Chapter 2, 4: Making Connections
Chris found the classrooms in the shiny Star Trek secret school were much more normal than the halls. If you forgot about all about the computer-TV-stereo stuff everywhere, and the fact that the blackboards were white.
In fact, one of the classrooms was actually up in the attic of the old school, dripping with plants under a high skylight, with the one teacher who actually felt like home to Chris, an older hippy, although a lot sharper than the kind he was familiar with. She probably didn’t sell weed to her students, either, Chris guessed. Not that he minded that. He’d had one or two of that kind of teacher, enough to resent the way that they tried to be buddies with Chris until something went down wrong with them and they got all huffy. He almost preferred the hard cases.
The point was, he felt a little more at home as he sat in the corner trying to figure out how to use one of the picture-frame-magazine-computer things accept his answers and then print them out while the rest of the class went to work on their assignments. It was a pretty familiar experience for Chris. They were placement/progress exams.
Chris got those every year. They’d look at his clothes and try to put him in with the stupid kids, and his grand-dad or his uncle would give the school a phone call, and they’d give him the exams, and he’d end up in the smart kid class. Every year, he guessed, the school thought that the trailer park was going to take over. Which was dumb, considering that some of the so-called smart kids were dumber than the stupid ones. Chris pointed that out to them sometimes. He figured that was one reason he had to take the exams every year.
This time, however, he could tell that he wasn’t going to change his teachers minds by proving that he could read. The secret school had two teachers besides Miss Grey, the hippy, and they were distinctly hard cases. The first was literally a Mexican wrestler, calling himself “El Professore,” bare-chested and wearing a mask. He was supposedly the Phys. Ed teacher or something, but when he marked Chris’ English paper by just looking at it before walking over to the table to show Chris how to diagram the sentences, Chris couldn’t help being a little impressed. He’d never even imagined a Mexican explaining the difference between a participle and a gerund.
Finally, there was a shop class, this time with a normal teacher, a bearded guy in coveralls called Mr. Brown. It was a little weird that these super-secret classes for superhero’s kids had so many of the classes that stupid kids took, Chris thought when he walked in the door. As with El Professore, Chris soon learned differently. Sure, it was cool that the class was taking one of VIPER’s hovertanks apart. It was just that Chris didn’t like algebra to start with. Having to use it to figure out stuff about the hovercraft that you could read right out of the manual or something was just one of those ways that teachers tried to make you think that math actually had a point. The way that Mr. Brown just let Chris walk up to the hovercraft and push a wire aside to read the battery’s voltage suggested that he was in on it. Too bad that it turned out that the wire was live.
Chris didn’t remember much of the next few minutes. He must have been thrown across the room, because he came to lying on the floor, his feet stinging from breaking his flight against the wall. The girls were crowding around him, Dino, Tyrell, and Cory Cox standing a little further back with Mr. Brown. Babs and Savannah were holding his hands.
“That was dumb,” Eve pointed out, standing behind Babs.
Tyrell nodded. “Sure was.” Cory raised an eyebrow.
Babs McNeely looked back over her shoulder at the red head. “You’re a cave girl. What do you know about electricity?”
Eve tossed her long, red curls, and it was like the air in the classroom changed. “I know to keep my hands off a fetish when the cunning man says.” Chris felt four quick pricks on his arm, light but unmistakeable, from Babs McNeely’s fingers. His attention turned from Eve to Babs in time to catch her eyes flash a feral yellow before adjusting to their normal brown. As she saw Chris looking at her, her eyes narrowed for a second.
Mr. Brown stood at the back of the cluster of students, an amused look on his face. Chris realised that the instructor had known that this was going to happen, and flushed with angry heat. He’d been made out for a retard, and now the teacher was going to lay it out! Yet, as the seconds went on, while the girls prodded him and even pulled up his eyelids, Mr. Brown just stood there. Maybe Mr. Brown was going to let it pass? Chris could feel himself, ever so slightly beginning to cool down.
At last, Brown spoke. Chris braced himself for public humiliation. “Eve? Did Mr. Wong hit his head?”
