I suspect that that just goes to show that I lack social skills. Which I already knew. Case in point: missing my deadline to finish this post by about an hour. Although I would probably have made up another excuse to avoid getting on with my life if I'd finished on time.
At least now I can go out and do something important before noon. If shopping for a replacement router at London Drugs counts. (Ooh, shiny computer stuff!)
Chapter 22: About Who You Were Expecting
“Stop there for a second, John.” The voice was Rosa’s. Instead of coming from the PA, it had a source, low and to the left. John looked over. He had just passed through the door to the cargo bay to the central companionway with the ship’s stair. A spidery machine had come scuttling down the narrow passageway that led around the cargo bay to his left. It held something up in one of its arms. “The thing in the robot’s manipulator is an earpiece, so that we can communicate.”
John took it.
“It’s a subdural earpiece R/T.” Rosa’s voice continued, from the creepy little robot.
“Like a Bluetooth headset? Oh my God, I’ve joined the loser legion.” John put one hand to his forehead in mock disgust while he gingerly probed under his mask and into his right ear with the tiny little device. The moment it touched cartilage, the little thing came to life, squirming free of John’s hands and nestling into the fold of the ear. He barely stifled his reaction. Rosa would think that he was a baby.
Now Rosa’s voice came low and direct, from the tiny speaker. “If you want to talk back to me, you can just subvocalise. But don’t think of this as like telepathy. It takes some practice, and people will notice.”
“So what’s the plan, Rosa?” John muttered in his throat.
“You can be quieter. And I don’t have a plan. All I know is that ground control asked me for an evacuation pod. I relinquished control over it, and it returned five minutes later with Sabine aboard, and an empty email. I’ve requested before that Todd McNeely not be allowed in ground control.” The last sounded as peevish as a silent voice spoken by an unpleasant tiny robot nestled in your ear cartilage could. Which is actually pretty peevish.
“But there is a plan?” John asked, already knowing the answer.
“Yes. Rafaella says that Jason Wong is running the con, and Jason said that the ship has robots hunting Air King. So I’ve scrambled up some of my more menacing hull repair ‘bots. They’re too big to fit down here, but they’ll meet you at the door to the bridge on Level 1 and throw you inside with your friends. Then we see what happens next. Jason figures either you can fool Sabine, or something’ll go down, and he wants you there. This is so exciting.”
“I’ve never had a chance to act before,” Rosa said. “I feel like Marlene Dietrich!”
“Are you teasing me, John?”
“Yes, ma’am. I learned about them from old cartoons.”
“John, remind me to have a talk with you about the unwisdom of making women feel their age some time.”
“But you’re a spaceship!”
“Which is why I should be the one giving you the talk. Before you ask, I’m 2900 years old. Now march.”
Level One was three up, and turned out to be a circular deck ringing the wide core of the ship, with windows on the outside and a narrow adit for the stairway in the core itself. John walked a quarter way round to where the robots were waiting for him opposite an outside door that was presumably an airlock. They were appropriately big and menacing; and, since they were spider-thingies –arachniform?—creepy, too. Rosa said, “Come around the first robot and put your arms out, and Grüß Gott.” John stepped around in between the robots and put his arms out, and before he could even formulate the thought, the machines wrapped their arm/tentacles around his and threw him into the wall. Which irised open to form a door as John went hurtling in, so fast that he lost his balance and fell to his hands and knees in front of his four friends and Sabine.
Embarrassed, John took a long moment to look around. It was a surprisingly featureless room. He wasn’t expecting consoles and blinking lights, with a captain’s chair and that weird binocular thing that only Spock seemed to use, but you would think that there would at least be some monitor screens. The seats around the table that his friends were glumly occupying, and even more the plates, bottles, and glasses, seemed distinctly unbridgelike. The cheery wallpaper and paintings on the walls were even less like he’d ever pictured a spaceship. But, as he finished his survey with a look behind, where he saw no sign of the door through which he’d been hurled, things began to make more sense to John. Apparently, Rosa could control the décor and furnishings.
