Chapter 2, 18: Message in the Thorn
The January wind was cold across the parking lot. Chris huddled into his, pulling it closer around him with his left hand and wishing that he had given in and worn a hat, even if it did make him look like the kind of wimp who cared about stuff like that. With his right, he pulled at a clot of dry, grey blackberry thorns. His hand was painfully numb, but he wasn’t going to give up, even if he had no idea what he was looking for, or why he cared so much.
Behind him to the right, in the eaves of the institute roof, Chris heard hard bird talons skittering on gutter metal. He didn’t look over. Chris had no idea how hard it was for Old Rave to switch from the dream world to reality and back, but he didn’t want to put it the trouble.
Behind him, he heard feet crunching frozen gravel against the pavement and voices. Chris knew that it t wasn’t anyone coming for their car. It was almost 6. Chris had been around the Institute enough to know that the last of the 9-to-5 crowd were long gone. Professors and senior lab technicians, had lives and no interest in hanging around the Institute for long hourse, breathing its stale, old-building air and , had left an hour ago. With the old people gone, the graduate students and researchers were just starting the productive part of their day, finally getting onto the good machines. Not only did the young researchers not get to park in the nice lot, paved right up to the shady garden beds on the less-ugly side of the Institute, they wouldn’t be leaving for hours yet. And even then it was mainly to go grab pizzas and Thai takeout.
No, the voices behind him were his sister and his friends, and right now Chris was wishing that they would leave him alone.
“Wow. He really does have it bad,” he heard Tyrell say.
“Shhh! He’ll hear you,” Babs hissed. At some point, when it wasn’t incredibly awkward, Chris thought, he should tell his friends just how much he could hear. Except what if Charlotte was keeping it a secret? She could be a sneaky girl, and it was only eavesdropping if someone got hurt. He thought. Actually, Chris thought, he didn’t really know that. It was something that he’d just started worrying about in the last few days. Maybe because this whole “having friends” thing was so new to him?
“Nah. It’s mostly that he’s just not sleeping again,” his sister answered.
“But you said that the bush was, like, some kind of message board?” Dora said.
“Could be, I said. Could be.” His sister replied.
“So, what? He’s just palely loitering out here waiting for a message from his….Rose started.”
“Nemesis,” his sister supplied.
“-That’s s romantic,” Rose finished, without missing a beat.
“’Palely loitering?’” Dora asked.
“It’s an old poem. A knight meets a wild-eyed fairy lady who takes him away to her bower and then abandons him on a cold hill’s side, and…”
“You so need a boyfriend, Rose,” Dora said.
“I don’t need a boyfriend. I need a vaccine for the Apocalypse Plague. And you should talk.”
“I have a boyfriend!”
“The Maid of Gold has a boyfriend. Some He-Man rip-off hunky prince, complete with a big sword and a winged horse.”
“That you can’t stop doodling in the margins of your notes,” Charlotte added.
“They’re metaphors! Things are different on the far side of space and time!”
“So is it a metaphor or not that you and the Maid of Gold are different people? Because if your Dad finds out that you’re running off to help the Ravens of Dispersion….”
“Shut up, Charlotte Wong! I don’t want to be your friend any more.”
“Chill, Dor. I’m not telling anyone.”
“You better not. Needfire must.”
“Can you get that on a t-shirt?”
“Prolly. Hey, Rose, hang back there for a sec. Give Charlotte’s dumb old brother some privacy. He’s texting his bush.”
“Is that some kind of way of saying…”
“You started it with your bower talk.” Dora answered.
“That’s Keats, not me,” Rose defended herself.
“Oh, good,” Charlotte interrupted her two friends. “You’re off the hook, Rose, because it’s in a book. ‘Hey, Lord Darcy, let’s make sexy time!’”
“What?” Rose asked.
“’What’ yourself. I’m just quoting Jane Austen,” Charlotte explained.
Rose replied in level tones. “Strangely, Jane Austen never actually used the phrase ‘sexy time’ in her one of her books.”
“Shame. Maybe I’d read them, then,” Dora conceded.
Now it was Charlotte’s turn to sound thoughtful. “You would? Sounds kinda stupid to me.”
“Wait. You haven’t read Jane Austen, Dora?” Rose asked.
Dora replied, sounding shamed. “Of course I have. Look, friends don’t undermine friends when they’re trying to be all sexy Latinas.”
“Yeah. You kinda blew that when your parents named you ‘Dora.’”
“Oh, you so did not go there, Charlotte.”
“What? You were riffing on Charlotte’s web at school today.”
“So we could talk about ‘Unc…Oops, ixnay on the ncleay.”
“The what?” Charlotte asked.
