There was something sad about the mall on the second Saturday of January, Chris thought. Besides teenagers, most of whom Chris recognised from Tatammy, practically the only people around seemed to be returning stuff. He stared into his chai. Why didn’t they like their presents? The holidays were over for them, and that was all they would have for the winter. Unless they were celebrating the Lunar New Year. Like the Wongs were. Chris tried to control the excitement that had been building in him for over a week now. Chinese New Year was no big deal, even if his cousins couldn’t stop talking about it. It wasn’t something they’d ever done in the trailer park. It was no big deal, he reminded himself, again. Except then he remembered his grandfather, and how happy they were when grandfather handed him and Charlotte their red envelopes.
“Chris? Chris? Wake up!” Chris looked up at his sister.
“Maybe you should take sleeping pills or something tonight, Chris. Anyway, Dora and I are dragging Rose down to look at spring stuff at Charlotte Ross. They’ve got all these floral frocks. Wouldn’t Rose look awesome in a floral pattern?”
Chris looked up, helplessly. There, a bag of McDonald’s fries in her hand, was his sister, an ever taller (but don’t mention it! Chris reminded himself) Eurasian girl, her mixed heritage noticeable mainly in her rounded eyes, so that you could hardly tell the difference between her and her long-dead, glasses-wearing aunt. Unlike her cousins, whose noses always at least hinted at their mother’s prominent Altai bridge, Charlotte’s barely rose out of the softened curve of the old Wongs. She had long, wavy black hair, ends styled in curls and dyed light brown, wearing a thigh-length padded black jacket over a long, coffee-covered sweater, with a polka-dot scarf. It all made her cheek bone lines seem even more dramatically symmetrical, framing a full-lipped mouth.
In the middle of the three friends was Rose, just slightly shorter than her friend. Rose was blue-eyed and blonde, with pale skin that bloomed over her cheeks like she was always on the verge of blushing. Her short-cut hair had that touch of red, too, and her pale skin almost floated over her face, softening every line of a nose that turned just a bit upwards. Unlike Charlotte’s carefully calculated, layered look, Rose was wearing a black pullover sweater over jeans with no obvious jewelry.
On the right was Dora Guzman. Chris had once heard her great-grandfather describe her as a “nut brown maiden.” Her skin was light for a Latina, but her long hair was brown and so were her eyes, and something about her face said German rather than Mexican. She was wearing jeans and high boots, and carrying her winter jacket over her shoulder to show off a short grey-green jean jacket over a slip-sort-of thing in that colour between pink, purple and red that all the girls were wearing over a black top scooped out almost to the point where Chris could see cleavage. Dora’s pendant was gold, shining slightly with an inner light. Dora always complained that silver was more her metal than gold, but that the needfire ran in the family. Frankly, Chris didn’t see why silver versus gold was such a big deal.
But that was the point. Looking at Dora’s blouse, Chris was reminded of celebrity pictures of actresses in new dresses posing in ways that made them look like bone racks. But that was the point, because what looked totally pointless in a picture to Chris became almost overwhelming in person. It was the same with Charlotte’s scarf. When his sister first showed it to him, Chris had thought that it was pointless and gaudy, and told Charlotte so, and then she had got mad at him for some reason. After all, she asked for his opinion!
Now, in 3D, it was different. Although Chris wasn’t comfortable thinking that way about his sister’s friends, he could tell that they were beautiful in their Saturday-go-to-the-mall outfits. Chris had had plenty of chances to see those outfits as they were being put together, and never for a second had he even begun to imagine how good they would look. And now he was being asked his opinion about it? Chris shrugged helplessly, hoping that he wouldn’t be forced to make something up. He hated not being good at something, even fashion. At least, that is, he hated not being good at it if he were forced to have an opinion.
Fortunately, his sister must have sensed that, or at least had pity on his sleep-deprived mind, because she held up her hand and waved at the wrist, in a way that was cute when girls did it. “Later, Chris.”
“Bye,” Dora and Rose chimed in. The three turned and headed off down the mall, giggling to themselves. The good thing about it being his sister was that at least Chris knew that it wasn’t about him. Or that it wasn’t mean, if Charlotte were there. He could appreciate how Bruce McNeely felt.
But then Chris’ train of thought was disrupted as Tyrell’s hand came down on his shoulder. Chris looked up. Behind Tyrell, Babs, Savannah, and Billy were coming up from the hall that led to the east entrance, past where the escalators led down to the abandoned basement. And, directly above him, Chris could make out Ginger, wings flapping almost like a hummingbird as she held in place for a second directly under a skylight, a long, stringy fry. From beyond the skylight, out of sight, a long beak came down into the mall and took the fry right out of Ginger’s. Then, like an old man losing his balance, a three-toed talon skittered over the glass, and Chris could see Old Crow. “If you feed him, he’ll never go away,” Chris muttered, before remembering that Tyrell was right there.
