Chapter 2, 14: Mean Girls
The little room spread lustrous, dark cabinets surrounding a perimeter of raised speaker’s stands painted white, and then, in the middle, directly under the great chandelier, a long, shining table of the same black wood. Chris hadn’t the slightest idea what any of it was for, and couldn’t find a chair. So he stood at the end of the table and looked at Diamond, the Black Rose, Rose and Billy Tatum, who were sitting at the other end of the table. In the weird, ,shadowy light of Lythrum, the details of their clothes and bodies were plunged into pools of shadow out of which their hands stood clear on pages of documents. Their eyes, and the facets of Diamond’s body, glistened in the chandelier’s reflection.
“Chris,” the Black Rose began. “You understand that we need to actually catch Morning Glory at some point.”
“She’s a juvenile,” Diamond rumbled. “She’ll do a year in detention, maybe none at all.”
“I don’t think Chris is worried about that,” Billy said smoothly.
“Oh, what are you worried about, Chris?” The Black Rose asked.
“I’m worried about what she thinks she’s getting from Professor Paradigm,” Chris said.
“Good,” said Diamond. “This shouldn’t be getting personal when we need to be wrapping up the Apocalypse Plague. It could still get away from us.”
“Yes, sir,” Chris said. It was unbelievable to be talking to this man. Diamond had become a superhero in 1959, the same year that Chris had been born.
Rose looked at the Black Rose. She nodded, and Rose began. “So the CDIC report on the bus driver says that he slept in Kelowna, and took a coffee break and handled border control paperwork in Osoyoos, had another coffee break in Omak, called despatch to let them know that he was symptomatic from Wenatchee. The relief driver got on at Ellensburg. He spent the rest of his deadhead back to Philadelphia sleeping in the back, and was still on bed rest when the CDIC caught up with him on the 10th. In our model of the Apocalypse Plague’s programmed mutation cycle, that corresponds to Patient Zero dispersal mode. He was probably infected by a primary vector on the 5th. Twenty-fourth century practice would be to look for an untreated water supply, but I guess right now that would mean a lab batch.”
Rose’s detached tone faltered. She sounded bewildered as she continued. “Wh-who would even do that?”
Diamond put one of his rock-hard hand gently on her arm. “People can be crazy, sometimes, kid.”
Billy continued for Rose. “So what we’re saying is that what we need to do know is search Dr. Konoye’s lab.”
“I’m still not hearing anything more than circumstantial evidence,” the Black Rose replied.
“That’s okay,” Billy said, “I know someone who knows someone in Ottawa. There’ll be a surprise lab inspection at the Station on Monday. If Dr. Konoye wants to keep her funding, she’ll cooperate.”
“And if she doesn’t, I can take that to a judge, no problem,” Diamond finished.
The Black Rose answered. “Good enough. There’s a Steelhead team on the ground in Osoyoos, patched in to my phone. Anyone tries anything funny in Osoyoos, they’ll have the Sentinels on their back in minutes, and more muscle after that. I think we’ve got this. You kids have done a great job. Now go have some fun.”
Chris followed Rose and Billy into the ballroom, but it still seemed as though everyone was looking at him. He blushed, prickly with the heat of embarrassment, and sweat rolled down his side inside his shirt, refusing to be wicked up into the fabric of the crisp, new white tee shirt that he was wearing under his jean jacket. He prayed that his classmates would leave him alone, and, after a long moment, “Call Me Maybe” began blasting through the sound system, and they began to turn away.
Charlotte and Dora were standing just inside the door. Charlotte hugged Rose the way that girls did, then turned to her brother. “I hear your nemesis was caught crashing the party, Chris.”
“What can I say?” Chris shrugged. “The bad girls like me.”
“Bad girl? Chap, I heard,” Dora smirked.
“You think she’s a guy?” Chris asked.
“Chinese-American Princess,” Charlotte explained.
“That’s a thing?” Chris asked.
“Cousin Jenny,” Charlotte explained.
“Oh. Sure.” Chris glanced over at May and Jamie, halfway across the ballroom. The thing about Eight Spirit Kung Fu was that it was about attention. In spite of the ear-splitting noise, Chris would be eavesdropping on them if May and Jamie were talking about anything more interesting than whether he would be at the dance later, or any of them. Gossip was boring enough when you actually knew who people were talking about.
Chris caught May’s smirk. She was listening, all right.
“How about May?” He asked. The smirk froze. Now Chris was almost scared. May was cool, but she could also take him apart with a shot, if she wanted.
Dora rolled her eyes. “Ever seen May in her figure skating outfit?” Dora smoothed her hands down her side with a little flare out at the bottom to show the tutu-thingie.