Now Eve bent down and stretched her fingers out gently towards Chris’ forehead. The moment her fingers brushed his skin, the classroom vanished for a second, and Chris was looking up at a hugely fat crow, perched on a telephone line in the half light of evening. It looked down at him, then light hopped around to show its rear, a little ripple of feathers across its backside dismissing what it had just seen, before diving down and away from the wire to get a little air before swooping off into the distance. As the crow disappeared into the darkness, the room returned. “No, Mr Brown. I think…”
Eve trailed off. “Or maybe. He should go see the school nurse, just to be sure.”
And that was how Chris ended up in Ms. Grey’s attic again, meeting with the school counsellor, Bethany Cambridge. Doctor Bethany Cambridge, who seemed to be both an official Tatammy High counsellor and a member of the secret faculty. She was about his mother’s age, maybe 35, dressed in a skirt and suit top that reminded Chris a little of Police Woman, only in boring office colours of blue and white that at least went with her blonde hair. The only unofficial part was bright-coloured, dangly feather earrings that somehow didn’t seem right on her.
She had a stethoscope, too, which she used to do a more official version of whatever test that Savannah had done on her eyes. “Well, no pupil dilation, Chris. Did you hit your head?”
Chris shook his head. Even shocked, his reflexes had been enough to flip him to strike feet first. “Use your words,” she said, not like a cute girl kidding you, but like someone pretending to be your mother.
“Of course,” Chris snarled.
“Why so angry, Christopher?”
For a moment he thought about not telling her. The smart move would be to figure out what she thought about Mr. Brown and fitting his story to that. But thinking like that made Chris feel like he had no friends at all, and today of all days, when everything had been going so well with his new class until he electrocuted himself, he didn’t want to feel like that.
“Because Mr. Brown knew that it was going to happen, and he just let me go ahead and touch that wire.”
Dr. Cambridge nodded her head. “That’s terrible. Why do you think that he did that?”
Chris was amazed. Didn’t this woman understand about sticking with your friends? And the thought that he was agreeing with a snitch clued him into his mistake. Yes, Mr. Brown knew that he was going to touch the wire, but he also knew that it wouldn’t hurt Chris. He also didn’t make fun of Chris. Maybe things would have gone that way if Chris had stayed in class –but now that Chris thought about it, that hadn’t happened because he’d ended up at the counsellor. And that had happened because Mr. Brown wanted it to happen. The exercise had been one of those stupid lessons about how algebra was useful in real life. Only the lesson was a lot more direct than any Chris had ever had before. His lips pulled back in a smirk, but all he said to Dr. Cambridge was, “Maybe. Can I go back to class now?”
“Not just yet, Chris. Now that I’ve got you here, I’ve got a few tests for you.” She opened up an accordion folder and pulled out a sheaf of multiple choice sheets. “:They’re not hard. There’s no right or wrong answers, just circle the option that sounds best to you.”
Of course they weren’t. They were those stupid tests that they made you do to find out if you were an axe murderer or something. Chris’s Dad had tried to show him how to fake that kind of test, but Mr. Vezina said that if you weren’t actually an axe murderer, you didn’t need to fake them. That was another of the things that Mr. Vezina said that made Chris mad at him. Even though it was true.
So Chris did the exams, his attention occasionally wandering when a big crow landed or took off from the gable out through one of the porthole windows in Miss Grey’s office walls. It was weird that when Miss Grey was teaching, all you could see out of these windows were strange skies and ghostly lights, but when it was Doctor Cambridge, it was crows and shingles and the grey concrete of the quad between the Old Schoolhouse and the main campus. That weirdness at least made it a little less strange when Chris saw the crow. Was it the bird from his vision? He couldn’t tell crows apart, Charlotte’s pet aside, but he’d seen enough crows in the last few days for it to be more than a coincidence. They’d been acting strangely at the hospital when his Mom died, too, he thought, watching curly red hair and straight black cross the quad at class break while the crow danced on the roof, its claws clacking side to side.