“Wow. Deep thought on important issues, hunh, Chris?” Tyrell asked.
“No, just sleepy.”
“I was being sarcastic,” Tyrell said, then grinned sheepishly. “I was trying to be sarcastic. And I guess I shouldn’t have been going there, anyway.”
“No, I got it, Ty,” Babs said, bending low to pull two seats out so that her silver necklace dangled free of her tight black and tan horizontal-stripe sweater. She pulled up and dropped into the right seat, elegant as a cat, while Savannah folded herself into hers, elegant in an ivory sweater-jacket over a Tee-shirt, in a way that by now Chris intuitively knew that only the fully combined Savannah could quite pull off. They had all nine of Savannah with them today. Chris felt like he should be honoured.
Billy turned the other seat around before dropping into it, so that his arms dangled over the rest. “Totally. Like, take some gravol or something tonight, Chris.”
“Or chamomile tea,” Savannah said. “Or just…”
“Just what?” Chris asked.
Savannah bit her lip for a second before she said anything. “I …You know, I’m, like three times as smart when I’m combined like this. I just wish I was three times as tactful. Were.”
“Hunh?” Chris asked.
“Grammar,” Tyrell pointed out.
“Shh, --Ty,” Babs said.
“Never mind, Chris.”
“I think I’m just going to put up a sign that reads, “Advice Needed,” Chris said, a little crossly.
Savannah looked away.
“So,” Billy said. “Anyone want to know about the clone agent we caught on Monday?”
“Please don’t tell me that he spontaneously died or something,” Savannah said. “I hate the way people just assume that clones and doubles and whatnot don’t have rights and stuff.”
“You would say that, Ms. Triplicate Of Triplicates Girl.” Billy observed. “Anyway, the Mechanic has confirmed that he doesn’t have the genetic obedience programming that Teleios uses on the other clones he sells. Apparently, it didn’t take on this guy’s batch.”
Tyrell looked puzzled. “So why did his buddies all shoot themselves in the head?”
“That’s what the Mechanic calls the ‘secondary obedience treatment.’ It’s behavioural. Like with hypnosis and drugs and stuff. Takes lots more work, and isn’t as reliable.”
“So why did Teleios even make that batch?”
As the banter went on, Chris watched the people go by. Father Asplin was walking with Don. They seemed to be arguing about something. Hopefully not about whether it was okay to drink grape juice at Communion instead of wine. Again. But it probably was. You could tell from the way that Father Asplin swung his umbrella in his hand, like he was thinking about using it as a cane to push himself away from the conversation.
“Yeah, good question. So, the Mechanic is smart. Like underline-bold-italicise-capitalise smart. So he says to himself, ‘Hey, me, Teleios hired these guys out to Professor Paradigm, the dude that’s looking for the Apocalypse Plague. So why don’t I do a serum test for immunity to the Plague.’ And guess what?”
“The clone troopers are immune to the Plague.” Babs supplied.
Tyrell held up his hand and waved it urgently. “Ooh. Ooh! I know this one! Teleios is cloning up members of the Fig Newton family!”
“Going to call you Urkell if you keep that up,” Babs said, although her voice had a kind note in it, Chris noticed. “Wold Newton. And that is scary.”
“Wold Newton?” Chris asked.
“Oh, you remember, Chris,” Babs said.
“Not today I don’t,” Chris said. Behind them, Chris could see the members of the Tatammy Drama Club walking in a group towards the Price Rite. The long-haired Asian girl, her back to him as usual, was three paces behind the guys, walking with Snowflake, who was apparently the Club’s mascot.
“Like, the family of genetically superior people who are also immune to the Apocalypse Plague?”
“Wait,” Tyrell said. “By immune to the Apocalypse Plague, we mean people who can have it for a while, but don’t shed the disease and then purge it from their system, right?”
“Yes,” said Babs. “Oh. I see. Eve. She had the Plague at one point, but it doesn’t matter, because she was immune in that sense. So she’s a member of the Wold Newton family? We’re related? Oooh.”
“But she’s super-powered. Got that psychic/magic shaman thing going on,” Billy pointed out. “Can real Wold Newton people be super-powered?”
Okay, it wasn’t just teenagers in the mall today. One of the older professors from the Institute walked by. Chris had only seen him once, but his hunched-over, gorilla-like walk and brown teed suit jacket were instantly recognisable. He was headed for the washroom.