Chris had seen a few pictures, but couldn’t quite believe them. Pictures of girls were like how girls saw themselves in the mirror. Not even close to real life. And anyway, none of the pictures were with other skaters that let you see how freakishly tall May was for a figure skater. “But she doesn’t skate now. She works at the Price Rite.”
“True that,” Dora conceded.
“Morning Glory works, too,” Chris pointed out.
“It’s not always about money,” Dora explained. “Charlotte’s got a trust fund, now.”
“So now I’m a CHAP.” Charlotte said, crossly.
“Hey, if the Mahnolos fit,” Rose pointed out.
“We could all do with some new boots for school,” Charlotte pointed out. “I get my allowance tomorrow. . .”
“Me, too!” Rose said.
“Opa said he’d pay for…” Dora began.
Chris interrupted. He knew where this conversation was going to go, otherwise. And, besides, Bruce McNeely had edged up to the far limits of the conversation a moment ago, and was standing, leaning awkwardly, as though he really wanted to join in, and had no idea how. “And she’s not Chinese. She’s Japanese.”
“JAP, then. Wait. Chris, how do you know all this about Morning Glory? Have you actually talked to her?” Suddenly Charlotte had that expression on her face that girls got when there was new gossip to hear.
Chris rocked back. How did he know that? He was sure that she was working a job besides going to school and hanging out with the Paradigm Pirates, but where did he get that impression? “I …no. All I know about her is what I hear when we’re ambushing each other.”
“Maybe you need to, you know, ambush her for coffee, next time,” Dora said, tossing off an ‘I know exactly what’s really going on here grin.’
Chris was about to come up with some kind of excuse about why he couldn’t do that when a commotion started behind them. He looked back. Eight people had just walked into the hall, led by a tall, golden-skinned humanoid. There was also a furred alien in a red tunic with a flowing cape and a tall, ochre-skinned one, but the other two looked perfectly human, a tall, vaguely feline young Black, and a Japanese girl in a Sailor Scout-like outfit. Morning Glory wore it better, Chris thought.
Someone barrelled right past him, bursting through the group to rush the Black guy. It was Jamie Neilsen. The Black guy pushed the sword he wore at his side, like the other newcomers, out of the way behind him and took Jamie in his arms in a smooth motion, dipping his head down to kiss her. Now that was cool, Chris had to conceive. He put his hand to his side. If he were wearing the Blue Sword, and it was the same length and shape as Charlotte’s Pearl Harmony Sword, it would hang like this, and he could push it down like this …And while he was thinking about it, the whole group had dissolved.
Bruce McNeely was standing beside him. “Uhm, hi, Chris,” Bruce began, nervously. “What’s up, Bruce?” Chris asked, a little irritated at being interrupted.
“Uhm, did you mean it when you said that Charlotte could teach me that move? I mean, did you ask her if she would?”
“No, Bruce, I didn’t think of it. Why don’t you ask her?”
Bruce stood there for a second, his mouth open and working, but no sound coming out of it, while his hands fidgeted nervously like they were out of the control of his brain. Although Chris recognised the moves from a tantric breath control exercise. “I couldn’t. She’s with her friends. I mean, like, I know that she’s, like, your sister and everything. I mean, she’s awesome when she’s by herself. And Dora and Rose are cool, too, when they’re, like, on their own. But they’re so mean, you know, when they’re together.” Then he fell silent, his face flushed with embarrassment, his hands working the positions.
“Those kids?” Chris asked, his hands sweeping round to include where Dora, Rose and Charlotte had been standing a moment before. “Mean? They’re kids, Bruce.”
“They’re not to me,” Bruce said. “They’re so…” Again, words failed him, and Bruce waved in the direction of the newcomers, to Jamie, smiling from ear to ear, the Black guy’s arm around her, as she talked to May beside her. Rabecca had come up behind them so that all of the Three Musketeers were together, and Dora, Charlotte, Rose, Amy, Emily and Rafaella had appeared out of nowhere, too. Chris looked at them. And looked.
The light dawned on Chris. Sure, he saw May, Jamie and Rebecca as beautiful, cool, and sometimes mean, and the others as kids. But the Musketeers were a year older than he was, and Bruce was two years younger. It was different for him. “Yes, Bruce. They’re kids. And so are you. Look, when I was your age, I couldn’t talk to the girls in my class, either.” That wasn’t completely true, actually. Chris had had no problem talking to the bad girls. It was the smart ones that he could never nerve himself up to get with. But it was close enough to true that his heart went out to Bruce.