He thought he was going to be doing the exams forever, but just a minute after that, Miss Grey walked in, followed by Amy, Cory, Jamie, and Graydon. “I’m going to need my office for twenty minutes or so, Beth. We’re apparently having a meeting of the Cricket Club executive to talk about a New Year’s Dance.”
Dr. Cambridge stood up. “That sounds like fun. And short notice.”
“Black Rose says that she’s free to chaperone for New Years, and it would be easy for her to bring all the teams over to a banquet hall in Luathon.”
“I’ve never been to the Evening Land! Is there a Decorating Committee that needs a faculty advisor?”
“That’s a great idea, Doctor Cambridge,” Jamie said brightly. “Would you like to stay and discuss it?”
“No, I really need to finish administering these tests to Chris,” she said, turning to grab the door and open it.
Chris’s eyes lingered a little longer on the student politicians. He realised that he would actually prefer to stay and listen to them natter about Team Spirit than go with the counsellor. Jamie mouthed, “We tried.” Chris smiled back. It made him feel a little better.
The tests just didn’t have good luck today, however. Half way across the quad, a man in a sweater vest, shorter but clearly related to Manny Guzman, came striding up from behind. “Ah, Dr. Cambridge. I was hoping to run into you before my conference call. Are you free to join me in my office for a minute?”
“Principal Guzman! I was actually just finishing up a battery with one of our new students. Chris Wong, have you met the principal, Mr. Guzman?”
“No, ma’am, I haven’t. Are you Manuel’s Dad, sir?”
“Yes,” said the principal, beaming. “Very pleased to meet you, Chris. Your uncle is a very dear old friend of mine, and a fine cricketer, so I’m hoping for some great things from you on the pitch! Now, I’ll be borrowing Doctor Cambridge for a moment, so if you’ll just go into the first classroom to the left inside the entrance, you’ll find a computer lab.” The principal’s wrists, Chris noticed as he handed over the little booklet, were immensely thick and wrapped in cabled muscles. He’d seen wrists like that before recently, even if he couldn’t quite place where. Oh well, he’d figure it out, and probably feel as stupid as Lois Lane the day she found out who Superman was when he did.
Chris was wondering what, exactly, he was supposed to do in a computer lab until he walked into a bare-floored classroom crowded with desks, with a computer on each one, and Billy Tatum sitting in the absolute middle, and Eve on his far side, tapping away at a computer keyboard, one of those little phone things in her ear. The only other students in the room were a huge albino kid right up at the front and a little Asian girl up at the front. The albino was wearing a green parka that was even bigger than him, in spite of the indoors warmth, and oversized headphones that bunched up his chalky white hair. He was slouched over so that his eyes were only inches from the screen. The girl had her hair tied up in a bun, and was contriving to sit cross-legged in her chair, pulled in on herself like she was nervous about something. A blue mug sat beside her, and Chris caught a faint whiff of tea from the front of the room.
Whatever. Chris eased his way to the seat beside Billy’s. Eve didn’t even look up. Chris felt a little disappointed.
“Hey, Chris! I’m supposed to show you the ropes! You still want that lunch?”
“Yes, I still want that lunch. What happened to yours? And why isn’t there anyone else in here?”
“I ate it. The class is booked for the Special Ed class all day, but they’re on field trips this week except for Snowflake up there. And no-one wants to use these terminals, because they all run XP and they’re slow as hell.” Billy made a face, as though Chris was supposed to know what that meant. “But they’ll do fine for the tutorials. Also, there’s an easy ‘sploit to get onto the Internet so, I can set you up on Facebook ‘n stuff.”
“Yeah, see, being a teen has changed since being able to slap-start a jukebox was cool. Say. What kind of music do you like? Disco or stuff? Anyway, here’s where you put your account number, which I happen to have here. Here’s your default password. Now you think of a password of your own. It’s got to be easy to remember, exactly 8 characters long, containing two capital letters not consecutive, two numbers, also not consecutive, and one punctuation mark, not including quotation marks, apostrophes, tildes, or @.”
