Tag Archives: Raquel

Who Pays the Piper? 3

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

“Flicker?” he said.

“Yes, doctor,” I said. “What’s up?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Flicker?” Lyle said.

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

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

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

“Sure,” Lyle said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely,” I agreed.

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

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

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

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

That would make sense,” Leon said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dangerous how?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon, what do you think?” I asked.

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

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

“What happened?” she asked.

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

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

“Does the boss suspect you?” I asked.

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

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

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

The bad feeling in my gut got worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary nodded, and Leon silently agreed.

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” Mary said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where does that leave us?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True,” Leon said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine, fine,” I acquiesced.

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

I walked back to share the news.

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

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

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

“Good,” Heavyweight said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quite sure,” Bloodhound said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infuriatingly, she paused again to sip at her water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dios,” Hector whispered.

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

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

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

Charlotte grimaced, but nodded her understanding.

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

“And those are?” Charlotte asked.

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

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

Murphy nodded. “It’s true.”

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

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

Hector was still shaking his head in disbelief.
 
 
 
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Who Pays the Piper? 1

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“So, what do you think?” I asked, looking at Raquel.

She pursed her lips and her eyes became unfocused; at a glance, I would have thought she was looking over my shoulder, but I knew better. She was looking through an entirely different set of eyes. I sipped my coffee while I waited, glancing around to make sure no one else in the coffee shop was looking at us or listening to us.

“We feel it too, and see it,” Raquel said. “Whoever that woman is, she’s like us. She feels like you and me and Collector.” She paused. “Should Feral pull back? I know we’re supposed to be hidden, and I can’t sense you or anything, but we’re still pretty new at this. If we keep spying on them, she might notice.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. The only way to find out if she – they – can spot Feral is for it to happen. Besides, if she’s going to spot Feral she probably already has. In that case, we might as well learn all we can. If we’re lucky, she might give away how she did it. But for now, if she hasn’t noticed, I think we’re fine. What do they look like, anyway?”

“They don’t look particularly tough, but we all know that doesn’t mean anything,” Raquel said. “None of them seems to be challenging Mary at all, or giving her any trouble. If you’re up for it, I think I found a spot where we can see them without being seen.”

“Well lead on, then,” I said, standing up. “Can Feral hear them?”

“No, she’s not close enough for that,” Raquel said, standing as her eyes refocused. “Come on.”

She picked up her own coffee and we walked out of the shop, and I followed, dropping a handful of spent sugar packets and my empty cup in the trash on my way out. Raquel led me down the street and between two buildings, then down a few alleys. The last one smelled like garbage, but it was faint, and I thanked the season; winter cold could be unpleasant, but it had some nice effects at times, and I was happy to enjoy this one.

Finally, she stopped. “We’re here. Unless you can help me hide, I don’t want to get much closer, but it doesn’t really matter since I can see them just fine already. They’re in the French place across the street. It’s got a flower on the awning, but they’re through the window next to that part, not under it.”

“Thanks,” I said. I took a deep breath before walking around the corner. As soon as I could see the French restaurant Raquel had described, I looked around for a convenient place to sit, but I couldn’t find one; instead, I just stayed as far back as I could, well out of sight from most foot traffic on the street, and pulled out my binoculars. By now it no longer felt silly to be using them to look into a restaurant window; I’d seen and done enough odd things that this was just par for the course. I was a bit worried about someone noticing me, but if they did I was sure I could talk my way out of it. For our targets to notice me, they would have to look in my direction and have some sort of enhanced vision.

The problem was that we still didn’t know what their powers were. Enhanced vision wasn’t out of the question. For that matter, one of them might be able to sense when someone looked at them, although that would be spectacularly bad luck.

Still, we were here to learn what they looked like, as well as to back up Mary in case one of them realized she was double-crossing their boss; that was the whole point. It only took me a moment to find them and get the binoculars’ focus adjusted. As promised, Mary was sitting with them, eating dinner. They were all dressed casually, but in a nice way; the two men had collared shirts on, although they weren’t fully buttoned and the men weren’t wearing ties. Mary was dressed similarly, while the last woman was wearing a simple blue dress. It looked like a business dinner, which, in a way, it was. The only difference was that three of the four people eating didn’t know the full agenda.

I focused on the woman first; she was the one Feral and Raquel had warned me about, and now that I had her in sight I could tell that she was the source of that familiar feeling I had. I’d only sensed it before from Raquel and Feral, or Collector. Combining personal experience with what Bloodhound and the Philly Five had told us, I figured the woman I was looking at was probably sharing her brain with someone, much like I was.

Speaking of which, it was time to check in with my better (or at least smarter) half.

Leon, what do you think?

I’m just as curious as you are, David,” Leon said. “We’re resistant to Michaels, so she probably is too, which raises the question…is she being coerced by other means, like Mary, or did she sign on for criminal doings? But from what Mary told us afterward, Michaels didn’t say that he recognized the way it felt when he used his power on us…

Which suggests that he didn’t know about her, or at least that he never tried to use his power on her,” I said, completing the thought. “Yeah, we’re on the same page. And of course, the million dollar question: how much does Mary’s boss know about her, and, by extension, us?

Yes,” Leon agreed. “That is an answer I want very badly.

I gave the woman one last look, memorizing her face and build as best as I could from the angle I had; she was sitting next to Mary, but Mary was behind her, so I had a decent view. The woman was blonde, and judging by her choice of clothing – the sleeveless dress during a cold December – I wondered if she might be the kind of person who ignores the elements.

You know, she could just be from Alaska or something, or her coat could be out of sight,” Leon pointed out. “Don’t read too much into things.

Yeah, I know,” I said. I paused for a moment, caught in a realization. “Hey wait. How did you know what I was thinking? I hadn’t said anything yet.

It just came through,” Leon said; I felt his surprise as he realized that I was correct. “Interesting.

Yeah, that’s a word,” I said. I suppressed a pang of concern; that could wait. We needed to stay on task.

I felt Leon’s agreement, and forced myself to relax and focus. We needed to take things one at a time.

I returned my attention to the woman; she had a tattoo on her right arm, which was the one facing me; I couldn’t tell if it was the only one or not, and seeing what it was from my current distance was out of the question, but if she went around without sleeves habitually it could help us pick her out.

With that done, I looked at the two men sitting opposite Mary. The one in the back was smaller, unfortunately, so I couldn’t really see him clearly. He was black, and had dark hair. So did the white guy in front of him, who was easily the bulkiest person at the table. He was built like a football player, and looked thick enough to support a roof.

I took a good long look and then turned around and returned to Raquel. Once I’d seen enough, sticking around could only increase our risks, and I was happy to be done.

She was waiting right where I’d left her.

“You said they didn’t look particularly tough,” I said. “That one guy looked like he was a whole defensive line.”

Raquel smiled. “Yeah, but so what? The strongest people we know are Heavyweight, Silhouette, Comet, and Meteor. Maybe Tin Man as an honorable mention. They’re all less muscular than that guy.”

I snorted. “By that standard, no one on the planet looks tough.”

Raquel kept smiling. “Pretty much, yeah.”

I pretended to glare at her for two seconds and then dropped it. In fairness, I should have known better than to ask her what they looked like right before seeing for myself.

“So what now?” I asked. “Just wait until they leave?”

Raquel shrugged. “I guess so, yeah.”

I glanced up. “You want to try getting a bird’s-eye view when they’re on the way out? I didn’t see all of their faces that well, and it might help.

Raquel frowned. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like they noticed us, but I don’t want to push our luck.”

“It’s not like I suggested we go bump in to them,” I said. “But I want to be able to pick them out of a crowd if we need to. Come on.”

Nothing went wrong, and soon enough we were meeting Mary.

After leaving the dinner, she pulled her car up to a corner a couple of blocks away; we were waiting there by the time she arrived, and we piled in, drove to a nearby park – the same one where Raquel and Heavyweight had been attacked by Collector’s group the day I met her – and sat at a picnic table.

“You got a good look at them all?” Mary asked.

“Yeah, we did,” I said. “Any problems during the meeting?”

Mary shook her head. “No, they were all polite enough, at least in public. I have a feeling Lindsay – the big guy – is going to be annoying, but that’s not important.”

“Lindsay?” I asked. “Hell, if my parents had named me Lindsay I might have a chip on my shoulder.”

“Actually, that used to be just a guy’s name,” Mary said.

“Really?” I asked. “Huh. Anyway, what about the other two?”

Mary looked into the distance, remembering. “Lindsay, Doug, and Alena,” she said. “Doug has basic strength, speed, and agility. He played it up, but I have a feeling Heavyweight could down him in one punch; he seems pretty full of himself. It’s hard to tell without seeing him in action, though, and a restaurant isn’t exactly the right place for a demonstration. Lindsay is two for the price of one. He said he can outrun a car on the highway, and he has some sort of sound-based thing, too. He said it’s strong enough to burst eardrums, and it hurts like hell. I don’t think it’s much good for property destruction, though. Anyone who can shrug it off can probably beat him, if they can catch him. The one I’m really worried about is Alena. I listened to her explanation, but I’m still not clear on what she does or how.”

