Chris heard his mother singing. “. . .Sweet the first rain’s fall/Sunlit from Heaven. . . “ He pushed his head into the pillow, knowing that only for as long as his eyes were closed, he was back in the trailer, and that his Mom was waking him up for school. But there was no school for another three days, he thought next, and, far off in the darkness a crow called, and his mother’s voice faded away.
Chris’s eyes snapped open, and he actually heard the sounds that woke him up. The Rugrats were tumbling out into the backyard below the open window at the other end of the bedroom, talking loudly about the dance that night, about the first day of school, even about the Lunar New Year, still weeks ago. Chris, wise to their tricks, knew that the loud talk covered quieter discussion about their super-secret plan to bug one of Doctor Destroyer’s agents during a meeting downtown later in the morning.
Chris got up, nearly stumbling over his shoes in the pitch-darkness of the January morning. He went over to the window and closed it, then dialled the heat up in the room for Charlotte. Thinking of Charlotte reminded him that he probably shouldn’t be singing along to the voice in his head, and that Stevie Wonder songs were probably completely lame in 2011 –2012, now, he corrected himself.
The curtain behind him slid back. “I take it back. Chris, you should sleep in as long as you want every day.”
“But I want to be up. I feel …good.”
“I hear that. You’ve got the lyrics wrong, by the way. It’s “Praise for the morning,” not “Praise the morning’s glory.” Your version doesn’t even work.” His little sister looked at Chris sharply, her curiosity obvious even in the pre-dawn gloom, and Chris felt himself reddening.
“Looking forward to the dance?” Chris asked.
“Yeah. Rose and Dora are coming over after breakfast. What are you doing?”
“Meeting Billy, Tyrell, Babs, Savannah, Eve and Corey at the mall. We’re going to have a meeting to talk through our case, like on Law and Order when they try to figure out if they can get a search warrant.”
“To search Dr. Konoye’s lab?”
“Yeah. The Mechanic would have to go to the RCMP for us, but we can at least put a briefing thingie together.”
“Corey doesn’t hang out with you guys much, does he?”
“Of course not. He’s totally gay for me. It’d be like me hanging out with some hot chick and just talking about stuff.”
“You’re kidding, right? About Corey liking you.”
“Yes,” Chris smiled. “My point still stands.”
“It totally does not. Guys and girls can be friends without it being, like, physical and stuff.”
“Fourteen year-olds know everything.”
“At least I’m more mature than you, you big old bucket of KFB!”
“Is that supposed to be your big comeback?”
“That’s supposed to be me reminding you how you’re totally crushing on the supervillain you’re supposed to be fighting.”
“Says the girl with the giant Justin Bieber poster. You just don’t like Morning Glory!”
“Bieber is so awesome.” Charlote’s voice broke on ‘awesome.’ There was a moment’s pause in the rush of words. “Actually, I like Morning Glory.”
“Then why did you call her a sl-?”
Charlotte interrupted her brother. “I did not.”
“Because you were interrupted. Like you just did me.”
“Anyway,” Charlotte continued, talking louder over her brother in the tone that made the word a substitute for ‘La-la-la-la I can’t hear you,’ “That was then.”
“Before I realised that Morning Glory was a science nerd pretending to be a bad girl ‘cuz she was wearing a costume.”
“Where did you get that, Short Stuff? Just because she’s Asian?”
“No, because it’s who she is. Just ‘cuz I’m two years younger than you doesn’t mean I can’t read people. She even said she was always trying to be the smartest person in the room.”
Chris smiled. She did say that, in that cute way that she had. Her words echoed in his brain for a second in that thrilling contralto.
“God. You’re a puppy, Chris!”
“Bieber Bieber Bieber. Bieber Fever!”
“You are so going to get it,” Charlotte cried, tackling Chris around the waist. Chris broke her grip, but Charlotte made a good countermove and ended up behind him. Chris slipped under his sister’s shoulder and was ready to throw her when there was a knock on the door.
Uncle Henry’s voice came through the door, slightly muffled by the wood. “If there’s that much energy to spare, perhaps the two of you would like to join me for some road work.”
Chris thought about it. Actually, that sounded pretty cool. He nodded to his sister, affirmation and question at the same time.
“We’re in, Uncle Henry!” Charlotte trilled.
A minute later, Chris and Charlotte tumbled downstairs dressed in their new mustard running togs, complete with the rearing horse on the back of the tunic. Uncle Henry was waiting by the back door, The Captain barely controlling his excitement, tail wagging in short but rapid strokes, beside him. Auntie Ma was already bustling in the kitchen, clearing away after the Rugrats. “Where’s May?” Charlotte asked, sounding disappointed.
Uncle Henry smiled. “May and the team are going to be downtown this morning. In case there’s a completely unexpected emergency related to some juvenile superheroes and an agent of Doctor Destroyer.”
