Monday, October 10, 2011

Chapter 12: Dreams of Chai

In the Hero System, Extra-Dimensional Movement, Usable as an Attack, is an extremely unbalanced power. That means that there should be some fairly common defences to it. But you do get to select the special effects of those defences.
Chapter 12: Dreams of Chai

The panic room was rather more spacious. Savannah2 had recombined with her duplicates to change into her costume tights, and had not split again. It was also getting colder, John thought, as the spot of frost on the grey-green metal wall grew. He frantically hammered the screen of his phone.  Does a cold demon summoned by a sorceress who specialises in dimensional transformations send you to a frozen Hell? That’s what would happen in Planescape, but this might be another time when a roleplaying game supplement wasn’t the best guide.
Amy was fingering a touch screen on the opposite wall, with one hand. She was holding Megan now, and neither the little girl nor Savannah2 seemed interested in changing the arrangement. Jason had gone down the ladder inside the hatch a moment ago, and was now, predictably, poking his head in from above the panic room level.  “There’s Emily, Rafe, Ty and Babs. Did they get out, or did they go out?”
Jason leaned in. “Either means this stupid pocket dimension doesn’t cover the whole house.  And that looks like Dad. He’d never run away when there were kids trapped inside.”
John glanced up from what he was doing. Amy had zoomed her camera in on Mr. Wong, fighting ghouls in almost the same costume as his son, Henry. El Professore was with him, tearing a ghoul apart. Given how much Principal Guzman looked like Edward Olmos in an old episode of Battlestar Galactica, it was always a shock to see just how trim El Professore was in his costume.  Mrs. W., on the other hand, was right. Mr. W. could stand to lose some weight. Another ghoul suddenly imploded –not surprisingly given a whole group of female senior citizen superheroes behind him in elegant black outfits that he couldn’t really tell apart. And here came the Seniors. Manny Guzman was a flaming rocket, lashing the ground with fire; Billy Tatum, for once, looked like he was taking life seriously, knives in either hand. Cassie Cox, Vesper, was tackling the  flying ghouls, while  Anne Fay was slashing at some demons with her spooky Hecate-Beam. A few human allies were supporting the ghouls. John recognised Fenris, while the shaved-skull, barechested strongman just might be Bulldozer, given that he had the word tattooed down his arm. That would make it hard to maintain a secret identity, you had to figure.
“Yeah. I wish I could be sure about that,” Amy said. Her face was turned to him, but John imagined her biting her lip as she said that. She was so cute when she did that. At which point the panic room began ringing with gunfire, and the camera view showed bullets ripped through the rear ranks of the ghouls in the street outside. From the angle, it looked like someone or something was shooting from the roof above them. Jason stepped the rest of the way into the room and looked more closely at the screen. “Guessing that’s Mom running the autoturrets?”
“System says it’s her authorisation, and,” Amy tapped a crawl at the bottom of the screen her free hand. The image on it turned into another room like this one, only crowded with the kids from the party, with Mrs. Wong sitting at a console with headphones on and Mrs. Crudup-
“The other kids are getting real cake,” Megan said.
Amy bumped foreheads with Megan. “Yes. But you get to fight real monsters with us, Meg.”
“Awesome!” Megan said.
“Now can you get down for a second and button up? It’s going to get really cold in a second.”
“Can you help me find my shoes, Amy? They have Sailor Moon.”
“I know, Meg. But you left them downstairs.”  Amy looked up, a worried expression on her face. How cold would it get? This was no place for a little girl who’d lost a sock. “Jason? Can you get through to Mom?”
“Nah. It’s like Telantassar says. Information is a vector function. We can see outside because if that direction weren’t commensurable with us, the things outside the pocket dimension wouldn’t be able to get at us. But we can’t talk out, because then we’d be able to affect the outside.”
“Tell me something I didn’t know,” John said, putting his phone away.
Cory spoke for the first time. He’d changed, too. His costume even had gloves. John was beginning to feel envious. His fingers had been getting cold just working on his phone. “Let’s close up.”