Raquel and I both leaned forward, interested to hear the rest. “What did she say?” I asked.

Mary scratched her head and sighed. “She was creeping me out, honestly, and I think the two guys, too. She said something about ‘vengeance’ under her breath, and I didn’t like the way she was looking at me.”

“I thought you said they were all polite?” I asked.

“Oh, she was talking politely,” Mary said. “She just looked at me like I was tracking dog shit on her carpets. Seriously, it was weird – and it started before I even introduced myself.” Mary shook her head. “Anyway, according to her, she can find people with powers – even if they don’t know they have them. That’s her main thing. She also said that she’s immune to telepaths, and that she can shield herself if someone attacks her physically. She’s good enough to stop bullets, at least. I don’t know how someone gets that many powers that have nothing to do with each other, but life is not fucking fair, I’ll say that. I only get one trick, and she’s got the whole kitchen sink.” She looked at us. “Actually, it reminded me of you, Flicker. Anyway, that’s the scoop. If they have anything else up their sleeves, they didn’t tell me about it. But I’m guessing that Alena was probably one of the first couple people the boss recruited. That could explain how he found all of the others, except for me. Seems like I just got unlucky.”

“Damn,” Raquel said.

“One last thing,” Mary said. “I got a message from the boss before the meeting. He told me that if anything goes wrong, I should make sure Alena gets out of it okay – even if the other two get hurt in the process. So whether I guessed right or not, he considers her more valuable than both of them put together, and maybe me too.”

“It’s not hard to see why,” I said. “As long as he hangs on to her and Michaels, he can keep picking people up. It might take time, but still, that’s a hell of an advantage.”

“She didn’t notice us, though,” Raquel said. “Right? She didn’t say anything during dinner, did she?”

“No, she didn’t,” Mary said. “I was relieved, believe me. But I don’t think she was lying, because if she was then why would the boss even send her? I don’t know. I was thinking maybe it’s something she has to turn on and off, and she can’t do it all the time. I kept waiting for her to say something the whole damn meal, but she never did.”

Raquel and I looked at each other. “Or, it might be because our powers aren’t exactly like yours,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Mary asked.

I hesitated, then settled on a partial truth; I didn’t want to get into a long, convoluted explanation. “It’s tricky to explain. The short version is that there seem to be at least two kinds of powers, and Menagerie and I fall into a different category from people like you or Comet, among others. It’s what helped us resist Michaels, when we ran into him before. We seem to be protected from some things. Menagerie and I were able to recognize each other even when we hadn’t met because of it. We’re both hiding the signs now, at least enough that I’m not surprised Alena didn’t spot us, but we could tell just by looking that her powers are like ours. You said she muttered under her breath?”

“Yeah, why?” Mary asked.

“Did it seem like she was talking to someone else? Other than the three of you?” I asked.

“Sort of, I guess,” Mary said. “Maybe.”

I glanced at Raquel and she gave me a nod to go ahead. Maybe it was time for that long explanation after all. “Our powers come with some strings attached. They aren’t bad, but they’re complicated. This might take a little while to cover, so get comfortable.”

We didn’t give Mary every last detail of our powers, but we explained a lot, including the existence of Leon and the fact that Raquel and I were sharing our lives with Feral and Leon, respectively.

At first, she looked confused. When I elaborated, she looked sick.

“I’m sorry, but that just sounds really fucking creepy,” Mary said. “They’re just…there, all the time? Watching and listening to everything you do and say? How can you live like that?”

I was a bit taken aback. It was strange to realize how normal it seemed to me, now, to have Leon around all the time. “It’s not like that,” I said after I’d had a moment to think. “It’s not as if there’s someone following me around and spying on me. It’s more like having a close friend who’s stuck to you. You can’t split up, but the company’s good enough that you don’t mind much. Besides, neither of us chose the other, exactly. We’re both satisfied with the current arrangement, though. It’s worked out pretty well for each of us, in some ways. In fact, my invisible friend is part of the reason I’ve survived up to now, and not just because he came with the powers. He’s a smart guy.

Mary rubbed at her eyes. “You’re just screwing with me, right? This is part of a weird, elaborate practical joke and I’m the only one you two can play it on?”

I laughed, and Leon did too. “No, we’re totally serious,” I said. “And when you talk to the two of us, you really are talking to the four of us.” I felt Leon give me a mental nudge, and let him take over for a second; he had something to say.

“It is only speculation, but I think that the nature of our minds – the fact that we share them – may be why we are resistant to Michaels and others with similar powers,” Leon said.

Mary shook her head. “How is this any different from what Michaels does?”

Leon let me slide back into control. “Because my invisible friend is more like a permanent houseguest than a burglar or a squatter. Or like a friend crashing on my couch, maybe. I can kick him out anytime I want to, and I choose not to. I don’t know for certain that it’s like that for everyone, but Leon and Feral stay because we want them around.”

Mary shook her head again, but it seemed like she was accepting what we had explained at last. “Huh. So, does Leon turn into a lion, or something?”

“No,” I said. “He doesn’t manifest physically. Menagerie and Feral can talk to him, but unless you’re like us, there isn’t much evidence he’s even present. Which brings us back to the reason I mentioned all of this in the first place: Alena. You said she talked to herself, but Leon and I think otherwise.”

“Right,” Mary said. “So…if she’s like you, then she’s not one person, she’s two people. But I’m not sure how that makes a difference.”

“If she’s two people, then the first question is whether they are working together and which one is in charge,” I said. “The second question is why they are working for your boss. It can’t be because of Michaels, so either they’re loyal – whether for money, or perks, or something else – or, maybe, they are being coerced just like you. If they are, then the fact that they’re immune to telepathy makes recruiting them a very attractive idea.”

“No way,” Mary said, shaking her head. “Did you forget what I said? She was looking at us all funny, and she hated me on sight.”

“She did cover that,” Menagerie noted. She cocked her head, clearly wondering where I was going with my idea.

“I remember just fine,” I said. “But if the boss sent you to a new city and told you to take orders from another person with powers, what would your first thought be? You said she was looking at the two guys the same way as you. You were pretending to be a loyal little henchwoman, right? What if that is the reason she doesn’t like you?”

Mary scratched her head again, brushing hair away from one ear. “It’s too risky.”

I held up a hand. “I’m not saying we should go knock on her door right now and spill the beans,” I said. “But I think we should try to study her – all three of them, really, but especially her – and figure out if any of them might be looking for a way out. Sooner or later, there’s probably going to be a fight. If we can flip any of them to our side before that happens, I think it would improve our odds a lot. It could keep a lot of people from getting hurt, Mary. Think about it.”

“Maybe,” she allowed. “But we can’t, absolutely cannot, tell them about this until we’re sure. My life is on the line here, and my father’s too. Promise me you won’t approach any of them without talking to me first, no matter what we learn.”

“Done,” I said. “I’m not trying to find new risks to take, I swear. I’m just saying that we’ve got an opportunity, here. Doug, Lindsay, or Alena might be like you. Even if they’re not, they might be like the doctor, just waiting for a chance to jump ship. I just want to keep an open mind. Okay?”

“Okay,” Mary said.

“So, what now?” Menagerie asked. “Tracking them? Following them? If we’re going to learn about the three of them, we’ll have to stay close, and that’s pretty risky since they’re in town specifically to look for us. Not to mention the fact that we don’t know for certain that Alena won’t find us. I think she probably can’t, too,” Raquel said, glancing at me and anticipating my argument, “but it’s still a guess. We don’t actually know.”

“Well, the whole point of having them in town is for them to look for you,” Mary said. “They don’t have to find you, but if you’re up for it…maybe we should let them.”

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“I’m thinking of what you just said, and how we met,” Mary said, looking back and forth between us. “Remember? If one of them is looking for a way out, looking for help, then what they want most right now is probably to find one of you successfully…but in private. Just like I did. If you guys are right about Alena, then she has the least to worry about. And if any of them is like me, then a chance to ask for your help getting out might be all it takes. In fact, if I were in their position, getting this assignment would be a godsend. It’s a perfect chance to meet the kind of person they need to contact without drawing suspicion and getting the boss breathing down their necks.”

“I’m not sure about that,” I said.

“No, she’s right,” Menagerie broke in. “Think about it. It’s a good way to test the three of them, and it should help Mary keep her cover. If it seems like she’s close, the boss might even reward her. We might be able to give her a partial victory. That could be the break we need to find him, even if none of these three is good guy material.”

I’m inclined to agree,” Leon said. “The how must be plotted carefully, of course, but the basic idea is sound.

Yes,” I heard Feral add. “We are the bait the enemy wants, and the ally that they will seek if innocent. It is a good plan. We can let them find us, lead them on a merry chase, and then get ‘cornered’ by one alone. In private, they’ll show their true colors.

“Well, if all of you think it’s a good idea, maybe,” I said. “But if we’re doing this, I want some contingency plans for beating them in a fight, just in case we have to.”

“Of course,” Mary said. “For one thing, I want to designate a few places we can meet up in emergencies. If I get burned and need backup in a hurry, I won’t be able to sit still and wait for help, probably. I doubt I’ll have time for long conversations either. The same goes for you guys if you’re wrong about Alena’s power. We should pick a few spots around the city where we can rendezvous and help each other out at any time of day.”

