Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Chapter 31: Last, and First

And so ends John and the Masterplan. I imagined the last part first, they always say. Of course I did. I imagine it a lot, and I should really do something about that.

Well, strictly, there's an epilogue to come to set up the next volume, but here ends this story.
Chapter 31: Last, And First

John’s legs were starting to feel just a little sore by the time he finished his third helping. He was sitting on the Fairlane, next to Amy and his other classmates, the scene still lit by the fading Moon. Agent Byrne was standing at the side of the road, scratching the Lion Stallion’s neck and talking quietly and intensely to the State troopers, who were apparently upset that there was a dragon’s corpse lying across the county road. The VIPER forces had vanished just before the first patrol car showed up.
That was when David Wong materialised out of thin air in front of him, holding Jason by the arm. Jason was holding a samosa in his hand. David looked around himself, wrinkled his nose, and kicked a zombie’s arm off the road. Then he said, “How can you eat with this smell?” Jason pushed the samosa into his mouth, leaving a pea hanging at the corner of his mouth. John automatically reached up and touched his own face, and found a noodle in the same place. He would have answered David, but, for some reason, couldn’t find the words.
Rafe could. Or thought she could, because all she said was, “But we were-,” and then she trailed off into silence as David stared. Then Agent appeared in front of David. John thought that he must have walked over, and wondered how he’d failed to notice something happening right in front of him.
“You must be Dr. Wong,” Agent Byrne began. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
David looked back, coldly. “And you’re Agent Byrne, and I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Oh, Jeez. Look, can’t someone around here get past one little mistake?”
One? One? You tried to seduce my sister. A high school student. Then you tried to blow up her boyfriend.”
“Eh, this whole agent of the forces of good didn’t seem to be doing it for me. I was exploring other career options. It was my first day.”
“Supervillain is not a career option!”
“As I realised. Thank Heavens this is America, where we have internships, and you can learn that sort of stuff.”
“Intern?” Suddenly, David looked a lot more like his Dad, and a lot less like his mother. Specifically, the way that Mr. Wong had looked the day that John dropped that post on his foot.
“Sure. Are we going to be dealing with the kids, now? They’re pretty vegged out.” Perhaps sensing that the conversation wasn’t going as smoothly as he’d like, Byrne spoke quickly, hard on the tail of David’s comment.
“They need to be poured into bed. And as the responsible adult, I’m volunteering.”
“Yeah. Thanks, but we won’t be needing your help, Agent Byrne.” As he spoke, headlights flicked off behind John, and car doors opened. Seconds later, quiet, middle-aged people, all looking strangely like Mr. and Mrs. Brown, gathered around the front of the Fairlane. One of them took John by the arm, and led him back to the car. He didn’t recognise the make. I really must be tired, John thought. Then he was getting into the passenger’s seat. The driver looked like he could be Mr. Brown’s brother. After watching John fumble with the seatbelt for a moment, he reached over and buckled him in. The man smelled like the forest. Then he pulled back, automatically wiping his face as he did so. John reached up and touched his own, again. This time he found wet grease streaked on his cheek. Instead of wiping it off, John used his index finger to draw streaks across his cheek.
“Do you want me to show you how to do that trick for real?” The man asked.
“I,” John began, and realised what Rafe’s problem had been. The words that he wanted did not seem to be in his head any more. After a long moment, he organised himself enough to ask a question that actually mattered. “Amy?”
“Kids.” The man shook his head, and, after a long moment, realised that that was not enough of an answer. “You’ll see her day after tomorrow.”
And that was that. Just like in some novel, it was the last thing John remembered until he woke in the bright, flowing light of late morning in the kind of place that you would get if you crossed a bedroom with a barn. He was lying in the middle of a huge, comfortably soft bed, wearing stiff, starched pajamas of a deep, lustrous brown, picked out in forest green crosschecks. They weren’t really his colours, but he could tell that they went with the coffee tan of the sheets, in which he would have happily stayed all day.
 So John did not really understand why he was getting out of that bed, pushing the comforter and the blankets aside to let the cold of the bedroom air hit him, then standing up on the plush rug floating on a sea of polished hardwood, to dress in a brown gown. Except that he was very, very hungry, and, somewhere in the house, bread was baking. There was a coffee-coloured bath towel underneath the gown, so John crossed the width of the bedroom, at least twenty feet, to the ensuite bathroom. It had heat lamps that went on when he turned on the lights. It was the most luxurious thing John had ever seen, and, twenty minutes later, finished his shower. For some reason, though, he could smell the bread still under the floral scents of soap and shampoo.
The house outside the bedroom door was as big as the bedroom, and it was not until he’d walked all the way to the middle of the wing and down the big spiral staircase that he realised that he’d been here before. It was Muskrat Lodge, and from the foot of the stairs, he could figure out his way to the breakfast nook.
The nook, which would have done for a dining room anywhere else, was another oasis of warmth in a cold house. David Wong was sitting at the foot of a table, looking at his laptop. To his side was a plate with cottage cheese, sliced fruit, an egg in a cup, and a single scone. John knew Mr. Wong’s diet lunch perfectly well by now, because Amy’s father never stopped complaining about it. At the end of the table, opposite David, was a full table service with a bread basket and glasses of milk and orange juice in front of it. As John slid tentatively around David towards it in the hope that it might be for him, Mrs. Brown appeared in the door to the kitchen.
“John! Just in time for breakfast! Please, sit down!” John hurried over to comply. Mrs. Brown put a plate of fried eggs, bacon, sausages, hash browns, and tomatoes in front of him as he did. John looked at them approvingly. The eggs were liberally sprinkled with pepper and paprika, the hash browns dotted with browned bits of onion and wilted greens. He was reaching for the ketchup and HP Sauce that were ranked in a bottle holder in front of him when his eyes met David’s. Somehow, the hunger didn’t seem quite so intense. “Where’s everyone else?”
“If you mean Dad, I’m sparing him the sight of watching you eat. If you mean the team, everyone except you and Rafe are in Philadelphia.”
John’s stomach dropped. The outsiders were being kicked out.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake! I kept you here for a few tests, and we’re using Rafe to lay a false trail across the border of the V’hanian Empire. Should keep her uncle busy for a year or two. She’ll be back in a day or two. If nothing goes wrong.” David stopped for a second, then sang to the tune of “Loch Lomond,”