“Because some demon is about to cast us into a dimension of eternal ice?” Amy huddled up as she spoke, pulling Jason in with one arm and lifting Megan again with the other. Her face was very close to John’s suddenly, and he felt himself wishing that he chewed gum more. And then, as they were watching it, the blotch of frost turned into a raging face. And for a long moment of cold and blinding white, John heard, or recalled hearing, Henry Wong and Rafaella yelling at each other about a city falling and Rebecca’s Mom, while he tried to remember things that he would never remember again.
Okay, John thought after a moment. The white and the cold aren’t going to go away. He squinted and held his freezing hand over his eyes. That helped. It turned out that it was cold and white because it was snowing, and because there was snow all around them. On the bright side, there were no demons yet. Scratch that. A wolf materialised out of the blizzard between Amy and Jason, shoving between their legs. That wasn’t very wolflike. And when he looked more closely….
Amy put her hands down into the wolf’s ruff. “It’s The Captain!”
With that The Captain whirled and bounded into the snow. A few feet away, he turned and woofed at them, loud enough to be heard over the howling wind but still surprisingly soft. That was a hint, John figured. Cory and Savannah must have felt the same, because they headed off after the dog, breaking  a path through the snow for Amy, Jason and John. The snow lay over frozen-solid ground with icy ruts, dangerously slippery and agonisingly cold on his stocking feet, but just around a high bank, they stumbled into a cave, and The Captain disappeared.
Although it was wonderful to be out of the wind, John didn’t feel saved. It was not noticeably warmer than outside. But then Cory said, “Horse apples!” He kicked something round and brown on the floor of the cave. It came loose. Cory pitched something after it. “Close your eyes, everybody.” John squeezed them shut, but still saw the flare go off through his eyelids and felt a precious moment of heat against his shivering body. A moment that went on. John opened his eyes. Cory was gingerly kicking mounds of flaming stuff together. In the firelight, John could see the green-grey colour and grassy texture of dried horse manure. Lots of it.
Jason reached to the close, curving wall of the cave and picked up something black and shiny, waving it around.  It was a crow feather. He spoke, sounding disgusted with himself. “Wolf, horse and crow. I guess we still need babysitters.”
Cory held out his hands in their black-and-white All Weather Fatigue Tights gloves. “I think there’s more to that dog than meets the eye. You guys remember to pack your “AWFs?”
Jason replied, “We don’t have fatigue tights yet!”
“Amy? Did you have any incendiary grenades to light fires with?”
Amy knelt down on the cave floor in front of the fire, holding Megan’s arms above her head like she were helping a toddler walk, so that the four-year-old wouldn’t fall into the burning manure. “I didn’t have my grenades with me.”
“See? You guys still need babysitting. Don’t worry. When you’re old enough to patrol, like Savannah and me-“
Jason interrupted. “That’s just practice patrolling!”
Cory sounded angry, raising his voice in reply. “It’s more than you kids have done!”
It was a stupid argument, and John had better things to do than be patronised by a 10th grader. His feet were still awfully cold. It was a lot harder to take now that he wasn’t moving, and he didn’t feel like pushing into the circle around the fire. It would be selfish. Worse than selfish. Megan shouldn’t be this quiet. And there was still something he could do. He could fly, and get his feet off this freezing stone. He said, “I’m going to secure the perimeter.” Cory only nodded, but Jason cocked an eye at him. Yeah, that’s right, dude. Don’t forget to send people out to look for me one by one. But Amy looked back over her shoulder and John wondered if she were worried, or eavesdropping.
The cave wasn’t deep. John was only a moment in the air before he broke out into the open. This time, regardless of the cost to his strength and endurance, John pushed his telekinetic field out. The blowing wind and snow went away, allowing him to see far enough to get an idea of the landscape. They’d been on a wide ledge-terrace-thing that spread around the cave like an apron. Above and   below it was a hillside, a frighteningly steep and icy white, and climbing away as he lifted into the sky. Well, fine, he didn’t have to climb it, and for some reason the stark slope made him comfortable as well as dizzy. Where had he seen something like this? Besides Monk’s Mountain, that was. John pushed upwards. Whatever. It had to end eventually, in a mountaintop or a plateau or something.
