Monday, November 21, 2011

Chapter 18: Figuring Out Schedules Can Be Hard, Just Like Pears

Paradigm Pirates. They're cute. And not in the online wiki.

Chapter 18: Figuring Out Schedules Can Be Hard, Just Like Pears

John put the controller down and flopped onto his bed. On his laptop, an Engineer died a hideous t. His library books slipped off the edge of the bed as John grabbed for them, just too late. Pages spilled out of the Nextwave trade, fortunately already broken when John took it out. Stupid gravity. Stupid patrons bending the spines back until they broke. “I wish they’d hurry up.”
Jason grabbed John’s controller in one hand and quit both accounts. “At least it’ll be all steamy in there. If you’ve got to have a shower.”
John rolled over and propped himself up on his elbow. Was his toast still finished? Yes, it was. He was hungry again. “Got.” Didn’t May and Jamie get how close it was to school? It wasn’t like they were doing anything in there but girl stuff. He could hear them talking. Had they even slept last night? Friday was Veteran’s Day, so this was the last day before the weekend. That meant that it might be the day that Booker came in from Babylon. Or he might have arrived last night. Or it might turn out to be tomorrow. As usual, Booker hadn’t looked up his schedule in advance, much less the girls’.
It’s not like they couldn’t find out. Well, they might not be able to find out, but they could at least try. They could call Witchcraft at Champions headquarters or Dr. White at UNTIL. (Because apparently this was girl business, so they should ask female mages? John wasn’t sure that he understood.) They hadn’t, and he didn’t understand that, either. Amy had tried to explain. Jamie was digging in her heels, convinced all over again that Book was using schedule mixups to avoid her. May kept telling her that that was crazy, but Rebecca wasn’t backing her up. Jamie listened to both, but obviously Book’s sister had more weight. Was May just being a helpless romantic? Amy thought that Rebecca afraid to choose between her friend and her brother. When Amy called San Franscisco about it, Henry said that Book was probably too flustered by Jamie’s attention  to sort out schedules across two dimensions with different temporal rates, and Nita said that even though Henry was projecting his own  experience, he probably wasn’t wrong.
Of course, the tricky part, Amy went on, was that Henry might be talking to Book about it. That seemed a little crazy to John, though. It wasn’t the kind of thing that he liked talking about, and he didn’t think that Henry or Book were very different about that sort of stuff. If it ever came out, it would be about five minutes before Book nerved himself up to ask Jamie out. “Say, Henry. Do you think Jamie actually likes me?” And Henry would just roll his eyes. If you could do interdimensional Facetime calls, that is. He should tell Amy that. He really should.
Jason elbowed him in the back. “Earth to John, Earth to John… Are we still playing, or are you just going to zone ‘till school?”
John rolled over. “I was just thinking. Why did that armour seem to recognise me at first, and then turn on the alarm?”
Jason squinted back at him. “It was your original’s armour. When it realised that you were a clone, it revoked your authorisation.”
“How would that even work? I mean, I’m sure that the first ID check was telepathic. How could I pass that and not a retinal scan, or whatever it was?”
“Eh.” Jason shrugged. “I was thinking about Babylon 5. That’s exactly how it worked with Commander Sinclair.”
John did his chin-stroking thing that he was doing now. He was that it sure made him look two-hundred percent smarter. “No… I mean, that’s how it worked at first. Sinclair is a regular human being, but he sets off the whatchamacallit because he has a Mimbari soul. But it turns out that the reason for that is that he ends up getting turned into a Mimbari and travelling back in time to become the big Mimbari prophet-dude, the one with the Roman-sounding name.”
“Valens,” Jason supplied. “And that could be you, for all you know.”
“Like crap it is. I don’t want to be a ‘chosen one.’ Not if my friends aren’t included.” And then John thought that through another step. “Wait. Since when was time travel part of my origin? Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Jason kicked out his legs and twisted in the air, coming down on his stomach facing John. “Dude. Of course there is. There’s, like, a list of ‘Five Things You Can’t Tell John.’ It’s like Mom’s ‘May Cant Haz’ List.”
