Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chapter 15: Towards a Red Planet

I've always wanted something that shoots forward when I'm driving, but common sense and classic tabletop gaming suggests that mine droppers would be a lot more effective.

Chapter 15: Towards a Red Planet

“Bring me congee, woman!” Mr. Wong pounded the table for emphasis. The bacon on the platter in the centre shimmered in the cheery light of the kitchen. The household was up early on a weekend, again. John didn’t mind, personally, although he would rather be in his room playing Gears of War –or something, anything. He especially didn’t want to be around people right now. Yet, somehow, he was. Jason was nodding off to his right.
Mrs. Wong waved her ladle at her husband. “This upside the head is what I’ll bring you, cave man.”
“Woman must serve mighty hunter who brings home the bacon. And also porridge, because he’s on a diet.”
Amy was disappointed. “You’re going in to work today, Dad? What about the ring fitting?”
Mr. Wong’s voice lost its mock belligerence, turning soft and kind. “I have to, Kitten. I’m going to be home all day with the plumber tomorrow.”
“Ooh! Can you drive us to school, then?” Amy asked.
Jason stirred himself enough to be snarky. “Earth to Amy. Stay home all day means…” He cut off at a look from his father.
“The plumber said he’d be here about noon Monday. In plumber talk, that means between twelve and the 31st Century. So, yes, he can drive you to school,” Mrs. Wong said, bending over to set a bowl of steaming congee at her husband’s place, followed by a glass of disgusting Tropicana Light.
Amy stuck out her tongue at her brother, who kicked at her beneath the table, hitting John instead, who lashed out and managed to spill his orange juice on Rafaella’s plate. “It’s always the innocent who suffer,” the pirate princess said, as Mrs. Wong scooped her plate up from the spreading mess and dropped a cloth on it from out of nowhere. John took the cloth, extra careful not to knock anything more over, letting his shoulders slump at the unfairness of it. Why did all of this stuff happen to him?
The ring fitting was at the mall at opening, before they picked up the babies at Mrs. Crudup’s. That still meant that this wet day opened up into hours after brealfast. John escaped to his room as quickly as he could, where he could play and concentrate on not thinking about what was going to happen in six days. Because every time he thought about it, he came back to the one, basic point. It was all his fault.
There was a knock on his door. “Can I come in?” It was Rafaella. He ignored her. Hopefully she’d think that he had his headphones on. “I need to get away from Amy for a moment.”
John opened the door. Rafe was dressed in her jeans and denim over a black tee. There were four buttons on her jacket now. The latest read, “If God Meant Us to Sail, It Wouldn’t Have Given Us Diesel.” She slipped through the door and closed it behind her.
“Thanks. Thought I’d come over and join a different blamestorm.”
John looked at her, the crazy optimistic part of his brain putting a ridiculous interpretation on her words that he pushed down as hard as he could. Amy didn’t care about him. Not that it mattered. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, come on, John. You were limp as noodles at breakfast. Want to tell me what put the ‘woe’ in ‘me’?”
“Why would you care?” John said, a little bitterly. Rafe was cool. She never had his kind of problems.
“Because I have… you know, never mind. You’re a guy. For guys, we figure out their problems. Then we fix’em, easy as pie. And then it’ll all be sunshine and light around here, and I can get back to just hanging with sad-assed mopers at my meetings.”
“Fix them how?” Despite himself, John wanted to hear. Was Rafaella going to tell him about what to do about Amy? For some reason, even though he totally didn’t care about Amy, he wanted to hear that. Well, if he couldn’t play computer games, anyway.
“Figure out why they’re moping, find out what they’re willing to do about it, give them a shove in the right direction.” She said it with such kindness that John couldn’t help spilling. It took an awful long time to explain, far longer than it had in his head. She listened without questioning, except for a few minor points. Finally, when he was done, she said, “This completely blew by me. Me, of all people. Missing some cute blonde Pinkie making eyes at somebody. One question: why is this a problem?”
John looked at her. Why couldn’t she figure it out? No, not figure it out. Make the obvious mistake. “Because…because I just don’t want her walking in here next Saturday and …messing up the place.”
“Ah. You don’t want her knocking over any juice glasses or dropping the milk. It is a pain, when that happens.”
“That’s not funny.” John glared at Rafe for a long second. If she wasn’t going to be serious…
After a moment, she continued. “Has it occurred to you that she might be using you?”
The thought stabbed him. “Using me?”