Chris digested that as they walked across the snowy back lawn and onto the pavement. Uncle Henry set out west, predictably, towards the hill that led up to the McNeely estate and its neighbours. Uncle Henry had walked uphill to school through the snow both ways when he was a kid, but only because he got to choose his own route.
“Do you have any idea what’s going on with the Apocalypse Plague, Uncle Henry?” Chris asked.
His uncle, loping ahead, shrugged his broad shoulders. “Professor Paradigm is crazy, mad scientists are crazy, but the way I read it, Paradigm is working on his plan to defeat and replace Istvatha V’han as Empress of all Reality. That would be a pretty tough thing to do. Istvatha rules all or part of hundreds of thousands of dimensions, many of them as large as ours. You would need weapons that adjust to scale, and war plagues are perfect for that. So the takeaway is that either two Professor Paradigms in two alternate realities have commissioned a mad scientist to design the Apocalypse Plague to wipe out the Empire in human-inhabited dimensions. Either it got loose in one, or our Professor Paradigm tested the plague by setting it loose in Rose’s timeline. Next, he’ll attack the V’hanian Empire, and V’han will use time travel to prevent that from happening in the first place.”
“Are you sure? Then how did Eve end up with a case of the Plague a hundred thousand years ago?”
His uncle shrugged again as his lope took the first step on the stair down to the jogging path through the ravine. “Time travel.”
“Who time travel?”
His uncle made that long, gravelly sound that draws out the first words of a sentence to suggest that it’s all complicated and that you’ll understand when you’re older. “There are secrets in the world that have nothing to do with supervillains and the Apocalypse Plague, Chris.”
“But what if they turn out to?”
“You put your case to me, and if we need to bring you into this particular secret to stop the Plague, we will.”
That wasn’t very satisfying. “Does this have anything to do with my Dad?”
“Eve and time travel? No.”
That was a little evasive, but it would have to do.
They ran a little further on, and then Uncle Henry turned his head over his shoulder for a second to look at his nephew.
“Are you going to be up this early for school on Monday?”
“Even earlier!” Chris said.
“He likes mornings now. And he’s afraid of missing an ambush,” his sister added.
Uncle Henry snorted. “A supervillain once ambushed and captured me early in the morning. It was at a grocery store.”
That sounded like about half the story to Chris. “How did you get away, sir?”
“I didn’t,” Uncle Henry said.
“He’s talking about Auntie Ma,” Charlotte said.
“Oh,” Chris said, as though he understood.
Breakfast was as good as breakfast can only be when you’ve already run a few miles, with eggs and bacon and waffles and steamed sticky rice and dates, all washed down with orange juice and chai. Then Billy and Tyrell came by to pick Chris and Eve up. The meeting didn’t accomplish much. Uncle Henry’s ideas were basically the only ones on the table, and Babs and Eve got into a howling argument about whether it was right to use time travel to change the past. Chris was actually happy when he got a text from his aunt asking where he was, and didn’t he think that he should be getting dressed for the dance.
Later that evening, Chris and the rest of his housemates joined some forty people in the big, musty old Liberty Legion event room, deep underground. All the kids were there, and even adults like Tony and Tara McNeely, as well as Uncle Henry and Auntie Ma, who were chaperoning. Next to Tara stood a young McNeely that Chris didn’t recognise from Tatammy.
Chris turned to his sister and pointed to the boy. “Is he at Pemberton?”
Charlotte looked over at where Chris was pointing. “That’s Bruce McNeely. He’s at Ravenwood right now, but he’s transferring to Pemberton in January. He did a school visit in December. He’s so immature.”
At the far end of the room, empty space suddenly developed a split, through which dusky, slanting light shone. A tall Black woman stepped through the slit, wearing an elegant black body suit with a belt of wide links of wrought gold sliding in curves over each other. It was the Black Rose, leader of the Sentinels superteam of New York. “Everyone ready?” She asked.
A general murmur went through the room. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” she said, and gestured with her hands like a bhangra dancer. The slit opened up into a wide gate, and the crowd began moving towards it.
Just as with boarding a school bus, it took forever for Chris to get through the gate and enter the Evening Land. When he finally did, the first thing Chris noticed was the horizons. It was lit down and in one corner by the big red ball of a setting sun that streaked the sky with dampened reds and oranges and even purples in all directions. Opposite the sun was a huge moon, shedding a light of yellow ivory, and between them the sky was the darkest of blues, only a few stars shining through.
