Chapter 17: Talking to People
“Hey, John, come see this!”
John pulled himself over on the rolling board-thingie that for some reason was called a “creeper.” Tyrell had just left him with a handful of wires and one problem solved, and it was time to move on to the main installation on the centreline of the car’s under-fairing. Jason was gesturing at a little viewport through the under-fairing at the casing that connect the Fairlane’s engine with the rear axle. “What’s up?”
“So, in the original Cadillac drivetrain, the power is transmitted to the rear axle pretty simply. The crankshaft spins the driveshaft, and the driveshaft spins the rear axle.” Jason tapped the rim of the viewport lightly with his wrench, and the aviation-grade aluminum gave a little plink.
“So? Spinning was big in the old days. Even your parents did it.” John laid himself back on the creeper and did his turntabling impression with his hands.
“Thanks. I am now totally visualising that. I wonder if it’s too late to apply to be a monk?”
“So, can I have Theera’s phone number, then?” John asked.
Jason scowled for a second, then smiled. “You know, I do have a point. And you’re sure perking up. See, whatever’s inside the case can’t be more technologically advanced than the original Fairlane, even if it does more stuff. So what are these wires for?” Jason scraped at four wires, with the tape starting to rip, coming out of a tiny, gasket-sealed hole in the case and running vaguely forwards into the darkness of the fairing.
“Oh. That’s for a metadyne regenerating the front brakes. It could help with gas mileage, or anti-skid, or both.”
“The what from the who?”
“It’s obvious. The four wires means three currents and a ground. Got to be a control current.” But even as John said it, he realised that while he knew that it was true, he had no idea how he knew it.
“So why are they stretched, Car-Brainiac? And what should we do about it?” Jason asked, doing his Einstein accent. John laughed. Then Jason waved a set of wirecutters. Oops.
“Careful there! I don’t know, but I do know we shouldn’t be fiddling with it. We tell Mr. Brown, and we get back to installing the shielded comm hub. We’re not mechanics. We just play ones in shop class.” ”
Jason pouted, but put the wirecutters away and finished tightening down the bracket for the little black box, while John cinched down the cable lead. In his head, he could imagine Mr. Brown saying, “And no chafing!” That was it for this class. Next time, he and Jason would work in the lab, figuring out how to configure the hub, if they couldn’t do it tonight after class. And then they’d have to come back down here and do the config. And then the update, and the update of the update and the update that allows you to shut the system down so that the first two updates can take effect and make the update finder work so that they could do more updates. Sometimes, John thought that if ever came to really hate the world, he might want to go into software engineering and do nothing but write “vital updates.”
The girls were working on the topside mounting something in the engine compartment, so when John and Jason rolled their creepers out at the end of class, Amy was changing out of her overalls while Rafe and Emily were still hanging their tools on the wall behind the workbench, a little more grease blotching the faded 2010-2011 “Ski Nittany Valley” calendar on the wall almost completely erasing the scribbled heart in the corner that John suspected said “BN+JW,” and which made him sad.
On the other hand, it was good that they’d caught up with the girls, who had been ahead at the beginning of the class. Amy had the cutest parallel smudges of grease down her cheekbones like warpaint, almost pointing at her earlobes. She caught him looking at her, and dropped her gaze as John looked away. Which put John back into his bad mood from earlier. He didn’t get it. Why should it matter to him?
“Okay, kids,” Mr. Brown said, “I’ll be reviewing your work this afternoon and I’ll give you your grades tomorrow. But right now, it looks like everything’s fine, and Mrs. Crudup will be able to pick up her ride on schedule. Jason, thanks for pointing out those wires. Rafe, you’re right. The front wheels are a little out of alignment. Good work, both of you. That could have been a problem if it hadn’t been caught in time. Fortunately, it hasn’t gone very far, and it’ll be easy to fix when I put the snow tires on next week. Now, move it!”
The class filed out of the shop into the little hallway at the base of the stair. Jamie was just stepping down off the bottom rung of stairs for the next class, a little early. “Hold up, kids,” she said, as Jason barged into her. Then she reached past to the sealed portal just past the door to the shop and threw the conspicuous clamp at the top that maintained atmospheric sealing. “Stupid plumbers,” she said.
“They make more money than teachers,” Jason pointed out.
“That’s no excuse for keeping people waiting, and for being careless on top of it. One of them left a door open up at McNeely Manor and activated an alarm. Now, shoo. I don’t want to be the heavy in charge of the extra math homework if you’re late for class!”
