Chapter 19: Plumbing Problems
When the touch came to his shoulder, John nearly jumped out of his skin. He looked behind, trying to control himself. This was only a simulation. There were no real deadly, hard-to-see black panthers chasing them. It wasn’t the real Team Dream that they had watched the panthers killed. That was just the Danger Room killing a simulated ally to make this all seem scarier. But it was scary. John was scared. How were the damn things tracking them?
Emily was crouched behind him, a survival blanket draped over her head and body. She put her finger to her lips. That’s a good suggestion, Emily, John thought to himself a little sarcastically. She held out another blanket. Oh. Infrared. The creatures were using infrared. The blankets wouldn’t stop infrared radiation, but it would direct it down into the ground. That might be enough to confuse the panthers. Someone was thinking. John wrapped the blanket over himself. Then Emily caught him by the wrist and led him down the low levee that they’d been hiding behind. Amy and Rafaella were already there, holding hands. Emily took his hand and put it on Amy and Raffe’s, then faded back down the levee.
<Order of toughness. Jason’s safest out there, so she’s getting him last>, Amy explained telepathically. <Rafe, are you getting this?>
<Roger that..> Even in his head, and thinking gibberish, Rafe still sounded like Rafe to John. <What? Aren’t we supposed to be talking in code-talk? Look at me, I’m a pro!.>
<Shyeah, whatever. John, can you hear Rafe?>
<Yes. Do we have a plan?> John looked at Rafe.
<Amy’s gathering her strength right now. As soon as Jason gets here, we’re going to wrap ourselves in the blankets and break out into the open under Amy’s cloak. Hopefully, she can actually do that. We’ll head upwind until we’re above the panthers, than take them by surprise. Hopefully, if we take out a few, the rest will run. Then we’ll head for a big dark-to-infrared area in the lower valley. That, hopefully, will turn out to be a settlement. Of someone other than weird, people-eating panthers.>
That was how, a few minutes later, the team found itself out in the open under the weirdly yellow-black sky, walking into a wind that smelled of Mountain Dew, draped in shiny blankets like ghost costumes on the world’s worst-dressed Trick-or-Treaters, panthers coursing around them, trying to catch a scent or a glimpse. It was working!
Unfortunately, they didn’t get to find out whether the Danger Room AI thought that they could take the panthers with the advantage of surprise, because the simulation faded out. Once again they were looking down at the gym floor, and across at El Professore, now talking with Mr. McNeely. El Professore’s phone was on the desk, and the adults were whispering about something. John strained, and heard, either with his ears or his mind, Booker’s name.
John felt cold. The grownups were worried. El Professore looked up. “I’m letting you out of class a little early today so that you can start your next one early. Something’s come up, and we may need the Fairlane ready. So you guys get changed and then get down to the garage and finish up your projects.”
The class didn’t need another invitation. It was an emergency! A crisis, even, and a perfect opportunity to rush and hurry and feel the heat of urgency. Jason pushed by his sister. “Perfect! Now you won’t have to worry about your new P.E. strip getting ripped.” He said the last in his best attempt at a girlish voice, and then started for the door at speed, only for his feet to somehow tangle up in themselves.
As Jason slid into the doorjamb, John took another look at Amy. Her outfit did look new. She had black shorts and a purple shirt with a with a line of equations on it and the motto ‘[Ninja, Pirate]= NinjaxPirate –PiratexNinja= iħ.’ You’re going to break your brother one of these days, and then you’ll be sorry.”
“Promise?” She asked, flashing John a smile that left him feeling like he’d stepped in a different and better dimension for a moment. Maybe Amy really did like him. Then she turned to Rafe. “What was that ‘Roger’ thing about?”
Rafe answered as they filed out into the hall and began climbing the steps towards the change room. It was a little odd that they had to use changerooms in the open floors of the Old Schoolhouse, it occurred to John. “ Normally when we drive to Babylon, we convoy with Piper & Norton trucks. They talk like that on the com links.”
“ So when you think about Booker…”, Amy continued.
“Of course, they also talk about where they’re stopping for lunch and who is in trouble with their wives,” added Emily. “They’re pretty cool guys, at least, on the radio. I’ve never met any in person.”