Jason was talking, fast, almost before John hit the ground. “Damn. They got you, too, Air King.”
“Sorry, Blue Streak. The robots were too much for me,” John replied. Jason showed almost no reaction to the code name. “Blue Ninja. Technomancer. Captain Revenge,” John finished, nodding his head around the room, looking up awkwardly from his hands and knees.
“You guys are fail at making up code-names,” Sabine said. John stood up.
She continued. “But at least you made a fight of it, Air King.” She moved in and hugged John. His reaction surprised him; not because his body stirred in response, but because all he could feel was panic. Amy was watching, and, once again, he was amazed at how much more that mattered than anything that was actually happening to him. In his mind, he heard a wordless song of anger in Amy’s voice, but also a note of warning he almost didn’t need. It was, as she had told him once, nothing that he couldn’t read in her eyes, as his own flicked, guiltily, to take her reaction in.
John put his hand to his side, and found Sabine fiddling with a button on his tights. He lifted the hand away. “None of that, thank you,” as he pushed her firmly away. In his mind, the song lost the warning tone, and minor chords of happiness appeared, almost drowned in the anger.
Having pushed Sabine back to a comfortable distance, John looked her in the eyes. “Can you tell us how you ended up here, Sabine?”
“Yeah,” she shrugged. “My buds got expelled this morning, so I cut class. I was at the mall when a super-fight broke out downtown. I was going to go see it, but when I was walking through the parking lot, a tunnel door just opened up in the middle of the pavement. So I figured, ‘awesome,’ went in, and couple minutes later, this stupid bubble thing caught me and floated into this stupid spaceship.”
“’Went in?’” Emily asked. “For all you knew, it was a supervillain’s lair! You should have called the Liberty League.”
“Yeah. But no. CPS in tights. My regular fosters are bad enough.” Sabine replied, waving a hand dismissively.
“And now you’re trapped in a supervillain’s spaceship with us,” Rafaella said, impatience clear in her voice. John noticed Jason’s eyes flicker to Rafe’s. He’d probably get an earful later about how Rafe had to learn to be the Hannibal to Jason’s Face. Jason was the only guy on Earth who’d actually seen the A-Team movie five times.
“Seriously, dude? Got five tightboys on my cellblock. I’m gonna chill while you break me out of here. Make it snappy, too. I got major action Saturday night.” Sabine brushed imaginary dust from the shoulder of her jacket.
Amy’s eyes narrowed. She probably didn’t like being called a ‘tightboy,’ but, let’s face it, it was hard not to laugh at Sabine’s sad attempts to sound cool, and John had a feeling she that she was focussing on her anger instead. It was amazing that someone as sweet as Amy could be bitchy, but, then, she was a person, and people were complicated. “What do you drive, again, Sabine?”
“I’ve got a Harley. A Hello Kitty Harley.” She smirked. John felt a sudden urge to hit Sabine.
Amy’s voice stayed level. “Did you ride it to the mall?”
“I like the mall. It’s the only place you can get away from the Tiger Daughters.” Sabine looked at Amy as though she had scored again, but she muttered the last, as though realising that she was throwing a strike. John was inclined to agree.
Amy gestured low. “In those boots? In November?” John looked down at the pretty, scuffles and perfect, and another double memory surfaced. On the one hand, Henry’s feet are wet and numb and cold as he stumbles off the back of Billy Tatum’s ancient motorcycle. It’s a powerful, disconcerting sensation to a boy so alive to the flow of his own ch’i. On the other, there is an even younger Brad Neilsen, hurrying into the alley behind the Yurt to look at Billy’s much-talked-about, never seen bike. Brad watches Henry wince as his squishing running shoes touch pavement, and he glancing down from the bike to Billy’s equally ancient, brutally scruffed boots. Motorcycling is hard on shoes.
