Chapter 2, 12: On A Quest
“Dora! Are you-?” Chris shouted it over his shoulder, but no-one could ever hear him when he did that, so he flexed and jumped backwards over the brown Chrysler Reliant, keeping his eyes on the Paradigm Pirates, caught red-handed standing in the messy garden beds underneath a side window of the Institute of Advanced Research by the security floodlights on the wire fence.
Chris lit on the ground and bent down to look into the back seat. The dark-haired girl curled up in her form-fitting red jacket, her eyes on him. “I can’t raise the needfire!” Chris tried to pay attention while still keeping the emerging fight in view. Professor Paradox seemed to be looking right at him as he launched himself into the air, firing a weird light blast that Eve deflected with her shield as he did so. Chris didn’t have much time to waste, but he could spend a moment cheering Dora up.
“Looks like we won’t need the Maid of Gold, then. We’re bound to win this fight!”
“No,” Dora said, miserably. “I clogged my channel to the needfire pulling it up this morning.”
“I thought you said that you didn’t have any control over the Maid of Gold?” Chris felt a breeze against his back. That might be Corey rocketing by, but he was worried that it was Rose running into the fight. Corey could probably use the backup, but if Rose was in the fight, so was Charlotte.
“Maybe I exaggerated a little.”
“Don’t worry about it. You got to be in one big fight today. You can sit this one out. Close the door, and stay down.” Chris swallowed. He couldn’t believe that he was about to say this. “Let Rose and Charlotte have their turn, too.” Now he had to watch out for his sister and fight the Paradigm Pirates at the same time!
Warned by some obscure clue, Chris reached up in time to grab a lashing vine. It turned out to be the wild rose grew along the foot of the security fence, and the hooked thorns dug deep into his palm. Chris wondered why the Professor needed his entire gang for an attempted break-in. No, wait, he didn’t wonder that. He realised that he was hoping that they’d asked to come along, that they wanted to . .. .fight the Tatammy class as much as Tatammy wanted to fight them.
Chris flipped his sword to his free hand and cut off an arm’s length of wiry vine, saving some attention for the ground, in case roots tried to break out and trip him.
Instead, it was razor-tipped bamboo trunks, emerging from the gravel that replaced pavement this deep into the Institute’s oversized parking lot. Chris twisted out of the way, the sword held in front of him, looking for his plant-controlling enemy.
There she was. “Kung Fu Boy! What a big sword you brought! That’s it. I’m cooling it on the entangles. You are so getting the wrong idea.”
“Well, you’re fighting for the wrong side if you want to be a good girl, Morning Glory.” Chris had practiced that one in front of the bathroom mirror a dozen times, and it still felt flat to him. This combat banter thing was just not for him.”
“Morning Glory! Awesome! Except none of that ‘love in vain’ crap. I get what I’m aiming for.” She launched a double handful of pine cones at him, Chris ducked and rolled, dodging their razor-sharp scales, flipping easily over skewed sleepers at the edge of the parking lot. Let her try growing roots out of the flaked and worn concrete that looked like it had been there as long as Billy Tatum had been living in the little room just to the left of the entrance that Savannah and Tyrell had parked their cars in front of a minute earlier.
“Na, na,” Chris shouted, seeking a wide stance on the concrete and coming up to balance on the balls of his feet. It was childish, but he couldn’t say what he was thinking. Right now, Morning Glory seemed flat and unenthusiastic, like his Mom, when she used to get home from work almost too tired to go on.
“Oh, that’s it. Here’s some punishment for you!” Morning Glory waved her hand. There was a winter-sere blackberry thicket climbing the wall just to the left of the window that the Paradigm Pirates had been caught climbing out of when the light at the entrance went on. Not that anyone had been surprised. Supposedly, Billy, Savannah and Tyrell had picked up the kids at Saint Elizabeth’s to take them, and Billy’s presents, to the McNeelys, but thanks to texting, everyone knew that there was “destined” to be a fight tonight.
The blackberry was certainly ready for it. In front of Chris’s eyes, it uprooted most of its mass and formed a humanoid shape. Long, weirdly limber whips of thorny blackberry suckers came flicking in and out of the mass, thorny masses at the tips of the whip moving almost as fast as Corey and Rose as they ran by, fighting the Roman legionary guy at high speed.
Chris eyed the bush. He wanted to close with Morning Glory, put a solid hold on her, and take her out of the fight. The rest, he couldn’t help thinking, would do her good. It was a weird thought, but, really, eight hours sleep was a better thing to be doing right now than a superfight.