Rafaella interrupted. “At least with the Piper & Norton trucks involved, we know that Book went missing in Babylon or Philadelphia and we don’t have to go looking in the free. If he’s missing.”
“Something stinks here,” Amy said. “We’ve all been waiting for something to drop. The Demonologist. Your uncle. My uncle. That’s a lot of scenarios. Maybe even an inside job.”
Jason caught up with them from behind. “What? We’ve got a fink inside the wire? I thought it was just nerds. Sis.”
Amy looked over her shoulder. “You play Warhammer, and I’m the nerd?”
John interrupted. “Before we get back to The Sibling Rivalry Movie, isn’t that what the plumbers have been doing? Plugging leaks? All kinds?”
Emily said, “If anyone asks, John, we didn’t tell you anything.”
“You didn’t tell me anything, Emily,” John responded. “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”
“Thought you were a Star Trek man, John,” Amy answered, as she began to climb the ladder leading into the girl’s change room.
“I am,” John said to her ascending rear. “Spock’s the man, and Kirk’s got his back.”
It seemed like only a second that he stood there looking up before Jason prodded him on the shoulder. “Come on, Kirk. No more back to get here.”
John followed him into the boy’s change room. “I want to be Spock!”
“Fanboys want to be Spock. Grownups want to be Kirk.” Jason sounded more like a grownup saying that than he looked, trying to drag his coveralls out of his bag while pulling off his gym strip. This didn’t make any sense. Why didn’t they have lockers where they could keep this stuff?
“So I’m a kid, and you’re not.” John pulled his coveralls straight over his strip. Somehow, apparently, the oil stains that Mrs. Wong had found on his good shirt were his fault. Well, John thought, they were his fault. He was wearing them. He just didn’t know how it had happened.
“Basically,” Jason said, as he slipped his coveralls over his shoes.
“Because you have a girlfriend, and I don’t.”
“Theera is pretty cute. I’ll give you that, Jas.”
“You really think so?” Asked Jason, clearly pleased.
“I really think so. Every time I see you two squirming in Rashindar’s grip, I think, ‘what a cute half of a couple.’”
“You never saw… And you could have a girlfriend, you know.”
“Forget it. Your sister doesn’t like me, and I don’t like her. I mean, like, not like.”
“Wrong. And wrong. She may be a pain in the ass, but my sister’s got a mad crush on you.”
“She isn’t a pain… I mean, did she tell you that?”
“Hey, calm down, John.”
“I… It’s obvious. I mean..” Jason stumbled.
Jason’s face crumbled. “No. She’s not talking to me about that stuff. Like I’ll go run off my mouth and everything.”
“What? Of course you will, Jas. The first rule of being Jas is, you talk about everything. You’re already talking, and you don’t even know anything.”
“Pretty much,” Jason said, drawing it out in a funny voice until it was funny.
John glared at Jason, mock-fiercely. “I’m going to so enjoy it when Rashindar figures out that you and Theera are still in touch.” John put his arm around the air and mimed a smooch.
Jason threw his bag over his shoulder, ready to go. “Eh. He knows.”
“What?” John forced the top button on his coverall. It was twisted on something, but it snapped, more-or-less, and he couldn’t waste any more time on it.
Jason flicked his hands over his eyes, mouth and and ears. “It’s like the three monkeys. The Major explained.”
“Like, the ones with brass….”
Jason snickered, remembering Jameel’s joke. “No. The see no evil, hear no evil ones. Rashindar knows that he’d have to yell at me, yell at Theera. Yell at everyone, basically. And, you know, what’ll they say back? What do they really think of him? He’s afraid that it’ll be bad, and he doesn’t want to hear. As long as he pretends to himself that he doesn’t know what’s going on, he can avoid hearing it, and wait for some magic to move things forward. Almost reminds me of someone else.”
Jason glared at John. “Subtle as an anvil, dude.”
“Subtle’s for losers. I’m all about the anvils. Now,” said Jason, tapping the button that opened the secret passage, “I’ll lead the way.”
