Chris stared at the photograph. And stared. His aunt looked to be the age she died, 22, and she was wearing a gauzy summer dress. Say, the summer of 1933? Why hadn’t anyone told him about this? Until he was interrupted by Morning Glory’s voice behind him. “Your aunt is awfully pretty, KFB. What happened to her?"
“She was lynched,” he said, shortly, turning to face her.
“Oh, that’s terrible! What about your Dad? It must have been horrible for Mr. McNeely, too.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Chris said. “No-one ever talked about it, and it was a long time ago. My Grandfather was so angry, so … sad. About something. I never really understood.”
“It must have been a real consolation to him that your sister looks so much like her.”
Morning Glory paused for a moment, then smirked, although she touched her hair with her hand as she did so. “Do you look like your aunt, too? I should take that mask off the next time you’re pinned, KFB.”
“Next time? Any time,” Chris said. “You watch out for your own mask.”
“You think you can get at my mask?” Morning Glory asked, dropping into a bit of a crouch and extending her gloves while shaking her hair out.
Chris shook his head. “Maybe later. Right now, I’m just delaying you.”
“Ha! I’m hip to your plan, and I’m delaying you, try,” she said, but she stood up as she said it. “Anyway, why did everyone say that Tom McNeely was a ‘playboy’ if he had some girlfriend out in the boonies? I thought that was old-time talk for being gay.”
“He had two kids,” Chris pointed out. “And Chinese girlfriends weren’t the thing in the old days.”
“Pff. Let’s see. He has two kids, one of whom is an illegitimate kid with some Arab girl, and the other is the son of a cat burglar. Why not a Chinese girlfriend?”
Chris noticed the ‘whom,’ of course. He was paying more attention to what Morning Glory said than he ever had to a teacher. He was beginning to think that his sister was right. Under the mask and the skirt there was one smart girl. “Well, I never heard about it, anyway. So how do you know so much about the McNeelys?”
“We’re digging around the old McNeely Clinic for info, duh.”
“Nope,” Chris said. “You’re looking for something that was supposedly being invented here after 2009. Professor McNeely died in 1950, and the McNeelys never had anything to do with this place after that. Try again.”
“You got me. Numbnuts back there is using this gig to dig for info about the McNeely super-soldier research.”
“And what are you using this place for?”
“The Plague is related to a friend’s research. That research was sabotaged three years ago. My friend’s not sure how, but if she’d just gotten the funding, she could have stayed in Philadelphia, and, well, things would have been different.”
Chris looked into the dark eyes behind the teal-green mask, at the pain that had just appeared there. “You think things would have been different. You don’t know, and you may not be able to fix it, either.”
The hurt turned into flashing anger as Chris stared into her eyes. “I have a better idea than you, you stupid jock!”
.He stared into those dark eyes for a long moment, helplessly aware that what he said wasn`t going to get any more casual-sounding if he rehearsed it in his head even longer. “You’re pretty cute even with your mask,” he got out at last. A knot formed in his stomach as she looked back at him, wordless. Chris couldn’t believe he’d said that. Sure, he’d throw a compliment at a bad girl, because it could work wonders, but Morning Glory was no bad girl. She was smart, and could see right through him. He was cruising for a putdown with a crack like that, from a classy girl like this.
So he figured he’d end this conversation before that happened. “Another thing. How do you know what my sister looks like under her mask?”
As he figured, that was more information than Morning Glory wanted to share. She did her disappearing trick in front of him as, at last, he lunged to catch her. A moment later, Billy hurried into the room, followed by Tyrell, Babs, and Rose. The Paradigm Pirates had escaped again.
Later, Rose stretched out on Billy’s bed until her stocking feet stuck over the edge of the bed, one hand tugging at her skirt. “It would be so romantic if Morning Glory did a face turn and you two got together.”
“Why does everyone talk like Morning Glory is my girlfriend instead of my nemesis?” Chris asked, feeling his face turning down into a scowl. “Smart girls aren’t my type.”
“’Face turn?’ ‘Romantic?’ wearing a skirt? Who are you, and what have you done to the real Rose?” Tyrell asked, from the left corner under Billy’s grimy window, to one side of the bed, where he was carefully positioned so that he couldn’t see anything of Babs, under the other window corner.
“Billy called it a face turn. It’s from wrestling. And why can’t I do a little harmless match making? Or wear a skirt?”
“Because the real Rose is all business,” Tyrell pointed out. “And this business just got bad.”
“But the oracles say that the Apocalypse Plague will never be a threat,” Chris pointed out.
“Awesome,” Rose said. “But Empress Istvatha wants to use it, and she has a track record of using weapons like the plague to attack target dimensions with time travel.”
“How would that even work?” Babs asked. “Like, would Earth just suddenly turn into a plague-ridden wasteland all of a sudden, and, uhm, have been that way?”
“Think of it like that cat in the box, with the poison capsule.” Rose replied.
“Schrödinger’s cat, in probability or quantum physics, or whatever,” Tyrell said. “The poison capsule is on a random thingie, so as long as you don’t look inside, the cat might be alive, or it might be dead. It’s ‘probability wave’ doesn’t collapse into a single state until you open the lid.”
“Exactly. Istvatha goes back in time and spreads the plague in 2009, then jumps forward in time to wherever she started out from, and the moment she arrives, she sees this Earth dimension as a wasteland. In the same way, as soon as we stop the Plague from being created in the future, it will be as though there was never a plague in my home dimension, either in 2009 or in 2355.”
“And your whole world will be wiped out along with you,” Babs pointed out.
“You have no idea how bad the 24th century is. We’re willing to accept that,” Rose explained.
“What? Everyone? Like, even your family?”