“Sure. Say, Sabine thinks that some girl has a crush on you and she’s a bitch. This will get back to that girl, who’ll be crushed. Liam’s crowd would probably think that was pretty hilarious.”
“But… but, she can help me find my family. She already has.”
“So? Maybe there’s something she wants there, too. A credit card, for example.” The pirate girl shrugged, as though to say, there were worse things. “The key here is to find out what it is, and give it to her. Because, you know, it’s not about breaking some girl’s heart. It’s about spilling the orange juice.”
Now John was frightened. This wasn’t going in the direction he wanted. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“So here’s what you do, then, John. You give up. You’ve got a family. Your new family. That’s what they tell adopted kids. It’s good advice for amnesiac super-clones, too. And that’s from a foster child who is carrying the baggage. Later’s time enough for baggage.”
John shook his head. He couldn’t do that, but he also couldn’t talk for the powerful emotions suddenly rising. Rafe thought he had a new family?
“Second option: you go to Sabine, and you find out what she wants. If it’s to find out more about your family, you give her that, and then never see her again. If you want Sabine, you go get her.” John shook his head again. He didn’t want Sabine. Did he? “And if it’s to break some girl’s heart, and that matters to you, you figure out who that girl is, and how to make her happy, and you do that thing.”
Now Rafe was just being silly, like Cory and Jason. “I… I think I need to start my homework now.”
Rafe rolled her eyes again. “Fine, whatever. You know, I have to put up with a lot from my captains, but if the girl’s heart gets broken, I’m going to kick your ass, John.”
Which was how John ended up doing homework on a rainy Sunday morning, instead of playing computer games. Well, mostly homework instead of computer games.  Which was at least more fun than the ring fitting, which was torture quickly done. Amy coughing and sneezing, never taking her new winter jacket off, in spite of her mother’s coaxing, and John felt this crazy desire to put his arms over her shoulders.  But if he did, that would mean . . . .  Well, what would it mean? John was starting to feel like a complete loser. Fortunately, the kids were more than distracting that afternoon. Playing Candyland with the kids was almost funny, with Amy supplying straight-faced commentary on Megan’s rules changes that had John cracking up.
May and Jamie showed up just after nine, slouching in the door in dramatic long dusters, grey-green for May, a tartan for Jamie, open, with her pistol butts sticking out, strapped on cross-belt. The Captain greeting them with a tail-wagging dance, getting in the way as Rebecca tried to follow them in, wearing a shiny, heavy, brown leather bomber jacket and driving gloves with crocheted backs. Behind them, Tony, Tara, and Megan’s dad held up on the doorstep as Megan tried to push through at knee level into the cold, snowy outdoors. May put her bags on the floor swung a long kit bag off her shoulder and handed to her mother, and kicked off her boots so that she could move inside, shoulder to shoulder with Jamie and Rebecca as they did the same. An arrow’s tail came out of the folds at the end of the bag as Mrs. Wong expertly wound up the strap in one hand. “Thanks, Mom.”
“How was the trip?” Mr. Wong said, his face impassive.
Mat replied, trying to sound nonchalant. “Just like Book said. We had four days in Babylon for two days here. Awesome.” The girls moved out of the entrance so that Tara and Tony could get in. Behind them, Megan’s dad was lifting her in the air.
Amy appeared out of nowhere, holding Damien in her arms. Tara took her baby, her tired face breaking into a wide smile. “Just long enough to get some sleep and miss this little monster.” She handed Damien to her husband.
Mr. Wong held out his phone. “And the truck parked out front?”
May tossed her head, as though she’d forgotten that she didn’t have long hair any more. “It’s a rental, Daddy. The SUV broke down on the drive in. The Wain towed it into The City. Booker’s going to drive it back to Philadelphia next weekend, Babylon time.” Jamie couldn’t hide her smile.
“And how did it break down, May-May?” 
May chewed her lip. It was Jamie who spoke. “The gate’s in a free zone right now.  We ran into. They know better than to mess with the Fairlane or the Wain, but we fell back to get out of the worst of the dust. They must have figured an SUV was more their speed.”
“Their mistake.” Jamie said, trying to be nonchalant, and not quite making it.
Now Mrs. Wong frowned. “I told you to take the earrings.”
May said, irritated. “They’re where they need to be. It wasn’t like that.”
“And you know this how, May-May? Prisoners?”
May shrugged. “We tried to collect one, all SOP. Tony and Tara chasing, Becky, Jamie and me holding the bag. But they were just too awesome at the Run Away Dance. Jamie and Emily should stay here tonight, by the way.”
