell them anything specific yet. I’d favored saying nothing, after what Mary had told us about the boss, but Leon, Feral, and Menagerie had all wanted to at least give the team a head’s-up, in the hopes that they might be able to help us more quickly if something went catastrophically wrong. I’d held out until Leon suggested that we consult with Mary. She was a bit irritated that we wanted to share any of her secrets, at first, but after talking it over she ultimately took their side.

I hadn’t lost that argument very gracefully, but when everyone disagrees there isn’t much else to do.

“Does this have to do with what happened to that kid, Justin?” Comet asked.

“Dustin,” Menagerie corrected. “And it probably does.”

“Please don’t try to look into it yourselves,” I said. “We’re doing our best to keep a low profile. We don’t want the people responsible to realize we’re on their trail.”

“Okay,” Comet said. “Thanks for the warning. How worried about this are you guys?”

I scratched my head. “On a scale of one to ten, I’d say it’s a two or three for expecting something to go wrong, but more like a seven or eight for how bad things could get if it does go wrong. But there’s a lot of margin for error on that second part. Too much we still don’t know.”

“Anything else you can tell us?” Stalker asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

Bloodhound and Meteor walked back toward us and I watched them as I spoke to Comet and Stalker. “We’ll be in touch as the situation develops,” I said. “For now, I think we’d like to keep brushing up our skills. If and when something happens, I’d like to be ready.”

“Fair enough, I guess,” Comet said.

“Don’t wait too long to ask for help,” Stalker added.

Bloodhound and Meteor arrived at the spot where we were standing and rejoined the rest of us.

So, are they better or worse now?” I asked Leon.

Those two? I have no idea, actually,” Leon said.

I guess that makes two of us. Or one-and-a-half, maybe? Stupid idioms.

That’s idiots,” Leon said. “But I don’t think it really applies to me, so speak for yourself.

Hardy har har, aren’t you hilarious,” I said. We returned our attention to everyone else.

“So, what do you guys normally do here, spar and stuff?” Meteor asked.

“I’ve been teaching the two of them,” Bloodhound said. “With mixed results, I must admit, but it hasn’t been a waste of time. More recently, Stalker got bored and decided some sparring was called for. I’m assuming she reasoned that it’s sensible because I’m on hand to patch everyone up, as if I had nothing better to do.”

Comet and Stalker laughed, and Meteor shook her head. “Anyone mind if I stick around?” She looked at us, then added, “I won’t take it personally if you say yes. I recognize that I haven’t exactly been running an airtight popularity contest…campaign, thing.”

I started to shrug, but stopped myself. “Menagerie? Feral? Leon?

I don’t know,” Leon said. “What do you two think?

I’m a fan of apologies, and it seemed sincere enough to me,” Menagerie said. “Feral?

No reason not to let her stay,” Feral said.

“I don’t see any reason to kick you out of the unofficial club,” I said. “Just remember the first two rules of super hero club.”

“You do not talk about super hero club,” Stalker said immediately. “I think the second one says that Meteor is supposed to bring snacks. Donuts are preferable to bagels, since there’s no toaster.”

Feral and Menagerie didn’t get it, which in retrospect wasn’t surprising.

It’s from a movie, sorry,” I said. “I’ll explain later, if you care enough.

“I thought one of the rules said that if it’s your first time, you have to fight,” Meteor said, turning her head towards Comet. “Isn’t that right?”

Comet laughed. “We just made up, and you want to go a round? I think you’re unclear on how friendships are supposed to work.”

Meteor held up her hands. “Hey, if I don’t know something, take me to school. Are you ready to do this or not?”

Comet shook her head. “Fine, but keep in mind that we don’t want to have a repeat of the island incident.”

“Hey, that was on you,” Meteor said, waving one hand airily. “You’re the one who sank it.”

“You punched me through it!” Comet protested.

“Um, what?” Menagerie said. She sounded a bit like a deer looks in the headlights.

Stalker laughed so hard she doubled over, placing her hands just above her knees to support herself.

“We weren’t there, but I’ve heard the story,” Bloodhound said. It was hard to tell, with the way the mask distorted his voice, but it sounded like he was amused, too. “Apparently these two geniuses once found a small island and thought it might be a good place for a sparring match. It was out of the way, so tiny that it wasn’t really worth owning, and there wasn’t even anything living on it, really. Just sand and grass, a bit out from the shore. So they start sparring, slowly turning up the heat and using more of their powers a bit at a time, until eventually one of them punched the other one down at an angle that went through the island and into the water. Three times. Our fearless leader makes a pretty hardy projectile, so instead of the island breaking her fall, she broke the island.”

“It wasn’t very sturdy to begin with, in fairness to us,” Meteor said. “Not, like, a proper island. It was just some sand and grass anchored by a few rather large rocks.”

“It was smaller than a football field, but not that much,” Comet said. “And you broke it!”

“That’s ridiculous,” Meteor said, her voice dripping with the scorn of the dismissal. “How could I have broken it when I never touched it? Really, Comet. Don’t tarnish your reputation by being dishonest with these kindly folk.”

Comet stared at her for a second before breaking down in laughter, and I was almost surprised to see Meteor start chuckling too. I found myself laughing along a bit as well.

In the back of my head, Leon and I chalked the exchange up as further evidence of how close the two were. That exchange could have been friendship, but Meteor had alluded to them being family previously, and now I was inclined to think it had been the literal truth.

Sisters?” I asked Leon.

Could be close cousins or something, but yes, I think that’s most likely,” Leon agreed. “I think it fits with everything, and they do have the same powers, after all. Perhaps the abilities run in the family.

I frowned. “Do we have any evidence that powers are hereditary? They’ve all appeared in people whose parents didn’t have powers, I thought. Dustin’s mother isn’t pyrokinetic, as far as we know.

I don’t think we’ve ever seen solid information either way,” Leon said. “But it seems possible, at least. If not blood relatives, perhaps they’re just friends who have been close for years? The similarity in powers suggests a common cause, though. If they are related, it seems like a meaningful correlation, at least. I suppose it could also be a result of exposure to something, if powers are…bestowed, for lack of a better word. Maybe they both walked past the same magic tree one day when they were kids.

Meteor got herself under control first. “So, you up for it or not? We don’t have to, but it has been a while.”

Comet straightened up. “All right. But seriously, hold the power. We’re guests. Trashing the place would be rude.”

“No problem,” Meteor said with a nod. She started walking away from us. “So…stay indoors, no breaking the building, and no using spectators as shields. Shall we dance?”

Comet walked after her. “Let’s do this.”

“Come on, let’s get out of the way,” Stalker said. The rest of us followed her as she walked off to one side, away from the pair who, I realized, had stopped walking in favor of floating. Stalker was leading us away from the fixtures that remained, and I realized she was trying to make sure we had a clear view of most of the building’s interior. I would have criticized that, on the grounds that it would be smarter to stand behind something, but then I remembered that Comet and Meteor would have to be careful not to collapse the building by accident. There wasn’t any safety in getting behind stuff. Either I trusted their control, or I should be leaving the area entirely.

Comet’s teammates didn’t seem nervous, and I decided to trust them. The “island incident” might sound terrifying, but they’d checked for inhabitants first. If I’d had that kind of strength, I would have wanted to test it at some point, too.

Besides, I really wanted to see this. Each of them had fought Silhouette and Skyscraper, and I knew Comet had fought a few other tough supers over the years, but I’d never heard about a mirror match like this one. Meteor and Comet had apparently reached a comfortable spot, and they were both floating just a bit above the ground, facing each other. There were only a few yards between them, and I assumed either one of them could cross that distance in a heartbeat.

“I feel like we should be placing bets,” Stalker muttered.

“I bet this is going to be fucking awesome,” Menagerie said.

“I bet one of us pisses his or her pants before it’s over,” Bloodhound said.

“I bet we’ll all look back on this one day and agree with Menagerie,” I said. “And by ‘one day,’ I mean tomorrow.”

“Now,” Stalker said.

