Chapter 2, 21: Gone Altogether Beyond
The sibilant voice in Chris’s head continued. “I would say something fatuous now about resistance being futile. But you have no idea how to resist this spell, do you? If it’s any consolation, all that I’m about to do is make sure that you don’t betray any greater good while working for the Professor. He’s mad, you know.”
With his eyes, Chris stared across Doctor Cambridge’s office. Her PhD hung there, in a gilt, heavy frame. So did a Master’s Degree and even her Bachelor’s, as well as her certification as a school counsellor. Uncle Henry had explained that her real qualification was that she was a DOSPA case officer attached to the school. The federal government’s Department of Super Powered Activities was keeping an eye on them. Or was supposed to be keeping an eye on them.
That was the outside world. In his mind, he could almost visualise a compartment filling up with water, if that water was vaguely, disgustingly slimy. Vomit yellow in colour, the surface was spotted with Rorschach blot-style black spots vaguely suggesting disgusting things . Was that some kind of visual metaphor for this horrifying magic? Would he be gone when the compartment filled? Across from Chris, Dr. Cambridge sat at her desk, staring blankly back at Chris under the influence of the bizarre spell. Was her mind filling with slimy water, too? He wondered if she were being “altered” in the name of a “greater good,” too.
“Wait,” Chris thought. “What kind of greater good involves mind control?”
“The kind that lets Paradigm’s investigation go forward, while preventing him from using the Apocalypse Plague in an attack on the V’hanian Empire that would kill trillions of humans across the dimensions. I’m sure that you can see the regrettable necessity of this.”
No, as a matter of fact, Chris couldn’t. He didn’t trust the sibilant voice, and saw no reason why he should. He was just amazed that he was frightened, instead of angry, perhaps because the voice didn’t seem to realise that magic could compel the body, but not the dharma. Chris tried to imagine the Heart Sutra. Like an old song irresistibly recalled, a female voice began to sing the ancient mantra of transcendence. For a moment, he tried to imagine a deeper voice singing before his mind dissolved into thoughtlessness. The slimy water rose, while the gentle music of the holy mantra played on in his head.
Gradually, the rising water made it hard to see the office in the world outside. Chris let it go. Awareness, after all, was about what was important, and that was not perceptions of the external world that existed for ego. Right action was right action. That was wisdom, and right action could never include mind control, or “researching” a horror like the Apocalypse Plague. He could only hold to that certainty as he held to the wisdom of the Sutra.
Equally gradually, Chris became aware that his right hand was no longer gripped on his chair. It was holding something else, instead. A handle of some kind; to be precise, one of those handles that just blend into the hand, so that the tool became a part of the body, able to do anything that flesh could do, and far more besides. It was the tool that had been missing from Chris' body forever until now, the lack of which he only noticed when he was holding it.
‘What is this thing?’ Asked some part of his mind, lazy with the lack of effort that comes from dreaming, indifferent to the rising yellow water, but not to the tool.
To which another part of his mind answered, more forcefully, ‘A sword.’ Chris noticed that his right hand was gripping the sword handle more tightly now. “Hey, Mr. Magician?” He asked in his mind.
“I’m a little busy, right now, Chris. All your questions will be answered in a moment, when my compulsion is complete.
“Yeah. About that. Do the words, ‘St. Elizabeth and the Holy Sangha be with me now’ mean anything to you?” Instead of thinking the last phrase, Chris spoke the words, rising from the chair to hold the ancient, blue sword before him, blade suspended, the short crossguards of the hilt like the arms of a truncated crucifix. The yellow waters drained away from his mind in that moment, and Dr. Cambridge blinked. Chris tried hard not to grin.
“Are you okay, Doctor Cambridge?” Chris asked, as he put the sword carefully under his arm. He looked at her carefully, wondering why he was so sure that she was okay, that the spell had had no effect on her. He also wondered what the Heart Sutra would sound like sung by a deep, thrilling contralto instead of a soprano.
“How did you do that?” Dr. Cambridge asked.
Chris bit back his first answer. This was one of those situations when it somehow worked better to be sincere. He could just say that reciting the Heart Sutra to himself made a magic sword appear, but by using the right phrasing, make it sound like the kind of annoying, mystical gobbledegook that Dr. Cambridge had coming to her. “Grace abounds when we listen to compassion,” he explained.
Just as he expected, Dr. Cambridge was obviously upset by the answer. “What the Hell does that mean? How did you get free from that spell?”
Literally dozens of answers flew through Chris’s head as he held Dr. Cambridge’s eyes and waited, letting the moment stretch out dramatically. Tyrell had nothing on him right now! Finally he said, “Sometimes, to free ourselves, we must first bind ourselves more fully.” It took all his willpower not to smirk as he said it.