Mrs. Wong smiled. “You know you girls are always welcome.” She gestured towards the kitchen. “Now, come. I’ve made chai. And milk tea, if anyone wants it. Jason? John? Could you please carry the girls’ bags up to May’s room?”
Rebecca said, “It’s time for Megan to be home in bed, and I’m driving them home. I’ll come around tomorrow after school, if that’s okay, ma’am.”
“Of course it is, Becky. Tony? Tara?” Damien started crying. “I’m thinking that’s my answer.”
“It’s worse than that, Mindy.” Tara said, her voice slowing down like someone who was much too tired to be around people. “Victory’s called a national security reservation. We’re going to Washington with her tomorrow morning for a presentation at NASA, then Mars. And then back to Washington for another presentation at 4:00.”
Mrs. Wong shook her head. “This boss of yours sounds a little crazy.”
Tony spoke instead. “Intense. Not crazy, intense. Okay, a little crazy. Anyway, it’s just tomorrow. Hopefully our meetings will save America and we’ll be back at our civvie jobs Tuesday. And we will be back in time to pick up Damien at daycare.”
Mrs. Wong laid her hand on Tara’s arm. “You call us if there’s a hitch, though.”
“Thank you, Mindy, but we’ve asked enough of you this weekend.” Tara and Mrs. Wong hugged, and the McNeelys let themselves out the door.
Jason poked his head over the railings from the top of the stair. “It must be so awesome to drive the Wain on vacation.”
“Yeah, supercars deal with eighty miles of interdimensional dirt road way better than real cars,” May answered.”
“They do?” Jason even sounded wide-eyed.
“No. No, they do not,” May said. “I was being sarcastic.
“But they make it a great deal safer,” Mr. Wong said. “You need a stronger escort for your next trip.”
“Daddy. We had the Goddamn Hobgoblin with us. Short of hiring the entire Justice Squadron, how much better escorted could we be?”
“May-May, I’ve told you before how much that Miller crap irritates people like Tony and the Black Mask. And, yes, you can be better escorted. For example, you could learn to live with a little dust. Or drive ahead of the Fairlane, next time.” From the top of the bannister, Mr. Wong sounded thoughtful rather than angry as he said it. Then he looked up at John and Jason, still hanging over the railing, at which point he did look a little angry. “Get shaking, boys!”    
The next day at school, Sabine was a no show. John wasn’t that surprised. He’d never been sure when she’d show up before. In the end, he went to Liam at lunch.
Liam looked angry. He’d been cut from the football team over fighting, and most of his posse was suspended, also over fighting. He looked like he was ready to fight right now, and John was wary. He didn’t feel threatened, because, frankly, the way he felt now, he had no problem using his telekinesis to beat Liam up. He just didn’t want to if it weren’t necessary. “Liam.”
“Hey. If it’s not Bananaramaroy. Whatcha doing away from your pack?” John bunched his fists, then carefully unclenched them. Think about what Cory would do, John thought, but Liam had noticed. “You want to take a swing at me, Klutz Boy?”
Okay. Cory would use that, like he made such a big deal of Rashindar being so powerful. “No. You’re bigger and tougher than I am.”
“You’d be surprised. Maybe soon you will be.” Liam grinned. It wasn’t a friendly grin.
“Remind me to call in sick for school that day, man.” John did his best to grin, but like Cory, not Liam.
“You want something.” Liam said, sounding pleased.
“Yeah. I need to talk to Sabine.”
“About time you got some White friends outside your stupid programme.”
John did his best to control his expression. “Just what I was thinking.”
“Okay. She’s skipping today, but I’ll let her know. Shake the Ching-Chang-Chongs, and she’ll be in touch.”
Last class of the day was Technical Studies. Instead of  lab coats, Mr. Brown had them put on coveralls over their tights, because apparently the detergents to clean them cost nearly seventy bucks a wash. Which didn’t seem like that much money for grown-ups, but loading and unloading the quick change rings was such a pain that he didn’t argue. Then he led them back out into the corridor, to one of the restricted hatches. He entered his passcode. John noticed that Jason and Rafe were trying to peak, but didn’t think that either got a look.
They entered. John’s burning curiosity was not resolved. It was just another corridor, this one leading to another stairway with a tight spiral of metal rungs. Jason started sliding down the shiny metal bannister, then somehow lost his orientation and fell a full storey –hardly enough to actually hurt a guy who could get clipped by a semi and end up with a broken ankle, but he still glared up at his sister, who stuck her tongue out at her brother over the railing. John, for just a second, actually felt happy.