Jason glared back at Jamie. She was already the heavy to him, because of last week. Even if he did mostly blame his sister. John thought that was funny. He wondered if he had any sisters. Or would they be sisters, if they were clones? He guessed so, because Rebecca was a clone. Her brother wasn’t actually related to her at all, but he was still her brother. Rebeccas said that what counted was family, not genes, or how many parents you have. “Agamics have rights, too,” she said, which at least beat her old slogan about “Agamogenetic rights.” Rebecca’s situation didn’t necessarily mean that John had clone-sisters, though. Sisters were the girls who tattled on you and were always hanging their tights and stuff up in the bathroom for you to walk into when you were getting out of the shower. If he had clone sisters, they’d be more like, well, he probably wouldn’t be able to joke if he saw their tights hanging up to dry in the bathroom. That was why he stayed away from the downstairs bathroom, where Amy and May dried their stuff. So call those clone girl relatives ‘cousins?’ John had no idea. Girls were awfully complicated.
Then he stopped thinking, because Rafe nudged him hard in the side. “Move it. I’ve got better things to do than math homework!”
Behind her, Emily said firmly, “There’s nothing better than math homework.” Emily liked math so much it scared John.
“Not.” Said Amy. Amy liked biology, which John hated. She even like dissecting things, which John hated almost as much as monocular microscopes. It was almost as bad as arts and craft.
Which, it turned out, was what Ms. Telantassar had them doing that afternoon --or fashion, or something. “Have any of you been to Babylon,” she asked by way of saying hello as they filed into the attic class. There was a big, black and white cat in John’s chair. John put his rucksack under the chair, then picked the cat up in his arm to put it on the floor. Instead, the cat wrapped itself bonelessly around his arm, purring, and John ended up holding it crooked in one arm and cradled against his chest as he shoved his tablet with one hand onto his pack below the chair. Miraculously, it stayed. Okay, cat, John thought, you can hang out on my lap until it’s time to take notes. The cat, apparently not needing permission in the first place, pricked his thighs with its claws through his tights as it settled back in. “Besides Rafaella and Emily,” Ms. Telantassar added as they sat down. “Amy, Jason? No? We are going to have to arrange a field trip soon.”
She stood up and walked over to her easelboard, flipping it over. The other side was covered in a tesselacted design of brightly coloured, close-packed geometric shapes. John stared, helpless, his attention riveted to the patterns that suggested meanings and symmetry for long enough that the cat got bored with him and jumped down. At last, Ms. Telantassar flipped the board back over to show its blank, white side. It was as though John had jumped into a freezing swimming pool. Although, actually, John thought that every swimming pool was freezing these days.
“Babylon is called the City of Art and Man for many reasons besides the obvious casual sexism,” Telantassar continued. “But it comes down to the effects of that little Elven ward, a work so simple that it ought not even count as magic. Human beings have bodies that live in the world. Bodies get cold, and hungry and sleepy, and afraid when they see a ravenous tiger. Humans also have minds. And so our bodies feel good when they are fed and warm, and when they are running down the street on a beautiful morning. Our minds, though, live in the world, too. And so our bodies get feel good when they see someone they like.”
“Let’s think about that a little. There he is, and you are closer to him. He smiles and says something nice, perhaps a little inviting. You smile back, and, somehow, you end up on the other end of the room from him. He nods, and you are closer. It’s a dance, in the mind, in the world. That is, if you’ve got shyness issues. If you don’t, it might look more like a lunge.” She looked at Jason, and the girls laughed. “Your body is moving in the world to express that battle between shyness and desire, eagerness and fear. World and mind are linked.”
“What has this to do with design? Design is like hungry tigers and that person we like. Things in the world that go into our minds through our bodies. Only they are things that we choose to put in the world. We place them, and they go into people’s minds, and through their minds into their bodies, to make the world. Babylon is all the designs that have been in human minds made into a dimension where people can live. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, it’s not important, because everywhere is a little like Babylon, a world made by design.”
Jason, still a little flushed from the laughter, spoke up. “What design? I mean, there’s lots of artwork up here, but downstairs, it’s just a school. What about the shop? It’s just tools and concrete and a car! No design there.”
Ms. Telantassar looked at Jason for a long moment. “You spent an hour this morning working on a pink-and-black 1955 Cadillac Fairlane. Are you really going to tell me that there’s no design down in that shop right now? But, besides that, have a look at Emily’s hair. Notice the hairbands? They’re elasticised black lace. Notice the way…” She stopped, looking at Jason’s blank expression. “No. You may not even be aware that you noticed that Emily has very nice hairbands. But you did. When we speak of ‘fashion,’ it’s easy to get hung in the meaning we give the world, of some kind of trend that everyone’s jumped on board with. We forget the actual meaning. Fashion crafts the world.”