“Sure,” I said. “I was thinking a bit differently – when I said ‘contingency plans,’ I meant that I want to talk tactics. If we get into a fight with these three, we should have some ideas for how to take them out or escape them.”

“Oh, shit!” Menagerie exclaimed.

We both looked at her. “What?” I asked.

“Heavyweight,” Menagerie said. “Heavyweight isn’t like us. Alena could find him anytime. If her power works the way we think, she could stumble right over him. I need to give him a call, warn him what’s going on.”

“We really don’t want him caught,” Mary said. “Go ahead.”

“I’ll be right back,” Menagerie said. She stood up and walked away from us, pulling out her phone. I looked back at Mary.

“How are you holding up?” I asked. “I know this must be pretty…stressful, to say the least.”

“You could say that, yeah,” Mary said. She leaned back. “I thought I’d feel better, now that I’m in a better position, but it’s just making me more paranoid. I’m not sure if the boss has decided he can trust me now, or if he’s spying on me and testing me. Speaking of which, I shouldn’t stay much longer. I tried to make sure no one was tailing me before I came, but I could be wrong.”

“Relax,” I said. “Menagerie had Feral watching for you. If she’d spotted anyone following you, she would have told us by now, and Feral isn’t easy to sneak by. She’s sharp.”

“Still,” Mary said. “I’m getting antsy.”

“We’ve got your back,” I said. “Don’t let it get to you too much.”

She looked at me, cocking her head to one side. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure.”

Mary looked at me for a few seconds. “You still don’t trust me, though.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The mask, obviously,” she elaborated. “You still both wear masks to meet me, or hide your faces somehow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not offended. But it’s a pretty clear sign that you don’t trust me.”

I glanced over at Menagerie, then looked back at Mary. “Would you prefer this?” I asked, taking off my mask and reaching for my powers.

“You don’t have to-” She stopped midsentence, blinking. “Whoa, freaky. How are you doing that?”

I chuckled. “If you can turn your whole body invisible, doing just the face isn’t too hard.”

“I can see through your head,” Mary said flatly. “That’s just…wrong. Really, really wrong.”

“I was thinking I could be the Headless Horseman next Halloween, maybe,” I said.

Mary laughed. “Oh man, you could make some kid scream so loud. Ten bucks says you could make someone faint, with just a little work on good presentation.”

“No bet,” I replied. “I don’t throw away money.”

I glanced over at Menagerie again; she was still on the phone, talking animatedly; her voice rose a bit, and I looked back at Mary.

“So, feel any better?” I asked. “For what it’s worth, I do trust you. It just feels like it would be stupid and careless not to hedge my bets a little.”

“No, I get it,” Mary said. “Really, I do. I mean, I still haven’t told you guys my real name. When we get right down to it, I don’t actually want to know how to ID you. If I do get caught somehow, I’ll probably end up spilling everything I know, sooner or later. If I don’t know who you are, I can’t tell the boss, and you’d still have a chance to take him down.”

“It’s not going to come to that,” I promised.

Mary looked straight at me, invisible face or no. “We don’t know the future, Flicker. I’m planning to survive this in one piece, and get my dad out too. But if I go down, I’d rather do it knowing that Michaels, the boss, and all the rest will get what they deserve. As long as you and Menagerie know what’s up, we haven’t lost even if I get caught.”

“I agree with you,” I said. “So does Leon. But Plan A is to keep that unnecessary.  We’ll solve this without escalating things, if possible. With a little luck, the only violence will be a few raids where we pick off the boss, Michaels, and the others one at a time, preferably while they’re asleep. I don’t see any reason to fight at all if we don’t have to.”

“That does sound ideal,” Mary agreed.  She breathed deeply, then let it out. “I’ve been thinking about what to do long-term too, actually. Cleaning up this whole mess afterward is going to be tricky, even if we win and nobody dies.”

“Yeah?” I prompted.

“Well, I know Michaels is bad, and the boss is bad,” Mary said. “Tuggey seems like he probably is, but I won’t pretend I’m totally certain. It’s like that for most of the others, too. They seem like bad guys, but they might be like me. And all the guys the boss uses as goons, I know they don’t deserve to be used this way. We’re going to have to find a way to help them. After you guys rescued Dustin, you said that you got some help deprogramming him. We’ll probably have to do that for a lot of people. Dozens of them. That’s going to take time.”

“Yeah, it would,” I said. “I’m no telepath, but it seemed like it was difficult. There are two or three people I can think of who might be able to help, but I don’t know if any of them can do the job alone, and I don’t know how much they’d be willing to do, either.”

“Right,” Mary said. “Here’s the thing. If we just get rid of the boss, the people who work for him could scatter. I mean, they might try to hide, or just run out of the city. They might run to the cops, which could be a problem for me, but I wouldn’t try to stop them from getting help. But if they just leave, we’d never be able to find them again, probably. Like, what if we’d taken down the boss and Dustin had run to Canada? What are the chances we could find him and help him put his brain back together?”

“Not very good,” I said. “Where are you going with this?”

Mary scratched her head again, a bit nervously. “I was trying to figure out what our best-case scenario is. I think, to make things turn out happily ever after, we’d need to take out the boss secretly. Then we could take out Michaels, and take our time sorting through everyone else. Figure out who’s a bad guy and who didn’t have a choice without having to rush the job. I think…I think it’s the only way we could help everybody.”

I blinked. “That’s…a pretty ambitious plan.”

Mary sighed. “I know. And I know it sounds kind of suspicious, too. But I just can’t think of any better way we could handle this. I understand if you’d rather just to the FBI, but if that happens I’m pretty sure my dad will end up back in jail, and I can’t do that. To him or anyone else in the same boat. Even if it was just temporary, it could take years for the authorities to sort everything out, and find some standard of proof that he wasn’t guilty, and that’s assuming we could afford a good lawyer, which we probably can’t. He’s old enough that he could die in jail. I won’t risk it on purpose.”

I thought about it, looking at her, weighing and judging. I’d always tried to think of myself as a rational person, one who considered the information and then made a logical call, but here the evidence fit both possibilities too well; if she was telling the truth, then it all made sense. If she was lying, then she might want to use Raquel and I to supplant the boss, in theory. That would be a huge risk, though. In fact, as plans went, it seemed prohibitively complicated.

Agreed,” Leon said. “There is an easy way to cover our bases, though.

I smiled at his idea. I tried to pretend I was rational even when I relied on gut feeling, but Leon was just a better planner.

Sometimes, it was really nice to have him around.

“I think you’re right,” I said. “If we could end things that way, we’d have the best chance to help the most people. But just in case things go bad and we all get cement shoes or the equivalent, I’m going to leave a little package to be delivered in the event of my death. Insurance. That way, if the boss catches us, someone else will have all the information I had, and they won’t have to start from scratch. Make sense?”

“Yeah,” Mary said, looking relieved. “Yeah, that would be good. If we buy it, I’d like to go down knowing the bastards won’t last much longer, at least.”

“Good,” I said. “Just in case Menagerie and I go down and you survive, though, would you mind if I included what I know about you in the package?”

Mary hesitated for a moment. “I…guess. Just be careful to make sure no one can find it early, okay? It’s my life on the line.”

“No problem,” I said.

“Should I ask who you had in mind to receive this package?” Mary asked.

In my head, Leon and I were already hashing out the specifics. We’d leave a just-in-case present for Bloodhound. They already knew some pieces of what was going on, and they were tough and experienced. As a bonus, I was confident that they would be willing to hand everything to the authorities if they deemed it appropriate, and I figured we’d have to ask them for help with the deprogramming end of things anyway.

“I was thinking of the Philly Five,” I said.

Mary looked a little impressed. “That’s good backup, yeah. I mean, I knew you know them, but damn.”

If Mary double-crossed us, they would know where to find her. Conversely, if she was dealing honestly and got left alone again, they could provide her with some much-needed help, and ensure that the boss wasn’t free to operate again, and I didn’t need to violate Mary’s trust in either case. It wasn’t airtight, but it was as close as I could conceive.

I was still working out the last details when Menagerie walked back over.

“Well, Heavyweight wasn’t happy,” she said, rejoining Mary and I. “He felt like I was trying to drag him in, or something. I warned him about Alena, though, and I said he can call if anything happens, so at least that’s taken care of.”

“Good,” Mary said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Menagerie, we need to catch you up on what we were talking about. After that, I still want to talk tactics a bit before we go our separate ways, just in case we find a fight on our hands before we’ve had time to plan things out…like, for example, if Alena does find Heavyweight and he calls for backup.”

Menagerie leaned back, folding her arms across her chest, and I leaned on my elbows as we started to hash things out.
 
 
 
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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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You Can Choose Your Friends 2

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Raquel and I were bundled in our coats, trying to stay warm while we waited outside. It was after five o’clock, and that meant it was already dark out, this late in the year. My butt got cold after I sat down on the roof of the Nautical Museum, and I doubted Raquel was any more comfortable on the concrete steps. It had been a relatively convenient neutral place to meet before, so we used it again, and now we were regretting it. The wind had picked up, and it made standing or sitting in the open brutally cold.