The garage was in chaos when they arrived. The Juniors were finishing their projects, if you could call Jamie and Rebecca hugging each other while May and Jameel put the tools away “finishing.” Mr. Stone was there, standing at Mr. Brown’s desk in what he called his “union three piece” of suit jacket, turtleneck sweater, and creased slacks, talking to Mr. Brown quietly and urgently. Billy Tatum was trying to drive a fuel bowser in from the entrance tunnel. John stared at that. He had never seen empty before. It was obviously going to take a while, not least because Mr. McNeely was trying to tidy up the entrance way and somehow making it more messy.
John wanted to watch Billy manoeuvre the bowser, but, unfortunately, he had business underneath the Fairlane. He got down on a creeper and rolled under the car, his phone in his hand. He was just in time. It looked like Tyrell was just finishing up, and Cory had replied to his text.
It took half-an-hour for John and Jason to finish installing the shielded hub that would allow the Fairlane to talk, virtually indetectably, to other vehicles with underside hubs. It could also pick up emf backscatter from the road surface, the idea being to reduce the risk of burnout in highly radiated environments. It didn’t seem like a very important project compared to some of the ones that the upper classes were working on, any more than the UV function that the girls had added to the headlights, but, on the other hand, with the Fairlane possibly going into action soon, John was just as glad that they were responsible for possibly screwing up such a small part of the project.
As they rolled out from under, John was a little surprised to find Mr. McNeely supervising the girls. Looking across the garage, he saw the reason for it. Mr. Brown was still in the far corner, still talking, but now with Billy Tatum. Jamie’s anxious glances that way told John all that he needed to know about what they were talking about, and that left Mr. McNeely in charge.
Although, it being Mr. McNeely, what he was actually doing was telling them the story of the werewolf attack on his party. Surely he realised that the girls had been there? And, on top of that, John hardly recognised the story. The way that Mr. McNeely told it, the werewolf had tried to fight its way right into the party, and it took everyone in sight to stop it. It was a better story this way, although it did make Mr. Wong and El Professore sound a little useless, compared to what actually happened. Emily was rolling her eyes and Amy seemed bored, while Rafaella was practicing pretending to be interested. John was very, very glad that he would never have to be a politician.
“Ah, there’s our star student! I have another job for you, John,” Mr. McNeely said, not even pausing as he nodded curtly to Jason. “Could you get in and start the motor?” Mr. McNeely asked, opening the driver’s side door.
“Me?” John asked. Mr. McNeely couldn’t be serious. This was some kind of joke. Jason nudged him, hard. This was the best class yet! John practically threw himself into the car. He was so excited he could hardly breathe, but desperate not to do anything wrong. Was the car in gear? He checked; no. Was the parking brake on? Yes, it was. John took the wheel in one hand, put his foot on the gas, and turned the key.
It was like nothing he’d ever experienced, and unlike anything he’d expected. Of course it wasn’t. This was a time-and-dimension travel machine in the guise of a car, and why had he expected it to be normal? What he hadn’t expected was the dizziness and apartness that struck him as the engine caught and the weird, high technology Heads Up Display formed around him, touching his mind with the promise of functions unguessed. At one level, he heard Mr. Brown shouting as he rushed over to the car. At another, he heard Henry Wong, Nita Guzman, Rafaella, and Brad Neilsen arguing and shouting something about a city falling, and John remembered that there was something that he had to do, and he was almost ready to do it when it occurred to him that if he did, he would forget all of the last three months. School. His teachers. His friends. The Yurt. Above all, Amy. But he had to do it, or the city would fall. Wouldn’t it?
He had to get out of here, John thought. And, suddenly, he was in the hall outside the garage, on his feet, which seemed to be attached to the ground. Which was great, because this wasn’t like his last teleports. It almost felt like his stomach hadn’t come along for the ride. Or something. The point was that he needed to throw up. He had to get to the bathroom.
Just barely noticing that he was walking right through the circular door at the end of the hall, the one that should be locked and clamp-sealed, John headed down the hall. Unlike the other forbidden tunnels that he’d had a chance to explore, this one was more like the area above, with walls and ceilings that were square, and rooms to the side. And the first one to the left, miraculously, had a boy/girl washroom sign on it. John pushed through.