“As dauntless in battle as tender in love/she’d yield ne’er a foot to the foeman/ But never again frae the fields of the slain/ To  his Moira will he come by Loch Lomond”

John did shut up and eat at that point. Breakfast had disappeared down to his last pieces of toast, and hot milk tea had appeared beside him. At that, John took a suspicious peak back into the kitchen, but there was no sign of Mrs. Wong, although the salty, buttery taste was just like her’s. Mrs. Brown peaked around the corner as if on cue. “Mindy taught me the recipe, but I don’t get to make it very often.”
When John looked back, Mr. Wong was sitting at the table, staring sourly at his lunch. “So, John. David has explained that he wants to do a few tests on you up at Goblin Deep?”
“How long will it take, sir?”
“Oh, not too long, I’m sure. You’ll be back in Philadelphia by noon, Saturday.” He paused and looked at his plate for a long time. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I don’t think I’m hungry after all.” He picked up his plate and walked into the corridor to the kitchen.
“What was that all about?” John asked.
“Dad’s cheating on his diet. You can smell the fried onions from the hot dog he had down in State College this morning.” David replied levelly.
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it. You’re testing me to see if I’ve turned into Sovereign!”
David looked at John for a long, long time. “Feeling guilty about something, John?”
John didn’t answer, but he could feel the blush rising on his face.
“Good. You should be. John, you can’t test for morals. At least, not with equipment I know how to use. Or, I should say, not at the level I’d need to test at. Sovereign doesn’t think he’s a bad man. He thinks that he’s making the hard choices needed to save the galaxy. Last night, for a moment, you thought you needed to make a hard choice to save your friends.” David’s eyes bored into John’s, and John felt his blush spread and deepen.
“Here’s the thing, though. Sovereign’s got it the wrong way around. Long ago, he started to use ‘saving the galaxy’ as an excuse to do the things that he pretends are the hard choices. Where that comes from, I’m not sure, because I’m not his therapist. I can guess, though, that it comes from a place of self-loathing.”
Now the eldest Wong kid straightened up in his chair, and his voice got deeper. John recognised the ‘this-is-the-very-important-moral’ mode slipping over him like a robe over some old professor’s shoulders on TV. “Self-criticism is a very important part of who we are. There’s a little voice inside us that is always telling us that we can do better. People joke that Wongs ‘try too hard.’ It’s true. That little voice is loud in our heads. I don’t know if it’s a family trait, or something we picked up from Dad, who has been trying his whole life to make his parents love him.
“Life is about learning and growth, and you can’t learn or grow without self-criticism. But sometimes, that voice says things we can’t bear to hear. It says that we’re not worthy to be loved. Dad and Mom know something about that voice. They think that that’s what Sovereign’s voice is saying, and that he can’t bear to hear it. He’ll destroy the universe first.”
“John, my parents have been preparing to take you in for thirty years now.” John felt his eyes go wide in astonishment, but David held up his hand to forestall questions. “Time travel. You’ll understand when you’re older. They had a choice. Raise you like some state-approved foster parent with locks on every door, or give you a home, where you could learn that you can love, and be loved.
"And before you start going all Harry Potter on me, they have plans for every other problem child that the tides of fate have brought or are bringing to the door of the Yurt. I don’t think that my Mom would have it any other way. She’s such a matchmaker.”
“Actually, at the end, Harry Potter and Neville-”
David looked cross as he held up his hand. “Spoiler, John! Jeez, do you know how hard it is to keep up on your reading when you’re finishing a fellowship?”
“It’s been out for, like, years. Wait, you’re kidding!”
“Yeah, I’m kidding. So you had a moment when you thought like you think that Sovereign thinks. But you’re wrong about that, and, anyway, you realised your mistake quickly enough. Life does sometimes give you hard choices. But not often, and certainly not to smart people like you.”
