The Atom used to be a university professor who fought crime. If you've spent any time in academia, you'd be completely unsurprised that one of his main archenemies was another professor. I think? Was that the original version of Jason Woodrue, or a couple of revisions in? The point is that botanists don't get much respect from the mad scientist perspective. I think it might be a gender bias thing.
Chapter 2, 6: Plagues
“Damn. How does this thing work again?” Chris asked, fiddling with his quick-change ring.
“Turn the top part half left while pushing down, then towards your knuckle.” Tyrell showed the moves with his hand. Chris imitated him and, just like that, he was wearing his Tatammy All-Weather Uniform Fatigue tights. It sure beat getting dressed in the morning. Except for the part about being decked out in the school’s black-and-white uniform costume tights, with black half-mask and whole-body tights, except for gloves, boots, and trunk in white, giving that “wearing your underwear over your pants” look.
“Okay, you can turn around now, Eve,” Billy said.
She did. “I love a man in uniform. Other men, maybe not so much. Now watch this, and, maybe scoot up to the edge of the office.” Eve held up her hands and then brought them down across her body in a complex gesture, fingers twisted together. Instantaneously, her clothes turned into a sable fur bikini with a shell-and-tooth necklace with a green jade centre-piece, wide leather bracelets, mid-calf hide boots worn hair out, a fringed medicine pouch on a leather belt cross-belt balanced with an obsidian-bladed dagger and a jade tomahawk. She held a seven foot spear in one hand, with a small, circular shield, and a lasso was coiled around her shoulder.
Oh, and there was the tawny sabretooth tiger, Hightail, almost nine feet long, nose to tail, taking up most of the office. That was the part that people tended to notice first, although Chris couldn’t help noticing the bikini. “Why don’t you have to wear tights?”
“I have an exemption,” Eve said, her eyes flashing. “My costume is magic. Like it?”
“Yeah,” Chris said. He did.
“Urk,” Tyrell said. “I mean, yes.”
“Come on,” Billy shouted. “We’ve got to go!”
“Geez. Impatient much?” Eve said, as Tyrell vaulted the desk and led the way out into the corridor, past the incomprehensible cartoon on the door with a hexagon with a ring inside, captioned, “ What’s that smell?”
Billy was fast, although not too fast for Chris or Hightail to keep up on foot, or Tyrell in the air. Chris sneaked a peak over his shoulder, but the girl was keeping up, too. Suddenly the floor slanted up into a passageway between buildings, and there was a window to their left. Without breaking stride, Billy darted left, hitting the window with his shoulder. Instead of breaking, it pivoted smartly like a revolving door on speed. Chris followed, dropping into a blast of Philadelphia December air, striking the ground three floors down in a smooth roll. Billy’s landing was harder, but he bounced up with no apparent ill-effects. Eve swung above them on her lasso, dropping ahead of them, just past the security fence that separated the Institute from Pemberton Elementary.
Eve was in the lead! Chris leaped for the fence, his foot lightly touching the razor wire as he cleared it to drop onto the gentle sawdust of the playground. Directly ahead of them, a gaping hole had been blown in the school’s wall. “Subtle,” Tyrell said, swooping in from above.
“Look out… Spacer!” Eve yelled, throwing her tomahawk into the darkness. There was a meaty thunk. A body staggered out of the darkness into the light cast by the floodlights that had now awoken over the fence. It was a boy, perhaps sixteen, wearing a tuxedo and a mask, and, bizarrely, old man’s hair, long and limp on the side, with comb over across the bare scalp. The strands glowed orange in the darkness against his scalp, and Eve’s tomahawk stood out in the middle of them, buried in the boy’s skull, leaking dark fluid in the shadowy night.
“Ha! You Missed me!” the boy said, brightly into the shock, doing the “bullet bouncing off” gesture with his finger before reaching up to wrench the tomahawk out. Then he threw it back at Eve, who caught it easily. She moved to return the volley, but the boy had already dashed off into the darkened school. Tyrell was the first to react, throwing out some kind of telekinetic grab, Chris figured, from the way that the rubble piled under the explosion suddenly lifted and scattered. It was too late.