She must have been calling the start for them, because they moved at the second she spoke, flying towards each other. Meteor led with her right leg, extending it as they closed, and Comet ascended above the kick, attacking with a combination of rapid punches at Meteor’s stomach. Meteor dropped to the ground and then kicked off like a swimmer but moving straight upward. Her fist just barely missed as Comet slid sideways, and Comet’s shin caught Meteor in the stomach, knocking her backward.

Meteor dove right back in, but this time when Comet kicked at her Meteor came to a sudden stop, her upper body twisting in midair as she kicked with both legs, feet together. Comet turned but got hit in the shoulder and knocked back by the blow, barely stopping her momentum short of the wall.

The whole fight was like that, a constant back and forth. The way they flew let them move in three dimensions unlike anything I’d ever seen. I’d noticed it the day I met the Philly Five, but it was on another level now, with both combatants easily able to move forward, backward, left, right, up, down, or any combination thereof. They twisted and slid around kicks and punches, flipped upside down without a moment’s hesitation, and generally ignored gravity and slapped inertia across the face. Even without flight I could never have fought either of them, but now I realized that even if I was a match for them in strength and toughness I could never catch them in the first place unless they flew near me.

As the match continued, they started putting more force into the blows, although it did plateau, thankfully. I wondered if Stalker had reminded them to be careful and rein it in.

I started to feel jaded when I realized that I was actually getting less impressed by the spectacle in front of me. Only a handful of minutes had passed, and I was already accustomed to the sight of Meteor and Comet flying over and under each other, as casually as I might sidestep. It was still exciting to watch, though. I’d lost track of who was landing more blows, but it occurred to me now that there was probably no way for a match between these two to end unless it was serious or they just got exhausted. They were so durable that calling a winner in anything short of a fight to the death might be impossible. Their ability to fly meant that even taking out the legs might not be a disabling injury.

Finally, the maneuvering and exchanges of blows gave way to something else. Meteor and Comet started grappling with each other in midair, trying to get a hold of each other’s arms and legs. That was, if possible, even stranger to watch than what had come before, and it took me a while to figure out why. Grappling typically assumed that the ground was there to pin your opponent against, but that wasn’t always true for these two. Soon they landed, but Leon and I quickly realized that the trickiest part of grappling between these two was countering each other’s flying abilities. Even when pinned on the ground, each of them had the power to accelerate in any direction, regardless of where they were looking. At one point, Comet got Meteor’s arm and seemed about to pull it into a position where Meteor would have to give up or have her arm broken, but then Meteor suddenly flew sideways, not off the ground but simply sliding along it. She jerked in several directions, and the rapid changes of movement allowed her to free her arm. A bit later, Meteor grabbed Comet by the leg, and Comet flew up at an angle, then stopped, letting momentum carry Meteor along so that she lost her grip.

After a few frustrating-looking minutes of that, they called a halt and landed. Stalker started walking towards them, and the rest of us followed. Meteor took off her helmet and shook her head, then started wiping her face.

“Sweat in the god damn eyes,” she said, muffled by her mask. She tugged it back into its proper place a second later, then looked at Comet. “There’s nothing like fighting 3D.”

Comet nodded, then took her helmet off too. “Yeah. Thanks for the practice.”

“Back at you,” Meteor replied. She flopped onto her back, staring upward. “I feel totally gross.”

Comet laughed. “Hey, at least you live alone. You won’t have anyone complaining that your clothes stink.”

They looked up as we stopped near them.

“So for the record, that was awesome,” I said. “Which, I think, means Menagerie wins the bets we didn’t make.”

“Thanks,” Menagerie said. “I’ll make sure not to spend it all in one place.”

I looked at Bloodhound and Stalker. “So, I know telepathy probably makes sparring boring – either it doesn’t work or it just wins outright, I’m guessing – but do the rest of you guys ever spar either of them? Because the way they move, it just seems impossible.”

“It’s a pain in the ass, but the rest of us can beat Comet if we work together and get a little lucky,” Stalker said. “We’ve done it…what? Twice? Three times, I think.”

Bloodhound nodded. “Three times. We haven’t bothered to try that matchup very often, though. It’s not really fruitful training.”

Meteor broke in, sitting up and leaning back on her hands. “With people who can fly like us, there are only three ways to bring us down, really,” she said, glancing at Comet before she continued. “First, there’s dogged pursuit. It takes luck, but if the powers align right you can just keep chasing and we eventually make a mistake, if only due to fatigue.”

Comet chimed in, rolling her shoulders. “Second, attack something we have to defend. That can force us to get close, so we lose the mobility advantage. That’s how Blitz got me before. Third, prevent us from moving. Telekinesis might do that, or force fields, or other stuff like that. Or if someone with the right leverage and strength can just get a solid grip on us, they can keep us close. We have a lot of horsepower in our flying, though, and we can go in any direction, so that’s tough.”

Meteor picked the conversation back up. “Lastly, of course, there’s cheating. If someone’s powers just knock us unconscious without a fight, that would work too. So I guess that’s actually four ways.”

“How did you guys do it?” Menagerie asked, looking at Stalker and Bloodhound.

“It really does take all of us,” Stalker said. “Direct telepathic attack might change that, but we’ve avoided experimenting, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Telepathy can help arrange a coordinated attack and defense, though. Newton can just barely hold Comet down if he cranks his power up enough and just lays on the Gs. Doing that to a normal person might kill them, of course. Actually, he has to be careful not to turn the power up and down too quickly, or he can cause problems anyway. Something like the bends that divers have to worry about, if you know what that is. Has to do with pressure.”

“We’re getting a bit sidetracked, here,” Bloodhound said. “The answer is that we can beat Comet, if we all work together and get lucky enough. It requires favorable conditions, her making a mistake, or a genuine coincidence in our favor to catch her in the first place, but it’s doable. The more we can plan, the better the odds. Without that, though, she just takes us out one at a time. I assume things would work pretty much the same against Meteor, except that we’ve never practiced against her.”

“Speaking of powers, there’s something I’m curious about,” Meteor said. She looked at us – at Menagerie, I realized after a moment. “Your friend, the cat – she can cut through a lot of things. Do you know if she can cut us?”

“Um, I’m, uh, not sure,” Menagerie said. She sounded nervous.

“Relax, I’m not interrogating,” Meteor said. “I’m just curious. Could we do a little experiment?”

“What kind?” Menagerie asked.

“I don’t know, cut my palm or something?” Meteor suggested. “If not, it’s okay, but I have to admit I have wondered about it.”

“I’m kind of curious too,” Comet said.

“I don’t know…” Menagerie said.

I don’t think you need to worry,” I told her. “It’s their idea. No one’s going to get pissed at you, even if something does go wrong.

“I promise not to get mad,” Meteor said. “It’s not like I’m asking you to give me a papercut.”

“Wait, have you ever even had a papercut?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Comet said. “It would have to be paper from a super-tree, or something.”

Stalker hid her face behind one hand, shaking her head, then looked at Menagerie. “Don’t worry so much about it,” she said, pointing at Bloodhound. “We’ve got the magic doctor, remember?”

“Well, okay,” Menagerie said. “um, which…”

Meteor stepped forward, pulling her right glove. “Here. Just a nice shallow cut on the palm, please. I like my hand attached.”

Menagerie focused, and Feral appeared in her arms as a small housecat. Feral stretched briefly and turned to face Meteor. Meteor held out her hand, stepping closer.

Feral reached out delicately, a single claw lengthening, and then pressing it to Meteor’s palm. Carefully, she drew it across the extended hand.

Meteor twitched, pulling her hand away. “Damn. I can’t remember the last time something hurt like that.” She looked at Bloodhound. “Here.”

He took her extended hand in his own, closing them over it. It was a shallow enough cut, so I assumed it wouldn’t take long.

“It’s not working,” Bloodhound said after a few moments.

Everyone turned to look at Feral.

“Oh come on!” Menagerie protested.

“Relax,” I said. “Has that ever happened before?” I asked Bloodhound.