He was in an amazingly ordinary locker room, eleven lockers on one side, ten on the other, with two doors opening up to the washrooms at the end. John headed towards the doors, his stomach heaving. He was sweating now, his vision was blurring, and he could hardly grasp what was going on around him, although he did notice that the locker between Emily’s and Amy’s was neatly labelled ‘John Roy,’ and that might have made him feel better if everything else wasn’t so confused. Brad and Henry’s voices kept breaking through a babble of noise that he wasn’t quite hearing. Then came one voice in the real world, one that he heard with his ears, and with his mind.
“John. Turn around.” It was Amy. He turned and looked at her. She had grease on her face again, and somehow, same as last time, in long streaks along her chinbones, pointing to her ears, where the feather earrings now dangled. She reached out for him, taking his collar. “You’ve got your coveralls messed up.” With a quick pull, Amy did the button properly. And, just like that, his stomach felt better and the voices stilled. John stumbled, putting his arms around Amy, and she held him up. After a second, John could feel her heart, and, very distantly, his feet. His face sank into hers, and, still halfway to never in his mind, with their conversation that morning in mind, ,he planted a kiss right on her lips, just as a joke.
A kiss that turned out to be anything but a joke. Her lips were as soft as he’d always thought that they must be, from the smooth sweetness of her chai-coloured skin. Her breath smelled, so very slightly, of the tangy, springtime scent of green onions under peppermint gum. He held the kiss, and let his hand go a little lower to her hip. Amy put her hand over his, and John tensed up. She was going to remove it.
And she did, but only after a long, long moment. “You’ve got some things to figure out, first, Romeo,” she said, sounding sad. Then she disappeared.
John stood there for a long second, the world slowly coming back into focus. At last, when it seemed that all of the weird symptoms were gone, John went over to the locker labelled with his name. He twisted the shiny new lock on it around in his hand, peeled the combination sticker off it, stuck it in his pocket, and tried the lock. It worked, so he put his bag in it, and turned around to find his way back to the shop.
Denver Stone was standing in the doorway of the washroom, a kindly smile on his crinkled face that didn’t do much to hide his obvious worry. “Do you remember me, John?”
“Of course I do, Mr. Stone.”
Mr. Stone smiled, and the black walnut colour came back to his face. “You can’t imagine how relieved we are. We’re told that the memory-erasing trick is pretty hard to stop once it gets going. David wasn’t even sure whether it stopped in you in the first place, or just paused. I…” He glanced at his watch. “Oh, shit.”
“We have a situation upstairs,” Mr. Stone said. “Come on. Now that you’ve been down one level, turns out that it’s time to give you the full tour.”
They walked out into the hall. The rest of the class was coming down the hall, followed by Mr. McNeely. “Did you find your locker, John?” Jason asked.
“Yes,” John replied.
“Cool. Can we put our stuff away now, Mr. Stone?” Jason asked.
Mr. Stone looked at his watch. “No! I want you down in the storm cellar yesterday.”
“Just as well,” Rafaella said, brandishing her umbrella.
Mr. McNeely sounded a scolding tone. “We’re doing this for you, Rafaella. Your uncle’s men are raiding Philadelphia. This is not a day for you to be out from under the strongest shielding that we have.”
“So I have to go hide like a baby!” Rafe spat. “Well, I’m not doing it without my little friend.”
“I want to fight pirates!” Amy answered, holding her grenade bag under her arm. The earrings had disappeared, and so, somehow, had the grease strips. Had he been hallucinating when he kissed her? John tried to smile at her, but she avoided his eyes. Girls!
“Move it!” Mr. Stone barked, as an elevator door opened at the end of the hall. The group, stung, hurried to get in. Only it wasn’t really an elevator, because elevators only go up and down. This one went slanted, or, at least, that was how it felt. Slanted north and east, as near as John could tell, right in the direction of the Panther Heights Mall.
Of course, it didn’t open up at the Mall. No sir, that it didn’t. When it did open up, John couldn’t believe what he was seeing at all.