The problem was that he didn’t want to leave anything on his flank as he closed. The bramble man was sidling to his left, trailing a crumbling, earthy mass of dirt around its lengthening root mass. It could even go after one of his team-mates Chris thought. Corey and Rose would be too quick for it, he suspected, but Savannah was facing off with Paradigm’s weird pet multiform, Avant Garde, today present in six bodies, all wearing a variety of backward baseball caps, bare-chested to show ripped, shaved, orange-toned abdominals with dangling neck jewelry. Great, Savannah was fighting beach trash. Worse, she was matching Avant Garde’s six forms with six of her own. That meant she was down most of her extra strength and speed. She definitely didn’t need some plant monster suddenly coming in at her.
Tyrell, at least, was safe. He’d gotten air, and was throwing up shields to cover Babs, who was making cat-lithe darts in at Displacer, trying to neutralise the gouts of extradimensional energy and objects flooding out of the mirror-finished teen. The two-on-one would wear him down, Chris figured, and the two of them looked like a practiced team.
Billy, there most experienced fighter, was facing off against the black-clad brick. Billy had talked about how you wore down a brick, and he had keen senses and knew to cover his own six. There was no worry there. Finally, Rose was taking on Paradigm. That was a worry. Professor Paradigm was far more powerful than Rose. Sooner or later, he was going to put a blast by or through Rose’s magic shield and fetish protections. Someone had to go help Rose before she just ran out of juice.
As if reading his mind, Charlotte appeared next to Chris on the sleeper. “Chris! I can handle this hussy!”
“Go ‘way, Tagalong!” Morning Glory replied, her blackberry man cutting back in from the left to focus on their private fight. Charlotte, ignoring the manifestation of the power in favour of its creator, leaped over its lashing tendrils to close Morning Glory, only to have the grass of the Institute lawns grab her ankles as she landed. Chris followed, letting the bramble thing get dangerously on his back, betting that he could handle it. He lunged low as he landed, swinging the sword under Charlotte’s feet as she jumped up at the last second to stretch out the slack in the stems. Chris had to admit that they made a good team.
“Sis don’t let the grass grow under her feet,” Chris said, proudly as he stood into a wushu back cut, clipping the vines that he knew were coming at him from behind. Unfortunately, his follow-through was not as good as it could have been, and his blade was tangled.
“Oops. Little premature, there. Now you’ve got to cuddle my little berry bud, K.F.B,” Morning Glory smirked.
“I can’t believe you’re in my brother’s rogue’s gallery, you potty-mouthed sl--,” Charlotte started, before an explosion in mid-air threw her back into the grip of the blackberry thing. Chris, who had looked up “esters” on Wikipedia and had been expecting the fuel-air explosive trick, had thrown himself to the ground. Unfortunately, that meant letting go of the sword, which the blackberry thing threw to its mistress.
“Archenemy, please, girl. Who gets to be your brother’s nemesis is no call of yours. And you watch the language. Now what’s with the lame-o magic sword?” Morning Glory took the sword by the hilt and looked at the characters on the blade. “That’s not Kanji.”
Chris moved in, launching a massive, qi-fueled kick. “That’s my Blue Sword, and I’m going to take it back,” he said, getting ready to hook round and take the blade when she parried. He noted as he moved that his instinctive choice was to pull the kick in front of Morning Glory. She’d have some kind of block, he was sure, and the feedback would put her down. Even through her mask and makeup, Chris could see the faint shadows of fatigue under her eyes, and, somehow, they made him feel more sad than angry.
But she was awake enough to look down at the blade in her hand, even as she lifted a wall of turf to take Chris’s kick. They ended up facing each other at a distance of less than a foot, Chris tentatively wrestling a hastily-improvised turf man, already confident that he could throw it, but strangely reluctant to end this.
Morning Glory’s voice was almost strangled from being out-of-breath, but she wasn’t any the less conversational. “Blue? Looks more like white to me.”
Just behind Chris to the left, Charlotte explained. “The legacy said Chris got the Blue Sword, and that’s the only sword they had,” She was circling left to get around the turf man while keeping the bramble thing engaged, Chris could tell without even looking.
“Dur. You guys must be awful at video games. That’s a quest line. You have to find the Blue Sword. This one will go with something white.”
