Chris slumped down at the table, his face cupped in his hands before he remembered that Auntie Ma didn’t like elbows on the table, but his aunt just sat silently, drawing a needle through a mustard-yellow garment with sleeves. A wushu tunic, Chris assumed.
At last he asked, “What are you sewing, Aunt Ma?”
“Embroidering, actually.” She frowned and picked out the stitch that she had just made, then put the needle down. “It’s been a long time since I did any of this, but Charlotte and Amy both want me to show them, so I’m getting back in the swing of it.”
“Is that what you did when you were a girl in the high Altai?”
“And in Xi’an, too. It was expected of a . . .Li princess.”
Chris noticed the hesitation. He doubted anyone else would. “Before you ran away from your parents.”
“My . . .aunt, actually. I ran away from politics, not towards adventure. The compiler of the Book of Tang decided the story worked better with a little romance. It’s an awfully dry read, as you’ll see when you’ve finished learning Chinese.”
Again the brief hesitation. Chris was curious, now, even if he had more than enough mysteries to keep him busy right now. “Your aunt was the Empress Wu Zetian, right?”
His aunt winced. “Yes, but a gentleman would not use that name.”
“Because I should call her by her temple name. But she didn’t have a temple name, because she wasn’t a real emperor.”
His aunt shook her head. “In the end, Auntie wasn’t an emperor because after she was safely overthrown, the court decided that women couldn’t be emperors. That’s not an attitude that I like to encourage.”
“Does that mean you supported your aunt?”
Again, his aunt sighed sadly, staring into space for a moment. “Auntie is a hero to the Party nowadays, but, she would have said, for all the wrong reasons. She wanted to be a wheel-turning king and to hasten the day of the Maitreya Buddha with righteousness. And she did one terrible thing after another to accomplish it. It’s sort of an occupational hazard for well-meaning emperors. And empresses.”
Then she looked down at the tunic that had become balled up in her hands and sighed again, before shaking it out to show the design on the back. It was a half-finished crow, picked out in black, perched on a branch and silhouetted off-centre against the dawn. “It’s beautiful, auntie,” Chris said.
“Thank you, Chris. It’s for you. It was about time you carried your own totems.” Outside, Chris heard a crow cry, and looked out the kitchen window at the blackness of early morning. A fat, old, crow was perched on the rail in the puddled kitchen light, and even though it couldn’t possibly see inside, it seemed to be looking at him. It cocked its head, then cawed silently. Chris felt a rush of dizziness to his head, as, just for a second, he wondered if he weren’t still asleep and dreaming.
Chris gestured out the window with his chin as his hands continued to butter toast. You couldn’t eat fried eggs without toast. “I dream about him.”
“That’s what totems do. Did you dream last night?”
“No,” Chris said.
“Good. Your ghosts need to let you sleep. So what are you doing up so early?”
“It’s Charlotte,” Chris admitted, pushing egg white into the runny, ketchup-stained yolk and lifting it onto the toast.
“Is she being difficult this morning?”
“Yes.” Chris stared at his plate. He didn’t understand what he’d done wrong.
“Chris, honey,” his aunt said, “Please don’t take anything your sister says to you right now to heart. She’s very upset with herself, and she will lash out, even if by some miracle you don’t provoke her.”
“So it’s my fault?” Chris asked, looking up at last, feeling anger rising in him.
His aunt made a dismissive gesture with her hand while smiling kindly. “No, it’s not your fault. Boys and girls, girls and boys. You don’t know what to say to her, and she doesn’t know what to say to you. As to whose fault it is, if I’m any judge of these things, it’s a handsome boy with long hair, big eyes and smooth skin.”
Chris nodded. Jameel.
“When people want something and can’t have it, they’re prone to blame themselves, Your sister, being a very pretty little thing, is up there right now worrying that she’s not pretty enough. And there was never a brother borne who could avoid feeding that fear with a careless comment, until he learned better. The way that you are right now.”
“That seems so superficial, though,” Chris said. “I mean, worrying about your looks. She should be glad that she’s growing!” At the same time, perhaps he shouldn’t have mentioned that Charlotte’s robe was getting short at the wrists.
“No more and no less superficial so than wanting to see cool,” his aunt replied. “It’s easy to dismiss these things when you don’t share the same insecurities. Across that gap, many an unintended hurtful word gets thrown until we learn to think, really think, about others.”
His aunt paused to pick up her cup and take a sip of milk tea before continuing. “It’s also the baser nature we need to learn to overcome. We need to learn to question these things, and so insecurity can lead us to wisdom, and the dharma.” She smiled and picked up her needle again. “I’m sorry, Chris. Whenever we have one of these talks, I seem to end up giving a sermon. Your uncle will be down in a moment if you want to try seeking enlightenment on the track, instead.”