Only it didn’t. He climbed for thousands of feet, it seemed, and it was just one more slope, ridge, cliff and ravine after another, like the procedural geography of a cheapass computer game. And the work of maintaining his shield drained him rapidly. By the time he climbed above one more terrace, John was ready to go back. Except, he realised, he had no idea where that was. He pulled out his phone. The compass worked, but the altimeter didn’t. And neither did the Facebook icon, although why it should he did not know. So much for that idea, he thought; what about telepathy? He reached out, hard, angry at his own foolishness, and his mind filled with the taste and colour of sweet, hot, creamy spices in a mug of hot chai on a table.
>Is that what you think about when you think about me? Mom’s kitchen?
>Amy can’t come to the phone right now. Signed, Amy’s Mother.
>See, my brother isn’t the only one who can quote old TV shows.
>That’s, like, the most amazing thing ever. I promise to never think about you and your Mom together again if you just keep sending. I don’t know if I can home in without you.
>Just teasing, anyway. So. Seriously. Why chai?
>I –
He had no answer, but the flood of embarrassment answered for him, and far below and just to his right, John could see a flood of answering embarrassment spilling hot pink on the snow in his mind’s eye. Letting his shield go for extra speed, he dove into the blushing light, and in moments was flying into the cave, breaking hard so as not to hammer the far wall like an all-too-fragile torpedo.
“There’s nothing out there but—“ Now it was time to get embarrassed all over again. On the far side of the fire, the whole group of kids, except Jason, were standing, their heads down. In front, facing him, was Rashindar, his body bare against the cold and his feet sending up tufts of steam from ice and snow still clinging to their bare soles. He was holding his phone in one hand, with another poised over it. A third held Jason firmly by the ear, a fourth by the shoulder.
“What is the meaning of this?” The enraged Indian superhero asked, waving still another hand to make the image of what he was seeing on his phone appear in mid-air. Nice resolution, John thought, irrelevantly, as he looked at the picture. Maybe he should get a job at Apple.
“Oh, this? I guessed that we were about to be teleported very dangerous and very remote, so I needed something that would get the attention of a very powerful, planeshifting superhero. Sir.”
“So you posted this, this lascivious picture of my ward on your idiot friend’s Facebook page? Well, congratulations, young man. You have my attention. You may not enjoy it much, though. Not any more than my ward!”
“That isn’t a picture of your ward, sir.”
“Explain yourself!”
“I photoshopped a headshot of her over a picture on my phone and sampled her skin colour over the body. I figured it would get your attention. Sir.” John was about to go on and explain about how he’d noticed a bot with the photoidentification app that spidered Jason’s Facebook page from the Indian General Staff site every five minutes, but Cory jumped in.
“This must be how the Drifter felt that time the Rugrats…”
Rashindar interrupted. “These horrid children have played their little pranks on the Drifter?” John flushed with pleasure. He was included in the Rugrats now? He felt obscenely proud. And something more. Cory spoke some more, smoothly, his very voice seeming to smile. Somehow every word he said had a double meaning that implied a compliment to Rashindar and a criticism for the Rugrats. In a moment, as the manure on the fire popped and flared, Rashindar was actually smiling.  The puissant Indian mystic put his upper set of arms above his head, clasped the middle ones in benediction and the lower ones in a Yogic posture, and with a blink they were back in the living room of the Yurt amongst the tangled remains of the Halloween party amongst many, many adults.
After a group hug that Mrs. Wong dragged John into, the dimension-shifted children ended up in the TV room with Father Aspilin and Telantassar, with a stern warning from Rashindar that he would be down to speak with them in a moment. Father Asplin was ready for action in his shining scalemail over his vestments and another of those golf umbrellas that weren’t really golf umbrellas, but at first he seemed more concerned about Megan than priest stuff.
“It was cold. I didn’t like it. Except for The Captain. He’s a cutey-patootie!”
“So you’re not going to stray away from the group, again, Megan?” Father Asplin’s gravelly voice turned soft and gentle.
“I had too. It’s the rule of Spy Club!” Megan retorted.
“What’s the rule of Spy Club, Megan?” The old priest asked.
“We find out stuff. Like who people’s secret crushes are. I found about Jason’s! I wrote it down in my Secret Spy Notebook? Wanna see?” She held out a crumpled piece of kraft paper with what looked to be the stick figure picture of a person in purple crayon. It looked like Megan might have been repurposing some earlier work.