“I don’t think so,” he said, looking at Meteor’s hand. “Wait. There was one time…when I healed Heavyweight, the night you rescued Dustin. Some of his injuries seemed to resist being healed. Wait a moment.”

He concentrated again, and we all waited quietly. I glanced at Menagerie.

Heavyweight’s wounds inflicted by Feral resisted healing?” I said. “Did we know about that?

No, he left before we got back from dropping Raquel off, remember?” Leon said. “I note that he said ‘resisted,’ though, not that he couldn’t do it. Heavyweight certainly seemed fine the last time we saw him, so I think it must have worked eventually.

Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “I wonder if Feral’s claws would be harder for us to heal from, too.

Interesting question, but I don’t think I’m as curious as Meteor. I hope you aren’t, either,” Leon said.

No, I favor remaining ignorant on that score,” I said.

We watched Bloodhound, keeping an eye on Menagerie.

“There,” Bloodhound said. “Did that work?”

Meteor spat on her hand and rubbed some dried blood off so that she could see clearly. “Looks good. I guess your heal-fu is stronger.”

“Apparently,” Bloodhound said. He looked at Menagerie and Feral. “I hadn’t realized your claws might have this effect. Healing cuts they make takes more out of me, though it’s still doable, but if you learn to control the effect you might be able to make wounds easier or harder to heal, as you like.”

“I wonder how well it would have healed on its own,” Meteor mused.

“I’m not testing it again,” Menagerie said flatly. “I don’t like cutting people.”

I couldn’t think of the right thing to say, so I just reached out and gave her shoulder a brief pat.

“I wasn’t really asking,” Meteor said. “I’m curious, sure, but I don’t want to walk around with my hand bandaged for a week, if only to avoid coming up with an explanation. Thanks for trying it, though. Bloodhound, thanks for the healing action.” She looked at all of us. “Last time I left, I said to call me when things get bad. I said a lot of other crap too, but I want to take another stab at it: call me if you need some backup. I’m not too far away.”

“You’re heading home?” Comet said.

“Yeah, I think I better get back,” Meteor said.

The two of them walked toward the door together, and Comet put an arm over Meteor’s shoulder.

We all watched them go. It might have been Leon’s influence, but I found myself watching everyone else, too, wondering what they all thought of Meteor now.

Well, at least I could ask Menagerie outright, once we were alone.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uplink and Newton walked over to Menagerie and me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You two came to help?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” Meteor asked brusquely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Accomplice? We’re the good guys.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meteor suddenly turned to look at all of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Bloodhound said without hesitation.

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

“Yes,” Comet said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you killed?” Menagerie blurted out.

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

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

There was another tense silence.

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

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

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

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

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

Are you okay with this?” Menagerie asked me.

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

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

“No, I haven’t,” Comet said.

“Me neither,” Tin Man said.

Stalker and Newton shook their heads.

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

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

I turned to Stalker. “What about you?”

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

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

I looked at Menagerie.

Is that good enough for you?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Bloodhound said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, okay,” Tin Man said.

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

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

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

“Jazz would be nice,” Menagerie said.

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

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

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

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

I settled in to listen.
 
 
 
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Walk a Mile in Their Shoes 4

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Jessica sat up, startled, as she felt her phone buzzing in her back pocket. She glanced around the lecture hall as she pulled it out, glancing down.

She frowned. It was her sister’s home number. It was unlike her to call in the middle of the day. Could it be an emergency?

The phone stopped ringing, and she hesitated, glancing up to make certain the speaker hadn’t noticed her distraction. One of the other students attending glanced over, but that was all. Her phone vibrated again, and she quickly unlocked it to check the text message.

It wasn’t from Ali; it was from Ali’s husband, John.

“Pick up. Emergency.”

Jessica grabbed her bag and walked out of the lecture as discreetly as she could, stifling a curse. She had been looking forward to hearing the guest’s speech, and he was only around for a week, but there was nothing for it.

The surface irritation shielded her from her own fear long enough to get outside without giving away that anything was wrong. She was just about to call John back when her phone rang again.

She answered. “Hello?”

She barely got the word out before he started babbling over her. “Jess, Alison needs help! There’s a fight, and she’s on the news, and- and she’s losing! Please hurry!”

It felt like her stomach turned solid. “Is she okay?”

“I don’t know!” John said. “Jess, please hurry! Most of the team was out of town and they’re not back yet! Tin Man is running, and Ali’s bleeding. She needs help now!”

Jessica had started sprinting without really knowing that she was doing it. “I’m coming,” she said. “Hang on.”

She’d feared getting this call.

It took too long to run behind the building, too long to fly up to the top of it and drop her bag in the shadow of an air conditioning unit, and too long to strip out of her clothes and get into her costume. Precious seconds slipped away, one after another. When she tried to put her boot on her foot slipped, and she almost cursed as she lost her balance and caught herself with her power, floating an inch off the ground as she slammed her foot down into it. She pulled on her helmet last. The outfit was identical to her sister’s in function, though it wasn’t colored so distinctively; Jessica had opted for simple black on the costume she had hoped never to wear for anything other than practice.

When she was done, she didn’t bother taking another look around; she just flew straight up, not stopping until she had an airplane view of the city below her, a complex grid of buildings and streets. Anyone who wanted a clear look at her would need binoculars.

She pulled her phone out of the small compartment on her back. “I’m on my way now, John,” she said. “I won’t be able to hear you while I’m moving, but when I’m close I’ll want an update on where she is.”

“Okay,” he said heavily. “I’ll be here.”

He sounded frayed. Instead of giving him empty reassurances, she hung up and put the phone away, zipping the small compartment behind her back closed, and then took off at top speed.

Jessica wondered if her mother was on the way, too, but she couldn’t very well call her any more than she could call John, not when she was moving so fast.

They really needed headsets built into the helmets. Of course, for that to work they’d also need some sort of voice-recognition, or a way to push buttons with their tongues, or something.

Calm. She needed to be calm. There might still be plenty of time. John was used to seeing his wife win, and without too much difficulty, on those occasions when he saw her fight at all. Hell, he usually saw the news coverage after the fact, when he already knew she was okay. The fact that he felt panicked didn’t necessarily mean panic was warranted. Ali was tough. Jessica knew exactly how tough Ali was from personal experience; having the same powers, they practiced against each other regularly, and they’d been evenly matched. If Ali was still fighting, it probably meant things weren’t too bad.

The rest of her team was out of town, John had said. Tin Man was there, but in trouble. Jessica didn’t think anyone helpful could get there faster than she could.

She hoped it would be fast enough. She hoped she had enough power to make a difference.

Jessica looked down, focusing on the path. The first time she’d flown to Philly from New York under her own power, it had been haphazard at best. She’d used a compass and a map, and gotten lost twice. It had seemed stupid at the time, but she’d known that it might pay off some day when she needed to rush, even as she hoped that day wouldn’t come. Now it had, and she was profoundly grateful that she’d memorized the route. Flying meant she could go in what was almost a straight line, saving time compared to following roads. This way, she just used the roads as checks on her progress. She was familiar enough with the route that she had some landmarks picked out, towns and shopping malls and anything else that stood out. She was lower than any airplane typically flew, so the ground wasn’t just a distant texture. Most things were recognizable, even cars. People were too small to make out, though.

Jessica pushed as hard as she could, but there were limits to her speed. In the past, she’d made the trip in under an hour, but she’d never gone to her limit.

Roads, trees, homes, grassy fields, towns – they were all a blur. As she accelerated, cars became harder to make out as clearly.

It was taking too long. If the rest of Ali’s team was out of town without a good reason, Jessica would scream at them.

She faltered for a moment. She was assuming it was coincidence, but what if it wasn’t? What if the enemy somehow knew that today was the day Philadelphia’s defenders would be weak?

The possibilities flitted through her mind. There could be a traitor. Ali and her team could have been identified, spied on. A precognitive could be involved, or a telepath.

Too many possibilities, even keeping things narrowed down to the powers that she knew existed. There was no point worrying about them, nothing that could possibly be gained. Figuring out the why would have to wait.