For a moment, his aunt stitched in silence while Chris finished his last half of toast with jam. Then his aunt spoke again. “Your sister has a new classmate this semester, doesn’t she?”
Chris nodded. “Bruce McNeely.”
“Are you going to see him at the mansion today, after school?”
Chris thought about that for a second. “No. Billy’s source in Ottawa is going to call him. Me and Tyrell are going over to strategise, but Charlotte’s going to work out with Bruce and show him some moves.”
“You’re a very clever boy, Chris, so I know that you know that ‘Me and Tyrell’ is the subject of the sentence. That’s why it takes the subject pronoun, ‘I,’ not the object, ‘me.’ What does your sister think of Bruce?” She moved on so smoothly that Chris couldn’t guess what was going through her mind.
“That he’s goofy, but funny.”
His aunt smiled. “Something to work with, anyway.”
Now he had a good idea.
“And what about you? Expecting another heist attempt at the Institute?”
Chris shrugged, uncomfortable about the way that the conversation had changed for a moment. “I don’t know. I think we’ve got this pretty much wrapped up.”
“We do, too. It’s not always easy to see the future, but we have plenty of friends who dabble in the art, and it is pretty clear that the Apocalypse Plague will never strike this world.”
Did that mean that he would never fight Morning Glory again? Suddenly, Chris felt more disappointed than anything.
His aunt smiled again, but before she could say anything, his uncle came down the stairs, followed by his sister and May. Chris peered at his sister, but she seemed as close and upset as ever. Fortunately, today would be intervals training down on the underground track in the Liberty Legion headquarters. That would keep conversation to a minimum. Anyway, May and Charlotte would be all girl talk, describing clothes to each other with weird silences at the end as though the fact that someone was wearing shoes without socks was the punchline of a joke that Chris just couldn't get.
The first day of school was also Chris’ first day in regular classes. He had been through this often enough before to know that he would be the class dummy. He didn’t mind that very much, because it usually didn’t last. Chris knew that he wasn’t one of the smart kids, but he also knew that he could keep up with them. Before, anyway, because he was worried about his new friends. They were awfully smart. He might never figure out what they were talking about.
Fortunately, though, he managed not to put his foot into it in his first classes, and, after lunch, Dr. Cambridge took him out of math. No sooner than he was sitting across from her in her office in the main school building, she slapped his test papers down in front of him. “Has anyone ever taught you how to fox this kind of test, Chris?”
Chris nodded. There was no point in denying that his father had done exactly that. “But…” He began, but the counsellor cut him off.
“Someone who has done them very recently. Have you seen your father since you arrived in 2012, Chris?”
“Wait a min-“ he began, but she interrupted again.
“No,” he muttered, angry now.
“Anyone else? Professor Paradigm, perhaps?”
“No!” He yelled now.
“Are you ready to say that to Principal Guzman’s face? Because he’ll be here in a minute. In fact, he should be here by now,” she said, sounding worried. Outside the office, Chris heard a massive bang as someone hit the wall.
“Well, I’ll find what’s keeping him, then,” Chris hissed out, pulling himself out the door into the corridor. Snowflake was huddled on the ground, his huge jacket draped over him, making him look like half a snowman. His oversized earphones were around his neck. A tall boy with curly black hair and massive shoulders under an army-style olive-green sweater stood over him, flanked by a group of even bigger, huskier boys looking like idiots in winter jackets and pulled-down pants. “Who’s your daddy, then, Snowflake?”
“Teacher says we’re a team, Mario. You’re bad!” Snowflake answered.
The curly haired boy sneered. “I’ve had exactly too much of that crap from you,” and laid out a kick square in the middle of the puffball of Special Needs. It didn’t land.
Chris took Mario by the arm and guided him down, his right leg sweeping the kicking limb out from under the big boy, spinning him around so that he hit the wall at the exact same sitting angle as Snowflake. The halls boomed again, and then the two of them were sitting like two freshmen sharing their lunch. Behind him, Chris could hear Dr. Cambridge yelling, “Chris!’
He ignored her as he looked down at Mario. “That has got to be the saddest bit of bullying I’ve ever seen, man.”
The dark haired kid glared up at him. “Screw you. You just crossed the wrong posse!”