When Amy was a bitch, she was a smart bitch.
“Yeah. Enough of this shit,” Sabine swept her arm up and down, the big silver watch on her wrist catching a glint from the overhead lights and turning it into the actinic flash of a welding torch. John blanked out.
When he woke up, John was tied up, hands bound behind his back, sitting down, legs stretched out in front of him, tied at ankle and knee with silver wires, professionally, as when El Professore demonstrated it. That is, they hurt. He reached for his powers. Not surprisingly, they seemed missing in action. Sabine was standing in the middle of the room, fiddling with a console that had somehow appeared there. His friends were sprawled on the floor across the bridge.
Rosa’s voice spoke silently in his ears. “Good Morning, John. Your friends are okay. But there’s this peasant child trying to break into my navigational controls, and it would be very nice if you would do something about it.”
John focussed very carefully on talking silently. “Can’t you deal with her?” He wasn’t very good, but at least he didn’t make enough noise for Sabine to notice.
“Yes, I can. I can blow the room out to vacuum and send my hull robots over to pick up the pieces. I hope you appreciate the fact that I’m not going to do that today.”
John didn’t reply. Rosa could do something, but it would be no help for his friends, except possibly Jason. So it was up to him. At least they were all right for now. The panic that had been rising in him vanished. If the gang were okay, this would work out. “Hey, Sabine.”
She looked over. “You know, if you’d just let me snap that button, this would all be over now. We’d be at my boss’s hangout. I bet even some of the technodemons she keeps on call would be enough to get you your powers and memories back.”
“Don’t want them, thanks very much.” John answered.
“You say that now. I think you’ll change your mind when we have our hands on the Basilisk Orb. If you still want the bitch, you can have her.”
“Amy’s not a bitch. You are!”
“Touchy. Best of all, you can skip the rest of your stupid, woe-is-me teenage years.”
That actually sounded attractive. John imagined what it would be like to be a grownup, free to do what he wanted; smart and capable and cool like Jameel or Tony or Billy Tatum. He could tell Mr. McNeely exactly what he thought of him, and smash him in the face if he made fun of Amy again.
Amy. “You know, Sabine, there’s not a lot of sixteen-year-olds who can afford a Harley.”
Sabine flicked her head. “It belongs to the boss.”
“And there’s not a lot of Harleys that can just wander in and out of a gated estate. They’re loud. And they have to, you know, go through gates.”
“I had enough of Twenty Questions already. My boss gave me a lot of gadgets. Half of them I don’t even really know what they do. You tell this ship to turn around, or I start testing them on your little friends.” Sabine looked away from the console at the team, and stepped towards them.
Okay. This was going to be tricky. “So you have some magic that only works on people with messy clothes? That’s crazy.”
“Nah,” Sabine smirked, turning around. “It was designed for you.”
John assumed that that was supposed to hurt. But who cared about that stuff? “Why didn’t you just undo a button while I was out cold?”
She shook her head. “It has to be your negligence. That’s the point.”
Duh. Also, ‘negligence.’ “I can’t tell Rosie what to do. And I don’t want you to hurt my friends.”
“And what can you do about it, tied up and suppressed, smart boy?” Sabine looked bored. Her body followed her eyes back towards his friends.
Desperately, John said, “I can feel my pants.”
She looked calmly back at him. “I thought you only had the hots for the Asian girl.”
John didn’t have to fake being embarrassed, or sounding desperate. “I mean, I didn’t tighten my belt properly. If I stand up again, they’re going to ride down, and my ginch will show. Good enough?”
Sabine nodded. “Good enough. I won’t hurt your friends.”
Liar. “You’ll have to come help me up.” This was so lame. No one could fall for this.
But she did. Apparently, the stories were true. John pushed himself back up against the wall, levering his body up. He wasn’t lying. He could feel the plumber’s gap starting at his back. Sabine came over to him. “Just put your hands in my armpits and lift me up and forward.” Sabine came forward, putting her hands gingerly out. John was grimly amused that she didn’t complain about her back. It looked like May was right.