“What, again? Also, ‘at’ what? And furthermore, what some more?”
“I’d be doing way better at this if my blood sugar wasn’t in danger of finding oil.” Billy sighed dramatically.
Chris wasn’t feeling that sympathetic. It was almost noon, and he was hungry, too. “Sorry, man. You’re just going to have to make do with one lunch.”
“Aw. It’s just I couldn’t wait to eat it. Say, I’ll take you to a college kegger on Friday if you give me your lunch.”
“You just promised to take me to a kegger if I traded you lunches this morning.”
“Like, I totally forgot, dude.” Billy grinned, like Chris wasn’t supposed to believe that.
“Also, Graydon says that graduate students don’t do end-of-exam keggers.”
“Yeah, but the Institute is doing comps and a couple defences this week. That’s like finals, only with more throwing up in the bathroom. Trust me. They’ll be unwinding like PhD candidates this Friday.”
Chris figured that there had to be a catch, but he had no idea what it might be. “You can have a twinkie.”
“Thanks, man. Okay. Put the cursor on the browser window. Oh boy, you’ve never used a mouse, have you? Here, put your hand on this, and…”
Chris jumped in his seat when the buzzer rang for 3:30, and, after sheepishly trying to sweep sandwich crumbs and mayonnaise off the keyboard for a moment, had to run for his ride with Billy. Once again, the Reliant and the Mercedes followed each other in convoy through the busy streets from Tatammy to Pemberton, but this time when they pulled into the parking lot, Jamie’s dark-green-and-primer Subaru Forester was waiting there as well. Graydon stopped and turned the engine off. “Okay, everybody out!”
Chris got out, a little confused, and Charlotte walked over to him. “Rose is coming over to our place for dinner. Tyrell is giving her a lift.” Chris took a long look at Tyrell, who blushed. Something was up there. Chris was just glad that Eve was coming home with them, instead of making her own plans.
“Doesn’t that mean that there’s no babysitters?” Chris asked.
“May and Jameel are riding shotgun.” Chris tried to figure out the social coordination involved. From what he’d seen of Billy, everyone must have been ‘texting’ everybody all afternoon long, although he wasn’t quite clear on the point of it all. It also meant that there were three in the front and five in the back of the Reliant on the drive home. Chris wasn’t sure how that made anyone safer, and when they got back to the Yurt, Chris cold tell at a glance from the cold stare that passed between May and her mother that Mrs. Wong was going to be making that point herself. But, in the meantime, Chris got to listen to Rose, who was apparently from some post-apocalyptic alternate future, peppering Jameel with questions about the 31st Century. He also liked sitting next to Eve, who was crammed up against the driver’s side door, her elbows forward against headrest. The only thing better would have been if he were driving instead of Tyrell.
Once home, the gang split up. The day marked two weeks without a workout, so Chris headed down to the basement gym with May, Jameel and Charlotte, while Rose doubled up in the corner to watch, a wire stuck directly into the gym’s cable tv outlet into a little socket built into her wrist, while Tyrell and Eve watched TV in the rec room. May joked about leaving the door open, and Chris felt a pang of insane jealousy.
“Woah, bucko,” May said, a moment later, looking down at him. “That would have taken my head off if you’d connected. And if you’d done a proper job of marshalling your qi.” Chris looked up at the ceiling, waiting for some air to make it back into his lungs. It was true. He’d just tried to throw off an Eight Spirit Fist without even thinking about it. Well, May could take it. Looking at the way that Jameel parkoured the room, everyone here could take it, except maybe Charlotte.
“Less bodies flying around, more technique, please,” Rose said, as Chris got up and took up the Fourth Treasure position again. “I can’t focus on crawling this ludicrously weak sauce search algorithm if someone’s going to drop into my lap any minute.” She said it as Jameel dropped off the ceiling and threw a roundhouse kick into Chris’ face with cyborg speed. Fortunately, Chris had found his calm, and switched his qi to speed. Dipping under the kick, he grabbed Jameel’s leg in a joint lock and gave it a little flex from his shoulder. Nothing; it was strong as a girder, and Jameel’s other leg came in to sweep his. They both went down in a tangle, Jameel’s head bouncing inches away from Rose.