Chris put his hands out and grabbed Bruce’s wrists. Anything to stop the fidgeting. “Of course I’ll ask Charlotte to show you those moves, Bruce. After school on Monday, if I can swing it.”
Bruce was sweating now. “Thanks. Thanks, Chris. Thanks…”
“That leaves you with the tough bit, kid.”
“What do you mean?”
“Not to discourage you, but she thinks you’re immature.”
Bruce’s shoulders collapsed, along with his face.
“Kid-, Bruce. I’ve seen you in action. Be that guy, and maybe you’ve got a shot.” Chris had decided not to mention Jameel. There was no way that Bruce could compete with someone as cool as Jameel, but he didn’t want to discourage Bruce, either, because who knew how all of that was going to work out, anyway?
“Oh. Uhm.. There’s my sister!” Bruce said, “Catch you later, Chris.” Damn, Chris thought to himself. The poor kid still sounded awfully discouraged. But he was right, Tyrell was walking off the dance floor, leaving Eve on her own, and, just like that, Babs McNeely had appeared against the wall. Tyrell turned and walked toward her, followed twenty feet behind by Bruce. Chris shrugged to himself. It really wasn’t any of his business, even if Tyrell was a buddy. Although Chris did wonder if Tyrell would mind if he asked Eve to dance.
A heavy pressure was building up to Chris’s side, like an Apocalypse Plague carrier was approaching. He looked left. The tall, ochre-skinned being was sidling up to him. His hair was uncombed, and the blade of his sword, which Chris could see because he was fidgeting with it, was spotted with black rust. “The darkness that is not dark, the worm that turns,” the more-than-slightly-alien creature said.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Where man now rules, others there once were, and will be again.”
“Is this the part where someone gives me clues that I have to figure out? Because there’s a reason no-one buys those stupid games anymore.”
The creature looked at him. “Well, if you’re going to take the fun out of it, go talk to Captain No-Fun.” He gestured at the furred being in the cape. In the light of Lythrum, the shadow he cast on the ballroom floor was weirdly warped.
Okay, then, Chris thought, as he did his own bit of sidling, stepping over to the being, abruptly realising that he was acting exactly like Bruce had a moment before. “Uhm, sir? I’m Chris Wong.”
“Really? I know your parents. A good man. I’m Doctor Archon.”
“Henry Wong isn’t my father. He’s my uncle.”
“I can still see the family resemblance. The clev haunts the same tract as the clat, they say.”
“I, uhm, yeah. Sir, your, uhm, friend, there…”
“Ah, yes. I’m sorry, even amongst our motley lot, Grenshol Argelan is odd.”
“And that is?” Chris prodded, hoping that at some point the conversation would give him some kind of door to a place where it made sense.
“My apologies, young Tries-Too-Hard.”
“That’s not your family motto?”
“Closer to the family excuse,” Chris said.
“The two aren’t necessarily different.” The being paused. “I, like Grenshol, am a member of the Crusaders of the Infinite Realities, an anti-V-han resistance movement of puissant sorcerors, mystic warriors and eldritch time dragons.”
“Ah,” Chris said. The door was nowhere to be found, but at least he had the feeling that he might be led around the corner to where he could see it soon. “Grenshol was saying something about darkness and worms.”
“Well, Lythrum is a dimension of magical darkness, one of the few where we Crusaders can relax. As for the worms, well, he is the leading expert on the sorcery of the Elder Worm, a magic that even V’han respects.”
“The Elder Worm?”
“I’m sorry, young man. I’m being excessively mysterious. We Crusaders fight the expansion of V’han’s empire. Grenshol is a mage and a scholar of the Cruisaders. There was a pre-human species of sorcerors called the Elder Worm, who became extinct in most dimensions during the mid-Pleistocene. In those few dimensions where they survived the extinction event, V’han’s forces target them for extermination because of the power of their magic. Grenshol studies their magic, hoping to discover methods to defeat V’han. We worry a little about his sanity, but studying alien magics always has that effect on people.”
Okay, now Chris was up to speed. He had no idea why Grenshol thought that this was worth bringing up. On the other hand, Chris did know at least one other insane dimension hopper. Maybe this would turn out to be the key to freeing Morning Glory from Professor Paradigm’s influence. Chris wondered what kind of coffee Morning Glory might like. Or tea, maybe. Would she like his aunt’s milk tea, even?
Beside him, Doctor Archon asked, curiously, “Who is that couple on the dance floor?”
Chris looked. Eve and Jameel were dancing, Eve so close to Jameel that their . . . chests were rubbing together. Behind him, Chris heard his sister choke off a sound. Oh, boy, Chris thought.