Fortunately, Mary’s car pulled up on schedule. Feral walked over and confirmed that Mary was the only one in it, and I came down from the roof, joining Raquel. We walked over and climbed in. I took the front passenger seat, while Raquel sat in the back.

“Mary,” I said. It was about the best greeting I could manage. My nose was freezing, and I sniffled as I settled gratefully into the car. Raquel just settled into the backseat, letting Feral climb onto her lap. I took off my gloves and put my hands in front of the air vents, pleased to feel warm air coming out.

“Flicker, Menagerie,” Mary said. She spoke absently, her attention on the road and her mirrors as she pulled out and started driving.

“So, what did you learn?” Mary asked once we were settled in.

“Not as much as I hoped, but there were some useful tidbits,” I said. “Lyle didn’t do his illegal work in his office. They set up a place for him, and stored drugs and supplies at a storage facility – the same one we first saw him at, actually, Menagerie. Apparently the boss or someone working for him owns the place. They keep illegal stuff there, and the staff all know not to pay much attention, I guess. Some of the space is just rented to normal people, of course, but some of the storage space holds medical supplies, guns, and all the other things people need to commit crimes. He told me where his workspace was, too. They might have cleared out by now, but it’s worth taking a look, I think.”

“Probably, yeah,” Mary said. “After you guys found Michaels at his house, they ended up arranging for it to get sold, so they might have done that again. Either way, we might be able to find out who used to own it. If we’re lucky, that could give us an address for the boss. I still haven’t been able to figure out where he lives.”

“Have you seen him in person recently?” Menagerie asked.

“Yes,” Mary said. “He’s…angry, definitely, but I don’t know if he’s so worried anymore. It’s weird. I’d expect him to be more worried over Lyle getting away, but even though he’s pissed at Tuggey he just isn’t acting very concerned about anything. After you guys got Dustin away he was on edge, but it’s like something took the pressure off.”

I blinked. “That doesn’t sound good for us. Has anything else happened that you can think of? Anything that might explain him getting less worried?”

Mary shook her head, but kept her eyes ahead, watching the road. “No, nothing. I can’t explain it. But for now I’m glad, since it means he isn’t making things more difficult for me right now.”

Menagerie broke in. “About that – your new assignment, I mean – did he give you a deadline or anything? Do you have much to go on to find us, officially?”

“No, no deadline,” Mary said. “And he hasn’t given me much to work with, either. Basically, he said he’s sick of you guys getting away from us. He wants me to find you, somehow, and bring you down. He said he wants Flicker alive if I can get you, and Heavyweight, but he told me to kill Menagerie. Said you’re too much trouble. So if we get into any impromptu confrontations, and only one of you can escape, it should be Menagerie. If I capture Flicker or Heavyweight, well, you guys will have a chance to get away. If Menagerie gets caught, I’ll have to blow my cover to help her, unless I can manage to just look incompetent. Either way, it will probably mean that I’ll have less access to information, so try to lay low. I’ll warn you if any emergencies come up, but unless you have to do something it would be good if you guys just…lived your regular lives for a little while. I’m going to try asking the boss for help bringing you in. If we’re lucky, he’ll give me a better idea of just how much muscle he’s got available in terms of powers.”

“Any idea why he thinks I’m too dangerous?” Raquel asked.

Mary hesitated. “I’ve got a pretty clear idea, yeah. He brought in Michaels and the three of us were talking tactics, going over the times his people have gone up against you guys. Tuggey fought Flicker, before, and we all saw Heavyweight and Menagerie in action. Basically, the boss thinks that if we catch you, Flicker, we can hold you as long as we need to. Heavyweight is trickier, since he’s so strong, but Michaels said he didn’t think Heavyweight was immune to him like you two are; he didn’t really try to affect him at the house because things had already gone wrong when he tried to use his powers on Feral, but he said Feral and Flicker kind of felt the same. Heavyweight felt normal. Anyway, I think that’s why. The boss figures Michaels can flip Heavyweight, and we can hold Flicker if he wants to, but he doesn’t think he can hold you, Menagerie. So he wants you dead.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Menagerie cock her head.

Well, that’s a twisted sort of compliment, I suppose,” Feral commented. “It actually sounds like he’s afraid of us.

A compliment I’m happy to do without,” Leon said.

“I wish he sounded less on top of things,” I said.

“Sorry,” Mary said. “I know no one likes getting bad news. But better you know what the story is than not.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Okay, so the boss – do you have a name for him yet, by the way? Something besides ‘the boss’ that we can call him?”

“Nope, sorry,” Mary said.

“Okay, whatever,” I said. “So the boss put you in charge of dealing with the three of us, which means capturing me and Heavyweight if possible and killing Menagerie. You’ve got men with tasers and guns, I’m assuming. How are you supposed to find us? And are any of the other people with powers working with you? Are Michaels and Tuggey in on this?”

“Tuggey is. And he doesn’t like doing what I tell him, which is the only fun part of this whole mess,” Mary said. “Michaels isn’t taking orders from me, exactly, but I’m kind of working with him, since I’m supposed to bring Heavyweight to him if I can catch him. That’s it for now. Like I said, I’m planning to ask for help. As far as supers go, I think he keeps Walker – the golf course guy – somewhere else, but I’m not sure where. I don’t know what he’s had him doing. He might send me Davis, the telekinetic I broke out of jail. I’m hoping he’ll send me someone I haven’t seen, and then we’ll learn what their powers are. If we’re really lucky, he’ll give me a choice, or at least let slip how many other supers he’s got.”

“What about finding us?” Menagerie asked.

“That’s the tricky part,” Mary said. “He doesn’t have a plan for that, as far as I can tell. I’m supposed to figure it out on my own. To be blunt, I have no idea what to do about that. I mean, whenever I try to think of a convincing plan that will make it look like I’m trying, I remember that I can call you up on the damn phone.” She snorted. “It makes it hard to think like a bad guy. And it’s especially tricky because I don’t want to come up with a plan that’s too good by accident, and then have it actually work. I feel like I’m trying to hit a really small bull’s-eye on this one, making it look good without winning or making a big splash that gets official police attention. Can you guys brainstorm? Come up with some ideas? Anything I can do that sounds good and looks good but won’t work, I’ll take.”

“Huh,” I said. “Okay, give us a minute to think.”

Leon gave me a gentle reminder.

“While we do that, do you know if the boss has an in with the police?” I asked. “Lyle said he was worried about that, that it was part of the reason he didn’t go to them for help. I’m not sure if it was true, really, since he also admitted that he didn’t call the FBI because he didn’t want to get put in prison for the shit he’s done.”

“As far as I know, he doesn’t, but I doubt he’d tell me,” Mary said. “That’s pretty vague, though. I mean, maybe he bribes someone for information, but doesn’t have any leverage or anything? There’s a lot of room between totally corrupt and completely honest. And he could always bribe some clerk without dealing with an actual cop, too.”

“Okay,” I said.

We rode in silence for a minute or two, thinking. Mary was taking us on a meandering route through the city, driving slowly. We weren’t actually trying to get anywhere.

“Here’s a thought,” I said. “We’ve showed up twice at places where Michaels’ was, and that’s got to look suspicious. If you assigned Tuggey to stay close to him and look for signs that he’s being followed, then that might get both of them out of your hair, at least temporarily. That could also make it more convincing when you ask for more muscle, if the two of them are already busy.”

“Nice,” Mary said, nodding. “I think I’ll try that. As long as you guys stay away from them, it will keep Tuggey busy without actually making any kind of difference, and if Michaels is laying low or running around playing bait then he shouldn’t be doing much damage. It’s a nice little time-waster.”

“I’m pretty happy with the idea,” I said. I chewed on my lip as I tried to put myself in the bad guys’ shoes. How would I organize a search for myself?

Leon, any ideas?” I asked.

Nothing useful, yet,” Leon said. “Given the lack of information they have about us, cornering us is difficult, and we don’t really want to change that. Because we’ve managed to maintain secrecy, the only real option is to lure us in, somehow, and hope we hear about it. Maybe Mary could find some way to leak information publicly…something that wouldn’t mean much to most people, but which we might recognize? That would allow her to set up a trap. We wouldn’t even need to show up, necessarily, if the point is just for her to look busy.

I passed that suggestion on, but I could tell that Mary wasn’t thrilled by it.

“It’s not a bad idea, but I just don’t think it’s going to cut it,” she said. “It’s worth a try, though. I’ll try to think of some reasonable bait. If you guys have any other suggestions, let me know. You never finished telling us what Lyle had to say, though – was there anything else useful?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “He was a bit hard to pin down at first. I had to play to his gratitude to really get him talking, although he was spooked enough that I don’t think he was holding back. Probably trying to paint himself as more of a victim and less of a co-conspirator than he really was, you know, but he wants the boss finished. Did you ever work with him or anything?”

“Not really,” Mary said. “I knew about him, but that was about it. Tuggey was mostly in charge of leaning on him, as far as I know.”