“Oh.” Charlotte said. “Oh.” Then, Chris caught a flash of motion in Tatammy White-and-Black as Charlotte launched herself at the plant controller. Chris took the turf man out in a suicide throw, coming up quickly to watch Charlotte twist off a feinting kick to take the sword out of Morning Glory’s hands when the villain instinctively moved to block. The moment that Charlotte touched it, the rippling edges of the blade shed a pearly light that ought to have been blinding in the early winter night, but wasn’t. Charlotte drew the blade up in good Wushu posture. “Okay, bro’. I promise not to hurt your archenemy anywhere past second base. You go do your stuff.”
“Like either of you is getting anywhere near third base.” Morning Glory shook her head. “I have got to learn to stop trying to be the smartest girl in the room all the time.”
Chris looked at her. “No you don’t. It’s cute when you do that--
Chris hesitated for just a moment, more than a little disappointed that his sister got a magic sword first, then launched himself sideways, relying on his instinct for where the fight was going to land a low, knee-block takedown on the black-clad brick, coming up on his oversized backside with an ankle in his hand, bent back and twisted to the limit. “Ow!” Said a rumbling voice beneath him in a just-short-of-familiar accent. “That hurts!” Massive arms in black sleeves reached around, attempting to get a grip on Chris. He noticed that the sleeves were actually stitched to the gloves. That had to be awfully binding.
“Hey, Billy,” Chris said. “Nice fight you threw for us.”
“Here at the Institute, we always unwrap one present on Christmas Eve,” Billy explained, launching the knives in his hands at Professor Paradigm with invisible speed, not even looking to see where they landed as he streaked towards the ground beneath the flying Professor. Chris would have followed, figuring to perhaps pull a cannonball move, but his enemy was rapidly coming unpinned. This guy was awfully strong. Chris couldn’t help but think that grappling had been a mistake. It looked like he was going to have to carry through and dislocate the brick’s ankle.
Then the brick abruptly twisted clear in a nice little wrestling move. That was something, Chris thought. This was a strong man who knew how to fight. Chris sprang clear himself to keep the distance. Well, at least he’d freed up Billy to help Eve. Between them, hopefully they’d make sure that the Professor couldn’t stand off and strafe them forever with his weird science-magic. Or, better yet, they could free up Tyrell and Bab’s crossbow by taking the Displacer out.
Meanwhile, Chris could take Billy’s part in wearing the brick down. That was doable, right? Chris thought so, but then the brick pulled something from his tunic. Oh, Jeez, he thought. Grenades, too?
On the other hand, Charlotte was likely to be available soon, considering the flashes of pearly light coming from behind. I’ll bet the Blue Sword is way more awesome than some blade that’s just supposed to be bling on a wedding dress, Chris thought to himself. Meanwhile, police sirens were sounding awfully near. Ha, Professor. Your plan is totally blown now. The first grenade went off, shrapnel tinkling on Chris’s Eight Spirit forest shield, one particularly fast bit almost penetrating. You can run away any time now. I won’t mind.
As if he were reading Chris’s mind, the whole team of Paradigm Pirates chose that moment to wink out of existence. A minute later, the Philadelphia PD MARS team’s van pulled into the parking lot.
As the heavily armed super-SWAT team deployed, Chris and Billy put their hands to his knees and heaved air for long moments. The team drew up around them. The team, Chris noted, and the kids. Chris glared at Charlotte, Rose, and Dora. “You’re too young for this.”
Charlotte looked at her brother, sighting along the blade’s narrow pillons, a finger idly resting on the blade and raising a pearlescent glimmer from deep within the metal. “So are you, Chris, the way that Tatammy rates things. Too young by a year.”
Chris glared at his sister. “The fight came to me.”
Dora spoke up. “That’s weird. Aren’t boys supposed to go out and find a fight?
Rose replied, for a change, with laughter in her voice instead of too much seriousness. “You’re confusing fighting evil with dating again, Dora.
“Someone is,” Charlotte agreed. They giggled, and Chris blushed, looking away from the all-too knowing fourteen year olds to take in the blackberry bush, somehow restored to its bed with no sign of being disturbed. Somehow, in spite of the season and the snow, it looked healthier now, and the bed beneath it looked like his grandfather had just finished raking it.
Billy and Babs were busy talking to the MARS officer in charge and the Institute security staff, while Eve was standing with some of the squad members, giggling at some story they were telling, her chest rising and falling in her bikini top in a way that Chris decided that he had to focus on not looking at. Chris went over to Corey and Tyrell, whose eyes kept similarly darting to the side. “Do we know what they were looking for?”