Sabine’s breasts were distracting, but more distracting was the fear. John had to be right about what was going on, and it went without saying that he couldn’t let her touch her. Well, his plan would work. Just as long as he could pull off a move that he hadn’t made in a month. Henry could do this without breathing hard, John thought. If it was technique that mattered, he had it.
But it wasn’t technique. It was strength. He had to be strong. He had to be in the moment when he found the strength, like that time he was helping Mr. Wong with the post, and somehow he found that extra bit of power inside to wrestle it up. Mr. Wong had clapped him on the shoulder when they finished. Then it had been for Mr. Wong, and, frankly, to show that stupid post who was boss. Now, it was to show the girl who called herself Sabine that she couldn’t get away with treating Amy like that.
John surged, and his body snapped into the air. He couldn’t hold his pose, of course. Maybe Henry could, with his legs bound together in two places, but if there was one thing that John had learned about kung fu, there was a different muscle to go with every technique, and until it started to hurt from the exercise, you wouldn’t even know it was there to be exercised. So, of course, the moment he was on his feet, he was falling into Sabine.
As he planned. Face blushing for new reasons, John lunged, mouth first, at Sabine’s throat. This was the second tricky part. Even if Sabine was what he suspected, there was no reason for it to be there.
It was. His teeth closed on metal. The hard shock of the chain against his clenching teeth was brutally painful, but he hung on, falling away to the side as he did so. It was hard to control the panic that comes from falling, knowing that you can’t put your hands out to protect yourself, but that was just one more test that he could pass for Amy. Crazy as it was to think that anything he did right now would impress Amy for a second after he’d just hugged Sabine right in front of her.
So John fell, pulling Sabine awkwardly after him by the chain around her neck. This was the interesting part. Would the chain break? It did. John managed to twist as he fell, coming down first on his but, and then, glancingly, striking with his shoulder to cushion the blow to his head so that it was only blindingly painful. But he had the charm, its weight lying pooled on his shoulder. He looked up, and deflated inside.
The supervillain, Gyre, was standing over him in black pants, black shoes, one of those awful, stain-resistant white shirts, a black tie and the blue vest of a Price Rite Junior Retail Leader. The silver badge on her lapel said, “Sarah Brinton, Assistant Manager.” John thought to himself that his badge, if he had one, would read, “Idiot.”
“What was that stunt supposed to accomplish?” Gyre asked. John couldn’t help but notice that her ears were sticking out through her stringy hair again. He spat the chain out, his teeth aching.
John didn’t have to hide his anger, because he was as angry at himself as he was at her. “My friend …Technomancer made a gadget like that. You were supposed to be at work. I was hoping that Sabine was just a projection. I mean, no-one sees her at school but me, and usually only when I’m charmed.”
Gyre rolled her eyes. “I know you guys are. I know everything that moron Todd knows. And I’m on modified duties for back pain. Surely your little friends have told you that.
“I knew about the modified…But you’ve got to do some work! They’re paying you!”
Gyre just shrugged. “Why, when I can get away with hanging around the office all day? I’d just be playing with my phone. So I leave a projection to do it, and jump back if anything important happens. Which it doesn’t. Complete waste of time. Almost as bad as being back in high school. And I thought grad school was insufferable.”
John felt almost angry now. That wasn’t fair! Mr. Wong had to go to work every day, sometimes on the weekend. May and Jameel had to drag themselves to work sometimes, and when Savannah had smashed her hand trying to replace a printer, she hadn’t even reported it so that she wouldn’t miss a shift. “You, you’re lazy!”
“And you’ve got a lot to learn about the world, John. Now, are your tights still tucked in?” Gyre touched one of her bracelets, and John felt an irresistible force levering him over on his side. No. No, they were not.