It only occurred to Chris to wonder where Billy and Hightail were when Billy stood up in the middle of the gap, and gestured at them, “Come on! Tourists’ll be here soon enough. They won’t need your help!”
Chris jumped forward, figuring out. “Trying to head the guy off?”
“Yeah,” Billy said. “They like to take that first moment to show off. I figured we’d grab him when he tried to run. Unfortunately, he’s a teleporter.”
“Really?” Chris said. “In that case, he’s a shapechanger, too.”
“God. I hate that combo,” Chris muttered, as he pushed through the heavy door of the boy’s washroom that the explosion had opened up and into a dark, tiled hall. Chris hesitated, uncertain where to go, but Hightail went unerringly to the left, around a corner, leading them to a door blown off its hinges. Chris walked in -into a garden, bright with the noontime Sun.
Eve’s voice sounded in his head. “This is a Dreamtime world. The door back to or world is about a block through the woods due west. Hightail will lead you there. Watch out, though, because there’s an enemy in the garden, another past it in the library, and a third maintaining the bridge. They’ve blown a hole in the roof, so that’s the direction they’re planning to escape in. Tyrell and I are coming in from above.”
“One person against you, me, and LOLTiger? Could be good, could be bad,” Billy muttered. Chris was listening, only a bit distracted by the heavy smell of blackberry, until the reason for it was revealed by the rasping tendril that reached around his throat, choking him. Chris pulled back, but it was a mistake. The savage thorns tore at his skin for a moment before the tension suddenly relaxed.
“That’s got it,” Billy said, flourishing heavy-bladed nine-inch knives in both hands. “What else you got?” Chris looked around, seeing the familiar patriotic shape of a maple leaf. Oh, that’s bad, he thought, and, without further reflection, grabbed Billy and threw him down, just in time to miss the spiny barbs of the Devil’s Club leaves that swooshed through the space where they’d been standing. Hightail yelped in surprise, while Chris sprang with all his strength, lifting a long tendril of morning glory that had wrapped around his calf until Billy cut it free with a quick swing of his blades.
Chris landed lightly on a sinewy tree, which, not surprisingly, broke under his foot. Too late, he thought, having already swung his weight forward in the gravity-defying way that Eight Spirit warriors had to master. Another leap, and they were through the trees, clearing a hedge and dropping into its shadow. Chris didn’t like being in the middle of a hedge maze, but he’d been following Hightail, who had led them to a dark circle in space, like one of Wile E. Coyote’s painted tunnel doors.
The only problem was that between them and it was an Asian girl in a school girl’s uniform, except that instead of being blue, the skirt and handkerchief neckpiece were sort-of-a-blue-green (Chris couldn’t describe it better), as were her impractical-looking long gloves. A half-mask of the same colour covered her face from forehead well down to her mouth. Her hair, Chris couldn’t help noticing, was long and black and glossy, like a crow’s feathers. “Don’t you dare come any closer, you savages,” she said.
“Or what, Sailor Loon?” Billy asked.
“Every girl’s garden has a forest to guard it,” she answered, gesturing with one gloved hand. The neatly raked garden bed in front of them erupted, and a tree grew out of it. A tree that was very mad at Chris, Billy and Hightail. It swung a very large limb at them. Chris took the blow with a roll, coming up quickly. The big cat was not so lucky, smashing into the wall of the hedge hard. Chris looked around. There was no sign of the girl, or of Billy. Well, Billy was the pro, here. He’d probably tried the following trick again. It would be up to Chris and Hightail to get themselves out of this.
Easier thought than done, of course, Chris reflected, as he ducked under a massive branch swinging by more than quickly enough to brain him. In the book, treants were supposed to be slow! Hightail landed on it above, claws digging into the bark, hindclaws raking. That turned out to be a great way of wrecking furniture, not so much trees. Chris lashed out with a solid chop. It sent splinters flying, but only a few. This thing was tough, Chris thought, slipping his feet over roots trying to trip him. But two can play that game, and Chris took advantage of the unweighted second to slip under a branch and lift, kicking at the roots, all his qi flowing through his muscles to take multiple tons of wood up and over.