Rose explained. “Bad Pig Latin for ‘Uncle.’”
“Eve is standing right behind us, isn’t she?”
“No, but she’s coming out of Pemberton now. Probably gave up on trying to flirt with Mr. Piccolo.”
“Yeah, good luck with that one,” Dora said.
“Hey, Chris, you hear that?” Charlotte whispered. Chris wasn’t sure what he was supposed to make of it all, except that fourteen-year-old girls were chatterboxes, so he didn’t do anything. There had to be something here in the bush. It had been three whole days since he found the note!
But his friends wouldn’t leave it alone today. Billy Tatum dropped softly to the pavement beside them. In his pocket, Chris’ phone pulsed a quick message in Morse that he could barely make out. “You’re being watched.’ Silently, Billy gestured towards the back of the parking lot, making the ‘move out’ gesture.
Chris’ heart leaped in his chest. First things first. He rolled under an unrestored sports car that a professor was storing on the lot, deploying his uniform fatigues as he did so, then broke sideways to slide as quickly as possible under a big RV, similarly warehoused in complete defiance of campus parking rules. Sure, there weren’t many people dumb enough to think that the Chris Wong just happened to slide under one car and the martial artist in a hooded Tatammy Uniform who slid out from another a moment later were different people. But the important thing was that he had broken the evidentiary trail. No-one could use the occasion to prove it.
Now Chris was running across the pavement towards the wire-meshed fence at the back. Across the gully at the back of the Institute, the backyard forests that were the very well-kept privacy gardens of an old residential neighbourhood were dark shadows in the murky night. Chris strained to see what Billy had seen. There! In the third yard to the right, a big but lithe figure broke cover under a decorative maple tree and darted towards a house, hidden at this level by a hedge.
Chris pushed off the ground, leaping high over the fence to land in the mesh of winter-brittle branches that shielded the creek in the gully, his feet moving so quickly and lightly that his weight was off each branch before it had time to break and drop away. As he came to the last tree growing on municipal land inside the gulley, Chris gripped it at the bole, swinging out and down to land agilely on the back lawn of the house, beyond the hedge and the trees on the edge of the property.
His quarry was gone, but the garden gate to the right was swinging. Ha! Chris swept over the back garden and vaulted the gate, landing for a second in the cheery light spilling out of the transom window of a basement apartment before dashing out onto the house’s front lawn beyond. The gully marked the end of the campus, but not of the university’s influence. This neighbourhood was all professors and their families, with only the most boringly serious students in basement and attic apartments. There was no traffic on the street, but children, apparently oblivious to the cold, watched as Chris ran out onto the street. Where had the watcher gone?
As if on cue, Tyrell shouted from above: “There’s someone on a bike, headed east!”
“Which direction?” Billy asked, having come up silently beside Chris.
“Which left?” Chris couldn’t help grunting, although they were both already running that way as fast as they could, their feet now pounding the pavement. Chris pushed it, just to see if Billy could keep up. He could. In fact, Billy started to go ahead a bit, and Chris reached for a little more speed. So this was going to be a race!
They turned a corner on the road where the land went low on one side into a bend in the gully, while on the other side a house crowded the road. A bicyclist was weaving across the road, peddling as hard as he could. The biker seemed strangely bulkier than the watcher that Chris remembered. They were both going considerably faster than the bicycle now, and Billy went wide to cut off the bike, while Chris came in behind to be the driver.
It wasn’t necessary, because just at that moment, the bike’s front wheel wobbled and it went down. The rider spilled heavily onto the road, and, a long second later, gave a sob of pain. Chris pulled up over the figure. A tear-wet, white, drawn face looked up at him. Snowflake. “Why are you chasing me, costumed guys? Dogs chase me. Are you guys dogs?” The thought seemed to strike Snowflake as funny, and he chuckled to himself for a second before his face changed. “I skinned my knee. And my hand. Here. Look.”
“That’s okay, citizen,” Tyrell said from above. “We weren’t chasing you. We thought you were someone else…”
And then some six sense made Chris yell, “Look out,” and duck into the ditch on the house side, moments ahead of a precise volley of pulson fire that picked up chunks of pavement from the edge of the road and threw it into the air. Chris found himself next to Snowflake, who wrapped his head in his surprisingly sinewy, pale-white hands and whimpered.
Chris peaked up. Tyrell was flicking around in the air as quickly as he could, dodging pulson fire. Chris approved. Tyrell’s shields wouldn’t hold up for very long under that. Billy wormed up the ditch next to Chris. “We’ve got to rush the shooters before they hit Tyrell!”