Jessica looked down again, correcting her course to the west slightly. It wouldn’t do to overshoot her target.

She was losing more time. More time she might not have.

When she recognized the outskirts of Philadelphia coming into view, it was a relief, but that only lasted for a few seconds, as she quickly realized cars were streaming out of the city. The gridlock looked awful. There was no traffic going the other way.

Fires were scattered around a chunk of the city, a desolate region full of levelled buildings. Even as she slowed, Jessica saw one wall collapse under its own weight. No one was near it. It hadn’t been struck, that she saw. Whatever damage had happened before had just caught up to the structure.

Jessica started a long, slow loop over the damaged area and pulled out her phone, dialing John.

He picked up immediately.

“Where is she?” Jessica asked.

“By the river,” John said. “She’s fighting Skyscraper, Collector, and Silhouette. I think someone’s helping, but I’m not sure. Jess, hurry.”

Jessica hung up and put the phone away, angling toward the water.

The damage got worse and then better a couple times between her starting point and her destination. As she moved toward the water, there were signs that the damage was more recent. She saw more fires and firefighters, more ambulances and foot traffic. Some people were actually coming into the area, moving in the opposite direction compared to Jessica; she assumed they were trying to get away from the current fighting. With fires raging and buildings in danger of collapsing, it wasn’t safe, but it had to be better than getting caught between supers.

She finally caught sight of Skyscraper, and she accelerated towards him.

He punched the ground with his right hand twice, then a third time, a fourth and fifth time, and she wondered what he was doing.

Then his fist stopped, half-embedded in the street, and Jessica realized he was holding her sister.

Her helmet was gone. The wig she usually wore under it was missing, too, and her hair was red. That was good. The red was fake, a little magic she’d learned with some help; if Ali’s hair was still red it meant that she was most likely still alive.

She didn’t appear to be moving, though.

For a moment time seemed to stop, as Jessica saw her lying there, only her head and shoulders visible. Her face was partially concealed by her mask, and partially by blood and grime, while her body was engulfed by Skyscraper’s massive hand.

He held her pinned to the ground, and Jessica recognized another figure approaching: Silhouette. Jessica had heard her described, but seeing her in person was new. The shadowy form was human-shaped, but lacking in detail, not sharp enough to make out clearly, and that made her more threatening.

She was walking toward Ali.

“Fuck that,” Jessica said, her eyes narrowing.

She flew down at top speed to hit the bitch in the back.

Silhouette started to turn and then leapt to one side, just in time to avoid her charge, landing and turning to face her. Jessica was moving too fast to adjust to the unexpected dodge, and she nearly plowed into the street.

“Who the hell are you?” Silhouette said. She sounded surprised, but it was hard to read someone with no visible facial expression or body language.

Jessica didn’t answer. She went straight at her again, a bit slower. Silhouette jumped to her left, and this time Jessica changed course to intercept her in midair, knocking her down to the ground with a punch. Silhouette regained her footing immediately, and Jessica dropped down and ducked under Silhouette’s right hook, punched her in the stomach, and leapt up, grabbing the other woman behind the head and yanking her head down to hit her in the face with both knees, then kicking out with both feet to knock her back and flying back and away, gaining distance.

Jessica spun around and took off again, this time heading toward Skyscraper. Silhouette was off-balance, if only for a moment. It was an opportunity.

Skyscraper still seemed to be surprised at the sudden intervention of someone they hadn’t been expecting, and when she reached him Jessica struck at his fingers until they opened, then she picked Ali up and flew away. She went a block or so and landed on a convenient roof, lowering Ali to the ground.

Ali coughed and Jessica turned her head to the side as she spat blood onto the roof.

“Hey, sis,” Jessica said. “Are you okay?”

Ali’s eyes were half-closed. “Hey Jess. Good timing.”

“Are you okay?” Jessica repeated.

Ali coughed again, but nothing came out. “I’ll be fine. Maybe a cracked rib or two. Nothing too bad.”

“Can you fly?” Jessica asked.

Ali took a deep breath, wincing, and floated up off the roof. “Looks like I can.”

“Good,” Jessica said. She looked back the way they had come. “Go find Bloodhound and get healed up. I’ll handle things here.”

“No way,” Alison said. “We need to find Tin Man, now. Last I saw, he was running away from Silhouette.”

“He’s not anymore,” Jessica said. “She was coming for you, so either he got away or she caught him. Now go get healed.”

Alison looked stricken. “I have to find him.” Jessica grabbed her shoulder before she could fly off, yanking her roughly back down so her feet hit the roof, and she stumbled.

“You need medical attention,” Jessica said firmly. “I’ll go look for Tin Man, but I can’t do that and cover for you at the same time. Besides, if you get to Bloodhound you can bring him back with you.”

Ali looked like she was going to keep arguing, but Jessica grabbed her and flew when she saw her sister’s eyes widen, reacting to something behind her.

She just barely felt a tremor running through the roof in the split second before she took off. Jessica spun in the air, releasing Alison to fly on her own.

“Next time, don’t fucking argue when someone tries to help you!” Jessica yelled. Skyscraper had caught up to them.

She went straight for the giant’s face, then abruptly swooped into a downward dive through the collapsing building. She went into the ceiling and came out of the wall by Skyscraper’s feet, flying straight up to hit him between the legs.

He buckled and fell, landing on one knee and using a hand to catch himself as he groaned. Jessica flew a brief loop, trying to spot any of Skyscraper’s allies, and then returned to hit the back of his knee with a literal flying kick.

Jessica couldn’t keep a small smile off of her face despite the circumstances as Skyscraper toppled backward, his free hand clutching at his face where Alison had gone right for his nose. He cried out in pain as he fell flat on his back. Seized by inspiration, Jessica flew right past her startled sister and into the giant-sized man’s mouth.

She punched the roof of his mouth and stomped on his tongue. “Thank god for helmets,” she muttered. “This is just gross.” As she said it, she realized that the mouth seemed to have no saliva; it wasn’t as gross as she would have thought.

He was reacting, reaching into his mouth with one massive hand and trying to pull her out as he gagged. Jessica grabbed one of the probing fingers and yanked hard, twisting it in a direction it wasn’t meant to go until it snapped.

Skyscraper screamed, yanking his hand away in reflex, and started trying to bite down, but Jessica wedged herself under his tongue, digging her fingers into his gums so he couldn’t dislodge her. When he tried to reach in with his fingers again, she flew for the back of his mouth and down into his throat. This far inside, she thought she could hear his heartbeat.

Jessica started punching and kicking at random. If this didn’t work, she had another option, but she was really hoping to avoid it.

Skyscraper choked, gagged, and coughed, but she held on. Soon enough Jessica had done enough damage that she could grab a flap of tissue, and she began to pull on it hard, tearing it forcibly. There was no blood, which seemed to finish answering at least one question about Skyscraper’s powers, but given his reactions it seemed like he could feel pain when his giant form was hit, so she stuck with the approach that seemed to be working.

It was taking too long, though. Jessica flew back up into the giant mouth, then waited for Skyscraper to breathe and went up, out of the mouth and into the sinuses. Taking a moment to orient herself, she faced towards his brain and then started smashing away.

It only took a few seconds for that to get definitive results. He started to scream, but the sound cut off almost immediately, and the entire giant body around her just disappeared.

The sudden brightness was strange. Jessica looked around and spotted Skyscraper’s real body, normal-sized, falling to the ground beneath her. She plunged down after him, catching him gently as she landed on the street, and spun around in place to take stock of the situation.

Alison flew down to join her. “Nice work,” she said.

The building they had been standing on just a couple of minutes ago was another casualty, as were the two on either side of it and one across the street.

“How are you?” Jessica asked. “Did he get any more hits in?”

“No, you had him reeling,” Alison said. “I generally try to avoid the brute force approach, but you definitely made it work there.”

“Good,” Jessica said. “I take it you’re not going to leave no matter what I say?”

“You’re damn right,” Alison said.

Jessica sighed. “Fine. But I’m on point for the duration. John’s worried about you already, and I haven’t even talked to mom and dad yet. Stay close and be careful.”

