Chapter 20: Many Years Past
John took a slow step out of the elevator as Jason pushed him from behind. He had an excuse, though. There was a lot to see in the vast hall, but the towering, smooth machine standing on long tail fins that swept down to form spidery legs caging devices that looked like guns made out of glass and then just melted for a second, was right across from the door. It was also six stories tall, dwarfing the dinosaur models underneath it. John looked again. They were models, weren’t they? And of dinosaurs?
But, weird as the not-models of not-dinosaurs were, especially against the false-front Wild West town backdrop, the blue-and-white machine was six stories tall, and that was pretty big, especially inside and underground. He looked at John. “That’s, uhm, that’s a spaceship, isn’t it?”
“’Den Vliegenden Volk.’ The ‘Flying German.’ But everyone calls it ‘Rosa.’” Jason whispered quietly beside him. Amy looked at him sharply.
“Uhm, actually, the genitive makes Volk the adjective’s complement. I think, because I can’t remember off hand what it means when the adjective and the article both take the genitive. So ‘The People in Flight?’ I think? Stupid case endings. It’s some kind of reference, anyway. Who’s Rosa?”
Amy answered. “It’s one of the Golden Sickle’s aliases. The one she used with…”
Emily continued, “My Opa. He only said that it was the name of an old German communist, but someone told me once that she used the name with the guards on the day that she took him to see Babi Yar.”
“The Major is a communist? Does the DL know?” John asked. Mrs. Wong did not approve of the Party. It was practically the only thing he could remember the Wongs fighting about.
“No, Opa hates communists. But he loved Rosa. It’s complicated.”
Jason hit his forehead with his palm and made the walking-into-the-wall sound. “What did people even put for relationship status before ‘complicated was invented?”
“’I have a girlfriend. In India,’” Amy snapped back. “Also, shut up. It’s a very romantic story. And I think Mr. Stone wants us to follow him.”
Now that Amy pointed it out, John could see that while the class was still clustered at the entrance to the elevator, staring at the bizarre trophies scattered around this vast hall, Mr. Stone had gone on, walking to a door in the far wall set between a circle of age-greyed upright timbers set in the floor and something that looked like an Airstream trailer on mechanical stilts. John looked at the timbers for a seond. They were carved with figures that his eyes didn’t want to see, and, after a moment, he decided that he’d best not focus on those if he didn’t want to see his breakfast again, after all.
Unmoved, as usual, by signs of adult impatience, Jason looked over at John. “So what did you think of your locker?”
The memory that he now had his own locker in the bottom-level change room left John flushed with happiness inside, but, he decided, it would be sappy to show it. “It was, uhm, a locker?”
Jason looked a little disappointed. Actually, Amy and Emily looked disappointed,, too. “No, I mean the decorations we did inside.”
John was dumbfounded. He’d managed to put his backpack away without noticing some decorations? “I, uhm,..There were decorations?”
“We spent hours on them, John,” Emily said.
John felt like an idiot. And he hadn’t notice. How could he not have noticed? Now it was Jason’s turn to look dumbfounded. “You don’t remember them.”
John shook his head.
Amy said, fiercely, “Is this like that time that you nearly walked into the bus because you were rebuilding your Magic deck in your head? Or some dumb distraction like that?”
I kissed a girl. I kissed you, Amy. It wasn’t telepathically spoken, not quite, because if he acknowledged it, it would be real, and then Amy might, or he might, do something that John just couldn’t quite imagine. As he stared into her face, it all flooded back into his memory through the eyes that were taking in the fire that suddenly lit under her sweet, rich skin. John felt heat rushing to his face, and his armpits go wet with sweat. He was sick to his stomach and so dizzy that he was worried that he couldn’t walk. But it wasn’t like before, because he wasn’t really sick. It was stirring anticipation, instead, a desperate eagerness to reach out and close the distance to Amy, with his hands or his mouth or his words, and a fear of exposing himself as a complete doofus if he let himself go to the need that he felt. His eyes crossed Amy’s face as his own dropped towards the floor. Maybe if he didn’t look, he wouldn’t give in to this overwhelming urge to say something goofy. I wonder if anyone else will notice, John thought to himself.
Jason snorted. “Let’s not keep Mr. Stone waiting, sis,” he said, as he grabbed Amy’s wrist and pulled her with him. Amy’s head came down on her brother’s shoulder as they walked, and as a few yard’s distance opened up between the twins and John, he could just barely not hear the words that she was whispering. Emily followed just after, while John stood still.
It was stupid. There his friends were walking away, where they were supposed to be going, and he should be following them. But wouldn’t he look all stupid and awkward if he were walking in behind, where he could hear whatever it was that Amy was saying to her brother? And didn’t he look stupid and awkward just standing here? Come back, Amy, I want to stand around staring at you and being a goof, he wanted to say. His hands, John noticed, were shaking.