Chris agreed, even if that was just changing the target. His qi shield wouldn’t hold up any longer than Tyrell’s vacuumfold, but they had to do something.
Then a figure in blazing white gold came streaking overhead, shouting. “Girl power to the rescue!” A golden blast dug out an entire bush on the far side of the road, and a figure in camouflage body armour went flying.
In answer, a fatter pulson beam flickered out of another bush, catching Dora square in the chest, and knocking her to the ground. From the darkness, came a voice. “Is your keister still gold? I’ll inspect it for you!”
“Shut up, Twelve,” said another voice. “Fire discipline!”
As the voice spoke, Chris caught a figure in black dropping out of a tree on to the heavy weapon installation. That tore it. They were all here. He jumped up onto the pavement, and as he did so, a familiar figure in Roman armour came up from the opposite side.
Chris grinned. This was going to be a real fight. He delivered two punches to the shield, gauging his opponent’s speed and technique, warding the spear with quick bobs as he did so. Then he feinted high and went underneath the shield with a knee strike. The satisfying feeling of his opponent’s body armour bending like tin under his strike told Chris that he was on target.
Unfortunately, he had to slow down to deliver it, and another of the camouflaged agents broke out of cover, clocking him with his tonfa. The agent hit hard for a normal, and Chris went down. For a moment he was looking up at the barrel of a gun before a pearly white light divided the darkness and the muzzle of the pulson blaster alike.
His sister was here. Chris jumped up. “Hey. I’m supposed to rescue you.”
“Damn straight. You owe me.”
“Hey, “ the agent said. “The girl’s got a sword and I don’t. That’s not fair.”
“Are you for real?” Chris asked, as on one side Billy ploughed through a group of agents, while on the other a hyperspeeded Rose and Eve backed up Babs as she delivered savage blows with her nightstick in one hand and her crossbow in the other.
“Never mind,” Chris answered himself, as his sister knocked the agent down with a roundhouse kick, and Chris squared off with Decurion. Above them, gold and silvery beams glittered in the darkness, keeping the remaining pulson teams down.
“You hit a lot harder than I was told you do,” Decurion said. “Afraid to hit a girl?”
“I hid as hard as I need to,” Chris amplifying his point with a high bicycle kick, but his opponent was ready this time, and Chris only got a glancing blow in. Then a big figure in black loomed to their right. “Time to go, Decurion,” came a muttered comment somewhere out of its centre of mass.
“What about the squad?”
“It’s a writeoff. Now come!” The black-clad figure dropped something, and a smoke cloud billowed. Chris rushed into it, but there was nothing on the other side.
“Damn it, they got away again.” Billy said.
“But we have prisoners,” Tyrell pointed out, gesturing at three camouflaged agents held in a silvery force bubble.
“Yeah, about that,” said the mouthy one. The words were barely out of his mouth when the three in the bubble put their pistols to their mouths in unison and shot themselves. “Oh my God,” Charlotte shouted, grabbing the mouthy one by the hands as more pulson blasts sounded in the darkness.
“What the hell?” Chris said.
Billy replied. “See the uniforms? This is one of Teleios’ mercenary teams. Clone warriors created from the best human DNA, batch bred to order, genetically loyal to their employer. And to Teleios. I’ve seen it plenty of times, but not like this.”
“You got our brochure!” Twelve said brightly. “Urk. Let me go, girl. I’ve got to die for Darkseid. I mean, Teleios.”
Babs stepped out of the darkness. “Yeah. Completely not like this. Usually they just will themselves to die. And they sure don’t banter.”
“Ooh, scary girl,” the captured agent said.
“You don’t think I’m scary?” Babs said, menacingly.
“I’ve stopped with the sarcasm. Retroactive to the last sentence,” he replied.
“Yeah, thought so. Keep hold of him, Charlotte. I…” The rest of Babs’ sentence was washed out by the roar of a small VTOL aircraft settling out of the night sky onto the road. Chris braced. It sounded like a mini Star-Racer. The Liberty League was here! Real superheroes were on the case!
But as it landed, Chris saw that it was an Orc, instead; one of the Hobgoblin’s old vehicles, and Dr. McNeely, wearing his old Midnight Owl costume, was at the controls. The retired superhero swung his legs out of the cockpit and dropped to the pavement. “We make one simple rule. If you’re going to be teen superheroes, you wait ‘till you’re old enough to drive. Is that too much to ask? Apparently.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle …Midnight,” Babs said.
“Almost right,” her uncle replied. “I see you have a prisoner.”
“One of Teleios’s men,” Billy replied.
“Taken alive? That is very interesting. Okay, I’ll relieve you of him. I think we want him in Liberty League hands, just to be safe. But the real question is, what are you doing here?”