“That’s uncool, man. You keeping secrets from me is totally different matter from May not being allowed to date boys with tats.”
“No, they’re both kind of jokes, and kind of related in a way so that they’re not jokes. I would ignore the list. Amy would totally ignore it. Except that we saw May when she got back from Washington last summer. You and that thing that happened to her are related. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. But I don’t want my sister….And besides, it’s not like you don’t have secrets.”
“Like what?” John asked. He tried to make it sound belligerent. The truth was that he was both frightened and strangely interested by the thought of what Jason might say, and Jason didn’t disappoint him.
“Well, for starters, you have the world’s biggest crush on Amy.”
For a long second, John could almost bring himself to talk about that, but then Amy would hear about it. “I do not!” He said at last, but he knew, or even hoped, that the silence told. “What else?”
“You still haven’t told me what you were doing sneaking around down in Goblin Deep.”
“Yes, I have! I was looking for Mars-related stuff because I…”
“Yeah, I get it. There’s a Martian connection with your real family. There’s just a few holes in the story about how you got that info. I mean, I don’t care. I’m sure that it’ll all hit the fan and it’ll be exciting as heck, and probably you and Amy will all be emo and stuff about it, if I’m guessing where this is going. But, you know, things’ll work themselves out.”
“Oh yeah. Just a bunch of teenagers getting themselves worked up over nothing,” John retorted. “Not like you and Theera.”
Now it was Jason’s turn to get excited. “That’s totally different!”
At that they both picked up their controllers again. Talking about girls made both boys uncomfortable, and Team Fortress II was a great game.  Unfortunately, they didn’t get to play for very long, because the bathroom door finally cracked open. And stayed open. You could feel the gust of warm air and steam all the way to John’s room. Rolling off the bed and through his door, he yelled, “Shut the door!” And his voice cracked. Oh, you’re so manly, John thought to himself sarcastically, and his imagined voice sounded a lot like Sabine’s.
May and Jamie were standing there in big, plush dressing gowns with towels wrapped around their heads, staring at John as he finished his roll up into the corridor. That’s right, girls, check out my commando m oves, he thought. Unfortunately, the part of his brain that was usually telling him to do crazy things was switched over to sarcasm today, and suggested that maybe they weren’t impressed in a good way. John wondered if Jameel or Corey or Tyrell ever did commando rolls in front of girls. Or Booker, for that matter. He blushed as he brushed past the girls into the bathroom, wondering as he did just when he had grown as tall as May.
Unfortunately, even in that brief span of time, all of the heat had been sucked out of the bathroom. He slammed the door behind himself, putting his shoulder behind it because it was fun, forgetting for just a second that he wasn’t allowed to do that anymore. Fortunately, the handle didn’t come off in his hands this time, although it was starting to feel loose again. As for the cold, John looked down at the register. Maybe he could sit on it and read for a while? Unfortunately, he’d forgotten his book, and school was close. Besides, he knew it wouldn’t work. The problem was that evaporating water sucked heat out of his body too quickly, and he was so skinny that it came right out of his core. He got into the shower anyway. He was going to end up as cold and hungry as a medieval peasant, but at least he would smell better.
Unfortunately, there was only seven minutes of hot water left, and John couldn’t even finish shaving under the stream before he was back out and shivering. He dashed back into his room and changed, grabbed his tablet and hardware homework. (The boys had had to do a Windsor knot! It was honestly harder than his German translation assignment. Stupid Heidegger.) Then downstairs, to people yelling that the bus wouldn’t wait forever. Mrs. Wong handed him a double-sized spring roll as John ran out the door. He flung himself across the backyard and into the backseat of the weird, other-dimensional SUV loaner that Jamie was currently driving. (Actually, for a truck made in the Burgundian Union for export to the Bundesrepublik Amerika, it was pretty boringly normal.) Amy was sitting next to him, holding his favourite jacket. Oh, right, John thought. I knew there was something I forgot. “Your tee’s on backwards, John.”
“Thanks, Amy,” John said, as he handed her his salad roll so that he could pull his shirt off and turn it around. 
