Tag Archives: Stalker

You Can Choose Your Friends 3

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                                                                             Next Chapter
 
 
 
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.
 
 
 
Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                                                                             Next Chapter

Slow and Steady 4

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                                                                             Next Chapter
 
 
 
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.
 
 
 
Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                                                                             Next Chapter

Slow and Steady 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uplink and Newton walked over to Menagerie and me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You two came to help?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” Meteor asked brusquely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Accomplice? We’re the good guys.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meteor suddenly turned to look at all of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Bloodhound said without hesitation.

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

“Yes,” Comet said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you killed?” Menagerie blurted out.

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

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

There was another tense silence.

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

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

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

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

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

Are you okay with this?” Menagerie asked me.

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

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

“No, I haven’t,” Comet said.

“Me neither,” Tin Man said.

Stalker and Newton shook their heads.

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

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

I turned to Stalker. “What about you?”

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

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

I looked at Menagerie.

Is that good enough for you?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Bloodhound said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, okay,” Tin Man said.

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

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

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

“Jazz would be nice,” Menagerie said.

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

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

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

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

I settled in to listen.
 
 
 
Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                                                                             Next Chapter

If At First You Don’t Succeed 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn telepathy. Paranoia fuel for all time.

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

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

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

“Anything?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“Want to talk?” Comet said.

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t have an answer to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s up?” I asked.

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

“What kind of side effects?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller and Turner looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all stood there for a few seconds.

“Ready?” Stalker asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not perfect,” she said. “But I think we did good enough for him to go home.”
 
 
 
Previous Chapter                                                                                                                                                                                             Next Chapter