“You’re in so much trouble now, young man,” the DOSPA agent answered.
‘For what,’ Chris wanted to answer. But before he could, the scene changed, bizarrely, instantly, and he was standing in a neglected street, tufts of grass breaking between sidewalk and road and through the sides of a massive frost heave collapse in front of him. The light reminded Chris of Philadelphia, somehow, but instead of crowds of people, the streets were empty, except for birds in the bedraggled trees that lined the sidewalk, and a group of raccoons sauntering through the middle of the next intersection ahead, oblivious to the warm, springtime sun overhead, and also to Professor Paradigm, who stood right in front of him, flanked by a strange woman in a black, corset-style costume with a green “T” design with the crossbars across her breasts, and a black cloak. Chris recognised her from El Professore’s briefings as Laura Palmeratis, also known as Tesseract, the teleport-powered supervillain who was the most powerful of the Paradigm Pirates, as well as being yet another unhinged mathematics Ph.D. She and the Professor, Chris thought, must have amazing conversations about . . . crazy math stuff. Or about math stuff that was also crazy. Whatever.
“Welcome, young man, to the Philadelphia Exclusion Zone. It appears that Three Mile Island was a bit more serious in this timeline, so we have the city to ourselves. I hope you’re not afraid of a little radiation, young man.”
Chris looked back at the Professor, watching the weird lights cross his face. He wondered if they were related to the Professor’s supposedly scienc-y ability to cast the Lights of Luathon. “Not really. I am worried about missing school, though. Any chance of catching a ride back with you guys?
“Oh, certainly. Right after we talk about Reality and the future, and where your loyalties will lie in the future. Gentlemen, if you please?”
Chris didn’t have to look behind him to see that Decurion and the Black Ninja were coming up behind him. He held for a moment. Just because he had a sword was no excuse to go impaling someone. Besides, Don and John Roy had bonded over a weird conversation about how Roman soldiers got that pleated kilt effect by wearing long tunics bunched up by their belts.
When Decurion was close enough, Chris pivoted to his right, coming around on the right-hand side of the mooks. Decurion’s sword was slung for straight draw, and clattered to the ground as a precise slash from Chris’s blade cut Decurion’s belt without breaking skin. His tunic billowed out around his knees like a baby’s old fashioned nightgown. Score one for authenticity, Chris thought as he brought the blade back up for a massive shove. Somehow, time had slowed down for him, and Decurion was still standing, gaping, when Chris knocked him over, while the Black Ninja was just starting to react when Chris cricket leaped onto his head, then took another massive stride to hit the crumbling wall of a building overlooking the street.
The handle tingled in Chris’s hands, reminding him of the sheer amount of firepower that he had put his back to in his leap. He darted though a broken window into a dark, rotted room, full of abandoned things. The door gave way to his shoulder, either because he hit it so hard or because it was rotten, too. Outside was a big room, full of desks, with slurries of paper in the corners and birds flying, shocked, out of a broken skylight overhead as Chris burst in. The room spanned the whole floor. Not being able to think of any better way of beating whatever tracking method the Professor would be using, Chris recited a short “eenie-meenie” while donning his fatigues. The rhyme settled on the west side of the building. It was clearly a very smart rhyme, and knew what it was doing, so Chris ran for the west side as soon as he had his cowl in place.
Almost in the same moment, he was jumping out the window, clearing the narrow alley three stories below him to break into another window, another office, this one a little more heavily furnished with doctor-style reclining chairs. This time he went north, so that his jump had to clear an entire street. That was a bit much, he saw as he pushed his head out the window. It was a four lane avenue with wide sidewalks. Fortunately, there was a semi stuck in the intersection. Well, Chris thought, if you’re going to use a stepping stone –He jumped for the top of the traffic light, hit the semi’s roof on the next bounce, and was through a window into a department store. He was almost in time to miss a tendril of ivy that reached out and grabbed him by the waist.
Chris grinned to himself, realising that he was almost hoping to be caught. Instead, he cut the tendril with a quick slash of the sword. He might as well use it for something, considering how awkward it was to do acrobatics with one hand! Hopefully, Morning Glory could keep up.
Suddenly sensing danger, Chris threw the sword up in a blocking parry, just as a pulson blast illuminated the dark, space, casting a flashing white light on dull and faded clothes still stacked on tables and hanging on racks. The blue sword took some of it, his Spirit Fist Shield took the rest. Chris lunged forward, rolling low under the racks. As he spun under the second one, his arms pulled tight to his body to resist the reckless pull of his rapid spin, heat seared his neck as a pulson blast set the clothes above him alight. Fortunately, he was out well before the ashes began falling behind him. In front of him was a cash register stand, with near-identical men in urban camo standing behind all three tills. All tills open? Chris was going to have to remember this place.