Tyrell looked guilty for a second, eyes moving away from Eve towards Babs before registering the question. “Yes, because that’s totally how B&Es are done in Philadelphia. First, you submit your business plan to the city. Then…”
“You’re the most awesomely helpful guy ever, Tyrell,” Chris said, trying for the same tone.
“Actually,” Corey began. He paused for a long moment, as though he were thinking things through with all of his Noetic intellect. “Just the fact that they tried here again tells us something.”
“Don’t keep us in suspense,” Tyrell said.
“You guys think that the Apocalypse Plague was developed at the Experimental Station in Osoyoos, right? At least, that’s where Istvatha’s forces are looking, and Imperial Intelligence Command doesn’t get these things wrong very often.”
“Right,” Chris said, impatiently. Corey knew all of this. They’d hashed all of this out while hanging out at Chili’s this afternoon.
“But Paradigm keeps fishing around the Institute here at Philadelphia. What if they’re both right?”
“Um,” Chris said, “We need to find a scientist who is connected with both.” His heart sank. That sounded like Dr. Konoye, and Chris hated the idea that Morning Glory’s mom might have created a world-ending artificial plague.
“Doctor Konoye,” Tyrell said.
Corey glanced worriedly at Chris. Damn, Chris thought. You just can’t keep anything from the Noetic Boy. Corey’s accelerated intelligence just saw right through you. “Or her supervisor. Who is actually a mad scientist. Or her external, who actually works with human beings instead of plants. They’re the sketchy ones.”
“Okay,” Tyrell said. “I can see the advisor. Science doctoral students mostly work right in their supervisor’s lab and do research related to the advisor’s project. But Dr. Konoye’s supervisor has been in jail at Stronghold on and off for the last five years.”
Tyrell paused. “But the external is another matter. He just comes in and sort of grades the work in the end, though, right? I mean, he wouldn’t even have to go to Osoyoos or anything, just show up for some meetings in Philadelphia and look at the data, maybe?”
Corey shrugged. “I will now draw on my vast knowledge of the actual workings of a cutting-edge research lab.” He reached up and plucked imaginary sunglasses off his head. “Looks like this plague is for external use only. Yee-ah.”
“What?” Chris asked.
Corey looked disappointed. “What, you and Billy can do obscure television references from the 1970s, and I can’t do CSI: Miami? It’s about a police forensics science unit.” He paused. “In Miami.” He paused again. “And the head of the unit has this signature—“
“I get it,” Chris said.
Tyrell changed the subject. “So why does your sister have the sword, now, Chris?”
“It turns out that it’s not the one my grandfather willed to me. It goes with the wedding gown that he willed to Charlotte, instead. We have to go out and find the Blue Sword.”
“Must be an awesome wedding dress, then,” Corey observed. “If you’re into frocks.”
Chris looked at Corey. He thought he knew what was coming.
“And by awesome, I mean fabulous,” Corey clarified, lisping the last word.
Chris looked at his friend. “Oh, come on, Corey.”
“What? I’m gay. I get to make gay jokes. Like Tyrell being able to make Black jokes and say the N word. Hey, you should try it, too. Or, you know, you can just keep on throwing a private tantrum in your head every time someone brings up Asian stuff. That works, too.”
Chris scowled, although a grin threatened to creep up on the corners of his mouth, and he had to force it down.
Tyrell bounced in the air, knocking his head against something invisible. “You keep that up and we won’t help you with your quest, Chris.”
“Why does everyone turn this into a video game?”
“Cuz it’s totally Legend of Zelda, dude,” Corey explained.
“Too bad there’s no awesome Kung Fu-fighting master of twitch games around here whose already beat half the old Mario games in spite of only being in this century for, like, two weeks now.” Tyrell looked at Chris, who couldn’t help grinning back at the compliment. “Quest?”
“Quest,” Chris agreed.
“Quest!” Corey said.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Tyrell said. “Between Mr. Infallible-with-the-Noetic-Powers-Boy and Mr. Super-Twitch here, there’s no challenge.”
“What do you think I am, a McNeely?” Corey protested. “I screw up all the time.”
“Did I hear someone call for a McNeely?” Babs asked, walking up to them. “Thanks for the help tonight, Tyrell.”
For some reason, Chris felt a compelling desire to go look at the re-rooted blackberry bush. He definitely had a quest now. Or two.