“Wait. Isn’t that the point of the Kobayashi Maru Incident?” John asked.
“That smart people somehow need to be given that one no-win situation so that they’ll learn that they’re not infallible? Maybe. As in, maybe somewhere in the universe there’s someone so smart that they’ve never failed before. The rest of us just have to learn the one about where there’s life, there’s hope. That’s why we try not to shoot people. Which, I’ll point out, you didn’t. So if that were what I was testing for, you’d have passed already. Congratulations.”  
“So what are you testing for?” Now John was curious. And ready for another piece of toast. He reached to his side. Somehow, his cup of milk tea was refilled.
“As I believe has been pointed out, John, you’ve shown both clairvoyant and proleptic abilities in the past few months. Which isn’t that surprising. They’re a common power set amongst psionics.”
“Amy doesn’t have them,” John pointed out.
“Amy has been dreaming of a tall boy with wild hair spilling a cup of chai for three years now. Sound familiar?”
John blushed. She’d never told him that.
“I thought so. As I was saying, they’re a common powerset. But Sovereign doesn’t have them. I want to find out more about your powers.”
“I thought you said they were pretty common?”
“Psionics are the mental faculty that arise when the consciousness entangles the outside world through the dimensions. There are many ways that our mental perceptions can become unmoored in the dimension of time. Prolepsis is common. How it's accomplished is another matter.”
“And you think,” John began.
“That the modality of your powers is significant. Of course. You see, the human in us is linked to the natural world by currents of the two dialectical forces of yin and yang-“ David stopped. “Kid, you’ve seen me teleport. You’ve seen Henry punch a werewolf through a tree. Maybe it’s time to give up on that whole ‘I’ll ignore the Eastern mysticism mumbo jumbo ‘till it stops’ attitude.”
John smirked. “Has it stopped yet?”
  “I guess we can’t be encouraging you to study math and science and not get some kind of pushback. Okay, put it another way. My mother thinks that the reason that you can predict the future and Sovereign can’t is that you’re in touch with the fundamental life forces. She thinks that there’s a connection between you and the life forces, and whatever scheme Uncle Kwan has been trying to pull off for the last hundred years or more. I don’t know about that, but I can get you to call some Rhine cards this afternoon while I stare at your brain with a Malvan thingamajiggy.”
“So, in other words,” John said carefully, “You are going to test me to see whether I’m turning into Sovereign.”
David winced. “You got me, kid. But I know that you’re going to pass.”
“So why isn’t Mr. Wong here right now?”
David rubbed his eyes for a moment. “Duh. Because he knows you’ve asked his daughter out. You wait till you’re a Dad, he keeps telling us.”
“What? How did he know?”
“Remind me to lend you my copy of The Complete Dummy’s Guide to Reading Teenagers like a Book sometime. It’s very short.”
A day later, on a Saturday evening under a waning Moon, John got out of Tyrell Washington’s car and stepped through the gate into the Wong’s backyard. His borrowed clothes were nice, but tight and strangely fitted. He had a corsage in one hand, and flowers in the other, because that’s what you were supposed to do on a first date, and he was as scared as he’d ever been.
John walked up the back way. Even though it was hardly past 8, there was only one light on in the house. At least, facing the backyard. It was the Wong’s bedroom. On the verandah, Amy was sitting on the couch, wearing a blue gown, with a Hudson’s Bay blanket over her legs. She looked up at John, and smiled, and, without a word, flipped the tail of the blanket up and over her lap to make a place for him to sit.
John sat. Amy flipped the blanket back over his lap. “I got you these,” he said, before he realised how idiotic he sounded. That little voice, making me a better person, one screw up a time, he thought.
“Shh,” Amy said. She took the flowers gently out of his hands, and then turned around to put her hand against his chest. As he bent down to kiss her, John registered that the light in the bedroom had gone out. The Dragon Lady’s masterplan had worked.

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