They were very good, and very fast. All three managed to fire in the time it took Chris to cross the space, and all three were at least close. Close, however, did not cut it. Chris was over the counter and in their midst, and he had a sword. Which, unfortunately, he couldn’t really use on normal, so he settled for an elbow to one, a sword block for the second, and, for the third. . .
Well, never mind that. A black tendril reached through a hole in the floor, wrapped around the third clone trooper’s left leg, and tore it off in a spray of bright red blood. Repulsed, Chris sliced it off. Car exhaust-coloured smoke puffed off his sword where black ichor clung to the blade for a moment after the stroke.
“Gross,” Chris said.
“Get out of the way, hero,” said the clone he’d sword-checked, as he bent down to fumble at the blood-spouting wound. After a moment, Chris realised that he was trying to use his gun belt as a tourniquet. “Can I help?” He asked, nervously, not sure what, if anything, he could do.
“Are there any more of those tentacle things around?” The clone trooper asked.
“Not yet,” Chris answered.
“Then you’re helping. Ah, I . . . This is pointless. The femoral artery is gone. You think my other buddy’s going to be up any time soon?”
Chris shook his head. “He’s got a concussion,” he said, wondering where the certainty came from. “I could try to do a qi healing, but I’ve never done one before, and, frankly, I’d prefer to be out on the roof before we tried. There’s light up there, and probably less clutter.
“Okay,” the clone trooper said.
“What do I call you?” Chris asked.
The trooper looked at him. “Is this the part where you give me a name and I turn into a very special individual with creativity and stuff?”
Not answering for a moment, Chris threw the unconscious trooper over his shoulder and put his hand on the other.. He could see something dark and slithering out of the corner of his eye. Depending on just how well the creature understood people, it might think that it was out of sight, and be about to attack. Chris would just as rather that happened on his terms. He pulled the conscious trooper to his feet. “I don’t know. Maybe? We should get moving.”
“Then I’m Thirteen,” said Thirteen, spraying the corner where Chris had seen the motion with his pulson blaster. A long, barrel-thick length of tendril reared through the racks of dresses, scattering tattered rags in all direction. “Crap. I’m coming!” He shouted, panicked. Chris shifted his hand from shoulder to back and gave the man a firm push. Or, on second thought, gave the boy a push. Like the clone troopers they fought on Monday, Thirteen looked very young, no older than his sister.
Moments later, they were out on the roof. Chris put the unconscious trooper down, keeping an eye on both Thirteen and the fire door. He was rewarded by a vision of a blunt-ended black tendril, shiny, although this time more like finished leather than the slime that he’d been treated to so far today. It blossomed into a flowerlike shape of petals with a gray-green colour almost like the underside of clouds on a particularly nasty evening. From the midst of the horrifying blossom, a dark red, smaller tendril began to unspool.
“Maybe you want to shoot it now,” Chris suggested to Thirteen.
The pulson blaster fired. Once, twice, three times. Chris smelled smoke. Normal smoke, fortunately, and a lot of it. “I think we might need to be somewhere else now.” He jumped up on the balcony.
“That’s an awesome plan, super. I happen to have some friends with an attack ship,” Thirteen pointed into the sky to the south, but Chris wasn’t paying attention. Below him in the alley, Morning Glory was surrounded by six big creatures with rubbery hides and long folds of skin dangling from their arms. Yet more tendrils stood out from their faces, about where mouths should be, grasping towards her.
“Um, yeah. Your friends,” Chris said. It would be rude to just jump right down and leave the clone troopers to their fate, he realised, but Morning Glory was in trouble. Or was she? To her left, the air suddenly blossomed in an explosion that set two of the creatures afire. Another plant-vine-creature formed on the wall behind two more, and swept a woody arm into them that decapitated both with a stroke. Four down. To her right, roots broke the pavement and grabbed another, but the last one stepped high, very agilely for some kind of knockoff Lovecraftian monstrosity and wrapped a three fingered hand around Morning Glory’s neck.
By the time that grip had closed, Chris had dropped onto the monster’s shoulder. In the next moment, the monster’s hand was sheared through at the wrist. Gross grey-green fluidy stuff sprayed Morning Glory. “Gross!” she shouted.
Above him, Chris heard Thirteen say, “so we’ll just go ahead and save ourselves, if that’s all right with you?”
Chris didn’t reply, just dropped to the pavement, asking, anxiously, “Are you okay?”