That reminded me of another question. “Do you have any idea why the boss didn’t have Michaels work on the doc? Or Tuggey, or you? I mean, I remember what you said before, that he maybe didn’t want Michaels to have influence over everyone. That makes sense. But it would have kept the doctor in line, and I can’t see any reason not to do it to him.”

Mary was taking a left turn, and she didn’t answer until it was done. “No idea,” she said.

I have a thought on that score, actually,” Leon said. “Aside from the concerns over giving Michaels too much power, I find myself wondering if Michael’s power might have side effects. All of those who he’s used it on have been people with little or no authority. What if too much control makes it more difficult for them to take initiative in other ways, as well as preventing them from rebelling?

Do you really think it could work that way?” I asked. “That seems like a pretty big weakness to me.

Consider what we’ve seen from the men that Tuggey and Michaels use as muscle,” Leon said. “They don’t seem stupid, precisely, but they aren’t particularly imaginative. When we retrieved Lyle, they were searching in an effective way, but it was also slow and plodding, relying on superior numbers. Having that many men mobilized was risky.

I didn’t think Benedetti or the others were dumb,” I said. “Searching has to be methodical. There’s only so much you can do to search better.

It is just an idea, but I find it telling that the only people we know haven’t been affected by Michaels are the boss himself, Mary, Tuggey, and the doctor. The doctor needed his complex skills intact, and he was controlled by greed and fear. Mary has said that she is similarly controlled by fear. Tuggey doesn’t seem to have a problem with his work, that we know of, though there’s no way to be certain, but Tuggey and Mary are both in possession of powers, making it risky to let Michaels control them, and both are in positions of authority over others. I don’t think that’s all a coincidence.

Maybe,” I said. “We do know that his power didn’t work like he meant it to against Feral and Menagerie, so it might be complicated in other ways too, I guess.

I shared the theory with the others. Mary seemed to think it might be right, but I was still skeptical.

“I think the boss is just using you all as checks and balances against each other,” I said. “I don’t think we should assume there’s more to it than that.”

“Maybe not,” Mary said. “Still, it’s worth keeping in mind. Anything else from Lyle?”

“Not really,” I said. “It seems like his work mostly came to him.”

Menagerie cleared her throat. “What about you, Mary? What else can you tell us? Any other places to look into? Anything else you’ve learned?”

“A few things, yeah,” Mary said. “I think I’ve got a pretty solid list, now, of the people at BPSC who know about the illegal stuff, and a pretty good idea of how much they all know. Not one hundred percent, but I’m pretty close. The money people definitely don’t know that much, like I thought. So there’s that. There are a few other businesses that I think are indirectly connected. I think the boss owns them, or other people own them for him. I found out about a pawn shop, a bar, a car wash, and one or two more, but they aren’t really important, I don’t think. Still, it could help later. If I play my cards right, I think I’ll be able to find him, and that’s the most important thing. If we could take down the boss and Michaels, I think we’d be past the two big obstacles.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Let’s trade details, make sure we each have all of the information just in case something goes wrong. Then I think we should split. Don’t want to spend too much time together and get spotted.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Mary said. “I mean, I’m not ignoring the chance, but I think we’ll be all right.”

“Cool,” I said. “Before we do that, though, there is one other thing on my mind.”

“What is it?” Mary said.

“After talking to Lyle, I got to thinking,” I said. “He only ran after the fight at the house, but he’s frankly a lot more afraid than you are, I think, or at least more controlled by his fear. You’ve said you’re afraid of the boss, but you don’t know what he can do. I think you’re pretty sharp. Smart enough that you could have made a run for it, like Lyle, and done a better job, even without his money. You could have just gotten on the train and never looked back. Starting over is tough, but I think you’re smart enough to find a way. So I have to ask: why haven’t you? If it’s really fear, what’s the boss got that has you scared?”

Mary hesitated long enough that I wondered if she was going to refuse to answer, but instead she pulled over, stopping the car. Once it was parked, she sighed.

“Got me all figured out, huh,” she said. “You think I’m that easy to read?”

“Not all figured out, no,” I said. “But you could have run. I think we need to know why you haven’t. Lyle didn’t go to the FBI because he’s a greedy ass. I’m guessing that’s not your reason, but you must have one.”

Feral was sitting up in Menagerie’s lap, and we all waited expectantly. I hadn’t really discussed this with Leon, but I could tell he agreed with my reasoning, and also wanted to know the answer to my question.

Mary scratched her head, hard. “Dammit,” she muttered. “You’re asking a lot from me. You know my face, you know I’m taking a huge risk. Do you really need to know this too?”

“We’ve been trusting you as much as you’ve been trusting us,” I said. “When you told me where to find Lyle, I went alone and got him out on your say-so. I trusted you then, and I still do. But I think this is important. You know why we do what we do, in a general sense at least. You know Menagerie cares about Dustin, and we don’t like the things Michaels has been doing, or the way Walker got grabbed. That’s why we’re in this. Why are you?”

Mary tilted her head back, and I waited, letting her think.

“What do you think about the guys they recruit?” Mary finally said.

I blinked at the subject change, but assumed she had a reason to ask. “I think they’re getting royally shafted. They’re on the other side, but if Michaels is controlling them or just influencing them a lot, they need help.”

Mary punched the dashboard, and I was surprised to see her so emotional. I waited for a few tense seconds as she sat there, still wrestling with something.

“When some of them died at the house, I almost cut ties with you,” Mary said. “How do you think the boss found me?”

I blinked at the non sequitur. “I don’t know. I mean, Walker and Davis both used their powers pretty publicly, but Tuggey and Michaels didn’t, as far as I knew.”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “I don’t know how he found Tuggey and Michaels, but he found me because of my father.”

I opened my mouth and Leon advised me to wait silently.

“He’d been out of prison for a few weeks when he started disappearing, hanging around people I wasn’t too fond of,” Mary said. She glanced at me, quickly looking away. “I never really used my powers, before. I just kept them to myself. They weren’t much good in my life, you know? I mean, I would try to use them to juggle stuff, for fun, or pick stuff up off the floor when I was alone, but that was it. Then I went looking for my father, and I found the boss waiting. I tried to fight him, and he had every base covered, like he knew what I was going to try. I thought he was a telepath, at first, but he never reacted when I was planning to run away or kill him or do anything. Anytime I actually did something, though, he was ahead of me. It felt like he let me try a few times, just so I’d learn. Then he disappeared my father and told me that as long as I did what he said, my dad would live and we’d both be comfortable.”

Mary stared ahead in silence. “So far he’s kept his word,” she said after a minute. “I was trying to find a way out, but I couldn’t figure out how to handle it on my own. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get rid of him without getting killed or getting my father killed ever since. I couldn’t go to the FBI. I tried that, once, and he caught me. When I ran into you guys, I thought it was worth a shot. I gave you my card, I’ve been as paranoid as I could manage this whole time, trying to take every precaution, but grabbing a kid was too much. I couldn’t do nothing about that. Taking Walker was bad enough, but if we end all this he’ll still be able to go home. Dustin’s a kid. Michaels could have destroyed his whole life. So after we took Dustin I grabbed the chance to work with you. He hasn’t found out, as far as I can tell, so it must be working. I don’t know why, though. It’s driving me nuts.”

We needed some time to absorb that, and Mary seemed content to sit in silence. She soon started the car again, in neutral, and I realized it had begun to get colder.

This explains a great deal,” Leon said.

“I’m sorry,” Menagerie said aloud.

Mary nodded, but didn’t speak.

I wondered whether she was offering sympathy or something else. When Mary saw men dead by Feral’s hands (some obnoxious part of my mind corrected the thought to “paws” and I cursed my pedantic brain and the way it noted irrelevant details), she was seeing men like her father, not just nameless unfortunates. I cared about them, of course, but it was mostly in an abstract way, the way one can feel empathy for a sweatshop worker on the other side of the world. That sort of empathy was always a vague thing for me, though, when thinking about anyone I’d never met. I’d tried to avoid hurting the men, but I guess, on some level, I’d still avoided considering the fact that they might be truly innocent of all the crimes they were committing now. It was too painful to think about that when we were taking the slow approach. I felt a sudden urge to deal with Michaels now, to find a way to free all of the men under his sway tonight, instead of putting it off.

It was a lot more personal for Mary. She probably felt that urgency every night, but she still had to go to sleep, wake up the next morning, and take orders from the asshole who was holding her father hostage, knowing that the men she was ordering around didn’t really have the ability to say no to her orders. She’d been doing that for weeks, somehow.

My skin crawled. I would have gone mad by now, in her position.

“We’ll help you get out of this,” I said. “Both of you. Thanks for the truth.”

She nodded again.

I wasn’t over it when I got back home, and eating dinner didn’t help either. It was strange to realize that even though I’d been fighting and evading and tracking men just like Mary’s father, I hadn’t wondered if they had families. I’d seen them as obstacles to avoid or overcome, mainly. The fact that I had really made an effort to avoid hurting them was the only thing that saved me from my conscience, which wanted to beat the crap out of me.

I have to remember this,” I said. “They’re people, connected to other people. Some of them must have wives, sons, daughters, cousins…those people probably don’t know what they do. They probably can’t tell them, maybe even if they wanted to. I have no way of knowing if they would be criminals or if they would have gone straight, on their own, without Michaels’ involvement.