Chris looked down. The light from the Even Sun seemed too weak and dim to fight the shadows that loomed everywhere, but, somehow, it did. Not so much as to dispel them, but to let him see deep into what should have been pools of darkness cast by trees, some of them almost like Dr. Seuss trees with high tufts of foliage at their crowns, and others with more conventional leaves. Directly ahead of them, with other kids already streaming in, was a tall, stone building with a broad door up a flight of steps in the middle and complex arches and windows and turrets at all levels, and window alcoves that came so low and full to the ground in the garden beds that they were almost alternate entrances. A more familiar yellow reading light spilled out of their windows.
“This way, please,” Tara McNeely called, apparently unimpressed by the exotic surroundings, like some world traveller who has seen everything at least twice. The kids surged ahead across the paved courtyard towards the building, up the stairs, and into the more brightly lit interior. Yet here, where the lights were bright and normal, the shadows seemed stronger than normal, more able to resist than “normal” shadows. In one, Chris recognised the Indian substitute player from their last game. She winked at someone behind Chris as he passed.
Then they spilled into a hall, and Chris was amazed again. The roof arched so many stories above them that Chris got dizzy just looking up at it, trying to make out details of the soaring stonework in the darkness. Dimly visible were lines of rigging tied off on the buttresses Stained-glass windows with intricate designs faced in all directions, so that on one side they were lit by the red light of evening, from the other by the yellow of Lythrum’s moon. Below that, walls of alternating shining black and white stone led up from intricately carved footings toward the windows, with silvered windows in golden frames. Katy Perry was playing on the sound system, and it seemed like the very stonework was piling onto the song, bringing it out and around to go right to Chris’s bones. Without even wanting to, he began tapping his feet to the music.
The crepe-paper chains and ribbons hanging against them looked a little out of place. The music died away after a moment, and a voice replaced it. “In the name of the Court of Vespers, Welcome to Lythrum, cricketeers! Rejoice and live, before night falls.”
Chris, and everyone else, looked at the end of the room, where the Black Rose stood up at a podium. Dr. Cambridge stood beside her with a smile on her face, as though the dimension of Lythrum was something that she and the Decorating Committee had whipped up as a party theme. A tall, bare-chested Indian man stood beside her, with eight arms, just like Hindu gods in religious art. The hero, whom Chris had heard described as a power in Lythrum, continued. “I’ve placed a simple spell of understanding on this room, so you’ll all be able to talk tonight. Anyone who happens to meet someone tonight will have to learn their languages before their next date, though. Or maybe on their next date.”
There was a titter of laughter. “Remember that the chaperones are here to make sure that everything stays within the Superhero Junior Cricket Association Social Behaviour Code, which was explained to you earlier in our handout, so I won’t get into it again. There will be time enough to read the riot act to anyone breaking the Code later. Mr. Wong.” The Indian man pulled his mouth into an even tighter grimace while half the room broke out in titters again. Not really understanding the joke, Chris looked over at his cousin Jason, the most likely troublemaker, but he was doing his best “Who, me?” expression.
Then the Black Rose stepped down from the podium, and the unmistakeable shape of her Sentinels team-mate, Diamond, emerged from the crowd. broke out of the crowd to take her hand and lead her out onto the dance floor as Shakira started up on the music system. Oh, well; that’s what you get when you let old people choose the music, Chris thought.
As couples and girls headed out onto the dance floor, Chris migrated back towards the wall to watch the few guys on the floor embarrass themselves, sliding along and around a few of the other wall-flowers until he was near a door. Half-expected, he felt a hand on his shoulder. Chris looked over Max Zerstroiten was standing next to a dark-skinned Indian girl with a short haircut almost like May’s, wearing a white blouse in multiple drapes coming down over a black skirt and heels, the former almost as short, the latter almost as high as Eve’s outfit. She had a discrete Super Division Academy pin in the blouse.
“I have been asked to make introductions,” Max said, his Bavarian accent coming through the Spell of Comprehension, perhaps because he was speaking English. “Kiran Namaste, this is Chris Wong. Chris, this is Kiran.”
“Oh.” Chris said. This was weird. Then he caught a tinkle in Max’s eye. “Pleased to meet you, Kiran. Would you like to dance?”
“I thought that you would never ask,” she replied.
Chris led Kiran out onto the dance floor. “Why me?” He asked. It sounded like a dumb question to ask as it came out of his mouth, but he was curious.
“You’re Jason and May Wong’s cousin, right?” Kiran asked.
Chris shrugged. What was it about Jason?
“Rashindar hates them,” Kiran went on, as though that explained everything. She nodded her neatly pointed chin in the direction of the Indian man who still stood, frozen, by the podium.
Oh, Chris thought. Rebellion. Chris understood that. Chris waited made a move that gave him an excuse to spin Kiran into the kind of whirl that would leave your hair down over your face, if you happened to have long hair. As she whirled back to face him, Kiran started to put her hand to her face, then put it out to do slightly unconvincing hand jive. She wasn’t a very good dancer, Chris noticed.