When he was done, she handed him his roll. John hunkered over it a bit so that it couldn’t escape and took about a third of it in one enormous bite. “I see you got a mint roll instead of scallion, John. Planning on kissing anyone, today?” John looked at Amy. Of course he wasn’t planning on kissing anyone. Amy held up her snack, a pear. “I got a pear.” Then another one. “Actually, two pears. You want?”
Now John was completely lost. Of course he didn’t want a pear. He already had a salad roll, packed with rice vermicelli and barbecued pork and peanut sauce. That was way better than a pear! Amy could be so weird sometimes.
Oh, wait. Now he got it. “Do you want the rest of my roll, Amy?” John asked. Silently, May turned around in her seat and handed Amy a normal-sized salad roll with the weirdest expression on her face. This one had a green onion.  Amy held it for a long second, and then took a bite out of it.
With all the delays, they got to school with five minutes to spare. The football coach and security guard were just breaking up a fight right out in front as they pulled up. John and Jason stuck around for a second to hear the gory details, but apparently it had been Liam’s whole posse going after the football starters after a back called Liam’s dead brother a snitch. Apparently the boys had missed quite a dustup, and Liam and the gang had hauled ass in an actual Hummer. Which meant no Liam, which had the day looking up right to start, but also no Sabine, and John was still not sure what he thought about that.  She was so pretty, and so annoying. What was it about her that bothered him so?
First class for the Grade 9s this morning was Tactical Training. They’d been briefed coming in that this was going to be a Danger Room class, in ordinary gym clothes, no less, so the boys could change in the bathroom of the Old School and then head straight down the secret companionway in the stall to the Danger Room Level. The girls, who didn’t have a secret passage in their bathroom, had to change and then cross over to the old biology lab, but since there were no classes at all in the old building at this hour except Grade 11 drama. (Jameel said that “Every class is Grade 11 drama class!”)  So that was no problem.
The requirement for regular gym clothes meant it was going to be messy. John had no idea that it was going to be cold, too, but there El Professore was at the door, greeting them with a survival blanket to drape over themselves. John was actually happy about that. Just as long as he was dry and active, he actually preferred being cold. Wrapping the blanket around himself, John stepped into the Danger Room.
And promptly got wet. Very wet, as he plunged into cold water. Instinctively, John let go of his blanket and kicked for the surface, feeling his shoes drag him down. Oh, the heck with that, he thought, after a moment, and began to levitate. After a second, John broke surface, only to find himself in different trouble, with a wind blowing so hard that he could barely hold position. Amy was spread-eagled on the surface of the water, riding waves with her blanket as a loose surfboard, presumably using her gravity-manipulating powers. Emily broke surface a moment after John, but doubled up coughing as soon as she cleared the water. Her levitation spell must have a verbal component. Rafaella and Jason were swimming, trying to keep their heads up in the waves. John picked them up with his telekinesis and lifted them into the air. A moment later, he lifted Amy, too, and pulled the group in around Emily.
Together, they could, just barely, talk. Rafaella asked, “Amy? John? Emily? Can any of you scry land?”
Of course not, this was the Danger Room, John almost said, but he understood. The point of all this incredibly advanced alien virtual reality equipment was to make the experience seem real, and the reality the Danger Room was simulating was that they’d just been plunged into a hostile environment that could kill them in minutes. Just like what had happened to them on Halloween night. This time, they really ought to try and save themselves instead of waiting for adult help like some bunch of kids. “I think I can, but I’m a little focussed on keeping the groundpounders dry right now.”
Emily replied, “Unless John’s up to teleporting us, I’d prefer to concentrate on getting us to land once we find it. I don’t like the thought of flying very far through this storm.”
Finally, Amy spoke. “I’ve been working on my clairvoyance lately. I can give it a try, I guess.”
“Awesome,” Rafaella answered. “But first, can John maybe fish the blankets out of the water? We might need them once we make shore.” John nodded, although he wasn’t actually sure that he could, especially not with the storm still blowing. As it turned out, though, he could.
As John finally snagged the last blanket, Emily reported. “I think I’ve worked out a teleport spell. Good enough for five people and twenty miles, anyway.”