It’s not as bleak as you’re thinking,” Leon said.

It kind of is, though,” I said. “Look, I know the world isn’t ending. It’s the same world I was in this morning. But I feel pretty fucked up about this. I mean, I really wasn’t thinking about what to do with all of these guys after we take out Michaels and the boss. They’re probably all going to need reprogramming, you know? Like Dustin did. That took two experienced telepaths working together. We have exactly zero experienced telepaths in town, and if we go to the FBI that might create some problems too, so what do we do? And if it takes hours to work on each one, what the hell do we do with them all while they’re waiting? And when it’s all over, then what? We just send them on their way and say ‘sorry you got your mind taken over, good luck?’”

When the time comes, I’m sure Stalker will be willing to help us,” Leon said. “The Philly Five are good people. If she can’t help these men alone, perhaps Uplink can assist her. If not, we’ll find another way. David, you can’t let yourself look at the whole task and expect to find a solution in one night. It will take time. It will be difficult, challenging, and complex. But we don’t have to solve everything now. Those men are alive. Mary and her father are alive. We have time. Our patience is for their good, not just our own. Give yourself, Mary, and Raquel some credit. Michaels killed a few of them, by accident, but we’ve taken great pains to avoid loss of life. Dustin is home. Lyle and Kaylee are alive, if unhappy for the moment, and right now we’re apparently the best available chance at setting things right.

Yeah,” I said. “Right. I don’t like being anyone’s best chance at anything, Leon. I don’t feel very competent as someone’s last hope. If I was my last hope, I’d ask if I was allowed to make a substitution.

We rarely get presented with the challenges we want or the problems we deserve,” Leon said. “You’re taking a detour into self-pity. Knock it off. We have the power to make things better, and we’re going to keep on doing it.

I sighed. “Yeah. I know. It’s just…this problem seems so goddamn big.

It was too early to go to bed, so I grabbed a book and tried to get some reading done, but my heart wasn’t in it. After trying to read it for most of an hour, I knew that I couldn’t give even a summary of what I’d just read, and that was after looking at every page at least three times before moving on to the next one.

I put it down and browsed the internet mindlessly, instead, just killing time while I waited for my body to get tired and my mind to slow down enough that I could sleep. I wasn’t going to get anything else done that night, and I needed the distraction.

I could feel the weight on my shoulders. Knowing that Mary was in a much worse position than I’d thought didn’t help, and I wondered if Feral and Raquel were feeling worse, like me, after what Mary had said. I picked up my phone, but decided not to bother them.

I noticed I had a message from Shawn, asking if I wanted to come to Thanksgiving at his uncle and aunt’s place in town tomorrow night. Liz was going, and apparently felt a bit worried at the prospect of getting grilled by his family with no one else there to distract them.

I couldn’t blame her for that, I supposed. As far as I knew, none of Shawn’s family had met her yet, so nerves were inevitable.

I stewed over it, wondering if I should just postpone the decision, but if I said yes then waiting would be rude. It was a last-minute invite, but that didn’t mean that his family wouldn’t want to know the answer as soon as possible.

Mary wasn’t expecting anything to happen, and had even suggested we lay low for a while, but what if something did happen? To this point I’d avoided any sudden, unexcused absences that were obviously linked to Flicker appearing somewhere, but if I were in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, got a call, and then ran off to bail Lyle out of trouble or something it would make it pretty obvious to everyone there who Flicker was.

That seemed so cliché, though. Actually, most of the big stuff I’d been involved in had been at night or over the weekends, largely because that was when I had free time. It was strange to realize that.

I waffled, going back and forth repeatedly, but finally decided to go ahead and say yes. Shawn wouldn’t have issued the invitation unless he had cleared it with the hosts first, I was sure. I didn’t really have a good reason not to go, and whatever Shawn’s aunt and uncle served was probably going to be better than dining hall food.

You realize you got far too hung up on that?” Leon said.

Oh, shut up,” I said. “I’m not in the mood for Incorporeal Life Lectures right now, okay?

It’s hard not to backseat drive sometimes,” Leon said. “Of course, it might be easier if you were smarter,” he joked.

I smiled. “You’re a dick sometimes, you know that? And I don’t know how someone without a body can be a body part. That’s just illogical.

I live to mock,” Leon said.

I laughed for both of us.

A nice Thanksgiving dinner was something to look forward to. It occurred to me that if I was going to keep accepting dinner invitations I really needed to figure out something nice to do for Shawn’s family and Raquel’s mother, Carmen.

Pleasant anticipation helped, but I still felt the weight on my shoulders, the shadow hanging over my thoughts. It was more than I’d ever carried before, higher stakes, and even as my muscles relaxed I felt a sense of pressure in my chest, weakened but still present. I’d been keyed up on adrenaline in the past, and I’d felt angry, fearful, and exhilarated, but the pressure, the doubt about the unknown future, was worse than other feelings that had kept me awake in the past.

It was a long night.
 
 
 
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You Can Choose Your Friends 1

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Waking up, David and I were thinking of all the things we needed to do, and it was a varied list. First, he rolled over onto his side and checked his phone.

He’d been just barely awake enough to let me send a quick text message to Mary and Raquel, letting them know that things hadn’t gone badly last night, and now we had replies. We had a series of messages from Mary. The first:

“Good work. Tuggey pissed & in trouble, boss angry about fuckup. No deaths. Men avoided cops, but had to abandon a couple cars.”

The next message had come hours later:

“Tuggey maybe demoted. I might be moving up.”

Finally, there was one more:

“I just got assigned to hunt you down 🙂 Will call later.”

I could sense David’s surprise as he laughed, and I marveled at the stroke of luck. It made some sense, though. Tuggey hadn’t done very well in dealing with us. Mary had been involved in two incidents with us, and both had ended with the bad guys’ apparent escape, despite some problems. We’d gotten away with Dustin at the end of one fight, granted, but that had started before she arrived. She’d been present at Dustin’s abduction and gotten away with that cleanly; problems had only cropped up later. Aside from that, she had some sort of work at BPSC, and we hadn’t disrupted their legitimate operations at all, so she might look pretty good compared to Tuggey at the moment.

We also had a message from Raquel. She apologized for missing our earlier requests for backup, promised to set her phone to ring louder at night, and said she’d be in touch after school unless we told her we had an emergency.

Once that was done, we rolled out of bed and cleaned up, then knocked on Lyle and Kaylee’s doors. They both answered pretty quickly, so either they’d been awake already or they were light sleepers, and in relatively short order we went out, picked up some food and coffee at a doughnut shop on Lyle’s dime, and came back, inviting them to come to our room and eat. David wrestled with whether or not to put on his mask, but I talked him into it, pointing out that Lyle owed us and vouched for us to Kaylee. We didn’t have anything to prove to either of them, and I was perfectly all right with them feeling awkward for the minute it took to get used to it.

They came in and started to eat, and both of them were clearly very hungry. I realized that I didn’t know when they’d last eaten, but since Lyle had been laying low and Kaylee had been driving much of the previous day it wasn’t surprising.

While they did that, David and I looked up Beauregard Raleigh, eager to see the results. The two visions we’d shared the previous night seemed like the most promising yet, in terms of finally getting some answers. We’d thought things over while getting breakfast, and reasoned that the visions were skipping around in terms of time rather than progressing forward in a purely linear fashion, but the name was still by far our most promising lead.

We combed through search results, but couldn’t find him. Beauregard Raleigh didn’t seem to be a current or previous Congressman from New York, although when we tried only his last name we managed to find references to a Raleigh in the state legislature and another, possibly related, who was a judge. Neither was named Beauregard, but it might be something.

After that, we did a quick search to see if there were any news stories about a businessman named Jimenez being murdered or abducted, and had similar results, discovering nothing useful.

David leaned back in his chair, trying to process what it all meant.

It’s the future, or a future, perhaps,” I suggested. “Seen through one pair of eyes. If not, the only thing that comes to mind is the phrase ‘alternate universe,’ but in the absence of any other evidence that such things even exist I’m a bit leery of leaping to that particular conclusion.

David absently grabbed a doughnut for himself and scarfed it down, glancing at Kaylee and Lyle. They were talking quietly in two chairs by the window, while we sat on the edge of the bed. For the moment, we weren’t inclined to disturb them; they seemed to be working through personal differences, and there was no rush to interrupt that, really. Today was a lost cause for anything other than dealing with the pair of them, as far as we were concerned.

I feel really weird about the idea of getting visions of the future,” David said. “You have some memory of our other powers, right? I mean, some instinctive sense of how to use them, and a sense that they’re yours. But you don’t remember getting visions, do you?

Yes to the first question and no to the second,” I replied. “But my impressions are imperfect, and if it is a power I always possessed, I might not have known how to use it. Or it might be triggered by some particular circumstance, or something.

David shook his head. “But only I saw the first one, for some reason, not you. That doesn’t make sense, really, if they’re a power of yours. I mean, I’m not sure how it makes sense any other way either, I guess.