Rafe clapped her hand on his shoulder. “Come on, dude, make tracks.” She pulled him into motion, and John noticed greatfully that she let the gap that had opened up between him and the twins stay open. They walked through the exhibit in the great hall, between the spidery metal legs and the standing timber circle to a beautiful, double door of deeply stained, high-polished wood. When they were right in front of it, Mr. Stone opened both doors. They swung inwards smoothly to reveal a bright room panelled in slender pieces of coloured metal, between inset green tiles, lit by incandescent bulbs dangling from the ceiling in oversized, ovoid fixtures that looked almost like wasp’s nests. Windows on the far wall overlooked a gigantic room from a balcony level, although John could see little of it from the entrance. There were black chairs scattered around tables, both springing from the orange-carpeted floor on single legs, while in the corner, on a dais formed by three low steps, was a polished metal door set in the wall, and a bar, behind which was Mr. McNeely.
Rafe whispered next to him, “Is that Mr. Wong?”
John looked back at where Rafaella was pointing. Paintings lined the wall on either side of the door, the nearest one to the left an oversized canvas showing a man in the mustard-yellow costume of the Furious Fist and another man in an old-fashioned version of the Kobold costume fighting a horde of thugs in vaguely bird-like costumes. “Why does he have an Afro?” John asked aloud.
Jason looked at him, his face impassive, for a change. “Dad had an Afro for a few years in the mid-70s. That was after the events in the painting, but he asked Mr. Steranko to give him one anyway. It’s a big thing for Dad, but he’s never said why, just the usual ‘ you’ll understand some day’ crap.”
“Jim Steranko did a painting of your dad?”
Jason nodded. “Private commission. Some of the others are by him, too. Although the 3D Girl over in the corner is Jack Kirby.”
“So all of these paintings are of members of the old Liberty Legion?”
“Sidekicks of the old Liberty Legion,” Amy said, firmly. “Because this is the old Sidekick’s Lounge.. where they used to wait for missions to start.”
“Where they sat around playing Yahtzee while the Legion figured out what was what down in the Operations Room, you mean,” Jason said, gesturing at the windows.
“Yahtzee?” Amy asked.
“I don’t know. Old time game that people played in the old days. Because they were old.” Jason did a dice throwing move with his right hand before continuing in a piping voice that was almost but not quite his Megan impression, “Yahtzee! Good Heavens to Murgatroyd! I have a Yahtzee! This is ever so much fun!”
“You like Yahtzee, Jas,” Emily pointed out firmly.
Jason put his hands up in surrender. “Help, John, I’m trapped by a pack of sisters!”
“Should have done a better job of picking your parents,” John answered unsympathetically.
“Oh, that’s it,” Jason snorted, as he launched himself at John, an impossibly wide smile on his face. John took the impact at mid-height, bracing himself telekinetically. Jason was strong, but John was coming along, too. He almost took the blow before losing his feet at the last and falling into a table, which shuddered at the impact.
“Boys smash!” Amy pronounced, as she moved to stand over them, shaking her head.
“And look sexy doing it,” Jason said, wiggling around onto his back and looking up at his sister. “I can’t help it if John needs to be taught the bro code.”
“Which is?” Emily asked.
“Bros make it whole against evil. Weres, air pirates, bossy sisters. Especially bossy sisters.”
John pulled himself out from under the table. “That’s the bro code? I thought it was, ‘if you’re going to borrow my comics, don’t mess up the covers.’”
John did that kung fu move where you throw yourself up on your feet, then slouched into one of the chairs. “That’s part of it. But the main bit is the bossy sister part.”
Since John hadn’t been able to do the get-to-your-feet move for about a month, he settled for levitating up to head height, throwing in a full lotus position like some kind of meditating Buddhist dude. “Let me see. You have comics. I have comics. You have bossy sisters. I don’t have bossy sisters. I’m just thinking the bro code might need some tweaks.”
“You could borrow some of mine to hang out with…” but whatever Jason was going to say after that was lost, as John and Amy started blushing again. Jason looked up at them, his sister standing and John hovering. “I could read by you two.”
Then, to the rescue, Mr. McNeely spoke from the corner. “Come and get it!”
“Come and get…,” Rafaella prompted.
“Specialty of the house: Shirley Temples!” Mr. McNeely said, brightly. “Denver? Can I get you anything?”
As so often with Mr. McNeely, John stared at him silently, hoping that this would turn out to be a joke. Mr. McNeely stared back, an even smile on his face. Apparently, he really had made non-alcoholic cocktails for the entire class.
After a moment, Mr. Stone said, “I’ll have a Jack Daniels and soda, Todd. Kids? Mr. McNeely’s Shirley Temple is world-famous.”
They slowly moved towards the bar. At the back, Jason muttered, “There’s no wi-fi down here!”
“Or phone coverage,” Rafaella added, unhappily. “What’s happening with the battle upstairs?”