“Oh my God! Are you hurt, Jameel?” She said, her head crooking over a few degrees to stare down at the boy’s face.
Jameel laughed, deep and rich like the 7-Up commercial guy. “Don’t you worry about me, girl. I’m a One Marine Army Corps, I am.” He paused for a second. “Let’s see DC Comics sue me for that.” Then he grabbed at Chris’s arm and left him pouring his qi into strength, until even the Eight Spirit Treasure wasn’t enough, and Chris had to spring to the ceiling, flipping and kicking off to come back at Jameel. This time, technique beat power, and Jameel went hammering into the foam mats that covered the far wall of the basement.
“Okay, break it up for a second, boys,” May said. “Charlotte is going to show me some moves she tried to pull the other day.”
“What moves?” Charlotte asked.
“Don’t play dumb with me, girl. I know Dim Mak when I smell it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Charlotte answered.
“Char,” Chris said in a warning tone.
Charlotte held her hands in a stiff finger Dim Mak pose that Chris remembered from the scrum behind the Golden Dynasty.
“Yeah. Like that,” May breathed. “You learn that from your Dad?”
Charlotte looked at the mat, took a long second, and said, sullenly, “Yeah.”
“Well, we’re going to have to have a talk about that with my Dad.”
“It’s just a technique,” Charlotte protested.
“It’s not just a technique. It’s negative energy and it’s evil. Yin Wu used it to kill Bruce Lee.” A long pause left Chris thinking that there was something not being said here. He’d heard of the Devil Mandarin, but never that China’s Public Enemy Number One had been in on Bruce Lee’s death.
“Okay. That’s said, now let’s see what you can do.” On the last word, May swept out her feet, moving as fast as Jameel; but Charlotte was ready, and jumped over her leg, delivering a hard, fast snap kick in mid-air that May blocked, spinning Charlotte back. Chris’s sister dropped to the ground, tapping one hand to the mat and sweeping her own legs into May’s, and it was the older cousin’s turn to jump and dodge. But when the older Wong cousin came down, it was to trap Charlotte under her legs. “Nice try, cuz.”
Tyrell ambled in the open door, hands jammed in his pocket just as the match ended. “I miss anything?”
Rose looked over, her eyes shining. “These guys are awesome. Like, the Wongs do kung fu like in the movies, and Jameel is some kind of super soldier.” Then she blinked. “And I can’t find out anything about the Apocalypse Plague on your public database. I don’t understand. I know it happened in this timeline. Why is everyone alive?”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Tyrell said, a little awkwardly. “Uhm, anyway, Babs needs someone to pick her up at work, so I’m going to head out. Rose, you coming?”
May snorted. “Babs can walk home from Shop Rite to the mansion. Through the tunnels, if she’s scared of a few widdle muggers.”
“I’d like a ride,” Jameel said. “My shift starts in an hour, anyway.”
May looked at Rose for a second. “Don’t worry about Rose. Dad’ll be home soon, and I can borrow his car and drop her off at your place. What time’s dinner? Six? Done.”
Chris and Charlotte worked out with May for another half hour, and then with Mr. Wong for half an hour after that. When they finally came up for a fried chicken dinner, crunchy pieces on rice with a spicy chili sauce and fried baby bok choy on the side, Mrs. Wong was waiting for him. “Did Billy enjoy his lunch?”
“How did you know-“ Chris blurted.
His aunt gave him a half-smile. “I hope Billy made it worth your while.”
Chris hesitated for a second. Crap. Either he lied, or he would end up not being allowed to go the kegger. He took a long look at his aunt, because, frankly, his first impulse was to lie. But she spoke first. “He invited you to the Christmas party at the Institute, didn’t he?”
“Unh, yes, ma’am?”
“I’ll pack you a double lunch tomorrow, and you can throw out that Institute crap.”