“Someone was watching us over at the Institute,” Billy said.
“Really? We’ve got pretty good surveillance up there now. All you had to do was call someone.”
“I, uhm, unh, the thing is, the watcher was pretty good. Not steady surveillance, just slipped right in and out. Like he had a target. I wanted to catch him.”
“Okay,” Dr. McNeely said. “I’ll buy that. Now, you kids are going to be late for supper, so scatter. Chris, Charlotte, if you could bring your prisoner over here, I’ll drop you off at the Yurt after we’ve seen this guy to the League Hall.”
“Actually, I’m having dinner at the Guzmans tonight,” Charlotte said. “Dora invited Rose and I.”
“So I’ll drop you at the Guzmans, instead. No problem.”
And that was how Chris found himself landing on the roof of the Liberty League Hall in a genuine Orc, and meeting the Mechanic and Oak, at least long enough to hand over a subdued Twelve. Oak seemed vastly amused when he asked to take a picture of her on his phone, but he didn’t understand why. Chris already had the Mechanic’s.
Later, after they dropped Charlotte off, Chris watched the city go by underneath him from the strangely comforting 60s-high-tech ambience of the Orc. Dr. McNeely spoke. “Actually, I have to admit to a little misdirection there. I need to talk to you alone, Chris.” The orc slipped out of the sky, and Chris saw the familiar parking lot behind the institute rushing up at them much too quickly. At the very last moment, a section of paving folded aside, revealing a gaping chasm below. The Orc flew straight in and parked on dusty, subterranean concrete.
“Is this part of the old Liberty Legion headquarters complex, too?” Chris asked, as Dr. McNeely led Chris across the hangar floor towards a door, his long, black and brown cloak fluttering behind him.
“No, it’s a PRIMUS facility. FBI before that. The Institute does work for them.”
“What kind of work?” Chris asked.
“Forensic work, for one” Dr. McNeely said, then fell silent as they walked down a long, concrete corridor lined with featureless doors, before finally opening one and going in. There was something on a long table. After over a month of Twenty-First Century TV, Chris knew he was about to see a human body, but he still almost threw up when he saw the remains on the table.
“At least now that I know my Dad’s little secret, this makes more sense,” Dr. McNeely said.
“I’m sorry, sir?”
“Chris, you’ve been in my house on and off a couple of months now. Have you felt the wrongness?”
“The what, sir?”
“It’s a house without women, Chris. They’re all gone. Death, divorce, madness. Even to better homes. Trust my daughter-in-law to be unromantic about it all. I never understood where our curse came from before. Not even when I lost my wife.”
The doctor adjusted his broad shoulders so that his beaked cowl faced Chris. “This is the Apocalypse Plague Patient Zero for this timeline, Chris. Your Aunt Elizabeth. The woman who should have been my mother.”
“You’d be a lot older, sir. And half-“
“I don’t give a damn. So now we know why, out of all the pathetic little murders committed in Washington state in 1934, this particular body was shipped to the FBI crime lab at the McNeely Clinic, so that we could find the Apocalypse Plague in a tissue sample ninety years later.”
“What? The remains are infectious?” Chris asked.
“No. It's not an infectious form of the Plague, and cells have been frozen too long, anyway. There’s fluid sample stains, too. But they’re clues to the Plague. I want to know about the murder. Your aunt deserves justice. My Dad deserved it.”
“But what can I tell you about….” Chris bent over the mummified remains, only to have the black wrenching taste of vomit seize him from the inside out. “Oh, God,” Chris whimpered. Then, without even thinking about it, “St. Elizabeth and the Holy Sangha be with us now.” The feeling went away. “My aunt was murdered, Dr. McNeely.”
“I know that,” Dr. McNeely said. “A bunch of Klan hicks ambushed her while she was driving to town for her gown fitting, and lynched her.”
“No. By a Dim Mak master. A very powerful one.”
“And that I didn’t know. Thank you, Chris.”
Chris looked at the old man in his version of the Hobgoblin’s uniform, still musing on the ancient crime that had turned his family to superheroing. “Can I go now, sir, or is there something else I can help you with?”
“No, you can go, Chris. Mr. Piccolo is waiting at Templeton to drive you home.” Dr. McNeely said “home,” and not “the Yurt,” and Chris felt the first glimmer of warmth in his heart in far too long.
But instead of going directly to his sister’s elementary school, Chris took a detour by the blackberry bush where he had fought Morning Glory so many days ago, and where he had found her note on Monday. There, five minutes later, Mr. Piccolo found him, shivering from the cold, cupping a precocious white blossom in his hands, as though his freezing flesh could protect it from the winter.