“Just a minute,” Mr. McNeely said. “I’ll go activate the Ops Room monitors. They’re tied into the Liberty League’s network.” He picked up his own drink and opened the metal door, revealing one of the familiar metal-rung stairs beyond. The door glided smoothly shut behind him.
“Is there anything to do in here?” Jason asked.
Mr. Stone gestured at a single door in a bright, plastic shade of burnt orange, set in the all opposite the bar. “The library’s through there. But…”
“But,” Rafe prompted. Adults.
Mr. Stone continued unhappily. “We let the magazine subscriptions lapse in the 70s, and the books have all been picked through for charity sales and whatnot. I’m sorry. I’ve kept up the physical plant. I’ve even replenished the bar, but I’ve just never been able to justify spending as much money and time on this place as I’d like.”
“There’s got to be a pool table, though,” Amy said. “All these old places had pool tables.”
“Uhm, actually, you know the Washington’s pool table? After the whole thing with Korrex, it just seemed fair to replace their old one….”
“So there’s nothing to do in here, is what you’re saying.” Emily finished.
“We could,” Mr. Stone began, all the adult authority long since leaked out of his voice, “Have a singalong?” He pitched his voice a little lower and sang, “Swing low, sweet chariot…” Mr. Stone was laughably off tune as he croaked along.
Jason, picking up smoothly from Emily said, “The custodian should do something about that. This place is a piece of history.”
John perked up at that, before realising that he was in the middle of a Rugrats con. “Sturdy furniture, too. Ideal if you’re going to have bored teens cooped up in here for hours.”
“Though that table did creak when the goofballs hit it,” Amy added, a touch of worry in her voice.
“We could go back outside and check out the exhibits in the trophy hall,” Jason said.
A smile broke over Mr. Stone’s face. “Nice. Did you have this planned before you tackled John in the first place, Mr. Wong?”
Jason was poker-faced. “I have no idea what you mean, Mr. Stone.”
“I’ll bet you don’t. No. That stuff can be dangerous. Ah. There go the monitors.” Down in the operation room, images of long, silver ships floated in the sky above downtown Philadelphia, with blue men on flying sharks flitting around them, and the Liberty League.
And not just the Liberty League. There was an Orc, with Vesper flying alongside. It looked like Graydon was wearing the Hobgoblin’s suit for this particular fight. And he had Annie with him. Interesting. “This happens the same day that Booker goes missing. I don’t like the timing.”
“Who’s looking for Book?” Amy asked.
“Tony and Tara are shaking down leads here on Earth with the rest of the Seniors as backup. The Juniors are in Babylon.”
“Wouldn’t they have to go through the free zone, first?” John asked.
“No, because they got a ride from the Black Rose,” Mr. Stone explained.
Jason punched the air. “The Sentinels are in it to win it? Problem solved, autographs for everyone!”
“Not the Sentinels. Just Black Rose. The rest of the team is up in Canada. The Red Hammer thinks he has a lead on Necrull, and old men going after Necrull alone is a recipe for disaster.”
“And we’re stuck down here,” Rafe muttered. “Why aren’t the sophomores down here?”
“It’s not because they get to fight evil and you don’t, believe me, Rafaella. We don’t know what kind of detection technology or magic that your uncle is using, but chances are that it is probabilistic or contagious. The Grade 9s are a high risk for detection because they’re normally found with you, and the 10s are less out of place up the hill. So we buried you guys deep, and put the Graded 10s in Goblin Deep.”
“What about….” John trailed off. Was he allowed to make accusations?
“Some members of our community have less to contribute directly, and are at little risk. For example, Miss Brinton is at her job at the Price Rite several hundred feet directly above us right now,” Mr. Stone’s tone as he answered the question was distinctly prim.
“Oh, come on,” Jason muttered.
“Everyone gets the benefit of the doubt, Mr. Wong. Especially the hard cases, Mr. Stone said. No matter how much people might want to fire Miss Brinton, or kick her out of the house, or arrest her, this is America, and you still need evidence.”
“But, she’s… no-one’s…” How could he say this, John thought to himself.
“You don’t think that the Liberty Legion’s secret base was built under a Price Rite by accident, do you, Mr. Roy? Ask Mr. Grady, the manager, about his days as the Great Brain, sometime. Don’t worry about Miss Brinton. She’s not going anywhere.”
“And what about our plumbing problems?” Amy asked.
“Meaning?” Mr. Stone said.
“The intrusion in Sector 7G,” Amy said, stabbing her little finger at the glass of the window and towards one of the monitors mounted on the wall on the other side of the Operations Room. It showed a circular metal tunnel of the all too familiar kind, with just a hint of daylight far at the end of the passage instead of the usual artificial light. And, in the middle, walking towards the camera, a teenaged, blonde girl in a black leather biker’s jacket over a red flannel shirt that poked out under the jacket, covering the top few inches of white denim pants tucked into white boots.
John went cold. It was Sabine.