Babs laughed, and Chris looked back at her. When his head moved that quickly, he got a head rush. He needed to sleep in the worst possible way. “Billy, the real Wold Newton family is some fanfic a science fiction writer made up to explain how Tarzan and Doc Savage were related. My brother just came up with that comparison because he reads a lot of old science fiction.”
“Hunh.” Billy said. “And could the Wold Newton family be a hundred thousand years old?”
“Why not? Vandal Savage and Ulysses Bloodstone are,” Tyrell pointed out.
“Those are comic book characters,” Billy pointed out.
“Yeah, but DC and Marvel characters,” Babs said. “You know those are what they call the 'tribute' companies. The ones where the writers hang around with real superheroes, and sometimes do stories that are based on real events.”
“But, but…” Tyrell said. “So much has happened since then. I mean, there were global catastrophes, when Atlantis sank and when Takofanes fell at the end of the Old Red Aeon, not to mention Ice Ages and who knows what else.”
Billy scratched his head. “Wait. I don’t get it. Are you saying that Eve caught the Apocalypse Plague in 100,000BC? How is that even possible?”
Babs shook her head. “We’ve been over this before. There’s no way that the Apocalypse Plague could have been around for a hundred thousand years, unless it was sealed up in a test tube. Or, I don’t know, somewhere where it couldn’t get into the water-o-sphere, or whatever they call the water supply in science. Maybe a cave or something. Anyway, the odds are that Eve caught the Plague in the 21st Century, from whoever wiped her mind and turned her into a --.”
“Babs,” Tyrell interrupted.
“-A fun young girl,” Babs finished. “Or whatever. I don’t know.”
“Could the mind-wiper be a Wold-Newtoner?” Billy asked. Chris was barely paying attention. There was something familiar about the awkward, lurching figure in the long trenhcloack that was following the professor into the washroom.
“Excuse me,” Chris said, getting up from the chair. The ground seemed strangely far away from his feet, and he almost tripped as he stepped, but his feet found the floor at last. It might be a good idea to keep your eyes on the ground, Chris thought to himself, but it didn’t help that much. The lines formed by the thin grouts in the tile were trying to get away from each other. He looked back up at the door to the Men’s washroom, just in time to see the big man he was following almost lever himself through the door.
Chris hurried up. Just as he got there, the door opened, and a man came out in a hurry. He looked at Chris. “Maybe you want to find another washroom, man. Something weird’s going down in there.”
“Yeah, I figured,” Chris said. He slipped through the first door. This was one of those washrooms with a double door, fortunately, so Chris took a second to deploy his costume. Properly disguised, he reached for the inside door, and somehow missed the distance to it, banging his knuckles against the grainy wood. I’m in no shape for a fight, he finally realised. But even as the thoughts came to him, his right hand shaped itself over the hilt of a sword.
With the logic of a dream, Chris didn’t question his discovery, just pushed open the door and hurried inside. The creature in the trenchcoat had the old professor pinned against the wall. Long, spiky branches clothed in evergreen thrust through rents in the coat, and its hoodie was gone, so that Chris could see another branch of foliage where the head was supposed to be.
Behind her henchman was Morning Glory in her costume. Her eyes went wide at the sight of him, and Chris’s heart almost stopped beating for a second, until he remembered his business. Closing on the evergreen monster so quickly that it didn’t have time to react, he bisected it twice with precise blows of the sword, then turned on Morning Glory. Tendrils of stuff were thickening out of the air as he moved: the fabric trap, Chris hoped, and not nitroglycerin. He would be okay if there were an explosion like last time. Probably. But he didn’t think Morning Glory had the resistance to protect herself.
Chris took Morning Glory’s hand in his left. Her untrained response was to pull back, and Chris slid with her, matching step to step as though they were dancing, to wrap his right, sword-bearing arm under her arm and across her chest. Pinning her with that arm, he reached over, pulling her resisting hand with him, until he could take her right wrist as well. Then, with both arms already wrapped around her, he pulled her back, her hair collecting under his nose in a loose fold. It smelt like green tea and Earl Grey, only sweeter.
“Do you mind explaining what you’re doing to the nice professor?” Chris asked.
“She’s asking me for Matt Suzuki’s contact information. As if I should know where our former graduate students are. Really, young lady. Direct your inquiries to his ex-wife, Dr. Konoye. Or Dean Lodge’s office, if you prefer.”
Morning Glory squirmed in his grip, but Chris held on easily. “You are Dean Lodge!”