“Posse? Seriously?” He said it just like Morning Glory did, and it sounded just as cool coming out of his mouth. But what about the posse? Chris thought. He looked again at the big kids. His first guess had been hockey players. Or, he guessed, in Philadelphia, football. But as he stared into their faces, his wushu-trained senses saw wolves staring out of their faces. I think I might have bit off more than I can chew, Chris thought to himself, as one of them, snarling wordlessly, lashed out with fingers spread out like talons rather than in a fist.
The football player-werewolf was so fast that he almost connected. Can’t have that, Chris thought to himself. Werewolves were infectious, and Chris had a feeling that they weren’t a very popular high school clique to belong to. Vampires were the way to go, he’d been told, if you had choose. Chris grabbed the sinewy wrist and tried for a throw, but the werefootball player was too quick. Chris settled for dislocating its elbow, instead.
The thing drew back and grabbed its arm. Its friends stood unmoving. Have I intimidated them? Chris thought to himself. Then it drew its arm back. The elbow was back in its proper place. Oh, boy, Chris realised. I just might have bit off a bit more than I can chew. Unlike these guys, who will probably bite off exactly as much as they want to chew.
And then, from behind him, Chris heard a booming voice with a distinct Mexican accent. “You boys are violating your probation just by being on campus, never mind transforming.” Chris looked back. It was El Professore, complete with his blue and white mask and bare-chested muscles.
The middle boy answered. “We were invited by a member of the student body! And then we were attacked by another member while we were minding our own business!”
“That’s not true, sir!” Chris said. “They were beating up this kid up here.” Chris pointed at Snowflake, who was still huddled on the ground.
“Is that true, Michael?” El Professore asked.
“No, no beating up. Everyone is friends here. Except Chris. He’s a big meanie,” answered Snowflake.
“That's not how it happened…” Chris began, but El Professore cut him off.
“That’ll be quite enough, Chris. Please go back to your class. Mario, I realise that no-one told you, but these big lunks are on probation. They’re not allowed on campus, and they’re not allowed to associate with Tatammy students, or they go right back to Juvie. Special Juvie. Mario, you can go, but don’t for a second think that there won’t be repercussions.”
He turned to the four were-lunks “Same goes for you. Have fun explaining this to your probation officer. Chris…” he continued, without even turning to see that Chris was still hanging on Dr. Cambridge’s office door to see what happened.
Turning, he went inside. Dr. Cambridge had more multiple tests lined up for him on the computer, and this time he had to wear an arm cuff to do them. School was over before she finally gave up and shut it down. “I guess I should have known better than to expect an Eight Spirit Kung Fu student to give reliable readings on one of these.”
Chris opened his mouth to protest. He wasn’t cheating. But Dr. Cambridge just gestured at him. “You can go, Chris.”
Billy, Tyrell and Babs were waiting for him in Tyrell’s car in the parking lot. “What’s the matter, Chris?” Babs asked when she saw him. “You look flushed.”
Chris climbed into the back seat, doing the ricochet thing as he did, his finger sketching the arc of something bouncing off his chest. “Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you. I’m just mad at stupid Dr. Cambridge and some stupid Special Needs kid who’ll throw me under a bus instead of ratting out a bully. What’s got you guys so uptight?”
“My source in Ottawa called,” Billy said, as Tyrell started up the car and drove out of the parking lot, turning on Templeton Street towards the Institute. “We are super-screwed.”
“You have to apply for a license to recombine DNA, or whatever they call it. Do virus thingies. Dr. Konoye’s lab, the Dryland Biomes Project, has applied for a license to do that stuff for a pesticide project twice. Once three years ago, then again this year. It was turned down both times. The Station isn’t secure enough. I guess they’re afraid that it’ll get loose and wipe out the world’s slugs, or whatever.”
“What?” Chris asked. “But if they didn’t make the Apocalypse Plague, then who did?”
Tyrell interrupted. “Maybe they did it on the side? I know it’s crazy, but somewhere in the world there must be someone who does something they’re not supposed to do on company time.”
“Yeah,” Babs said, ,”But making life that shouldn’t be is a lot different from checking Facebook or playing Angry Birds. I hope.”
“Un-hunh,” Billy added. “My contact says that there’s no way they could have hid their work.”
Chris sat back for a second. “But the future-predicting guys all say that we’ve licked it, that the Plague will never strike this Earth dimension.”
“So we had better figure out what’s going on,, Chris,” Babs said, as Tyrell pulled the car into the Institute lot. The lot was deserted. Classes at the Institute didn’t start until next week, and most of the building was still on vacation or field trips still. Which meant, Chris thought, as he got out of the car and drew a deep breath of the cold, winter air, catching a subtle whiff of a powerful vegetable smell, almost like fresh-mown grass, but even deeper and richer. Tea. Or trouble. Tea and trouble. Chris thought that he might like that combination. The smell came from the old part of the Institute, what looked like a townhouse that connected to the old office block that they had gone through before.