At the bottom of the stairs, besides an indignant Jason, was a garage, completely normal except for the intense déjà vu that John experienced on walking in. Mrs. Crudup’s Fairlane was in the middle on one of those lifts that you saw in old movies. Mr. Brown began his lecture: “Some issues of vehicle safety have recently come up for some seniors in our community. I’m sure that we’re all grateful to Mrs. Crudup and Ms. Hirsch for letting us use this car as an instructional machine. It’s even fireproof, fortunately, since Mr. Guzman and Mr. Tatum are running out of allowance.”
“Cool. We get to drive the Fairlane!” Jason said.
“No, Mr. Wong, you do not. The state says that Driver’s Ed is next year, and that is when you will do it.” Mr. Brown reached up into the old Cadillac on the driver’s side, and pressed something. Turrets instantly broke out of the top of the car and the trunk, ominous looking barrels thrusting out. “Right now all this vehicle has is a sonic stunner and a drop-plate thrower. We’re going to install some more serious equipment.” He paused, then continued. “But first, we’ll go over powertrain and electrics and do some simulations. Because it’s so much safer having fifteen year-olds as gunners than as drivers.” Mr. Brown used his “Oh, that’s some mighty good eye-rolling” voice as he said it.
The Fairlane, it turned out, was a rolling dreadnought, heavily armoured, with a full suite of sensors, all running off the engine, because apparently the Cadillac 331 V8 worked in more dimensions than a pulson generator or a Mr. Fusion. (which, John was a amazed to learn, was a Real Thing some places.) The Neilsen’s SUV was presumably not so much the rolling battleship, but even so, you had to wonder about those free zone bandits. John paid attention. He desperately wanted to see Babylon, and apparently it took some preparation.
After school, John begged off a ride, telling Jamie that he wanted to walk home. It was only about twenty minutes, and he was halfway there down the quiet off-main streets and back ways, still lined with dirty snow. He was thinking, very hard, about how you would define the cross and dot products so that Pokemon could defined by attributes as vectors in a real space, which meant that he didn’t have to think about much of anything else except how beautiful and even quiet this part of Philadelphia was in the late afternoon. Occasionally, he would smell smoke from fires burning in houses, and imagine what it must be like in those comfy houses this late afternoon.
He had almost lost track of where he was when a motorcycle pulled up beside him.  The battering roar of the vee-twin engine hammered his ears, and the smell of gas exhaust and hot oil were so overwhelming, that even though he must have just passed a particularly smoky chimney, he couldn’t smell anything. Sabine killed the engine, took her helmet off and shook her hair out. “I heard you were looking for me, John. Want a lift to your place?” She smirked. Could Rafe be right?
“Nah.” John said evenly. “I’ve been thinking about what you said. About my ‘rents being probably Mars astronauts or some such.”
“Yeah,” Sabine nodded.
“I know some Mars astronauts.”
“Of course you do, Richie Rich.”
“No. Really. And I called them this morning.”
Sabine narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t breath a word of this, did  you?”
“No. They just moved, and their stuff hasn’t caught up with them. I asked them if I could check out their Martian stuff at their last place.”
“Like, what? They left a Mars Rover at their old apartment  or whatever?”
“Nah. Replica Martian stuff. Like they’re selling at Neiman Marcus, but a little more for reals.”
“Ooh. A Martian table. That’s totally worth my time.”
John tried not to show impatience. For a bad girl, Sabine sure didn’t think these things through. “It’s their old apartment. They just moved. There’s gotta be paper left around. EFT slips, whatever.”
“And these would tell you?”
“I don’t know. You’re the one who’s got friends who do this stuff. But for starters, I bet I can figure out whether it’s astronauts or the Mars Mission that’s paying my bills. And I want to know that.”
Sabine pushed her spare helmet at John. “Okay, then. Hop on and I’ll take you there. Where’s there?”
“The McNeely estate,” John said, the Richie Rich crack coming back to him. This was almost embarrassing. He wasn’t rich. He just had rich friends!
Sabine whistled. “Of course it is. Why call me then? You could walk there!”
Because somehow John had got himself to a place where the only way he could get Sabine out of  his life was to give her what she wanted. And he was really hoping that that would be a fake credit card, which, given that it would be the Hobgoblin’s card, would serve her right.
And yet, how had he got himself into this? Why was he doing this? And why was it that at this very moment, what he wanted most in all the world was to be home with a mug of hot chai?


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