“Let’s do this, then,” Alison said.

Jessica pushed Skyscraper towards her. “Start by taking him to someone who can put him in custody, would you?”

Alison looked down at the unconscious man, hesitating for a moment. “Yeah, sure. But we need to find Tin Man. Last I saw, he was hurt.”

Jessica opened her mouth to answer, and then everything disappeared. She saw darkness and heard silence, dropping Skyscraper in her surprise. She tried to fly toward where Alison had been, reaching out, but encountered nothing. After a few seconds of flailing ineffectually, she flew straight up. She could still feel the pull of gravity, but it only served as a single compass point, and she couldn’t tell how high she’d gone when she stopped or where she was in relation to anything else.

Experimentally, Jessica clenched and unclenched her hands, clicked her tongue and then ran it over her teeth.

“Sight, no, hearing, no, touch…yes,” she said. She could feel her lips, jaw, and tongue moving, even though she couldn’t hear the sounds it should make, and feel some vibration in her throat.

“Smell?” she said. Talking to herself might seem especially silly, but the physical sensation was an anchor of sorts. She sniffed. “Can’t smell anything much. So faint it’s inconclusive. Could be remembering what I expect, and inside my helmet there isn’t much to smell anyway. Hmm. Gravity, yes, so I’ve got my sense of balance.”

Testing that again, she let go of her flight, abandoning herself to the earth’s pull for a moment, then caught herself.

“Definitely feel that,” Jessica said.

She stopped talking. It had been pleasant, but she had a sudden thought; if someone could stop her from hearing anything, could they also hear what she should be hearing? Possible. There was no way to guess, since powers seemed to run on their own peculiar logic or disdain it entirely.

Jessica recalled Comet describing fighting a man, once, who stopped her from hearing anything. She’d still had her sight, though. Lacking both of the senses she relied on to navigate the world was a bit more of a handicap than she knew how to handle.

On the upside, nothing seemed to be attacking her yet.

She floated, waiting. Was there a way out? Maybe some way to break the effect?

Jessica bit down on her tongue as hard as she dared, trying to avoid severing it.

She screamed from the pain. If someone was listening, maybe it would confuse them. If they were friendly, maybe they would figure out she needed some help.

It changed nothing, so apparently sharp and sudden pain wouldn’t let her break through the sensory deprivation.

The pain in her tongue throbbed as she floated in midair, waiting.

Someone had to be doing this, and it couldn’t be a friend. If they weren’t attacking her, then that probably meant they were busy.

She felt the pit in her stomach again. Alison might be dying a few feet away for all she knew, but she was powerless to help. The dread built and built, like pressure held back by a dam, and she strained to keep herself calm.

“I don’t know if you can hear me,” Jessica said, “but if you can, and you hurt Comet? You should know that I’ll kill you.”

Still nothing. Should she try going straight up? Most powers had some sort of range limit. But she had been hit, even if it wasn’t much, and her suit wasn’t reliably airtight anyway. If she went too high she could kill herself. And if the effect didn’t dissipate on its own, she’d be moving out of range of possible help, as well.

Jessica held herself still, her fear and uncertainty growing. She started to count. At the very least, she could keep track of the time.

“One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi…”

She got past one hundred before she was interrupted.

Jess?

U.P.?” she said cautiously. “Is that you?

Yes. I’m going to lift the effect in a second, but their telepath will know immediately. When I do it, you need to spin around and then head forward and down. Comet is inside the busted storefront there, with Silhouette, Skyscraper, and Recast. Collector and Tin Man are both headed in that direction too, but Tin Man is exhausted and pretty beat up. Smith and some FBI folks are further away, but drifting in your direction. Ready?

Jessica rolled her shoulders. “Do it.

Her sight and vision came back. Normally she would have resented Uplink’s touch on her mind, but under the circumstances it was welcome.

It took her one second to spin around and spot the storefront. Three to fly down and inside.

Zero seconds to start screaming and slam into the shadow that was pinning Alison to the ground and pummeling her bloody.

She tackled the other woman and flew straight up through the roof, spun around once and let go, sending her flying. Maybe she’d reach orbit, and maybe not. Jessica didn’t much care at the moment.

Back down. Skyscraper was there, normal-sized and looking groggy, along with another man – Recast, she assumed. He had the familiar claws, and was just bending over to try stabbing Alison. He appeared to be aiming for her eye, which might actually work. They’d never stabbed themselves in the eyes to check.

Jessica grabbed him by one arm and went back out the broken window she’d entered through the first time, slamming him into the ground legs first. He screamed as they shattered, and she punched his right knee as hard as she could.

For a fraction of a second bits of muscle and tendon held the leg together, but then the joint was destroyed, severing the limb completely. She stomped on his chest, feeling hard bone and softer tissues give way, then threw him across the street, into the wall. He stopped screaming when he hit, and Jessica stopped caring about his existence, turning around and re-entering the store.

Skyscraper was looking at her with wide eyes.

“I tore your throat open once, big guy,” Jessica said. “Want me to do it for real this time? Go find someone to surrender to. You get one chance to give up.”

He swallowed, eyes going to Alison, lying on the floor, and Jessica couldn’t help following his gaze. It hurt to see her like that, bleeding on the ground, one arm clutching at her side even in unconsciousness. Her breaths were shallow and her face was screwed up with pain that intensified each time her chest rose and relaxed a bit each time it fell. Her face was bruised, her forehead was cut, her nose looked broken, and her jaw might be too. The rest was largely hidden by her costume, but Jessica knew the damage had to be there. There were tears, in a few places, and wet blood stained the cloth and covered up the skin.

She looked up again, staring at Skyscraper, and he stared back at her blank helmet.

“Surrender now!” Jessica said. “I’m not waiting for you to think about it! She needs medical attention, and if I have to kill you for her to get it then you’re just a corpse waiting for a toe-tag to me. Got it?”

Skyscraper nodded, head jerking uneasily.

“Turn around,” Jessica ordered. She knew Alison would be trying to calm her down if she was awake, but that didn’t help. It just reminded her of the situation.

Jess! Collector inbound!

Jessica flew forward, arms going under Alison’s shoulders and legs, and she went up and out of the building through the exit she’d made with Silhouette. She was looking straight up into the sky when a spasm ripped through her muscles, nearly making her drop Alison. She willed her arms and hands to hold tight, using her powers to angle her unresponsive body so Alison wouldn’t fall and propelling them both up and away. A glance down showed her Collector.

He smiled, and more lightning fired up from him.

This one hurt worse, and it hit before she had recovered from the first. Jessica turned onto her back as if she were lying in bed, letting Alison slump limply across her stomach so she wouldn’t fall, and stopped ascending, diving and slamming into the remains of the building’s roof.

Collector lashed out with another shot of lightning, but it missed as the roof obscured his view. Jessica had her breath knocked out of her as she landed, hard, with Alison pressing down on her. She waited a few seconds for the pain to subside and her muscles to obey her again.

Uplink, status?

Can’t talk now,” he responded. “Their telepath is trying to find me, and he’s not bad. I’m shielding you all from him, but it’s taking everything I’ve got. He’s used to working with unfamiliar minds, I can tell.

What about Tin Man?” Jessica wiggled her fingers and toes, testing herself, then reached up and gently lifted Alison and placed her on her back on the roof. She winced as she realized Alison’s right wrist was broken. “Sorry, sis,” Jessica murmured.

He’s okay for now,” Uplink said. “Hooked up with the FBI folks, so he’s not alone. Their telepath is here too, so they’re still in the fight.

Can you help me wake up Ali?

Uplink cursed, and his frustration carried over their connection. “Not right now, I can’t.

“Damn it,” Jessica muttered. She picked Alison up again and pushed off to fly to a different roof, surveying the area and trying to spot Collector.

She caught sight of Recast, and the bastard was somehow reattaching the lower leg she’d punched off of him. She’d thought he might be able to grow it back, eventually, given what Alison had told her before, but that was just ridiculous. He looked a bit shorter, though, and there were stains where he had left blood behind.