“Amy? Spy Club?” Father Asplin looked over at her.
“Don’t ask me, Father. It’s all over the Web. I think her Dad’s been on about it.” For just a second, the priest’s face turned somber, before he smiled again, pulling a vial out of his pocket and the crucifix off his neck.”
“Then we have one last matter before Rashindar rejoins us. I’m going to have to exorcise you.”
“An exorcism? Oh my …gosh!” Jason was excited now.
“Oh, can it, Mr. Wong,” Father Asplin sounded irritated, if anything. “This isn’t movie nonsense, I’m a professional.”
“He’s been doing it for seventy thousand years,” Telantassar said, speaking for the first time.
“I haven’t been active the whole time. Unlike you, you pointy-earred spook!”
Now it was the enigmatic teacher’s turn to smile. “He’s much better at exorcisms than he is at doing Doctor McCoy.”
“Indeed.” Father Asplin poured out his vial into his cupped left hand, then stood and sprinkled the water in it over the sitting kids as he made the sign of the cross with the crucifix in his right hand. John couldn’t help noticing that his umbrella glowed blue as he spoke his blessing. Needless to say, John wasn’t a Catholic, but he was sure that the ending wasn’t traditional. “And lastly we abjure you, demons, in the name of the Blessed Buddha Maitreya, patron of this house.”
“Are you sure that you’re supposed to bless us in the Buddha’s name, Father?”
“This is a laughing house and a loving house, John. That’s as powerful an exorcism as any as you’re like to find.”
“But, but, it’s a different religion!”
“The Holy Father urges us to invoke the Buddha to guide sinners on the path to salvation.”
“He never did!” John protested. Savannah2 and Cory rolled their eyes. Amy and Jason looked embarrassed to be singled out, however indirectly.
“Of course he did. Technically, Francis III hasn’t been pontiff yet, or even alive. But his teachings ex cathedra are binding on all Catholics who have heard them, and that’s the thing with being a time traveller. I’ve been to the 31st Century and  the Old Red Aeon. I’ve fought the evil Red Gods in the name of the Blue Gods and monsters out of space for the Church Universal. Also, young man, look up Saint Barlaam before you go being a knowitall.”
John shut up as Father Asplin put his crucifix back around his neck and picked up his umbrella, which turned into a cross-hilted longsword in his hands. It still glowed blue. “There was a slight demonic presence on you earlier, and some kind of breach  in your security wards earlier, but it’s gone now. I don’t know why, but here’s Rashindar, who will surely explain.”
The Indian supermystic looked exactly the same way as he had back in the snow as he came down the stairs. Hadn’t he heard of secret identities? “I hope I’m not interrupting any Nazarene cult,” he said, his voice carrying a tone of amused contempt. Stepping down to the pool table, Rashindar threw a tangle of silver wires and tiny little gear wheels on a faded stain on the green felt. “I found this in your sister’s work smock.” He dropped another one beside the first. “And this one in one of the inside pockets of Mr. Washington’s rain jacket. I have admonished May and Tyrone to be more vigilant at work so long as their elders are continuing this ill-advised counterespionage plot of theirs. I am also not ruling out the possibility that there was another breach, now withdrawn. Great care is required in matters such as these.”
Now he reached into a bag at his side and pulled out several phones. “Master John, I admire your quick thinking even as I despair of your prurient tastes. Master Jason, I hardly need warn you again to stay away from my ward, and seek romantic partners amongst those closer to your station in life.” John’s phone lit up. Somehow, the picture that he had ‘shopped onto Theera’s head showed as the screensaver. Nonami Takizawa’s bikini-clad body was facing directly at Amy.
Amy looked at John, shocked. For the first time, John knew that he would have broken the rules against reading someone else’s mind if he could, but the basement was full of mental static. From somewhere, John could feel a vast sense of disgust and disappointment. He tried to hold an impassive expression, but inside, he could feel himself crumbling. Only a tiny fraction of his mind remained analytical enough to notice that Rashindar was smiling a smile of grim satisfaction. Through the static, he could make out just one thought. “It’s just as well, boy. These children are no good for anyone.”  

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