Perhaps not,” I said. “Regardless, we know for certain that the visions do not correspond to our past or present. All that remains is the future or a separate timeline of some sort, unless something truly ridiculous is going on. Something like, say, an individual or group erasing all evidence of a congressman from the internet. That possibility is outlandish enough to discard, I think. If anyone has the power to affect memories and information storage media worldwide, then that person or group is essentially god, and they would have to do such a good job of concealing themselves that it would shatter my credulity anyway. So…what we’re seeing is either what will happen, or what may happen. The alternate universe possibility isn’t really worth considering either, since we have no way to affect anything in that case.

It didn’t look like a distant future,” David said thoughtfully. “I’m inclined to agree with what you’ve said, so let’s run with it. The cars, phones, the diner, the computers we saw…none of them were my main focus at any point, but they all looked pretty comparable to what actually exists now. I don’t know guns well, but I don’t think the ones we saw looked strange or unusual. Neither did the body armor. We saw smoke grenades, gas masks…it was all pretty standard stuff. So all of this, it can’t be too far ahead, technologically speaking. If it’s the future, it’s a future that isn’t too far down the road. That makes me think of the warning angle again, the idea that someone is trying to tell us to stop something. But if that’s true, who are we supposed to stop? Don’t get me wrong, the idea of supers forming squads and attacking people they don’t like is scary, but so is the idea of a shadowy group with a private army conducting vague research to counter people with powers. They pretty explicitly weren’t the government. If someone sat me down and showed me these visions as a film, I’d wonder why they were leaving out so much, and I’d wonder why we never find out what the actual research is. It all makes me feel sympathetic to the other David and the people on his side, but what if they’re experimenting on people like me? Or worse?

It’s possible,” I said, “but there were supers defending the place as well, and that could be meaningful.

It might,” David allowed. “Or they could be mercenaries, or traitors. The whole reason betrayals hurt is because they’re unexpected and hard to understand. Quisling and Benedict Arnold are loathed for cause.

True,” I acknowledged. “But it’s dangerous to read too much into the fact that we saw two supers there, as we’ve said before. We’re rehashing old ground again. I think it’s time to move on.

David agreed, and we looked over at our breakfast companions, grabbed another doughnut, and went to join them.

“So,” David said, “I hope you two feel better after getting some sleep?”

“Marginally,” Kaylee said. She drank some more coffee. “Thanks for getting food.”

“No problem,” David said. “Lyle paid, anyway. I just had to walk.”

She nodded, taking another sip. Lyle looked grateful.

“Ready to talk things over?” David asked.

“Yes,” Lyle sighed. “I suppose I am.”

“Great,” Kaylee said. “Start by explaining why we aren’t going to the police?”

“Because I think the people I was working for are paying off at least some of them,” Lyle said.

“Sure, in Berkeleyport,” Kaylee said. “But we’re not in Berkeleyport anymore. Besides, there are people with powers involved, right? Call the FBI. It’s their job to deal with that stuff.”

David winced, and I had to agree. It was the obviously correct thing to do, in some ways. In fact, I was wondering why the doctor hadn’t done it. It might have been difficult to convince them he wasn’t making a crank call, but once he did the FBI were the best people to contact, especially since he’d seemed afraid of me at first.

Lyle looked down at his feet. “Because I don’t want them to lock me up.”

Kaylee’s eyes narrowed angrily. “I see. So what you’re saying is you put my life in danger because you don’t want to face the consequences of your own actions like an adult, is that it?”

He didn’t answer. I prodded David, who was feeling uncomfortable, to stop this before things continued in their current direction.

“Actually, it may be a good thing that he did that,” David said. Kaylee shot us an incredulous look. “I know that sounds ridiculous, yes. But the fact of the matter is that the people Lyle was mixed up with are very dangerous, and if they were backed into a corner, I have reason to believe a lot of people would get hurt. I don’t think the FBI are stupid, but I don’t think they’ve dealt with anything like this before, either. A lot of the people Lyle dealt with may not have been fully in control of their own actions. There are several criminals with powers in the organization, and I know that at least one of them is affecting the minds of others.”

Kaylee blinked. “Well…why didn’t they do it to Lyle, then?”

Lyle cringed as we glanced at him. “I don’t know,” David said. “But if the police or even the FBI dealt with this the normal way, it’s likely that a lot of people could get hurt who don’t deserve it. I got involved because I’m trying to help someone in a similar situation to Lyle – someone else who’s being coerced.”

As David spoke, my thoughts returned to the conflicts of the previous night. We’d done our best to avoid inflicting any permanent harm on anyone, although both David and I knew that tasers weren’t perfectly safe. Reports on their effects were somewhat conflicting. Still, we’d kept from shocking anyone after they stopped fighting, and we hadn’t left anyone in a particularly dangerous position. None of the men we’d hurt should wake up with more than bruises, perhaps a sprain here or there, and a lot of discomfort. It was a lot better than the debacle the night we’d freed Dustin, which still weighed heavy on all of our minds, especially Raquel and Feral. David was a bit naïve about some things, I thought, including his failure to understand how harshly that night’s experience might be affecting them. I wasn’t certain what we could do about it, though, other than being willing to listen if and when they needed to talk.

I dragged my attention back to the moment. Kaylee was frowning uncertainly, and I couldn’t blame her. She was afraid to go home until Lyle’s illegal employers were off their tail, and that meant that the faster resolution would be more appealing to her, as would the idea of going to the government for help. Institutional power could be a comforting thing, when it was on your side. But while I was concerned about Mary’s secrets, I had to admit that she seemed to be genuinely on our side, and she felt strongly about the need to avoid open confrontation. We had some idea of the FBI’s capabilities, and while I’d found their people impressive, the fact remained that any situation which ended in a straight fight against Tuggey and all the men working for him was bound to be horrific, perhaps as bad as the Battle of Philadelphia in its own way given the involvement of mind control.

If someone shot Collector or one of his people, at least they would be able to go home knowing that they’d killed a criminal. If the FBI had a shootout with Tuggey, Michaels, and their bunch, there could be innocent people on both sides. It was a problem we’d faced once already, with terrible results, and I had scrupulously avoided suggesting that we learn more about the men who’d died in the fight to recover Dustin, but I wanted to know. I was afraid that Feral and Raquel might not recover if we learned that they were innocent men, though, and I doubted David would hide the information if we learned it.

“I know this is a lot to take in,” David said, “especially since you didn’t have a clear idea about any of it until last night. But lives are depending on us not handling this the wrong way. For now, the bad guys know Lyle got away, and we helped him. If they think they’re about to be discovered by the police, then they may get desperate and start taking more extreme actions. I’ve been working with a few people to learn everything we can about them, trying to move slowly and keep from scaring them. I only acted last night because your lives were in jeopardy. I hope neither of you will take this the wrong way, but if Lyle hadn’t run away on his own I wouldn’t have tried to help him yet, not unless I knew he was in immediate danger. Do you understand?”

“I understand just fine,” Kaylee said. She glared at Lyle. “But that doesn’t help me figure out what to do from here. So far, you’re just giving me lots of reasons not to do the sensible thing.”

I interjected, whispering some advice to David; he seemed like he was about to brush her off a bit.

“I understand it sounds like that,” David said. He paused to rethink his words and my advice. “Kaylee, I’m not saying we’ll never go to the police or the FBI. I’m saying that doing it right now is a huge risk, and I really believe it won’t go well. If nothing else, there’s never been a court case involving mind control. Even if everyone was safely taken into custody without violence somehow, there are more than two dozen men working for these people, and all of them might have been affected. If they all went to jail for crimes they never would have committed on their own, that wouldn’t really be just. That’s part of what we’re trying to avoid. But what we’re really afraid of is them dying in a shootout.”

She still wasn’t happy, but she seemed to appreciate the fact that we were addressing her concerns somewhat. “How long?”

David blinked. “How long what?”

“How long do you think it will take to fix all of this?” she said, waving a hand vaguely. “I don’t expect a date, but if you have a plan you must have a general idea, or at least a guess.”

“We haven’t really been approaching things that way,” David said. “The answer’s going to depend on a lot, including what I can learn from Lyle – I’m hoping that whatever he knows can let us round these people up. That’s the other reason I came to help him. I would have done it anyway, of course, but if he can tell me anything useful then it might let us wrap this all up faster.”

“I’ll tell you everything I can,” Lyle promised. “Most of it probably won’t help much. What I did was largely a matter treating minor injuries. I saw a lot of broken bones and the like. There were one or two gunshot wounds, some burns, and a few things like that, but I didn’t do anything too strange, really.”

“That’s all right, doc,” David said. “I’m not expecting you to hand me the answer on a silver platter. But if you can help us, we’d appreciate it, and it will help both of you get back to your lives sooner.”

Kaylee sighed. “I’m not entirely convinced, but if you’re both committed to this…are you really certain that contacting the FBI is such a risk?” she asked.

David shrugged. “There’s no way to know for certain, but look at it this way; if we tell them, it’s too late to take it back. Most of what the bad guys have done has been dangerous in a long-term way, as far as I know. They aren’t just slaughtering people in the streets, or anything like that. If they were, I promise you we wouldn’t be so patient about all this.”

“I’ll give you a chance, I suppose,” Kaylee said. “But I don’t intend to wait forever. I have a job and a life to get back to, and if everything you say about these people being controlled is true, then waiting too long might hurt them too.”