He looked up and spotted Jessica.

“Shit,” she said.

There was a crash and the building she’d just left finished collapsing, only a few bits of wall remaining upright, as Skyscraper expanded out of it. Jessica realized that she hadn’t even noticed what kind of store it had been, between all the damage and her focus on more important things.

Jessica glanced over her shoulder and dove sharply as Collector let loose, shooting fire and lightning at her through the air. His misses were overshooting her and hitting distant buildings. Most didn’t do much damage to brick, concrete, or metal, and she wasn’t worried about the glass, but if he started a bunch more fires things could get bad; the fire department had to be overworked already.

Jessica looked around, hustled to a nearby roof with a bit of a lip, and set Alison down, bending over her.

“Wake up, Ali.” She shook her sister, too urgent to be gentle. “Wake up, come on. I can’t hold you and fight, and I can’t leave you someplace unconscious. Wake up!”

Nothing.

Uplink, I need you to help me wake her up,” Jessica said. “Do it, then tell me who’s after you and I’ll get them off your tail, okay? I just need her mobile so I can fight.

Fine,” he responded. “Be quick. Smith is chasing me, and she’s almost caught me three times now. I think my luck is running out.

Alison’s eyes opened suddenly a moment later and she started to get up, but Jessica held her down as firmly as she could without hurting her.

“Ali, look at me,” she said.

Alison glanced around for a second, instinctively trying to examine her surroundings, then looked at Jessica. “Jess? What’s-”

“Later,” Jessica said. “I need to go help Uplink, and you need to go get healed. You’re fucked up pretty bad.”

Alison floated up, her power allowing her to do that much without pain, but when she started to re-orient herself to a standing position she cried out in pain.

“Comet, stop!” Jessica yelled. “You’re hurt too badly! You’ll slow me down, okay? I need you to get clear. Now! I’ve got backup, but you’ll endanger us more when we try to cover for you!”

Alison swallowed, tears in her eyes and she looked around and saw all the damage to the city. Skyscraper was coming closer, and both of them could hear his pounding footsteps.

“Okay,” Alison said weakly. “Okay.”

“Go,” Jessica said, staring at her.

Alison flew away, head hanging as she stared down at the rubble and fires.

Jessica breathed a sigh of relief and turned back toward the oncoming enemies, then went up and over them. “Uplink, guide me in. I’ll pick you up, we’ll regroup with Tin Man, and we’ll end this.

Okay,” he said. “Um, the feds don’t know I exist, remember?

Then I guess today will be really fucking educational for them, won’t it?” Jessica said. “Man up and don’t give me crap about your secrets.

Thanks for the advice,” he said sourly. “Ahead of you, on your left. I’m in the pharmacy.

Jessica looked down, scanning for the place, and nearly flew past it. She spotted it out of the corner of her eye and swept down, opening the door and walking in rather than flying through the glass. “In here?”

Uplink stepped out from behind some shelves. “Hey. Let’s get moving.”

Jessica winced. “Street clothes?”

He grimaced back, looking down at his jeans, sweater, and sneakers. “I was in a rush.”

She couldn’t argue with that. “All right. Take my helmet. I’ve got the mask on under it, at least.”

Jessica pulled the helmet off and tossed it to him, and he caught it, sliding it on to hide his face.

“You have a small head,” Uplink remarked as he walked toward her.

“Good to know. Come on.”

They walked out and Jessica picked him up, flying up and looking for Skyscraper.

He was a couple of streets away when he saw her and lunged forward. Jessica rose higher, noting that the giant had put Collector down at some point.

“Where to?” Jessica asked.

“What?” Uplink said.

She rolled her eyes. “Which way, oh mental giant?

He pointed. She flew. They were heading into the already-damaged area, back the way they’d come.

He guided her straight to Tin Man. He was standing with a group of people, all armed with guns, helmeted and armored.

Normal people, she suspected.

Two raised guns toward them while the others looked in every other direction, but Jessica kept her approach slow and nonthreatening.

“It’s okay,” Tin Man said. “They’re with me. Friendlies.”

One of the guns lowered.

“Names?” asked a woman standing next to Tin Man.

“Agent Rogers, these are Uplink and another ally.” Tin Man looked at Jessica. “Did you ever pick a name?”

Jessica shrugged. “Never seemed to matter. I don’t usually do the team thing.”

“Well you are today,” Tin Man pointed out.

Jessica settled to the ground, putting Uplink down. “Can you guys babysit him?” she asked bluntly.

“Why?” Rogers said.

“Because as long as he’s here, Tin Man and I are in the fight, and if he gets taken out, you lose us too,” Jessica said. “Good enough?”

Rogers cocked her head. “Telepath? He’s shielding you?”

“Yeah,” Uplink confirmed. “I got here late, unfortunately.”

Rogers nodded slowly. “All right. We need all the help we can get, today. Hang on.”

She turned to the side, away from Jessica and Uplink.

“Skyscraper should be headed this way,” Jessica said. “Maybe Collector too. Just, you know, for your information.”

Rogers acknowledged her with another nod, and Jessica realized the other woman was talking into her headset.

Jessica lifted off again, floating a foot or so above the ground, and turned to look back the way she’d come. She thought she could hear Skyscraper approaching, but it was faint.

Rogers tapped her on the shoulder, surprising her. “Here,” she said, holding something out. Jessica took it and realized it was a headset, like Rogers’ own.

She put it on. She was already breaking a habit by letting Uplink into her head, no matter how good the reason. She wasn’t going to balk at a headset.

“Hello?” she said.

“You’re our new addition, the one who helped Comet?” a voice asked.

“That’s right,” Jessica said.

“Is there something we can call you?”

Jessica shrugged. “Meteor’s fine.” It wasn’t a moment for imagination.

“Okay, Meteor,” the (male) voice said. “I’m Agent Turner, FBI. My team and I are here to stop this, and if we don’t do it very shortly then the National Guard is going to have a crack at it, which I suspect wouldn’t work out too well. You willing to work with us?”

“Yes,” Jessica said.

“You willing to follow orders?”

Jessica only considered for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “Unless you ask me to leave or waste my time.”

Turner grunted. “No danger of that. I’m not in a position to turn away help. Now, they’re headed our way, so let’s get to this. Are any of Blitz out of action, and is Comet coming back?”

Jessica’s eyes narrowed. “I doubt any of them is out of action, and Comet most certainly is not coming back.”

“All right,” he said. “Does either of our newcomers have information to share?”

Uplink got her attention. “Smith’s range is longer than we saw in Berkeleyport.

She passed the message on.

“You were there?” Turner asked.

“No,” Jessica said. “I got clear reports, though.”

“Assume she knows everything you’d expect Comet or I to know,” Tin Man said.

“All right,” Turner said. “Anything else?”

Comet thought briefly. “Recast heals quickly, up to reattaching severed limbs. Collector has good aim with his lightning. Skyscraper’s tough even inside, his giant form doesn’t bleed, but he still feels pain and I think too much of it knocks him out. And I think Silhouette’s tougher than me. Same weight class, but a little heavier.”

She remembered the shadow striking Alison and her fists clenched for a moment before she pushed it aside.

“Umm…I think that’s all,” Jessica said.

Rogers was looking at her a bit uneasily, but she shrugged it off. Her reference to severed limbs had sounded a bit casual, looking back, but now wasn’t the time to worry about it.

Uplink spoke again. “I think I’ve worked out what their telepath does. It seems like it’s all the same trick, actually. He does something to perceptions, transferring them. Like, if he wants to he can let Collector see what Smith is looking at, or vice versa. The same with hearing. It seems like he can do it to any unprotected mind, but the good news is that I don’t think his bag of tricks is any bigger than that. I have to concentrate to protect us from him, but even if I failed I’m pretty sure he couldn’t turn us against each other, or make us see things that aren’t there or anything like that. The bad news is that his range seems pretty good. I can’t tell how it matches up to mine, but I’ll need to stay fairly close to Tin Man and, uh, Meteor, in order to keep them in this fight. I don’t think he needs to do that, and he’s good enough on defense that I won’t be able to get into his head.”