As soon as the tree’s roots broke contact with the ground, the supple treemonster turned into an inert tree. The form of his throw ruined, Chris dropped to the ground under the weight of the tree. By the time that he’d wriggled free, Hightail had long since gone through the portal. Oh, well, Chris thought. He might be the last to the party, but he could at least try to be the stylish one.
Beyond the portal was a scene of bedlam. A mirror shaped like a man was throwing lightning bolts at Tyrell, who was blocking with a telekinetic shield. A huge man dressed in featureless black from head to toe was fighting Hightail, and a guy in Roman legionary armour was dueling with Eve, sword and shield versus spear and shield. A blizzard of boys in bizarre outfits were ringing in Billy Tatum. The schoolgirl locked eyes with Chris as he walked into the room. She held out her hand, and the sickly sweet of ripe bananas filled his mouth as the air seemed to solidify around him. She smiled, then yelled at him. “Hey, Kung Fu Boy! Smell you later!” Chris focussed, and, after a long moment, ripped away the fabric binding his arms and legs. Where was Charlotte?
Meanwhile, Hightail, dodged the black brute, cannily tripped the boy in the legionary armour, and Billy Tatum began throwing the multiple boys attacking him, while Tyrell caught the mirrored figure in a force bubble. It was all coming together. Or it would have been if, abruptly, a bald man in a bizarre armoured suit hadn’t descended through the ceiling. He was completely impractically equipped with an open face, although headpieces of multi-coloured metal struts rose from the collar behind his head and looped over it, almost like reading lamps on telescopic necks. Eve lifted her arm to throw her spear, but the man gestured, and she collapsed over the defeated legionary.
Hightail pounced, only to be carried back by a blast of energy, accompanied by eerie light effects. “Come,” the man said, his voice booming in the suddenly quiet night. We’re rejecting this reality.” The entire group disappeared. Chris was getting to hate that trick.
A moment later, the far door of the library opened, and Mr. Piccolo walked in. He stopped and looked around for a long moment. “Oh, dear. Billy. Well, at least it’s neat and tiddley-tidy. At least for the aftermath of a supervillain attack. Do we know what they were looking for?”
“For the Grade 8s,” Chris blurted.
“Oh, I don’t think so. They would have attacked the gym instead of the library, in that case. And a little earlier, too. Most of the children have already left.” Mr. Piccolo said. “Too bad that they didn’t. I so rarely get any action these days. Billy?”
Billy Tatum held out his hand. He held a tiny little thing, almost like a flattened, miniature pen in his hand. “They put a flash drive in every one of the hard drives. I got one."
Mr. Piccolo smiled, taking the little thing. “Nice work, Billy. We’ll make a superhero out of you yet. Now, I imagine that you have very important business to do,” he continued, making a shooing motion with his hand.
“Is my sister alright?” Chris asked.
“Of course Charlotte is fine, or I would have mentioned it,” Mr. Piccolo said, sounding a little irritated. “Now, really, you kids need to vamoose before someone with a camera shows up, and I need to start dealing with the insurance paperwork, or this could actually cut into class time.”
“Yay, time for wine and cheese,” Tyrell said. Mr. Piccolo looked over at him sharply. “Except for the wine part.”
“On the bright side, they might have found something more interesting to talk about,” Chris said.
“I like Game of Thrones,” Tyrell answered.
“Me, too,” Billy replied.
Eve looked at them. “You guys get to watch it? That’s not fair.”
“Tell me about it,” Chris said. But Chris was wrong. The partiers had found something else to talk about, but it wasn’t something more interesting. They were talking about their apartments. Chris looked around for Dr. Konoye for a moment. Something about the night just didn’t add up, and he wanted to talk to her about it, but she was already gone. After a few minutes of grownups complaining about rent, the teens ended up in Billy’s little apartment in an old room in a corner of the basement of the Institute. One high window opened to the night, while a lower one might have had a view if it weren’t blocked by a sign facing out, its edges curled and yellow. Chris read the sign, puzzling out the backwards letters through the age-thinned paper. It warned passersby, “Quiet: Examination in Progress.”
Tyrell gestured at it. “How long has that been up?”
Billy smiled a bit. “Since I moved in.”
“That’s one long exam.”
“Yeah.” Billy shrugged. “But it’s almost over now.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“No problem. I’m taking it down after grad. I just hope there’s someone old enough notice.”