“It’s possible,” David said. “All I can promise is that we’re doing our best.” David was tempted to mention that we were friends of the Philly Five in an effort to solidify her trust, but I dissuaded him. Kaylee Jameson didn’t seem the type to hero-worship, not even those who had arguably earned it much more than us.

With that done, for now, David picked up a pad and pen we’d purchased while out, and we began to interview the doctor.

I tried not to imagine Kaylee calling the police as soon as she was alone, for the moment.

We took our time talking to Lyle, dutifully noting down everything he could remember, but I could tell that we learned less than David had hoped. Still, I was optimistic that it might amount to something when we got a chance to compare notes with Mary.

After that, we ended up hanging around for most of the day, talking to Kaylee and Lyle more and trying to make certain that they were willing and able to lay low. We got Lyle’s phone number. Kaylee called in to work and managed to get time off to take care of her brother, ostensibly because he was sick, which was lucky; if that hadn’t worked, I suspected she might have called the FBI regardless of what Lyle or David said. When we were sure she was willing to play along, we left the two of them, heading to the train station and riding it back. Lyle was kind enough to pay for our ticket, and we’d traded phone numbers, so now they could call us on the phone we’d gotten from Mary.

By the time we were on the train, it was getting dark, although the sun wasn’t down all the way yet. The ride back was short. David and I didn’t talk, for a change, instead staring out the window as trees and roads went by.

Raquel and Feral met us at the station and asked us about what had happened the previous night; telling the story ate up the better part of an hour, with David and I alternating as we explained. When it was over, Raquel looked impressed.

“Wow,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “It sounds like you guys were pretty sneaky.”

David shook his head. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “We got lucky more than once, too. I’m still not sure why they hadn’t grabbed Lyle before we even got there.”

I assume they wanted to catch Kaylee as well, not knowing how much he might have told her,” I said. “It seems to make the most sense. In any case, I agree that luck played a part, but we did do well, I think, given that last night was our first conflict alone. Humility may be a virtue, but we have good reason to be proud.

Yes,” Feral said, and Raquel nodded her agreement.

“Yeah,” David acknowledged, rolling his shoulders. “I guess we do. I do feel pretty good about it, overall, even if there are things I’d do differently.”

“So what now?” Raquel asked.

“Well, I have notes of everything Lyle told us, and I can always call him if we have follow-up questions or anything,” David said. “I figure we meet with Mary and see if we can figure out where the boss is, or at least Michaels. Talk strategy. Start nailing things down. Oh, I realized – those apartments Tuggey stopped at? I think those must be places where their men stay when they’re not on the clock. The ones who were out last night, or guarding the house where they held Dustin, I mean.”

“That makes sense,” Raquel said, nodding. “That’s probably it.”

David scratched his head. “I think I’m done for tonight, though, if you don’t mind? I got woken up in the middle of the night, and I’m still feeling kind of off, plus I had another one of those damn visions. I’m feeling pretty burned out. I just want to get home and sleep in my own bed, honestly.”

“Sure,” Raquel said. “I’ll let you go. Do you want to tell us about the visions?”

David hesitated for a second.

We probably should,” I said. “I hadn’t considered it before, but if these are some kind of warning of the future, we should make certain we aren’t the only ones who know, just in case something happens to us. I don’t mean telling everyone, but we can trust Raquel and Feral, at least.

Fine,” David said. “I guess you’re right. But you tell it, okay? I’m seriously exhausted.

I could feel the fatigue as well, but presumably it was worse for him. David and Raquel found benches and sat down. At least it wasn’t cold inside the train station.

By the time I finished going through the visions – all of them – in as much detail as I could, it was fully dark out, and artificial lights provided the only illumination. The sky was obscured, with low clouds hiding the stars as I finished the tale, and I wondered if it was going to rain. David had almost dozed off, leaning back against the wall, and I felt the lure of sleep pulling at me as well. I roused David and we said our goodbyes for the night.

As we walked outside, I heard Feral talking to me privately.

What is it like to sleep?” she asked wistfully.

Restful,” I said. “It’s one of those experiences beyond description, I think. As long as we aren’t interrupted by visions, it’s very pleasant. I was a bit frightened the first time, though. I didn’t realize what had happened until I woke up, and it was so unexpected I was afraid we’d been caught by Blitz or something. I still don’t know why it’s started, although I have been noticing some other changes. Physical sensations are a bit more immediate when David is in control, and it didn’t used to be like that. They were more removed, before, almost like the difference between reading a weather report and walking through the rain.

I envy you deeply,” Feral said. “Raquel has been afraid to let me out ever since what happened with Dustin. I’m trying to be patient, but those little tastes of life are…vibrant. I’ve no gift for waiting.

I’m sure time will restore her trust in you,” I said. “The experience was traumatic for her, that much is obvious. I remember how she reacted. Are you coping with it better, now that some time has passed?

I paused to give David a nudge; he’d nearly wandered into traffic in his fatigue, failing to notice when a light changed. A little prodding woke him up enough to be more aware of his surroundings.

I’m more concerned for her than myself,” Feral replied. “If I felt responsible, it might be another matter, but I know I wasn’t. I don’t think I can articulate how it felt – the rage from that night, I mean. I’ve never experienced anything like it, at least not that I can recall. It was incredible, like being swept downriver or caught in hurricane winds. I don’t want to sound callous. I regret the deaths and injuries, of course. But there’s a difference between regretting something and taking responsibility for it. Michaels killed those men when he tried to manipulate us, and as far as I’m concerned they’re another tragedy resulting from the abuse of his powers, something else he needs to be held accountable for.

It felt like her voice was growing a bit fainter, presumably because we were moving farther apart as Raquel and David walked home. I briefly envisioned a map of the city in my mind, placing the train station, and guessed that we wouldn’t move out of range yet. We were headed in roughly the same direction.

I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “Undeserved guilt serves no purpose except to hurt people, as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t believe you’re a murderer any more than David, Raquel, or myself. But if it does bother you, I hope you’ll tell me.

David walked down the street and I felt the air growing moist, but it still didn’t start to rain; I was certain it would soon, though.

There is something else,” Feral said. “Not about the fight. It’s…about Raquel and myself.

What is it?” I asked.

You can’t tell anyone, Leon,” Feral said.

I won’t,” I promised.

Not even David,” she said.

I can keep a secret, Feral,” I said.

She hesitated. “I don’t…I’ve been feeling trapped, lately. Sharing this body was fine at first, because it was just the only way I existed, but I don’t know if I can live like this forever. It’s not just because of the…trust issues we’ve been having recently. You know I could take over if I wanted to, though we’ve never discussed it much.

Yes, I know,” I said.

Raquel’s recent reluctance to let me out that way is making it worse, but it’s not the problem,” Feral said. “I want my own life. I want my own body, my own existence. My own choices. The longer this lasts, the more I feel the need to exist separately. I’ve caught myself fantasizing about it at night. About just taking over and leaving, going to Europe or Asia, seeing the world. Doing something, anything, that’s just for myself. I don’t think I can be this…parasite forever. Certainly not for Raquel’s whole life. When we finish dealing with Michaels, Mary, their boss…all of this…will you help me find some way to separate from Raquel and survive? She needs me for now, and I can’t walk away from this situation, but I would rather die than live this way until she does. It’s torture, having all of those possibilities within reach but knowing that I can’t take them because the one avenue open to me is betrayal.

Of course I’ll try to help you,” I promised. “Bloodhound and his friend would probably be willing to help, you know. They may have been a bit heavy-handed, when we met her, but given what happened I think that is one problem we could trust them with. If you’re not comfortable with that, though, David would certainly help you, and so will I.

Thank you,” Feral said, “but don’t tell him about it for now. It’s just an unnecessary distraction, until the current problem is resolved. It’s good to say something, though. Being alone with the thoughts was…particularly difficult.

I’m always happy to listen,” I replied.

She said nothing.

Feral?

If there’s no way out, no way to exist on my own…will you help me die?” she asked.

That stopped me short. I had heard what she said only moments earlier, of course, but there was a great distance between saying she couldn’t live connected to Raquel her whole life and saying she wanted to die.

I didn’t feel so trapped. For whatever reason, perhaps my own nature, perhaps the nature of my connection to David, perhaps because his life was more interesting to me than Raquel’s was to Feral, I suddenly knew that our experiences differed far more than I’d ever realized before.

I hope I can talk you out of that,” I said. “But if you decide that it’s what you want, if there’s no other way to free you…yes.

Thank you,” Feral said.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 4

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

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

“Of me?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thought for a moment, hesitating.

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

I laughed. “Leon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine by me,” I said.

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

“So, are you aggressive?” Stalker asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She chuckled before proving me right.

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

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

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

I nodded. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got your number,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Definitely,” Stalker said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me too,” I agreed.

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

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

“I can’t,” Raquel said. “Here, look.”

She cupped a palm and a small light appeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe in a minute,” Raquel said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait,” Leon said. I repeated it aloud.

“What is it?” Bloodhound asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raquel and I walked briskly toward home together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon, how about it?” I asked.

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

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

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