Jessica frowned. “He had me blind and deaf. How does that work?”

Uplink shrugged. “I’m pretty sure he had someone bound and gagged, or something. Maybe noise-cancelling headphones. But it felt the same as everything else he does. Proxy makes the trick versatile, but he can’t actually do other things.”

“How sure are you?” Turner asked.

“Less than one hundred percent, but not by much,” Uplink said.

Turner took charge. “All right. They’re almost on us, so we need to get ready. Skyscraper and Silhouette are the only ones who seem outright immune to conventional weapons, so they’re the biggest problems. Meteor, I take it you can hurt them, and we’ve got one other here who should be able to, maybe two. They’ve also got two regenerators: Recast and Collector. The other three, Proxy, Dealer, and Smith, should be vulnerable to all the normal things, but hitting Smith with bullets might be a tricky proposition and we need to keep her away from us if possible. I don’t want her melting our guns. Meteor, Tin Man, I think we’ll need you two to try to draw them out. Rogers, your team will try to maneuver around, hit the ones who aren’t invulnerable. Valentine and I will be providing sniper fire, and Agents Miller and Gallagher will move in to help with their two toughest threats. Meteor, Tin Man, please keep in mind that none of my people can survive getting hit by Silhouette. Please don’t let it happen. Agent Miller, in particular, is the one keeping Proxy out of our heads. Everyone clear?”

“Meteor, clear,” Jessica said.

“Tin Man, clear.”

“Uplink, clear.”

“Rogers, my people are ready.”

“Good,” Turner said. “We’re ready on this end. It looks like Skyscraper is coming down the street towards us – we’re about a block east of your current position. Skyscraper is approaching from the north. Everyone get in position and get ready.”

Jessica looked at Tin Man. “I’m thinking high ground. Want a lift?”

He nodded, and she flew over, picking him up. Once she had a firm grip on the armor, she flew silently up to the roof, looking around for Skyscraper.

“Which way?” Jessica asked. She’d lost track of the cardinal directions since arriving.

Tin Man pointed silently.

Jessica glanced downward and saw Rogers and her people moving with Uplink in tow, heading in the same direction Tin Man was pointing. It looked like they were going to circle wide to get around behind Skyscraper. If his less-durable teammates were following in his wake, it could give them a good shot at one or more of them.

Jessica kept her hold on Tin Man and dropped below rooftop level, flying in the indicated direction and letting the buildings shield her from sight. Pretty much everything in the area was three stories tall or shorter, so she was pretty low to the ground.

She adjusted her grip on Tin Man and frowned as she noticed his suit was marked. She’d been focused on Rogers’ squad before, assessing the unfamiliar people, but now that she was alone with Tin Man she realized he’d been in a nasty fight.

“You sure you’re good to go?” Jessica asked.

“I’m sure,” Tin Man said. “It’s just dents and dings. We keep the suit simple so it doesn’t break too easily.”

“Okay,” Jessica said.

They flew for about a minute, then stopped and rose again, poking their heads over the roof. This time Jessica got a clear view of Skyscraper, striding in a rough line forward, head turning back and forth as he looked for his prey.

“It looks like he’s alone, but I wouldn’t bet on it,” Tin Man said.

“Me neither,” Jessica agreed. “He’s bait. Just like us, I guess. Turner, we’ve got eyes on Skyscraper. Tell us when to make our move.”

“Understood,” Turner said. “Wait a bit longer, we’re trying to locate the others first if we can.”

“Visual on Smith,” Rogers said. “Alone, looks like. No, wait, Collector just joined her. But something looks off. Not sure what.”

“How sure are you?” Turner asked.

“I don’t know,” Rogers said hesitantly. “My instincts are screaming that something’s wrong.”

“Give me their position,” Turner ordered.

Jessica listened with half her mind while the rest watched Skyscraper. Of course, the part of her that wanted to hurt the bad guys wasn’t much interested in him. She really wanted Collector and Silhouette, and possibly Recast. But then, she’d probably get her chance at them soon enough.

Seeing the ruined buildings, the fires, abandoned cars, and belongings left in the streets, it was hard to fight down her anger again. It was easier than when they’d had Alison, though.

Jessica tore her mind away from the memory, focusing on the present, but it was yet another reminder of why she hadn’t chosen to take the same path as her sister.

Comet was a hero and an icon. Jessica preferred to remain nameless because she didn’t trust herself to be a symbol. She’d never admitted that to anyone, though.

She remembered the way Rogers had looked at her when she mentioned Recast recovering from having a limb severed, then remembered how easily she’d done it.

Jessica grimaced. No, not everyone was cut out to be a hero.

“Hey, you okay?” Tin Man asked.

“Fine,” she said, not even turning her head.

“Rogers, take your best shot on my command,” Turner said. “At the same time, I want Tin Man and Meteor to go for Skyscraper. Miller, Gallagher, Valentine and I will be ready to support both groups when they react. Ready?”

“We’re ready,” Tin Man said.

“In position,” Rogers said.

“Acknowledged,” Turner said. “On my mark. Three…two…one…mark.”

Jessica flew out with Tin Man in her arms, rounding a corner to get behind Skyscraper. “Knees?”

“Sure,” he agreed.

She dropped him, gave him a second to start running, and flew forward. Skyscraper was facing away, as they’d hoped.

The heard gunshots and the giant started to turn, but the timing worked out all right, and they got lucky; he lifted his left foot, which Jessica had been aiming for. She could adjust with ease, unlike Tin Man. Tin Man made a running leap and tackled Skyscraper’s right knee from behind, and Jessica hit his left, knocking it out from under him before he could plant it. He fell on his back again.

Recalling their previous fight, Jessica hit him between the legs again on the way to his face. Tin Man started hitting his knees, and Skyscraper groaned loudly as he fell.

“That’s not Collector, it’s Recast!” she heard over the headset. She didn’t recognize the voice; one of Rogers’ people, probably. More chatter. “Get back, Smith is headed toward us.”

Jessica tried to fly into Skyscraper’s mouth, but he had the presence of mind to close it, his teeth clicking. She tried plan B, changing course for his right eye.

It widened for a moment and then Skyscraper shut both eyes, hands swatting at her frantically as his legs flailed, trying to evade Tin Man’s blows.

“Meteor, get clear!” Tin Man said.

She lifted off, barely avoiding both of Skyscraper’s hands as he tried to roll over onto his stomach, and she looked around. She caught a glimpse of fighting up the street, but it was unclear, with dust and debris obscuring her view.

“Silhouette is here, we need backup,” Rogers said calmly.

Jessica looked at Tin Man and he nodded. “Go, I’m good.”

His suit’s left gauntlet was opening and retracting, exposing the flesh of his hand. She saw a spark of electricity just before he reached out to grab Skyscraper’s leg and turned away, heading toward the other part of the fight.

“Meteor inbound, where’s Silhouette?” she said.

“First floor, on your right if you’re in front of the building!” It was a new voice, another one she didn’t know. Jessica circled and burst through the cloud of dust to see Silhouette kicking a hole in the wall, nearly flying into Collector – no, that had to be Recast – in the process. She grabbed him by an ankle and swung him through the air, using him to smack the back of Silhouette’s head to get her attention, then threw him over the shadow’s head, down the alley between buildings.

Silhouette turned and attacked her, but Jessica dodged the first blow, dropping down to sweep Silhouette’s legs. The shadow tried to jump over it but stumbled when Jessica spun without touching the ground, using her flight capability to move in ways a normal person couldn’t. Jessica grabbed both of Silhouette’s ankles and slammed her face first into the ground.

The asphalt shattered, and the impact was strong enough that the wall next to them cracked, the hole Silhouette had opened widening as bricks broke and fell. Silhouette tried to reach up and grab Jessica’s right hand, but she let go and pulled it back, using her left to swing the woman away and up into the air, then bring her crashing down again. It felt satisfying, so Jessica did it three more times, then left Silhouette on the ground and started kicking her in the back.