“What have you got there, Chris?” Eve asked.
Chris held up a bright yellow swatch of fabric. “It’s the stuff that the girl tried to trap me with. What is it?”
“Polyester,” Eve said. “But it smells like bananas.”
“Suits you, Chris,” Tyrell said.
Chris looked at Tyrell, curious. “What do you mean?”
For some reason, Tyrell blushed. “Er, because, uhm, you know, banana.”
“I really don’t, Ty.”
Eve interrupted. “Bananas are the Asian version of Oreos.” She looked hard at Tyrell. “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
Chris tried to control his anger.
“I’m sorry, Chris,” Tyrell said. “Really sorry. My Dad hates that expression. He says that no-one should let their skin colour, or anything else, define them. And that no matter who it comes from, racism is racism. Even if it comes from you. And especially if it comes from your ignorant buddies, who ought to know to keep their mouths shut. And not to change the subject or anything; but how the hell do you know all this stuff, Eve? You’re from the Stone Age!”
“Old Stone Age, thank you very much. Just a regular Paleolithic American, but I got a memory transplant.”
“Holy crap,” Tyrell practically shouted. “I thought those were incredibly dangerous.”
“Only when the amateurs do it. Apparently, I got mine from a pro. No worries.”
Billy’s phone beeped. He looked at it, then up at Eve. “Do you remember who did yours, Eve?”
Eve’s reply started out jaunty. “Of course I do, it was - it was…” Her face blanched in fear. “I don’t remember. I thought I remembered, but it’s just blank.”
“Yeah,” said Billy. “It’s all fun and games until things start getting scary. So. The guy who just attacked Templeton is a major player called Professor Paradigm. He’s into dimensional travel, time travel, and screwing with the fundamental basis of reality. Two of the guys with him match the profile of members of his Paradigm Pirates, the multiform shapeshifter, Avant Garde, and a dimensional “patcher,” codenamed the Displacer. And what he was looking for was user data from Rose’s searches for the Apocalypse Plague. You know, the disease that wiped out civilisation in her timeline, and that is in the pre-epidemic phase on this Earth.”
“That she thinks is in the pre-epidemic phase on Earth,” Eve pointed out.
“No, it’s here all right. Rose didn’t have the clearance to see the search return result, but Mr. Piccolo does. The UNTIL database shows several cases of asymptomatic carriers observed shedding the virus.”
“What,” Tyrell said, “Like Typhoid Mary, carrying this disease around and infecting everyone without coming down with it herself? Why isn’t the plague already out of control?”
“Not like Typhoid Mary,” Billy answered. “Carriers can’t actually catch the disease. They just spread it for a while, until their immune systems clear it out. Like it was designed not to hurt certain people.”
“How do they know so much about it?” Eve asked, sounding panicky.
“Starting to remember, Hon?” Billy said.
“Yes, now I do. I remember Dr. Vox testing me, asking me who I was in contact with, back in the Old Stone Age. How can a disease spread from 100,000 years ago to now?”
“Time travel. That’s easy,” Billy replied. “The question is, how did it happen in Rose’s timeline? Oh, and are there two blips in Eve’s memory? Or just one? And, more importantly, how cool is it that we got this case!”
“Cool?” Tyrell shot Billy a look. “What’s cool about it?”
“We get to save the world, Ty. No big. The Grade 9s got mixed up with something big last semester. The Grade 12s were in it last summer, and the year before that. Now we get our chance for time travel and alternate dimensions and space and the future and whatnot. See, that’s cool.”
And then they played video games until it was time to go home. Late that night, Chris stood over his bed in his pyjamas (top and bottom this time), almost too tired to get into bed, trying to process everything that had happened today. Maybe Billy was right, and they would have a chance to save the world this semester.
One thing was for sure, though, Chris wouldn’t forget this night. He reached down with one hand and lifted his pillow. On the sheet beneath, he laid the silky, smooth, yellow piece of fabric that he’d torn off his biceps that evening, and stroked, it until it lay smooth and flat on the sheet. Then he put the pillow back down and got into bed. When his head hit the pillow, the smell of bananas whispered out into the night air.