“Wait,” John blurted. “This class is going to be about fashion?” This was awful. He’d actually almost appreciated the mushy talk about shyness and dancing. It was a way better excuse for being chicken around girls then, well, being chicken around girls. (Not that John was being chicken around any girls.) And now suddenly the class was turning into a nightmare.
“Yes, John, yes it is. I know that you boys aren’t attuned to the way that fashion effects people the way that girls are. That’s why I’ve been talking about it in these terms, so that you come to some kind of understanding. As long as you kids are learning about defensive weapons tech by being junior mechanics downstairs, we’re going to learn about the very important role that fashion plays in defensive magic up here.”
“Not just defensive tech,” John muttered, miming firing a machine gun into his lap and making shooting sounds.
Miss Telantassar reached into a bag on her table and rolled out a length of fabric, saying, as she did so, “Yes, Jason, not just defensive tech. That is definitely the advantage of technology. Or, should I say, technological design? Because it is morally neutral, the class is reasonably safe studying offensive applications. Whereas I wouldn’t let any of you except Emily study offensive magic if my life depended on it. Or at least until we’ve done defensive demonology in Grade 11. And now we are going to learn how to tie and hang some basic fabric wards with scarves, ties and shawls.” Then she opened a box, containing shiny things. “If anyone gets done that, I’ll have you start with jewellery made of some of the invested materials; metals, minerals, and perhaps even animal products. As for offensive fashion, I’ll leave May to teach you that.” The girls laughed again. For John and Jason, it was a long class.
John walked home again that clear, cool afternoon. Even more people had fires lit. He’d almost stop noticing the smoke, and he was focussing so hard on the idea of the Fairlane being “designed” that he even missed the sound of Sabine’s bike, pulling up behind. The first thing to pull him away from imagining the Fairlane as a sum of geometric projections was Sabine speaking from behind. “You’re wearing a tie?” She sounded disgusted.
What was wrong? Oh. He must be wearing it wrong. Embarrassed, John grabbed at the knot, only managing to pull it crooked as he turned around. Sabine was leaning over her handlebars, holding her spare helmet dangling in her left hand. “I killed the engine at the corner and glided in. Hop on. I’ve fixed a meeting with Byrne. Or next best.”
This was a longer trip than last time, to the other side of the university campus to a line of frat houses next to a 7-11. They were only a couple blocks from the Washingtons, John noticed. Sabine pulled the bike up to the sidewalk and got off. John followed as she pushed open the front gate of a house just a little smaller and a little less seedy than the frat houses. They walked around the house on a gritty cement walk fringed by unruly weeds gone brown and limp with coming winter. At the back of the house, under a balcony, was an apartment door.
Sabine pushed the bell. It didn’t work. She knocked. UNTIL agents lived in basement apartments in the student ghetto? John was not impressed. But it wasn’t Agent Byrne who eventually opened the door. It was Tuney.
Who clearly didn’t recognise John at all, because he took one look at John’s face and then looked back into his apartment. “Yeah, sorry about the mess. I only heard you guys were coming a minute ago.” Tuney turned his ponderous bulk and led them back into a kitchen that was even messier than Jason’s bedroom. Or John’s, he had to admit to himself. At least his room wasn’t this dirty, though.
Tuney cleared some dishes off two chairs at his kitchen table. Water slopped over the side of a frying pan as he carried it to the sink. Once he was there, he plugged an HDMI cable into a TV sitting in a cupboard with the doors removed, directly above the sink. The hinges were still there, sticking out into space. Tuney came back to the table, and gradually lowered his bulk into an extra-wide chair. Once he was safely in it, he scooted over to the counter. “Ha! Eat it, gravity!” Tuney said, as he lifted a phone off the counter and picked a bit of something that looked like fried egg off the screen. He began to fiddle.
“Byrne can’t talk to you directly, or even phone you. Fortunately, I have some resources, and I got a pair of clean phones. He’ll talk to you for as long as he can, and then get rid of the phone where the bad things go. If UNTIL happens to be running a full intercept, well, you’re on your own explaining what you’re doing talking to him.”
After a moment, the TV lit up with the very slightly grainy video of Facetime showing an out-of-focus concrete ceiling and the walls of a washroom stall. “Byrne? Are you there? Can you talk?”