“Amy?” Rafaella asked.
“I can see the walls of the Danger Room in my mind, anyway. They’re psi-shielded, just like all of the other walls down here. Out in the real world I can do three or four blocks at least. Let’s pretend we’re three blocks from land. Lots of water is.”
Rafaella shouted, at the top of her lungs, “Danger Room: we have a solution!” The wind stopped, and the surface below them changed from bottomless depths to the normal gym floor of the Danger Room, with its incongruous basketball and volleyball court markings. El Professore was standing at the other end of the Danger Room. A podium rose in front of him.
“A little slow, but you got there. Good morning, class. Today we are going to talk about one of the most dangerous tactics that can be used against you, or, for that matter, by you: translocation.” El Professore turned his page. He was a pretty old fashioned guy who liked to prepare his scripts with pen and paper.
“Translocation powers can take a number of forms, but from a tactical perspective, you need to worry about three effects in ascending order of threat. First is simple teleportation. Someone who can teleport you to another continent, out to sea, or even a hundred feet up in the air can get around high defences and neutralise you instantly. Time travel works the same way, but makes it very difficult for you to get back into the fight. All the same, a supervillain is going to be very careful in using time travel as an offensive tactic. Against an immortal, such as an elf or a robot, it can backfire very badly.”
“Excuse me, sir,” said Rafaella. “What if they send you to the future? No matter how long you live, you’re not going to go backwards.”
“That’s just plain a mistake with a big jump,” said El Professor, “For a shorter one, you can sit it out until the 31st Century and make contact with the Champions 3000. It’s a bit of a drag, but it’s been done. Heck, I did it once, with a suspended animation tank. Don’t forget to say ‘thanks’ to Defender 3000, though. He hates having to be Mr. Taxi.”
“Most dangerous of all,” El Professore continued, “Is a lateral move in time, to another dimension. There is literally no way most people can get back at all, and unless you have powerful friends, or at least frenemies looking for you,” he looked at John, who squirmed in place. He’d managed to get Rashindar’s attention, hadn’t he? El Professore continued,  “It is fight’s over, time to get your Dimension X Green Card.”
“There’s got to be something we can do!” Jason said.
“Indeed, there may well be. First, however, you have to survive. As they say on my daughter’s favourite TV show, ‘outwit, outlast, outplay.’ First you master the environment, than you use it, and then you transcend it. With the supervillains who treat this like a game, like the Paradigm Pirates, that might well be enough. Professor Paradigm is out to test reality, far more than he is out to kill you. Unfortunately, however, that’s not always the case. The Devil’s Advocates, for example, will be perfectly happy to kill you this way if they get the chance.”
“So you need to learn tactics and counters to extradimensional teleporters. Tactics other than just letting Ms. Neilsen do your homework for you.” At that, El Professore disappeared behind a wall of jungle. Oddly purplish-leaves and gigantic, foul-smelling flowers were suddenly the limits of the team’s vision, only yards away.
Without apparent warning, a gigantic branch covered with long, purple thorns came sweeping at them through the brush, carrying great masses of leaves and vines with it. Jason leaped at it to take the blow, which might work or, given the sheer size of the branch, not. It wasn’t, barely, too much for the telekinetic shield that John had lifted as soon as El Professore’s voice had lifted in the way that it did when he was about to finish a point.
“Ouch!” John said as the crushing headache that he’d swapped for being crushed, period, hit.  “Don’t worry, guys, I can hold it,” he added, as he leaned back and closed his eyes, putting his hands to them to block out a little more of the painful, reddish light.
“Quick thinking, boys,” Rafe said. “Emily? You’ve been working on extradimensional movement spells?”
“Damn straight. And some simple anti-translocation wards, too. But I guess that’s not the solution El Professore is looking for.”
“Wait. Who made Rafe boss here?” Jason asked.