“Ugh, yes. It’s just disgusting, is all. Thanks for the—“
“Hand,” Chris supplied. “My rescue, my line.”
“Didn’t want it anyway. The pun. Not the rescue. I loved the rescue. Thanks for the rescue. Now maybe we should run away?”
“You’ve been holding back in our fights, haven’t you?” Chris asked, as he and Morning Glory ran down the alley. Chris was ready to agree with Morning Glory that they ought to keep moving. Truth to tell, he was ready to be agreeable about a lot of things with her. She was magnetic in her teal blouse (he even knew the name of the colour now!) and white skirt.
“Except when I was fighting Tagalong. She didn’t notice, though, because I never managed to connect on her. Stupid sword. Speaking of, where did you get that?”
“I needed it, and it appeared,” Chris said.
“Just? That’s not the whole story.”
“Uhm, I was reciting the Heart Sutra at the time,” Chris volunteered. “It’s the Buddha of Compassion’s—“
“I know what the Heart Sutra is. I used to go to Buddhist Sunday School when I stayed with Grams.” Morning Glory slowed down and turned her head to look at Chris. “You’re not like, religious and stuff, are you?”
“Well, I do wushu. It’s a spiritual practice. But I’m not going to start preaching or anything.”
“Good,” Morning Glory said. “Mom says religion is for stupid people.”
“Mom says,” Chris prompted.
“Grams wasn’t stupid. I miss her.”
“But there sure are a lot of stupid religious people. Excuse me, by the way.” Chris wrapped his arm around Morning Glory’s waist for the second time (he was counting) and threw them both through the air towards the roof of a second story building across the street. A black leather tendril struck through the air where they had been a moment later.
“I can teleport, you know,” Morning Glory announced, when he let her down on the roof. “Can we sit down for a second?”
Out of nowhere, the first crow that he had seen in this bizarre world plopped down on the top of a chimney sticking out of the roof of the building. It was old and fat, of course, and it bent down, thrusting its beak towards Chris before uttering a raucous croak. “Okay. I think we’ll be safe here for now. Tired?”
Morning Glory took a crumb of something out of her pocket and fed Old Crow with it, then reached out to the crumbling side of a chimney, strumming it as though she were playing a guitar. Ivy rippled up the crumbling brick face, moving with the halt-and-dart speed and motion of a squirrel. “No. I’m going to weave you a scabbard so that you can have your hands free.”
“That’d be nice,” Chris said, sitting down. “I mean, thanks. But I’ve got some loose ends, too.” Then, out of the corner of his eye, Chris saw a helicopter land on the roof that he had just left. It was surprisingly far away already, almost two full blocks. An enormous sense of relief filled him, because now he wouldn’t have to rush off to save the clone troopers. He still owed them an apology. It was probably rude to go off and rescue someone else. It sort of rubbed in the fact that he liked Morning Glory more than them. But he couldn’t be faulted for that, could he?
On second thought, he probably could. You weren’t supposed to rescue people in order of prettiness. He also wondered if they could just run or teleport to civilisation before the rest of Paradigm’s supers and clone troopers caught up. If there was such a thing as civilisation around here. A lot more than just a nuclear accident seemed to have gone wrong on this timeline.
So he sat and watched Morning Glory’s deft hands work. “You sure are good with your hands,” he said, after a moment.
She blushed. “And you’re nice. For an enemy.”
“If we’re enemies, why are you making me a scabbard?”
“Because you’re nice. Do you always have this much trouble keeping up?”
“You’ve got a pretty smart mouth, girl.” Chris felt dizzy as he realised what he could say next. It would be so clever, but at the same time it was frightening to think of saying it, but he rushed ahead. “Or you’ve got a smart mouth, pretty girl.”
She blushed even harder, rose spreading under the dark tea colour of her cheeks. “I think that’ll do,” she said, standing, and gesturing for him to do the same.
Chris stood up. She came up to his side and put her hands under the belt of his tights, quickly threading rope made of ivy vine under and around to attach a crocheted scabbard, open work over the flat of the blade but close-woven over the edge. “It won’t last very long,” she said, sheepishly. Then her hands went under the belt again and quickly tied a ribbon to it, a ribbon of the same teal colour as her uniform. “That’ll last a little longer.”
“What is it?” Chris asked, taking her hands in his.
“What do you think it is? It’s totally a tracking device so that us Paradigm Pirates can follow you, Kung Fu Boy.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Chris said, leaning in to kiss her. After a moment, her hands wrapped around his back. Above him, Old Crow cooed, almost like a pigeon in a drawn-out sound that lasted for precisely as long as they had before they were interrupted by more horrible tendrils, which was not very long at all.