A very handsome young man came into the picture. “Of course I can, moron. My minder usually gives me a couple minutes in here. Otherwise I wouldn’t have turned the phone on. This is the kid who wanted to talk? Make it quick, kid.”
“Agent Byrne,” John started slowly, then hurried as he saw the disgraced UNTIL agent’s exasperated expression, “What can you tell me about Peter Stuyvesant’s recent visit to UNTIL Philadelphia?”
“That’s the NASA guy, right? Nothing.”
John deflated. He could be home right now, watching TV with his friends. Instead, he’d wasted a whole afternoon on this.
“Stuyvesant’s never been to UNTIL Philadelphia. At least, not while I’ve had the job.”
“So why was his cell number on the card that you gave Tony McNeely?” Oh, that was a stupid question, John thought. Tony must have written in the cell number. But that didn’t make sense, either. And it wasn’t Tony’s handwriting, either.
“Oh. We were setting things up for a visit.” John felt a flash of anger. Someone was a moron around here, all right.
“From?” John prompted.
“Some archaeologists working at the Mars dig,” Byrne replied.
“What? The NASA team? They’re not due for rotation back to Earth for two years, yet,” John said. Of course, he thought, one of the superheroes with spaceships could bring them back, if they had time to help NASA out, the way that the Justice Squadron brought Tony and Tara back early.
“No. Not them. Someone with their own transport.”
“Who? Russians?” John asked. But that couldn’t be right. The Russians were like the Americans, with only a couple temperamental spaceships that took months to travel from Earth to Mars.
“Nah. Aliens. Those elvey-guys. The ones with the consulate in Washington. The Malvans, or something like that.”
“You mean the Mandaarians?” John said.
“Yeah. Those. They wanted to set up a meet with a school principal and a developer, of all things. I took extra notes, ‘cuz I’ve run into the guy before, and I owe him a broken arm.”
Tuney interrupted. “Are we talking about Henry Wong? Because if you’d just left his daughter alone—“
Byrne gave Tuney a disgusted look out of the screen, and started to say something. Whatever it was, though, it was lost, as a banging sound came from the phone. Without another word, the screen cut off. “That’s all you get, kid. I owe Sabine a favour. Next time, you’ve got to pay for the phones. And my time. I’m a busy man,” he finished. Byrne waved around the kitchen, taking in the pile of magazines in the middle of the table, and the even higher pile of DVD cases on the huge, old-fashioned, cathode TV in the corner.
Frankly, John didn’t care. Just because someone wanted to meet with Mr. Wong and Mr. Guzman didn’t necessarily mean that they wanted to talk about him, but there was the Martian angle again, and, apparently, the Mandaarians.
As they walked around the house in the darkening night, John asked Sabine, “Is there any way your friends can find out if my maintenance comes from the Mandaarians?”
Sabine hauled out her phone. “That’s a dumb question.”
“They’re government. They’ve probably got to list everyone who donates money officially. I bet …” Sabine fidgeted with her phone. “No, NASA can’t take donated money. Wait. Maybe NASA is paying for the Mandaarians? Then it’d be, like foreign aid or something. Blah blah, foreign aid and NASA, NASA and USAID. There. Yes, NASA does pay the Mandaarian consulate’s expenses. I have no idea what the Mandaarians spend the money on, though.”
The Mandaarians. John was so distracted that he didn’t even remember getting back on the motorcycle. The cold, cold ride home made it hard to think, but his mind was still awhirl. The Mandaarians were a species of peaceful, scientific explorers, the only aliens so far who had made contact with Earth governments and established consulates instead of launching an invasion or whatever. There were supposedly no actual Mandaarians in the Solar System right now, and hadn’t been since 1999. Earth governments actually ran the consulates for them..
Yet it didn’t make any sense. Mars had been inhabited by intelligent life fully 2 billion years ago, perhaps even highly advanced intelligent life, if some reports were to be believed. That would make the Martians the earliest advanced civilisation in the entire Galaxy by a margin of more than a billion years. Surely the Mandaarians would want to participate in the archaeological excavations there. But why would NASA be keeping the presence of a Mandaarian archaeological team on Mars a secret?
Back in his warm, warm room, John stared at the map of Mars pinned to his bedroom wall. Was his family secret somehow wrapped up in the secrets of the ancient Red Planet? And, come to think of it, John actually knew at least one elf. (He had his suspicions about the Brown family.) Why did the Mandaarians look so much like elves?