“Well, the Trogs don’t like it, but they’re just a bunch of weirdoes. And I don’t have a family. I was created in a lab out of Plague-resistant DNA.”
“Okay, that’s it,” Billy interrupted. “Things are getting dark. What’s a Trog? And since when is there genetic resistance to the Plague?”
“Trogs are people who hide away in sealed life support systems in deep shelters instead of joining the rest of society in keeping the environment Plague-free. And there have always been people who were immune to the Plague. Like the McNeelys, for example. And the Okanagan Indians.”
“Woah. Woah. Dark. Chris, your family is part Okanagan Indian, right? And there was that picture of your aunt and old Tom McNeely. This is going to get bad.”
Tyrell said, crossly, “What are you talking about, Billy?”
“Family, Ty, family. There’s too many family secrets suddenly coming up. I haven`t had a family in fifty years, but I`ve seen a lot of other people’s families, and you can trust me, when you dig into that stuff, you learn things you never wanted to know.”
“Like what?” Babs asked.
“What if the reason the McNeelys are, you know, McNeelys is that you guys have that super-soldier serum in your veins? And what if the super-soldier serum is actually the Apocalypse Plague?”
“Hey,” Chris said. “You’re just stealing the plot from that Ultimates comic. Like where everything turned out to be related to Captain America’s serum.”
“Except for the aliens and the Asgardians. That was one confusing mess of a comic book by the end. Not to mention the cannibalism and all the killing.” Tyrell shook his head at the recollection.
Babs’ hand appeared over the bed, one finger extended. She slowly extruded her cat’s claw, then drew it in again. “Something weird is going on in my family. Maybe this is because my Dad was dipped in radioactive cat pee or something. Maybe not. The point is, I’m not human. Would a super-soldier serum do that?”
“Babs,” Tyrell said urgently, “You’re human. A …great human.”
“Screw off, Ty,” Babs said. “I don’t feel human.”
“Yeah. Kids, stow it.” Billy said. “I would say we shouldn’t dig into this, because I know it’ll get bad. But it looks like we don’t have a choice. Everyone’s depending on us to stop the Plague.”
“Exactly,” Rose said.
“That’s not fair,” Tyrell said. “There’s got to be someone else!”
“Says the lawyer’s kid from the nice house. Take it from trailer park trash. If you don’t clean up your own mess, no-one’s going to do it for you.” Chris answered. “And before you ask, this is our problem because Rose is our buddy.” Although Chris wasn’t sure at all that he wanted to help Rose get what she really wanted. The kid looked cute in a skirt. Chris didn’t think that Jameel would notice, somehow, but she deserved someone who would.
“So how would that work?” Babs asked.
Tyrell cleared his throat. “Okay, so say the Plague is actually a version of the McNeely super-soldier serum. Someone finds it in the Institute archives in 2009 in Rose’s timeline, and unleashes it on the world. In this timeline, people are still looking for it, and Professor Paradigm is looking in the wrong place. But that Decurion dude isn’t. Maybe he’s the one who finds it and gives it to the V’hanians.”
“But if the Plague is just the serum, isn’t it in our family blood, or whatever?” Babs asked.
“Maybe it still needs to be modified,” Rose suggested. “That would explain why no-one is trying to make it out of actual McNeelys.”
“I vote that we don’t bring that idea up,” Babs answered. “Especially not Decurion. He creeps me out.”
“So what’s the Osoyoos connection, then?” Billy asked.
“Same as before,” Chris said. “Dr. Konoye’s gene-splicing experiment. The one that didn’t get funded in 2009 or 2011. It’s got to be some kind of cover for work on the super-soldier serum.”
“But isn’t she a botanist?” Billy prodded.
“A botanist whose supervisor wants to exterminate the human race.” Chris pointed out.
Tyrell interrupted. “So it’s that Thorn dude, the supervisor. Maybe. So what do we do now?”
“It’s time for Operation Dark Family Secrets,” Billy said.
“Meaning?” Babs said.
“We ask old people about when they were young. And listen,” Billy replied.
“Worst. Plan. Ever.” Tyrell groaned.
“On the bright side,” Chris said, “Maybe the McNeelys have my sword.”
A tapping came from the window. Chris looked at it. In spite of the light inside, it seemed that he could see a beady eye glinting in the darkness. “I think I’ve got business,” Chris said, and got up abruptly to go outside into the parking lot.
Out in the cold, January night, Chris followed the edge of the parking lot until he came to the blackberry bush beside the exit where they had fought the Paradigm Pirates the previous week. A piece of paper fluttered in the wind, impaled on the thorns. Chris picked it off, gingerly. It was mottled with holes large and small, at the corners, with staples stuck to it here and there, holding clutches of paper fragments, as though the paper had been on a bulletin board long enough to have many layers of messages carelessly stapled over it. The headline said, ‘Everyone is Cordially Invited to Kiko Konoye’s Official Post-Divorce Unhitching Party,’ and there was a graphic of a heart breaking in two, and a date: December, 2009.
Chris looked at the paper for a long time, then scrunched it fiercely in his hand. He stared into the bush, and muttered, “You really are beautiful, you know.” Then he felt his face flush at the thought that she could actually hear him.
After a long minute, Tyrell touched him on the shoulder. “You don’t seem surprised, Chris.”
“I knew who it was from, and I sort of guessed what it would say, and I knew that you guys wouldn’t let me go see her alone. Shorter: I’m not surprised. But I still wish that she’d come in person.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure you’ll have it all figured out by the end.”
“The Apocalypse?” Chris asked.
“I hope not. Unless it’s a zombie apocalypse. Those are cool. This family secrets apocalypse is just dorky.”
“Hey, watch your mouth. My nemesis is a dork!”