“Well, really! That has nothing to do with it. You need to talk to my secretary. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve had quite enough of superheroic drama for today. If anyone needs me, and can ask a civilised question, I shall be at the Apple Shop until 1:30.” With that, and moving surprisingly quickly, the Dean was out the door.
“Does the Dean really know where all the Institute’s ex-students are?”
Morning Glory twisted again, somehow ending up with her cheek pressing against his. Even through the smooth, silky material of her mask, Chris could feel the heat of human flesh. “He does if they just happened to fink to him about safety violations in their ex-wife’s lab!” Her voice was a little muffled by the distorting pressure of cheek to cheek.
“Is that what happened?” Chris asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, ramming her butt back in an attempt to take him by surprise. Chris blocked smoothly with his thigh.
“You know,” Chris observed, “I said that the next time I had you pinned, I’d take your mask off.”
“You wouldn’t dare!” Morning Glory said, hotly. “Is that what this is all about? Are you just grabbing onto me like this because you’re a pervert?”
Surprised, Chris let go. “No, it’s not like that!” He protested, before realising what a mistake he had just made. Morning Glory looked at him, and then four roots came smoothly up behind and pinned him against the wall. He should have realised when he saw Ginger feed Old Crow. There were cracks in the building envelope. Cracks that were big enough for plants to grow through.
“Now who’s pinned?” Morning Glory asked. She reached out towards his face, and Chris noticed that her nails were done quite neatly, with just a shimmer of neutral polish.
“Oh, that’s totally cheating,” Chris said.
“That’s the best that you can do, KFB?” Morning Glory asked. “What’s wrong with you?” For some reason, the emphasis made her sound concerned, not taunting.
“Not sleeping well,” Chris grunted, straining his qi-augmented strength against the roots without result.
“Why not?” She asked.
“How should I know?”
“Because it’s probably ‘cuz you’ve decided that you’re not going to sleep. Anyone say anything?”
Chris thought about it for a moment. “The other day. My aunt said I was looking rested. That my ghosts were letting me sleep.”
“Oh my God. You’re blaming yourself for being able to get some sleep? You can still love your Mom and get some sleep, KFB. I mean, your Mom or whoever it is you’ve lost. I guess. Because you live with your aunt. You said. Not the aunt that your sister looks like, I mean. Or is it? Oh my God twice! Are you related to the McNeelys?”
“Whoah, whoah. I already know that you guys have figured out my secret identity,” Chris said.
Morning Glory slumped a bit. “Yeah, I guess that was pretty obvious, Chris. My name’s”
“Shh,” Chris said. “So you’re saying that I should stop feeling guilty. Anything else? Like, let go of my anger?”
“All I’m saying is, you sound like my teachers. You’re such a teacher’s pet.”
“I am not!” Morning Glory said, her cheeks flaring into red.
"And you can't help solving puzzles, even when you shouldn't."
"You don't know anything about me!"
“Also, I’m holding a sword in my right hand.”
“You just noticed?”
“So I forgot for a moment. Haven’t you ever forgotten something like that?”
“Once, when we were driving between –never mind where—I fell asleep in the back seat of the car with my glasses in my hand. When I woke up, I couldn’t find them anywhere, until I poked myself in the face with them reaching up.”
“That is funny,” Chris admitted. “Yeah, so, I forgot about this sword. That I can use to cut myself free with any time.”
“And what would you do then?” Morning Glory said, her vibrant contralto voice sounding not a little interested in the answer.
“I-“ But before Chris could finish the thought, the PA crackled to life, in a slightly different tone than when it announced mall closings, as though it was just being heard in the washroom. Which, if you thought about it, they could probably totally do with the public address system if they wanted. “Attention in the washroom. This is Mall Security. We have been alerted to a customer convenience issue and we will be entering immediately to assist.”
“Oh crap,” Morning Glory said. In spite of himself, Chris giggled. “Bye-bye.” She disappeared.
Chris slashed his way out of the roots with the sword. When he was done, he held it in his hand. It was a long, straight sword with a minimal hilt, in shape just like Charlotte’s Pearl Harmony, except that it was the almost-transparent colour of blue jade, and the bird-worm script inscription that formed on the blade as he looked at it was different. For just a moment, the inscription seemed to make sense to him, and a blue light, almost like the Sun seen through water, began to gather in the depths of the blade, it vanished from his hand. Chris stared at his hand. What had just happened?
The inner door of the bathroom opened, and Mr. Stone came in, followed by Father Asplin, waving his umbrella like a sword. “It’s Chris Wong,” Mr. Stone said.
“I see that,” Father Asplin replied. “Looking the worse for wear, I must say.”
“I’m just tired,” Chris answered. “Can someone call my place? I think I need to go home.”