“Collector’s here! The real one!”

That wasn’t through the headset. Jessica looked up and then spun around, still kicking Silhouette into the ground. Collector was just rounding the corner, hands rising to point at her.

Jessica crouched and smashed both hands into the asphalt, then lifted a slab up as an improvised shield. It wasn’t large enough to hide all of her from him. She heard a crack like lightning and threw her improvised weapon down the alley; she was lucky enough that he’d missed. She saw Collector get clipped by the projectile and fall to the ground clutching his shoulder, but then someone grabbed her ankle and yanked hard. Silhouette rolled over her, pinning Jessica to the ground with her body, and started punching her with her right hand while she used her left to pin her.

Jessica wrapped her legs around the other woman as tightly as she could and squeezed, her arms groping for Silhouette’s throat. When Silhouette punched her in the face she tried to bite her hand, but instead she just got punched in the mouth. They kept wrestling for a few more seconds, until Jessica abruptly took off, carrying Silhouette with her and flying rapidly down the alley toward Collector. He was standing up and lashed out with stream of flame, so Jessica turned to use Silhouette as a shield and knocked him over. Silhouette punched Jessica in the face again, harder, and Jessica lost her grip, then found her face slamming into a wall.

Silhouette let go for a moment and Jessica used the chance to get clear, flying up so she couldn’t be grabbed again. Silhouette didn’t seem to have much technique, but she suspected that trading blows would still be a losing proposition.

There was a loud crack, recognizable as a gunshot but louder than most, and Collector fell. Silhouette was blocking her view, but Jessica thought he appeared to have been hit badly. Silhouette grabbed him and started running.

“Collector’s hit, and Silhouette’s trying to get him clear. Should I pursue?”

“Yes!” Turner ordered. “Try to pin them down or separate them so we can get another good shot. He’s the linchpin.”

Jessica flew above them and then glanced at the sky, positioning herself in front of the sun before attacking. As she closed in, she saw that Collector had been hit in the chest, and his wound was bleeding badly. She wasn’t an expert, but if he couldn’t heal she would have expected him to die.

Collector’s face was pained but his eyes were open and he was looking up. Silhouette reacted before Jessica could close in all the way, presumably warned by the man she was carrying. She leapt in an erratic zig-zag pattern as she moved down the street, then jumped through a hair salon window, turning around so her back would break through it and protect Collector.

Jessica followed. “I’ll try to get them back outside.”

“Good,” Turner said. “We’ve got Smith contained for now, and Skyscraper is on the ropes. Rogers, what’s your situation?”

Jessica paused for a moment to hear the answer.

“We’re trying to stay away from Smith, and we keep punching holes in Recast, but he won’t go down. There’s something weird, though. He’s shorter than when we started. I wasn’t sure at first, but he’s lost a few inches at least.”

Jessica stopped herself from thinking about the implications, returning to her own fight. As she entered the place she saw Silhouette waiting for her, standing in front of Collector as he lay on the ground. Jessica flew forward, knocking a chair aside when Silhouette pitched it at her.

Suddenly, Silhouette dropped to the ground and Collector sat up, throwing both hands forward. A jet of flame spewed out, so hot that it was blue at the center, and Jessica brought her arms up to cover her face. She tried to break the ground to create cover again, but she was too slow, and she felt heat washing over her.

Jessica coughed as she breathed in some of the smoke, then jumped back to avoid one shadowy hand grabbing at her. Her maneuverability seemed to give her the edge in a slugging match outdoors, but if they were grappling Silhouette’s strength advantage would probably prove telling.

They’d moved away from the others, so the sounds of battle were a bit muffled, but Jessica could still hear the fighting. She hesitated for a moment, trying to figure out how to handle her two opponents, then shrugged and went up.

It was something of a rule for her and Comet. When in doubt, take the high ground.

She went into the roof and then came back down – not behind Collector, where she thought they would expect her to appear, but behind Silhouette.

The trick paid off. Both of them were caught flat-footed, expecting her to go for the leader first, and they were looking the wrong way. Jessica glided forward and kicked Silhouette in the back, propelling her into the wall, then shot forward to grab Collector.

He unleashed more fire, and the blue was stronger this time. Jessica knew it was burning through her clothes, in places. They were meant to be less flammable, but they could still burn. The heat started to hurt her skin, and she prayed that she was as durable against it as she was against physical force. For obvious reasons, she and Ali had never fully tested their ability to take damage.

Collector switched to electricity, but as it hit her Jessica managed to clamp one hand around his ankle. He twitched for a moment and stopped, and she roughly pulled him in between herself and Silhouette, who had just finished pulling her head out of the wall. Jessica grabbed Collector’s neck with her other hand.

“Try anything and I’ll crush your neck,” she said. “Maybe you can come back from that, but I’m betting your brain still needs oxygen. Even if it repairs physical damage, that doesn’t mean you’ll be the same mentally.”

Collector stopped moving, and so did Silhouette, or at least the shadow that surrounded her.

“Silhouette, turn your back on me and walk outside,” Jessica ordered. “Now.”

She didn’t move. Jessica squeezed Collector’s neck, both of her hands now holding it.

“Do it,” Collector said. She relaxed her grip. Silhouette turned and walked away slowly.

“Meteor, what’s your status?” Turner asked.

Uplink, fill them in,” Jessica said silently. She didn’t want to take her attention off of the two enemies in front of her.

Silhouette walked out into the street, then turned around to face them again. Jessica looked around nervously. She was dimly aware of Uplink and Turner talking, along with Rogers.

“Meteor, they’re backing off. You’re holding their boss?” Turner said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Hold there,” he ordered.

“Will do,” she said.

Silhouette was unmoving. Collector was breathing hard, clutching his chest with one hand. Jessica glanced down to see the other. It reached toward his pocket and she grabbed his wrist.

“No moving, I said,” Jessica whispered in his ear. “Don’t test me.”

He didn’t answer.

“We’re on our way to you,” Turner said. “We’ve got Skyscraper in cuffs, but we still don’t know where Proxy and Dealer are. Stay alert.”

“I’m here,” Jessica said.

The seconds felt long, and for the first time Jessica realized how heavily she was breathing. She found herself staring at Silhouette, and she remembered seeing the woman pound on Ali again. It wasn’t until Collector cleared his throat that she realized she’d started to squeeze subconsciously. She relaxed her grip.

She was just going to ask Turner what was taking so long when Collector cleared his throat again.

In an instant, four people appeared in the room with her: Dealer, Proxy, Recast, and Smith. Silhouette came back through the window, and Jessica was just starting to lift off the ground when Dealer reached out and touched her.

The next thing she knew, she was standing in front of Skyscraper, practically on top of him.

The man was cuffed and being watched by two of Rogers’ people, and Uplink was behind him with the rest. One turned his gun toward her as she appeared.

“Hold fire!” Rogers ordered.

The man’s finger eased off the trigger.

“Fuck!” Jessica yelled. “Fucking god damn teleporters!”

Skyscraper smirked at her, and her eyes widened. “Incoming!”

Silhouette appeared as the word left her lips and punched her so hard she was launched back and through two desks. Someone shot her, but it didn’t do anything and she ignored the bullets as she turned and broke the chain linking Skyscraper’s cuffs with a swipe of one hand. A second later, Jessica caught a glimpse of Dealer between them, and then all three were gone.

She was still pulling her arm out of the monitor it was stuck in.

“Motherfuckers!” she screamed in frustration.

“What happened?” Turner demanded.

They were all spinning around, watching every direction for another attack, but none came.

“They disappeared,” Rogers said. She looked at Jessica.

“Meteor here,” Jessica said. “They got the drop on me. Teleported me away, then had Silhouette and Dealer extract Skyscraper.”

Turner was silent for a moment. “Uplink, is their guy still trying to get into your heads? Miller says he stopped.”

Jessica glanced at Uplink. He was leaning on one wall, cradling his left wrist. “No, he’s not,” he said after a moment. “He’s stopped, at least for now.”
 
 
 
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