“You need to get out more,” Chris said. “All that studying isn’t good for you.” Chris crossed his fingers for that. The more he knew them, the more he liked smart girls.
“Who told you that I’m studious?” Kiran asked.
“Oh, no-one in particular,” Chris said. Over Kiran’s shoulder, he could see that Max and the Juniors had moved to cover the exit, and that Tara and Tony, followed by the Seniors, were moving up behind Kiran. To one side, Max’s dancing partner, a Chinese girl in a red blouse and strategically-torn skinny jeans had collected men that Chris recognised as Japan’s mighty Tetsuronin, and Uncle Henry’s friend, Revolutionary III of the Tiger Squad. Chris wondered if the girl would get into trouble for her jeans. She probably wouldn’t get away with wearing them at the Tiger Squad compound. Looking the other way, he saw that Charlotte, Rose, and Dora, had stopped on the dance floor to watch things go down.
“So you just noticed that yourself?’
“Some people try to hide it, but it comes out eventually,” Chris said.
“Sometimes, people are even smarter than they seem,” Kiran pointed out. She shoved Chris, hard, just as he was stepping off onto his left foot. He felt the familiar feel of a root snagging his foot, and was suddenly off his balance.
No biggie, Chris thought, as he prepared to roll through the trip. That is, until he went down over someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had time to notice that the shadow on the floor that he was plunging into was particularly dark and round before he passed through it.
Suddenly, Chris was lying flat on a hard stone floor, a ledge cutting into his neck, a heavy weight on his chest and his hands tightly bound by something. For a moment, he was worried, before he cricked his head down and saw the dance floor far below, Dr. Cambridge sprawled on the ground in the middle of a frustrated posse of supertypes, apparently having blundered right into the middle of the action. Chris felt relief. The Black Rose’s wards were holding, and they hadn’t teleported out of Lythrum yet. This wasn’t going to be an all-nighter.
He looked up at “Kiran Namaste” and watched her Indian features wiggle and blur into Morning Glory’s. As the illusion vanished, the girl villain put her hands behind her head and began gathering up her hair into a pony tail again. Beside her stood Professor Paradigm in his weird, multi-coloured metal armour, the lights cast by the stems sticking into his face making patches of sickly pastel in Lythrum’s shade.
Chris spoke. “You know, I’m ashamed of both of you. Morning Glory, even I know that 'Namaste' isn't a real name, and you were trying to put it by Doctor Destroyer's nephew. Professor Paradigm, you’re trying to kidnap someone who, I swear, knows nothing about the Apocalypse Plague from the midst of a superhero party. Do you have any idea how many heroic masterminds are at this party, I—“
The rope that Chris had noticed earlier snapped taught as a figure hurtled out of the darkness on its end to come down on the end of the great stone buttress. He was wearing an enveloping cloak over a dark tunic and a fedora that shadowed a gas mask with vaguely monstrous flourishes similar to the Hobgoblin’s famous mask. He also looked like he was about fourteen, if you could focus on that instead of the pistols that he was flourishing in both hands.
“I am the terror that swings in the night. I am—“
“Ripping off Darkwing Duck? Seriously?” Chris listened,enjoying the way that Morning Glory said “seriously.” He was almost disappointed when the dark cloaked figure fired at her. “Herbicide for you, my pretty!’ He flourished his cape as he levelled the other pistol at Professor Paradigm. “And a dimensional anchor for—“
The Professor and Morning Glory vanished from existence in the first flash of penetrating light that Chris had seen since he’d arrived in Lythrm. Blinking his dazzled eyes and working his hands free of the binding, Chris spoke to the figure on the buttress. “I can see why my sister thinks you’re immature, Bruce.”
“Immature? Would some kid anticipate the schemes of the nefarious Professor Paradigm?”
“Professor Paradigm isn’t a schemer. He’s a fruitcake. With extra nuts. In a peanut butter sandwich with almond milk. And McNeelys are always anticipating schemes and being prepared. It gets old.”
“You think a mere normal like me keeping up with you powered types is ‘old?’”
“McNeelys are normal, all right. Just like all the normal people who are the best there is at everything they do.”
The kid just looked at Chris, who belatedly considered that he might have hurt young Bruce’s feelings.
“Oh, hey, kid. Before I forget, thanks for rescuing me. I’m sorry that I mouthed you off, it’s just that I’m a little frustrated about-“ Chris hesitated and considered that if he explained that he didn’t really want to be rescued so quickly, it would probably undermine the compliment that he started out with. “Stuff.”
“No problem, Chris. Chris, can you show me that move you used to roll out of that sweep, later.”
“Charlotte knows it, too,” Chris pointed out, doing his best to hide a grin. Bruce fell silent again, and this time, Chris didn’t feel guilty at all.