John pressed his eyes a bit more before saying, “This is training, Jas. Now every person here that might have to go lead a massive rebellion against their evil uncle any minute now raise their hands.” Was that a faint rustling in the brush, John thought as he finished, a second before Jason jumped up and plunged into the bush. Almost instantly he came sweeping back through, his body wrapped around another branch, his feet dragging against the ground. A splintering sound, loud as an explosion, came from the branch, and it broke. The stump whipped on by the group, while Jason suddenly slipped forward. And he disappeared into a crevice.
Amy jumped up, shouting, “Jason!” John and the rest of the group followed her. And stopped. At the edge of what John had thought was a crevice, they saw the truth. The “ground” was actually a gigantic branch, and they were a long, long way from the ground towards which Jason was plunging very, very slowly thanks to his sister’s gravity manipulating powers. Amy reached down and plucked her brother back to the safety of their perch, while, a level below them, another of the massive branches came slicing through the brush to smash against the trunk of the tree upon which they were standing. So massive was that tree that they didn’t even feel the weight of the impact.
“Holy crap,” Emily said. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
“But to where?” John asked.
“Up! We’ve got to get clear!” Jason answered.
“Calm down,” Rafealla said. “Is that your final answer?”
“No. Wait. I…” Jason said, “Okay, in the last issue of Walking Dead, right after Rick has his latest Rick Moment, he says…”
“Rick moment?” Amy asked.
“Yeah, when Rick has to kill someone or something because it’s the only way to save somebody else,” John explained.
Amy made a face. “Are they still doing that? Blech.”
“Yeah, that issue pretty much was crap,” Jason said. “I mean, there were zombies just standing outside their compound for a day-and-a-half and they’re all, like, ‘how’re we ever going to get rid of these mindless, lurching things that won’t even dodge if we throw rocks at their heads.’ Stupid. But on point with the ending, which is where Rick says that the key is to stop thinking about the zombies as enemies, and start thinking of them as what’s around them.”
“And your point?” Rafe asked, as a branch slammed into the tree trunk above them.
“What, exactly, is going on here?” Jason asked.
Amy answered instead. “Pollination.”
“You think?” Rafe asked.
“Plants need air, sun, water. They get all of that by standing still. The one thing that takes motility is breeding.”
“What about Venus Flytraps?” Jason said.
“Shut up, Jas,” Amy suggested helpfully. “Anyway, that’s the way to bet. The thorns are stamens introducing pollen into the flowers,” she gestured at the big flowers at the end of the branch. John looked, and then broke out sneezing. Was that the power of suggestion, or sneezing. “Flowers and stamens usually tip  new growth, so we want to get down to the surface of the forest, watch out for suckers, and head for a clearing. That’s where we’ll find any civilisation worth finding in this dimension. So let’s all hop on the Demon Breed express.”
As John levitated slowly downwards after Amy, Jason, Emily, and Rafe, all falling slowly downwards in one of Amy’s gravity alteration fields, he couldn’t help asking, <Demon Breed?>
<It’s an old novel Henry lent me once. By James Schmitt or somebody. The heroine fights alien invaders in a rain forest with a gravity-control belt.>
<Any good?>
<Old science fiction dude had weird ideas about women.>
<All us guys do. You’re awfully hard people to figure out.>
<We make sense to us. It’s you guys that don’t. Which is the moral, I guess. Guys are from Dimension A. Girls are from Dimension B.>
<At least you didn’t say Mars.>
<Never mind.>
<Speaking of guys, what do you think is going on with Book, John?>
John thought about it seriously for the first time, and realised what had to be happening. <He’s overdue. Something’s happened.>
<I kinda thought so. Should we tell El Professore?>
<He’s probably figured it out. But it wouldn’t hurt.>
Then they hit the surface of the extradimensional forest, and, as they did so, the brown and duffy twilit surroundings dominated by gigantic trunks disappeared into the good old Danger Room. The next assignment, they were hunted by screaming, psionic panthers with tentacles that would have been a lot scarier if they hadn’t reminded John of the silly Displacer Beasts  in Order of the Stick.
That meant that they couldn’t talk or teep, and had to rely on hand signals. Which at least had the advantage that John had a chance to think. Almost at the end of the class, John realised that “two pear” could also mean “two pair.”   


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