Chris took a moment to settle himself. If he let his voice reveal just how pleased he was, people would figure he was majorly uncool, the way that poor kid, Bruce, had come across. “What’s in the houselike annex thing?”
“Crap,” Billy said. “That’s the records office.”
“Is that bad?” Babs asked.
“Remember that thing with the World War II Super-Soldier serum experiments, back in the 70s?” Billy asked.
“Uh, hello. I’m sixteen, Billy.”
“I do,” Tyrell said, grimly. “I thought it didn’t work. Just a few good men dead without even knowing what they volunteered for. Black men. So are these spies after Cyberline, or whatever?”
“Oh, jeez, nothing like that. The investigators just said that on top of everything else, the Institute had to keep patient records more secure. The house there is the original building, from back when this was the McNeely Clinic, and it was crammed with old records and furniture and decorations and stuff. Brittle paper and flammable photographs, like that. So they just said, ‘this is the new confidential records facility and locked it up. We’ve been waiting for it to burn down ever since. Which it will, if some crazy supervillains start messing around in there."
Billy's tone shifted to business. "Okay, the Paradigm Pirates have always gone with a ground game and an extraction team. Tyrell, Babs, you block the extraction. Chris and I will go after the ground team.”
Billy led the way into the Institute through another side door, holding his phone in his hand as he did so. He led Chris dashing down a series of corridors over scuffed, green-painted institutional wood floor, closed glass doors to labs and offices flashing past. In moments they reached a blocked door. Tyrell reached out and opened it just wide enough to slip through, fast and slippery.
Chris followed, jumping to catch the walls of the narrow corridor with hands and feet and bouncing down the corridor, just below the ceiling, ninja-style. Age-brittled plaster rained down in gentle clouds as he touched the wall. Real ninjas never had that problem, Chris thought to himself as he turned a corridor and looked down.
It was Morning Glory, of course, and the big guy who dressed like a Roman legionary. He was talking. “Why can’t this be more like a movie. Look at all these files. We’re going to be forever finding it!“
Morning Glory replied. “Because we’re doing it wrong. ‘A is for Apocalypse Plague.’ See the letter on these cabinets? That’s an ‘S.’ Completely different from an ‘A.’ ‘A’ says ‘Aaa.’ “S’ says …” She started fast in reply, than slowed down like she was talking to a second grader at the end.
The legionary interrupted impatiently. “You don’t know that that’s the system here.”
“I’ve got a pretty good idea. Because of the way all the files in this room start with an ‘S.’ If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think you had your own agenda, Decurion.”
“Like you don’t, girl!”
“That’s not my point. My point is that if you tell me what you’re really looking for, maybe I can help.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you!”
“Yes, yes I would. You can tell, because I just said so.”
“Stop treating me like an idiot, girl!”
“Stop acting like an idiot!”
“Oh, so that’s what this is about!”
Chris’s hands were getting slippery and sweaty. He shifted, and touched a spot of particularly brittle plaster. A big chunk fell, smashing on the dusty ground right at the Decurion’s foot. Decurion and Morning Glory looked straight up at Chris. I should have figured that would happen, Chris thought to himself. Still totally worth it, though. He swung down, kicking Decurion in the chin as he landed. Billy burst from his own hiding spot as Chris landed, tackling Decurion. They went down in a heap.
Chris had to dodge a spray of thorns as he got up, but, this time, Morning Glory didn’t stay to play. Chris followed her down the hall, loping easily behind her. For all her plant controller powers, Morning Glory only had normal human physical abilities, and Chris could have caught her easily if he wanted to tackle her from behind. Ufortunately, with all the filing cabinets and abandoned, rotten pieces of 1930s furniture scattered in the halls under the ancient, flickering fluorescent lights, that was the last thing he wanted.
Morning Glory turned a corner fast, grabbing the corner of an old oak desk that was for some reason leaning precariously on its side against the wall. It fell behind her, forcing Chris to dodge under it. His feet lost their grip on the floor, which had suddenly turned to carpet. Chris rolled into the slip, down and then up, coming around the corner into what might have been a living room at one time, with wall carpet on the floor, except for a crease cut around a fireplace, out of which some ivy was stretching towards him.
Chris slipped the ivy easily enough. Surprisingly, though, Morning Glory was still standing in the middle of the room when he finished. Chris was confused. “What? Are you surrendering?”
“Whatever. Look at that picture on the fireplace mantle, KFB, and tell me why Tagalong is in it.”